Friday, January 6, 2012

Aesthetic Virtues and Sins

A while back I put up a post called Technique and Expression in which I related these two things to one another as a polarity. I think I can add something to this from a compositional point of view. I have previously talked about the virtue of 'parsimony' in composition and recounted the anecdote where Schoenberg told a composition student that the eraser end of the pencil is more important than the lead end. This leads me to something like the Four Virtues and Seven Sins of Aesthetics specific to music composition. First the four virtues:
  1. Parsimony: be economical in your means. Do not write more notes, or higher notes, or louder notes or faster notes just because you can. Does this mean that Mahler's 8th Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand" (because it needs nearly that many performers) is a bad piece? Possibly...
  2. Coherence: don't be incoherent. Pretty simple. But there is quite a lot of incoherent music.
  3. Expression: do try and express something with your music. I mean other than your ego, or need for praise, or just your cleverness. Remember, there might be an audience who hope for some kind of human expression in the music they are listening to.
  4. Interest: try and do something interesting, not dull.
And now the seven sins:
  1. Ideology: this is one of those really dangerous traps. It was especially dangerous in the 20th century because so many composers thought they had to have an ideology such as avant-gardism, or serialism, or epater-les-bourgeoisism. For most of music history composers just tried to write a good piece of music sans ideology. And music was the better for it.
  2. Bullying: some composers seem to be trying to bully the audience (or the performers) into submission. It's rude and usually the music isn't worth it. This was also all too common in the 20th century.
  3. Lengthiness: a good quality in a fabric, but often a bad one in composition. Yes, there are many good, long pieces. But there are also a lot of pieces that one sees on the program with genuine dread. I'm sad to say that Schubert is an occasional offender. And, of course Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner... Trust me, it is not always a good idea to keep going on and on, tediously repeating yourself, one thing after another, to the last syllable of recorded time. Which reminds me of the finale of a Schumann string quartet.
  4. Ugliness: while it can be a sin to write music that is excessively pretty, the more common sin is ugly music. Again, the 20th century often seemed to confuse mere ugliness with daring innovation. But bear in mind that useful distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. The beautiful needs no admixture of the grit of contrast, but the sublime does. Often great music, such as the Grosse Fuge of Beethoven, involves some harsh contrasts, some fearful sonorities. This is not ugliness, but the sublime, beauty that has a touch of terror in it.
  5. Melodrama: this is an historical genre, but I want to use it in the sense of fatuous emotionalism. Just think Andrew Lloyd Webber.
  6. Self-indulgence: this is the source of some of the other sins, but I want to get it in here just in case someone finds a way to be self-indulgent that was not already covered.
  7. Industrialized Musical Product: not sure this is an aesthetic sin, exactly. But it ain't good!
Perhaps in future posts I will try and find examples of all of these. In the meantime, please comment! Agree, disagree? Either one, but give reasons...


The Bunion said...

Discovered this post via the esteemed N Lebrecht; your comments brought a smile, though I'm not sure I'd entirely agree with you! As an ordinary Jo listener, Mahler (to me) expresses more than just 'lengthiness' in his music, while Bruckner takes phrases & restructures them - ok, it sometimes takes a long time to get there, but oh! it's usually worth it when it does. When talking of tedious repeats, isn't LvB - especially in his symphonies - in that group? However, the words "BBC Commission" at the Proms invariably cast gloom. These are usually a signal for ugliness and 'bullying'; I often wonder when (if ever) the music will be played again.
As for melodrama, 'The Glums'[Les Mis] did it for me. Historically inaccurate, and blindingly obvious plot, with soupy tunes..ALW at least moves the story on..

Bryan Townsend said...

I put up this post largely to provoke comment. Thanks Bunion! Out of curiosity I wondered to myself, just what is it that lies behind the strength and weakness of different pieces of music? Of course, tastes differ and you are more fond of the big romantic symphonies than I am. But I think the discussion is what is interesting.

Here is an attempt of mine to find examples illustrating the idea of aesthetic virtues and sins: