AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

January 23, 2006

Episode Five: Sonata Form and the Purists

I’m appending Episode Four to the end of this new episode. For various reasons, I don’t think that many people read it. In it (among other things) I described how classical music functions, as a form of music that evolves in premeditated ways over spans of time, using as my example the Pastoral Symphony (which, as faithful readers know, has also borne the weight of other things I’ve wanted to discuss). I talked a lot about the way the opening melody of the symphony starts, and then stops, and identified the way it stops as something almost unique to classical music. Then I described what happens next, eventually evolving a little chart. And rather than summarize any further, I’ll just reproduce the end of Episode Four, as a way of making a transition into Episode Five.

And please note: a summary of Episodes One, Two, and Three will come at the end of this one, before the text of Episode Four.

Here’s the end of Episode Four:

So now we have music that:

starts

pauses

starts again, and goes on longer

and then finds another way to pause.

How does it pause this second time? Instead of stopping on a colon, it winds down by repeating the same little fragmentary musical idea, a little rising scale, which maybe sounds like someone walking. It repeats this fully 10 times, getting louder, and then falling quiet once again.

And so now, at this point in the piece, we have a little gallery of musical ideas. First, the melody the music started with. Then whatever new thoughts Beethoven might have offered in what we heard when the music started up a second time. And then the more abstract idea of starting something, and then pausing it; we’ve heard that happen twice, so already it’s started to play a more than casual role in how the Pastoral develops.

These abstract notions can be wonderfully productive, over long and thoughtful spans of time. In another string quartet I’ve written, the music often stumbles to a halt, as if it can’t quite figure out where it wants to go. Then, near the end, there’s a silence whose exact length is up to the musicians, but which should last at least a minute. This turns out to be the climax of the piece. The first time the music stumbles into silence, the silence doesn’t mean much. It didn’t mean much to me when I composed it. But each time they return, these silences grow more important. At some point, when I realized that silence would be a recurring feature of this piece, I added a motto to the title page, a famous line from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And once silence was recurrent, it could bear more weight; it could even grow into a climax. So finally, in Beethoven, in the short span of the Pastoral that we’ve explored so far, there’s one more idea, the little walking figure that repeats 10 times—which after it becomes established grows into something wonderful and unexpected, my favorite passage in the entire piece.

So now, as the Pastoral continues, with all these fine ideas in play, we hear something new. This new music is a flowing passage for the strings, and it’s remarkable in many ways, not least for what I have to call its muscular serenity. It moves forward with what feels like easy determination, and yet at the same time it seems in no hurry to go anywhere at all. That’s in part because it oscillates between just two chords (C and G on the guitar), plainly having no immediate need to pick up the harmonic pace, to go anywhere in purely chordal terms.

But what’s also remarkable is how little melodic shape this music has, compared at least to the melodies in the sections we’ve already heard. When I was in elementary school, we had art classes, and we’d talked about making either drawings (by which we meant drawings of something) or “designs” (which of course would be abstract patterns). This new music in the Pastoral is clearly a design. Lazily it falls through the notes in the chords it outlines, confident enough to move forward without doing much to grab anyone’s attention. I can imagine Beethoven, walking in the countryside, stretching as he walks.

But things happen as this design unfolds. The lazy falling pattern, moving through the notes of the chords, starts in the first violins, where it’s higher than anything else we’re hearing. Then it gets played by the second violins, mixed right in the middle of the texture, and finally it sings out in the cellos and basses, lower than everything else. And during all this we also hear another lazy musical idea, moving along at the same time as the falling pattern, beginning in the bass, and moving upwards to the first violins. The design, in other words, is animated. One musical idea in it moves downward, another moves up. The design doesn’t simply sit there. All its pieces keep on changing places.

And before we know it, the woodwinds join in, adding volume to the sound, and giving it a lovely glow. At this point, Beethoven puts a marking in his score that says the music should start getting louder, and the extra oomph of this crescendo (along with the added woodwinds) gives the music strength enough to flower into new and lovely bits of melody.

So now the shape of what we’ve heard looks like this:

The music starts (with the opening melody)

then it pauses

then it starts again, and goes on longer, getting louder

then it finds another way to pause (with lots of repetition).

Then it starts doing something new (the musical design, with all its pieces changing places),

and then it gets louder once again

From which we can see that there’s another musical idea that Beethoven cares enough about to repeat—the idea of something starting quietly, and getting louder. We’ve entered new musical territory (the design, with all the shifting parts), but still the same kinds of things keep happening. The symphony, in other words, keeps showing that it’s unified. And what happens next? The music, having gotten louder, now subsides, and in doing so repeats another now-familiar idea, of music that gets loud and then relaxes. And it relaxes once again into repetition, which is still another musical idea that we’ve gotten used to, and which brings us still more unity.

So now the Pastoral shapes up like this:

The music starts (with the opening melody)

then pauses

then starts again, and goes on longer, getting louder

then finds another way to pause, subsiding into repetition.

It then starts doing something new (the musical design),

then gets louder once again

and subsides once more into repetition.

There’s logic here, and organization. There’s also a delightful question that gripping music ought to make us ask. What’s going to happen next?

But there’s also something else I haven’t mentioned yet. I haven’t mentioned that this movement is written in sonata form, a common musical procedure which composers of the late 18th and early l19th centuries generally used in the first movements of their large-scale pieces.

And here we start swimming in deep and fascinating waters. I’ve mentioned earlier that many people think that musical structure is what makes classical music special. They might think that that classical music is the only kind of music with form and structure worth talking about. Or, which just about amounts to the same thing, they might think that classical music is the only kind of music in which musical forms are consciously constructed, and that this gives classical music extra depth. (This is what Julian Johnson thinks; as I’ve mentioned, it’s the main idea in his book Who Needs Classical Music? I guess we’ll just have to forget about those jazz guys, who just make it up as they go along. Apparently that’s kid stuff.)

So if we believe all this, it’s musical structure that gives classical music all its special meaning. And many people do believe it, fervently. Students are taught it in music school; critics believe it, and thus often talk about musical structure in almost reverent tones. Many people even say that without special education in musical structure, you can’t understand classical music at all (and that this in part explains why classical music is dropping out of sight in our culture; people simply aren’t taught to understand it).

And sonata form is supposed to be the most important underlying structure in all of classical music. So by daring to discuss the structure of the first movement of the Pastoral without mentioning sonata form, I’ve almost fallen into heresy. How can I ignore the most important thing going on in the music?

Well, I don’t intend to ignore it. But I also don’t think it’s transcendently important, and to start explaining why, I’ll take a moment to say what sonata form is, for people who might not have a classical music education (and who, I want to strongly say, are important readers for this book, just as important as classical music insiders). Though I’m also speaking here to classical music insiders, because my idea of sonata form may not be what most of us have learned.

What is sonata form? It’s a way of organizing spans of music, spans that might last anywhere from two or three minutes to half an hour, or even more. It’s not at all complicated; I first learned about it in junior high school, from a music teacher who taught it to my entire eighth-grade class. (This, for anybody curious, was in a New York City private school. But don’t assume the kids were interested! This was in 1956, and they were mostly listening to rock & roll, just like everyone their age throughout America.)

Sonata from tells a fairly basic story, of departure and return. It starts with what’s called an exposition, in which various musical ideas are heard. Then comes a section called the development, in which there’s less stability, because here the ideas heard in the exposition get transformed. And last comes the recapitulation, where the ideas heard in the exposition come back again, more or less in their original form. That’s all there is—exposition, development, and recapitulation, three technical terms that might sound forbidding if you ran across them, undefined, in a classical music review or program note, but whose meaning could hardly be more simple. First there’s a statement of ideas, then a departure from that (or an elaboration on it), and then a return to it, with a restatement of everything we heard in the beginning.

So how does this work in the first movement of the Pastoral? Well, what I’ve been describing is the exposition, the initial statement of Beethoven’s musical ideas. Which answers, at least in a general way, the question I asked about what’s coming next. The development is coming. And that, in turn, shows one benefit we get from knowing sonata form. A movement of a symphony gets easier to write about (and easier to read about, too), because now we have names for some of the things that are going to happen.

But how much does it matter what we say when we write about music? Listening is more important. And certainly it helps to know sonata form when we listen, because that makes the music easier to follow; we’ll always know where we are. But do we have to know sonata form? I can’t imagine why. The overall progress of a piece in sonata form—building a home, then leaving it, and coming back again—should be clear to both your ear and your heart, even if you don’t know what each of those three stages in the journey are called. And if the progress isn’t clear, that’s the composer’s fault, not yours. The shape of Beethoven’s sonata-form movements is unmistakable. The progress from exposition to recapitulation can feel like a narrative, or even an adventure. The development section might be a trip through uncertainty or struggle; the recapitulation might explode like a return, triumphantly, to light.

And I suspect that for people in Beethoven’s time, the story that the music told was more important than the details of the form. Everybody understood the form, so they didn’t need to talk about it. Christopher Small (in Musicking, the book I’ve quoted from before) notes emphatically that neither Beethoven nor Mozart ever talked about sonata form, in their letters or in records of their conversations. And maybe they didn’t need to. Sonata form was the water that they swam in, the feeling in the air, the direction that the roads all went in. You didn’t need to think about it; it was simply what you did, when you wrote a certain kind of music. And sure, maybe you’d get together with a colleague or a musical friend, and say, “Hey, look at the neat way I got back into the recapitulation,” but then you would have been like a baseball pitcher in our time, showing exactly how he grips the ball to throw a slider. You’d be talking about a technicality, a fine point, the kind of thing professionals discuss, but that nobody else is forced to know about.

So then why do some of us think that these classical music technicalities are so important? I can think of two reasons. First, some things about classical music got to be something like a fetish in the first part of the 19th century. That’s because the music itself started to have a special significance. Never before had music from the past been widely performed; people wanted to hear what was new. But now, in the early 19th century, with social norms starting to be questioned, and industry starting to change the face of society—and with a rising middle class flocking to flamboyant operas and to even more flamboyant concerts by virtuoso pianists and violinists—a group of connoisseurs wanted to preserve the lofty standards of the past. So they made a fetish (maybe understandably) of “our great masters,” Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The ways these masters composed began to be codified, and maybe for the first time, sonata form emerged as a subject for reverent study. (Which did no favors for composers like Schumann and Brahms, who wanted to compose in the old styles. The past could sit like a heavy weight on their shoulders. I should add, inside this parenthesis, that I don’t know enough about the 18th and 19th century understanding of sonata form. When did the terms exposition, development, and recapitulation come into use? Was there any self-conscious understanding of sonata form in the 18th century, or is that purely a 19th century phenomenon? These are things I’ll have to research before I write the final version of this book.)

Second, we in our time may well make a fetish of classical music’s form because we’ve lost touch with its content. This can easily be understood as a continuation of the process that began in the early 19th century. (Which, by the way, was the time when the very term “classical music” came into being. Nobody before this had any concept of any such thing. But when those connoisseurs decided to promote the music of the masters of the past, they called it “classical music,” in opposition to opera and flashy concerts by virtuosos, which they called quite literally “popular music.” For more on this, see William Weber’s important book, Music and the Middle Class.) Suddenly a Beethoven symphony isn’t just music. It’s music with transcendent value.

What gives it that value? A combination of things, I think—partly the way you feel when you hear it, partly the influence it has on other music going on around you, and partly, you’d be happy to imagine, something inherent in its deepest core. Throughout the 19th century, there wasn’t any problem with the first two of these things, so the growing belief in number three might not have done much harm. (Though it did make German musicians just a little bit insufferable to everybody else; note that “our great masters” all were German.)

But then came the 20th century, and the rise of modernism, which all at once made Beethoven quite a lot less influential. And then came our time, when classical music itself recedes from view. How can you measure Beethoven’s value now? It simply can’t be read from anything in the world around us, since Beethoven hardly figures in that world. And so it’s very tempting now to believe that Beethoven’s value comes from something coded into the very notes that Beethoven wrote. Nothing can destroy that; even if hardly anybody hears the music, the transcendent value still lives on within it. And of course we can extend that to all classical music; its transcendent value lives within the notes that all the great composers wrote. And where within the notes can we find this value? In the patterns that the notes make, or in other words in musical procedures like sonata form, whose virtue, if we’re trying to find transcendent value somewhere, is that they can be tangibly identified. You can point to them: These notes build that structure. That’s something to hold on to, even something to cling to, a security blanket for people terrified that classical music may have lost every other meaning.

Where this is going: As should be obvious by now, I’m trying to blow up the notion that classical music’s value lies in its form—while also showing how its form makes it distinctive. But being distinctive doesn’t carry any value! I’m going to go on discussing the Pastoral, to show what happens in the development and the recapitulation, while also pointing out that the procedures of sonata form have very little to do with what makes the piece interesting. Other pieces in sonata form, in fact, will be interesting in very different ways, something that’s easily apparent if you compare the Pastoral to any other Beethoven symphony.

I want to continue this line of thought by looking at Webern’s Piano Variations. I want to describe what makes them wonderful to me, and then show—with help, as you’ll see, from Webern himself—that their 12-tone structure has nothing to do with anything that makes them wonderful. (Twelve-tone structure being, of course, yet another fetish for those who think the form of classical music has such great importance.)

Maybe I’ll look at some other pieces that construct their form in notably non-classical ways—Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Gavin BryarsJesus Love Never Failed Me Yet, or maybe I’ll return to Alvin Lucier’s Music for a Long Thin Wire. But soon I’ll bring the discussion around to pop music, and ask why classical music purists—Julian Johnson is a notable example—reject pop music so strongly, hating it so very much that they make flagrantly false statements about it. The answer, I think, is that they hate and fear the world they live in, for which pop music becomes an important symbol. Classical music then becomes a refuge from that world. And not just for purists—classical music in fact does function as a refuge, whether anyone involved wants it to or not.

Once I’ve said that, I’m going to reconceive the book, which I think has gotten off on not quite the right foot. I’ll explain that in due course.

The next episode—as I continue posting episodes every other week—will go online on February 6.

 

Episode Four: Structural Delights

 

As I start the fourth episode of my online book improvisation, I want to step back for a moment, and say some things that belong in the book’s introduction, whenever the book is finally finished.

And it’s because I didn’t write an introduction that I have to these things now. I’ve been talking a lot about what I might call a theoretical view of classical music—how I think classical music should be defined, and what Julian Johnson thinks classical music is, and how Christopher Small thinks classical music functions.

There are reasons for all of this. First, I’m not the only one who’s explored these issues, and I ought to acknowledge what others say, especially people I’ve learned a lot from. That certainly includes Christopher Small, and also the “new musicologists,” as they’re called, scholars who emerged in the 1980s and who look at classical music not simply as a musical phenomenon, but as a part of the culture that surrounds it. I’m especially grateful to my old friend Susan McClary, who’s still most famous (and sometimes, absurdly, still notorious) as a pioneering feminist in musicology, though there’s much more to her work than that. I started raising my classical music questions more or less in isolation in the 1980s (apart from support I’d get from friends), and soon enough learned that Susan and Christopher Small had been moving down similar paths. But they did it in their own ways, so I’ve learned a lot from them.

And their rise to prominence—Susan’s, I mean, and Chrstopher Small’s—shows that their ideas have gotten traction. Susan won a MacArthur prize, and now is a leading member of the musicology department at UCLA, which she used to head. (The current department head is her husband and coconspirator, Rob Walser, author of a terrific musicological study of heavy metal.) Small’s books are widely quoted; a few years ago he gave a keynote speech at the Chamber Music America national conference.

