Thursday, June 19, 2014

Composers and Control

On page 34 of Charles Rosen's wonderful book The Classical Style, he tosses off a little remark in a parenthesis:
(The greater the composer, the larger the terms of his control over the significance of his ideas, even when the range of his conception is deliberately narrowed: that is why Chopin must be considered in the company of the greatest in spite of the limitations of genre and medium that he imposed on upon himself.)
Now, what does this mean, exactly? The context is a discussion of the usefulness of Schenkerian analysis in the Classical period and specifically the long term linearity of some compositions. I'm not sure if this is the example Rosen would choose, but it makes me think of how the way the theme of the opening fugue of Beethoven's quartet op 131 prefigures the key of the second movement:

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The key is C# minor, but notice how the sf in m. 2 highlights an A natural. When the subject is answered, atypically, on the subdominant in mm 4 et seq., the sf now falls on a D natural, the Neapolitan. The significance of this (or some of it) is revealed at the beginning of the second movement when the octave C#s that end the first movement are suddenly contradicted by the second movement opening, with an octave from D to D, the new tonic key:

Click to enlarge
So this is an example of Beethoven's control over the significance of his ideas, if that means that the stressing of A and D natural in the fugue theme is significant in prefiguring the second movement. I'm ok with all that. What troubles me is the assumption that this guarantees aesthetic greatness: "the greater the composer..."

You see, I, and lots of other people, are perfectly capable of sitting down and crafting a long-term linear strategy for a composition that would control every aspect of it. In fact, there are a whole lot of examples from the mid-20th century. I am thinking of pieces like Milton Babbitt's Partitions dating from 1957. Decades ago I spent some time analyzing this piece with a student of Babbitt's and the whole piece is very complexly organized:

Another example might be Structures by Pierre Boulez:

And there would be many examples from Stockhausen who has many ways of organizing a composition. Setting aside the aesthetic quality of these pieces for the moment, I want to argue that, whatever their aesthetic quality, it is not a result of the degree of organization of the material.

There was a whole school of composition that wanted to achieve the total control of every detail and one version of this was called "total serialism" and you can read something about it here.

The closest I got to this kind of method was a piece I wrote in the late 1970s for two guitars and harpsichord. I derived all the pitches from a scale calculated using prime numbers. But everything that went into the actual expression and aesthetic impact of the piece really had nothing to do with prime numbers. The aesthetic impact of a piece of music is the result of a complex blend of factors that include timbre (single, blends and changing), phrase structure, harmony, rhythm and most especially how these elements are integrated. In pieces like those posted above, there is most certainly an aesthetic impact, but the relation between that and the compositional methodology is obscure.

A great example is Alban Berg who used serial techniques, but shaped them so as to achieve a strong expressive effect.

What is missing from the account that says "the greater the composer, the larger the terms of his control over the significance of his ideas" is the way the ideas are received. Are they graceful, emotionally compelling, atmospheric, delicate, brutal, forceful, driving, serene or a thousand other things? This is what the listener hears. The foundations are important, but you can build some remarkably ugly buildings on sound foundations!

Taking the Beethoven example, yes, it is significant and beautifully crafted the way he uses that D natural to set up the second movement. But the bulk of the expressive weight of the first movement is not that particularly, but the expressive power of the theme and the way he interweaves it.

Believe me, I wish that all it took to write a great piece of music was significant control of the ideas. But it's not. One indispensable element is to have musical ideas that are just great to listen to. Right?

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