Wagner’s Influence

Only because of Wagner (and the rampant “1870 Germany” he represented) did Italian and French musicians, whatever their level of patriotism, feel the need to become stylistic nationalists. Previously the style of Italian music had been the one European style virtually free of self-consciousness – a luxury enjoyed only by the self-confidently topmost, and a testimony to that happy state of security. But as we have just seen, by the end of his career even Verdi had been spooked. Even he needed to situate himself stylistically vis-a-vis the wizard of Bayreuth, and so have practically all composers ever since. Wagner’s own style, as we have also seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.   (III, 567-568)

Wagner’s influence on the national styles of Germany’s neighbors was no doubt profound, but I wonder if this might be overstating the point slightly. Was Wagner (and what he represented) really the “only” reason Italian and French musicians became stylistic nationalists around this point in time? Further, although Wagner’s style was self-conscious to the extreme, could this not also be said of other major innovators (and myth-makers) of the century? It could easily be argued that Beethoven upped the artistic imperative of the self-willed, self-conscious model even more than Wagner, in fact. The superlatives in this passage make me a bit squeamish; they seem to suggest a strict demarcation of “pre-” vs “post-” Wagner, a sort of “BC” and “AD” stylistic chronology with Wagner at the center. His influence was incalculable – this much we can agree on. Perhaps that’s why such pat attempts to calculate his influence fall flat.

Darwinian Music, Part IV

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been abroad the idea that the history of music (like the history of everything else) has a purpose, and that the primary obligation of musicians is not to their audience but to that purpose – namely, the furthering of the “evolutionary” progress of the art, for the sake of which any sacrifice is justified. Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, in other words, the idea that one is morally bound to serve the impersonal aims of history has been one of the most powerful motivating forces, and one of the most exigent criteria of value, in the history of music.   — III, 415

[Commentary here]

Virtuosity without spontaneity

By 1849, not even spontaneity could be “merely” spontaneous. Pianists trained in conservatories spent all their time (like Liszt in 1832) on “trills, sixths, octaves, tremolos, double notes and cadenzas” – but not on their own cadenzas. Improvisation was no longer part of the curriculum, and by the end of the century, for artists in the European literate tradition, in had become a lost art – which is to say, the literate tradition had become more truly and literally and exclusively literate. There are now probably hundreds if not thousands of conservatory-trained pianists in the world whose techniques at trills, octaves, and double notes are the equal of Liszt’s, but hardly a one who can end a concert with an extempore fantasia. Should we call this progress?   (III, 288)

Improvisation is by definition ephemeral. The performer responds to a unique moment with unique sounds that die away immediately, leaving no trace but in the memory of those present to witness it. In the nineteenth century, this sort of music-making model was no formula for inclusion in the burgeoning historicism of the time. How could improvising a stunning fantasia last, earning its practitioner a place in history? Without a means of preserving these performances, we would be left only with first-hand accounts, “ear-witness” reports of virtuosity. There would be no musical documentation to prove it.

It’s admirable that RT takes up the question of improvisation here, but he doesn’t probe too deeply into this problem. It seems that, for many of the “Romantic generation,” the point was to appear off-hand and spontaneous while at the same time leaving behind a documentary trace that paradoxically proves one’s virtuosity by freezing it in time. They had figured out a way to have their cake (“improvisatory” virtuosity) and eat it too (preserve it for posterity).

It makes me think of the great jazz virtuosos of last century (and today). Minus recording technology, we would be left today to speculate on the genius of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker in much the same way that historians speculate on what the improvising Mozart must have sounded like. In other words, if improvisation has any shot at preservation, a technology is needed to serve as formaldehyde in the jar: virtuosi in the nineteenth century had notation, improvisers in our era have audio recordings. Both technologies halt in mid air the fleeting process of improvisation.

This passage brought to mind the famous (if scantily documented) meeting between Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum in the 1930s. Horowitz was mesmerized by Tatum’s unschooled virtuosity, even going as far as to call him the greatest pianist in the world. No performer of jazz or pop, Horowitz painstakingly transcribed and rehearsed the standard “Tea for Two” and played it for Tatum. (His transcription is preserved in the film “Horowitz: The Last Romantic”; apparently it’s somewhat cringe-inducing.) After this, Tatum sat down and played “Tea for Two” for Horowitz. The great conservatory-trained pianist was stunned, and immediately asked Tatum for the music.

“Oh, I was just improvising,” Tatum replied.

So you say you want a revolution?

