There's going to be Bach in this post but also some references to Haydn and Yes and ELP and Pinkfloyd and Stevie Wonder along the way. For those who haven't read what he's been blogging on the Bach Chaconne .... here's what Ethan Hein has been up to at his blog.
Being a guitarist who is also a fan of J. S. Bach the thing that's fascinating about both the Chaconne and the C major violin fugue is that despite the plethora of complexity on the surface of the variations and the counterpoint conveyed in the fugue respectively, Bach keeps the macrostructural nature of the large-scale movements simple as can be. The variations in the Chaconne are by the dozens but can be organized and heard as being organized in a giant ternary form, ABA in which each A section is a set of variations in D minor while the B section is in D major.
It's perhaps not entirely true to say sonata forms weren't options in Bach's time although sonata forms as defined by 19th century theory and pedagogy didn't exist because nobody was writing those in the 18th century ... but that's a polemical point I'm bringing up as I'm reading Robert O Gjerdingen's work on the galant style. Bach didn't "need" to use sonata forms when he had recourse to other ways of organizing material. To put this another way by reference to Haydn, Haydn made use of some complex musical structures but his surfaces are generally clear and immaculate. He wrote sonatas that used the same initial idea in the spaces where the textbook "Theme 1" and "Theme 2" were supposed to be in 19th century explanations of sonata. Clementi wrote monothematic sonatas, too, for that matter and my digression here is to point out that in the later 18th century in the galant style the forms could and did become significantly more complex in terms of key relationships and the rhetoric of musical "argument" because the galant style made a point of encouraging music that was written to give people a chance to demonstrate their taste. Clever manipulations of stock ideas to see how quickly people could recognize those ideas was often part of the musical game.
Complex forms were a way to make the game more fun is how I'm going to put it--the larger-scale forms in galant music could get complex and twisty in part because a lot of the ideas were so clear and easy to grasp on the surface. Any first theme of any string quartet by Haydn or Ditters or Vanhal or, yes, Mozart, would be clear enough while you're hearing it but the fun surprises are in what they do with those themes and how they jump from theme to theme along the way. Classic era music (which Robert Gjerdingen has argued is more accurately called "galant" since nobody in that era thought they were living in the Classical Era but they would identify their music as in galant style). "Classic" era music stripped things down to a more direct, "expressive" approach to music and form could become more complex because the directness and simplicity of the musical language on the surface, compared to a fugue by Bach or Buxtehude or a polyphonic setting of the Psalms by Sweelinck, left room in the cognitive bandwidth of composer and audience for simple materials to be worked through in complex forms. Exploring the complex possibilities and potentialities latent in a stock musical formula is another matter.
I trust by now you get that though the priorities seem inverted comparing sonata forms from the galant style to a chaconne by Bach there's an underlying principle we can hear, that there's good reason in terms of traditions and respecting what levels of attentions we humans can give to music at different levels to make sure that complexity at one level of perception can be offset at other levels by keeping things simple. Bach's Chaconne may be exhibit A in the history of Western music for having a vastly complex musical work on its surface organized at its largest perceptible structural units in one of the simplest forms in the history of Western music. You can't really get much simpler than ABA.
Bach's Chaconne isn't exactly a musical game but it's an interesting example of how a sea of complex textures, counterpoint, harmony and melody at the surface is offset with an elegantly simple and comprehensible large-scale handling of form. This can be observed in some late Beethoven, too. The Grosse Fugue (which I regard as the better ending for the late B flat major string quartet) is easy to hear is a gigantic five-part rondo once you've established that you're listening to a big fugue. You are listening to a big fugue in that quartet but you can also hear that that big fugue is broken up into chunks that make it possible to figure out where you are in that musical moment.
Pertinent to the topic of European appropriation and assimilation and interest in non-European musical ideas I've picked up Michael V Pisani's Imagining Native America in Music (Yale University Press, 2005) and a volume edited by Victoria Lindsay Levine called Writing American Indian Music: Historic Transcriptions, Notations, and Arrangements (A. R. Editions, Inc. (c) 2002 by American Musicological Society). The short version, for now, is that transcriptions of Native American songs by Europeans go as far back as apparently the 1550s.
