Wednesday, August 2, 2017

P. M. vs G. M.

My post about the Tommasini column yesterday generated a lot of comments which inspire me to another post. I think the most absurd sentence in the Tommasini piece was this:
“Eleanor Rigby,” I’d argue, is just as profound as Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.
That is just the kind of absurdity that we children of the 60s have been indoctrinated to accept without question. It reminds me of the silliest thing my professor said in Philosophy 101. We were talking about time and he said, with a completely straight face, that whereas humans perceive time as a linear continuum, for dolphins it is an expanding spiral! Honestly, how would anyone know!?!?

So, Mr. Tommasini, let's hear your argument. Resolved that "Eleanor Rigby" is just as profound as Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony." I shall have to provide his arguments myself as he has not bothered to give them.

First of all, some criteria. Let's say that a piece of music might strive for profundity in five dimensions: "message", intensity, innovation, complexity and unity. I am not going to provide the arguments for why I have chosen these--some of them reflect categories argued for in Beardsley's book on aesthetics and the first one, "message", I chose simply because both the works under consideration have a sung text.

Let's take the text first. Eleanor Rigby, with lyrics mostly by Paul McCartney, has this text:

"Eleanor Rigby"

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?
This is a pretty fair picture of English working class life at a certain moment in time and on a level considerably higher than the usual popular music lyrics. Is it profound? Relatively so, I suppose, but not compared to, for example, the poetry of English contemporary Philip Larkin whose most famous verse goes like this:

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

What about the text to the Mahler symphony? To save a bit of space, I'm going to link to the Wikipedia article on the symphony which has the original German and English translation:

The Mahler text might be seen as both elegiac and prophetic if you see it as being both a tribute to European civilisation and a harbinger of the First World War, a kind of civilisational suicide attempt. The McCartney lyric gives an evocative depiction of the alienation of the post-WWII English working class, drifting in a kind of limbo with the loss of empire and the diminishing of their horizons. Depending on how you view things historically, you might argue that either text is more "profound" than the other. Perhaps, as the McCartney lyric focuses on a specific social group at a specific moment in time it is less universal than the Mahler lyric, which deals with the themes of death and resurrection.

Now let's move on to the dimension of intensity. In its context, popular music in the 1960s, Eleanor Rigby certainly has an almost unique expressive intensity, likely matched only by two other McCartney songs with string accompaniment: Yesterday and She's Leaving Home. In all three of these songs, George Martin, the Beatles' long-time musically-trained producer, created the arrangements for Paul, who did not read music. Paul apparently sang some melodic lines to him. I suspect that Mr. Tommasini chose Eleanor Rigby over the other two because it has a more appealing social message. Musically it is nice, but perhaps not of great significance. The harmony throughout is a simple alternation between E minor and C major (with an occasional passing harmony). The final harmony is E minor. The harmony is really non-functional therefore and would be analyzed like this:

i - VI - i - VI - i - VI etc.

Not what you would call terribly intense harmonically. Here are the first two pages of the score:

The Mahler symphony has an interesting harmonic ambiguity as well: it tends to hover between the two areas of E flat and C minor, which share the key signature of three flats. Title page says C minor. Here are the first two pages:

Being as this is the introduction to the first movement of a piece about an hour and a half long, and it is late Romantic, this is probably one of the least active areas, harmonically. But there are a few interesting things going on. For one thing, there is a dominant pedal: G. The other parts present different ideas against this: the turn figure at the beginning which is sequenced upward, the dotted motif dropping an octave. By measure 8 we have a hint at a modulation to the dominant suggested by the F sharp. But the modulation does not materialize, instead we have a brief suggestion of the key of E flat major before returning to the dotted motif, but this time on G instead of C. Then there is a descending melodic sequence in the bass. Finally, at the end of this excerpt, we have a new theme moving from C through the outline of a D minor triad to C again.

Motivically there is as much going on in the McCartney song as there is in the first two pages of the Mahler, but bear in mind that the Mahler score has another 200 pages to go, the McCartney just two more and we have already seen all the material in the first two pages.

