Thursday, August 27, 2015

Unity and Complexity

Munroe C. Beardsley's book on Aesthetics is full of fascinating observations like this one:
It should be clear, now, that unity and complexity are distinct things and can vary independently within limits. Within limits because, first, the simplest things cannot but have a fairly high degree of unity, and, second, the most complex things will be difficult to unify, and perhaps cannot be as completely unified as less complex things. Unity and complexity are set over against each other: very broadly speaking, the former is increased by similarities of parts, the latter by differences.
His examples are particularly interesting. Leaving out the examples from visual arts, he goes on to say:
Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is much more complex than, say, Fauré's Requiem Mass, but it is probably not much less unified. On the other hand, Liszt's Les Préludes is much simpler than the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony in F major (No. 8), but it is also less unified.
If this seems contra-intuitive to you, consider that Beethoven is one of the greatest composers in terms of organic unity while Liszt's music tends to be much more atmospheric and loosely written.

Let's compare. Here is the first movement of the Beethoven:

And here is the Liszt:

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