Sacred Secular Music, Part I: Listening

Up until around the year 1550, sacred music makes up the vast majority of what we study as musicologists. (This isn’t, of course, because people were only singing sacred music until then – sacred music just happens to have been notated and passed down more efficiently than its secular counterpart.) All of the beautiful chant, motets, masses, chorales, Lutheran cantatas, etc. that RT has been discussing for the last 1,400 or so pages were “use” music; they were created and performed for specific functions, and context was everything. This, indeed, was why the music registered as sacred: with settings of Scripture and an indispensable role in ritual and worship, sacred music confirmed, embodied, and celebrated the core tenets of the faith.

As we move into the 19th century, however, a new form of sacred music is emerging. Ironically, the ever increasing secularization of music in the 17th and 18th centuries led to a “sacralization” of the arts in the 19th. This cultural process is fascinating and really complex, the dual prerequisites for a bloated, unreadable post. For that reason I’ll be taking a stab at addressing a few of the major points to consider in a series of short posts. This is by no means meant to be comprehensive, so please jump in with thoughts and links to help flesh these ideas out! That said, let’s dive right in…

If sacralization implied inhibition of spontaneous performer behavior, that is nothing compared with the constraints that were imposed on audiences, who were now expected (and are still expected) to behave in concert halls the way they behaved in church.   (II, 651)

Traditionally, musicologists have focused their work on (at the risk of sounding obvious) the music itself, while tending to downplay the social history of listening in which the great works find themselves situated. RT has gestured towards this issue numerous times throughout the text, from descriptions of the carnival atmosphere of opera seria performances to reminders that the great masses of Josquin would have been heard in chunks over the course of the ritual, not in its totality as a “work,” as it is today.* As we’ve seen (and commented upon), prior to the period we’re now moving into, music was “functional” and, as such, served a fundamentally social purpose, binding communities together, enhancing religious ritual, and enlivening parties. During the 19th century, however, listening practices in Europe and America began to gradually shift in ways that, in hindsight, turned out to be quite profound.

Audiences throughout the 19th century and into the 20th were more and more expected to listen in captivated, silent awe, rather than the more social, distracted concert culture of yore. The dark, quiet cocoon of the modern concert hall is, indeed, a result of these shifts. Where once religion served the socially sanctioned role as the site of mystical transcendence and ritual, now this experience came to be associated with high art and the Geniuses who created it. The secular had become the sacred.

Of course, the silencing of the concert hall was a very gradual process that occurred unevenly around the globe. For instance, critic George Templeton Strong, writing in New York in 1858, describes the audience at a Phil concert as “crowded and garrulous, like a square mile of tropical forest with its flock of squalling paroquets [sic] and troops of chattering monkeys.” By the early 20th century, however, the near-total subjugation of noisy concert-going behavior seems to have been more or less complete. Even conductors were in on the policing of noise in the service of creating a reverential, indeed sacred space for performance. Pierre Monteux, for example, rapped on the podium with his baton to silence the audience; Koussevitzky folded his arms and quietly, condescendingly waited. Leopold Stokowski was perhaps the era’s strictest silence enforcer: he would actually stop conducting mid performance to lecture the audience on “unnecessary noise,” which included applause: “Don’t talk, don’t rattle your programs, just listen noiselessly.**

Any classical music lover today knows the drill. And in many ways this is absolutely for the good; some writers tend to wax nostalgic for the chattery old days, but we’ve all sat next to a whispering couple and we know how annoying this can be. Further, many works written in the last 200 years were designed for precisely this sort of a space; a composer in 1700 probably wouldn’t have had the audacity to open an opera with a PPP drone, like Wagner does in Das Rheingold. It probably would have been inaudible.

The sacralization of the performance hall, a process with roots in the 19th century and the Romantic aesthetic, was fundamentally tied to new ways of understanding the individual, a subject I hope to take up in another post. It was less about the public, social experience of music and more about the interiority of listening, the individual, subjective contemplation of sublime works. (Stokowski even had plans for a “Temple of Music,” complete with pitch-black listening chambers for each individual in the audience.) In the age of iPods and noise-canceling headphones, this sort of disembodied, individualized listening might seem completely natural. Most music listening in modern society is indeed solitary. We would do well to remember that this is a wild historical aberration; for most of history, and for many in the world today, music is fundamentally about people, bodies, sociality, sharing. The sacralization of listening elevated the status of music profoundly; it also created a distance between the holy masterworks and the isolated individuals listening to them.

(For more on this, see Alex Ross’s spectacularly interesting post here.)

* A couple of great sources that deal with this question: Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow; James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris; Christopher Small, Musicking.

** See Levine, 180-192.

An aesthetic reversal; or, The birth of Romanticism

… Art founded on pain. Not since J.S. Bach have we encountered any notion that music should be anything but beautiful, and never have we encountered such a notion with reference to secular music. It implies an enormous change in the artist’s attitude toward his audience; and this, too, is a crucial component in any adequate definition of romanticism. The history of music in the nineteenth century – at any rate, of a very significant portion of it – could be written in terms of the encroachment of the sublime upon the domain of the beautiful, of the “great” upon the pleasant. (II, 644. Italics mine.)

As we begin to venture into Western music’s most fecund, or at least hallowed, century, we would do well to pause for a moment to remember what came before.

To begin with, recall the long history of vocal music’s dominance over the instrumental. Voices, after all, could declaim texts, and thus give the spectacle of music some sort of concrete meaning. Instrumental music lacked the same depth – how could it decisively mean in the absence of language? What it was good for, however, was play and pleasantry. A symphony made for great background music while the prince schmoozed with the count’s daughter. Instrumental music was pretty, pleasant, and sociable.

The Romantics flipped the story. Over a very brief period of time, the “meaningless” realm of instrumental music, what was labeled in typical Germanic bombast as “Absolute Music,” came to wrestle the philosophical high ground from vocal music. Ineffable, sublime (i.e. vast, terrifying), and infinite, instrumental music (particularly the symphony) was not just merry background music for a party; it was the Truth. Schopenhauer likened music to an embodiment of the universal Will, transcending mere language, code, and representation to strike at the actual thing in itself. The symphony – particularly Beethoven’s – was, in RT’s words, “great” and not simply pleasant; treating it as anything else would be a sort of sacrilege, a subversion of the rightful hierarchy of aesthetic values.

And what was left for vocal music after the revolution? It was certainly a lot harder for voices, with all those pesky, literal words that they like to produce, to reach the same level of sublimity as the symphony. Vocal music was denotative, with specific texts and specific semantic meanings; symphonic music, on the other hand, was connotative, abstract, deeply subjective, the perfect accompaniment to the era’s burgeoning lionization of the lone, autonomous individual.

Rarely in music history do aesthetic shifts take place so abruptly, and so violently. This account, of course, is a simplification; as RT is quick to admit, plenty of contradictory aesthetic cross-currents coexisted with the Romantics. Yet, what happened here was indeed profound; we’re still reeling from it, in fact. Rather than the gradual, processive change that usually informs the historical movement of the arts, this one was more of a reversal, a flip.

It’s a little like a canoe; you can put pressure on it and it will rock back and forth, but it still stays afloat. Then, when the tipping point is reached, it ceases to rock; suddenly, it flips and you’re in the water.  A crude metaphor, perhaps, but oddly apropos. For the next two + volumes of the book, we’ll be swimming in these deep waters.

Haydn, Exoticism, and the Sublime

Upon hearing the second movement of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony (No. 100), one critic wrote of the “hellish roar of war increasing to a climax of horrid sublimity!”[1] It is difficult to fathom that this polite, classical symphony could be considered “hellish” and “horrid” sounding, conditioned as we jaded moderns are to music of a far more hellish affective character. Once you’ve heard Beethoven’s 9th, Götterdämmerung, The Rite of Spring, and 95% of new music since 1920 – not to mention the popular music spawn of hell, death metal – it is hard not to hear Haydn’s symphony as tame, even bordering on quaint. Have our ears changed that much in the intervening 200+ years since the Military Symphony debuted to rollicking success? In this regard, it has. The musical representation of fear, war, terror, and the enemy – what our 18th century reviewer called “horrid sublimity” – has morphed considerably from the contained Enlightenment aesthetic to today’s (post-)modern ethos, influenced as it is by expressionism, psychological realism, and Artaudian cruelty. Listening to Haydn’s symphony vividly demonstrates the historical variability of musical signs.

The first movement of the Military Symphony features a light, galloping rhythmic pattern (long-short-short) that is all energy, momentum, and drive. Affectively, the opening still carries strong connotations of a rousing adventure; it brings to mind “William Tell” and the “action music” sequences of the silent film era, conjuring images of square-jawed, bright-eyed men racing into the horizon on trusted steeds. There is a martial quality here as well, though not as blatant as in the next movement, which gives Symphony No. 100 its “Military” appellation.

As the allegretto opens, we get a sense that Haydn has eased back on the accelerator; while the first movement is full of motion and charge, this one begins with a moderately slow tempo and a dainty melody set to a dance-like rhythm. The theme is perfectly symmetrical, the very model of classical balance, and it conforms exactly to expectations; cadences are in the right places and harmonies move from one to the other in an orderly, predictable procession. Haydn is well known for his musical humor and his love of rhythmic tricks (think the “Surprise” Symphony, for instance), but there’s nothing at all unexpected about this opening. It is a portrait of musical civility and grace. And then come the Turks.

At 1:43, the C major of the placid opening is suddenly twisted into minor and the full ensemble enters forte with the opening material in the minor mode. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde element to this abrupt shift; it comes completely out of the blue, and with only one bar preparation (a descending minor triad in the low instruments), we go from the happy, stable ground of the opening to the invasion of the Ottoman army. Haydn draws upon an orchestrational novelty – an expanded battery of percussion instruments – to connote the Musselman hoards, particularly cymbals and triangle. It’s a wrenching transition, even to modern ears, although it must have been much more dramatic (and titillatingly terrifying) to the audiences of the late 18th century. The centerpiece of the movement, and indeed the whole symphony, is a gesture of musical orientalism, a portrait of the Other that is riddled with the semiotic codes of Turquerie (and let us not forget that Mozart dabbled in these codes as well). At 2:54, we’re back to the orderly, civilized opening theme in the major key, as if nothing had happened at all (or, if Dorothy was listening, “it was all just a dream!”). At 3:30, the percussion enters again, but the theme stays in the major mode. And at 4:43, another signifier of the military enters into the evolving musical narrative in a form of a (positively Mahlerian) solo bugle call. It seems the armies of Europe, and thus civilization, are on the march! At 4:55, the bugle cuts out and we hear a timpani roll crescendoing into a fortissimo Ab major (C in the bass), with full percussion support. This din is the “climax of horrid sublimity” referred to by the reviewer. Sabers rattle around us as we clash with the enemy in battle.

Haydn represents the enemy in this movement by means of musical exoticism. By dipping into the semiological pool of Turkish signifiers, he is able to tap into late 18th century anxieties about invaders from the south. The threat is presented, then promptly neutralized; we end the movement with full percussion, but all the fight has been drained from it, and it seems only to reinforce the opening materials, which serve as a musical representation of civility. There are two points during this movement that register the highest level of terror: when the Turkish percussion first enters and the melody suddenly lurches into the minor mode; and towards the end, when blaring tutti in a new key and rolling timpani (which was then considered a novel technique) conspire to make a warlike noise. In both instances, the threat quickly subsides. The enemy is safely contained.

At the heart of the difference between 18th century and modern representations of terror and the enemy is the question of aesthetic distance. There is a certain aloofness to the classical style; although Haydn shows us the raging Turks, he does so from a distance, placing a frame around the object of horror and allowing us to view the threat from afar, like zoo-going spectators watching the roaring lion from behind the reassuring comfort of a plexiglass wall. Audiences didn’t find the Military Symphony allegretto terrifying; they found it “deliciously terrifying.”[2] In other words, they always remembered that they were listening to a symphony, not a band of wild Turks; there was always a marked distinction between representation and reality. As Mozart put it in an oft-quoted letter, “music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music.”[3]

Here, in a nutshell, is the Enlightenment aesthetic of distance. A handful of years later, Kant published his Critique of Judgment, with its notion of “disinterested interest,” a classic formulation of this aesthetic principle. Terror and other extreme states were meant to be observed from a comfortable distance, not actually experienced. Both classical and modern representations of musical terror deal in the sublime, not in today’s sense of the word as “beauty,” but in the classical, Enlightenment understanding of the term – as overwhelming “awe.”[4] Yet the sublime is a moving target historically. What was “horrid sublimity” to Haydn and his contemporaries is practically cute today. The horror of warfare remains today what it was millennia ago; brutal, nauseating, and dumb. The way we represent these eternal conditions through music and the way we listen to sublime terror, however, have shifted profoundly since the 18th century. Terror itself is a universal; we just deal with it in different ways at different times. In Haydn’s day, the roaring lion would have been shot, taxidermized, and displayed for the public to gawk at; today, many people spend good money to view lions in person on safari. The lion is the same – the distance has changed.

[1] H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Volume III (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976-1980), 247.

[2] James Webster, “Haydn,” In New Grove Online, ed. Deane Root (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007-2010).

[3] Mozart, quoted in Richard Taruskin, “Resisting the Ninth,” 19th-Century Music 12/3 (Spring 1989), 249.

[4] For more, see ibid.

Ending vs. Finishing

Haydn is perhaps most famous today for his sophisticated musical wit. Many young musicians encounter him for the first time in the context of his “Surprise” Symphony, with its explosive fortissimo just when you least expect it. (I recall playing this melody with my 6th grade band, and even to us modern kids, comedically conditioned as we were by TV jesters like Steve Urkel, it was a quite a hoot.)

Perhaps the most lengthy musical analysis yet to be found in the OHWM is RT’s 13-page discussion of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33 No.2, “The Joke” (pp.542-555). As he’s quick to admit, dissecting any act of humor is bound to quash the very quality it aims to explain. Nonetheless, since musical conventions have shifted considerably since Haydn’s time and some of his comedic gestures might not be immediately comprehended today, as they were likely to have been in the late 18th century, I found his thorough explanation quite helpful. Items that benefited from RT’s sure-footed analysis include Haydn’s clever motivic and harmonic manipulations in the first movement, and his parodies of “uncouth village musicians” in the second. The humor of these musical stratagems were, shockingly, actually enhanced through analysis.

But the big joke of the quartet, the witticism that gives the piece its title, comes at the very end. Haydn’s parting jest needs no explanation, no translation, even to listeners in 2010. He makes you think the piece is ending, only to give you more; then, when you think that more is coming, he ends the piece. The clip below demonstrates the comedic currency this gesture still carries for modern audiences (starting around 2:45). RT writes: “And so whenever this ending is performed, it takes the audience an extra second or so to recover its wits and realize that the piece is indeed over. The result is an inevitable giggle – the same giggle that overtakes a prestidigitator’s audience when it realizes that it had been ‘had.’ Haydn’s titular joke is thus not an ‘anecdote’ but a ‘practical joke,’ the product of misdirection.” (II, 553)

The humor in this closing passage comes in defying the listeners’ expectations by manipulating when we think the piece is going to end. It’s quite a sophisticated procedure, really, even though we get the joke without having to make a Schenkerian graph of it. A useful distinction when trying to analyze the anatomy of this joke can be gleaned from musical phenomenology (a great place to start here is Thomas Clifton’s classic 1983 book, Music as Heard). Clifton argues that there’s a profound difference between “ending” and “finishing” in a piece of music. All compositions, of course, end (though Satie’s Vexations comes close to defying this), but not all pieces finish. To end is simply to bring sound to a close, to run out of notes on the score, to put the baton down, and to go to the after-concert party to chat about the show over a brew. To finish, on the other hand, involves an important phenomenological component: does the piece feel like it’s over? Does it close its internal processes and provide some feeling of satisfactory conclusion? Looking at the distinction between ending and closing can be fascinating; Tchaikovsky, for instance, very often FINISHES. But Sibelius, on the other hand, is often quite illusive about the way he closes his symphonies; many of his works end instead of finish. There’s a world of irony and humor (and plenty other affects) bound up in this procedure, a fact that Haydn manipulated to get his audiences, and his musicians, giggling. And we’re still giggling today.

