Archive for June, 2010

Once Schubert took ahold of the Lied (German song with keyboard accompaniment), it was never the same. He vested what was mainly a domestic genre with the power to express a Romantic aesthetic, one that fused ideals of Romantic poets with a growing analogous trend in music: a drive toward Innigkeit (“innerness”) as a new and more complete way of experiencing reality. The harmonic language that Schubert developed to express Innigkeit was the extensive topic of Taruskin’s second chapter of vol. III, where he explicates all the harmonic inner workings in some detail (cf. Zach’s recent post). In short, Schubert accomplished a dislodging of time—and thus entrance into what Taruskin calls the “music trance”—through particular use of the flat submediant and modal mixture.

In his Lied, “Am Meer” (“By the Sea”), Schubert also utilized modal mixture. In particular, the opening piano chords oscillate between major and minor triads in direct juxtaposition, to express the pathetic (that is, infused with pathos) and, more to the point of this post, the sublime. It is musical foreshadowing of love once tasted, becoming fatally poisonous, a fate that, when finally proclaimed by the poet at the end of the Lied, we realize has loomed all along. Having asked the question of how harmony expresses the sublime, Taruskin pushes the question one step further: does the harmonic expressivity and evocation transfer into his instrumental works? The answer is yes, and the evidence is Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C Major. Taruskin connects the dots, so to speak, between “Am Meer” and the quintet, noting that both open with modal mixture. Is it mere coincidence? Not likely:

Without the eccentric context provided by the poem, one thinks, such a progression could have no meaning at all. But then one hears the very opening of the Quintet in C Major, composed the same year as “Am Meer,” and one has to think again. The same kind of uncanny juxtaposition materializes […]. Yet it materializes in an imaginatively open-ended context, all the more arcane for its being wordless. (III, 138-139)

Taruskin, immediately connects another dot that is surely pressing on the musicologist’s mind as she follows the argument:

In which context did such arcane eloquence originate? Impossible—tantalizingly, blessedly impossible—to say. The combination of an extreme subjective expressive immediacy and an unspecified or “objectless” context is what gave rise to the sublime romantic notion of “absolute music”—one of the most potent, but also one of the most widely misunderstood, of all romantic concepts.

Naturally, the misunderstood concept that Taruskin refers to is “absolute music,” hotly debated to this very day among musicologists. But there is another term in Taruskin’s last sentence that could be “widely misunderstood”—if not by specialists, then at least by the general reader. That is the notion of the sublime, an equal or perhaps more important concept than absolute music, when talking about Schubert and his Romantic comrades. And that will be the subject of my next post, the second in this two-part series.

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It’s fairly mind-boggling to ponder what Franz Schubert managed to accomplish in his scant 31 years of life. As is typically (and tragically) the case, the composer’s music was not fully recognized until years after his death, when later symphonists began to realize the sui generis force of his harmonic language. Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance, acknowledged Schubert’s profound influence on modern harmony, indicating that he was “the first composer in whom one can meet such bold and unexpected modulations” (III, 105). These sentiments are echoed heartily by RT in what is perhaps the book’s most theoretical passage yet (pages 87-113). Although the flat submediant was not new to Schubert, he utilized it to such an electrifying effect as to cement this piquant sound henceforth in the Romantic vocabulary of musical Innigkeit. Rather than simply an approach to the dominant, Schubert uses the flat 6 as a pivot chord to all sorts of far-flung harmonic regions. Further, embedded in this harmony is the interval of the MA3, the implication of which Schubert explored in such depths as to generate some of the earliest examples of blatant whole-tone usage in the Western tradition.

What RT does not discuss in this exceptionally rich passage, however, is Schubert’s brilliant, mercurial rhythmic sensibilities. There are rhythmic passages in Schubert of such a buoyant, playful, and overwhelmingly sophisticated nature as to make one forget the “music trance”-inducing harmonies and just marvel at the sheer rhythmic invention. For example, take the third movement to his 4th “Tragic” Symphony of 1816:

(You can download the score to the movement here. It helps to see what’s going on.) From the second the starting gun goes off, we’re thrown into a deeply ambiguous metric dissonance. The first note sounds like the downbeat of a measure of triple meter: phrases are arranged in symmetrical patterns that correspond to such a reading. But wait. The movement actually starts with a pickup, and for the entire exposition we have to run to catch up. The movement is “off” from the very beginning.

