Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Creative Historiography

Now there's a title likely to send you right to sleep! But historiography, the study of the methodology of writing history, is actually one of the most interesting kinds of study. The book of essays by Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, that I have been reading lately, consists largely of critical historiography. An example? Sure. Taruskin quotes a passage from Arthur Schopenhauer at the very beginning of the book:
Intellectual life floats ethereally, like a fragrant cloud rising from fermentation, above the reality of the worldly activities which make up the lives of the peoples, governed by the will; alongside world history there goes, guiltless and not stained with blood, the history of philosophy, science, and the arts.
[from Pererga i Paralipomena (1851)]
Under this he makes the one word comment "Not." No, much as we like to think that the music we love floats above the grimy realities of life like a fragrant cloud, the truth is that music is part of history and life and society. It has a context and an audience. It even has composers and performers who are, most of them, real human beings. There is music that is guilty and stained with blood. There is some music that is morally courageous and other that is morally cowardly, hypocritical and sincere, emotionally direct and pure phony melodrama.

But even as we acknowledge this, we can recognize that we can go too far with it. Even while recognizing that, for example, neo-classicism has connections to fascism, that is not the whole story. The universe of music is set somewhat apart, largely because of the non-specific nature of instrumental music. You can kick Beethoven around all you like, and rant about the cult that grew up around his music in the 19th century and later, but his music is still going to be around long after your brand of historiography is forgotten. Or so I suspect!

I have done a little creative historiography in the past as in this post from 2011 in which I proposed a new way of looking at music history: instead of looking at it in terms of progress, how composers have invented new techniques, I propose that composers often reveal a "racinative" impulse where they go back and "re-root" themselves in some older form or style. Examples would include Haydn's revival of fugal counterpoint in the finales of some of his Op. 20 quartets or Steve Reich's return to the fundamental rhythmic idea of the pulse in several pieces.

In another post I looked at music history in two dimensions, comparing a single formal idea, the rondo, over a long stretch of time and contrasting that with the idea of looking at what kinds of different music things were all happening at the same time. I chose the year 1964 and three different pieces all composed in that year: Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 9, Stockhausen, Momente, and The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night. Yes, hard to believe, but they were all being created in that same year. Don't we live in dull times, by comparison?

The new thing I want to do is really not such a new thing at all. I am listening my way through all the Haydn symphonies right now, yes, all 106 (or is it 108?) and what I would like to do is look at some Adagio movements as I notice a lot of interesting, and very different, things going on in those movements. This won't be typical music theory, which tries to find consistent models, because what I am looking for is not the similarities, but the differences. One of the fundamental problems of music theory, useful though it may be, is that all the really good pieces of music are different and good (or great) exactly because of those differences! Music theory can show us that the chord progression that Beethoven uses in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is a variation of a very old chord progression, but the whole reason that we listen to the Moonlight Sonata particularly is because of the unique way he uses that progression.

In any case, I am going to pick out some different Adagios from Haydn symphonies and look at just what he is doing to make them so interesting.

Typically, the second movement of a symphony by Haydn is the slow movement and it usually is either an Andante or an Adagio. But Haydn's slow movements are often much more cheerful and dynamic than you might expect. We are more used to the slow movements in Romantic period symphonies that are extremely slow and lumbering. The agile grace of a Haydn slow movement is quite different. Here is the second movement Adagio from the "Farewell" Symphony:

Here is the second, Adagio, movement from the Symphony No. 26, which is more like what we might expect from an Adagio with its long, sustained lines in the violins. This might almost have been written by Mozart:


Here is the Poco adagio movement from the Symphony No. 46. It has quite a different approach with secco scale passages and a lot of variation in orchestral color:

Here is the Adagio movement of the Symphony No. 78. It has quite a different effect with a wide-ranging theme using chromatic grace notes and rests:

My point is that Haydn, with a very small audience mostly consisting of Prince Nikolaus, sat down dozens upon dozens of times to write a new symphony. If he started repeating himself, I'm sure the Prince would have let him know in short order! So he had to be original. Many, many times! And he was. Music theory isn't of much help here, as it is the differences, not the similarities, that are important.

That was just a little introduction. In subsequent posts I am going to look at the details that go into making a Haydn Adagio what it is.


Rickard Dahl said...

Well, a good point that I think you are trying to show here is that theory is far from enough. In fact you've already mentioned several times that Haydn did alot of experimentation (rather than relying on theory books). I think a more intiutive approach with improvisation, following your ear and experimentation is the best approach to composition. You get interesting unexpected results (like Haydn did for instance). If one has an overanalytic theoretical approach it seems to give more boring conventional results. Not saying one should be like John Cage and throw every possible convention away but being a bit on the experimental side doesn't hurt. I for instance use a modal rather than tonal approach, try to use unconventional instrument combinations and unusual harmonies (kinda a thing that comes by default when using a modal approach and improvising). But then again I'm just a beginner and don't have much to show yet.

Bryan Townsend said...

I've always had the suspicion that composers only listen to other composers hoping to steal a good idea! I'm certainly hoping to learn something from Haydn--but I really enjoy his music too, of course.

I don't use improvisation the way that you and probably Nathan do. I just take a different approach. But if it works for you then that is fantastic.

Rickard Dahl said...

Oh yes, Nathan is my composition teacher (although I haven't had an official lesson yet, it's coming up soon though, but he has given me lots of tips and feedback so far).

Rickard Dahl said...

But anyways, what is your approach (have you made any post about it)?

Bryan Townsend said...

Like most (or perhaps, all) composers I am very reluctant to describe how I compose. There are several reasons for this:

--I am reluctant to describe in concrete terms what is largely an intuitive process (the "centipedal question" phenomenon)
--how I work is different with every piece
--how I work is kind of a cobbled-together melange of different procedures
--it almost comes down to, as a friend of mine said, "just put down the notes that sound good"
--I would rather spend time composing a piece than talking about how I compose