Saturday, March 1, 2014

Popular vs Esoteric

Glancing at Charles Rosen's fascinating book The Classical Style the other day I ran across this quote:
"The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art ... Their achievement is perhaps unique in Western music ... Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the late symphonies of Haydn and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside--or better, fused with--the virtues of the street song." [p. 332]
He goes on to discount the objections that we find popular and folk tunes in Renaissance music, Mahler, Bartók and other places by making the valid point that they are intrusions into the fabric and structure of the music, not fused with it. In the case of Bartók, what he took from them were non-diatonic modes and some rhythmic ideas which he used to create a modernist style NOT fused with a popular style.

What I take from this are a couple of interesting points. One is that, contrary to what we often seem to think, high art music is usually remote from popular music in music history. Those periods when it seems to come into the more popular culture are atypical. The Disney movie Fantasia was a success because of the relatively brief existence of a "middle-brow" culture in the US.

Most so-called "classical" music has been more or less esoteric from the beginning. In the darker part of the middle ages, before 1000 AD, chant was probably the most sophisticated musical form and to the ordinary people, it was undoubtedly "esoteric". They certainly had their own popular styles of dance music which were not written down. For most historical periods, these two things, popular music and esoteric music, co-existed without mixing. There were glimpses of fusions of popular and esoteric styles that Rosen does not mention, such as some 16th century madrigals. Doesn't this have a popular appeal to it?


We hear there the fusion of infectious rhythms and a pleasurable text with sophisticated harmony and counterpoint. This kind of union of the popular and the esoteric is, as Rosen says, uncommon. The late-18th century style of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, while not quite unique, is certainly rare and probably the most complete and extensive repertoire in which this is the case. It forms the core of what we now call the "classical" repertoire or the "canon". Many of the awkward difficulties that have come along later, such as trying to define "classical" or fit what modern composers are doing into the model, come from the nature of this founding repertoire: it was a fusion of the popular and the esoteric.

Mozart could write a piano concerto full of delightful rhythms, charming melodies and piquant harmonies that everyone could enjoy and combine that with passages displaying feats of learnéd counterpoint for the more sophisticated. And he could do this with ease because the classical style could accommodate this. Few other styles could.

I mentioned the late 16th century madrigal as an example, but I think there are a couple of twentieth century ones as well: some genres of jazz and some genres of rock could be seen as successfully fusing the popular and esoteric. Here are a couple of examples of those:




Now you could certainly argue that neither of these are entirely successful, the Ellington because none of his longer more complex compositions was ever accorded the acclaim of his 3 minute masterpieces, and the Beatles song because it is not "sophisticated" in traditional ways. The mastery shows itself rather in the details of the recording more than in things like counterpoint. But I think you would have to admit that these are at least attempts at fusing the popular and the esoteric?

I can think of one more example where the popular and esoteric seem to meet: the tango music of Astor Piazzolla:


The question is, why is this so rarely attempted? Most musicians, both classical and popular, tend to stick to their own side of the street and not wander too far outside the perceived limits of their genre. When they do, it is often seen as a circus trick. This might often be because fusing the popular and the esoteric is much harder than it sounds. Mozart makes it sound easy, but these guys show us how hard it is:


The problem often is that the most appealing elements of a popular style, such as the rhythmic swing or the funky bluesy lead guitar, do not fit well with typical orchestral textures and timbres. Oil and water don't mix well! The composer has to dig much deeper to find the base on which both the popular and esoteric elements can meet. As Rosen is saying, it is doubtful than anyone has done it better than Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.


7 comments:

Bridge said...

I don't agree. He is free to consider the music of Bartok and Mahler on one hand gimmicky attempts at forcibly injecting folk elements and the music of Haydn and Mozart a perfect fusion of "the popular and esoteric" in an intuitive way but that's not how I look at it. I much prefer the techniques of Bartok, Prokofiev and Stravinsky for example with dealing with folk themes. One could argue that it's not entirely a part of the music in a natural way, but it is still a subject of the music. I consider the way these composers contrasted these two worlds and in doing so make you look at both with new eyes far more beautiful a fusion than one where both are inconspicuous. That's often what "art" does, make you look at the common in a complex way. Here you don't need to assign any special meaning to the word complex, I simply mean "more than common." There's nothing wrong with either approaches in my opinion, it's just a different way to go about things. Of course, the "common man" is not going to be able to listen to Bartok and relate to the music, but why should he? I have not yet heard any convincing arguments in favor of this idea, that one should try to reach as many people as possible. If that's really your goal, what on earth are you doing in the classical world, which most people have proclaimed dead long since (the "you" here is purely hypothetical?) Maybe as a refutation you would say that you want to condition people to appreciate more sophisticated music, but history has shown us time and time again that at some point people just jump ship. It's the natural tendency of any movement to evolve and this often translates to higher complexity (only in the artificially stumped growth of manufactured pop is this not the case.)

