Monday, June 08, 2009

slowly unpacking

I pulled a few scores out of boxes this last weekend, two very important scores for personal reasons and long-time readers of this blog will piece together why as soon as I name them:

Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor
Frank Martin's Mass for double choir

Yep, at some point I want to tackle the Credo and Martin's mass in particular has been promising. As I have written elsewhere at some length Martin uses a thematic approach in which a melody is used to indicate the persons of the Trinity, exactly the kind of musical and theological structuring device I have been wanting to use in my own Mass, particularly the Credo. A very broad ABab structure is what I am settling on. Where the text discusses persons of the Trinity I want common thematic material, where the text discusses the life, death, and resurrection of Christ I want common material that can be redeployed in closing statements about the Church.

It is funny how I now feel as though I have spent a whole decade reflecting on musical forms and on the theological content of the Creed to just now get to the point where I have what is admittedly a tentative plan for a musical setting. I'm not like Haydn or other Classic era composers, who apparently tossed off settings of Masses that even in their own time were criticized for being a bit glib, celebratory, and lacking in theological content. I happen to like some of Haydn's masses, honestly, but I agree with Charles Rosen that sacred choral music in the Classic era largely sucks and I probably disagree with Rosen about the quality of Beethoven's sacred choral music which I like least of all among the composers from that era. Beethoven blows, Mozart wrote parts of a Requiem and a Mass that I wish he had actually finished, while it has been Haydn's Creation that stands out as probably one of the few truly great sacred choral works from that entire epoch.

Part of developing s an artist is recognizing what stuff to keep and what stuff to ignore, the stuff to ignore often being at least as imporant as the stuff to keep. Different eras of Western music employ different forms to different symbolic effect. I could attempt to get into affect and the would-be science of music emotional responses were invoked by means of thematic creation and manipulation but despite the role of music in the quadrivium in ancient thought music even asn applied sciene remains an art more than a science. I respect the social sciences as being useful and capable of keen insights ... but social sciences do not really have laws like the hard sciences do. There is no social science equivalent to the law of gravity, Newtonian observation about inertia, or observations about chemical interactions. If there are such laws in social sciences they are fraught with interpretive and applicational issues, such as the degree to which conformity should be used in social structuring and directing the thought and actions of individuals or assessing them.

And so it is with music, there is room for great disagreement about what constitutes great music or any great art. You cannot anticipate what may be great art or music and what is great art or music may arise from the quality of design and structure or language or the ideology with which a work may be freighted. Now I love the big novels of Dostoevsky and love how he explores his ideas but I come back to them because in all of his exploration of big ideas he didn't forget his story or his characters. Even Ivan Karamazov is a character and not just a cipher for whatever ideology Dostoevsky wanted to either promote or demote. Dostoevsky was not just an author of ideas, he lived in the world and had to make a living. There is a sense in which the reality of commercial viability separates professionals from amateurs. I am most assuredly an amateur.

Even among professionals, like Haydn, there are moments where great art emerges through experimentation and refinement. Haydn wrote plainly that he had time to experiment to see what worked, what didn't, what evoked emotional response, what evoked bewilderment and through all of these pieces of music he wrote adn all of these performances he was able to refine his art, understand what was likely to evoke what response he might be seeking. Haydn was, in other words, making nearly a science out of the art of selling out. Indeed, in the patronage system of his day what we would call selling out was arguably the acme of developing as an artist. He was able to attain mass popular appeal and please his employer through the same process.

I sometimes wonder if in contemporary society we overvalue artistic credibility and independence. I have been skeptical even from my teens about the propensity of this contemporary Western age to want the rules broken without having any idea what rules might be in place. It would simply matter to break whatever rules there are by breaking something. Paradoxically critics can both reinforce this and avoid it. In the past critics upheld the standards of what styles were acceptable and thus you would get things that ended up in Slonimsky's Lexicon. On the other hand there are those who want whatever is to be overturned. Free verse has become paradigmatic in our era as traditional verse was in earleir times. It was not popular for teachers to point ou tthat the best poets demonstrated a mastery of both conceptions of literature or poetry.

We live in an era in which it is hard to argue that a single unified style exists. That means that it might be possible for someone to compose a Mass based entirely on doo-whop material. It would not, so far as I can tell, be any less pious or appropriate as a means of setting the Mass than many pieces from the tiem of Haydn and Mozart. Sacred choral music, as Rosen put it, presents a challenge because of the two impulses that emerge from sacred texts, the celebration and ritual side of things, and the abstraction of theological content. Since, as the psalmist puts it, we are enjoined to sing to teh Lord a new song, at some point Christian composers must inevitably garpple with all of these things. Only those of the most rigid liturgical approaches make no allowances for new ways of singing the parts of the Mass ... even a Calvinist like Frank Martin composed a setting of the Mass and Calvinists are not, by and large, known for ever tackling that.

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