Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Bane of the Serious

I just put up a post about Peter Maxwell Davies, a most serious composer, and that got me thinking about what "serious" means when we are talking about music. And where it came from.

This week I finished listening to all of the Mozart symphonies in Trevor Pinnock's excellent recording--despite the numbering, which ends with #41, he wrote around fifty symphonies--and this, combined with listening to some Haydn ones as well, makes me think that they, and a vast number of other composers before 1800, would not have thought of themselves as writing "serious" music. But now we think of most of what they wrote, including all of those symphonies, as "serious" music. What changed?

I think we can start to hear the change with Mozart. The trio of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven have always fascinated me, not just because of the quality of their music, but also because of their close geographic and temporal proximity. Haydn was born in 1732 and Beethoven died in 1827 (Mozart's life was within those dates) so the great flourishing of Western music took place in less than 100 years and largely in one city: Vienna. To return to my point, in the music of Haydn, which is all of it superbly crafted and delightful to hear, we only hear in a few pieces, typically those with the "Sturm und Drang" label, the tragic glint that comes to dominate 19th century music. Here is an example:

This symphony carries the nickname "Trauer" or "Mourning" and it is in the key of E minor. By later standards it doesn't sound too mournful, but at the time of composition (1772) the use of a minor key was itself unusual. The majority of Haydn's symphonies and all but two of Mozart's are in major keys. What Haydn really excelled at was effervescent delight as exemplified in the last movement of the Symphony No. 92 "Oxford":

But with Mozart that tragic cast comes a bit more to the fore as we see in the first movement of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor:

It was precisely this element of tragedy that Beethoven--who was far more influenced by Mozart than Haydn--picked up and amplified in his own symphonies (the odd-numbered ones, at least). Here is the first movement of his Symphony No. 9:

After that, the whole 19th century wrote nothing but very serious symphonies!

Now here is why I titled this post "The Bane of the Serious": I don't want to write music that is serious in that sense. Nothing wrong with it when Beethoven did it, but after Bruckner re-wrote Beethoven's 9th nine more times and Mahler added his version of serious music followed by Richard Strauss and even Schoenberg in his early years, I think that well is pretty dry.

To me, what I hear more and more is that the effervescent joy of Haydn, Mozart and even some Beethoven has been replaced by dreary, depressing dirges. It is the rhythm that has suffered the most. The crisp incisive rhythms of the 18th century were slowly replaced by plodding dullness and, in the 20th century, by jagged rhythms of pain.

But still people want to, or in composition schools are told they want to, write "serious" music. Depends on how you define "serious" doesn't it? I want people to listen closely to my music and perhaps, occasionally, chuckle, but certainly smile. I don't want to write music that sends people into anxiety attacks and deep depression. That's what the news is for.

Here is Leonard Bernstein listening to the Vienna Philharmonic play the last movement of Haydn's Symphony No 88 and pointedly not bothering to conduct them. Serious? Hardly, but great music nonetheless:


Marc Puckett said...

Are oratorios serious or unserious? concertos? and so forth... I wonder if 'seriousness' isn't more a thing of critics/audiences/marketing, although you suggest it has to do with aspects of the music itself. Hmm. If seriousness stands in for 'the tragic', which I suppose means the Romantic, as its called, then there are clearly characteristics of Romantic compositions. But the 'seriousness' you're talking about ('jagged rhythms of pain', ha) is perhaps more a characteristic of the modernist schools? who aren't all that into tragedy, after all. Hmm.

Marc Puckett said...

Am no great fan of LB-- his parody of the Mass, although there were a couple of lovely melodies, sure, put me off going out of my way to listen to his work-- indisputably a major conductor, although am not quite sure what that means. I did find that video interesting: does it work because the WP is a great orchestra? a great exponent of Haydn (were there imprecisions that happened because LB wasn't doing what another conductor would otherwise have been doing?-- I didn't notice anything amiss but...)? because of the great LB's 'conducting with his face' (have a hard time believing that the musicians beyond the front rows could see LB's facial expressions with any clarity)? I saw a commenter there ask, would this work e.g. for Ravel's Rite of Spring, or just in the classical repertory? but I can't see that that should make much difference. Hmm.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, excellent point. I didn't say anything about religious music, which is, of course, serious in ways that the tragic instrumental music is not. I think that a lot of modernism has something to do with existential angst.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the great musical personalities of the century. A great conductor and a composer who succeeded more than most in bridging the gap between popular and classical.

My violinist friend pointed out a couple of places where the ensemble would likely have been better if Bernstein had done some conducting. But what it is is a delightful tribute he is paying both to the orchestra and Haydn.

Most Haydn and Mozart symphonies don't really need a conductor in the modern sense. They were usually directed by the composer from the harpsichord or by the concertmaster. But everything from Beethoven on tends to need a conductor, something he innovated.

Jeph said...

I think, by seriousness, you might mean lack of restraint. Sure, music throughout the ages has been used to express emotional turmoil and address weighty subjects of every kind. Monteverdi's heartbreaking madrigals come to mind. Songs of love from Burgundian court, Bach Cantatas, masses for the dead. Actually, the comparative lightness of the classical era strikes me as more of an outlier, fueled by Enlightenment values and perhaps the comparative comfort of the practitioners and patrons? who knows... what I think is maybe missing from more late-era tragic music is a sense of proportion and balance. When sadness is unleavened with joy, and when the mood is worked for far too long (looking at you Bruckner/Mahler), starts to lose it's power and seems to become empty signifying, wailing. Adding to this, probably is the advent of Psychology in the 19th and 20th centuries, where much emphasis is placed on the value of mining our emotions and psyche, identifying our pain...etc...etc. I think restraint is what's in order. Sure, we've all got pain, life sucks Mr. Composer, but show us how you adapt, how you find joy in this life. I need some of THAT from my music too.

Jeph said...

For me, the word "serious" came up recently in a positive context. A fine conductor of one of the community orchestras in the area was thanking me for my participation. I said that I was really enjoying playing under him, and that it felt like "the old days" to me. I guess I'm not quite sure what made me put it into those words, but it felt true. He said, "yeah, like when it was serious." Meaning, I suppose, when it was enough to immerse yourself in the craft, and come up with a great performance of music, whatever you chose to play. To remember the elemental music, and why we make it and crave to listen to it, not to give so much weight to concerns of novelty, newness, progress, theory, abstraction, marketing, optics. Maybe those are the "unserious" concerns....

Bryan Townsend said...

Jeph, the points you make are so good that they overshadow what I was trying to say! Yes, exactly, the problem with the 19th century (and really, the 20th as well) is the lack of restraint. I was just ignoring the deeply tragic music of earlier generations of composers like Monteverdi, John Dowland, Gesualdo and many others.

In your second comment you make a different point: a lot of performances these days do seem to leave the impression that they are not terribly "serious" in the other sense of being, as you say, true to the craft. When everyone is beating the drum of marketing, branding, promotion all the time, the real seriousness of the music starts to fade.