Classicism and Brahms

And here are Vaughan Williams’ thoughts on similar topics.

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An Educated Audience

“In my youth, living in the proximity of Brahms, it was customary that a musician, when he heard a composition the first time, observed its construction, was able to follow the elaboration and derivation of its themes and its modulations, and could recognize the number of voices in canons and the presences of the theme in a variation; and there were even laymen who after one hearing could take a melody home in their memory.” (Arnold Schoenberg, New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea)

Beethoven Begat Jacob and Esau

Wagner and Brahms, that is.

“In German-speaking lands, the dispute polarized around Brahms and Wagner and around the dichotomies between absolute and program music, between tradition and innovation, and between classical genres and forms and news ones. What is clear in retrospect is that partisans on both sides shared the common goals of linking themselves to Beethoven, appealing to audiences familiar with the classical masterworks, and securing a place for their own music in the increasingly crowded permanent repertoire. All such music became known as classical music because it was written for similar performing forces as works represented in the classical repertoire and was intended to be performed alongside them.” (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, A History of Western Music)

Fascinating that Brahms looks at Beethoven and sees pure, “absolute” music, music for its own sake. Wagner looks at Beethoven and sees drama, Gesamtkunstwerk, music (as Tom Wolfe might say) with a text at its center. Ralph Vaughan Williams expresses that whole period’s expectancy for a new Beethoven to unite the two schools here.

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

It is a warm, late-winter morning. Or a cold, early-spring morning. But I’m an optimist and I am wearing shorts. The breeze and spotty sun coverage makes that slightly uncomfortable, but it’s the principle of the thing that counts: I’m walking along a street, listening to my iPod and wearing shorts. People see me and they stare. They begin to hope for spring. At least I hope they begin to hope. Maybe they just think I’m strange.

Or maybe they’re staring because I make weird faces when I listen to Messiaen on my iPod. Messiaen is so strange. At first he’s like a horror-movie soundtrack with these random bursts of happiness that are way too rare. After you’re able to strip your ear of a silly cultural connotation, his music really becomes like club soda or some palate-cleanser. There’s a minty sting and freshness about his dissonances. The feeling your sinuses get after too much horse-radish. Perfect for washing out the icky aftertaste of too much Chopin, like bits of butterfinger caught in your molars, or the muddy cigar saliva of Brahms.

All these thoughts are strange. And the music I’m listening to is strange. I mean, how many people are walking on a sidewalk now with earphones jammed in their ear, and they’re listening to Messiaen? Let me tell you: not many. You probably don’t even know who I’m talking about. There you go, you prove my point: not many. But even stranger than that is the iPod.

See, I can rub my thumb lightly along the surface of the iPod and be listening to the Beatles (British, 1960s). Then I can rub my thumb more and listen to some Solstafir (Icelandic, 2000s) if I really had them on my iPod, which I don’t. And then I could rub my thumb deftly the other direction and hit Herreweghe’s recording of St. Matthew Passion (German, 1720s) or a little less and listen to Paul Hillier’s interpretation of how hoquetus (French, 1200s) would have sounded.

And then some theologian who should know better tells us that we’re the first generation not to have great respect for the music of the past. What absolute tommy-rot you talk, O theologian! We’re the first generation who can have great respect for the music of the past.

Obviously composers don’t know the future, but most composers haven’t known the past that well either. Everyone knows Bach didn’t know about Brahms or the Beatles, but it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that Bach didn’t know about hoquetus either. Or Leonin. He may not have even known about Obrecht or Josquin—just like you probably don’t—and he probably wouldn’t have cared if you told him. And doubtless worried Christian social critics would have come along and told him he needed a healthier respect for the music of the past, at which juncture Bach would have taken some snuff and abruptly left the room to go compose more of his impudent, contemporary, modern junk.

Right now I’m listening to Messiaen and then I’ll jump over and listen to some jazz, maybe Antonio Carlos Jobim. I’m jumping from 1960s France to 1960s Brazil. And the funny thing is that I think I’m at home in both of them. Then maybe I’ll go listen to some Middle French or a weird dialect of Hungarian in some Joel Cohen CD of Renaissance music. I don’t think any of this is weird. But I should.

Joseph Addison is famous for his social criticism. He was, incidentally, not a big fan of Handel or the other music of his day. He criticized the English opera because it was all in Italian. He thought, What’s the point of having English opera if it’s not even in English? That’s just stupid.

The funny thing is, the most likely person to say that now is a punk teenager bitter about spending his Friday night at the opera. Apparently it’s the most natural thing in the world to go to an opera in New York and hear unintelligible (but faintly reminiscent of German) syllables uttered from Wagnerian females with gratuitous vibrato. That’s considered decidedly more high-class than going and hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical travesty. And maybe it is, but Joseph Addison would have chosen Cats or Jesus Christ Superstar before some foreign tripe.

The principle here is this: we nowadays aren’t normal. None of this is normal, carrying our musical attention here or there, jumping over times, turning the accomplishments of many years into a series of mp3 files. No other age has felt at home in another age’s music, but nowadays we scarcely feel at home unless we’re listening to other people’s music. And the most refined of us, apparently, are those of us who listen to Classical music: the music of dead people from a different country. Americans like their Classical music, music which is 90% of the time geographically and chronologically foreign to them. We don’t just love our foreigners, we love our foreigners dead. (You know what I mean.)

All this is so normal, apparently, that worried Christian leaders just keep reminding us that we need to be using old music in Church because that’s the respectful thing to do. Actually, basically at no point in the Western tradition have Christians thought being musically regressive was a good idea. There was one, though, I can think of. It was called the Council of Trent. And where is the American Catholic church now? The exact same place Protestants are. We all sing clappy, happy little songs. All of which leads us to the great conclusion of our theologian-critics, the idea that I will refer to as the Retrospective Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, use older stuff.

(…presumably older stuff that’s better, that is. There was plenty of crappy older stuff but, hey, in a fire people save the good stuff, and time is like a refining fire. We get mostly the good stuff from past ages and not the crappy stuff.)

Now, take a look at our Retrospective Principle. Seems like the fairly standard rallying cry of a traditionalist, right? Once we can inspire in you a similar discontent that we have with the music of today, then you’ll be forced to see the reasonableness of using Bach in worship! Yes?

Uh, no. See, not that I’m against Bach in worship all the time, but that’s not actually an intuitive leap there. Let’s make this clearer: you’re a general and you’re losing a war because of malfunctioning firearms. So, the key is clearly to find some really good longbows made by the English. After all, those won at Agincourt, and you’re losing, so you should use the winning weapon. That’s not really intuitive, if you think about it. If you’re discontent with today’s weapons, you don’t use the weapons of the past.

Oh, was that a bad analogy? I’m sorry! I can see icicles beginning to form on your eye-lashes: did I just compare Bach to out-of-date weapons technology? Well, yes, but I didn’t mean that he’s inferior. The longbow is definitely not inferior to the machine gun. It’s actually way cooler, in my humble opinion. Anyway, the point is that Bach was a winning strategy in his time, but that doesn’t mean he’s a winning strategy in ours. We’re fighting a different battle than he did.

And, honestly, let’s face it, past ages didn’t have the luxury to “use older stuff”. Bach didn’t have unlimited access to manuscripts from Dover or IMSLP.org. He had a total paucity in comparison to what we have. Bach did the much manlier thing to do. It’s an idea I’ll call the Pragmatic Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music.

And if you still have any doubt that this is the more intuitive principle, take a look at what all past ages have in common: they all have the music that we’re so jealous of. Why? Well, hm, maybe because they wrote music rather than moping around using older music. Maybe we should stop complaining about today’s Church music and try writing something better. If you think contemporary music is crappy, write better contemporary music. No, I’m serious. If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music. If you really want to be traditional, do what the traditionalists did and write and use new music. Be traditional: don’t be a traditionalist. Care enough about these traditional composers for them to inspire in you discontent—that’s good—and then once you’ve learned their secrets, run away and do it yourself! Don’t look back! Make weapons for your own battle, not theirs.

So, once I’m done walking along the sidewalk and I arrive at the coffeeshop, it’s time to put away the iPod, that wonderful invention that fuels marvelous discontent. Now is the time to pull out manuscript paper and call my bluff. Time for an egg to hang on its side from one of those five lines. So, how do I do this?

(Which will be explained in what follows.)

Vaughan Williams’ Music History

Ralph Vaughan Williams in “The Romantic Movement and Its Results” (written in response to Brahms’ death) sketches music from 1750 to 1900 in terms of “classical” and “romantic”. These were not, for him, mutually exclusive in the chronological sense, only in the stylistic sense. In other words, he could easily make the case that Schubert was romantic and Beethoven was classical, although they were contemporaries or that Brahms was classical while Wagner was romantic, again, even though they were contemporaries.

Vaughan Williams defines his terms pretty neatly. “Beethoven was a classical composer—this does not mean that he was not imaginative, but it does mean that he was a musician and nothing else—that the emotional gem of his music was simply a musical pattern in his mind, which was translated into an analogous musical pattern on paper. With Beethoven, then, abstract form and emotional expression were inseparable, because they both sprang from the same source,” (Vaughan Williams on Music, 14).

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