Saturday, December 14, 2013

Mining the World of Music

I have been spending a lot of time lately with Joseph Haydn, who did NOT make the New York Times' list of the top ten greatest classical composers. Right now I am reading a book on his life and works and listening my way through all his symphonies. I'm about 60% through both. So why?

An appropriate metaphor just popped into my mind that might clarify a bit. It is as if one is panning for gold. There are various little streams that come bounding down the mountain and you go from one to the other, trying your luck, looking for those little flecks of gold. Perhaps you slowly get a sense that the streams on one side of the mountain are just a bit richer. Then one day you find an actual small nugget of gold (yes, in the olden days, nuggets referred to gold and not to Chicken McNuggets!). You get an inkling that perhaps somewhere further up the mountain or deep within the mountain there may lie a vein of rich gold ore. Perhaps you climb higher and start digging.

Well, I have probably pushed that metaphor as far as it will go! What am I getting at? Sometimes I feel that music history is like a great stream. Sometimes in it you catch glimpses of flakes of aesthetic gold. Felicitous or charming passages, winning harmonies. Perhaps you follow these back to their source, hoping to find the vein of aesthetic gold. I think that is why I am digging around in Haydn these days.

As a composer I have become more and more distrustful of the ideologies that seem to lie behind many of the musical trends of the last hundred years. So much of modernism (and post-modernism for that matter) has turned out badly that I want to look for a different model. I am no longer comfortable with the post-Beethoven model of the tortured, solitary artist, pushing the forms to their limits, nor the modernist model of turning everything upside down and disdaining everything populist, nor the research model of turning music into some kind of science project, nor the épater la bourgeoisie project that will go to any lengths simply to offend.

Don't get me wrong, there has been superb music written under most, if not all, of these models starting with Beethoven and continuing with Debussy and Stravinsky. But so what? Now is not then and none of these models really appeal to me. What does appeal to me is re-examining how music is built, what is appealing, what is charming, what is entertaining without being vulgar or cheap. I want to write music that people will enjoy listening to, but music that is still original. Before the Romantic and Modernist projects, probably most composers tried to do the same. I don't really worry about echoing some music of the past as I recall a hilarious comment made by a theorist in the late 16th century that every single contrapuntal idea had already been tried! This didn't prevent Bach from coming up with all sorts of new contrapuntal ideas. Similarly, the fact that some people thought, in the early 20th century, that tonal harmony was completely exhausted, really shouldn't prevent someone now from re-inventing it--that is, if Steve Reich and Philip Glass haven't already done it.

In looking for a different model of composition, I kept catching glimpses of a composer who seemed to approach music in an interesting and unaffected way. He wrote a great deal of music and most of it was experimental in that he was always trying new forms and expressions but at the same time pleasing to his audience. Over a few decades he constructed a model of composition that was open, flexible, but captured some important things about the way we listen and how we enjoy music. His reward was that by the end of his life he was the most famous composer alive and inspired two other composers who did make that top ten list at numbers two and three: Beethoven and Mozart.

Of course, I am talking about Haydn. What I am up to is re-discovering for myself how Haydn created classical style. I am especially interested in those things that we seem to have lost interest in over the last two hundred years: things like phrase structure, layers of rhythmic contrast, harmonic tension and resolution and on and on. He's a gold mine, I tell you!

What I am discovering in the Haydn symphonies is an incredible range of ideas, only a few of which were taken up and developed by Mozart and Beethoven. Here is an example: the third movement, adagio cantabile, of his Symphony No. 68 in B-flat major. Here is Nicholas Harnoncourt conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The third movement starts at the 10:15 mark.

The rhythmic layers and dynamics are so unusual and surprising in that movement. And somehow he manages to sustain it for nearly fifteen minutes, a very long movement at the time when they tended to run six or seven minutes.

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