Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Composer in the Evil Empire

This was written a few years back but it seems pertinent to post it on the blog now that we're in the centennial year of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich. I tried to make sure I attributed sources and take issue with a few statements made by Robert Craft. So here's the essay ...

The Composer in the Evil Empire:
Shostakovich and the Western cult of artistic innovation

I was another one of those children of the 1980s. I grew up watching Ronald Reagan be president. Naturally, I also grew up with the Cold War and understood that the Soviet Union and all communist countries were the enemy, part of that Evil Empire. Anything that came out of the Soviet Union had to be bad, whether it was books or food or cars. The one exception seemed to be military equipment, which always managed to be a little better than American hardware. As I began even simple research in military equipment I learned that this earlier perception was due mainly to the propaganda of the time. The only proviso I had, then, was that the work had to be dissident. So Solzhenitsyn was okay.

At this same time of my life my brother brought records and compact disks home from the city library every week. I eventually learned there was some good Soviet music. I learned, for instance, that Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev’s endearing work for children, fell into this category. Alongside John Coltrane, Bela Bartok, Blind Willie Johnson, and Bob Dylan I was also introduced to Dmitri Shostakovich through his famous Eighth Quartet. In this way I was disabused of my illusion that great music must be made in “freedom”.But on what basis did I know I was hearing in Shostakovich great music? It was hard to say. While I loved his quartets I was indifferent to some of his symphonies (and I hated the Second and Third). His viola sonata was a marvel and yet I could turn to his 24 Preludes and Fugues and come away surprised at how average I found them. Nevertheless, I was sure that in Shostakovich I was witnessing a first-rate talent.

But as with any young man (which I still am) I wanted to see what scholars and composers thought of the Soviet Union’s greatest composer. I found two distinct opinions. The first was that the man was a great composer and the second, obviously, was that he was not. The puzzle was figuring out the basis for this decision. If Shostakovich was or was not a great composer was it on the basis of the music itself or was it his politics? The two seemed impossible to separate and yet one or another had to be subject to scrutiny.

There are few other composers for whom the evaluation of their work seems to involve so many extra-musical ideals, even within an evaluation of musical ideals themselves! But the task was simplified for me because those who hated Shostakovich hated his work for political and aesthetic reasons. His famous detractors could be cited randomly. I’ll take the American critic and composer Virgil Thompson, the Hungarian modernist composer Bela Bartok, the German neo-classical composer Paul Hindemith, and conductor and critic Robert Craft (friend and protégé of Igor Stravinsky).Shostakovich, for the length of his music, inspired his detractors to vent their spleen in highly distilled language. If they didn’t get pissed off by his music they were merely bored.

Craft seems to fall more into the second category to go by his written statements. He doesn’t like Shostakovich’s music but he doesn’t become livid at the thought of the man. He also takes the most time to write about him. In Present Perspectives he writes about the contested memoirs of the composer. Trusting that the memoirs are accurate he takes apart the composer’s contention that an artist must live in freedom to compose. And on page 79 Craft gives us the following:

Political wisdom and artistic achievement do not generally go together, however, and Shostakovich’s case is no exception. Understandably, he lacks a historical sense, as when he contends that art cannot flourish in tyrannies. This is true of some modern brands, but not generally, since many “enlightened” Renaissance princes, versed in Platonic ideas of freedom and justice, surruounded by buildings, sculpture, and paintings that express man’s highest concepts, nevertheless ruled despotically and with uncontested power of life and death over their subjects.

Craft is right to point out that some of the greatest artists in the Western world were by no means free. He writes of “Mozart, whom the archbishop could kick with impunity, but whose quartets were not ‘corrected’ for their ideology” (page 79, as well). Of course a thorough reading of the life of Shostakovich suggests strongly that his quartets were not corrected for ideology either but Craft’s point is not lost. Mozart was a slave but at least a slave who could compose what he wanted. Mozart’s mentor Franz Joseph Haydn had an equally slavish job (he couldn’t even leave the city of his employer without obtaining official, direct permission, and he was required to write on command). But with a high salary, free medical care, the power to hire anyone he willed, and the personal affection of his very wealthy employer Haydn’s life was, to say the least, bearable. If nothing else Haydn and Mozart were up to the musical tasks.

But Craft’s argument that Shostakovich lacks a historical sense can be turned against him. Craft does not have the historical sense of a Russian, let alone a man of Polish-Lithuanian descent with a family tradition of political dissidence, living in the Soviet Union. If Shostakovich lacks a historical sense it was because he lived in a “modern” brand of tyranny, a brand which made other regimes look gentle.Earlier we see Craft mentioning “artistic achievement”. This suggests Craft recognizes Shostakovich as “the first artist of world reputation who spent his entire life on Animal Farm (ibid.)”. But what does Craft actually make of Shostakovich’s artistic achievement? Apparently not much. On page 83 we read:

Was Shostakovich a great composer? Not by any criteria of innovation in the language and style of music, or by virtue of any extraordinary powers of invention. …The music that Shostakovich wrote does not exhibit a wide range of emotions. It depends on simple contrasts of the lyrical and the dramatic, the elegiac and the grotesque, the solemn and the “impudent”. In some of the early postwar works, such as the Eighth Quartet and the Adagio of the Ninth [which Adagio? Craft doesn’t say and yet there are two of them in this quartet], an intensity of feeling and concentration are evident, but not a strong shaping hand. The ideas are worked to death, the forms, with their cliches of crescendo and climax, tend to sprawl, and the substance is thin … Finally, the music lacks rhythmic invention … and the harmonic palette, though not closed to experiment, is conventional.

So much for “artistic achievement” and “artist of world reputation”!
There is a great deal to unpack in Craft’s statements but first let’s turn to what other composers thought about Shostakovich.

Paul Hindemith was less direct in publicly belittling Shostakovich but in a letter to a publisher he wrote bitterly that the Soviet composer's Seventh Symphony (Leningrad) did nothing more than inspire brute physical sensations “from the pineal to the prostate gland”. Hindemith contended, as Volkov’s memoirs of Shostakovich claimed, that art cannot flourish under tyranny and went a little further to declare that no composer working under a totalitarian regime can produce music which reflects anything true about humanity. He trusted his own work-in-progress, Ludus Tonalis, was nothing short of a “moral conquest” in contrast to the Seventh symphony. I love Ludus Tonalis but how many people know of it, or Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony for that matter? History has proven, not least through censorship, that assuming moral high ground does not imbue one with artistic superiority--too frequently precisely the opposite is often the case. Hindemith had already seen what the National Socialists had done to ban his music but politics had arguably kept him from seeing clearly what he was saying about Shostakovich and how, at the broadest level, he was saying chillingly similar things.

The Hungarian Bela Bartok spared few if any words for Shostakovich. He did write a searing parody of the Leningrad Symphony in his Concerto for Orchestra. Perhaps he thought so little of Shostakovich that sparing words for his music was too much. Igor Stravinsky, generally hard to impress, seems to have told Shostakovich to outgrow his enthusiasm for Gustav Mahler and left it at that. Historically, Stravinsky was the only one of the lot to tell Shostakovich his thoughts man to man.Virgil Thompson was a composer and a critic who took issue with our embattled musician. For Thompson Shostakovich embodied the post-Beethoven compulsion in composers through Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler to make symphonies so big and outrageous as to overwhelm consciousness. His main point was that Shostakovich had made a symphony (his Fifth) pointlessly large and long, a work that seemed out to conquer the world with the most mundane material available. I could say the same about Thompson, except that he was merely trying to conquer America.

Not everyone thought so little of the man, however. Benjamin Britten and Shostakovich became friends out of mutual admiration for each other’s music. Schoenberg, surprisingly enough, had positive things to say about Shostakovich. How the pioneer of the 12-tone row would praise Shostakovich while all his disciples damned him is one of the great paradoxes of musical history. And part of the reason Volkov’s Shostakovich memoirs have been contested lies in the fact that many believe the memoirs were concocted to depict the composer as an anti-Soviet dissident when he was not.The truth about Shostakovich’s attitudes towards the Soviet regime may not surface for some time.There is too much at stake in terms of feelings and ideology for people to see him as more than either a secretive dissident or an agreeable Soviet hack.

