Sunday, July 19, 2015

Transitional Figures

Perhaps the two greatest figures in music history are J. S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Bach flourished during the first half of the 18th century, dying in 1750, and Beethoven flourished during the very end of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th, dying in 1827. Bach's career was a summation of all the glories of the Baroque with his mastery of harmony, motivic development and counterpoint where Beethoven summed up the Classical style with a rather different concept of harmony and development. His later symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets were written as pure developments of the fundamental principles of Classical style and against the more superficial decorative chromatic style that was popular in the early decades of the 19th century. In so doing he laid down a powerful challenge to all composers for the next hundred years and more. Similarly, Bach's influence continued long after his death. The quality of their work and its lasting influence are two reasons why they are both considered to be in the first rank of composers.

But what about those more shadowy figures, the ones that provide the transition between these two mountain peaks? Who are they and can we trace the movement from one era to another? In this case, the change from the Baroque to the Classical era, we can indeed. Music history, like all history, is enormously complicated, but the fundamentals are clear. In this case, we need to go back to J. S. Bach and in particular his sons. Uniquely in music history, Bach had three sons, all trained by himself, that were three of the most important composers in the next generation. I wrote about the Bach family in this post titled "Bach Family Values."

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach went to Berlin and Hamburg for his career, both in northern Germany. The northern style was more emotionally intense (termed the empfinsamer Stil) than the southern style that we will get to in a minute. Here is a painting of him accompanying Frederick the Great at his palace San Souci in Potsdam outside Berlin. Notice that C. P. E. Bach is sitting with his back to the audience, which answers a recent question:

Click to enlarge
They were likely playing a flute sonata by C. P. E. Bach. Here is one for violin, flute and continuo that I chose because we can see how modern performers have changed the positioning of the instruments onstage:

The younger J. C. Bach followed a different path journeying to Italy and then settling in London. His style, influenced by the sunny lyricism of Italy, was lighter and more melodic than that of C. P. E. Bach and is usually called the galant style. Both sons adopted a more harmonic, less contrapuntal texture than their father. They are both transitional figures between the High Baroque and the Classical eras. How did that work? Leaving out a lot of detail and minor figures, C. P. E. Bach was a large influence on Joseph Haydn. As I said the other day, C. P. E. Bach came up with about half of the fundamentals of Classical style and Haydn took it the rest of the way. J. C. Bach, on the other hand, was a big influence on Mozart who met him in London as a boy. Mind you, a boy on a major European tour! The first few piano concertos by Mozart are actually his arrangements of keyboard sonatas by J. C. Bach. Here is one of them:

We can see traces of the influence of the northern style in Haydn's sometimes striking harmonic leaps and his focus on just a few motifs. In Mozart, the southern style shows itself in the melodic luxuriance and sheer charm of the music.

There are lots of transitional figures in music history and I always find them fascinating--probably because we are in one of those transitional phases right now, stumbling to find our way from the strictures and extremes of Dada Modernism to whatever comes next. For quite a while now we have been rediscovering the pulse and consonance, but apart from that, the engine of the next musical style is not yet clear.

Another couple of interesting transitional figures are Monteverdi, bridging the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, and DuFay, the one between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Beethoven, one of the most complex figures in music history, as I was hinting at above, is not a transitional figure. Virtually everything that you read about him in program notes and liner notes on CDs, not to mention the Wikipedia article, says that he was:
A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music
Not true! He showed signs in his earlier music of being just that, but instead changed course and honed and focused his style on being the culmination of Classical style and not a harbinger of Romantic style. The Romantics tended to dilute the focus of Classical harmony in favor of adding chromaticism and remote harmonic regions. Not Beethoven. As Rosen writes:
The works of Beethoven's last period, indeed, often represent a contraction or even a distillation of classical procedure rather than an expansion ... For these reasons it may be justly claimed, as Tovey did, that Beethoven's innovations are largely a conflation of Haydn's and Mozart's different methods, and that he is best comprehended within their tradition; to Haydn's dynamic sense of continuous motivic development he added Mozart's feeling for long-range movement and the massive treatment of subsidiary key areas ... In this respect above all Beethoven stood almost alone in his time: as the underlying material in the works of all his contemporaries grew more complex and more chromatic, the basic motifs of Beethoven's music became simpler and more diatonic, very often the fundamental elements of the tonal language itself.