And of course my own surprising influence is yet another sign that new ideas about classical music are catching on. (They have to catch on; as I’ve been finding out firsthand, the field—or at least the classical music field as we know it—might well die, if something isn’t done.) So I’ve also got to give a shout to more recent voices, especially including Alex Ross, the New Yorker classical music critic, whose visionary piece on the future of classical music back in 2004 was an inspiration to all sorts of people. (It was quite literally photocopied, before it was available online, and passed from one person to another.) Plus—and it’s very important to mention this!—I have to acknowledge (and just about hug) a small army of mostly unsung people who work in the classical music biz. They’re at big institutions, and at smaller ones; they’re musicians, administrators, board members, radio broadcasters, marketers, presenters, composers, critics, schoars, bloggers, publicsts, you name it. They’re honeycombed throughout the business, and they keep on contacting me, new people every week, encouraging me, trying out my suggestions, sometimes hiring me to help out with their projects, and—best of all—feeding me information and ideas. I’d be a churl if I didn’t thank them, or if I didn’t thank the people who’ve made comments on my book, or if I didn’t thank Susan, Christopher Small, or Alex, and so many other writers. Nobody is an island, and that’s especially true in any cultural movement. Nobody changes a culture all alone.

As I start the fourth episode of my online book improvisation, I want to step back for a moment, and say some things that belong in the book’s introduction, whenever the book is finally finished.

And it’s because I didn’t write an introduction that I have to these things now. I’ve been talking a lot about what I might call a theoretical view of classical music—how I think classical music should be defined, and what Julian Johnson thinks classical music is, and how Christopher Small thinks classical music functions.

There are reasons for all of this. First, I’m not the only one who’s explored these issues, and I ought to acknowledge what others say, especially people I’ve learned a lot from. That certainly includes Christopher Small, and also the “new musicologists,” as they’re called, scholars who emerged in the 1980s and who look at classical music not simply as a musical phenomenon, but as a part of the culture that surrounds it. I’m especially grateful to my old friend Susan McClary, who’s still most famous (and sometimes, absurdly, still notorious) as a pioneering feminist in musicology, though there’s much more to her work than that. I started raising my classical music questions more or less in isolation in the 1980s (apart from support I’d get from friends), and soon enough learned that Susan and Christopher Small had been moving down similar paths. But they did it in their own ways, so I’ve learned a lot from them.

And their rise to prominence—Susan’s, I mean, and Chrstopher Small’s—shows that their ideas have gotten traction. Susan won a MacArthur prize, and now is a leading member of the musicology department at UCLA, which she used to head. (The current department head is her husband and coconspirator, Rob Walser, author of a terrific musicological study of heavy metal.) Small’s books are widely quoted; a few years ago he gave a keynote speech at the Chamber Music America national conference.

And of course my own surprising influence is yet another sign that new ideas about classical music are catching on. (They have to catch on; as I’ve been finding out firsthand, the field—or at least the classical music field as we know it—might well die, if something isn’t done.) So I’ve also got to give a shout to more recent voices, especially including Alex Ross, the New Yorker classical music critic, whose visionary piece on the future of classical music back in 2004 was an inspiration to all sorts of people. (It was quite literally photocopied, before it was available online, and passed from one person to another.) Plus—and it’s very important to mention this!—I have to acknowledge (and just about hug) a small army of mostly unsung people who work in the classical music biz. They’re at big institutions, and at smaller ones; they’re musicians, administrators, board members, radio broadcasters, marketers, presenters, composers, critics, schoars, bloggers, publicsts, you name it. They’re honeycombed throughout the business, and they keep on contacting me, new people every week, encouraging me, trying out my suggestions, sometimes hiring me to help out with their projects, and—best of all—feeding me information and ideas. I’d be a churl if I didn’t thank them, or if I didn’t thank the people who’ve made comments on my book, or if I didn’t thank Susan, Christopher Small, or Alex, and so many other writers. Nobody is an island, and that’s especially true in any cultural movement. Nobody changes a culture all alone.

 

And now for those theoretical questions. Why should I haggle so much about the definition of classical music—don’t we know it when we see it?—and all the other sometimes abstract questions I and others have been poking at? Answer: Because theoretical discussion is important; it can really change the things we all go out and do. We know that there’s a crisis (the shrinking audience, the mounting evidence that classical music, as it’s functioned in the past, may soon become financially untenable). We know that things are changing. We know that people debate the changes that are happening, that some people resist them—and that their resistance is based on their ideas about what classical music ought to be.

So right away we’re talking theory. Not long ago, I led a day-long discussion with a group of presenters from one region of the US, people who produce performing arts events, and can’t get enough people to buy tickets when they offer a classical concert. (The shrinking audience, I’ve found from talks with people all over classical music, isn’t something we’re not completely sure about, like global warming, which still needs further scientific proof; it’s a reality for nearly everybody in our field. Just today, as I’m writing this, I saw projections made by one of America’s leading classical music institutions. Their long-time audience, the people who’ve been buying tickets for many years, has been getting smaller, and is projected to get smaller still in coming years. But this is the only reliable audience they have! To make up for its decline, they need to find new ticket-buyers, and these are bravely anticipated in the projections that I saw. But where, exactly, are these new ticket-buyers coming from? The institution doesn’t know.)

With these regional presenters, I talked about the people who don’t go to classical concerts, especially the fabled missing younger audience. One woman said that younger people might never come to classical events, because what they want is visual stimulation. Of course I’ve heard that before, and I’m sure most people reading this have heard it, too. I disagreed—citing both rock criticism and my own experience—to suggest that many people listen to pop music with attentive concentration. (Only, I think, in the classical music world is this still news.) So then this woman—who, to be fair, was both sincere and very open-minded—said that classical music needs a different kind of listening, because its musical forms are complex and demanding.

I disagreed with this as well, but what’s important here is that these were disagreements with real-world consequences. If you took my view, you’d think we have a shot at attracting a younger audience. But this presenter thinks that we can’t do it, and that’s in part because of what she thinks classical music, in its inmost essence, really is. Which shows why it’s important to discuss these inmost essences, these lofty theoretical ideas (which turn out not to be so theoretical) about what classical music really is. They keep popping up—and affecting what we think we ought to do—even if we think we maybe aren’t interested in them.