Having ever so briefly surveyed the field of opinion on Shostakovich I come back to Craft’s remarks, which are most eloquent in explaining what people don’t like about the music of my subject. The main contention is that Shostakovich was not a great composer by virtue of innovation. It is true you will find nothing in the composer’s output that hasn’t appeared somewhere else first. For sheer scale no one could beat Wagner or Mahler. For dissonance no one could outdo Berg, Bartok, or Schoenberg. For florid expressionism you need only turn to Strauss or perhaps even Debussy.

Yet we should ask whether stylistic innovation alone is the mark of a great composer. Did Mozart foment any great or radical musical innovations in form or musical language? He chiefly drew upon the forms and instrumental idioms forged by his mentor Haydn, who was arguably doing all the hard work in advance and laying the foundation Mozart would build upon. Even if it was merely a small part, Mozart's genius flourished because Haydn had given him all the musical forms to simply play with from the start. It was Papa Haydn himself who had to make the forms what they were and it was Beethoven, not Mozart, who was the next great innovator in musical form and language.

But what about opera, the place where Mozart arguably did best? Since opera is a dramatic musical work we can’t credit Mozart for being an innovator even here. Mozart worked with a good librettist. Mozart should not be held in contempt for not being a great innovator, nor should his greatness force us to credit him radical innovations he did not introduce. Even Craft has written on this matter, making his ennui towards Shostakovich that much more of a paradox.

We simply don’t need to assume that musical greatness, even in the revolutionary-prone 20th century, is dependent on stylistic or formal innovation. What is the purpose of innovation? Perhaps in a market economy innovation enables a company to stay ahead of competition but generally innovation has been pragmatic. A criticism of Shostakovich for not innovating presumes that all great artists should innovate. Great artists break rules when they need to. Innovation is always pragmatic. Unpragmatic innovation is as oxymoronic as so-called “military intelligence”. It is therefore possible (however unlikely) for someone to be a great artist without introducing many formal innovations to one's art. Ergo Mozart.

The innovation issue set aside, it’s fair to ask whether Shostakovich did, in fact, have a wide emotional range. The “range” described by Craft covers extremes. By words alone it seems the critic has proven himself wrong even in criticizing the composer for lack of emotional range. Craft would have been better off saying Shostakovich was not adept at handling subtle emotional changes in music, or that he was unable to produce emotional nuance.

Notwithstanding, Craft emphasizes the formulaic nature of the composer’s work. Perhaps this holds the key to opening up his statement about Shostakovich’s emotional range. While this argument would hinge somewhat on innovation, Craft could redirect it towards workmanship.And craft, no pun intended, is where Craft finds Shostakovich to be weak. “Not a strong shaping hand”, is what we’re told. If you’ve heard any of his preludes and fugues you have to agree that Shostakovich can work his ideas to death and that he was not a great composer by virtue of “extraordinary powers of invention”. While not as blatantly repetitious and tedious as Phillip Glass, Shostakovich has many a moment where he repeats his ideas with too little variation.

The crux of Craft’s argument about cliché in Shostakovich is that the music tends to sprawl. Point noted. Anyone who copies Mahler would tend to sprawl and use cliched material. In fact, I don’t see why anyone who likes Wagner, Mahler, and Beethoven should have any problem with pieces merely being long! Craft likes those three composers. Is it so much work to add Shostakovich to the list? Even a lack of thematic development would not seem to be such a bad thing. Perhaps that “intensity of feeling and concentration” are not enough. Perhaps music isn't supposed to stir the soul, provided one exists.

The bottom line of all this? Craft should say he thinks Shostakovich is boring. Sometimes I think the same thing, too. But I also find myself occasionally thinking the same thing about Wagner, Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, … and I think that our thinking a composer boring is not in itself cause for saying that composer is not a great artist. Where Craft seemed to equivocate, Thompson, Hindemith, Bartok, and others simply declared: Shostakovich is a bad composer. Each one trusted in history to vindicate his claim. Yet if the popularity of Shostakovich has been on the rise since the end of the Cold War we may be seeing proof that all three of these prodigious composers were wrong. Beethoven's music was also once considered too loud, too long and full of bad ideas.

The only way we can discover the true value and longevity of Shostakovich’s music is through the course of history but this is another matter. This is not to say that I assume Shostakovich will or won’t be vindicated by history. I simply don’t know. But if his music lasts as long as Beethoven’s I’ll know that Craft guessed wrong, for music critics can do no more than speak their mind and guess.

Meanwhile, the ideology of innovation is a strange, intrinsic part of the history of creativity in the 20th century. It was a revolutionary time because the ideals of the 18th and 19th century proved grossly inadequate to 20th century experience, yet proved too compelling for most people to discard. If popular music, as Theodore Gracyk argued, protected itself from commodification and servitude to hegemony through reliance on traditional liberalism, wouldn’t the innovations of 20th century classical music in reaction to the failures of traditional liberalism suggest that popular music is at least as bad as Theodore Adorno said it was?

Could it be we prize innovation because the systemic needs of a society built on a market economy dictate we believe innovation is necessary? To put the shoe on the other foot, just how many avant garde Orthodox composers can you name? If this need for innovation as its own end falters where would much of our contemporary art and music be? It’s almost as if the end of the Evil Empire made it okay to like its music, enjoying the fruits of a culture we feel we’ve defeated. At least one disturbing possibility coming out of this is that the West’s "winning" of the Cold War was a hollow victory.

Perhaps the cult of innovation is the hegemony and in this respect both the classical and popular music worlds are enslaved to the same master and not even a revolution of some proletariat will change that. If it could it would not have produced the music of a Shostakovich who was, however great, no innovator. I have no reason to believe a similar revolution here could produce anything better or even, perhaps, anything quite as good.

part 4, somewhat more officially

Split Personality: the Romantic era
1820-1900 CE

In his landmark series of books about the devil, Jeffrey Burton Russell writes that the Romantic intellectual climate was incoherent on the subject. It seems nobody but Dostoevsky could come to one unified idea of what or who the devil was supposed to be. On the one hand the devil embodied an ironically righteous rebellion against unjust authority (something we see parroted to this day). In essence the devil was remade as Prometheus and separated from any Christian theological meaning. Yet, on the other hand, the devil was also seen as being cruel, a schemer, an intellectual, someone who would dispute what could be innately observed, someone utterly divorced from love. It didn’t matter much that people weren’t sure how to define love, it simply mattered that the devil was against love.

Russell highlights this contradiction by showing how it informed American folklore in the 19th century. Most American folk-tales about the devil show him driving Faustian bargains and being outsmarted by Yankee ingenuity. Usually the outsmarting was based on contract technicality invoked by the Yankee to say he was never obligated to the contract to begin with, something the devil never realizes until the Yankee explains it. Thus the devil gets double-crossed. As with the Indians so with the devil. This folkloric tradition already tells us a lot about American culture (Yankee or not) but that is another topic. The logical outcome of the bifurcation of the devil’s character moved his “idea” status from metaphysical assumption to literary/political cipher.

Now this peculiar confusion about the devil applies, indirectly, to the legacy of Beethoven and how that legacy was “supposed” to be worked out. Beethoven’s work was quickly seen in largely transcendental and religious terms anyway, so I think my analogy works. I could talk about Schubert or Mendelssohn or Liszt or Berlioz or Wagner but all of these composers, in their own way, were responding to the life and work of Beethoven. Like the changing iconic status of the devil in the same period, most Romantic composers were responding to Beethoven as they saw him, not Beethoven as he was.

It’s helpful now to highlight how Beethoven differed from his classical contemporaries. Haydn saw no conflict between selling out and retaining his artistic integrity. The job of the composer and musician was by its nature an act of service to some patronage system. The patron might be a prince, a cardinal, or even a talented middle-class housewife. It mattered less who the customer was than that the customer got the music they wanted. To satisfy the other was to satisfy your self more or less. After all you had a job. For Beethoven satisfying himself and the audience or patron often seemed mutually exclusive. Beethoven was not a man for artistic compromise. If he was going to sell out it had to be for a big price.

Beethoven was inflexible about a work once he finished it and it wasn’t just with audiences. Beethoven was the first composer to write out piano solos for his piano concertos. Even Mozart and Haydn contentedly left the solos in piano concertos to the soloist at hand. Beethoven wouldn’t dream of entrusting the piano solos to the aesthetic judgment of anyone else. Haydn and Mozart were also perfectly willing to revise their work for the sake of the musicians at hand and Beethoven broke this precedent, too. And yet Beethoven certainly wanted to make a living off his music and even supplant Haydn for popular and artistic admiration (which eventually happened … after Beethoven was dead). Yet it was the same Beethoven who told baffled musicians that his music wasn’t for them but a future generation. Beethoven more than any other composer since Bach, defined our idea of musical posterity.

Beethoven was a little, unimposing man, but the influence his music had on Europe, long after his death, is almost incalculable. As if given revenge after his death Beethoven’s reputation skyrocketed so precipitously he was seen as the greatest musician in history and his work became the essence of German music, even European music as a whole. Beethoven was no longer seen as a man but as a titan. It was the legacy of this titan that gave rise to the musical period we call the Romantic era. His music wasn’t merely for a future generation but music of timeless value and the Romantics were always willing to say so. Anyone who was anyone wanted to emulate Beethoven’s model.

The upshot of this titanic influence was that Romantic works went to extremes trying to be “original” and still appealing to the heart. You only had your cake or ate it after you tried having it both ways, after all. Works for symphonies became bigger, longer, more intellectually demanding to the listener. But the “think big” complex had its doppelganger in “think small”. An almost unprecedented number of small works, especially song cycles were published in the Romantic era. The concert hall and the private parlor became the extremes that Romantics composed for with equal fervor.

And with this change in scale the attitude towards musical form changed, too. The forms developed in the Classical era were mid-sized shirts that the little people and giants of the Romantic era didn’t feel comfortable in. Even Beethoven pushed the limits of those forms and the Romantics felt it was time to keep pushing. It was during this time that Mozart and Beethoven, neglected in their own time, became paragons of artistic virtue. Haydn, who had been praised so highly in his lifetime, was literally praised into irrelevance by the dawn of the Romantic era. Sure, there was nothing wrong with Haydn’s music. His work was above reproach but this was quickly seen as his great weakness compared to Beethoven and Mozart, whose bad music was astonishingly bad; conversely, the best music of Mozart and Beethoven was so striking and unique it was if no one had written anything like it before.

By extension of Romantic logic, Beethoven and Mozart were therefore greater than Haydn for doing more to subvert the forms their master had established. The split meaning of the devil speaks well for the entire period. For many a Romantic it wouldn’t be too far off to say that Beethoven was the Prometheus who overturned the status quo of Haydn’s Olympus. It was as if everyone else wanted to be Prometheus, too, never mind that punishment part. Beethoven wrote for the future so the Romantic composers would, too. If they could get rich and get laid in the process that would be all the better. It’s no irony that Romantic composers, compared to previous eras, were more conspicuously laid low by venereal disease.

In Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (University of California Press, 2002) Lawrence Kramer suggests yet another point at which the Romantic era was intellectually double-minded.

The role of the artist, traditionally marked by the achievement of virile mastery within a limited, quasi-artisanal sphere, was changing in dramatic and contradictory ways. Mastery now required the charismatic, hypertrophied virility of a Dickens, a Liszt, a Wagner, as the artist was asked to become a star, a cult figure who miraculously surmounted the fragmentation of modern society. At the same time, the artist’s creativity, the modern version of his artisanal skill, was understood to derive from a volatility of emotion and responsiveness to sensation that were markedly feminine in character. With growing transparency, the artist’s public masculinity was understood to be the product of a private femininity embodied in his art. (page 104)

In other words, Kramer is telling us that the instrumental virtuoso was bisexualized. Skill, technique, intellectual mastery were all considered “masculine” while feeling, pathos, inspiration, and all that warm fuzzy stuff was considered feminine. The “star” had to have chops of death and “real feeling”, and the second trait was more important than the first so long as the first was known to be had.

It was Beethoven who set this precedent as a famous pianist and composer. Paganini and Liszt would both become star performers and composers on their instruments, setting the precedent of an unheard of level of instrumental virtuosity and sex appeal. So titanic was Beethoven’s influence in this respect that vocal music virtually took a back seat. The song cycle for the soloist was still alive and well but choral music was often subsumed into other musical media like opera where a legion of other variables had to be considered. And the result, with some rare exceptions in Mendelssohn and Brahms, is that choral music suffered mightily.

In its place we can see the foundation laid for the star composer/performer. A century later this would mutate from statements like “I realized Wagner was God and I was his servant” to “Clapton is God”. Which is to say there was no real evolution in the idea at all, merely a transposition of the concept from one composer/performer to another. It’s no surprise that during this period rumors began to circulate that some of these musical celebrities had made Faustian bargains for their skill (as was said of Paganini). The Romantic era was full of supernatural language, fascination in folklore and myth, and superlatives that you’d think had been forgotten.

Things got bigger and louder in the Romantic era. It was during this period that we saw the rise of the piano as we know it, and the clarinet. String instruments became sturdier and louder and brass instruments, having fallen on bad production values in the Classical era, started returning to more Baroque technical quality. With more instruments came more volume, and extremes became the rule, whether big or small, or loud or quiet.

With so many huge symphonies being cranked out, all attempting to live up to or excel the standard set by Beethoven, people searched for ways to make these works comprehensible. There were essentially two ways of going about this. The first was to retain the older forms of the Classical period and invest them with more emotionally charged material, with odder phrases and longer ideas. In this camp you’d find Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, and Brahms. Mendelssohn, particularly, started looking backwards to the Baroque period, rediscovering and promoting the music of Bach. This was part of the Romantic period’s characteristic creation of nostalgia.

In the other camp you’d find the Classical forms being remolded around the idea of a musical thread that tied the music together. There were a variety of names for this idea—idée fix, thematic transformation, leitmotif—but the underlying principle could be explained as monothematic, the single idea or group of ideas that bound everything together, the cord binding a bundle of twigs. This idea was championed most prominently by Richard Wagner, who took Beethoven as his model. There were few that didn’t but Wagner set the record for writing the longest continuous works of music anyone had heard before. He used his “leading motif” to provide continuity and structure to works that lasted up to three hours. Wagner may have acted as though he were writing a wholly new music but someone else before him had composed epic works in which everything sprung from a handful of notes. Everyone knew it, too. It was Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony.

I won’t conceal my thoughts about Wagner. Can’t stand his music. My metaphor of the cord binding the twigs together has political undertones and in political theory the undertone of the metaphor is a reference to fascism. Wagner the man was simply despicable, an arrogant, churlish anti-Semite who’s preferred method of repaying his patrons was to sleep with their wives. But Wagner’s influence can barely be overstated. Wagner’s contorted modulations and esoteric use of melodies as symbols had its roots in Beethoven and it revolutionized Western music so profoundly no one has thought of it the same way since.

Wagner’s contribution to Western music is important. Wagner may not have known it but the roots of this technique went back to Haydn, too. Haydn and Bach had pioneered using single themes for complex movements and Wagner redefined this concept so that the single melody or musical cell represented characters and ideas in a drama rather than a movement in a symphony or quartet. He could then assign ten melodies to ten characters and compose the drama of his opera that way instead of doing what previous composers had done. As a man who wrote the stage plays to his own operas Wagner was the first truly multi-media artist to exist in the West since the likes of da Vinci. And opera by this time was the truest predecessor we had to the film industry. Whether you love or hate his work there’s no denying that Wagner was to his own time as Beethoven was to his.

With all this going on you’d wonder where the music went. Well, the music went a lot of places because at precisely this point national identity took on new meaning. Part and parcel of not doing what everyone else was doing was to abandon the urban and urbane transnational trends set by previous eras of music. Music had been seen, in many respects, as a universal language. Even before the Enlightenment the dominance of the Roman church and of Italian aesthetics guaranteed that national spin-offs weren’t too far off the generally international mark. But now the idea that music was a universal language was modified by the idea of national identity within that language, of dialects spun off from the ancestral tongue. After Beethoven German music was seen as German in a new way. The age of imperialism was starting to happen. With all these big ideas around little nations started getting big heads. As we can see today the legacy wasn’t all bad but it wasn’t all good either.

The list of Romantic composers is long. In previous periods of Western music only a handful of names still command attention. The Romantic era has a large number of names and many of these are among the most popular composers in the classical market today. I’ve probably betrayed my ambivalence towards this period already. I simply don’t like much Romantic music. I can recommend a few composers to investigate. We don’t have to like something to try understanding it.

My recommendations are restricted to composers whose work I’ve heard. By no means take this to be a fair, let alone comprehensive representation of the Romantic era. I’m also unable to recommend particular recordings since I hardly ever listen to Romantic music.