I think that the reason that we have so widespread a wrong conception of Beethoven is that the Modernist ideologues have distorted music history to support their concepts. Beethoven was a great composer, therefore he was innovative, radical and looking to the future. And in some ways he was, but not in the way they required for their ideology!

The true transitional figures from the Classical to the Romantic eras were figures like Carl Maria von Weber, Hummel, Clementi, Dussek and, possibly, Schubert. So much of what he did was Classical and he died so young that we don't know what path he might have chosen. He may well have distilled out the Classical style as Beethoven did, or developed a more Romantic concept of harmony as we see in his frequent use of the flat submediant.

To end this rather long post, here is a very late Beethoven string quartet that has everything to do with the Classical style and nothing to do with Romantic style. The String Quartet in F major, op. 135. The performers are the Alban Berg Quartet:


Marc Puckett said...

I do always think of Beethoven as emblematic of Romanticism, the hero gazing off across the valley to the mist-shrouded mountains, like Friedrich's Der Wanderer, and, yes, that is almost certainly down to the people who've constantly written about him in that light. So much to think about in this post, as usual....

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! Because that is exactly how the Romantics viewed him. Our image of Beethoven is filtered through their understanding. And then with an added veneer of how the Modernists viewed him.

Christine Lacroix said...

I thought you might enjoy this article, in case you hadn't seen it:

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine. No, I hadn't seen it and it is well worth reading!

Christine Lacroix said...

Glad you liked it.

Marc Puckett said...

Is there a good study of Beethoven as supreme classicist rather than font of Romanticism?

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm, interesting question. The big book on Beethoven is by Thayer, but it has been so long since I have looked at it that I am not sure of a Romantic bias. The books by Charles Rosen (The Classical Style and Sonata Forms) are excellent on Beethoven, who occupies perhaps a third or more of each book. Joseph Kerman's The Beethoven Quartets is excellent as are Bill Kinderman's books on Beethoven. But those are specialized studies. As for a general interest book on Beethoven, I am not sure of the recent ones because, frankly, I haven't read them! I know there is new one by Jan Swafford that might be good. There is an older one by Lewis Lockwood. But I would certainly avoid the one by Maynard Solomon as his book on Mozart was awful. I generally avoid recent books on composers for the general reader as they tend to fall prey to all the horrible trends of our day.

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks for the books! Am beginning Gardiner's Bach, castle, Heaven so these will go on the list.

Just noticed that, the BBC Proms happening these weeks, Leif Oves Andsnes is performing the Beethoven quartets etc. beginning tomorrow or Friday-- the blurb for a pre-concert talk:

"German culture experts Professor Karen Leeder and Professor Robert Vilain on the great German Romantic poetry that inspired Beethoven throughout his life, from Schiller’s 'Ode to Joy' to Goethe’s 'Egmont' and Treitschke’s 'Fidelio'."

Fascinating how that putative inspiration plays out or doesn't in the creation of the music....


Bryan Townsend said...

I haven't looked at the Proms schedule, but I can't see Leif Oves Andsnes doing the Beethoven quartets as he is a pianist? What I do see is that he is doing Beethoven piano concertos.

And I am a bit leery of attributing Beethoven's musical inspiration to Romantic poetry.

But I wish I was there so I could attend some of these. I just bought tickets to two concerts of the Calder Quartet who are kicking off our chamber music festival with some Beethoven quartets.

Marc Puckett said...

Ha, yes, yes, the piano concertos.

Yesterday by coincidence I read a musicologist explaining why Maynard Solomon writing that 'Mozart was buried coffinless in a common burial pit' is nonsense.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, Maynard Solomon's sins are much greater than that! Here is a post I did talking about his Mozart bio: