Monday, September 5, 2011

Harmony Revisited, Part 2

I was reading an article by Richard Taruskin from several years ago, on a festival of Baltic music. The following passage struck me:
No one attending the scholarly presentations and the ''Composer's Spotlights'' could miss the fact that virtually without exception, the music of every Baltic composer -- young or old, Slavic or Scandinavian, male or female, left or right, post-Soviet or pre-NATO -- followed the same trajectory: the more recent the work, the more consonant (or to put it more contentiously, less dissonant).
Not ''tonal.'' Not ''Romantic.'' Not ''retro.'' Consonant.
That is the salient contemporary fact, and musicians who have not experienced -- I do not say understood but truly experienced -- the necessity of greater consonance are useless, for their entire work brings them up short of the needs of their time. That need -- and not the hoary binaries (national or cosmopolitan? progressive or reactionary?) that continued to dominate discussion in Seattle -- is what demands acknowledgment and attention.
When it was brought up at the round table, the fact was acknowledged but not the trend. Everybody claimed to be following a spontaneous creative mandate. But when everybody's spontaneous creative mandate mandates the same spontaneous creative act, you know that larger, as yet unidentified, forces are at work. It will be the task of tomorrow's historians to identify them. Their effects -- not only on Balts but on other Europeans, North and South Americans, Australians, Japanese, everyone -- are already manifest.
Renewal is in the air. There is a future, and who knows? It may even work.
Sorry for the extended quote, but I wanted to get the whole context. Richard Taruskin is known for his powerful statements that often offend fellow academics because of their lack of the traditional qualifications: "it might be suspected that, given certain conditions..." No, he just says it straight out: "the necessity for greater consonance."

  You should read my previous posts on the problem of harmony  here and here, where you will find some background. In a nutshell, during the 19th century the beautifully calibrated harmonic system developed by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, was diluted and congested by a couple of trends: one was towards the lessening of the structural importance of the cadence and the weakening of the dominant-tonic axis. Sometimes this was done with real genius as in the music of Chopin. But lesser composers just turned the clarity of Classical form into a swamp. The other trend was toward more and more chromaticism and without the structural strength of the cadence, that led to a quagmire. The culmination of this was in the music of Wagner and Mahler. There was little more that could be done in that direction so Schoenberg and others sought a new way of ordering music. They overthrew harmony completely, calling it the "emancipation of the dissonance" and ended up with a music that is continuously dissonant. That is the background to Taruskin's comment above. He is saying that the whole project of dissonance is over and the trend is overwhelmingly towards consonance. Here is a piece by one of the composers performed at the conference that Taruskin particularly praises, Onutė Narbutaitė:

That is certainly consonant! As I see it, we have to go back and examine older ways of handling harmony. In this case, the music of the church. One way of handling harmony is simply to be consonant all the time. But the problem with that, as we hear in "New Age" music is that there is no structure. There has usually been both dissonance and consonance in music and they way they are handled defines the structure. The most powerful definition was the cadence found in music from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. But the cadence does not seem to work for us these days without sounding false somehow. We need to re-examine the cadence and how to handle the relation between consonance and dissonance! Oh well, that has always been the problem of composition! But for a while it seemed as if some kind of ideology could solve the problem for us. Just another of the dangerous ideas of the 20th century...


Anonymous said...

I think western classical music lost it way sometimes after WWII (despite pockets of brilliance). I can't think of anyone more representative of that confusion than Milton Babbitt, who equated the goals and methods of music composition to that of doing research in mathematics.

Taruskin makes a big deal about the social function of music (as opposed to its purely artistic purpose) and that resonates very strongly with me. Bach wrote some of his best music with the sole ambition of "pleasing God" for the duration of two or three masses -- then the music's purpose had been served.

To the extent that Bach thought of music as science (and he surely did) it was his belief that universal laws applied to the production of beauty (again with a strong theological meaning) and his goal was to find these laws. As Newton did. But he couldn't care less about theory for its own sake -- a la Babbitt. Beauty and theory in the pursuit of scientific truths are different things.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sometimes I think that music started to lose its way after the death of Beethoven! Who, since then, has had that kind of command of harmony and form? But "pockets of brilliance" indeed... Chopin is certainly one, Debussy another and Shostakovich a third. All of them most certainly were great harmonists.

I really have to read Taruskin's new history of music! Yes, music most certainly has a social function, but I'm reluctant to overemphasize that. It is just one component of aesthetics. Musical beauty is more important.

I studied composition with a student of Babbitt's and yes, he does represent the cerebral end of the spectrum. At the other we have Shostakovich who always said he knew nothing about theory!

Anonymous said...

I hope my comment about Babbitt didn't offend you. My apology if it did.

Bryan Townsend said...

Au contraire, mon ami! I actually said something worse than that to my composition teacher before I learned that he did his doctorate with Babbitt! I believe it included the words "sterile" and "constipated"!

Nathan Shirley said...

Thanks for pointing me here. Taruskin is someone I certainly need to know more about.