I don't think I really need to continue this exercise do I? The plain truth is that as soon as you start to do any serious evaluation of the two pieces the overwhelming impression is that the McCartney is a rather nice two minute pop song, creatively excellent within the parameters of its genre, while the Mahler is a huge artwork of considerable complexity and requiring great instrumental and vocal forces, not to mention long-term intense concentration on the part of the audience. To compare them is absurd. It is not a case of comparing apples to oranges, it is more like comparing the economic clout of Andorra to that of the European Union.

What is really seriously troubling is that the music critic for the New York Times can say something so absurd publicly and only be called out by relatively few readers in the comment section. This is probably attributable to the fact that few people these days know much about music or music history or theory.


Christopher Culver said...

“We were talking about time and he said, with a completely straight face, that whereas humans perceive time as a linear continuum, for dolphins it is an expanding spiral! Honestly, how would anyone know!?!?”

While the claim about dolphins specifically may be bollocks, there has been research for a few decades now on how different animals perceive time. This in fact has a musical connection: Gérard Grisey drew on this research when he wrote his piece Vortex Temporum, where the three movements examine the same material at spans evoking human, whale, and bird/insect perception respectively (see here).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christopher for that interesting link. I really have to study Grisey sometime. But this research into how different animals perceive time, do you have any links to that? Because I am very skeptical. I asked my cat how he perceived time the other day and he just said "meow!" Frankly, along with St. Augustine, I'm not all that sure how I perceive time.

Anonymous said...

Many good points in this post. A single point of disagreement.

I love Larkin, one of our greatest modern poets, but this poem is shallow and "Eleanor Rigby" is unquestionably more profound. The popularity of "This Be The Verse" is a sad reflection of the masses's poor literary taste. Larkin himself thought that poem was little more than a silly joke.

When it comes to craft, ok, there's no comparison. McCartney is not a poet and his language is plain and clumsy. Larkin's poem is beautifully crafted, the work of a master. The pun of the opening line is brilliant, the rhymes and the rhythms all work, etc. But whereas McCartney harnesses his limited writing skills in the service of a profound set of sentiments, bringing in solitude, fate, love, regret, longing, etc., Larkin's just being cynical and facile in the service of a trite idea. Yes our parents fuck us up and we'll fuck up our kids. How profoundly shallow and unoriginal a concept! So let's have no kids. Ha ha! What a lark, that Larkin! The conceit of the poem is not to teach us parental lessons but to prove that a great poet like Larkin can talk like the kids in the school yard. But why? One ends up with fluff. Well confected fluff, for sure, but fluff nevertheless. McCartney wins that one hands-down!

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, I think you have just proved a couple of things: I'm no great shakes as a literary critic and the contribution of commentators to this blog is really significant. I have set to music one poem by Philip Larkin, Annus Mirabilis, and I probably should have chosen that one instead. That being said, I read the Larkin not so much as an exercise in being cynical and facile as a brilliant distillation, in so very few lines, of a nasty human tendency towards a self-defeating bitterness. Surely after reading that poem we will want to avoid that whole state of mind?

Patrick said...

Bryan - I agree, your inquiry was probably a waste of time. To me the question remains: what action does an individual, institution or society do if, for arguments sake, we say they agree with your aesthetic viewpoint? I guess I'm interested in knowledge that informs action in some way, not armchair discussions.
Perhaps conservatories should base their coursework on the primacy of the Western musical tradition? Explicitly state to their students that popular and eastern music is NOT worth a moment's attention, as you seem to assert. Eliminate any classes that cover non-European non-classical musics, perhaps.
One thing that is true is that you cannot force people to value or listen to a particular genre of music. I would be interested in how you see your viewpoint informing action, if you think that it does that. And how in particular it addresses the shrinking footprint of classical music in society at large. Which is part of the general coarsening of culture, I might add.

Bryan Townsend said...

The blogosphere is rather about "armchair discussion" I would think. But you seem upset about something, Patrick? Actually, I think conservatories do have rather a classical curriculum, largely. Exceptions being schools like Berklee that focus on jazz and popular music. I'm not advocating eliminating classes in non-European musics, but in nations that form part of the Western European cultural tradition, surely their main focus should be on the music OF that tradition. And no, I'm not suggesting that anyone be forced to listen to anything. All I'm advocating is that we stop demeaning the music of our own Western tradition and start appreciating it instead. But hey, if you really don't like Bach, Mozart and Stravinsky, that's fine with me.