Playing at the edge of this hyper-chromatic unison is an implied 2 against 3; regular syncopations accentuate the underlying duple. Only at select moments does this rhythmic dissonance boil to the surface – for example, at 0:51 (7 measures before the repeat in the score). This eccentric rhythmic gambit structures the whole section. It’s a stunningly original design, and one’s jaw has to drop when we remember that the composer was a lad of 19 when he wrote it. The symphony’s title (“Tragic”), which was given to the work by Schubert himself, is all too apt a word when contemplating everything that this firefly of a composer might have accomplished had he lived as long as Richard Strauss or Stravinsky. Tragic indeed.

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It’s not every day that you hear musicologists speaking on radio talk shows.

NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook did a show on Beethoven’s Ninth yesterday afternoon (with guest music historian Harvey Sachs) that is well worth checking out. Sachs recently published a new book on Beethoven’s controversial masterpiece that goes into some social detail about the 1824 debut of the work and what it meant in the context of the composer’s Vienna, a place that was rapidly turning into, as Sachs puts it, the “first modern police state.” Although Beethoven doesn’t have a lot to say on politics, it’s hard to discuss the “brotherly union” of the Ode to Joy without looking into the political and philosophical underpinnings of the composer’s massive symphony. The work has simply been used for too many purposes over the years to ignore it, a fact highlighted by audio clips from both Hitler’s birthday in 1942 and Bernstein conducting the Berlin phil on the occasion of the destruction of the Wall in 1990. Indeed, the Ninth is a Protean piece that can used to “mean” just about anything.

For all of its canonical power, Beethoven’s final symphony is a deeply ambiguous work. As Maynard Solomon points out in his 1986 article “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: A Search for Order,” the composer wanted us to search for grand meanings in his music; however, the codes he employs are simply too heterogeneous to be read in any one way. (This is evinced by the sheer number of explanations provided for the work over the years. It reminds me of what James Joyce said about Finnegans Wake – “I’ve written a book that will keep the scholars guessing for generations.”) The one thing people can agree on is the symphony’s unprecedented scope and extremity of expression, what Solomon calls its “profoundly modernist perspective.” Solomon adds that “Beethoven’s music sought to disrupt,” concluding that the disruptive force of the symphony and its irreconcilable ambiguities have allowed it to mean vastly different things to different people over the years.

Taruskin weighs in on Solomon’s argument in his 1989 article “Resisting the Ninth.” (This unique piece – well, not unique to RT – begins as a record review and spirals into a provocative meditation on the 9th symphony, only to return to the record in question at the end. It’s a tour de force of critical/scholarly amalgamation in the style of his Berkeley colleague Joseph Kerman.) Building on Solomon, RT argues that the “disruption” at the heart of the symphony presents us with something fundamentally dangerous – it promises sublimity and universal brotherhood, and if you believe yourself to be on the side of such Big Ideas (as did Hitler), then it can be used to justify anything. However, neuter the work of this potent danger and you risk neutering everything powerful (and historical) about it. Indeed, some modern conductors white wash the uncomfortable elements of the Ninth by eschewing the fundamental (and subversive) vagueness of the work by specifying every detail. This, in effect, “defangs the beast.” (It also destroys it.)

Solomon’s article can be downloaded here; for the Taruskin, go here.

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In chapter 1 of volume three, Taruskin goes a few rounds with the most popular form of musical entertainment of the early nineteenth century: opera. Right from the starting bell, Taruskin uses contrast as a way to cast his examples, pitting Beethoven’s lone opera against Rossini’s plethora of operas. I have organized the rest of the chapter in similar head to head battles below, with accompanying audio/visual examples. The point? Rossini can hold his own in the ring against pretty much anybody.