Pathos and Playfulness in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto, composed for a subscription concert in 1786, illustrates to stunning effect the composer’s characteristically mercurial sensibilities. Never did he dance more gracefully between the poles of elegant balance and impish amusement, on the one side, and Sturm und Drang dejection and psychological torment on the other. Indeed, affective contrast in central to this work; because the first and last movements are so indefatigably upbeat and buoyant, the wounded core of the concerto, the andante, bleeds all the more red. In this post, I will explore certain aspects of the musical language that Mozart employs in this slow movement to deliver its sublime chill. Moreover, since it’s problematic to address music as a text without referencing its sounding presence, I will briefly examine two recorded performances of the movement, one by Friedrich Gulda on a modern piano and one by Robert Levin on the fortepiano. (Recordings embedded below)

In the rare key of F# minor, the andante employs a range of affective techniques all gesturing towards a universe of sorrow. We begin with an 11-bar piano solo passage that, while starting out with a stable iteration of the tonic, quickly veers into the unexpected. Indeed, the passage is unusual for its wide leaps of strange intervals, a feature particularly evident in m. 2, when we plummet from a G#5 down to an E#2 before stabilizing at B4. There is a sense of profound disjuncture to this wildly vacillating movement between far-flung registers, an effect that is exacerbated by the rupture of the trochee rhythmic pattern established in the first measure. (We’ll return to this opening later.) We thus have a dual breakdown: our tightly-bounded melodic figure lurches unexpectedly into a diminished triad spelled out one note at a time across the range of the instrument, and our rhythmic periodicity is aborted to lend this dramatic gesture additional support. In m. 3, a level of normalcy is asserted once again, as the trochee returns to provide stability to the remainder of the opening. This technique – establishing a framework of normalcy, breaking the rules in a moment of expressive paroxysm, then returning to normal – is not unique to this opening solo. When the orchestra enters in m. 12, it isn’t long before we encounter another rip in the seam of our expectations.

To my ears, the tragic masterstroke of the exposition comes in measures 16-18 (and in the various recapitulations) with a harmonic gesture that exemplifies Mozart’s superlative command over the hermeneutics of despair. We begin (like the opening solo) with a pattern establishing a norm, in this case a grounded harmonic progression that rises from the tonic in m. 12 up the five degrees of the scale to rest on the V7 – cadence position – in m. 16. Unlike the opening (m. 4), where the dominant is sustained through a full measure, however, Mozart jumps the gun here: the tonic arrives on the weak part of the beat. This fleeting rhythmic dissonance is given further destabilizing weight as the ensemble enters subito forte on the tonic to drive home the surprise. Shocking as this disruptive anticipation might be, however, it’s only a harbinger for the wrenching harmonic contortions that follow. In m.17, the basses plunge to C natural, a tritone down from the tonic, and we move into a series of chromatically descending parallel diminished chords. This motion is essentially an unusual reharmonization of the first two bars of the exposition – indeed, the melody in the violins remains the same, although displaced an octave – but more than simply an unorthodox musical procedure, the discombobulating swerve is psychologically potent. Just after sinking through two consecutive diminished chords, when abjection appears complete, we are struck with one more searing diminished harmony on A#. This moment is yet another betrayal of expectations: in the first half of the phrase (m. 14), the melody is harmonized with the tonic in second inversion, but in the second iteration we’re faced with something altogether different. The collapse of expectations is total when the satisfaction of the anticipated tonic is yanked away at the last second for yet another bitter diminished chord, which appears as a tragic fait accompli. After hitting this extreme harmony (Taruskin might call it the FOP, or “far-out-point”), the composer quickly unwinds his position to cadence in time for another piano solo. The process of norm-subversion-norm is complete: unfurling into dark nether regions of the key in a twisted, unpredictable spiral, then pulling himself together for a textbook authentic cadence, Mozart shows us the depth of his control over affect.

Of course, every performance will communicate the pathos of this movement on different terms. I am accustomed to hearing the Mozart concertos played on modern pianos, with their heroic fortissimos, long sustain, and richness of sound. Recently, however, I’ve been drawn to the Christopher Hogwood period instrument recordings with Robert Levin on the fortepiano. At first, the fortepiano struck me as a clumsy substitute for the modern instrument; it decays quickly, lacks the dynamic range, and has a quirky, uneven tone throughout its register. To put it honestly, I despised these recording when I first heard them. The frailty of the instrument simply didn’t seem up to the task of the material (ironic, considering they were all written for the fortepiano) and many passages – especially those involving the lower register at a loud dynamic – sounded almost vaudevillian at times, with rattling, sharp bass notes that conjured images of darting-eyed silent film villains.

