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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Re: Hoffman on Tonal Music

From:

Karl Miller <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 19 May 2005 10:49:32 -0500

Content-Type:

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Parts/Attachments:

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text/plain (267 lines)

Warning, a long post...and I cut half of what I wrote!

Jon Gallant wrote:

>"...The special function of dissonance in tonal music is to
>provide tension, and that tension, in whatever degree it is
>established, is always resolved by a return to consonance.
>Indeed, the true genius of the tonal system is that in any given
>piece it enables a composer to combine the power and momentum
>of harmonic progression with the simultaneous manipulation of
>melodic material, in ways which create the impression of a
><i>narrative</i>, a dramatic structure complete with characters,
>rhetoric, direction, conflict, tension, uncertainty, and ultimate
>resolution.

Perhaps I am not understanding this, but it would appear to me that
this statement suggests that human expression must be limited to providing
pleasure.  Even if that is true, I can find great satisfaction in listening
even to the most dissonant works.  For me, for a work to be dissonant,
it must have contrast.  One of the more highly serialized works, like
the Boulez structures, does not sound dissonant to me.

Similarly, what about steady state pieces like the Xenakis Bohor.  I
find no dissonance there...and no tonality as well...yet, when I have
listened to it carefully, in a darkened room, and at a substantial volume,
I find it to be a piece that can engulf my entire being...or so it seems
to me.

>So, pleasing sounds, sriking contrasts, coherent dramatic structures
>based on expressive musical elements that form clear (if sometimes
>complex) relationships and patterns--for more than 200 years this
>remarkable system served as the unquestion foundation of Western
>music.  ...Is it fair to say that the powerful and perennial emotional
>appeal of tonal music reflects its extraordinary capacity to meet
>our oh-so-human musical expectations, to satisfy our longing for
>beauty, comfort, and meaning?  Yes indeed."

No problem there, but for me, I don't find Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
any more comforting than Schoenberg's String Trio as I find both works
to be full of angst.

>This account implicitly underlines the deficiency of Schoenberg's
>12-tone system.  If all 12 tones of the chromatic scale have equivalent
>significance, and if no distinction is made between consonance and
>dissonance, then there is no harmonic landscape against which movement
>can seem to occur; or within which a feeling of narrative (with contrast,
>conflict, tension, and resolution) can be conveyed.

How can non tonal Japanese Court music, gagaku, be comforting, yet, I
find it to be so.  Similarly, much of the music of the minimalists, who
are often marketed as being tonal, rarely follows the design of functional
harmony...yet while some find that music to be as problematic as anything
12 tone, others find a great deal of comfort in it.

>If emotional content of certain intervalic relations is hard-wired in
>the human mind---e.g., the distinctions between minor third and major
>third, consonance and dissonance---then the 12-tone system deliberately
>omits most of the emotional associations that permit music to create a
>feeling of narrative.

For me, the notion of music providing a narrative is limiting.  Copland
suggested in "What to listen for in music" that there are three levels
of listening.  The first being the "sensual," it makes me feel good,
the second being "music as a narrative," and the third being "music on
its own terms." Copland suggested, and I would agree, that the listener
should strive for the third level...as Stravinsky (who wrote plenty of
tonal music) said, "music expresses itself."

On the other side of the coin, I can find plenty of narrative in many 12
tone pieces.

For me, the best arguement for tonality can be found in the structure
of the overtone series with the first intervals being the octave, fifth
and third...the triad.  However, when one progresses in the series, we
encounter all of the other intervals and even microtones.  Yet, modality
predates the notions of functional harmony.  Is chant less expressive
since it is without dissonance?

What about the music of Harry Partch?  Is it non tonal...well it does
follow Partch's notion of a tonality. I can listen to Castor and Pollux
on a variety of levels and it to be a highly rewarding piece...even
better if you can ever hear it in concert...I have yet to hear a recording
of that bass marimba that comes close to the sound of it live.

>I think that is why 12-tone music so often sounds like a journey through
>an Arctic plain during a blizzard.

I would agree, but then I can remember thinking similar thoughts about
the music of Bach.

