Saturday, March 18, 2017

Contrast and Consistency

Whenever I dig into the work of a particular composer, I tend to find instances of general principles--maybe I just like to look for stuff like that! In the case of Monteverdi, his career seems to illustrate the idea that in music history there is an oscillation between the desire for consistency and the desire for contrast. Of course, these two things are found in most individual pieces, but we can also see them in long historic waves as well. What the heck am I talking about?

I think that, in the beginning of a new phase in music history, aesthetic choices are driven by strong contrasts. This might be because it is strong stresses in general that tend to cause a new phase in the arts. For example, Monteverdi lived at a time in which there were stark philosophical, theological and intellectual oppositions. Gary Tomlinson reviews these in the beginning of his book on Monteverdi, Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance:

One way of describing these oppositions is with the terms "scholasticism" and "humanism." These two ways of viewing the world were not new, but the opposition between them became especially keen in the later 16th century. Scholasticism, a characteristically Medieval world view, relied on authority and faith and absolute truth arrived at through deductive logic. Apart from the Scriptures and writings of the fathers of the church, the main authorities were people like Aristotle (who largely invented deductive reasoning in six treatises dating from the 4th century BC) and his 13th century AD follower, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The humanists, on the other hand, driven by monumental changes in the world such as the voyages of discovery of Columbus and others that opened up entire new hemispheres, emphasized things like moral and political philosophy that dealt with the pragmatic realities of the real world. This involved the growing importance of rhetorical persuasion. In the words of Petrarch, an early humanist, "It is safer to strive for a good and pious will than for a capable and clear intellect." The need for society to respond quickly to rapidly changing circumstances depended on swaying and channeling the passions to result in right action.

Now let's relate this to music. The world that Monteverdi was born into was the world of the ars perfecta as I mentioned before in this post. The style of ars perfecta emphasizes smooth consistency over contrast. There were a series of rules governing how melodies moved and how dissonances were introduced and resolved the whole point of which was to create a kind of contrapuntal perfection. The pinnacle of this style can be found in the work of Palestrina. Here is brief Psalm setting as an example:

This is what we would often characterize as "beautiful", that is, it is consonant, smooth, flowing and so on. But, of course, this is only one kind of beauty and the stresses and oppositions in the later 16th century led to a very different kind of beauty, one based on contrast and expressive intensity. Monteverdi was one of those who developed this new kind of writing to a high level.

One example of the kinds of contrasts that Monteverdi created can be found in his madrigal "A un giro sol" from the Fourth Book. The text of the madrigal is based on a contrast between the pleasantness and charm of the exterior world and the inner misery of the poet. This made it ideal for the creation of corresponding musical contrasts. There are many rhythmic contrasts between flowing representations of the waves and the winds and the more chordal sections, but the biggest contrast is a harmonic one, at around 58 seconds in this clip, where the poet breaks in to say "I alone" am in despair. From G major, the harmony instantly changes to E major (dominant of A minor), a huge contrast at this point in music history! These kinds of contrasts were simply out of bounds in the older style. Let's listen to the Monteverdi madrigal:

And listen to all those lovely minor second dissonances in the last part! Beauty, you see, can be heightened through the skillful use of dissonance and contrast.


Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, once again I'll open with a big THANK YOU for such a thoughtful presentation! The mind behind your writings has fast become a friend of mine. In my daily life I have, besides my perfect 17yo son, only 1 friend who has a keen interest in serious music. When I was a rocker, I had dozens of "Dead Head" and other fanatical musical friends, but my mania for classical music is hard to find in others. I'm in some ways very lonely in my love of classical music, a result of the declining and aging audience (another subject you often touch on). So I very much appreciate your daily researched and stimulating insights into music in its cultural context, and the discussions that play out underneath!

Today you show how Monteverdi's music brought stark contrast, both against the earlier ars perfecta style AND within itself --in (sweet) "dissonances" and (relative to ars perfecta) irregular (speech-like? lyrically expressive?) rhythms. And your point is beautifully "illustrated" with the embedded 2 musical examples! In just 8 pithy paragraphs you've caused in me 20 reactions! I'll mention just a few.

The ars perfecta was very well-named. Just listen to the perfect harmonies and smoothness of that Palestrina, to the perfect construction of the counterpoint. Any earthly misery can be escaped during those moments via the total transport to a timeless universal sacred perfection of heaven. The church was well-served by Palestrina!

Scholasticism? Its a famous descriptor of the medieval intellectual world, and again, apt. In the representative example of Palestrina, no doubt his work must have been a culmination of centuries of perfecting the rules of harmony and counterpoint. One could not accidentally or spontaneously create that perfection, it was craft as much as art --and I mean that in a good way, meaning he knew his academic rules AND had the individual creativity to use it perfectly. Palestrina will stand as one of the greatest composers of all time. Here we are 500 years later, analyzing him, and I have a few CDs of his compositions in my collection.

Monteverdi's "dissonances" don't sound so dissonant to the modern ear, yet I hear them, in large part thanks to your setting up the contrast to Palestrina. In his own time, no doubt it was much starker to ears accustomed to ars perfecta. Its funny but, as the youtube version of your embedded Monteverdi moved to the next piece, John Eliot Gardiner conducting Monteverdi's "Vespro della Beata Vergine" of 1610 (which was, in a MHS LP, my intro to Monteverdi decades ago) --I now hear the contrast against Palestrina-- sure enough, the smoothness is often not there, the harmonies more dissonant and the rythms more speech-like and irregular, more lyrical!

Bryan I thank you for setting up the contrast that I'd never really explored and therefore never quite heard before. As I said, to the modern ear, Monteverdi still sounds pretty smooth and "ancient," so only by this close and immediate comparison have you brought the contrast to me in a stark and memorable way. THANK YOU!

Bryan Townsend said...

Of course, the motivation for doing this blog is to reach out to people like yourself! Thanks for reading.

Jives said...

I've been catching up on Music Salon posts this week. This is a great one, and fuel for an argument I started with a friend about the contrasts between musical styles in history. This friend posited the idea that the shift from the Baroque to the Classical style (all limitations of these terms being well-understood) as being a greater or more monumental transformation than the move from the ars perfecta to monody. I say not, that the establishment of the hierarchical structure such as we see in Le nuove musiche was truly a sea change, opening up a sort of "vertical" dimension to music which had previously been more linear in nature, and ushering in all the technical innovations to come after. I see the Classical style as more of a stripping down and refinement of that essential division of labor we first see around 1600. This division of labor endured for centuries and was only really dismantled, and replaced with chaos, in the 20th century. so there!

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm with you on this one.