In spite of the genteel and gentle associations waltz might have for us in the twenty-first century in Everybody's Doin' It Dale Cockrell pointed out that the waltz was considered vulgar and risque around the early 19th century. To shift gears a bit on the connection and disconnection between music and dance, many a scholar has concluded that the riot that greeted Rite of Spring had more to do with the choreography and the dance than the music by itself, which later went on to become a staple in orchestral music when presented on its own. Pertinent to Dale Cockrell's books on minstrelsy and blackface and the evolution of dance hall music in connection to the sex industry in New York, it's useful to remember that the scandals associated with music were often about what kind of dancing was being done to the music, enforcers of public order left us relatively little if anything by way of descriptions of the actual music. We might want to remember that when the term "discordant" is used to describe a musical performance that might not mean people in dance halls were playing anything "discordant" in the style of Scriabin or Mosolov. There's stacked quartal chords and unresolved major sevenths in the Louis Chauvin strains of "Heliotrope Boquet", though.
Transcriptions of Native American songs from the 1600s demonstrate that changing meters across sections of song happened in, for instance, Iroquois song. There's an Alaskan native song that has the meter set up as 3/4 or 2/4 depending on measure, while a lot of transcriptions present the Native American songs in mono-meter in the Levine edition. These transcriptions being collected across centuries and published at various dates between 1600 and the present, one possibility that comes up is that when there are no ways to mechanically record music a transcriber can be tempted to flatten songs out into uniform meter while other transcribers made a point of highlighting Native American songs using asymmetric meter and microtonal shifts in melody such as Dr. Ida Halpern noted about Native American song in the Pacific Northwest. None of this is to suggest the chaconne actually derives from a Native American musical tradition as such, I'm just pointing out that Ethan Hein mentioned that it seemed the chaconne was ...
Based on what I can piece together, I’m sensing a narrative: Iberian colonists hear some West African and/or Native American rhythm and they like it. They learn to play it, or an approximation of it, and they bring it home, where it’s received as a “saucy,” “sexy,” “primitive” dance. Then it takes on a life of its own independent of its cultural origins, higher-class people pick it up, the edges get sanded off it, and then the “serious” composers start adapting it into the abstractions we know from the classical canon. In the process, the rhythms lose their idiosyncrasies, and get simplified and mushed together. There’s probably a parallel to the way that white musicians describe any Latin-sounding beat as “salsa” or “mambo” or “bossa”, often without realizing that these rhythms are all quite different from each other. I’m also guessing that it’s a similar story to the evolution of “Kumbaya” from the syncopated groove of the Gullah original to the foursquare version we all learned from Joan Baez. So it would appear that Baroque dances aren’t just a music history topic;
In the days before musical nationalisms evolved as self-conscious movements mixing and matching styles was encouraged, particularly in the Baroque era. Bach's English suites might just sound like Bach to us but he made a point of writing English suites and French suites. It's possible a disadvantage of a monolithic approach to musical canons can be that over time, without background in the dances in the background, Bach just sounds like Bach. His mastery of musical styles making callbacks to English, French, Italian, German and Polish music will sail past anyone who hasn't made a point of digging into that musical background.
To put it another way, when Dale Cockrell describes the waltz as a lascivious dance to cultural commenters in the 19th century during the Jacksonian period we might want to keep in mind that some of the dances that seem sedate and "white" were not necessarily as sedate "then" as we think of them now, however "white" they may or may not have actually been. Depending on which English person you talked to centuries ago the Irish wouldn't be "white" the way we've come to use the term.