 

And that makes a useful segue into the real beginning of this episode, in which I want to talk about (or start to talk about) classical music’s form and structure. I may depart from current orthodoxy when I say that classical music isn’t inherently complex (and certainly isn’t so very complex that nobody can follow a classical piece without special education), I do think that form and structure are important. In fact, as I said at the end of the last episode, I think that what defines classical music as something different from music of any other kind is its form, or more precisely the way it moves from one point to another, evolving over spans of time. Or as I wrote in the last episode,

A classical piece can start in one place, and end in another….It can play with its material, contrasting and developing various ideas, the way a novel or a film can juggle many characters, many settings, many ideas, and many plot developments. Or a classical piece could veer wildly from one thing to another, but the point would be the same; it’s doing something during a span of time, maybe a long one, and I don’t know any other music that works in quite this way. It gives classical music a special richness, not a greater richness than any other kind of music, but a richness unique to itself.

So how does this work?

Let’s take our old friend the Pastoral Symphony. It begins with a gentle scrap of melody that rises, falls a little bit—and stops. A classical music geek might tell you that it pauses on a dominant chord, which would be true, but isn’t something anybody really needs to know, except for people studying music theory. In fact, it’s precisely considerations like this—technical considerations, dumped in front of listeners who won’t know what they mean—that encourage people to believe that classical music is so deeply complicated. If you can’t understand the Pastoral Symphony unless you know what a dominant chord is, then damn—you’d better learn before you try to listen. Really, though, a dominant chord isn’t even a complicated concept. I could explain it to anyone who isn’t tone-deaf, in about five minutes, as long as I had a keyboard to demonstrate what I’m talking about. Anyone who plays guitar can understand it instantly. The Pastoral Symphony is in F; that first phrase begins on an F chord, and ends on a C chord, pausing there before it moves on back to F. And even without any music terminology we can talk about the way the music stops, invoking punctuation as a metaphor. The music pauses on a colon: It stops to gather breath, instead of rounding off its sentence with a full, firm stop.

But let’s not get hung up on all these complications. What really matters is that the music pauses, no more than five seconds after it begins. A pop song wouldn’t do that. A folk song wouldn’t. Balinese music wouldn’t. And I might add, for accuracy’s sake, that a lot of classical music wouldn’t do it, either. Bach would never start a piece like that. But let’s not go there, not just yet. No need, right at the start of this discussion, to unfold a separate lecture on classical music history. What matters, once again, is that Beethoven, writing the Pastoral in 1808, starts unfolding his ideas in the very striking way that I’ve described. He plays the bare beginning of a thought, then stops. What’s going to happen next? Where’s Beethoven going to go with this? If you measure his discursions by the length of the entire symphony, he takes more than 40 minutes to reveal his destination. Or maybe 10 minutes, if we wonder where he’s going only in the first movement alone.

But let’s leave this, too, and just focus on that simple melody, which closes on a colon. Having put it out there, Beethoven could now do almost anything. He could continue from the colon. He could jump to something different. He could state the melody again, but leaping to a suprising different key. (Which he does at the beginning of his Fourth Piano Concerto). 

And speaking now as a composer, I want to say that I love the expansion, development, contrast, and diversity of thoughts in music. One thought leads to another. Often thoughts digress; then they can return from their digressions (or, if they’d like to, keep digressing through an entire piece, which then would end very far from where it started). In a string quartet I wrote as a surprise birthday present for my wife, I started with a phrase I stole from the middle of another piece of mine. I couldn’t tell you how I thought of doing that. Here I had a little stretch of music that, as I’d originally conceived it, came after many other thoughts, and seemed, when it appeared, to slow time down, to stretch the thoughts that came before it. So now I found that it could work as a beginning. Now it ambled into view, and ended with a very drawn-out colon, or maybe an ellipsis, stretching forward toward whatever I might want to happen next.

And later on I brought this music back, to introduce the final section of the piece. This time it seemed to pull the piece together. At the beginning, its signal might have been, “Now something’s going to happen.” But now it said, “I’m here again, to introduce the end.”

So I should fully out myself as a form and structure geek. I’m writing an entire opera full of structure games. I write a melody, and then I write an independent piece of music—something that could be played entirely by itself—to accompany the melody. I write a theatrical episode in my opera, a complete musical and dramatic unit, and then I bring it back as the orchestral accompaniment to a completely different scene, which unfolds with brand-new music in the voices. This is fun. And to the regional presenters I’d insist that it doesn’t matter whether many people hear the games I’m playing. This is just the way I like to work. (Though maybe, in some deeper, not quite conscious way, it makes my music sound as if the parts all fit together, which is not to say that they also couldn’t fit together in some freer, far less structured way.)

But I want to return to the Pastoral. The music starts, then pauses. Then it starts again, and expands into something that’s very quietly lovely, but still quite simple, though it goes on longer than the first phrase did. (Some other composer might have just repeated what he or she had started out with. But now we get to ask—and even answer—some questions about what makes certain music wonderful. One great thing about Beethoven is that he never has to repeat himself, unless he wants to. He’s fabulous at finding new directions for his music, without any fuss or strain or change of gears. Because he left a lot of sketchbooks, we know that he worked long and painful hours to make his music seem so effortless, but he succeeded.)

