Saturday, December 17, 2016

some concluding remarks on a survey of early 19th century guitar sonatas--on scripts vs plans in composition and analysis, recovering a script-based approach as we see guitar sonatas don't follow the prescribed "plan" paradigm

This was supposed to be more comprehensive.  Molitor was largely left out.  Carulli was omitted altogether.  Molino was merely referenced.  Didn't even mention Darr or Luckner.  If I'd wanted to expand out into chamber music that featured sonata form Matiegka would need more mention, as would, obviously Giuliani but also Christian Dickhut, whose trios for flute, horn and guitar may not seem very deep but have their charms. 

If I'd dared to explore sonata forms as explored by 20th century composers the range of possibilities would explode.  Ponce, Jose, other usual suspects, these have already been written about at least a bit here and there.  Ponce's sonatas are probably going to remain at the top of the pyramid in terms of prestige and craft.  I'd like to make a case that Ferdinand Rebay's cycle of solo guitar sonatas deserves a more than just sympathetic hearing but that's going to likely have to wait until 2017 for that case to be made.  Probably ditto for sonatas by Dusan Bogdanovic, Nikita Koshkin, Guastavino and others.  Someone was kind enough to send me Cristiano Porqueddu's five-disc box set of guitar sonatas and the Gilardino sonatas in particular are pieces I hope to write about in 2017.  While they don't necessarily feature a traditionally recognizable sonata form the guitar sonatas of Atanas Ourkouzounov have been on me "to get to" list for blogging topics. 

So you probably get the idea by now, this could have become and could perhaps still become part of a larger project.  It didn't.  It took years to put this together as it was.  But it was nice to finally get something done and up on the blog. 

Years ago I read a transcript of a lecture by Matanya Ophee, Repertoire Issues.  Reading that lecture transcript was one of those change-your-life moments for me.   Ophee's suggestion that guitarists select and play repertoire that will win the respect of other musicians in the guild, so to speak, rather than just playing the old stand-bys that are beloved within the guitarist scene and by guitarist audiences, stuck with me.  That the guitar has never had the prestige of the violin or the piano seems to me beyond dispute.  In fact that Richard Taruskin mentioned in a passing sentence that the guitar was and is basically not really a part of the literate Western musical tradition (contentious though the assertion obviously is in many details) might well reinforce Matanya Ophee's point--if Taruskin could quite seriously think he could "get away with" saying the guitar has not been part of the Western literate musical tradition it's because in writing five-thousand odd pages about the whole of Western music he could skip it.  So Ophee was right, there not only wasn't a golden age for the guitar in the past, a fairly mainstream music historian could explicitly say the guitar is an instrument whose traditions aren't really worth bringing up as having a significant role to play in what we call classical music.

To Taruskin's assertion I disagree in practice while agreeing on principle.  It really is tough to make a case that even the most ambitious works of Sor experimenting with sonata form stick with audiences or resonate with audiences the way a piano sonata by Brahms or Haydn or Beethoven do; or that the finest musical works by Giuliani linger in the mind in quite the same way as Satie or Chopin or Bach do.  Koshkin has had moments that approach Scriabin but more people are likely to be familiar with Scriabin's piano sonatas than Koshkin's guitar sonatas (though I appreciate both)

The prestige thing may be lame, it may be annoying, it may be freighted with a lot of white cisgender Eurocentric heteronormative baggage in the lexicon of contemporary Western scholarship, but the most prestigious compositional processes in the Western tradition have been, as Reicha more or less put it, the sonata and the fugue.  Guitarists have all too often said that these forms or processes are inimical to the nature of the guitar.  This is provably false.  Sonata and fugue may prove inimical to those who lack the intellectual curiosity, emotional commitment and physical dexterity to try their hands at contrapuntal music for the guitar or composing sonata forms.  But there is nothing inherent in the possibilities of the guitar, however severe its restrictions are, that dictates that we can't have sonatas and fugues for the instrument in every major and minor key. 

In that light there has never been a Beethoven of the guitar and there may never be.  Ophee, in his lecture, said that we must shed any inferiority complex we have about our instrument and the worth of its music.  I agree. 