Christopher Culver said...

“Let's say that a piece of music might strive for profundity in five dimensions: ‘message’, intensity, innovation, complexity and unity.”

I think that that argument of yours would run aground if, after you compared “Eleanor Rigby” to the Mahler Second, you then compared Mahler to certain other repertoire. For example, I am an enormous fan of Brian Ferneyhough, whose dense, information-rich scores certainly score high for 'innovation', 'complexity', and 'unity'. (I think, however, that "message" and "intensity" in music are more subjective criteria). For me personally, certain Ferneyhough works have much more re-listening value – all that delightful counterpoint to untangle – and have had a more powerful impact on my life as a listener than certain Mahler works.

And yet, how many people hung up on notions of objective musical value, would take that further step of comparing Mahler to Ferneyhough? In fact, most people with those concerns would probably rubbish Ferneyhough. So, if there is a real distinction between “Eleanor Rigby” and Mahler Two, then surely it lies somewhere than just another version of the old “complexity is better” argument.

Jives said...

I'm glad you chose that particular Mahler to make your point. Waaay back in 1987, I played the first mvmt in an All-state orchestra festival, with Benjamin Zander. And we played the hell out it, really nailed it. Audience reaction? Did it bring down the house? Not right away. The conclusion of the first mvmt was greeted with a stunned silence that lasted about half a minute, followed by tentative then thunderous applause. It's that powerful.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jives, I didn't choose that particular Mahler, it was the example that Anthony Tommasini chose.

Christopher, choosing some parameters to use is not actually an argument, more just stating some assumptions. I am certainly aware of the maximally-complex scores of Ferneyhough, but again, let me remind everyone that I didn't choose either of these examples, it was Mr. Tommasini. I would more likely have compared Justin Bieber and Bach. I like shooting fish in a barrel.

Gavin said...

I think that the comparison between Mahler and "Eleanor Rigby" is not really fair, because so much of it stems from the lengths of the two pieces. (The Mahler is longer, so it's more complex, more interesting harmonically, etc). But this argument from length isn't really appropriate. Otherwise, the Mahler is also more profound than almost any work by Bach, certainly any song by Dowland, and countless other examples.

I'd argue that "Eleanor Rigby" is a more interesting case than anything by Bieber, in that it's a very effective piece. Coincidentally I just read an analysis of the lyrics recently that showed a lot of depth to them. I think the string quartet work is effective (and perfect for the length of the piece -- in a longer piece they'd be too repetitive). Most importantly in such a short piece, it still sounds fresh after many listenings.

I don't think it's as strong as some of my favorite short pieces (Chopin preludes, say, or the Dowland songs), but then again not much is.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Tommasini just tossed out those names as an example, but as soon as you actually think about it to any extent, you realize all the problems. Comparing Bach with Mahler is another kettle of fish though and I wouldn't be too ready to say Mahler is more complex. Take the Matthew Passion as your comparison.

Eleanor Rigby is a good piece, no doubt, and the interesting thing is a piece does not have to be long, nor complex, to be good. Artistic value is pretty tricky to pin down.

Will Wilkin said...

Hi Bryan, twice over the past few days I've tried commenting in this discussion and never do the comments show up? Am I blocked? Or is my comment too long?

Will Wilkin said...

Here too I'll try breaking my comment into smaller pieces to see if this time it will post....

First of all, your inquiry Bryan is not at all a waste of time to those of us interested in probing deeper why we value some art more than others --how is taste formed in the individual, what qualities are most conserved over centuries within a culture? Is it "impractical" or "armchair philosophy?" Yes of course, and those of us doggedly committed to practicality (and the fundamental sustainability of civilization) would do well to study and practice plumbing. But as Churchill supposedly said in dismissing the suggestion that art education in schools be cancelled during the exigencies of WW2, "then what the hell are we fighting for?" [my paraphrase of Churchill from a faded a memory of something I read --WW]

The practicality of such questions can be found, however. For example, as I imagine what kind of art I aim to create as I study and practice my instruments and poetry, I hope to approach in my humble way whatever those timeless qualities are that make art so penetrating of the heart and soul of feeling and thinking human beings. Quality of life definitely depends on plumbing, but certainly does not end there.