Franz Schubert
Schubert can be considered the first real Romantic composer. He wrote hundreds of songs, the most famous of them being “The Erlking” based on a poem by Goethe. In folk tradition this “Erlking” comes across as a pedophilic demon or spirit and in the poem this creature takes the life of a son who is riding home on horseback with his father. The song is a quintessential Romantic work for having large changes in the singer’s register and for having a dark, folkloric theme.
Another work to listen to is the string quartet titled “Death and the Maiden”.
Felix Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn was born well off and was at least as prodigious in his talent as Mozart. Mendelssohn isn’t taken too seriously in a lot of academic circles but people can agree that the man knew how to write for choirs in an age when the quality of choral music largely hit rock bottom. The oratorio Elijah is one of his most famous works.

Hector Berlioz
Berlioz was one of the champions of the “idée fix”, particularly in his Symphonie Fantastique. He also wrote a long and loud Requiem. These are both good examples of how composers after Beethoven wanted to make things bigger and louder. It may be of note to some that Berlioz was a guitarist.

Frederick Chopin
Chopin was one of the great miniaturists. He foundered in writing orchestral works but his solo piano works exemplify the best written at the time. The Romantic period defined piano music well into the 20th century and not simply in terms of classical music. It was during this period, through composers like Chopin, that the harmonic vocabulary of jazz was starting to take shape.

Johannes Brahms
Brahms represents one of the great poles of late Romantic music. He was traditionally considered the opposite of Wagner. His music is often syrupy, especially his German Requiem but his choral music is about as good as Mendelssohn’s. Even the Requiem might not be a bad spot to start.
Brahms was often treated as if he were the heir to Beethoven’s musical throne and he got to be paranoid about it. He so dreaded the possibility that his first symphony would be dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth” he took two decades to write his first symphony. His fears were confirmed. I’d say his best symphonies are his Third and Fourth in descending order. Both are good but the Third has more flair and more memorable tunes.

Richard Wagner
Virtually everything he wrote was an opera and The Ring is his most infamous creation. You can think of this as the operatic equivalent of the Hobbit and the Ring trilogy. After all, the subject is virtually the same, a ring is forged by gods and leads to an epic quest. I’ve tried listening to segments of it but Wagner, being the first multimedia megalomaniac, probably has to be seen to be appreciated. I know that I, for one, have not been able to appreciate Wagner’s operas merely hearing them.
The most famous extract of Wagner’s is the “Flight of the Valkeries”, famously used as the soundtrack of the chopper raid scene in Apocalypse Now.

Songs without WOrds: "absolute music" and "program music"

A brief tangent on the Romantic era

The Romantic era has informed our concept of music so profoundly we take it for granted. Rock and pop music, especially, are indebted to the Romantic era both in terms of melody and harmony. Without the thirteenth chords of Wagner or Chopin it would have taken longer for the thirteenth chords of Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk to emerge. But more crucial than just the harmonic language was the philosophical language used to describe music. This philosophy is best reflected in the routine Romantic title “Song Without Words”.

This title tells us a great deal. It tells us we’re listening to a song. We’re also obviously told by the title this will be a song without words. Therein lies a crucial development in the Romantic era. The title has built into itself an argument, no, an assertion, that language isn’t needed for this “song without words”. Every “song without words” was a work for solo piano or for some instrumental arrangement. So the argument went, music is its own, autonomous language that will speak to the heart and mind. As Gloria Estefan put it, the words get in the way. All you need is music.

In certain respects this is true. Music has always been able to touch the thoughts and feelings of people even when no words were present. Certain modes and chords get associated with certain feelings or ideas. But in saying this I demonstrate a profound flaw in the assertion made by the “song without words”. There are still words. If music always relies on association with language, or bodily movement, or images to have meaning why would someone want to compose a song without words?

The truth is people had been composing music without words for a long time. The “song” part of the title is the important thing. Neither Haydn nor Mozart composed a “song without words”. If they felt a song coming on they wrote a song or a choral work. It was Beethoven who first wrote a “hymn of thanks in the Lydian mode” for string quartet. And many a Romantic composer, building on that foundation sought to compose instrumental music that had the rapture of a glad human voice. The ideal was to create absolute, pure music.

But this ideal had two contradictory notions in it. The first was that music has an autonomous meaning. It’s true that certain forms suggest certain meanings. If you write a sonata form then your musical work doesn’t have the same meaning it would have if you, say, wrote a fugue, or a rondo, or a minuet. But music had always had a strong social function. All music had a certain utility, whether it was for the church, for the public political event, for a religious or national festival, for rituals like marriage or burial or christening. Music has always been associated with the rituals of humanity. In the 19th century an “art for art’s sake” ideology gained popularity and this move divorced music both from language and from social utility.

The upshot of this was the beginning of the contradiction. Music as a pure art was above language and purer than any art that involved language. It was the ultimate expression of the feelings of the heart. Understanding musical structure, seeing as it is the least visual and tangible of all structures, was therefore a way to understand profound ideas. And yet the music itself had no meaning because there were no words. The meaning was entirely subjective. How could musical form be objective and its meaning subjective? This was the problem. In the past the solution had simply been to write choral music or assume that music was tied to the cultural, rhetorical, and social functions of its day. In this age, the Romantic age, the solution to restoring meaning to meaningless music came about in other ways.

The first, simplest attempt to solve the problem amounted to denying it. Now that music was considered separate from textual and other non-musical considerations it simply was. This was essentially the position of people who wrote “absolute” music. Musical form conveyed its own meaning. A sonata or a fugue was profound, a rondo was light and frothy, a minuet or scherzo was a jocular, even lighter piece, and a variation form was somber or silly depending on its theme. The form was assumed to dictate content. And at a very abstract level this is true. A melody fit for a fugue will not in itself fit a rondo just as a rondo tune won’t lend itself to being a fugue.

To speak by way of analogy, the whole thrust of the Incarnation as a theological concept is that God took upon Himself the form and nature of humanity so as to save humanity and redeem the world. The form of humanity God took (becoming a man) served the function of redeeming humanity by presenting Jesus as both God and man to serve as the mediator of a new covenant that reconciled humanity to God. My analogy demonstrates, however, the severe limitation of this aesthetic of absolute music. If a spiritual being incarnates as a human then the human being derives its nature from that which is not, strictly speaking, human. In other words the mere form of humanity is not enough to tell us the function or goal of what the human form is doing. Whether the person we see is a god or devil incarnate can only be demonstrated by what the person does. The meaning might appear intrinsic but it is intrinsic to the character of the spirit incarnate not the human form itself.

This was essentially how program music composers approached the matter. For them music could not be separated from extra-musical meaning. They accepted that music would always have an extra-musical meaning of some sort. Nobody denied that music spoke beyond language but they disagreed as to how that language served music and musical interpretation. For instance, you see a title like “Night on Bald Mountain” and you start thinking of night on a mountain with no trees or grass or anything. Whether it’s raining or not you don’t know but the title tells you what to think about. Now if you have a title like “Night on Bald Mountain” and you hear Modest Mussorgsky’s music the music serves to explain what the title itself cannot. In other words, the program of the music gives you a frame of reference through which to think about the music and formulate an emotional response. The music attempts to convey the “real” meaning the text itself cannot convey.

This intellectual gap is best exemplified by the music of Brahms and Wagner. Brahms advocated absolute music, music that had no complicated literary program. You didn’t have to know who Tristan or Isolde were to understand his symphonies. You didn’t need to associate a melody with a certain action or object or person. You need only understand the basics of sonata form or variation form. Wagner, on the other hand, didn’t care so much whether you understood musical form so long as you, as a listener, could identify a melody with Siegfried or gold in the Rhine or the parry of a sword. If you could understand these musical associations he could make a huge story in which the musical cues would tell you what was going on. Brahms wanted you to supply your own meaning to his music and Wagner wanted to spell it out.

But in both cases the music had to rely on something beyond music to convey its meaning. Lawrence Kramer writes that where a musical work is concerned, “the meanings proposed for the object always exceed those proposed by it [emphasis added]”. (Musical Meaning, University of California Press, p. 45) This seems to be a fair statement. After all, where Wagner relied on a dramatic narrative and a character to suggest meaning to his music, and vice versa, Brahms relied on what he assumed were intrinsic meanings attached to forms. Problem is that no musical meaning is intrinsic. If it were we wouldn’t have to be told what words mean, let alone that we’re about to hear or play a “Song Without Words”.

