Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

… Art founded on pain. Not since J.S. Bach have we encountered any notion that music should be anything but beautiful, and never have we encountered such a notion with reference to secular music. It implies an enormous change in the artist’s attitude toward his audience; and this, too, is a crucial component in any adequate definition of romanticism. The history of music in the nineteenth century – at any rate, of a very significant portion of it – could be written in terms of the encroachment of the sublime upon the domain of the beautiful, of the “great” upon the pleasant. (II, 644. Italics mine.)

As we begin to venture into Western music’s most fecund, or at least hallowed, century, we would do well to pause for a moment to remember what came before.

To begin with, recall the long history of vocal music’s dominance over the instrumental. Voices, after all, could declaim texts, and thus give the spectacle of music some sort of concrete meaning. Instrumental music lacked the same depth – how could it decisively mean in the absence of language? What it was good for, however, was play and pleasantry. A symphony made for great background music while the prince schmoozed with the count’s daughter. Instrumental music was pretty, pleasant, and sociable.

The Romantics flipped the story. Over a very brief period of time, the “meaningless” realm of instrumental music, what was labeled in typical Germanic bombast as “Absolute Music,” came to wrestle the philosophical high ground from vocal music. Ineffable, sublime (i.e. vast, terrifying), and infinite, instrumental music (particularly the symphony) was not just merry background music for a party; it was the Truth. Schopenhauer likened music to an embodiment of the universal Will, transcending mere language, code, and representation to strike at the actual thing in itself. The symphony – particularly Beethoven’s – was, in RT’s words, “great” and not simply pleasant; treating it as anything else would be a sort of sacrilege, a subversion of the rightful hierarchy of aesthetic values.

And what was left for vocal music after the revolution? It was certainly a lot harder for voices, with all those pesky, literal words that they like to produce, to reach the same level of sublimity as the symphony. Vocal music was denotative, with specific texts and specific semantic meanings; symphonic music, on the other hand, was connotative, abstract, deeply subjective, the perfect accompaniment to the era’s burgeoning lionization of the lone, autonomous individual.

Rarely in music history do aesthetic shifts take place so abruptly, and so violently. This account, of course, is a simplification; as RT is quick to admit, plenty of contradictory aesthetic cross-currents coexisted with the Romantics. Yet, what happened here was indeed profound; we’re still reeling from it, in fact. Rather than the gradual, processive change that usually informs the historical movement of the arts, this one was more of a reversal, a flip.

It’s a little like a canoe; you can put pressure on it and it will rock back and forth, but it still stays afloat. Then, when the tipping point is reached, it ceases to rock; suddenly, it flips and you’re in the water.  A crude metaphor, perhaps, but oddly apropos. For the next two + volumes of the book, we’ll be swimming in these deep waters.


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Upon hearing the second movement of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony (No. 100), one critic wrote of the “hellish roar of war increasing to a climax of horrid sublimity!”[1] It is difficult to fathom that this polite, classical symphony could be considered “hellish” and “horrid” sounding, conditioned as we jaded moderns are to music of a far more hellish affective character. Once you’ve heard Beethoven’s 9th, Götterdämmerung, The Rite of Spring, and 95% of new music since 1920 – not to mention the popular music spawn of hell, death metal – it is hard not to hear Haydn’s symphony as tame, even bordering on quaint. Have our ears changed that much in the intervening 200+ years since the Military Symphony debuted to rollicking success? In this regard, it has. The musical representation of fear, war, terror, and the enemy – what our 18th century reviewer called “horrid sublimity” – has morphed considerably from the contained Enlightenment aesthetic to today’s (post-)modern ethos, influenced as it is by expressionism, psychological realism, and Artaudian cruelty. Listening to Haydn’s symphony vividly demonstrates the historical variability of musical signs.

The first movement of the Military Symphony features a light, galloping rhythmic pattern (long-short-short) that is all energy, momentum, and drive. Affectively, the opening still carries strong connotations of a rousing adventure; it brings to mind “William Tell” and the “action music” sequences of the silent film era, conjuring images of square-jawed, bright-eyed men racing into the horizon on trusted steeds. There is a martial quality here as well, though not as blatant as in the next movement, which gives Symphony No. 100 its “Military” appellation.