So now we have music that:

starts

pauses

starts again, and goes on longer

and then finds another way to pause.

How does it pause this second time? Instead of stopping on a colon, it winds down by repeating the same little fragmentary musical idea, a little rising scale, that maybe sounds like someone walking. It repeats this fully 10 times, getting louder, and then falling quiet once again.

And so now, at this point in the piece, we have a little gallery of musical ideas. First, the melody the music started with. Then whatever new thoughts Beethoven might have offered in what we heard when the music started up a second time. And then the more abstract idea of starting something, and then pausing it; we’ve heard that happen twice, so already it’s started to play a more than casual role in how the Pastoral develops.

These abstract notions can be wonderfully productive, over long and thoughtful spans of time. In another string quartet I’ve written, the music often stumbles to a halt, as if it can’t quite figure out where it wants to go. Then, near the end, there’s a silence whose exact length is up to the musicians, but which should last at least a minute. This turns out to be the climax of the piece. The first time the music stumbles into silence, the silence doesn’t mean much. It didn’t mean much to me when I composed it. But each time they return, these silences grow more important. At some point, when I realized that silence would be a recurring feature of this piece, I added a motto to the title page, a famous line from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And once silence was recurrent, it could bear more weight; it could even grow into a climax. So finally, in Beethoven, in the short span of the Pastoral that we’ve explored so far, there’s one more idea, the little walking figure that repeats 10 times—which after it becomes established grows into something wonderful and unexpected, my favorite passage in the entire piece.

 

In previous episodes:

 

Episode One: Classical music is in trouble. Ticket sales are falling, the audience is getting older, classical music organizations have trouble raising money, and could conceivably go out of business. I myself, a life-long classical music professional, find myself drawn away from classical music. Other genres do so much, especially with rhythm, that classical music never touches. What have we shut ourselves off from? And classical music can be hard for outsiders to approach, even if they like to listen to it. Mark, the man who’s been cutting my hair for almost 20 years, loves jazz, especially jazz piano, but sometimes goes to the classical department at Tower Records to look at classical CDs. He’s confused by what he sees—CDs that feature composers and performers he’s never heard of, CDs with all their information written in foreign languages. Someone else I know, a therapist named Jed, never goes to hear classical music. But he loves Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and once, when he was walking by Lincoln Center, he saw a poster for a concert where the Pastoral was going to be played. Impulsively he bought a ticket. But he never went back. There was nothing at the concert that made him feel that he was welcome, nothing in posters for any other concert that seized his attention, nothing in any part of his experience that drew him back again to Lincoln Center to hear anything else. And then there’s the music itself. I myself love the Pastoral Symphony, for its tunefulness, for how free it is from any strain or striving, for its loving craftsmanship, and for the way it breaks apart the normal frame of any symphony, connecting its last three movements in a single sweeping narrative. But in performance, the narrative can lose its force, because the symphony (like every classical masterwork) is performed too often. And the conclusion of the piece—in which Beethoven gives heartfelt thanks because a thunderstorm has ended—might, to a modern audience, seem naïve. What are we to make of a classical music world that spends so much of its time and energy on music from the past?

 

Episode Two: I want to ask how a classical concert might have felt to Jed. And I might start with this: The concert would of course have seemed quite formal. The musicians wear formal dress, and the audience—mostly older people—also dresses up. This formality can put the music in an odd, blank place. If the musicians are wearing formal dress, then the concert is a formal rite. But is the music formal? Is performing it a rite? That seems at odds with the nature of the music, some of which was even written to be entertainment. Before the 19th century, people talked during concerts, and applauded whenever they felt like it, right in the middle of the music. And the formality is inconsistent. The musicians, as I’ve said, are wearing formal dress. But typically they stroll  on stage at any random time before the concert starts, and sit there noodling at their music, all of them at once, cacaphonically, never looking at the audience. And there are other contradictions. Classical music is almost always advertised with blank superlatives. But the program notes at classical concerts often go to the opposite extreme; they’re often so scholarly that most people won’t be able to understand what they’re saying. Meanwhile, there are important things that no one ever tells the audience about. No one tells the audience what the musicians think about—what their goals are in any piece of music, how the performance we might hear tonight could be different from any other one. And so a veil of blankness descends on classical concerts. Behind the formality, who can tell what’s really going on?

 

Episode Three: The formality has still more consequences. The audience becomes passive, and in fact is expected to be. Musicians, too, are often passive. Orchestral musicians have very little control over the music that they make. They aren’t  treated as co-participants by most of the conductors who lead them; they’re simply asked to do as they’re told. And almost all classical musicians these days are circumscribed by their training, since typically they’re taught a lot of rules they have to follow, including rules about what kinds of playing have to be forbidden, because they’re too original, or take too much freedom with the music, and hence are thought to be excessive. People who work for classical music institutions also can be passive; especially in orchestras, they rarely talk about the music. In the end, classical concerts proceed without much human contact, which helps explain why the audience is shrinking: No one is speaking to it. Some people, though, believe that the audience is disappearing because classical music is no longer taught in our schools. I don’t buy that. It’s allied with another idea, that classical music inherently is abstract, and therefore complicated, or at least that it depends on abstract musical structures that people need to learn about. But in past centuries, nobody needed to learn about classical music; they simply responded to it, because it spoke the language of their time. And in any case, it wouldn’t be enough to teach people about the music, to make them want to go to classical concerts. We’d have to teach them to accept what happens at those concerts—we’d have to teach them to be passive. And how can we do that, in an age when people actively make choices on their own? So before we can attract the new audience that everybody talks about, the classical music world will have to change. Before we can discuss that, though, we need to ask what classical music really is. This question is trickier than it seems. Is classical music what we hear at classical concerts? Is it defined by the instruments it uses, or by the way the audience behaves? It’s easy to find classical music, by living composers, that doesn’t work in any of these traditionally classical ways. Can we define classical music as serious and complex, and as musical art? That also doesn’t work, because other forms of music can serious, complex, and artistic. To me, classical music has just two definitions. First, it’s the musical tradition of developed western culture, which among much else means that it needs to survive, and that anyone who reads Proust or Jane Austen should be able to understand it. Second, classical music develops over spans of time. That gives classical music a special kind of richness, and if it disappeared from our culture, I’d be desolate.

Posted by gsandow on January 23, 2006 12:09 AM

COMMENTS

I am rivited by Greg Sandow because I am a VERY concerned musician and mother. I want my children to have joyful exposure to music and never feel daunted by it. We dropped the Suzuki program because the message was, Music is only for "nobel" minds.We like to think its for everybody. We think music is for making us feel good. A T.V. program my kids love and one that may go a long way toward making "classical" music sink into the subconcious of another generation is Disney's "Little Einstein" they talk about the music in terms of adventure and address themes. They link the music to art works from various cutures. They travel to different cultures. I think it's great, even if it is Disney.

Posted by: Megan at January 23, 2006 9:37 AM

This chapter seems myopic. Why pile on paragraphs about sonata form to the exclusion of Schutz, Chopin, Verdi, etc who had no particular interest in it? Put it another way---if Beethoven had never lived, would the problems of classical music today be any easier? Or would we already have given up on it?


My real problem is that I still can't see clearly what your goal is. I suspect that in the end you are going to run out of convincing reasons why Beethoven and probably everything pre-Cage should not be consigned to the same "historically interesting" dustbin that Haydn already sits in.

I'm writing about sonata form because it's such a fetish among serious classical music analysts. I can easily insert language about other ways of writing music, and in fact intend to get to them in a near future episode.

I didn't know Haydn was now in history's trash bucket! In any case, I’m not going to put Beethoven there. I doubt anyone goes there, in fact, since everyone has a place in history, and that place can be resonant in our time. As long as we know there's a historical gap, that is.

Posted by: Tom Chambers at January 23, 2006 2:58 PM

These chapters are intriguing but confusing to me. Several distinctions seems to be conflated together: classical vs. non-classical; instrumental vs. vocal; long form vs. short form. Somehow I think most of the points made here are especially relevant to long form via short form, which is certainly a vital issue for orchestras and many other classical music organizations.

But not all classical music is in a long form. What makes a Schubert song "classical" and a Beatles song "pop"? The instrumentation? The written tradition vs. the oral tradition? The age of the material? The songwriter's intent? Something else entirely? Without addressing this issue I'm afraid that I'm a bit befuddled by these chapters so far.

It seems to me that we are in a world where Schubert the songwriter is more influential than Beethoven the symphonist. It is an era where short form is valued more than long form, and vocal music is valued more than instrumental music. Classical music has a vocabulary for long form that is perhaps more time-tested than those in other Western musical genres. But classical musicians are not the only ones at odds with the dominance of short form. See for example Pat Metheny's "The Way Up", or the artists who don't want their albums divided up into individual songs for sale on iTunes.

Is the main point here the future of classical music, or is it the future of long musical forms?

I'm looking forward to what comes next!

Possibly some of your questions were answered in earlier episodes. But it's helpful that you raised your points. I may need to clarify further.

Posted by: Intrigued but confused reader at January 23, 2006 8:10 PM

Since I had already read chapter 4, I scrolled through it, and noticed that the majority of paragraphs start with "And", "But", or "So". This seems mannered!

Hasty writing! Will be fixed in revisions. Thanks for pointing this out, and for everything that follows.

Though I don't have a source here, I believe the standard concepts of sonata form did not come about until at least the middle part of the 19th century. I don't think that means it was "in the air" prior to that, however. Rather, the features of sonata form were succesful solutions to handling Classical-era musical materials in an improvisational way. That is to say, the sonata form was not any kind of framework previously decided, but an emergent set of properties that resulted from the free handling of classical tonal materials. As almost all the classical masters were at least as famous for improvisation as anything - the only possible exception I can think of is Haydn - it stands to reason.

I bring this up because what I find meaningful about Sonata form is not the structure, but the "why" behind it, the psychological necessity of the sonata's journey, which can be felt clearly if one messes around with improvising in classical styles. The last thing a Beethoven or Mozart exposition feels like to me is a "statement of ideas"; rather, the opening kernel of a piece unfolds to all that follows, contrasts as well as parallels, until requiring both its own dissolution and its eventual, altered restatement.

Posted by: Eric Barnhill at January 23, 2006 11:04 PM

Er, nitpick but ... Haydn & Mozart *German*? In what sense?

Back in those days, national differences in music were very strong, and acknowledged by everybody. The biggest gap was between Italian and German music. In Italy, early in the 19th century, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were hardly ever played. In Germany, Italian opera was very popular, but despised by highbrow connoisseurs as trash, not to be compared to "our German masters." One other factor was that Germany was more a national concept than a nation, since German-speaking people lived in a variety of political units, some quite small. This made them even more conscious, though, of being German, since the political fragmentation of German-speaking people created a movement of people eagerly asking what it meant to be German. Reverence for "our German masters" became part of the answer.