Andante (R. Levin – Fortepiano)

In movements such as this andante, however, the structural inferiorities of the fortepiano actually enhance the affective dimensions of the music. Indeed, the very frailty and unevenness of the instrument’s sound serve to highlight the despondent vulnerability of the musical narrative, contributing an additional layer of poignancy to an already taut representation of Weltschmerz. What initially struck me as the distracting imperfections of an inferior, antique instrument have become, through repeated listening, essential interpretative components of the piece itself. Friedrich Gulda’s recording of the work with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, while flawlessly executed, loses some of the movement’s quality of human weakness as a result of its very perfection. The fortepiano, with all of its inherent flaws (to the modern ear, that is), is perhaps better suited, in my opinion, to the subterranean realms explored here. Its sound is a beautiful ugliness.

Andante (F. Gulda – Piano)

To illustrate the difference between piano and fortepiano in this movement, we need look no further than the opening solo. As previously mentioned, part of the rhetorical power of this passage comes in its near-complete (but brief) breakdown of rhetoric in the service of naturalistic expression. When performed on the piano, the sound of each staggered pitch in m. 2 gently bleeds into the next, and the diminished triad materializes out of the mists. Even without the sustain pedal, pianos reverberate differently than their ancestor instruments. But on the fortepiano, this same gesture appears as a distorted, pointillistic helter-skelter of unpredictable sound-dots. The three consecutive notes of the diminished triad are properly contextualized when supported by the superior acoustic projection of the piano; the early instrument, weak in its tonal support and absent in sustain, on the other hand, present these three notes nakedly. They almost sound like mistakes, which in this context is wildly effective. The breakdown of this opening norm is, I think, more pronounced and heartbreaking when rendered on an instrument that equals the affective gesture in abject frailty.

Aside from the choice of instrument used in any recording of the work, one of the major performance practice questions for this and all of Mozart’s concertos (and similar music from that era) has to do with the issue of embellishment and improvisation. Again, on this count, the Gulda and Levin recordings differ profoundly. Gulda sticks quite close to the script, offering occasional embellishments but never venturing into outright improvisation. The repeated sections of the movement’s ternary form are interpreted with exactitude, amounting to the same thing with each repetition. His is a stark and stripped down but ultimately breathtaking interpretation, to be sure. Levin’s recording, on the other hand, takes a number of considerable risks, especially in this day and age when classical performers often shy away from improvisation (or rather, run screaming from it). After the opening, which Levin interprets literally, every other extended passage is embellished to such a florid extent that at times it comes close to pure improvisation. This approach is not without its naysayers, of course, and the pianist makes an explicit point to address these fears in his liner notes, indicating that he would never hope to top what Mozart has written. Rather, improvising so freely throughout is meant to lend a sense of spontaneity to the performance; like a great jazz musician, Levin delights in the radical temporality of the craft. As in any improvised performance, the music on this recording will never be performed the same way ever again.

Listening to the role of improvisation in these two recordings, I’m struck once again by the profound role performer choices make in the delineation of a (composed) musical idea. In different ways, both performances are “authentic”: Gulda follows Mozart’s indications, while Levin engages in a practice that was widespread during the composer’s time (Mozart himself greatly excelled at it, in fact). Both recordings, therefore, are beautiful and truthful in their own ways. However, like the imperfections of the fortepiano’s sound, I find that Levin’s improvisatory flights add profoundly to the dramatic – and indeed, contrastive – character of the music. Improvisation is an art of finitude; it is fleeting, unbounded, and ultimately uncontrollable (at least in the extent that written notes represent “controlled” sounds). The once-in-an-eternity element of Levin’s figures thus signals the transitoriness of the unfolding music, its susceptibility to decay and loss. This interpretation is fitting to the tragic nature of the movement. However, improvisation is also a celebratory embrace of the present moment. As a practice, it stands smiling astride passing time, reveling in each dying second. In this sense, Levin gestures toward the redemptive edification latent in the tragic movement. Thus, through improvisation, Levin boosts the level of both pathos and playfulness.

More on Borrowing

Compare (just the first half a minute or so will suffice):

The first clip comes from Handel’s “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” an erotic “chamber duet”; the second comes from the Messiah (No.12). Clearly, Handel borrowed from himself here, and there’s no disguise to indicate he’s trying to protect himself from charges of wrong-doing. Rather, this is an uncomplicated case of self-borrowing: he simply took a texture and a melody from an earlier work, reorchestrated it, changed the lyrics from Italian love poetry to English Biblical fare, and voila!

This sort of compositional cannibalism was not at all uncommon in Handel’s day. Indeed, as mentioned before, it would have been close to impossible to produce as much music as was required of the typical 18th century composer for the church, the crown, or the theater without digging into the back catalog a bit. This mode of musical production is consonant with the “craftsman” role musicians and composers played in society at that time. Autonomous compositional originality (inventio) was not as important as the ability to produce appropriate music for specific occasions, events, and social contexts; if a melody from an earlier piece ends up regurgitated in a new context, then so be it. It’s doubtful whether many listeners (if any) would have even noticed – this was the day, after all, when music was only available through performance, and thus individual pieces would only have been heard a limited number of times. (Messiah, however, was a standard repertory piece from the very beginning.)