And so moving into your worthwhile enquiry of whether there is any merit to Mr. Tommasini's assertion that "Eleanor Rigby, I'd argue, is just as profound as Mahler's Resurrection symphony." Our first clue is that Mr. Tommasini never does argue it, but rather leaves it as a mere assertion, wrapped in politicized tripe that popular tastes are aesthetically equal to the schooled art of geniuses, and President Trump can only be promoting racism and hatred by asserting the symphony is an example of the greatness of western culture.

Will Wilkin said...

...Part 2...

And now moving further beyond noting the political sleight-of-hand that guided Tommasini's writing, Bryan your putting the 2 pieces up side-by-side for comparison is the right thing to do for those of us genuinely interested in the aesthetics of music. Time for a relevant anecdote: Just today, while giving a ride home from work to a hip-hop-listening co-worker of mine who in my car was forced to listen to Beethoven's 5th symphony and then Debussy's Arabesque #3 (for piano), I explained that, measure-for-measure (second by second), classical music has more invention and "information" than popular music, more surprises and variety of melodic phrases and harmonizations, more large structure and "architecture" (I pointed to a beautiful cathedral we were driving by and said the different-but-related movements of a symphony fit together like the various sections of a cathedral). During the Debussy he commented "this seems like it would be hard to play" but he also said "it's beautiful," which gave me great joy in knowing he really had heard what I was showing him.

That way I explained the greater level of inventiveness, measure-for-measure, is probably something someone more technically qualified (such as a doctoral candidate for a musicology degree?) could actually quantify, if they wanted to kill the art in the same way Walt Whitman accused the Learn'd Astronomer of making him "tired and sick" until he wandered out of the lecture hall and "look'd up in perfect silence at the stars." How many different musical ideas are presented? How many levels of harmony, how many different voices making how many references to how many themes? Etc. etc. My guess is that the Resurrection symphony will have higher numbers than Eleanor Rigby.

Will Wilkin said...

...Part 3 (Conclusion)...

But of course, as Whitman reminds us, these are ultimately not quantitative questions but rather deeply qualitative and fundamentally subjective. It takes more than technical skill to move the heart, which is why some simple folk songs are indeed so very powerful. And here I am at a loss for words, here we move into the sublime, where all I can say is that I cannot endure Mahler when I am in heartbreak or deep pain or sorrow, because his music carries such a tragic and sentimental weight deep into my heart even in my strongest moments, when I can listen intently and pronounce his great name as perhaps my very favorite composer of all time, which means my very favorite artist.

And that is saying a lot, considering how much I love the Beatles, and recognize both McCartney and Lennon as 2 among the very best songwriters I've ever known.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, you are not blocked, but Blogger does set a limit on length. I have put through all these posts.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, thanks as always for deeply heartfelt comments.

Gavin said...

> Yes, Tommasini just tossed out those names as an example, but as soon as you actually think
> about it to any extent, you realize all the problems. Comparing Bach with Mahler is another
> kettle of fish though and I wouldn't be too ready to say Mahler is more complex. Take the
> Matthew Passion as your comparison.

My browser ate my first attempt, which specifically excepted the Passion and the B Minor mass :-).

> Eleanor Rigby is a good piece, no doubt, and the interesting thing is a piece does not have
> to be long, nor complex, to be good. Artistic value is pretty tricky to pin down.

I think the question Tomasini is addressing is whether it can be profound (although it's even trickier to pin down profundity). I'm trying to say that you can't argue that the Mahler is the more profound simply because it's longer.

It's just a different kind of profundity.

Bryan Townsend said...

If you were going to make a serious statement about musical profundity you would need to precede it with some discussion so we can know what you mean by it. But Tommasini was just expressing an ideological position, not actually making an argument.