Posted by: Alan Little at January 26, 2006 1:33 PM

Greg:

Checking back in…

I think you are right on to focus on the "discursive" aspect of classical music, and to link that aspect with the formal rules of what came to be called "sonata form" around 1830-40. My residual history of theory knowledge associates this codification with the critic A.B. Marx's 19th-ct. work on Beethoven (see Beethoven Leben und Schaffen, 1859). It does seem to me that what is (ahistorically) classical about classical music is some combination of perceived aesthetic autonomy (it plays by its "own" rules) and perceived teleology (it has a dynamic, organic-seeming form that structures time as a goal-directed process). It's no accident that Beethoven symphonies--the body of large, autonomous, highly-teleological music closest at hand when sociological forces (discussed in earlier episodes) demanded the nomination of a "classical" art music--became the paradigm for classical music.

So I think the carping about the other types of "classical music" that don't fit this paradigm isn't really to the point: certainly Verdi operas, and perhaps even Schubert songs, were not really considered "classical" in the way sonatas and symphonies were. (And, if they are now, it's because legions of musicologists have labored to "prove" that Verdi operas and Schubert song cycles are structured as autonomous, teleological unities. Often, it's hard and unrewarding work!)

A couple of reactions to your actual analysis:

1. It is bemusing to me that you chose the Pastoral for your demonstration. I'm sure you remember that this is the same exact music that Leonard Bernstein used to demonstrate step-by-step how music has a Chomsky-ian "transformational grammar" in his Norton Lectures, right? His syntactic parsing actually sounds in places a lot like what you are doing. Is there something about the opening of the Beethoven 6 that makes it "ground zero" for discussions of music as discourse?

2. And, more in response to some of the responses: If you trace "sonata-form" back into the 18th-ct, before it got named and codified, it was hardly an improvisatory form, a free fantasia on themes whose "development" happened organically, etc. What we now call sonata form actually comes from dance music, in particular, from binary dance forms like those stylized in the suites of JS Bach.

In those binary dance forms (basically A, repeat, then B, repeat, then repeat the whole thing) the game was the hierarchical assembly of balanced antecedent and consequent phrases - not the development of themes. Historically, the way you get to "three-part" sonata form is that in some dance forms, the end of the B section contained a return to the material of section A. This was not obligatory, but a nice touch. When that happened, the first half of B, which as a section was by now quite a bit longer than A, often took on a more improvisatory, developmental character, and led quite strongly to a cadence on the dominant before the return. Voila! Exposition-development-recapitulation.

The point of this little history of theory lesson is that the lineage of sonata form is as an abstraction, expansion, and decontextualization of a stylized form of dance music - music whose primary pre-occupation, as in all dance music, is the symmetrical articulation of balanced phrases - the creation of a clear skeleton for bodies moving, if only in the imagination.

Musicologists often look for the roots of "sonata form" theory in the phrase analyses of 18th-ct. German theorists like Riepel and Koch, who will tell you how to create what looks very much like an early sonata-allegro by stringing together and grouping antecedent and consequent phrases, and managing the cadences; themes and their development are secondary. You don't get the assertion that the "tension" between themes and their imperative to develop drives sonata construction until well after the fact. It's a 19th-ct. reading of Beethoven.

I bring this up because you could just as easily imagine the sonata principle as an aesthetic mutation of a much more popular, non-discursive, musical practice. Writing a minuet or a gavotte (or a set of such dances) is really closer to writing for a disco than a symphony hall. One possible future for "classical" music would be to find the "gavottes" and "minuets" of today, and look for restless composers to expand and thematicize, to autonomize and teleogize them.

This might also be a preliminary to taking issue with Julian Johnson, whose inability to see this process already at work in popular dance music is indeed infuriating.

rwf

Posted by: Robert Fink at January 28, 2006 3:09 PM

If I can pose a question to Mr. Fink here (and if not I'll just send an email later), would our views seem less different if I had emphasized the "Classical tonal materials" part of my account rather than the word "free"? By materials I certainly meant dance and song forms, as well as church music. However, it was improvisational thinking that on a formal level drove the changes and mutations that occurred in those structures. I agree that the Bach Suites are a helpful place to look, and perhaps the Chorale-partitas above all, because these early works give us a peek "under the hood" at the way Bach conceived the suite: more or less a series of improvisations in different dance styles upon a chorale-type theme, a parallel process to how Bach the organist operated in church. The Orgelbuchlein shows us a near-identical process from the sacred side, and we know that the organist was instructed to let the chorale of the service seep into the congregation through improvising upon it for the various facets of the service. By the time the churchgoers had to sing it, it was like they had known it all their lives.

Terms like "abstraction, expansion, and decontextualization", which are similar to what I remember from school, I think describe the outer shell of the process but miss the heart. The heart of this process lies in the minds of the performers, improvising in a given moment, inside a given structure, to achieve a given goal, and this is the cup that is passed from generation to generation. Figuring out how to improvise successfully in rounded binary and sonata forms taught me far more about "what really happened" than historical accounts, though most of it is best expressed with my fingers. And so, my broader two cents on the issue is that music that touches this heart remains vital and relevant, and music that does not does not, whether it's Henry Purcell or Richie Hawtin.

Posted by: Eric Barnhill at January 31, 2006 9:54 AM



Post a comment



Verification (needed to reduce spam):


Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)

Tell A Friend

Email this entry to:


Your email address:


Message (optional):














 

Site Meter