Rossini vs. Beethoven—Though Beethoven’s legend long overshadowed Rossini’s talent in the history books, Taruskin follows the recent trend of righting the imbalance. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio. He tinkered with it for a decade and wrote no fewer than four overtures for it. Rossini, on the other hand, could write an opera almost in the time it took Beethoven to strap on his boots. He wrote his famous Barber of Seville in about three weeks, and its overture is reused wholesale from an earlier opera. These two arias capture well the widely contrasting roles that these two composers played for history. Rossini was Beethoven’s “great counterweight.”

Beethoven, Fidelio, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!”

Rossini, Barber of Seville, “Largo al Factotum”


Rossini vs. Paisiello—When Rossini wrote The Barber, he was not seizing on an open market. The play by Beaumarchais had already been set, and very successfully so, by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782.

Paisiello, Barber of Seville, Overture

Rossini, Barber of Seville, Overture


Rossini vs. Rossini—Composers take on their own brand identity to history. Or should I say historians and critics often apply brand-like characteristics to composers. For instance, Mozart is the precocious melodist, Beethoven is the isolated genius, and Stravinsky is the couture modernist. Rossini’s brand is typically informed by his comedies, for which he is best known today, and the excerpt below from L’Italiana in Algeri is representative (can you count how many times they sing “bum bum”?). But in his own day, Rossini was equally known as a composer of serious opera. “Di tanti palpiti,” from his 1913 opera Tancredi, was the most famous aria he ever wrote. These serious operas were a continuation of 18th century seria conventions, not a part of the “innovative” buffa scene, and that is perhaps why they have not been as well remembered.

Rossini, L’Italiana in Algieri, Act I Finale

Rossini, Tancredi, “Di Tanti Palpiti” (The cabaletta of the title starts at 4:28)


Rossini vs. Bellini and Donizetti—Even though Rossini retired at a young age (and then ate his way through the rest of his life), there were plenty of whippersnappers ready to pick up where he left off. He lived long enough to witness the furor and popularity of both Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti’s careers. Below are two of their most famous scenes: “Casta Diva” is the quintessential example of the bel canto style, and Donizetti’s Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor became an example that every mad scene that followed—and there were many—tried to live up to.

Bellini,  Norma, “Casta Diva”

Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Mad Scene

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Accompanied by the rousing flourishes of Beethoven’s oft-maligned Wellington’s Victory, it is with great Freude that we announce the commencement of Volume III! We’re starting into the next volume right as the school year ends (coincidence?), so expect another couple posts on Vol. II as we digest the incredibly rich last couple chapters without the distraction of papers to write and assignments to grade.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never actually heard Wellington’s Victory until now. I’ve heard how awful and un-Beethovenian it is, of course, but I’ve never given it a listen. It’s true, the piece has gotten a bad rap over the years. This is perhaps the most universally mocked piece of the Beethoven oeuvre (and of the whole 19th century); even the usually even-handed (with ironic quotes?) RT describes it as “of a calculated popular appeal,” “noisy,” and a “piece of orchestral claptrap” (II, 672). Indeed, Wellington’s Victory (1813) has become the quintessential reminder that genius composers can produce tripe too.

But are we being fair in this assessment? It’s hard to deny the “noisiness” of the piece, as well as the sappiness of the fugal rendition of “God Save the King” (1:46); this sort of thing sounds like a bad medley for high school band. But Beethoven wasn’t writing his “Battle Symphony” for posterity. Rather, it’s the product of a commission, an unabashed appeal to popularity and the burgeoning market principle, an “early fruit of musical capitalism.” Wellington’s Victory is undeniably a piece of “use” music, in other words; it was not written to be silently contemplated, like his more sublime symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas. It is calculated to be a crowd-pleasing spectacle, and on that count, the piece is (and was) a success. Compared to the Ninth, of course Wellington’s Victory leaves a lot to be desired as a piece of “autonomous musical art.” But autonomous musical art this was not.

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Up until around the year 1550, sacred music makes up the vast majority of what we study as musicologists. (This isn’t, of course, because people were only singing sacred music until then – sacred music just happens to have been notated and passed down more efficiently than its secular counterpart.) All of the beautiful chant, motets, masses, chorales, Lutheran cantatas, etc. that RT has been discussing for the last 1,400 or so pages were “use” music; they were created and performed for specific functions, and context was everything. This, indeed, was why the music registered as sacred: with settings of Scripture and an indispensable role in ritual and worship, sacred music confirmed, embodied, and celebrated the core tenets of the faith.

