Monday, August 22, 2016

"Reading" Music

I have scare-quoted the present participle in order to distinguish what I want to talk about from the ordinary thing musicians do when they look at a musical score. The kind of "reading" I want to do is not in order to play or analyze a piece of music, but rather to get a sense of the import of the piece in a social or historical context. Of course, a great deal of writing on music purports to do exactly this, but I want to do it from a fresh perspective, uninfluenced, if possible, by the sociology of music as it has been practiced for the last hundred years or so.

My method is going to be simple and direct--this is how I hope to avoid the usual wrong turnings that come from an excessively involuted method and from hidden assumptions and intentions. In other words, there will be no identity or class politics! I intend to pick a few pieces and notice how they project and reflect their social and historical context.

I think one of the things that we can read off from listening to a piece of music is the level of social or cultural confidence it exhibits: the ebullience factor, if you like! The history of modern Europe really began in the Middle Ages as learning and prosperity slowly began to emerge from the centuries of chaos that followed the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire. (Please forgive my bald simplifications--I am just trying to give a very simple overview.) Some of the triumphs of this period include the three Medieval renaissances that scholars have noted. In the last of these, the earliest universities were founded in Bologna and Paris. Towards the end of the 12th century, the first steps toward a sophisticated polyphonic music were taken by Léonin and Pérotin at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This is the first flowering of what would be the astonishing development of music in Western Europe. Here is an example, Sederunt Principes by Perotin, to my knowledge the very first example of a music composition in four independent voices:

What is really remarkable about this is that it came out of centuries of plainchant, unison single-line music not fundamentally different from any of the music of the ancient world. Now, true, there may have been lots of improvised multi-voice counterpoint going on in all sorts of cultures, but until an Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo figured out how to write down music in a clear and effective way, it would have disappeared as easily as it appeared. In other words, what happened between 1000 and 1200 is that in Western Europe composers learned how to take advantage of notation and voilá, the history of Western music really took off.

Just listening to this music, we can hear things like religious devotion, a delighting in the rich sound of the multiple voices and a feeling of space and stability from the long-held tenor notes. This correlates well with the contemporary architecture:

Notre Dame Cathedral
Let's jump ahead a few hundred years. By the 16th century the ability of composers to handle harmony through the detailed control of dissonance and consonance was highly advanced. Here is an example by Tomás Luis de Victoria:

This music also embodies religious devotion in sound and an appropriate architectural comparison would be to the Escorial in Spain. Both exhibit an almost mystical sobriety and restraint along with technical mastery:

This sobriety and restraint is perhaps a reflection of the brutal religious wars that tormented Europe between 1524 and 1648.

Once these wars ended and Europe managed to arrive at a religious tolerance, and once the threat of Islam was also defeated with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the existential threats to European culture were over--at least for a while. This is reflected in a greatly increased ebullience and in the growth of instrumental music which added to the timbres of vocal music. A splendid example is the Magnificat by Bach, born in 1685, just two years after the Battle of Vienna:

This wonderful extroverted brilliance continued to develop in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and one thing we notice is that the devotional character starts to vanish from the music. More and more it reflects the secular values of the Enlightenment. Yes, these composers and many others wrote religious music in the form of masses for orchestra with choir and vocal soloists, but the music itself is really indistinguishable from purely secular forms like the opera and symphony. Here is the Symphony No. 104 by Haydn that was very popular and played at some of the first public concerts in London:

The idea of music written for public performance instead of private ones just for the nobility really took off with the enormous growth of orchestral and opera performances in the 19th century. Large halls were built and large orchestras formed to play in them. And, of course, composers wrote larger and larger pieces of orchestral music for them. Here is the Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner for an example:

It is fairly easy to notice that, alongside the magnificence of this huge orchestra with its wide range of instrumental colors that we luxuriate in over the more than an hour performance, there is also the development of an introspective aspect. The music is no longer simply brilliant and charming, it is also ponderous and foreboding. This is the Romantic aspect of the 19th century. There is the sense that something social or historic is coming to be (also reflected in the philosophies of Hegel and Schopenhauer). Again, please forgive my excessive simplification.

As we move into the 20th century the confidence of European society and culture is shattered by brutal wars, not over religious differences, but political ones. Totalitarianism and total war comes close to destroying Europe entirely. The music reflects this very clearly as in place of the confidence and brilliance of earlier times we have tortured and agonized music. This is Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg, a thirty minute monodrama for soprano and orchestra. Note that this prefigures the dislocations of World War 1 as it was composed in 1909, five years before the war began!

After the First World War, composers tried to recapture the confidence of pre-war Europe, but they did it mainly with technical innovations and the Second World War caused yet another dislocation answered by even more complex technical innovations. I think that Le Marteau sans Maître of Pierre Boulez exemplifies this quite well:

Yes, this is sophisticated and highly complex music, but we are just listening to it in a simple, direct way. To an ordinary listener I think that the general impression is one of chaos and confusion with no clear themes or rhythms.

I don't want to take this any further in this post. To summarize, the clear certainties of the earlier days of European civilization enabled the development of clear and confident musical forms. But sometime in the 19th century these certainties began to erode. The history of how and why that happened is not going to be discussed here, but the effects on music are quite evident, I think. As the 20th century exploded in violence, the foundations of culture and music were shattered and the result was a music that reflected all of this. And we can hear it, very easily. It is right there on the surface.


Jives said...

Seems like an even-handed and objective summary. One point that occurs to me, which might be filed under "social" without the "politics", are the social dynamics that birthed plainchant and the subsequent innovations (conductus, organum). Taruskin makes the point in the Oxford history that the very austere and formal character of chant was intended to draw a sharp distinction between it and the other popular musics of the time, which were probably raucous polyphonic jam sessions, with little in the way of tonal organization or form. So this strong impulse to order and method and civilized behavior, is woven into the very fabric of the art. I also think this impulse is invaluable and universal to human development in every age, as we all need it to function as a society. Social critics characterize it as top-down oppression, but no, the world is chaotic and scary, and we are a bunch of nervous primates trying to figure out how to get along, fit in with nature, deal with our own mortality. This ordering was/is needed (esp in the Middle ages)
People critical of classical music seem to chafe at this aspect, the notation, the exactitude required, but this is a feature, not a bug.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I am just about due to re-read the Oxford History! That's an excellent point you make and one that I passed by entirely!

The writing down of music also leads to the urge to and possibility of more organization as well. Yep, that's a feature, not a bug.