Sunday, January 8, 2012

Two Examples

Yesterday I put up a post about aesthetic virtues and sins in composition. In ordinary music criticism we get detailed accounts of specific performances. In music philosophy we get arguments about the ontological status of a composition or perhaps the relationship between aesthetics and morality. In music theory we get descriptions of technical devices and how they are used. What we don't seem to get anywhere is a set of simple aesthetic principles. That's what I was trying to do in that post. I suppose for proper parallelism I should have said virtues and vices, but I took as my model the long tradition of the four cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins of the Catholic tradition.

That post was rather wordy and so today I would like to pick a couple of examples to show what I am talking about. The first virtue, parsimony, is pretty easy. Here is an example:

This is the Prelude and Fugue in D minor from Bk 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier played by Friedrich Gulda. My example is just the prelude. You could choose just about any prelude from either book as most of them are very tightly written, meaning that a minimum of music material is used for maximum effect. This prelude gets by with little more than a scale and an arpeggio. The first prelude from Bk 1 is just one arpeggio put through a lot of harmonies. Other similar preludes are the one to the E major violin partita, again a scale and an arpeggio and the prelude to the first cello suite, just an arpeggio. Chopin provides us with another example:

And so does Shostakovich:

Preludes are a good place to look for basic compositional principles because there is no fixed form, no boxes to fill up. Now how about one of those aesthetic sins? I mentioned a Schumann quartet finale. Here it is:

This brings us face to face with one of those fascinating paradoxes of aesthetics: this movement has a lot of repetition. The preludes I put up above, as examples of the virtue of parsimony, also have a lot of repetition. So why was it good there and bad here? I trust that you got as tired as I did of that dotted-note figure? Perhaps you loved it? While acknowledging that these are tricky matters, let me see if I can sort it out. The problem with the Schumann finale is that the material is both too little and too much. The dotted note theme keeps returning too many times and it is too much the same each time. The contrasting passages in between are also too similar. There is also a real clunkiness to the dotted note theme, a rhythmic stiffness that doesn't get better on repetition. The dotted-note theme and the contrasting passages also don't seem to have much relation to one another, it is as if they are pasted together from different pieces. Now let me put up another string quartet finale that shows how this kind of thing should be done:

The finale is preceded by a short adagio. Some similarities in the two movements; both have themes that keep coming back, with contrasting passages. But how Beethoven handles the material is completely different. His themes are constantly transforming, never returning quite the same. And they seem to affect one another as they blend and separate. The themes are taken apart and reassembled in ways that we can never quite anticipate. In short, he is doing everything that Schumann doesn't do. You have to work with the material according to how much musical time is involved. The preludes above are all very short and allow little room for development. A seven to nine minute string quartet movement is a different thing. You may need more material, or you may need to do extensive transformations of that material. The Beethoven, in my view, succeeds in this, while the Schumann fails. Unfair comparison? Well, possibly, but I wanted to make my point as clearly as possible.

No comments: