The other historical shore

“If Bach could still see in harmony a metaphor for God, Goethe was already speaking from the other historical shore—from the world in which metaphors are all we have. In this new world, our world, it is God who has become the metaphor for harmony.” Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity, 129.

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Ambrose Singing Some World Harmony

Leo Spitzer, in his “historical semantics” on Classical and Christian Conceptions of World Harmony, explains that Ambrose’s composition of the first hymn focused on world harmony was something that only a Christian theology could have produced. While Hebraic music seemed uninterested in the concept of world harmony, Greek music seemed to believe world harmony couldn’t be imitated in human music at all.

World harmony, the ability to at once “express best the inner depths of human and cosmic nature”, was for the Greeks not only “inaccessible to human ears” but also purely metaphorical. Or, rather, human music was a metaphor for the universal music, but its purpose was purely a spiritual one, to understand the creator (poietes, a poet/musician) and to put one’s soul in healthy order (an idea Spitzer says later attracted Augustine). Thus music is central to Plato in the Republic because of the close relationship of harmony to the soul and the soul to the polis. “Plato establishes the parallel: individual body—individual soul—polis, all three being predicated on order and temperance. There is in man himself a politeia, which bids him attune his body to the harmony of his soul, ‘if he has true music in him’….”

The idea of world harmony, Spitzer points out, is attractive to early Christian thinkers because there is some resonance with passages of Scripture (Job 38:7, Liber Sapientiae 19:17, both of which are connected by later thinkers to concentum caeli and in organo qualitatis sonus). He doesn’t find it surprising, then, that Ambrose would make the connection fully clear in his Hexaemeron, a vision of Christian world harmony syncretized with Pythagoras. But Ambrose’s conception is nuanced or fulfilled. Although it’s quite true that “a human simile can give but a slight reflection of the consonance of the concentus undarum with the concentus plebis,” it’s also true that Christian singing can really be a worthy reflection of world harmony—in fact, even a better one that Greek speculation on it. “The Greeks, on the other hand, ascribed to music the highest place in the universe; and yet, though we are indebted to them for much philosophical speculation about music, it could be said that they have left us comparatively little of the music which should illustrate their philosophy. But in the hymns of Ambrose, we have a ‘performance,’ an ‘incarnation’ of that world harmony about which the Greeks had speculated; and the Church, which was represented in his hymns as echoing the music of the universe, served, actually, as the theater for the performance of these hymns (as it was to serve later as the original state of medieval drama).”

Ambrose, according to Spitzer, gets the “immortal merit…to have assigned to Christian music the task of embodying the Greek world harmony,” and not the ancient Israelites in their Psalms. “The Psalms were full of musical elation in praise of God, but the idea of world harmony was only potentially present; their radiant and resounding similes were symbolic only of the inner wealth of a religious feeling: pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable.” Certainly it seems like Spitzer’s assessment here is unfair and sloppy. Pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable sounds like an excellent description of another religion’s music and poetry. And it seems that plenty of Psalms and Hebraic music (19 and 87, the Song of Moses, off the top of my head) would admit a world harmony idea pretty clearly.

But at the same time it’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling the need to find Greek philosophy in the Old Testament, a trap that many thinkers past and present seem to fall into when dealing with world harmony and musica mundana. A fierce desire to make musica mundana a Scriptural idea would presuppose that it ought to be there, merely to fit our Hellenic standards of beauty. The Timaeus is an awfully nice thought, but it is just a thought and it would be silly to wish David and Moses had thought and talked more like Plato. And yet this is what it seems many Medieval authors wished when they spoke of music. I’m content with the thought that Ambrose’s attempt to embody this world harmony would have scandalized the Greeks and struck them as a rash, overly bold and probably blasphemous. You go, Ambrose. Scandalize those stupid Pythagoreans.

We are Mozartians

“The Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter. Carolyn Abbate’s argument against plot-centered, as opposed to narrator-centered, understanding of musical narrative exemplifies how widespread the assumption is that all music must be essentially temporal, that the disposition of events in time always matters in music: since all music is temporal, Abbate argues—that is, since music always has a temporal arrangement of events or ‘plot’—it is all ‘narrative,’ and hence applying the term, taken in this sense, to music is redundant. But for music written a mere half century before the Viennese classics this assumption of the primacy of the temporal disposition of events is invalid.” (Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow)

A Sketch of the 1749 Conflict

Frederick the Great was young. He had his hand on the rudder and a pleasant zeitgeist blowing into his sails. Johann Sebastian Bach was, at this time, a year from his death, and his whole reputation was built around a resistance to this zeitgeist. It was the same old battle that had started in the 1590s in Florence, but it was perhaps coming to a head here 150 years later in royal palace of Germany. Bach and Frederick were to engage in a clash of ideology, and not on entirely equal footing. J. S. Bach was the last great contrapuntal composer, and everyone knew it. Even his son, J. C. Bach, apparently knew it, since he was in the employ of Frederick the Great, composing music just how Frederick liked it. Not contrapuntal.

J. S. Bach, the father, arrives. Frederick shows off all his beautiful harpsichords and pianofortes, the way millionaires these days show off their cars. As Bach is feeling around one particular model, Frederick asks him if he might improvise a bit. He gives Bach a fugue subject of 8 measures. The melody contains 4 measures of straight chromatic scale. The rest contain intervalic relations designed specifically to make parallel fifths and parallel octaves a likely occurrence. The melody was conceived precisely to make it difficult for Bach.

Lots of people were present at this point, including members of the 18th century “press”. Bach had a reputation of being the last great contrapuntal master and legends had grown up around him about his ability to spontaneously invent a fugue. The ability to do so on a competent level, however, was more or less unprecedented in that age and possibly even in past ages. Given a melody like this with this level of pressure is bad enough. Much more was at stake than Bach’s reputation, though, and everyone knew it.

