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February 6, 2006

Episode Six: Wrapping up before a new start

I’m going to wrap up this portion of the book, with this episode, and then start over. I think I’ve gotten off on some wrong tracks, wandered around more than I’d like to, and (which often happens when I wander) spent too much time on things that aren’t essential. I’ve written this, in other words, more like a blog than a book. The good news, for me, is that I’ve learned a lot—an uneasy kind of public learning, but then that’s what I set myself up for when I started this project. The new version, which I’ll kick off in two weeks, ought to be a lot more focused and concise, and with any luck will come closer to meeting the needs of our beleaguered field, which I feel I’ve come to know much more about than I used to.

So now to wrap up the stuff about form and analysis that I started to write about in episode four. I’d earlier defined what I think classical music is—it’s historically important as the music of the western cultural tradition, and artistically important, in our current life, as music that’s designed to unfold over spans of time, sometimes long spans, with every step mapped out, just as every step of a film or a novel is planned. By saying this, I of course don’t mean to put down all the terrific music that doesn’t work this way (pop, jazz, all kinds of music from other cultures), or to pretend that other kinds of music sometimes do work this way (some pop songs have pretty complex musical forms), or to deny that some classical pieces develop far more freely. Musical styles don’t completely yield to easy definitions.

I also said that some people make a fetish of classical music’s formal structure; they say the value of classical music lies mainly in its form, or else insist—and I guess this is a softer version of the same point—that no one who doesn’t understand the musical forms involved can really appreciate classical music. (Which then would explain why classical music might be losing its audience: People today aren’t educated to understand those musical forms.)

I don’t agree with these last points. But since I do think that form is what makes classical music distinctive—and because I love playing with musical form, as a composer—I thought I’d better explain exactly how I think form in classical music works. I had another reason, too, for doing this: My book isn’t just aimed at classical music initiates. It’s written for anyone who might be curious about classical music and its problems. And for these people, it’s even meant to serve (while at the same time it does many other things) as an introduction to classical music and the classical music world. So if musical structure in classical music is important to me, I have to explain how it works, for readers who might not have encountered these ideas before.

This sent me off on a long consideration of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a work I picked because I’d also used it, way back in episode one, to illustrate a number of things, including some of the reasons why I love classical music, and also some of the reasons why pieces in the standard classical repertoire (which were written decades or centuries ago), really do register, whether people realize this or not, as music of the past, imbued with the ideas and issues of the past. (The Pastoral Symphony, for all its apparently timeless beauty as a depiction of nature, also shows peasants offering grateful thanks when a storm is over. We don’t react to storms that way, and to understand why Beethoven did, we have to know things about daily life in his time that we aren’t likely to encounter either in our own everyday lives, or in anything written about classical music.)

So I began to describe how the first movement of the symphony unfolds as a series of musical ideas. I could do that simply by listening, and by describing what I heard; I didn’t need to refer to anything I’ve learned by studying music theory or music history. One moral I meant to draw from this was simple enough: If I can follow the form of the piece, then anybody can. And certainly anyone can feel the effect of Beethoven’s musical thinking. The piece feels both gripping and coherent; you know you’re in safe hands when you listen to it, and you always wonder what’s going to happen next.

But in one way I was cheating. I didn’t say anything about sonata form, the standard musical structure of Beethoven’s time, which provides something like a prearranged outline for everything that happens in that first movement of the Pastoral. And certainly (as I readily confessed) it’s easier to follow what Beethoven is up to if you understand sonata form. As the music unfolds, you always know where you are.

But in other ways, you don’t understand anything at all. Sonata form—no matter how strong a fetish many classical music purists may make it into—doesn’t explain very much about any piece of music. At best, it explains what path the music follows. But what happens as the music follows that path? People who think sonata form is all-important think they can answer that question by describing the precise way a piece of music follows the prearranged sonata-form steps. Sonata form, as I explained, has three sections, an exposition, in which the main musical ideas in the pieces are set forth; a development, in which things happen to those ideas; and a recapitulation, in which the ideas come back, more or less as they were heard in the exposition.

So the form establishes a home base, departs from it, and then returns. And so one crucial question, as we move through this established narrative, will be exactly how this return will be accomplished. Will the recapitulation begin exactly the way the exposition did? Or will something different happen, which still registers as a return? In the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the exposition begins dramatically—with that superfamous da-da-da DUM—and so maybe it’s no surprise that the recapitulation begins more or less exactly the same way, with the re-eruption of the drama announcing (unmistakably!) that we’ve come home. The first movement of the Pastoral works differently. It begins in an unassuming way, with a gentle wisp of music that’s broken off just seconds after it begins, and only later grows into something strong and definite. Beethoven, I’m sure, could have contrived a way to recapitulate his tentative beginning, but he didn’t chose to. Instead, he does it differently. He skips the tentative beginning, and jumps right into the moment in the evolution of the opening theme when it flowers into strength and certainty. It’s clearly a return—but a return without the hesitation of the opening, a return that doesn’t interrupt the forward motion of the music.

