Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Spirits of the Times

The German word for this is "Zeitgeist" (nouns are capitalized in German), but that word is so over-used and misused that I think I prefer the English version. Plus, I forget what the plurals of "Zeit" and "Geist" are. Yes, I think there is a spirit of the time and each time has a different spirit. I say "spirit" instead of "mood" or "taste" because it is a bit more neutral.

What I am saying, in more concrete terms, is that the music of a particular era, no matter who composed it, tends to have a certain feel, a certain spirit, to it. I twigged to this reading Rosen on Classical style who mentions somewhere that the Classical Era composers wrote particularly unconvincing religious music. I say "unconvincing" meaning not that the music was not good and aesthetically convincing, but that it was religiously unconvincing. Both Mozart and Haydn wrote reams and reams of religious music, but it is indistinguishable from the mood and spirit of their other music. The musical vocabulary is identical with that of their secular music. To pick one of a host of examples, the soprano aria "Panis vivus" from the Litaniae de venerabili altaris sacramento in B flat, K. 125 is indistinguishable, apart from the text, from any number of soprano arias from Mozart's operas. That aria is at the 3:54 mark in this clip:

We tend not to notice this because the Mozart religious music we are most familiar with is probably the Requiem which is considerably darker than his other religious music--not surprising as it was written on his death bed. But if you listen to a selection of his and Haydn's other religious music it is generally as bright and cheery as their symphonic music or as lyrical and touching as an opera aria. But not religious in any discernable way. Here, for example, is the Kyrie from Haydn's Missa Sancti Nicolai:

"Kyrie eleison" means "Lord, have mercy" in Greek and it is hard to imagine a cheerier or less-appropriate setting. Compare this to J. S. Bach's setting from his Mass in B minor. This is Philippe Herreweghe, conducting the Chorus of Collegium Vocale, Ghent:

Now that is serious religious music.

My larger point is that by comparing how Classical Era composers set religious texts with how Baroque composers did, we can read off a change in the spirit of the times. Haydn and Mozart were full in the flush of the fresh air of the Enlightenment and their music is overwhelmingly bright, positive and charming. They can touch darker moods as Haydn did in his "Sturm und Drang" symphonies and Mozart did in his Symphony No. 40 and Requiem, but these are the exceptions. Just look at the number of major keys vs minor ones. Out of over forty symphonies Mozart wrote only two in minor keys and Haydn scarcely more than a dozen out of over a hundred symphonies. Compare this with the very large number of pieces that Bach wrote in minor keys.

Similarly, we can gauge another shift in spirit in the Romantic Era as minor keys become, not only popular, but almost universal. In the past, musicological evaluations of the characteristics of different musical eras tended to focus on the technical devices used by composers and in recent years this has shifted to the reception of the music and its social history. But the aesthetic quality of the music and its shift in emphasis from era to era has, in my opinion, been neglected.

To take another striking example, let's look at some pieces from another era: the extreme complexity of the music characteristic of the post-WWII era. The composers to note are Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, all of whom I have talked about at length here. But I want to look at them from a different angle: how they exemplify the post-war spirit.

There are perhaps three elements in the spirit of this time to note: ebullient optimism, benumbing post-traumatic stress and worship of technological advance. The first two are at odds with one another and present in different amounts in different places. Post-war America was more optimistic because they won the war, but did not suffer the way Europe did because it was not fought on their soil. The Europeans had just a bit of this optimism, which was overshadowed by the destruction of so much of their culture and people--especially of course, the Jews, who were almost eliminated from Europe. But both America and Europe were worshipers of technology because it was that that won the war and the advances were so numerous and promising. It was during and immediately after the war that classical guitarists, to choose a minute example, switched from gut strings to the newly-invented nylon. Radar, the jet and a host of other discoveries transformed the post-war world. Another new invention was the recording tape which was a crucial element in forming the aesthetics of both Stockhausen and Cage.

Let's grab the bull by the horns and listen to three pieces from the immediate post-war period. First, an excerpt from the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano by John Cage:

Next, Klavierstück IV by Stockhausen:

Finally, Structures, Bk 1 by Boulez:

All three of these pieces are from the early to mid 1950s. Just as you would expect, the one that has quite a different aesthetic is the Cage. Remember, the American and European experiences of the war were quite different. What these three pieces all have in common is the worship of technology. I know it is a bit unusual to apply that concept to music but it is apt. [UPDATE: I should have said to compositional strategies, not "music" tout simple as music has always used some form of technology.] All three of these pieces use radically new technical ideas. In the Cage it is the use of screws and other devices to enormously alter the sound of the piano. In the case of Stockhausen we read in Wikipedia that:
Reinforced by his studies with Meyer-Eppler, beginning in 1955, Stockhausen formulated new "statistical" criteria for composition, focussing attention on the aleatoric, directional tendencies of sound movement, "the change from one state to another, with or without returning motion, as opposed to a fixed state"
And Boulez is particularly known for rejecting all previous musical styles and saying:
"[A]ny musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch."
Ah yes, the needs of the epoch. That is exactly my point. The post-war era, like all musical eras, had a particular spirit and a key element was new compositional technique. It sometimes led to what we usually call "technology", such as in Cage's preparations, a new kind of piano technology, or Stockhausen's tape music, an obvious technology. But the Greek word technos which forms part of our modern word technology, originally meant "art" as in something artificial, newly created by humans. Any new compositional technique, whether inserting screws into a piano, using statistical criteria or serializing all aspects of music, is a new compositional technos or technology.

As for the benumbing post-traumatic stress, I think this comes out in the strict avoidance, by all three of these composers, of any personal expression whatsoever. In some ways this is the most radical strategy of all.

I think that provides sufficient examples to present my point that each age has its proper aesthetic spirit.

UPDATE: One of my very alert commentators points out that the Cage Sonatas and Interludes were actually composed in the mid to late 1940s, not the early 1950s when he experienced a significant aesthetic shift. What I should have chosen instead was his Music of Changes, composed in 1951. Which actually makes my point even more powerfully as it is very similar, from the listener's point of view, to the textures of the Boulez and Stockhausen pieces:


Marc said...

While I agree that 'religious music' is better exemplified in the Bach than in the Haydn, ha, and am more than willing to exclude every instrument but the unaccompanied voice and the organ from church, cheeriness and brightness are not, after all, inimical to religion, however challenging it may be to get one's head around the concept 'cheerful solemnity'. Believe me, any of Haydn's Masses would be an immeasurable improvement compared to the dross I have to avoid listening to every Sunday and feast day.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, I very much see what you mean! I'm afraid that I comment on religious things as an outsider. But I think it was the particular text that struck me as an incongruous mix. A bright and cheery Gloria, ok, but Kyrie eleison?

Marc said...

They are barbarians, these days; am quite sure you can find examples of 'bright and cheery' Dies iraes written post-1970. :-) (The sad irony of course is that you have to go to celebrations of the 'old' Mass to get any Dies irae at all, post-1970, except as the chant melody is used in film and television scores.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, we have a serious Dies Irae deficiency these days!

Ken F. said...

The Cage Sonatas and Interludes is from the mid-1940s, where his aesthetic was quite different from that of the 1950s. No indeterminacy, Coomaraswamy philosophy, closer to Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell than to Stockhausen and Boulez.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are correct!! Actually, 1946 to 48. I should have chosen his Music of Changes.