Conversely, as I've done some reading in Alexandra Harmon's work on the history of Pacific Northwestern tribes interracial and inter-tribal marriage was relatively common in the PNW. What the Native peoples of the region would not have very quickly done was share songs. Given that many of them believed that songs were gifts from spirits and given that PNW Natives subscribed to something that we'd have to translate into contemporary jargon as a concept of intellectual property, you wouldn't get to hear, let alone sing, a song unless the person sharing it had decided you were worthy enough a person to receive it. So it's ... possible that when music specialists such as Ida Halpern mentioned that some of the tribes in the Puget Sound area seemed to not have much by way of musical culture that "could" be true or it could potentially be true there were plenty of songs but that the spiritual beliefs of the tribes in the region were such that there was a cultural disincentive to share those songs with someone like Halpern. But I digress ... a little.
The question of whether or not Native American musical traditions were even really music or worth using was often answered in the negative in earlier periods of United States history. There were, of course, the Indianist composers in the later 19th and early 20th century but they didn't have much long-term influence in their day and they tend to be viewed retroactively as guilty of cultural appropriation. Now I realize that in many a Native American context song, speech and generative language are normative and that language is viewed as generative rather than representational. That being noted ... the first documented musical work using Western notation published by a Native American seems to have been Thomas Commuck's shape note hymnal contributed to the musical traditions of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In other words, the work was in an "American" style but one that had been used by church singers and composers in the north American continent for a couple of centuries. The short argument for why what Commuck did wasn't cultural appropriation was that he was Native American and also an active participant in the church and its traditions to which he was contributing. The Indianists, by contrast, were not generally doing that.
A composer we now think of as German copying aspects of French, Polish, English, and Italian music could have been doing cultural appropriation by contemporary standards but the Baroque era, which has increasingly been labeled by specialists as more accurately likely the era of figured bass, already had two prevailing styles, the old style reflecting ars perfecta vocal music and dance-based instrumental music that included turns toward opera and the panoply of what we could call, for the sake of a blog post, all of that figured bass music. Many a great "German" master found it beneficial to study the works of Italian composers intensely. Bach was not exactly as marginal or "outsider" as some contemporary writing about him would have us believe. He was not an unknown and yet he was also not a superstar.
Ultra-large scale variation is tough to do well. J. S. Bach handled it brilliantly. Beethoven was pretty good at it, too, although the Diabelli variations don't win me over personally as much as Bach in general does. Haydn should not be overlooked in his handling of variation but I'm going to try to stick to Bach for the home stretch. There have been landmarks of variation in more recent music. I haven't heard the Rzewski yet. I have to admit I'm underwhelmed by the Ponce variations on La folia despite the fact that it's considered one of "the" large-scale variation works in the guitar literature. I mean, I do respect the Ponce variations because variation forms in the guitar literature can ... often leave me more than just cold. Episodic variation can really highlight whether you like the foundational theme or not and if you find you don't like the opening theme then you know you're in for a really long haul if there are a lot of variations.
Now the thing about chaconne and passacaglia, as they've evolved over centuries, is they are part of what's known as continuous variation technique or continuous variation as a form. The theme gets presented and then variation after variation are presented not just without a break but often seamlessly. A chaconne or a passacaglia falls into this approach where as a more modular approach would be Goldberg variations or Beethoven's Diabelli variations where when the final cadence of the theme is reached that variation comes to a full stop before the next one happens. That Ponce chose that approach for La folia may be one of the reasons I can't quite get into it. I'm okay with George Rochberg doing that in his Caprice Variations on a theme by Paganini but that reminds me that ...
in the 20th century with composers ranging from Charles Ives to Benjamin Britten to George Rochberg we got an innovation that seems important to mention, colloquially known as "reverse variations" or described in some contexts by Peter Burkholder as "cumulative form". The dramatic transformations and mutations of gestures and harmonic progressions from the theme emerge in sequence and coalesce into the final arrival of the foundational theme rather than having a variation movement that states the theme up front and goes along as we would hear in, say, the Bach Chaconne. Call it the burden of history and influence but I find it interesting that composers began to develop "reverse variation" building up to popular songs or already canonized musical themes. I'm speculating wildly that Anglo-American composers dealing with a predominantly German 19th century legacy seemed to play with reverse-variation as a way to do what Leonard B. Meyer said Romantics were doing, having their conventions but hiding them. You can have that iconic "everybody should know this piece" moment but we're saving it til the very end and you won't get to hear it before the composer has done a lot of other stuff. In a work by Charles Ives where he doesn't get to "Jesus Loves Me" until later in the work, the recognizable popular camp meeting song has an electrifying effect, a moment of recognition where you finally (if you ever went to camp meetings, at least) can say, "Wait, I KNOW this song!"