You may point out that jazz was popular, but it was only so up until the late 60s or so. A handy reference point is the death of John Coltrane, which as you may know is often used to define in broad terms the music before and after him (Pre- and Post-Coltrane.) After his death, jazz almost disappeared entirely from the public eye. Before that however, one can see that jazz had been in steady decline since the early 50s when bebop had become a force to be reckoned with. Certain musicians like Miles Davis (and all the West Coast musicians for that matter,) Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz enjoyed continued success by appealing to the masses but if you disregard that, jazz as a popular artform was certainly in decline. Dixieland and swing are the only periods where it was truly popular, and even then it's not like everybody listened to it in silence at home - it was dance music (although musically speaking it isn't more superficial necessary than later styles.) When the jazz harmony as we know it today started being developed and extended solos became the norm the majority of people lost interest. This is something you see all of the time, it always happens no exceptions. I could raise an interesting parallel here and say that as jazz became more and more complex it started to stray farther and farther from its blues roots, until there was only a vaguely recognizable similarity between them. And yet, the blues were always considered by almost every jazz musician as the pinnacle of jazz. They started injecting it more and more into their music, sometimes in strange and incongruous places, they evolved the form and made it into something more than 12 bars of I, IV and V. The result of these experiments is in my opinion profoundly beautiful and inspired. I will always "pure" blues for reasons inarticulable, but the way the blues is simultaneously celebrated and satirized and yet undergoes evolution alongside the "parent genre" instead of simply being a punchline, is in my opinion exactly what is happening in the "forced infusions of folk music" Charles Rosen describes.

Anyway, fascinating discussion; thinking it over has been very insightful. Thanks.

Bryan Townsend said...

I used to be friends with the chairman of the math department in the university where I used to teach. We would look forward to debates over the issues of the day. But, alas, all too often we would just start getting into something and we would find that we were in agreement! So no debate. Believe me when I say, therefore, that I welcome disagreement! Thanks, Bridge.

I think that the focus of your comments is on the aesthetic quality or satisfactoriness of the results when Mahler or Bartók use folk themes in their music? I'm not actually arguing that. I'm more making the point, along with Rosen, that the Classical style is an example and probably the best example, of a style that is equally satisfactory to both ordinary people and to the sophisticates. It was so successful, in fact, that it became the paradigm for "classical" music. So when modern or living composers try to get themselves included in the "canon", they are often accused of being too esoteric because they have not, unlike Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, managed to create a successful fusion of the popular and the esoteric.

It is not surprising when we hear popular music that is catchy and popular or when we hear esoteric music that is complex and difficult. But I still am surprised at what Haydn and Mozart (slightly less so Beethoven) managed to do. How much true delight and pleasure they are able to invoke, but at the same time, how much complexity they can also invoke, how they can be always surprising you.

I think you are saying that as jazz became more complex, it lost its mass audience? Sure, I think that is the case.

Bridge said...

I haven't read the book so I can't be certain, but he seemed to describe what Mahler and Bartok were doing as inferior to what Mozart and Beethoven were doing. I mean, the word "intrude" is not often used in a positive light, is it? Hence my counterargument that it is not aesthetically inferior, but different, even if it may be a technically more imperfect fusion. However, we mustn't forget that sometimes it's the imperfections that seem to us the most perfect.

Bryan Townsend said...

The word "intrusion" was from my comments, not from Rosen. When Mahler, or Bach for that matter, uses a folk tune, it is supposed to stand out from the rest of the musical fabric for a humorous or ironic purpose. Whereas in Haydn and Mozart, they are able to fully assimilate the style within their own in various ways. So I don't think that either myself or Rosen is saying that Mahler or Bartok's use of a folk tune is bad. the point is rather that it is not fully assimilated into the style.

Bridge said...

Oh, alright. Then it was just me reading into it. Hope my apologies are accepted - I only defended it because I like that kind of stuff a lot. I still wouldn't agree that folk music is only used for an humorous or ironic purpose. There are many examples of that, like Mahler using Frere Jacques in the first, which is probably the most famous example. Still, in the music of Stravinsky and Bartok the use of folk themes in a classical idiom can hardly be accused of not being genuine. As I stated in my post, I'm not of the opinion that only a 1:1 solution is the only thing that can be called "perfect." It's the most consistent way, but it's not the only way one can assimilate a style. Take for example Bartok's third quartet, which is in my opinion the most remarkable fusion of folk and classical there is. It takes the most striking features of both which results in a high amount of contrast and interest and yet neither element is used only superficially. It's not like it matters much though because the music is just good period.

Bryan Townsend said...

No need for any apology. You are supposed to defend the stuff you like! Giving reasons is always good. I'm about to start digging into the Schoenberg violin concerto and it might be a good idea to have a look at the Bartok Quartet No. 3 as well. I did a very big presentation in graduate school on Bartok's use of folk music and I would like to revisit the topic.

Bridge said...

Hope you enjoy the Schoenberg concerto - it's quite something. It's my understanding Hilary Hahn's version is quite good, although seeing as you talked about her at length on this blog I'm sure you already know that. ;)