>Of course, sufficiently ingenious composers can contrive a limited sense
>of narrative out of other elements, such as rhythm, instrumental texture,
>volume.  But this is difficult to do convincingly without the powerful
>underlying element of harmonic structure.

Perhaps, but then one has to assume that providing a narrative is a
necessary functionof music.  I don't believe it is, for narrative will
always be subjective.  For that matter, isn't trying to find one's way
in a blizzard a narrative?  For me, notes are the only objective notion
of music.  Further, I delight in the plurality of expression to be found
in the performer's interpretation of those objective notes, as well as
in the plurality of our understanding of the music.

>...More commonly, modern composers have avoided strict Schoenbergism
>and have tried to create the impression of a tonal centre within atonal
>(but not 12-tone) idioms, or in idioms which combine atonal and tonal
>elements.  The latter approach, with a much more pronounced tonal element,
>has fortunately come back into fashion since around 1980.  [I pass over
>minimalism, a gimmicky phase.] As a result, audiences will eventually
>begin to come back to concert halls, and to modern CM more generally.

I believe that the 12 tone technique needs to be viewed in an historical
perspective, just as we view the styles and musical vocabulary of other
periods of music.  For me, Erwartung by Schoenberg is one of the
masterpieces of music.  It came at time when society was taking a look
at the human psyche.  While it is a non tonal piece, (as far as I recall,
the "system" had not yet been invented), I do not believe that the
"narrative" of the libretto could not have been conveyed as powerfully
with a tonal setting.

>Someone brought up the old saw that "they didn't understand Beethoven
>either".  As Hoffman points out: "Beethoven was NOT misunderstood in his
>time.

Well, that is not true.  During my studies I read many reviews of
Beethoven's music, the late works in particular, which suggested that
he had "lost it," when he lost his hearing.

For that matter, I really don't believe, even to this day, we can fully
understand Beethoven's music.  I know I don't, I am not that intelligent.
I don't understand the late quartets, and I have listened to them often.

On the other hand, much of his music was quickly assumed into and became,
the standard literature...but then, even Beethoven is limited to a handful
of works...true his list of "hits" is longer than most, but considering
those late quartets...they can empty a hall almost as quickly as Schoenberg.

>Beethoven was without doubt the most famous composer in the modern
>world in his time and the most admired.  And if there were those who
>didn't "get" his late string quartets, for example, there were plenty
>of others who did, and who rapidly accepted the quartets as masterpieces.

And there are plenty of others who get the Schoenberg quartets...not me,
but considering how many great musicians have recorded them, I question
my own ability to understand, rather than the "value" of the works.

>In fact, the notion that great geniuses in the history of music went
>unrecognized during their lifetimes is almost entirely false.

Difficult to find fault when you use the word "entirely." However...
consider Mahler, Bach (while he was appreciated, he was considered old
hat and had to be "rediscovered").  Many composers were dismissed for
reasons other than how dissonant their music might have been, relative
to the more accepted norms of the time.  My guess is that there are
probably an equal amount of composers that were considered geniuses in
their own time and are now relatively forgotten.  I am amused when I
look at the first edition of the Groves...try comparing the coverage
given to Raff, versus the coverage given to Brahms.

I am assuming you are finding fault in the often proferred notion that
a "great genius" is not understood in their own time.  Perhaps this
notion is more a result of movies about composers and marketing?  However,
I don't believe that the music of Beethoven is great because it is viewed
differently by each generation and individual and still has meaning for
many.  Does human expression need to be understood by many to be of
value?

For me, theoretical mathematics can be art, as for me, like art, it is
an attempt to find meaning.  I certainly do not understand quantum
mechanics.  Yet I believe there is great value in theoretical mathematics.

>It's difficult to find an example of a piece we now consider a
>masterpiece that was not appreciated as such while its composer
>was alive or within a relatively short period after his death."

Yet many of the works of Schoenberg, were indeed venerated during his
own lifetime, and even today.  Webern's Symphony is still considered by
many to be a masterpiece.  I am reminded of a letter Leonard Bernstein
wrote in defense of the Webern, even when Bernstein seems to have suggested
that non tonal music was fundamentally flawed.

