Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beauty and Music

The Italian Renaissance architect Leone Battista Alberti stated that:
Beauty is a sort of chordal combination, a harmony between the different units which does not allow anything to be added or taken away without having an injurious effect upon the whole. [quoted in Knud Jeppesen, Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century, p. 83.]
For a long time, then, music represented an aesthetic ideal. Recently, though, beauty has been devalued as an ideal in music itself. Odd, that. Following on from a previous post, it seems that when manifestos and ideology got a firm toehold in music, the aesthetic of beauty had to go. I think that beauty is a kind of universal, though, and never really disappears. It does change its character, however. The beauty we find in Palestrina, that may have prompted the comment of the architect, is quite different from the beauty we find in Mozart or modern music.

 Yes, I believe there is beauty in modern music, because it is hard to imagine a composer successfully avoiding it in all his music!

This is a very strange musical beauty, but beauty nonetheless. The efficient elegance referred to in the architect's quote does not quite apply. Rather, perhaps, it lies in the contrasts. I think that by contrasting opposing musical ideas, a different kind of musical beauty can be found. Here, for example in the violence of the strings and the tranquility of the piano:

Indeed, Beethoven almost made a specialty of violent contrasts. But still, beautiful in that the violence highlights the beauty. Or perhaps we should say that the beauty lies in the whole. I'm a believer more in the details than the generalization, which is why musical aesthetics is such a difficult subject. The route to musical beauty can be different with every great piece. Shostakovich managed many kinds of beauty from the eerie and haunting:

...to the sardonic and grotesque:


Anonymous said...


I just discovered your blog today.As a non-musican who enjoys all types of music,I think your posts are informative,enlightening and entertaining.Keep up the good work.

John Couch

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, John. My blog is just a month old and I appreciate the comment! There are some other interesting older posts if you want to have a look.