As the allegretto opens, we get a sense that Haydn has eased back on the accelerator; while the first movement is full of motion and charge, this one begins with a moderately slow tempo and a dainty melody set to a dance-like rhythm. The theme is perfectly symmetrical, the very model of classical balance, and it conforms exactly to expectations; cadences are in the right places and harmonies move from one to the other in an orderly, predictable procession. Haydn is well known for his musical humor and his love of rhythmic tricks (think the “Surprise” Symphony, for instance), but there’s nothing at all unexpected about this opening. It is a portrait of musical civility and grace. And then come the Turks.

At 1:43, the C major of the placid opening is suddenly twisted into minor and the full ensemble enters forte with the opening material in the minor mode. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde element to this abrupt shift; it comes completely out of the blue, and with only one bar preparation (a descending minor triad in the low instruments), we go from the happy, stable ground of the opening to the invasion of the Ottoman army. Haydn draws upon an orchestrational novelty – an expanded battery of percussion instruments – to connote the Musselman hoards, particularly cymbals and triangle. It’s a wrenching transition, even to modern ears, although it must have been much more dramatic (and titillatingly terrifying) to the audiences of the late 18th century. The centerpiece of the movement, and indeed the whole symphony, is a gesture of musical orientalism, a portrait of the Other that is riddled with the semiotic codes of Turquerie (and let us not forget that Mozart dabbled in these codes as well). At 2:54, we’re back to the orderly, civilized opening theme in the major key, as if nothing had happened at all (or, if Dorothy was listening, “it was all just a dream!”). At 3:30, the percussion enters again, but the theme stays in the major mode. And at 4:43, another signifier of the military enters into the evolving musical narrative in a form of a (positively Mahlerian) solo bugle call. It seems the armies of Europe, and thus civilization, are on the march! At 4:55, the bugle cuts out and we hear a timpani roll crescendoing into a fortissimo Ab major (C in the bass), with full percussion support. This din is the “climax of horrid sublimity” referred to by the reviewer. Sabers rattle around us as we clash with the enemy in battle.

Haydn represents the enemy in this movement by means of musical exoticism. By dipping into the semiological pool of Turkish signifiers, he is able to tap into late 18th century anxieties about invaders from the south. The threat is presented, then promptly neutralized; we end the movement with full percussion, but all the fight has been drained from it, and it seems only to reinforce the opening materials, which serve as a musical representation of civility. There are two points during this movement that register the highest level of terror: when the Turkish percussion first enters and the melody suddenly lurches into the minor mode; and towards the end, when blaring tutti in a new key and rolling timpani (which was then considered a novel technique) conspire to make a warlike noise. In both instances, the threat quickly subsides. The enemy is safely contained.

At the heart of the difference between 18th century and modern representations of terror and the enemy is the question of aesthetic distance. There is a certain aloofness to the classical style; although Haydn shows us the raging Turks, he does so from a distance, placing a frame around the object of horror and allowing us to view the threat from afar, like zoo-going spectators watching the roaring lion from behind the reassuring comfort of a plexiglass wall. Audiences didn’t find the Military Symphony allegretto terrifying; they found it “deliciously terrifying.”[2] In other words, they always remembered that they were listening to a symphony, not a band of wild Turks; there was always a marked distinction between representation and reality. As Mozart put it in an oft-quoted letter, “music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music.”[3]

Here, in a nutshell, is the Enlightenment aesthetic of distance. A handful of years later, Kant published his Critique of Judgment, with its notion of “disinterested interest,” a classic formulation of this aesthetic principle. Terror and other extreme states were meant to be observed from a comfortable distance, not actually experienced. Both classical and modern representations of musical terror deal in the sublime, not in today’s sense of the word as “beauty,” but in the classical, Enlightenment understanding of the term – as overwhelming “awe.”[4] Yet the sublime is a moving target historically. What was “horrid sublimity” to Haydn and his contemporaries is practically cute today. The horror of warfare remains today what it was millennia ago; brutal, nauseating, and dumb. The way we represent these eternal conditions through music and the way we listen to sublime terror, however, have shifted profoundly since the 18th century. Terror itself is a universal; we just deal with it in different ways at different times. In Haydn’s day, the roaring lion would have been shot, taxidermized, and displayed for the public to gawk at; today, many people spend good money to view lions in person on safari. The lion is the same – the distance has changed.

[1] H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Volume III (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976-1980), 247.

[2] James Webster, “Haydn,” In New Grove Online, ed. Deane Root (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007-2010).

[3] Mozart, quoted in Richard Taruskin, “Resisting the Ninth,” 19th-Century Music 12/3 (Spring 1989), 249.

[4] For more, see ibid.