As we move into the 19th century, however, a new form of sacred music is emerging. Ironically, the ever increasing secularization of music in the 17th and 18th centuries led to a “sacralization” of the arts in the 19th. This cultural process is fascinating and really complex, the dual prerequisites for a bloated, unreadable post. For that reason I’ll be taking a stab at addressing a few of the major points to consider in a series of short posts. This is by no means meant to be comprehensive, so please jump in with thoughts and links to help flesh these ideas out! That said, let’s dive right in…

If sacralization implied inhibition of spontaneous performer behavior, that is nothing compared with the constraints that were imposed on audiences, who were now expected (and are still expected) to behave in concert halls the way they behaved in church.   (II, 651)

Traditionally, musicologists have focused their work on (at the risk of sounding obvious) the music itself, while tending to downplay the social history of listening in which the great works find themselves situated. RT has gestured towards this issue numerous times throughout the text, from descriptions of the carnival atmosphere of opera seria performances to reminders that the great masses of Josquin would have been heard in chunks over the course of the ritual, not in its totality as a “work,” as it is today.* As we’ve seen (and commented upon), prior to the period we’re now moving into, music was “functional” and, as such, served a fundamentally social purpose, binding communities together, enhancing religious ritual, and enlivening parties. During the 19th century, however, listening practices in Europe and America began to gradually shift in ways that, in hindsight, turned out to be quite profound.

Audiences throughout the 19th century and into the 20th were more and more expected to listen in captivated, silent awe, rather than the more social, distracted concert culture of yore. The dark, quiet cocoon of the modern concert hall is, indeed, a result of these shifts. Where once religion served the socially sanctioned role as the site of mystical transcendence and ritual, now this experience came to be associated with high art and the Geniuses who created it. The secular had become the sacred.

Of course, the silencing of the concert hall was a very gradual process that occurred unevenly around the globe. For instance, critic George Templeton Strong, writing in New York in 1858, describes the audience at a Phil concert as “crowded and garrulous, like a square mile of tropical forest with its flock of squalling paroquets [sic] and troops of chattering monkeys.” By the early 20th century, however, the near-total subjugation of noisy concert-going behavior seems to have been more or less complete. Even conductors were in on the policing of noise in the service of creating a reverential, indeed sacred space for performance. Pierre Monteux, for example, rapped on the podium with his baton to silence the audience; Koussevitzky folded his arms and quietly, condescendingly waited. Leopold Stokowski was perhaps the era’s strictest silence enforcer: he would actually stop conducting mid performance to lecture the audience on “unnecessary noise,” which included applause: “Don’t talk, don’t rattle your programs, just listen noiselessly.**

Any classical music lover today knows the drill. And in many ways this is absolutely for the good; some writers tend to wax nostalgic for the chattery old days, but we’ve all sat next to a whispering couple and we know how annoying this can be. Further, many works written in the last 200 years were designed for precisely this sort of a space; a composer in 1700 probably wouldn’t have had the audacity to open an opera with a PPP drone, like Wagner does in Das Rheingold. It probably would have been inaudible.

The sacralization of the performance hall, a process with roots in the 19th century and the Romantic aesthetic, was fundamentally tied to new ways of understanding the individual, a subject I hope to take up in another post. It was less about the public, social experience of music and more about the interiority of listening, the individual, subjective contemplation of sublime works. (Stokowski even had plans for a “Temple of Music,” complete with pitch-black listening chambers for each individual in the audience.) In the age of iPods and noise-canceling headphones, this sort of disembodied, individualized listening might seem completely natural. Most music listening in modern society is indeed solitary. We would do well to remember that this is a wild historical aberration; for most of history, and for many in the world today, music is fundamentally about people, bodies, sociality, sharing. The sacralization of listening elevated the status of music profoundly; it also created a distance between the holy masterworks and the isolated individuals listening to them.

(For more on this, see Alex Ross’s spectacularly interesting post here.)

* A couple of great sources that deal with this question: Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow; James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris; Christopher Small, Musicking.

** See Levine, 180-192.

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