“Amour sacré de la patrie” (“Sacred love of fatherland”), from the grand opera La muette de Portici, by Auber

Detached from its original context, this exhilarating marchlike number could serve as many contradictory purposes as could patriotism itself, teaching government and governed alike that works of art could be freely appropriated, in an age of mass dissemination, for use as political weapons. It became customary for audiences to applaud the revolutionary duet with special show-stopping fervor, turning the occasion into a virtual antigovernment demonstration. What the nineteenth century learned from the grand opéra was that works of art could be dangerous. They were dangerous not necessarily by design but by virtue of their ambiguity – and, consequently, the different ways in which they could be used. In an age of emergent mass politics, music had become a potential rabble-rouser. Opera could now not only mirror but actually make the history of nations. In extreme cases it could even help make the nation.  (III, 212)

Listening to this blandly rousing little number today without knowing its history, it could easily be taken as more quaint than revolutionary. Yet Auber’s 1828 opera was anything but harmless; indeed, with a message of both patriotism and anti-government ardor, La muette de Portici (“The mute girl of Portici”) stirred up all sorts trouble (and made its proprietors all sorts of money in the process).

The opera came to the French stage at a politically tense time, when the fear of another revolution was acute. The very possibility, not to mention the popularity, of this opera, then, pose an interesting question: in an age of extreme government control of the arts, how could an opera about insurrection pass muster with the censors? The fact of the matter is that Portici was a cautionary tale portraying revolutionary activity as an invitation to mob rule and chaos (or at least this is how the government interpreted it). They may be singing about revolution, but in the end we all know what messy business revolution can be. The message, as RT points out, is deeply ambiguous, and French authorities banked on a mass interpretation that would bolster state power. It would be like Glenn Beck doing punk rock.

Of course, any public musical utterance is an interpretive crap shoot. Independent of the composer’s (and the censor’s) design, a work takes on its own meaning as it is used by real people in their historical moment. RT’s last line above may seem like an overstatement, but in 1830, this tune indeed played a major role in the foundation of a modern state, Belgium. It would not be an exaggeration to say, as RT implies, that this music was “weaponized” by the French-speaking Belgians in their uprising against Hapsburg rule. During a performance of the opera (which the nervous government heavily redacted), “Amour sacré de la patrie” served as the cue (or was it a spontaneous reaction?) for mass revolt. Upon hearing this tune, the inflamed audience poured into the streets, storming major Hapsburg strongholds, including the armory, and eventually wrestling power from the overseers. This Brussels performance makes the infamous Rite of Spring debut look like a rave dance party by comparison.

Shifting gears slightly, reading about incidents like this (and any of the other famous riots in music history), I can’t help but wonder about the state of music as a cultural force today. It seems fairly impossible that any piece of music in any genre in contemporary America would have the social power, and the consensus, to inflame the passions so radically. Auber’s opera was a mega-hit: it spread to every corner of society, and although its message was ambiguous, its reach was ubiquitous. Is anything comparable even possible now? The way we listen to music today is too fragmented, too diffuse, for any one cultural product to take hold of the collective imagination the way Portici did. Revolutionary politics is still an active force in music-making, of course, but few would argue that it has the ability to truly shape revolutionary activity. (Try imagining a crowd at a Rage Against the Machine concert spilling out of the auditorium and capturing the White House.) Are we too savvy today to fall pray to musical propaganda? Is the music just not as rabble-rousing as it once was? What do you think?

Rule-Breaking and Music Analysis

One of their [compositional norms] main uses—and purposes—is revealed precisely in departures from them…. In other words, norms are not laws that must be adhered to simply for the sake of coherence or intelligibility, although that is their primary purpose. Absolutely unchallenged “normality” is perhaps the most boring mode of discourse. One rarely finds it in Haydn, or in any imaginative or interesting composer. Rather it is the existence of norms that allows departures to become meaningful—and thereby expressive. In that sense, rules are made to be broken. [Vol. II, 532-533]

And yet our system of analysis is built around the activity of noticing similarities—not deviations—in different works. What would an alternative procedure of analysis look like?

RT on the birth of the symphony

The free-standing orchestral symphony, produced in great numbers all over Europe beginning in the 1720s and 1730s, was originally a genre of entertainment music, usually performed in the evenings, sometimes out of doors. In short, the term meant aristocratic party music, which over the course of the century, responding to forces of urbanization and the economic empowerment of the bourgeoisie, became more and more available to public access. In the course of its becoming public it became more and more the pretext for the occasions at which it was performed, rather than their mere accompaniment. Thus, finally, the growth of the symphony paralleled the growth of the concert as we know it today – a growth that in turn paralleled a vastly increasing taste for esthetically beguiling or emotionally stirring instrumental music, sought out for the sake of its sheer sensuous and imaginative appeal, and listened to, increasingly, in silent absorption. This was indeed a momentous esthetic change, indeed a revolution. Its beginnings, however, were modest and artistically unpretentious in the extreme. (Vol. II, 498)