Part of shedding any inferiority complex about the music written for our instrument includes casting off old assumptions about what constitutes a "real" sonata form.  It may be that the guitarist composers of the early 19th century did not write what Hepokoski & Darcy call a "Type 3" sonata form, the textbook sonata form that, as described by German-awed music theorists looking to Beethoven, opens with a masculine theme in one key followed by a feminine theme in another key leading to a kind of Hegelian dialectical synthesis.  But then the rulebook for what a sonata form was and "ought" to be had not been all that finalized at the time the early guitar masters were experimenting with sonata forms.  They were drawing on conventions in thematic development that, as Hepokoski & Darcy showed in their writings, were normative--the incomplete recapitulation was regarded as a normal option. 

As we've seen this week in the guitar sonatas of Diabelli, Molitor, Matiegka, Giuliani and Sor the incomplete, the truncated recapitulation was often more normative than the eventual "textbook" conception that would get formulated later in the 19th century.  Let's bear in mind that these guitarist composers had audiences and had their own physical and intellectual horizons and it would appear that for the most part they had a bag of tricks that could be easy to predict, perhaps, but they tried to avoid descending into building entire musical experiences through what Leonard B. Meyer delicately called "statistical climax", which can be described in more recent terms as the ethos of "crescendo rock" or the endless vamping of Jimmy Page in a Led Zeppelin song.  Guitarist composers have been tempted since the dawn of the instrument to find a sweet groove and subordinate all other musical concerns to that.  That's a part of the wonderful possibilities of music but there are other parts.

I've found Meyer's distinction between the "script" and the "plan" enormously instructive. Meyer explicitly wrote that sonata forms were script-like in the eighteenth century but that the nineteenth century theorists and composers began to treat them like plans.

Now here's where all of this abstraction has practical implications.  In the last century the divergence between popular musical styles and academic musical approaches has gotten fairly large.  One of the recurring fracture points between classical and jazz, or classical and pop, is how the respective canons seem incapable of overlapping.  Yet when we go back and survey the degree to which Haydn or Beethoven or Bach could employ popular, simple tunes in the process of composing large-scale works, it seems as though the intransigent gap between canons could be, in part, the result of a mixture of marketing and pedagogical approach.  If you teach classical music with a "plan" based approach rather than a script-based approach (and it's to the credit of Hepokoski & Darcy and William E Caplin that they have done work that attempts to recover, so to speak, script-based approaches to sonata) then the vernacular of popular music may be inherently precluded. 

There's no intrinsic reason ragtime or blues or country couldn't be assimilated into the script possibilities of the process we call sonata form ... unless those idioms are by definition not "part of the plan".  Well, maybe Isaac Albeniz didn't get "the plan" when he composed his piano sonatas.  Maybe Scriabin didn't, either.  There really isn't any intrinsic reason you can't write a sonata movement starting with a 12-bar blues or a ballad tune.  But perhaps it's easier to teach sonata as if it were a plan, as if it were a form rather than a flexible thought process.  Contra conservatives like Roger Scruton or Roger Kimball, George Rochberg stated that musical forms commonly associated with tonal music do not themselves derive from anything inherent in tonality itself.  They derive from two things--interest and clarity.  Something has to get your attention and keep it.  Another way of putting it is that musical form depends on a collaborative and directive approach to associative memory.  If you overload the cognitive capacities of your listener they tune out.  If you insist on making a demand of your listener that they can't keep up with, they lose the thread. 

But we know that in reality people want to be surprised while simultaneously being reassured.  A composer like Haydn proved to be a genius at simultaneously fulfilling and subverting expectations.  He was mercurial enough in how he developed his ideas that theorists are reluctant to regard Haydn as the example to study for sonata forms as we now know them.  But that would seem to be a reason to absorb his work all the more.  If we want to teach what the music does not what the textbook requires it to have done that's what we'll need to do.

But there's an opposite path that seems like a dead end, and it's most characteristic of the stuff I've read in the last few years of some folks over at NewMusicBox.

Some writers at NewMusicBox can solemnly and excitedly intone that genre doesn't exist.  Right, genre doesn't exist in music because people writing at a blog say so.  Let's try this idea out in another artistic medium and declare that genre doesn't exist therefore there's no such thing as a superhero movie so there wasn't a surprise hit in the form of Deadpool this year because Deadpool wasn't a superhero movie.  Saying that genre doesn't exist will not make more people suddenly want to go listen to more classical guitar music.  If I were to indulge in a bit of surliness, it's the people whose art isn't raking in money that have the incentive to say their work transcends genre or is not delimited by it because who's buying it as it is?  It's the people who are staking the mortgage on their house that something will work who let what they do be defined by a genre.  Bon Jovi could say he made an album to get another house because he could be confident he made music that people would buy. 

