Mercy in Monteverdi

A great example of the connection between chromaticism and suffering in Reformation-era music. In Laudate Dominum (primo) Monteverdi abruptly starts employing the painful-sounding half-steps on the word misericordia, Latin for “mercy” (1:19-1:34 and 1:47-2:21).

Probably Strauss or Stravinsky would think it was just childish word-painting, but it gets me every time. Gorgeous stuff. He does similar things in his setting of the Magnificat (primo). (3:55-4:48)

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.

Jeppesen’s Division

“European music may properly be classified under two large, general divisions: older and newer music. The dividing line may approximately be drawn at the year 1600. …During the entire process of musical development there may be observed an uninterrupted struggle for a steadily increasing refinement of the means of expression.” Knud Jeppesen, The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance

He also says that “the most radical expressional change that ever occurred in the evolution of music” was “the transition to the opera, to the ‘assionate’ music introduced in Italy towards the end of the 16th century.” Which, I guess, means that Knud Jeppesen subscribes, in some say, to the Monody Argument. Does everybody? Then why don’t we teach it that way in schools these days?

Paltry Imitators of the Past

From the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music (1911):

“Today we find ourselves at the threshold of a glorious madhouse, for we declare without hesitation that counterpoint and fugue, still considered the most important branch of the musical curriculum, represent nothing more than the ruins of the history of polyphony of the period between the Flemish School and Bach.

“We hear laments that young musicians are no longer capable of inventing melodies, doubtless alluding to the type of melodies cultivated by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, or Ponchielli. But melody is now conceived harmonically; harmony is felt through complex combinations and successions of sounds, thus creating new melodic resources. This development marks the end, once and for all, of paltry imitators of the past, who have no longer any reason to exist, and of various venal purveyors to the low tastes of the public.” (Music Since 1900, 1296)

Manifesto of Futurist Musicians

In an inflammatory piece written October of 1910, an Italian musician named Balilla Pratella defended the music of a Pietro Mascagni as the only person really breaking past the musical stagnation present in Europe at the time. It’s a fascinating article for many reasons, but primarily for my interests, Pratella is really excited about Debussy’s music but has reservations about the degree to which he’s really modern. He says,

“He resorts in his operatic formulas to the obsolete concepts of the Florentine Camerata, which in 1600 gave birth to melodrama, but has not achieved a complete reform of the art of music drama even in its own country.”

Which is just fantastic. All of Classical music goes back to this incredible moment in 1600 when the Italians tried creating secular music. Of course, Pratella was wrong—it’s Schoenberg who ends up really creating “futurist” music, but he was right about where it came from.

Music and Sacraments

“When the Israelites remember the Exodus, they are participating in it.”

Vander Zee, in Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper describes the connection between remembrance and sacraments. During the Passover in the Old Testament, the saints were participating in the act of deliverance. “The feast is not merely a historical reconstruction but is a way of making the past event present and of making each participant int he meal a slave freed by God’s might hand.” Putting it in perhaps more popular terms, he quotes the Negro spiritual, “Were you there?”, pointing out that “we can respond at the Lord’s Table with a firm ‘Yes!'” It’s really about moving beyond reading the story and moving toward becoming characters in the story. “As we hear the story of that first supper over and over in our worship, it becomes our story, our memory; we were there.”

Read More