>Schoenberg's 12-tone "Serenade" was written in 1924; Boulez' fulminations
>about the superfluity of everything other than serial music date back
>to the 50s, and he founded IRCAM in 1970; Stockhausen's "Gruppen" dates
>back to 1959, and he has been writing his helicopter quartets and his
>cycle of unperformable, egomaniac operas since the 70s.  Enough is enough.
>The experiment has been conducted.

In my study of music history, I have found just about everything you
mention to be a natural outgrowth of the history of music.  I believe
much of the work you mention to have been labeled "experimental" much
in the same way Varese responded to the question of whether what he wrote
was music or not..."it is organized sound." Ok, so you don't like it,
let's call it experimental.

I believe that much of the "tonal" music of recent years, is an outgrowth
of all of the developments of music, including the 12 tone technique.
Many of the younger composers of today would not be writing exactly the
same way had there not been non-tonal works like (I know I am up for
criticism with some of these) Mahler's Tenth, Beethoven's 9th, Schoenberg's
first chamber symphony, Adam's Harmonium, etc.  When I look at the opening
of Beethoven's 9th I wonder, "what was he thinking." Good heavens, what
sort of harmonic analysis can you do with those opening measures.  Then
look at how far one has to go to explain the "Tristan" chord in terms
of function harmony.  Is it an Italian 6th?  If so, is isn't resolved
properly.

>However, since it took 50 years for Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen, &
>Co. to make make modern CM truly detested,

Yet there are those who detest tonal Copland...and even the music of
Barber...and Prokofiev...etc.

For me, what makes much of the non-tonal music detested by the general
audience of classical music is that the music was a reflection of its
time.  Of course the Penderecki Dies Irae is rough to listen to, but
then, looking at a picture of the dead bodies at Auschwitz isn't something
one does for pleasure.

I find the difference between the Adams Transmigration of souls, to be
a very different artistic response to horror.  As much as I value what
Adams wrote, I find the Penderecki work speaks to me in a very different
way.  The Adams work seems to be intended to heal souls, yet Penderecki's
work is there to remind us of the horror of what happened.  Is one work
greater than the other?

>...it will take 50 years for the process to be reversed.  If my
>watch is right, we should see evidence of this by about 2030.

Unfortunately I will not be here 50 years from now, but I feel lucky to
have lived through a period of time when art music has gone through such
a dramatic series of changes.  For me, I welcome the exploration of
possibilities.

>Incidentally, I personally find certain non-tonal music (e.g., Ligeti,
>Norgard and some of his younger Danish colleagues) very persuasive.  But
>I am not at all representative of the music-loving---or rather #potentially#
>music-loving---public.  More typical are some friends of mine who listen
>to serious music but grimace---one of them actually donned earplugs at
>a concert---at the first sign of what used to called the avant garde.
>Yet these individuals do NOT necessarily grimace at, let's say, John
>Adams or Aaron Jay Kernis or Jennifer Higdon.  Give composers like them
>and listeners like my friend until 2030, and we will see what develops.

I believe there is an audience for a work like the Wolpe Symphony (a
work far more dissonant to my ears than almost any other piece...I put
the music of Robert Hall Lewis right up there as well, but his music
does have moments of extreme calm and repose).  I am glad he wrote that
piece.  I also take delight in the music of John Adams and Kernis, less
so Higdon and find the first movement of Ligeti's Double Concerto to be
one of the most beautiful works I have ever heard.

For me, the reaction to modern music coincides with the popularization
of classical music, which, I believe, in turn, fostered a notion of "the
great works." I also believe much of the developments in the avant garde
of the 20th century can be attributed to devastation of Europe during
the first half of the century and our attempts to explain how our species
could do such a thing.

I don't believe non-tonal music will ever have much of an audience, but
then, I believe there has never been a large audience for human expression
that questions basic values...but I am glad there is such expression...and
I believe it can have meaning.  Art that questions human values does
not, in itself, mean to me that the art is great, but I don't believe
it is not great solely because it questions those basic values.

Karl

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