“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)
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.
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.
“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?
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.
Well, maybe not “we”, but “I”.
First, take a look at how Classical music, as we use the term, got started. In the last decade of the 16th century, a handful of aesthetes gathered together in the home of a wealthy Florentine aristocrat to discuss the future of music. They all wanted a style of music that could support serious poetic drama. Their big models were, surprisingly enough, the masters of drama from ancient Greece—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The Florentines’ happiest dreams saw themselves writing music that could communicate the same powerful emotion that the ancient Greeks did. So these men experimented around with putting complex poetry to music, but the whole philosophical approach to music that they were familiar with—polyphony—just wasn’t working. Having a tenor and a soprano and a bass and an alto sing a cryptic sonnet all at different times on top of each other on different notes is just a little confusing. As one of the Florentines, Girolamo Mei, put it, “When several voices simultaneously sang different melodies and words, in different rhythms and registers, some low and some high, some rising and others descending, some in slow notes and others in fast, the resulting chaos of contradictory impressions could never deliver the emotional message of the text.”
The Florentines decided to scrap a centuries-old approach to music and start anew. Their brilliant idea was having just one melody—whence came their name, the Monodists—and accompaniment underneath that melody. This revolutionized the face of music. Suddenly, the emphasis was on making that melody sound more interesting, which they did by putting juicy harmonies underneath it. And that’s something that Classical composers wouldn’t stop doing until the 1970s. Now, why is understanding Monody important now?
It’s important now because it’s important now. The emphasis on harmony in music goes unobserved the same way air goes unobserved—we’re in it so much that we aren’t aware of it anymore. Second, this ubiquitous approach to music has been entirely dictated, from the first, by secularists whose purpose was to create a vocabulary of music entirely divorced from religious connotation. It was fine art, not, as Mortimer Adler points out, in the sense that it was “refined”, but in that it was its own end. It was music for music’s sake.
But perhaps this wasn’t always the case. Didn’t composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven write sacred works? Well, in a way, yes, and in a very important way, no. Classical composers who wrote pieces with sacred texts—Masses, Requiems, Psalms, and the like—were still writing with compositional techniques they had from secularists. It’s a case of lyrics and music not quite lining up. Both are admittedly glorious, but both are organic outgrowths of opposed traditions. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, when writing sacred music, are speaking one language with their music and another language with their texts. They’re like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World—they can speak French, in Russian, except that I’d say their French ends up a little garbled.
In any case, despite the sincerity of many of these men, the mask gets thrown off entirely during the Romantic period of Classical music. This is where Classical music moves from potentially dangerous to actually dangerous. Again, it’s still glorious music. It sounds fantastic. It’s complex. Wagner’s music is symmetrical. It’s chiastic. It’s proportional. But, above all, it’s a blatant revolt against God. Entirely apart from the story of Wagner’s personal life, which screenplay writers wouldn’t even have to jack up to get an R rating, he tried to make his harmony so juicy that it fit the illicit love scenes he loved portraying. He found a way to release music from the bounds of a specific “key”; instead, his harmonies would wander endlessly, never, ever, ever resolving. It was perfect for Tristan and Isoulde, for every story that had exciting, tense, wistful, sweet, adulterous romance.
Where does this finally take us? I mentioned before that Monody shifted the emphasis onto making harmonies more interesting. For Classical composers since the early 17th century, it was like running the 100-meter dash. They were racing to try to make their harmony juicier, more complex, more interesting. Wagner’s innovation was an feat of inhuman proportion, breaking all known records. But shortly after that, one of the heirs to his great tradition manages to run this 100-meter dash toward ultimate harmonic complexity in zero seconds. His name was Arnold Schoenberg.
Schoenberg wrote what he called “pantonal” music, which is just a scary word for including all possible harmony at once. If you think about it, it’s only the logical thing to do, if you’re moving toward greater and greater harmonic interest. Of course, just like a pluralist trying to add together contradictory truths and coming up with nothing, Schoenberg put all tonalities together and came up with atonality. The biggest temptation is to scoff at his music and think that it’s only fringe Classical music. Surely it’s not really what we’re talking about when we say Classical music. But that’s a deadly mistake. A rudimentary education in Classical music sees atonality as its pinnacle, as indeed did almost all music composition departments after Schoenberg. This is not a two-year-old-banging-on-the-keys music, although it sounds really similar. It’s incredibly complex and a logical conclusion of where things were headed.
It’s also worth noting that Schoenberg was a sort of a nihilist and existentialist at the same time. That would have bothered most people, but he was a musician, so he was really bad at philosophy. Again, this shouldn’t make you scoff at his music; it should make you really want to understand it. He’s a brilliant musician. His knowledge of music could eclipse almost any man’s alive today. If anyone is good at communicating nihilist philosophy through music, it is not the head-banging junkie recording Satan-worship songs. It’s Schoenberg, who knew too much about Mozart and Haydn for his own good. That should make you wary of him, but it should make you eager to make the acquaintance of his music.