All of which is fascinating, and yet it still doesn’t tell us much about the Pastoral. What’s missing is any notion of what makes this piece of music work, as opposed to any other. The handling of the return is just a detail, and in fact it’s one that needs some explanation; it doesn’t, by itself, have much power to explain anything else that’s going on. In my listening-based analysis, I set forth some things that happen in the first movement of the Pastoral: the music starts, then stops; it gathers force, gets louder, then subsides; sometimes it subsides into repetition. These are things that really set this piece apart; Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony doesn’t typically proceed in any of those ways. So within the wide (and, to tell the truth, somewhat loose) parameters laid down by sonata form, almost anything can happen; and no understanding of sonata form can tell us what that anything might be. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is built from musical ideas that tend to be compressed; the ideas in the Pastoral tend to be expansive. The development section in the first movement of the Fifth takes just two notes from one of the ideas in the exposition, dwells on them, and then shrinks them further into an idea made up of just a single chord. The development in the first movement of the Pastoral takes the idea of repetition, and expands on it.

This is my favorite moment in the symphony. In the exposition, Beethoven had established what I called a walking rhythm, with which he sometimes walks in place, repeating the same little walking figure as many as ten times in succession. Now, in the development, he starts repeating something very like it, a new melodic pattern, but one that moves with the same rhythm as the walking figure. He repeats it on a single chord, then magically repeats it on a new chord, one that takes a large harmonic leap from the chord before. The music seems to brighten. But where it is going? The two chords don’t establish any clear direction. And then, just to make things even more delightful, the same thing happens again, on two new chords! The sense of forward motion has by now become almost physical, but we still don’t know where we’re going. There isn’t any moment like this in any other Beethoven piece I know. Nothing in anyone’s understanding of sonata form can prepare us for it, or help us understand it. And if a fetish for sonata form turns our attention somewhere else, then we’re missing all the music in this symphony, losing both the forest and the trees in some ossified idea of what the forest ought to be.

There’s much more I could say along these lines. Sonata form, as I suggested in passing earlier, is a narrative. And it’s a narrative that always has the same ending—a return to stability. The fetish for sonata form allows us not to think about that; instead, we focus on its formal procedures, its purely musical activities, divorced from any larger context. And that of course gives the sonata narrative more power, because now it works on us unconsciously. We get caught up in (for instance) the preparation for the recapitulation, and that stops us from noticing that there always is a recapitulation, and that sonata form has an underlying bias toward stability. We ourselves, if we buy into sonata form, are buying into an assumption of stability, at the cost of understanding that many things in the world aren’t stable at all, and that the musical procedures most appropriate today might be those that don’t return to their beginnings.

And that’s where I’ll leave this. I’d planned of course to mention other kinds of formal design in classical music, from Bach (a master of improvisation, with a way of vaulting into joyful, unexpected flourishes) to Webern (who used the somewhat rigid procedures of 12-tone music in a remarkably un-rigid way, so that 12-tone theory explains his music even less than sonata form explains Beethoven), to Steve Reich and beyond. But I’ll save that for whatever form it takes in the reconfigured book. My main message, in the thoughts that I’m concluding now, would be simply this: that, far from establishing classical music’s value, a concentration on its form and structure leeches meaning from this art we love, and, worse still, creates a false sense of reassurance. Now everything in classical music can be explained and classified. Now we think we understand what’s going on. Now we don’t have to ask uncomfortable questions, and can use classical music as I’m afraid it’s largely used these days, as a refuge from the world outside it.

Next, on February 20: the beginning of the reconfigured book. Which will have, I think, five sections:

1. Introduction

2. The quantifiable problems of classical music—especially the loss of audience, and loss of funding.

3. The artistic problems—blankness, empty formality, loss of meaning and creativity.

4. Classical music and popular culture: why we have to embrace popular culture, and not pretend that classical music can be a refuge from it

5. What can be done—how our problems might (crossing my fingers for good luck) be fixed.

I’ll put all six episodes of the first version of the book online for anyone to read.

Posted by gsandow on February 6, 2006 12:26 AM


I like the notion that "Sonata Form" isn't really a form at all. It's a procedure for making forms. ///////// In all of the arts there has been a tendency to emphasize the formal aspects of works. Remember how art experts defended Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs? Often they maintained that the content didn't matter: never mind what that man in the picture is doing with his fist; it's all about the form. That excellence of form was suposedly the entire meaning of the picture. Somehow we were supposed to ignore the energy of these pieces, their confrontational or transgressive spirit. /////////// Of course form helps to give works expressive power, and form can be one of the pleasures of a work. Some people derive great satisfaction by analyzing forms; go figure. But it diminishes music to claim that one particular aspect is the most important thing about it. Part of what makes music so compelling is that it can be enjoyed in so many different ways.

Posted by: John Steinmetz at February 9, 2006 1:20 AM

I've just started receiving the (wonderful) ARts Journal newsletters. This book on music is very interesting to me. I'd like to read the 6 episodes you've written (and intend scrapping). You say you'll be keeping them online, but I can only see the last episode. May I read them?

Clare, thanks so much for your interest. After I relaunch the book a week from now, I'll find a way to keep all six episodes of the previous version online for anyone to read. Right now, only the current episode has been available. I can't guarantee to get the six old episodes online precisely on the day the new version launches, but I'll manage to get it up reasonably quickly after that. If anybody wants to be notified when this happens, just subscribe to the book, by sending e-mail to greg@artsjournal.com, with the word "subscribe" in the subject line. You'll also be notified whenever a new episode of the new version comes out.

Posted by: Clare in London at February 13, 2006 7:13 PM


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