Bach took the royal melody and subsequently improvised a three-part fugue or “ricercare” on it. Keep in mind: a fugue does not simply harmonize its main melody. You essentially have to maintain two other, separate melodies whenever that melody appears. You must do so while adhering to the rules of counterpoint, which insist that there be no parallel fifths or octaves between voices. And you must do all this while still being artistic in your invention: melodies need to be recycled, structure has to be observed, and, much like a debate round, after the first page and a half, no new material should be introduced, only old stuff developed.

If Bach’s later transcription of his improvised ricercare is anything like what he improvised, Bach didn’t simply meet Frederick’s impossibly difficult taunt. He did so slapping Frederick in the face. Frederick’s whole opinion of music was based on the idea that the Old Style was outdated, incapable of entertaining, incapable of elegance. He favored the galant style, which was a direct descendent of the Italian monodist style. It was much more harmonically based music, the sort of thing Rameau would be proud of. It loved ornate melodies and simple ostinato accompaniment.

And so Bach does his typical thing, almost caricaturing Frederick’s caricature of counterpoint, making the fugue quite grave and serious. But here and there, he dabbles galant style on top of the royal melody. He does what he’s consistently done throughout his career: he imitates the galant style and does so in a contrapuntal way. The result is better than the original galant. And not just better all around, but better at the specific goals of the galant style. Better at entertaining, better dance music, a more enjoyable lightness, a more engaging elegance. Bach was the worst sort of opponent for a young man trying to lay to rest an outmoded style. Bach was just simply better at music than everyone else, and so at a grumpy 68 years old, he did an epic in-your-face to a young, rich prince who hated church music.

The papers, after the event, couldn’t elaborate in too much detail on the broader implications, for obvious reasons. Frederick had expected the evening, apparently, to be a once-and-for-all triumph of the galant style. By tempting Bach’s pride to bite off more than he could reasonably chew, Frederick could essentially take down the best the old style had to offer. Laughter is the greatest weapon, and an unsuccessful Bach would have allowed for some great smirks. But, there was nothing reasonable about how much Bach could bite off.

So the papers didn’t report that Frederick had, in some sense, lost the battle. But not, it seems, the war.

The Difference, Put Simply

Sitting here, reading Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Wolff and listening to Sigh No More by Mumfored & Sons (ha! you thought you had me figured), something I read made it all crystallize very simply. Hopefully it’s intelligible.

When two melodies are placed on top of each other, the relationship between the two is what Bach would call harmony. Christoph Wolff says, simply, that for Bach, harmony is “accumulated counterpoint”.

When a secondary V7 is placed next to a V7, there are two notes (at least) that move chromatically down. If an E7 moves to an A7, the G# in E7 resolves to G in A7 and the D in E7 resolves to C# in A7. This is what Wagner would call counterpoint. He would say that counterpoint is just a melodic line inside harmony.

Medieval music says harmony is accumulated counterpoint.

Classical music says counterpoint is a melodic strand of harmony.

Maybe. I think.

Curiously, Bach’s definition of musical thinking…makes no reference to form and genre…. Even more surprising, the definition entirely bypasses the fundamentals of compositional technique: counterpoint, harmony, melody, meter, and rhythm, thoroughbass, voice leading, instrumentation, and other elements. …Bach conceived of compositional method primarily in abstract functional terms, as he also defined harmony—that is, as accumulated counterpoint. (Wolff, 171)

Three Arguing Men Reach Harmony

Think about the scenario: three arguing men reach harmony. What we don’t mean by this is that the three arguing guys walked along until they came up to a guy named Harmony. Pardon the idiocy.

But that’s almost a perfect description of the 20th c. concept of harmony. In the Middle Ages, competing melodies would always be on the brink of being discordant with each other, only reaching harmonia through a close attention to the rules of counterpoint. Three diplomats reach harmony observing the careful rules of etiquette and foreign policy. But the harmony is something that proceeds from the differing opinions, the independent personalities. In Trinitarian terms—exactly the terms Medievals would think pertinent—harmony is a third thing that proceeds from two melodies moving in love for one another. If only foreign policy were that way.

Strangely, our tropological use of the word “harmony”, as in, the three arguing men reach harmony, acknowledges the Medieval conception. The harmony is a relationship. Its existent is dependent on outside entities. In its musical sense, however, we nowadays don’t mean that at all when we say “harmony”. When we speak of harmony, we speak of it as a component of music along with “melody” and “rhythm”. We think of each of these things as interacting—so far, so good—but capable of being on its own. You can have just “rhythm”, like a loop on sequencing software or a team of African drummers, but you can also throw in a solitary “melody” on the marimba, which could also stand on its own. The strange thing is to extend this idea to harmony: harmony can stand on its own?

Harmony of what? Harmony between what and what? There’s nothing to harmonize, no elements to be harmonious. You need some men arguing, you need some difference to harmonize. Having harmony on its own is as strange as having peace talks with no diplomats. The Medievals would not, it seems, have conflated the concept of a “chord”, i.e. a vertical sonority, with harmony the way we do. Vertical sonorities were merely a manifestation of the harmony of two melodies. It was odd, the idea that harmony could just be there, a separate entity, that could exist without reference to melody. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with their conception, or our modern one, but we are talking about two different things when we say “harmony”.

In colloquial usage, when we say a husband and wife have a “harmonious” relationship, we mean the Medieval conception. If, however, we hear Peter Kreeft say (cringe, cringe) that a husband is the “melody” and his wife is the “harmony”, “harmony” is now being used the way Wagner and harmonic analysis would understand it.

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)