Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"You Complete Me"

After "show me the money" and "you had me at hello" that is probably the most well-known quote from the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire. It gives me a title for a post about one of the concepts behind Romantic music. Way back in 1794 Friedrich Schiller wrote about the need for the audience (or reader, or viewer) to complete the work of art. He said, "the real and express content that the poet puts in his work remains always finite; the possible content that he allows us to contribute is an infinite quality." This is a fascinating idea, but like many Romantic ideas, it can be easily misunderstood and abused. Earlier composers, while they did expect the player to bring the music alive, did not really expect the listener to 'complete' it in any substantial way (with some exceptions that I will get to later) --just to enjoy it. But the Romantics, and especially ones in the first generation like Robert Schumann, were fascinated by the incompleteness of the work and how it might be completed by the listener. The idea was to leave important things unsaid (or unplayed) just as in a novel, the reader must imagine to himself many details about the setting and the characters, especially the visual aspect.

In close listening to the counterpoint of, say, Bach, we imagine voices continuing even after they have died away because of the logic of the voice-leading--in that sense the listener 'completes' the music. Sometimes you can only 'hear' the full texture by looking at the score! But the Romantics went further. In one part of his Humoresque, op 20, Schumann writes a separate melody on a third stave that is meant to be unplayed!
The top stave is the right hand, the bottom stave is the left hand and the middle is, unheard, inaudible, to be imagined. He writes in the score, "inner voice", in the sense of 'interior'. Here is a bit of the score:

Click to enlarge

The written out top voice is a kind of echo of the 'interior' voice, which is not played. Here is a performance by Horowitz. The "Hastig" section starts right at 5:55:

Now I know what you are going to say: "But I don't hear that inner voice!" Well, yes. Thinking about this can get a bit tricky. Here we have an unplayed melody that is presumably thought or imagined by the pianist while he is playing that perhaps influences the way he plays and thereby the way we hear it. But we are really free to hear music any way we want to. Call this an experiment in Romanticism.

I have another, quite different example. Here is the Quebec group Beau Dommage performing their song "La complainte du phoque en Alaska" in concert. The audience joins in from the beginning and by the four minute mark, take over singing the song. At the 4:43 mark, the band stops completely and only comes back to end it. Nice.

UPDATE: Beau Dommage (the name means "beautiful damage") was a hugely popular rock band in Quebec in the 1970s. This clip comes from a reunion concert in 1995. A "phoque" is a seal.


RG said...

I was working on some Algebra. Hey Jude (Olympics Opening Ceremony) was singing in the back of my mind, but pushing forward until it started sensibly to move my vocal apparatus. Distracted! I turned to The Music Salon for a taubula-rasing polyphonic clip that would let me return to focus on my polynomials. What's this? A whole essay on music that is conducively on the page but inversely compulsive whether in the back or front of the mind!

How does what Schuman was doing relate both to
(1) mental music mugging my mathematics, and to
(2) 4'33"?

Bryan Townsend said...

You are describing an "ear-worm", a melody that just keeps running around in your head. One thing that works for me is to hum the subject of a Bach fugue. It wipes out the ear-worm, but is not the kind of thing that itself becomes another ear-worm.

1) I don't think there is any connection between what Schumann was doing and ear-worms. Imaginary music and music that infects the imagination are two different things!
2) But there really is a connection with Cage's 4'33. Good call! Cage wrote a piece that is just a frame for whatever sound-events occur. In that sense, he managed to reach the limits of the ontological basis of music. What Schumann is doing is rather more subtle (and I'm not even sure it works...). The written down, but unplayed melody is a kind of Platonic Form of the melody and what we actually hear in the right hand of the piano are the shadows flickering on the wall of the Cave.