There's a world of difference between saying the boundaries separating what we regard as genres are permeable and saying that the genres themselves don't even exist.

I can make a case in terms of musical analysis that with just a few modifications to rhythmic profile and harmonic rhythm you can transform a Giuliani guitar sonata theme into a ragtime strain without saying that early 19th century guitar sonatas and early 20th century piano rags aren't identifiable genres.  To say that there's no such thing as proto-Romantic guitar literature and ragtime is absurd.  You can't even really say that these genres don't exist only the communities that formed the music that's been handed down to us because thanks to a process called reification (reducing those musical experiences, in whatever limited ways scores provide for us) we don't have access to the communities that forged the ragtime we hear on ice cream trucks or the communities that created the guitar sonatas we've discussed this week.  Those communities died out and the contemporary interest in these styles is from a different set of communities. 

What we call works of art conceal as much as they reveal but that's what we've got, and reliance on written published scores for both ragtime and guitar sonatas suggests that, to restate an obvious point, the boundaries between these two musical idioms are permeable.  It's not like the German augmented sixth chords preparing for a cadence become different across a Joplin rag and a Giuliani sonata.  Part of the difficulty guitarists will have in selling the sonatas written for our instrument by guitarists in the past is that hearing them as they were heard is not possible.  We can make historically informed guesses but that's as far as we can go.  That said, we can try to see how historically informed we can be.  Distinguishing between a "script" and a "plan" can help us--the distinction isn't even subtle.  It's possible in a musical performance to go "off script".  Matiegka's Grand Sonata I has that "ad libatum" instruction to bring something to the performance that isn't in the script.  Paradoxically that was all part of the plan.  You don't find that kind of open-ended spot to put your own solo into a Sor sonata. 

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the profound practical implications for script vs. plan composing in large-scale forms can be likened to theater or cinema.  There's value in both a script and a plan but there are limitations.  The limitation of a script can be how formulaic it is and how readily things can be anticipated once you know the ins and outs of the script.  The strengths, in the hands of the capable, can be immense.  We'll get to that but you may already have perceived what the strength of a script can be.  The advantage of a plan is that it gives you a clearer sense of the entirety of what you're aiming for.  The plan lays out the ultimate goal and lets you subordinate everything toward that goal.  It's great for big picture stuff. 

I'll admit that I lean very strongly toward the "script" over the "plan" as a way to approach sonata or fugue.  I don't plan in the sense that I have some clear idea what the overall musical work has to sound like, I script in the sense that I'm constantly tinkering with the syntax and the developmental implications of whatever I'm working on.  I like plans, in theory, and I try to plan but life has a way of wrecking plans and this can be true in art as well as life. 

That wasn't easy ... so let me try again.  The difference between a script and a plan is this (and obviously very simple)--you can go off script whenever inspiration or observation suit youYou'll still find your way back to what the next part of the script would be because diverging from the script never means not having a script.  You can't go off plan without changing or reassessing the nature of the plan itself. The very nature of the project you're working on changes when you go off plan.  Sonata forms have been taught as plans since the 19th century, it seems, when it could make more sense to teach them as a range of possible scripts.  It's to the credit of the likes of William E. Caplin, James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy to work toward recovering what may be thought of as a script-based approach to what we call sonata forms. 

Sonata forms, for want of a better term, never became obsolete.  What became obsolete was, arguably, the vast field of scholastic pedagogy that spent generations telling us to regard sonatas as plans rather than scripts.  Analyzing sonatas as if they were scripts is more difficult because to assess what kind of sonata we're looking at, or if we're even looking at a sonata, depends upon familiarizing ourselves with the range of possible scripts composers could be working from, whether for form in general of the developmental procedures used on a set of gestures in a particular work.  Where the guitar sonatas of the early 19th century masters are concerned coming to appreciate the range of scripts they worked from can help us appreciate their works for what they were rather than find them wanting for failures to adhere to what we may have been taught in school was the prescribed plan for a proper sonata as it was passed down to us by way of 19th and early 20th century pedagogy. 

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