But to say that meaning in music is attributed is not to deny that sometimes this attribution doesn’t work, like a quote that won’t stick to the famous person who supposedly said it. Sometimes the attribution sticks when the facts don’t back it up. Paul never wrote, “money is the root of all evil”, only that the love of money was. Sometimes the meaning attached to a musical gesture sticks and sometimes it doesn’t. For instance, how is an American moviegoer supposed to react when he hears an English horn or oboe in a soundtrack? He’s supposed to realize that some important or innocent character has died. As Tom Servo once put it in Mystery Science Theater 3000, the death of a movie character is signified by the oboe. Laugh, because it’s funny, just remember that it’s funny because it’s true. It’s true because the meaning is attributed to hundreds of soundtracks in hundreds of movies. But take the oboe out of its cinematic context and what does it mean? What happens if you’re watching Peter and the Wolf? Suddenly the oboe represents a duck. Even program music barely holds on to extramusical meaning. It becomes a matter of a listener’s shared language beyond music and the listener’s good will.

This quickly turns into a very abstract, difficult question. Does the meaning or value of music derive from the work itself or something attributed to the work? Even to ask this question is to forget altogether that someone composed the music. It is true to say that music, at least “absolute music”, has no intrinsic meaning and in this respect all the artists and philosophers in the world could learn something. “Absolute music” is an intellectual shortcut, necessary perhaps, but still a shortcut. If music, the most rarified and abstract of the arts, has no meaning in and of itself it might as well be a commentary on the human condition. If our music has no meaning in itself what does that say about us? At that point we might as well ask whether people are good because they are good or because they are credited as being good and therefore rise to the occasion. If the music we make has extrinsic rather than intrinsic meaning what does this say about us?

What do we make of this “Song Without Words”? If a song is singing, if singing is elongated speech, then can anyone really have a song without words? Only by changing the meaning of the word “song”, a telling exercise in itself. Music itself is not intrinsic either in being or even perception. Music, after all, is vibrating air. If there were no air there’d be no music. If there wasn’t a perceived pattern to these vibrations in the air, even an extrinsic rather than intrinsic pattern, nobody could write music or perceive music. The words behind the “song without words” are still what give meaning to the music, whatever those words are supposed to mean. Derived meaning is still meaning. Christians have an explanation for this and it perhaps it can be summarized in a quote attributed to J. S. Bach, “I wrote the notes but God makes the music.”

And, of course, part 3

The Symphony as Model T
The Classical era
1750-1820 CE

Over the three centuries of the Renaissance and Baroque periods music had become incredibly complicated. Critics had given the Baroque era its name, which means “ugly”. They imagined that
Western music couldn’t possibly get more complicated and ugly than it already was. History has shown that the music itself wasn’t so ugly as they thought (after all, they couldn’t even conceive of what would come next, let alone 200 years later when atonality was invented). But there was one respect in which the critics were right: overall Western music could only get simpler and not more complex. The Classical era represents a time in Western music when everything was stripped down and a different kind of revolution took place, a revolution in form and style instead of a revolution in the very nature of organizing sound.

As usual this didn’t happen all at once. Bach’s sons, particularly Carl Phillipe Emanuel Bach, continued to compose complicated music. But the complexity was of a different sort. You can think of it as someone building a vehicle with lots of chrome and fins and grills, things that don’t really need to be there but make the thing look cool. In J. S. Bach’s time the complexity was still an outgrowth of inheriting much of the Renaissance legacy; in other words the musical forms the Baroque developed were pretty basic once you got underneath all the complexity. You had a fancy looking car but the thing ran beautifully. By the time the Baroque era ended, however, the fanciness was a matter of ornament as much as musical substance, probably more ornament. To continue the car metaphor all the filigree and fins made the cars look cool but they started being less fuel efficient and less aerodynamic. From the perspective of a classic Classical music fan things had to get worse before they got better.

To describe the change people were making from the Baroque to the Classic era I need to change metaphors. We’ll still talk in terms of transportation but a new metaphor is in order. People in the Baroque era were drawn around by a lot of horses pulling fancy carriages, or by huge trains that hauled a lot of stuff. They looked cool and carried a lot of weight but they weren’t cutting it with the philosophical, economic, and social changes of the time. People wanted to travel quickly but not quite so far and with more freedom. The time was ripe for someone to invent the car. The metaphor might break down here but people were looking for something that had complexity but had it hidden away in a less obvious place. In Baroque music the complexity was starting to feel too obvious. The symphony, the piano sonata, and the string quartet were on their way to being invented.

The philosophical era to keep in mind for this period is the Enlightenment. Things had to make sense. Whatever musical solutions were invented for this time had to be rational and somehow reflect the order of the natural world. This was the time in which rationalism, secular humanism, and Deism were officially born. This was also the period in which we saw the rise of representative democratic republics (like the United States). The Age of Reason demanded music that wasn’t fraught with conundrums or emotional excess and these were things the Baroque period seemed to have. This was also the period in which a middle-class consumer audience that listened to and aspired to play art music came into being.

In a very real sense the music of the Baroque period was about to collapse under its own weight. It was believed through the Renaissance to the Baroque era that a musical movement had to have one basic tempo and one basic mood. If you changed moods you had to write a new movement or a new piece. J.S. Bach, while breaking this principle when he chose, normally held to it. It worked for a century but after 100 years the dance forms and fugues of the Baroque were starting to lose their appeal. They weren’t bad, really but they didn’t quite reflect the times anymore. The modes had fallen completely out of use even before Bach died. The major and minor keys had completely taken over yet the musical forms available were still mostly based on principles developed at the end of the Renaissance. Beyond Bach and Handel the Baroque style simply could not grow. They had done everything there was to do in the style. Bach’s descendents knew it. What was less certain was what to do about this situation. What music would be the best match for the fully evolved major and minor musical world?

At this point I make a long story very short. Skipping entirely the various transitional composers between the Baroque and Classic eras I’ll start talking about Franz Joseph Haydn. It was Haydn who figured out how to simplify musical form and define the instrumental ensembles that have defined not only the Classical era but also most art music since then: the symphony, the solo piano and the string quartet. Equally important, it was Haydn who encouraged Leopold Mozart to train his son Wolfgang to be a composer. Leopold had no impression that his son was a musician of any unusual talent. Had Haydn not intervened on the boy’s behalf there’s no telling whether we would have had anything by Mozart. Haydn also inspired the young Beethoven. Whether or not you like Haydn’s music there’s no escaping his profound influence on the other important composers of the Classical era and by default on subsequent eras of art music.

Haydn was the court musician for a Prince Eszterhazy not too far from Vienna. Haydn’s job was to make music on order. For a lot of people the idea of composing a symphony on command to please the tastes of your patron doesn’t sound appealing. Depending on your patron it was terrible but Haydn’s boss gave him all this stuff: free medical care, a free house (with the prince voluntarily covering home repairs even after two fires, how many bosses offer to pay every kind of insurance on your house), the freedom to hire and fire whomever he chose, and the freedom to compose whatever and however he saw fit. The prince also gave Haydn a salary that, for the time, was pretty big. There was just one stipulation. Haydn couldn’t leave the court, ever, without direct personal permission. This was a situation where you didn’t want to be liked by your boss so much. It made vacations to cool places a rarity.

So what kind of stuff could Haydn write if he could write whatever he wanted but couldn’t get out much to hear what everyone else was doing? Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say. Haydn invented, as if from the ground up, the traditional four-part sonata cycle we hear throughout classical music. The advantage of this form was that it could be used in any instrumental setting and was pretty easy for even uneducated people to understand. It also lended itself to adjustment to whatever ensemble you had handy. You had a dramatic first movement that was usually fast; a slow movement that was a set of variations, often on an accessible tune; a dance; and then a more complicated, faster dance (think of the difference between a spirited waltz and a foot-stomping line dance). The first movement, especially, has defined a lot of art music since the 1780s. It’s too complex to discuss here but the sonata allegro form essentially replaced the fugue as the musical form of choice for dealing with complex feelings and ideas. What’s more, it was all pretty short, at least when Haydn was writing.

Compared to the sprawling length of Baroque music Haydn’s sonata form might be a half-hour at most and be in four easily digested parts. Haydn had invented the musical equivalent of the Model T. Ford and he could even paint it any color you liked. It wouldn’t be true to say Haydn literally invented all of these forms because the birth of a musical form takes decades and dozens to hundreds of people. On the other hand, Haydn was the first to get this new sonata idea right and keep getting it right. Perhaps more important, he taught people how they could write this new kind of music.

You’re unlikely to hear about this these days but Haydn did things in his music that made him controversial, things we take for granted. For instance, Haydn would state that a composition was in G major and then kick everything in the piece in to g minor anytime he wanted, astounding his audience with pranks. Never before had a composer made a habit of mixing moments of G major and G minor together in a single movement. Critics, especially from northern Germany denounced Haydn as destroying the art of music with empty frippery. The rule had always been one movement, one mood. You couldn’t mix tragic and comic elements freely within seconds of each other. Haydn made this a habit not only in almost every symphony but even within the movements of his symphonies. This came off nothing better than a bad prank for people who were still used to Baroque music.

Haydn didn’t simply play pranks; he could customize pranks for a given audience. Depending on the national habits there were things you weren’t supposed to do. One of them was to use brass instruments in certain keys in Paris. Some of this had to do with temperament and tuning and some of it was tradition. For some of Haydn’s symphonies for Parisian crowds he introduced brass instruments in precisely these off-limit keys, and even saved the brass parts for the second movement so he could make the surprise more shocking. Just at the point when people expected him to be quiet he brought out the loudest instruments he could find in the most inappropriate keys. Haydn’s habit of pulling stunts on his audience made a lasting impression on Mozart and Beethoven alike.

Haydn had also stripped musical form down to the simplest, most accessible (and “popular”) level. This was the era in which all you really needed was a good tune and some supporting chords. Of course other composers were doing this, too. Karl Ditters was another composer from this time who had been working on these same innovations. Haydn was far from the only person doing these kinds of things but he seemed to do it all first and do it better than everyone else. And word got around. People in Paris and Vienna wanted to hear Haydn’s stuff, there was even word that the people in London wanted to hear this new music. Haydn wanted this at least as badly as the Viennese but not just to make money and be popular. He’d never had a chance to really travel anywhere since he became court composer to the Eszterhazy family. After all, no one can write for just patrons or money forever. Something else has to happen.

Of course when you write on order you don’t mind repeating yourself a lot. Haydn wrote a lot of music which today sounds routine and some of it is. But Haydn was far more radical than we can readily appreciate now that we’ve heard Mozart, Beethoven, and everyone else since their time. Haydn's music is more profound than many musicians and listeners give him credit for. His handling of key was radical in his day. Not only did he mix major and minor keys in ways that weren’t usual, he also moved from one key to another in unusual ways. For Haydn counterpoint and independent parts were something to hide so well no ordinary person would know they were still there. Since the end of the Classic era Mozart and Beethoven have been considered the better and more profound composers but this has as much to do with the mythos created for them by subsequent eras. In their own day Mozart and Beethoven considered Haydn their musical father.

As if being a musical innovator weren’t enough, Haydn was the first bona fide international success story in Western music. He was able to do something no one else had done before, pull off an international tour that won over huge audiences, got rave reviews and even earned money! Mozart advised that Haydn not tour because his own international tours had failed but Haydn visited London and wrote his twelve legendary London symphonies anyway. He was able to do this because of his patronage from the Eszterhazy family. In spite of the strict rules of his contract Haydn was able to get some of these restrictions waived by an Eszterhazy prince (the successor to his original employer) who didn’t like music. This gave Haydn the freedom to write on command and take time off to make more money off of his music. After all, his boss wasn’t asking for music anymore so Haydn could write whatever he wanted for whomever he pleased. At last! It was time to go out and see the rest of Europe. So he made visits to England and won them over almost instantly. Haydn by the end of his life had become so popular he was even a fairly well known name in the United States. No composer had ever achieved such popularity before while still alive. Haydn’s fortunes were to be indicative of the options many other composers would soon have. By all accounts Haydn had the dream career. Even his students were of the highest distinction.

Haydn’s artistic successors were Mozart and Beethoven who both studied with him early in their careers. Mozart actually died before Haydn but Mozart always thought of Haydn fondly and didn’t mind saying he owed Haydn for teaching him how to compose. The two became lifelong friends and together their music constitutes most of the Classical music that is still worth listening to. Mozart took his cue from Haydn in writing piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies. Mozart, unlike his mentor, was a virtuoso and came naturally to everything Haydn worked for years to achieve. Mozart didn’t introduce so many striking innovations as his mentor by Mozart did everything Haydn did even better than Haydn. Mozart also excelled in opera, something Haydn wanted to be good at but didn’t seem to master. Mozart refined the Classical style to the highest level of polish and skill. Mozart also managed to bring back elements of Baroque music and ingeniously bend it to the new Classical aesthetics. Unfortunately for Mozart his music was considered too dark and weird for the popular taste and Mozart fell into financial ruin, dying well before Haydn. It was only during the 19th century that Mozart would begin to be fully appreciated.

Beethoven, Haydn’s other famous pupil, was more of a problem child. He came from at best a tumultuous family background with a drunken, abusive father and an absentee mother. For Beethoven Haydn’s music was equally inspiring but Beethoven had issues, our modern euphemism for what may be called problems in the head. Beethoven’s unstable temper and musical ambition led him to see the symphony, the piano sonata, and the string quartet as media through which to express his frustration and ambition. This was even more true after he started losing his sense of hearing in his mid-30s. Beethoven experience an early mid-life crisis and his response. The Model T’s he learned to make from Haydn weren’t cutting anymore. He had more baggage and a lot on his mind so his cars needed to be bigger. The symphony, particularly, needed to be bigger for him to say what he had to say.

Where Haydn cranked out symphonies that numbered as high as 104, Beethoven could only pull off nine. But these were all titanic symphonies, bigger than anything heard before. Where Haydn composed 80 string quartets Beethoven wrote just under 20. What Beethoven appeared to lack in productivity was more than made up for by breadth, length, and drama. Beethoven took the fairly straightforward forms of his day and pushed them to their breaking point, grasping harmonies that even Haydn had avoided. Beethoven in his 30s was establishing his heroic style and paving the way for the next age of Western music.

Haydn himself wasn’t sure why Beethoven was going in such strange directions. Haydn wasn’t too proud to admit he’d been surpassed yet again but he had no idea why Beethoven was writing such strange music. Beethoven, for his part, couldn’t figure out whether he wanted to keep his mentor’s approval or cast him off. But by the time he composed his Third and Fifth symphonies, Beethoven couldn’t afford to go back to his earlier style. Almost as soon as the middle class came into being artists couldn’t help craving their attention and hating them at the same time and Beethoven was the first major composer to conspicuously struggle with this, a struggle Haydn never even had to think about.

What Haydn began, musical trickster that he was, Mozart and Beethoven took as far as they could. Things had become simplified through Haydn’s music but Beethoven’s middle and late symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets were bringing size and complexity back into Western music, size and a lot of drama. Beethoven even brought back the fugue at just the point when it was starting to be forgotten. His work became more introspective and expansive and people chalked this up to his being insane and/or deaf. Both might have been true but Beethoven had figured out where he thought the musical future lay. He was going to explore every boundary Haydn never thought to look at and push the forms of the Classical era to their breaking point. For that, and for the romantic mythos surround his tortured life, Beethoven has now become one of the greatest idols in musical history—his music pushed beyond the limits of the Classical age defined by Haydn into a new age of Western music. By the time Beethoven died in the 1820s the Classical era had already ended. Perhaps it really ended when Haydn himself died around the dawn of the 19th century.

It was during this time that nationalism was kicking into high gear. The American Revolutionary War was happening and the French Revolution. The ideas of the Enlightenment were about to crash into nationalism and bloodlust. The 18th century was over and Mozart was dead and all of a sudden Haydn’s musical creations somehow seemed out of pace with this new world and Beethoven, insane though many thought him to be, seemed to be paving the way for bigger and longer music. It was the time in Europe when musicians in little nations, and the little nations themselves, were going to get big-headed about everything.

A short list of Classical composers and key works

There are 104 symphonies, 80 string quartets, and probably 60 piano sonatas to choose from, not counting his dozen masses and three or four oratorios. The pieces I most recommend listening to are the following.

The London Symphonies: Nos. 93-104
These dozen symphonies laid the foundations for pretty much every symphony since. They are simple, direct, easy to understand, and fun. After decades of Mozart and Beethoven being elevated to gods Haydn will come off as manufactured and boring by comparison but this is to hear through post-Romantic ears. There are a lot of good recordings of these works.

String Quartets Opus 74, 76, and 77.
These late quartets are Haydn’s best and show what he could do in ensemble playing. Haydn frequently played his own quartets with friends. He, Mozart, and his friend Karl Ditters would get together every so often and play each others quartets. For a good Op.76 recording check out the Tokyo string quartet.

The Creation
This is one of Haydn’s late oratorios. I normally don’t recommend choral music from the Classical period. Most of it is actually quite lame. The price of making cool instrumental music was making choral music that sucked. But Haydn’s Creation is an endearing and accessible piece. He even arranged for an English and German version.

You know, I honestly don’t really like Mozart. He’s good and I respect him but I don’t like him as much as Haydn. He comes off as too slick for my tastes. This doesn’t mean Mozart shouldn’t be listened to, just that I’m not a huge fan of him. His “Haydn” string quartets are good and his “Jupiter” symphony is, too. He, like Haydn, sang in choirs so his choral music is okay if you like the style. His operas and his Requiem are the works to study. I’m occupied with other musical studies right now but I’ll get around to studying his operas eventually.

Not “von”. Beethoven liked to think he was royalty but this was probably him compensating for his short stature. J Don’t pay too much attention to Beethoven’s earlier works since they’re too much like Haydn. They’re not bad, really, they’re just not different enough from Haydn to give you any idea of how Beethoven changed Western music. Under no circumstances listen to the bulk of his choral writing. I know tons of people will disagree with me strongly but Beethoven’s choral writing is on the whole pretty lame. If you like his choral writing, more power to you. I can’t stand it.

The Third Symphony (“Heroic”)
This was the beginning of, surprise, Beethoven’s “heroic” period. It’s also his first major work from his middle years. It bears virtually no connection to Haydn.

The Fifth Symphony
Trust me, literally everyone in the Western world has heard part of this symphony at least once in their lives. It holds up best of all his symphonies. Here again Beethoven has almost no connection to Haydn, although he does start in a minor key and end in a major key (something that almost became a trademark for him). This is one of the most recorded symphonies of all time. It really won’t matter too much which recording you pick.

The Ninth Symphony
“Joyful joyful”. Beethoven butchers Schiller by adding his own verses and the choral writing is not very good but Beethoven gets by on the grandeur and precision of his instrumental writing. This was his last complete symphony and introduces choral writing to what had previously been a strictly instrumental work.

String quartets
All of the string quartets past Op. 18 are worth checking out. The Op. 18 quartets are just too much like Haydn to do much for me. You might like them, though so consider checking them out. His best quartets are arguably his later ones, especially the Op. 130 quartet in B flat (make sure you get a recording with the original ending “the Grand Fugue”). The B flat quartet was the first point where Beethoven wrote a piece he cared about deeply and then sold out in the interest of making the work more publishable, audience friendly, and financially lucrative. Nevertheless, it’s still one of his greatest works. I haven’t heard as many Beethoven recordings but the Tokyo and Emerson String Quartets do a good job

Piano Sonatas.
Of course there’s the notorious “Moonlight Sonata” and you should listen to it provided ou listen to all of it. “The Tempest” is another great sonata, and the “Appasionata” sonata, too (you’ll hear what sounds like a minor version of our national anthem). His best sonata is really his last, the 32nd piano sonata in C minor. Alfred Brendel does a good job recording this piece but you may have trouble finding copies since Beethoven’s really late sonatas don’t seem to appeal to buyers or stores quite as much. There’s where the gems are, though.

An absurdly brief history of Western music, part 2

We Can Walk And Chew Gum at the Same Time:
The Twin Revolutions of the Baroque era
1650 to 1750 CE

The Renaissance, as a musical period, lasted about two centuries. That’s enough time for the art to be perfected and for people to wonder what else they can do with their time. Palestrina’s music was arguably the most perfect realization of the aesthetic ideals of the West up to that point. But as a choir director I know put it with a chuckle, “It was almost too perfect because he wrote a lot of music that all sounds the same.” Nobody really wanted to get rid of the old Renaissance style as such. After all, it sounded great and everyone knew by now you could get people to perform music in that style. After two centuries you could say people simply wanted something different. Not something new exactly, just something different. That’s what prompted people to experiment with new ways of organizing sound.
In the past music had been modal. This meant you had priorities about what notes went where but not in the usual major and minor key system we’re used to. You had four common modes: dorian, lydian, mixolydian and phrygian. For those of you familiar with keyboards, modes can be considered transpositions of the major scale—of course that’s not what they really are but in this case it’s useful to fudge details for the sake of illustration. Take the scale of C major, for instance. In modes you still play eight notes to get the complete scale and you still play only white keys but you don’t start from C anymore. For dorian you start from D, for lydian you start from F, from mixolydian you start from G, and for phrygian you start from E. Those are the modes and those modes can be played with those intervals from anywhere on any instrument.
If you want modern songs that show you what these modes sound like now the songs are: “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles for the dorian mode (“Hidden Place” by Bjork (Vespertine) is another good example); “Possibly Maybe” by Bjork in the lydian mode; and for the mixolydian mode “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles (the two Beatles songs are off Revolver). Unfortunately there aren’t many good phrygian examples I can think of off the top of my head. But if you’ve heard Thomas Tallis or Ockeghem you know that the modes as we think of them now and how they were used in the Renaissance were different. The modes were considered strictly melodic. Harmony was simply a convergent property of everyone getting their tunes to fit together. Modes weren’t exploited for mood and color alone, for harmonic ambiance, until later. Before musical modes got this complete make-over from melodic to harmonic patterns (two centuries later than the Baroque era) two significant changes, that we take for granted, had to occur.

The first was the introduction of the aeolian and ionian modes. This sounds arcane but in modern lingo it simply means major and natural minor scales. Precisely why these were introduced I’m not completely sure but the general rule is someone thought they sounded good. My guess is someone was playing around with the keyboards available as the Renaissance played out and made a happy discovery; perhaps someone figured out that the harmonies favored in the Renaissance style had prevailing patterns that suggested the major scale. In any event it’s important to remember that these were modes and not keys in the modern sense. Harmony was still a convergent property of two or more independent yet interdependent melodic lines. Resolutions that don’t sound final to us sounded final to the ears of Renaissance listeners. We’ve become accustomed to the major and minor system. Yet even though they weren’t treated as the keys we now know them to be they set the stage for it, particularly what became the major mode.
Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do would soon be possible and eventually it would show up in The Sound of Music.

Now the reason introducing the major scale was important was that it was fixed. The seven notes of the major scale had to be there for there to be a major scale. This meant that the scale governed harmony as much as melody. Harmony was more a friendly by-product rather than a goal in modal music but now it would become a science unto itself. But now harmony couldn’t simply be a happy afterthought. Things would no longer turn out just right or interesting using the old patterns for regulating individual melodic lines in relationship to each other. Harmony became central, so central that by the time Bach wrote the first prelude of the first book of his Correctly Tempered Keyboard you could make a piece of music that worked on the basis of harmony alone, a cascade of rippling chords.

Let me return to the mass transit metaphor I used for Renaissance music. The Renaissance represented a world in which harmony came about because you had hundreds of cars driving on the freeway in the same direction. This was because nobody wanted to crash into each other. The Baroque era introduced the world of light rail and subways. You were getting the same number of people moving but they were all on trains and all their movements were up and down the train. People crashing into each other inside a train was still an issue so rules were developed on how people had to behave riding on the train. One person can move a long way as long as no one else is moving. Lots of people can move at once so long as the movement isn’t big or disorderly.

So the old rules of what the voice could and couldn’t do still applied but they were changed by the relatively fixed nature of the new keys. As composers and performers grappled with this system they developed guidelines for what collections of notes worked best in what combinations. This now has the unceremonious term “functional harmony”. In other words, “functional harmony” is the stuff that worked in this new style. That’s how the 1, 4 and 5 of tonal music came about. After a lot of work people figured out that in a fixed scale certain chord changes were more satisfying than others. These chord changes were also easier to sing. Of course nobody forgot about melody during this time, either. But this new functional harmony alone was not what redefined Western music.

The other major change was the introduction of meter, or the time signature. In Renaissance music you didn’t have time signatures. If you ever get a chance to look at Gregorian chant and original copies of Renaissance part books you see that the notes were written without time signatures or measures, things most reading musicians take for granted these days. There was no such thing as 4/4 or 3/4 back then, just a long procession of notes and spaces on the music paper. Music was still organized around pulse but this is too complex a subject to talk about here. The Baroque era introduced the innovation of common time and meter. Now everything could be explained in terms of three or four beats at a time.

