Beethoven Politics

“If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—not the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant—we understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces.” (Theodor Adorno from Mark Berry’s Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire)


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)

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.

What We Mean by Classical

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.

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).

Read More

Wagner’s Potent Eroticism

“More effectively than any artist before or since, Wagner reproduces the experience of erotic narcissism. He still packs the theaters by validating this impulse with the potent devices of high musical culture. The incest of Siegmund and Sieglinde is the archetype for the past century’s idea of erotic redemption. That is why his influence still haunts us, and the Metropolitan Opera’s magical production has made it easier to understand why.” Goldman, David P. “Wagner’s Incestuous Narcissism.” First Things 215 (August/September 2011): 25-26.

Josquin and the Relentless Climax

This is a selection from Josquin’s Ave Maria. On the text Coelestia, terrestria, Nova replet laetitia (click the link to listen), look at what he does harmonically with the baseline. The soprano and bass move in measure 45 in parallel motion, and because the soprano moves toward a leading tone on the upbeat to m. 46, we expect a I chord on the downbeat. But he tricks us. He’s keeping moving up the scale—the bass goes to an A, creating vi. And, the same sequence repeats a step up, but that means—yes, shocking, shocking—he’s going to a vii chord. Raw diminished vii tonality in a 15th c. work.* It creates total instability and drive toward the protracted I that comes from the third time the sequence is repeated. But once we finally arrive there, a surprise creeps in the alto line. It actually goes below the bass and subverts the tonic with an A, creating another vi. Josquin is simply refusing to let us rest in a tonic. In fact, he doesn’t until way later, in measure 53. And even then, the tenor doesn’t really end so much as launch us into the next phrase.

from Ave Maria, taken from sheet music in the public domain

So. Ask yourself—who is the composer in the 19th century famous for the relentless climax, the climax that refused to ever give you a tonic without a fight? It was Wagner. It’s a concept that requires a mature understanding of harmony. Yet again, I’m frustrated at music history analysis. Why do we have a positivist outlook that views Medieval music as groping for a V-I cadence? I’ve argued before that this is simply viewing the past through our age’s peculiarly post-Wagnerian sunglasses (aviators, they are, and darn ugly). This seems like another proof of that very point. Josquin knows exactly what he’s doing harmonically. It’s just that he doesn’t have the same set of compositional priorities we do.

There’s a similar occurrence in Josquin’s Absalon fili mi that I’d also like to post here soon. There, Josquin’s clearly using a leading tone to make us expect a cadential point that never occurs. Just like…Wagner.

*The recording I linked to, ironically, interprets a fixtus on the B in the bass that creates the vii, making it a VII (creating a juicy dissonance with the alto line). The Hilliard Ensemble and Sex Chordae both reject this and (I presume) take the manuscript at face value. Either way, I think, creates the drive, but the vii is, in a “technological” sense, more edgy.