J. S. Bach didn't have that kind of burden of history of the sort we've been imagining since some guy named Bloom said we had it. In the eighteenth century, and I venture to propose this was true for Haydn and for Bach and for others, variation was a way for a composer to pull out the stops with something audiences could be expected to recognize but then say, "But did you know that this is something you can do with this tune? Let me show you ... . "
What's interesting for me, thinking about Bach's Chaconne again, is Ethan Hein has a great point about how simple its underlying macrostructural nature is. Bach's sixty some variations on a single core idea divisible into a grand ternary form is structurally simpler than "Zanadu" by Rush, for instance. Yes, Bach's Chaconne has a lot of complex stuff going on in it but you can still break it down into an ABA at the largest possible structural level. How might you graph out the structurally delineated aspects of "Zanadu"? It can be done, of course, and long ago in my twenties I played guitar and sang the Rush song with some friends ... twenty-five years and a lot less coffee ago.
Songs from Rush or Yes ("Close to the Edge", for instance) can get in the same range of length as the Bach Chaconne but what's interesting for me, surveying the history of progressive rock and its reception (or rejection!) history in the last fory years is that a lot of progressive rock bands and musicians wanted to incorporate classical music and other not-blues influences into rock. They were reacting to what they felt had become the stringent and constraining limits of the 3:30 song. I can sympathize with that frustration as a musician but ... one of the reasons prog rock has come in for so much scorn is because for all the technique prog rockers can display they often displayed a surfeit of technique in combination with a shortage of ways to tie dozens of ideas together into larger-scale forms.
In other words, Haydn's symphonies might display far less surface complexity in harmony, melody and rhythm compared to an album by Yes but it may be a lot easier for someone to remember what Haydn did with his fewer ideas. As Richard Taruskin mentioned in his Oxford History, Haydn complained in a letter to a friend that too many composers in his day (Haydn's) had too many good ideas without organizing them enough to let the listener remember what ideas they were playing with. Each of the ideas might have been great but if you pile on enough of them over the course of twenty to forty minutes you can't remember them all unless you're the one who wrote them. As one of my friends in college told me, the reason he hated Yes as a band was not because they had no good musical ideas, they had way too many good to great musical ideas and absolutely no clearly perceptible sense for how they were structuring them. Which is to say Haydn called it for his century and for ours, whether he could have realized it or not. Haydn had been making a point about the symphonists of his day whose works he couldn't remember but it's a cautionary note for musicians and composers to consider in the present, and also when considering the storied history of progressive rock, its fans and detractors.
None of this is to say you can't be into the music of Bach and also listen to Rush and Yes. I am suggesting, however, that some of us are listening to Bach centuries after his death because he managed to strike that elusive delicate balance between complex surfaces and compellingly simple musical superstructure in ways that an entire era of rock history notoriously by and large didn't achieve. It's fascinating to consider that some of the bands of the progressive rock movement more generally that did manage to master larger-scale forms in a way that made their music memorable, such as the Moody Blues or Pinkfloyd, don't tend to be thought of as even "being" progressive rock by the fans who are more into bands like Rush or Yes or King Crimson. But the structural simplicity at the heart of even the longest Pinkfloyd instrumental suites ("Echoes" is not hugely complex in terms of its large-scale structural units) goes a long way toward explaining why they managed to have staying power. Let me put it another way, I "could" try to listen to "Tarkus" by Emerson, Lake & Palmer but I'd rather listen to "Contusion" by Stevie Wonder.
POSTSCRIPT 1-10-2020 4.50PM
Lest anyone potentially mistake the comparison of Bach to Rush as being inconsiderate in light of the passing of Neil Peart, the news of Peart's passing was announced today and I wasn't aware of that until the last hour.