RT on the Politics of Music

In today’s society, it may not be superfluous to observe, the charge of “political correctness” is almost invariably made by members of privileged groups against the claims and concerns of the less privileged. It is a way of warding off threats to privilege. “Classical music,” like all “high art,” has always been, and remains, primarily a possession of social and cultural elites. (That, after all, is what makes it “high.”) This is so even in a society like ours, where social mobility is greater than in most societies, and where entry into elites can come about for reasons (like education, for example) that may be unrelated to birth or wealth. To maintain that “classical music” is by nature (or by definition) apolitical is therefore a complacent position to assume, and a rather parlous one. Complacency in support of a not universally supported status quo can serve, in today’s world, to marginalize and even discredit both the practice and the appreciation of art.     (II, 112)

RT on Historical (Mis)understanding

Our modern (mis)understandings of the past are not mistakes but the products of changed historical conditions. We value in Gesualdo something his contemporaries could not have valued, because we know what they (and he) did not – namely, their future, which is now our past. That knowledge can hardly be erased from our consciousness.

So what interests us now bespeaks our condition and no one else’s. No amount of historical learning can replace new understanding with old understanding. All one can hope to do is add depth and detail to our misunderstanding. (That is where the sacred music and the instrumental music can usefully fit into even the most biased modern appreciation of Gesualdo.) If that seems a paradoxical thing to say, that has been precisely the intention.  (739-741)

Week 10 in Review

This week in blogging:

As musicologists congregated in Philly for the AMS convention, we faithfully continued working our way through the pages of the OHWM. As consolation for not being able to attend the meeting, we were able to listen to four versions of the famous Missa L’Homme Armé settings by the headlining composers of the 15th c. And in a pedagogically inspired moment, Zach cataloged and exemplified the various fallacies Taruskin has introduced, so that we can be sure to keep our thinking straight.

Other Reading Notes:

The reading summary is a little different this week: it is a gathering of quotes from the text that summarize the main points. There were many more choice passages I could have included, but this will have to stand as a brief flash of what was a very rich chapter.

Internationalism: “Even after impregnation by the English, the basic technique of music remained French; but once the northerners began invading the south, it became impossible to tell by style where a piece of written continental music had been composed. Europe, musically, seemed one.” (I, 453)

Ockeghem, by the end of his life, was “surely the most socially exalted musician in Europe,” (I, 455) and Busnoys is “perhaps the earliest major composer from whom autograph manuscripts survive”. (I, 456) These two composers threw encomia (or were they gauntlets?) to one another, each praising the other through song.

The cyclic mass was “the emblem of the century’s musical attainments, for it was a genre of unprecedented altitude.” (I, 459) This genre, a unified setting of the mass ordinary based on a cantus firmus, was originally written for special mass days (royal weddings and coronations), and its raison d’être offers a functional shift: “the use of a symbolic or emblematic tenor uniting its various sections renders the Ordinary ‘proper’ to an occasion. The common cantus firmus acts like a trope, a symbolic commentary on the service.” (I, 461) Over the course of the 15th century, “the rigidly conceived, highly structured style of the isorhythmic motet—the ‘high style’ or stylus gravis of the fourteenth century—passed from the motet into the domain of the cyclic Mass, which was potentially a kind of isorhythmic motet writ large, with five or so discrete sections replacing the multiple color-talea cursus of old.” (I, 461)

The anonymous (Dunstable?) Missa Caput represented a new four-part texture that soon became standard. Coupled with the standardization of vocal ranges [which developed over the next few generations] it represented the beginnings of four-part harmony. Tonal harmony was yet to come, however. “Over the two centuries between 1450 and 1650…, a gradual conceptual change took place in the wake of a new perceptual reality [what RT calls the ‘practiced habits of “hearing”‘]. Roughly speaking, it was the change from ‘modal’ to ‘tonal’ thinking.” (I, 471)

Emulations of the Missa Caput by successive composers (such as Ockeghem) bespeak a common 15th century practice; one that warrants an extended RT description. On the difference between an imitation and emulation: “An imitation is simply a reproduction, a copy, a match—or, as often remarked, a compliment. An emulation is both an homage and an attempt to surpass. The dynasties of composers and of compositions that so distinguished the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were dynasties of emulation. Works of ‘high’ style became models for other works that aspired to the highness in a spirit at once of submission to a tradition and mastery of it, and in a spirit at once of honoring and vying with one’s elders. A composition regarded as especially masterly will come to possess auctoritas—authority. It sets a standard of excellence, but at the same time it becomes the thing to beat. A true emulation will honor the model by conforming to it, but it will also distinguish itself from the model in some conspicuously clever way.” ( I, 474-475)

The supreme emblem of the day was in setting the Missa L’homme armé. “Practically every composer mentioned by Tinctoris, including Tinctoris himself, wrote at least one Missa L’Homme Armé, as did their pupils and their pupils’ pupils. The principle of emulation, thus applied on such a massive scale, produced the very summit of fifteenth-century musical art and artifice.” (I, 484)