The notion of the composer as a talented craftsman changed profoundly during the 19th century. Genius, which previously had been an adjective only, came to apply to individuals through a gradual change of usage (and a few dictionary definition wars with such notables as Voltaire and Diderot chipping in). A Genius, in the Romantic view of things, was an extremely gifted individual with a sui generis creative mind. In this paradigm, there was little room for unimaginative self-borrowing; to be sure, this seemed to impugn the very idea of Genius. As a result, you don’t tend to see the same level of blatant borrowing in canonic 19th and 20th century music as you in the 18th and before. (There are some very notable exceptions, of course, which I’m dying to write about when we get there.)

Another effect of this ideological shift in the nature of originality can be clearly evinced by the change in sheer creative output. Handel, as we know, wrote dozens of oratorios and operas; if we think back to Vol. I, we’ll remember that Renaissance composers like Lasso wrote hundreds of (extant) pieces. Of course, not all of these works are purely “original” in the 19th century paradigm. Indeed, self-borrowing (and borrowing from others, within limits) was an accepted compositional method; how else would one get through that much music? Once the paradigm shifted, however, composers concentrated their creative energies into fewer and fewer works. Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies compared to his teacher Haydn’s 104; Brahms published 4. And into the 20th century this pattern continued – few symphonists broke the magic number 9 (though for superstitious reasons as well), and opus numbers were applied only when a work was deemed satisfactorily original by the composer (we don’t get Schoenberg’s op. 1, for instance, until the composer was in his mid-twenties). [Interestingly, the same process happened with literature: compare Balzac’s 100+ published novels to James Joyce’s 4.]

When composers were aesthetically required to be 100% original 100% of the time, naturally the bubbling creative effervescence that pushed composers like Handel and Bach to produce (and borrow) music on strict deadlines slowed down, and a more focused, methodical, and calculating approach became common practice. This shift also corresponded with a heightened degree of historical awareness and a recognition that one’s own compositional career fits into a larger historical narrative. One wouldn’t want something musically trifling and un-serious (or cannibalized or plagiarized) to dog one’s historical reputation as a Great Composer, would one?

This will be an issue that pops up again as we progress through the book. It might seem obvious to state it, but the concept of originality is not a universal; rather, it is conditioned by cultural and historical contingencies, like anything else. Before calling Handel a hack, therefore (not that anyone is rushing to do so!), we should remember that borrowing meant something different in his day than it does in ours. (For the younger generation who grew up on hip-hop, mixes, mash-ups, and DJing, however, it might seem a stupidly obvious point that creativity lies in what you do with musical material, not only in what you invent out of the ether.)

What do Handel and hip-hop have in common?

Not the hoodie, as you might suspect.

Handel was a prolific “borrower” (RT’s scare quotes), regularly swiping from both his own compositions and the music of others. Recycling the same material in multiple compositions was common practice back then; indeed, it would have been impossible to meet tight deadlines without it. (Handel wrote Messiah in just 24 days.) But when we see Handel’s whole-scale appropriations of other composers’ music (including Stradella, Scarlatti, Muffat, Jennens, and others), we have to ask ourselves: when does “borrowing” become outright plagiarism?

This question is quite a raging debate in Musicology Land. Defenders argue that borrowing was common at this time, and intellectual property ideas were virtually nonexistent. They also point out that Handel suffered a stroke at the beginning of his period of heaviest borrowing, perhaps incapacitating his writing hand (and maybe his imagination). Most defenses, however, are aesthetic. Donald Grout writes: “If he borrowed, he more often than not repaid with interest, clothing the borrowed material with new beauty and preserving it for generations that otherwise would scarcely have known its existence.” (II, 329) In other words, who cares if Handel ripped other composers off: he made the music better, and they’re all dead anyways.

The prosecution has a pretty tight case, though. Excessive borrowing was looked down upon in Handel’s day (although you couldn’t get sued for it); to be sure, his contemporaries often criticized him for it. Further, with much of the music he borrowed, Handel tweaked and “updated” the original so as to disguise it. (Many of these disguises are fairly thin, however.) If he didn’t think there was any problem with what he was doing, why did he try to conceal it?

This whole debate seems mighty familiar. Indeed, the question of Handel’s borrowing is like the question of sampling in hip-hop. When does creative “borrowing” become straight-up, unimaginative, lazy plagiarism? What if the sample preserves music of the past that otherwise would be forgotten (Grout’s argument)? The legal landscape has changed substantially since the mid 1700s – Handel presumably disguised his samples for reasons of reputation, whereas hip-hop producers disguise them for fear of legal repercussions – but the central issues remain unchanged.

At the core of it is the question of originality. Both Handel and sample-based hip-hop prod at the imaginary wall separating originality from copying, forcing a fundamental question: is there anything truly new under the sun? RT writes: “Comparing Handel’s dazzling reworkings with their often rather undistinguished originals can even cast some doubt on the importance of inventio (as Handel’s contemporaries called facility in the sheer dreaming up of themes) in the scheme of musical values, and cause us to wonder whether that is where true ‘originality’ resides.” (II, 329)

Handel would have appreciated the creative play going on in good hip-hop beats. To close, here’s a particularly baroque example (“Eggman,” from the Beastie Boy’s 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, which combines “Superfly,” “Psycho,” “Jaws,” Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, and dozens of other samples).

Bach’s Extramusical Agenda?

I’ve been anticipating the difficulties of blogging Bach ever since this humble project began, and sure enough, the master is upon us and the perfect approach to presenting his music is proving illusive. (It also doesn’t help that the last three weeks have been punishingly busy for Mark and me.) Where does one start when dealing with one of the two or three most transformational figures in western music? RT begins his discussion circumspectly, introducing Bach along with his exact contemporary Handel (they were both born in 1685) and demonstrating the vastly different careers both men enjoyed. Handel was a musical cosmopolitan extraordinaire, traveling from Germany to Italy to England; Bach, on the other hand, never once left Germany. Handel primarily composed secular music, particularly opera seria, although he is remembered today more for his sacred music (go to any large church in the western world around Christmas and you’ll witness the work that has won Handel a spot in the collective memory); Bach, who specialized in sacred music, is perhaps more revered today for his secular instrumental music (or rather, it is through his instrumental music that most people first encounter him). The question of how this group of gifted composers who share a birth year (including D. Scarlatti) came to influence our musical tradition is a monstrous, woolly one indeed, and Taruskin spends about a third of the volume sorting it out.

Tackling Bach is mighty intimidating. I’m just going to jump right in with one tiny question related to this giant. Check out the clip below (Brandenburg Concert 5, mvt. I) for a quick primer:

Something very peculiar is going on here, although it might not be immediately apparent (and no, I’m not talking about the darling duckling image that accompanies the clip). All the Brandenburgs are equally kooky in their own right, and instrumentation plays a major role in historians’ head scratching and brow furling. The concertos are all scored for different ensembles, some of them quite unorthodox, then as now. However, this one performs perhaps the most radical flip in instrumentation; listen to the harpsichord here, and compare it to the role of the harpsichord in all previous music. Got it? Indeed, this instrument has always served an accompanimental role as a continuo voice, but here, the harpsichordist goes off the tracks. You can first hear it at around 0:22, and all hell breaks loose at 6:20. All of these lighting quick flourishes are strictly notated, moreover; this isn’t simply a ground bass that the player is realizing on the fly. Bach is putting a continuo instrument right into the middle of the concerto as the featured voice. In the view of one musicologist (McClary), the humble harpsichord “hijacks” the ensemble.

In Bach’s time, the orchestra was seen as a “social microcosm, a compact mirror of society. The orchestra, like society itself, was assumed to be an inherently hierarchical entity.” (II, 290) It is no surprise, then, that historians have pondered Bach’s odd harpsichord-centric structure. There are other instruments in this ensemble that would have made a lot more intuitive sense to feature, but just when one expects the violin or the flute to step forward and take the hierarchical reigns of the piece, they drop out and the harpsichord goes wild in pure virtuoso fashion. This would be like featuring the bass guitar in a rock band (well, Primus did it..).

So why did Bach do this? What does it signify? Clearly any compositional choice this bold must have been made for some reason. Historians have concluded that perhaps in this transgressive musical gambit we can see a strain of social subversion. It’s purely speculative, as Bach left behind no musings on political philosophy, but nonetheless it’s an argument that can’t be ignored. According to Susan McClary, the harpsichord in this concerto is a musical “storming of the Bastille”; it expresses “the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.” (302) (It should be recalled at this point that Bach himself had a somewhat frustrated career, consistently trying for more prestigious gigs and getting turned down. In fact, the Brandenburgs were a gift to a powerful local elite in the hopes of patronage. They were shelved, apparently never having been performed, until after the elite’s death.)

Michael Marissen, however, posits that the elevation of the harpsichord to such a position of prominence in Con. 5 reflects more his religious thinking than his political leanings. Bach accepted the notion that musical hierarchy reflects God’s will on this earth; however, Marissen argues, he held the Lutheran idea that the present world is of little significance compared to the kingdom of God. Transgressions like these might simply be reminding listeners that the order of this world is ephemeral.

There are of course other explanations as well. Maybe Bach had a transgressive sense of humor. Perhaps he simply got tired of his beloved instrument always playing second fiddle (figuratively) to the violin and other solo instruments. We will probably never know for sure. Nonetheless, this little case study poses a fascinating question for music lovers and historians: when composers or performers subvert a well-established musical code, how should we approach it in the absence of documentation? Should we plumb for speculative conclusions based on what makes the most sense in today’s world, or in theirs? Should we throw up our hands and let the matter rest? Just what do you make of Bach’s subversive harpsichord anyway?

Distracted Listening

Noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards], and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box.  (II, 174)

It would be natural to assume that the scenario above refers to a sporting event. One can picture a gaggle of the privileged gossiping away about which noblewoman is in bed with which nobleman, noshing on treats, sharing the latest dirty joke, sipping wine and laughing. It’s like a baseball game today: you go for the camaraderie over hot dogs and beer and when you hear a sharp “crack,” you look down onto the field to see what just happened. It’s all about the socializing; the ostensible reason for the event is secondary.

Of course, there was no baseball in 17th/18th century Italy; instead, the landed classes amused themselves in the opera house. The passage above comes from Martha Feldman’s article “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” which meticulously describes the fascinating social milieu that existed around opera seria performances in the early 18th century. The performance halls were fully lit, giving spectators just as good a view of the other spectators than of the stage. People came to see and be seen, to chat amongst themselves, and to eat. (Indeed, a standard item in the seria opera was the “sherbet aria,” a tune sung while audience members devoured their dessert.) The music was entirely incidental to the partying, which makes sense when one learns that patrons typically rented their opera boxes for the whole season, and a season consisted of only a few operas, each performed 20-30 times. After the first couple of performances, audiences would be familiar enough with the plot and the music to mentally check out and still know what’s going on. When the virtuoso castrato onstage begin belting his signature tune, audiences would stop their conversations to enjoy a moment of music.

Taruskin comments that there is nothing in today’s world of classical music similar to this sort of socio-musical event. (One would have to go to a bar with a bad cover band for something resembling the opera seria culture.) Indeed, he likens it more to today’s TV set, which passively lights up the background to so many peoples’ lives (II, 175). It is used less for concentrated recreation than it is for distracted ambiance. To the modern person, steeped as we are in the 19th century idea of darkened concert halls, sublimity and transport, and the private contemplation of musical art, the opera seria can seem more like circus than Kultur. The carnivalesque element is perhaps what makes seria such a marginal player in today’s repertory, but it also makes it queerly fascinating.

Prof. Mitchell Morris likes to tell his undergrads that one reason why the 20th century has so few fantastic operas is that, to write an opera that truly “works,” the composer has to “have the courage to be boring.” When you’re dealing with a musical form that can easily stretch for 3 or more hours, a composer needs to “let the audience go,” to free them up for staring blankly at the ceiling, checking their iPhones, and people watching. One does not have the cognitive capacity to deal with hours straight of concentrated brilliance; they need some mental downtime. In the 20th century, only the courageous composer has the guts to be boring.

It might be easy to forget this today, but distracted listening has a long and distinguished history in the western art music tradition (not to mention all the rest of human musical cultures out there). You could receive a dirty look for coughing in some esteemed concert halls today, but throughout most of music history, the coughing, distracted, socializing audience member was the norm, not the decorum-destroying exception. This is perhaps what makes opera seria so interesting – it is so utterly different from what we think of opera now. Taruskin lowers the curtain: “.. it is just those aspects of bygone art that are most bygone from which we can learn the most about ourselves and our present world, and the place of art within it” (II, 176).

A Grim and Humorless Discipline?

We’re among the few comic writers in an otherwise grim and humorless discipline.    — Susan McClary in a note to Richard Taruskin (quoted in RT’s review of the  McClary Festschrift)

It’s a blessing and a relief that Taruskin knows how to employ the comic voice in the OHWM. At close to 4,000 pages, it would be a stultifying reading experience indeed if the prose did not dance. Looking back on the successfully-scaled first major peak of our ascent, I’m struck by how painless it all was. I can honestly say that I never once got bored (of course, ten pages at a time helped in this respect). Nor did I ever get that sinking feeling that comes on occasionally that this is all just a waste of time. (I recall a moment a few years back digging through a dense, hopelessly dull article establishing Dufay’s whereabouts in year X and wondering if I shouldn’t just go to law school.) For all the many minor flaws with the text, the most important element of historical writing is here in abundance – it manages to be continuously interesting, fresh, and relevant. And some of this is due to Taruskin’s mastery of the comic voice.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I often found myself chuckling aloud while reading Vol. I. His style of humor is difficult to pinpoint exactly. Occasionally it is silly, such as when he refers to Bartolomeo Tromboncino  as “the little guy with the trombone” (696). (It’s what his name means, I know, but what a funny way to phrase it.) Sometimes it is ironic: “.. in single stanzas, or ‘through-composed,’ as we now rather gracelessly say in musicologese (a dialect of German)..” (813). Most of the time, Taruskin’s humor comes from a certain lightness of tone. He’s clearly having fun writing his history, and it shows in the text. The OHWM, despite its behemoth dimensions, is not ponderous in the least.

The comic voice developed late in the field of musicology, and as McClary indicates, it isn’t very common still. This is quite a shame. Perhaps Taruskin’s greatest achievement of the history is its sheer readability; the OHWM is actually enjoyable to read. (Initiates into other unnamed texts [ahem, Grout] will know that enjoyability is not on the agenda of most histories of music.) And shouldn’t a book about music be enjoyable after all? I don’t mean to sound flippant about this, but we are scholars of music, perhaps humankind’s most universally adored activity. If we can’t make music fun, then what use is our field to the world?

If musicology is indeed a “grim and humorless discipline,” perhaps it became that way because of a ceaseless desire for recognition and status in the academy. Money is tight, and what musicologists do could be considered relatively trivial. Therefore, in order to justify the “-ology” in our title, maybe some scholars tried to adopt the most scientific, “serious” sort of language possible. With serious-mindedness comes credibility (and funding). Perhaps, therefore, all humor was wrung from the discipline precisely in order for it to become a stable, safe, and respected academic field. Remember: when the first musicology programs were founded, officials were often skeptical (the dean of Harvard quipped, “we might as well talk of grandmotherology.”)

Do you think musicology as a discipline is “grim and humorless”? Why is the this the case (or not)? How might the scholar, conscious both of getting a tenure job and of actually being read by a larger audience, ameliorate this deficiency? Extra points if you use a pun in your reply.