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When his music was pleasing, it was usually in order to indoctrinate or cajole. Just as often Bach aimed to torture the ear. (Vol. II, 364)

Not that people today would know this. We moderns, accustomed to Bach’s greatness since childhood, might take issue with RT’s assessment – how could the Bach of Mass in B Minor, Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Brandenbergs possibly torture the ear? His music is upheld as the very sine qua non of divine pulchritude. Just what is Taruskin talking about?

It’s a fair reaction to be taken aback by the suggestion that Bach regularly made deliberately ugly music. Indeed, for most of us, the only Bach we’ve ever heard has been rendered with perfect, crystalline clarity, grace, and beauty (or at least this has been the intent). Contemporary performance practice of Baroque music often dictates that the music should be “pretty” – this is an interpretive, aesthetic evaluation shared by much of the early music movement (along with their marketers), a point that RT makes careful effort to dissect in Text and Act. Of course Bach’s music is beautiful – after all, he’s the godfather of Western music. If his music is “good,” then it’s beautiful. Right?

Yes and no. It depends in large part on how we define beauty. Aesthetics is, of course, an ocean of a topic, and I can only hope to dip a toe in here. Thinkers have been pondering this question for ages, and RT’s treatment of Bach in this respect presents us with an ideal case study. Plato equated beauty with “the Good,” arguing that it was a reflection of the ideal manifested in our shadow world of mere forms. Further, he thought that music should reflect only beauty, even going as far as to equate beautiful music with goodness of character (The Republic, 97). It takes a good person to make good music, but, reciprocally, music can also ennoble or corrupt a person depending upon how beautiful it is. It’s the sworn duty of the musician, therefore, to only create music that is beautiful; there is a moral imperative to it. Indeed, the stability of the state depends on it.

To Bach, this classical view was poppycock, as was Enlightenment aesthetics. A devout Lutheran, Bach considered music to be the handmaiden of the truth. The goal was not necessarily the pursuit of disembodied beauty; rather, much of his music was put to the service of expressing ecclesiastical, theological realities. RT puts it magnificently: “Such music was a medium of truth, not beauty, and the truth it served – Luther’s truth – was often bitter. Some of Bach’s most striking works were written to persuade us – no, reveal to us – that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, and that reason is a snare.” (363) To paraphrase: life is ugly, and you need ugly music to express it. (This passage is positively punk rock-ian.)

How did Bach enact his aesthetics of ugliness? In many cases, he deliberately broke the rules of counterpoint, treating dissonance in ways that would have affected a sense of – in RT’s estimation – literal nausea. For example, see the bass aria from the cantata “Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,” BWV 13. Here, in a tangle of bizarre, unpredictable harmonic activity, is a series of parallel motion by sevenths, a forbidden (RT: “diseased”) musical gesture. Of course, the text of the aria begins with “Groaning and pitifully wailing or worrying won’t relieve sickness”; to be sure, musical beauty would hardly be appropriate for such a hard-core subject. Listen for all the devilish tritone leaps and worm-eaten chromaticisms. Here’s the aria, in all its ugly glory.

It’s a potent musical strategy, even to jaded, modern ears that are plenty used to dissonance. Another example of this form of deliberate ugliness can be found in the opening chorus of “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott.” There are a lot of disorienting cross-relations and harmonic leaps here that sound like mistakes (and this clip is Harnoncourt, so they’re definitely not!):

But Bach didn’t just conjure the ugly truth through sophisticated, “wrong” compositional gambits; he also deliberately set his musicians up to fail. RT’s example, the aria “Liebster Gott,” comes from BWV 179, wherein he pairs a boy soprano with two oboi da caccia (an ancestor of the English horn). Bach pushes his poor performers to the depths of their registers with notes so low that they would have been nearly impossible to tune correctly.

Not that people today would know this. Indeed, this piece is often performed now with modern English horns (though not in this clip), which can handle the low stuff with intonational aplomb. The boy soprano of old is replaced in most modern performances with women, who can easily hit all the right notes. In other words, the intended effect of ugliness, struggle, and ultimately failure is lost in most modern performances. Instead, it is rendered pretty.

This gets us back to the opening thoughts. It’s hard to imagine an “authentic” performance of such a piece today, with the pathetic boy soprano trying to hit pitches his little voice can’t muster (see around 3:40, which this singer handles beautifully). Is this piece still, then, ugly in the way Bach desired it to be? Or are we merely improving on it when we make it beautiful? Or – to go one step further – is the violation of its original truth content (which Bach valued above beauty) actually enough to make the modern performance uglier than the original? Is truth the same as beauty? (In which case, we can eschew the whole question.)

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