The advent of meter and functional harmony had the following significance. If your music was organized by a fixed number of beats then you could start thinking about the strong and weak beats of the meter in recurring patterns. You could start thinking in terms of these recurring rhythmic units. The relatively static nature of the major/minor system meant that melodic leaps that were forbidden in Renaissance music became permissible in the emerging Baroque style. Why? Because with functional harmony came a fixed set of chords set within a key. You could make descending melodic leaps that weren’t possible before because this time around you knew where you would land. There were at most a few options. In the older style there was almost no telling where you could land in relationship to anyone else’s parts and that made intonation and singing harder to manage.

With the advent of organizing music into beats came a more liberal treatment of discordant tones. If you settled on a discord on the strong beat of a measure in 4/4, for instance, you’d be okay as long as you eventually resolved the discord. The rhythm of the music, being predictable, could carry you along. And, if you chose, you could upset the rhythm. These things had always been done but in the new system there was room for new experiments. The apparent simplification of the musical language made room for the same level of complexity.

Why did this matter? Because instrumental music, particularly dance music, began to flourish in the Baroque period. The end of the Renaissance brought with it a good number of methods for tuning and tempering instruments and more affordable means of producing them. You could finally get a keyboard to play in tune and stay in tune and play a tolerable number of notes that all sounded good together (transpositions of modes if you will, or keys, usually just four to eight of 24 possible major and minor keys until about J. S. Bach’s time). The upshot of this was a revolution in instrumental music. Music could now be played in almost any key and the complexity of the old Renaissance style could be welded into the newer style.

The best example of where this was done in a musical work called the fugue. The fugue was a descendant of the singing-together pieces from the Renaissance. Now the principles of vocal writing were applied to works for the keyboard. Someone would start with a melody and someone else would come in with a new melody after the first person started singing something else and it would go down the line for up to five or six different parts. As the Baroque era developed composers started adapting this principle to keyboard music.

How this could work in an actual fugue for keyboard worked something like this: your left hand would start playing a melody and your right hand would play the same melody at a different pitch when your left hand was done playing the tune. Meanwhile your left hand would play something new underneath the melody the right hand was now playing. By the time the right hand was done playing the melody your left hand would play the original melody again and some other new material while your right hand played the new material your left hand had already played. If this sounds it hard there’s a reason. Depending on how complicated the melody was you could add five voices to the texture or as few as two. The best example of this new way of writing music is found in J. S. Bach’s second fugue from the first book of The Well Tempered Clavier. Not only is this an example of how the old rules of the Renaissance were retained but how they were changed by the introduction of meter and key. In this fugue we even have a great example of how all of this was incorporated into the dance rhythms and forms that defined the Baroque period.
There were two styles available now, simply called “old” and “new”, the modal and tonal systems. And a lot of people hated the new style with its major and minor keys. They called it “baroque”. Read “ugly”. The era of Monteverdi, Schutz, Buxtehude, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Purcell, and Handel was known as the “ugly” era. Compared to the old style people felt this “new” style was too ornate, too crude, and far too ugly. Keys that were considered completely off limits in the old style, keys that were almost impossible to have correctly tuned and tempered, were starting to get used specifically for their “demonic” or discordant character. This had been done in earlier periods but not in this new style and not so systematically. What’s more the new style was more liberal in handling dissonance. In fact the new major and minor scales were so liberal in comparison to the old style they permitted almost completely chromatic music. A piano piece could have a long succession of half steps before going anywhere else. A great example of this is the f minor fugue from the first book of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (probably better translated the Correctly Tempered Keyboard).

In this respect a composer like Bach was as radical in his era as Schoenberg in the 20th century, breaking open a world of harmonic possibilities. The new style Bach and other Baroque composers developed became the style from which all subsequent Western music descended and by which all subsequent Western music may be judged. Many people don’t know, though, that this “new” style had as its foundation the “old”. Yet the rules for writing for voice didn’t change and even with the advent of fully functioning orchestras instrumental parts were still written interchangeably with vocal parts in the new style just as in the old. And most of these composers knew how to compose in the old style, too. That could be a lesson for musicians today. You don’t have to play only rock, jazz, or classical. The Baroque masters could pull off writing in two styles and it was, as the colloquial saying has it, walking and chewing gum at the same time. If there’s any reason a modern musician should admire Baroque composers this should be one of them. The Baroque era reached a level of complexity and directness that can only be equaled. The next musical revolution lay in further simplifying the Western musical language.

A short list of Baroque composers and significant works

Without a doubt the most important and best known composers of the Baroque era are George Frederick Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach (there’s fifteen generations of them so the full name is necessary so you don’t confuse him with Johann Christoph Bach). Both composers were immensely prolific and wrote music for every conceivable ensemble available to them.
Below are a smattering of works by the two composers to check out. Baroque composers are still so popular there won’t be much trouble finding a decent recording.

By J. S. Bach:
St. Matthew Passion.
Bach’s most profound work, a setting of Matthew’s account of the death and burial of Jesus with profuse interpolations of other texts. There’s an excellent recording by Helmuth Rilling on the Haensler label. Rilling is a well-established Bach specialist and plays the music with more attention to the dance qualities of the period. Herbert van Karajan’s recording isn’t terrible but he takes most of the movements too slowly and makes the Passion more ponderous than even the Passion needs to be.

The Well Tempered Clavier
This pedagogical, two-volume work has unalterably changed the shape of keyboard music in the West. Many of these pieces are so famous you’ll recognize them even if you don’t think you’ve heard them before, particularly many fugues from the first book. There are so many recordings of this work that it will be easy to find a copy to listen to at any library.

Cantatas (virtually any of them).
Bach wrote a vast array of secular and sacred cantatas and you could literally pick one at random and get a great example of the unaccompanied choral style of the Baroque period.

By G. F. Handel:
I’m not as familiar with Handel. I know of The Messiah and his Concerto Grossi. I can’t think of as many works to recommend since I haven’t listened to as much of his work but I know he wrote quite a few oratorios in addition to The Messiah. He was held in very low repute among the Puritans for writing theater music (the theater has long considered a hotbed for homosexuality and all around decadent living). It is now believed that Handel had bipolar disorder.

The Baroque period had several other important composers. By and large it was good to be Lutheran in this period! The Bach family alone has assured a huge body of Lutheran music. Here’s just a few of the other composers you should consider checking out.

Antonio Vivaldi
Most people are likely to have heard parts of The Four Seasons and it’s his most popular work. If you haven’t heard Vivaldi The Four Seasons is a good place to start. Recordings should be easy to get ahold of. He’s not as titanic a composer as Bach or Handel but he’s still worth checking out. Be warned, a lot of his works tend to sound the same. Many have joked his favorite composing method today would be running his work through a copy machine! That’s not quite fair but it’s not completely inaccurate either! Vivaldi was despised by many composers in his day for being a self-plagiarist. Nevertheless, self-plagiarists have their moments and Rod Stewart could only hope to copy himself as effectively.

Heinrich Schutz
Schutz was known as “the musical preacher”. His theological acumen was as great as his musical skill. He and Bach were the two composers who arguably had the best balance of comprehensive musical and theological training. Schutz is possibly the only composer of any period to have set the entirety of Psalm 119 to music! Schutz was the most important of the early or “low” Baroque composers. “Low” in this case simply refers to the simplicity of his music compared to the “high” Baroque composers (Bach and Handel) who came later. The pieces to check out would be his Christmas oratorio and what’s often known as his German requiem (not to be confused with anything by Brahms).

Hans Leo Hassler
If you’ve ever sung “O Sacred Head” then you sang this man’s song. Hassler composed a lot of sacred choral music, most of it good even when it’s been sung and played to death (particularly the motet “Verbum Caro Factum Est”).

Henry Purcell
The Baroque period gave rise to a couple of good composers in England but Purcell is the greatest. After the Baroque era English music was pretty lame until the end of the 19th century (not counting the Wesleys, who somehow managed to make some memorable music). Purcell wrote a lot but the signature piece he’s come to be known for is the English language opera Dido and Aeneus. It wasn’t until Benjamin Britten worked in opera 200 years later that English serious opera had anything of note.

Dietrich Buxtehude
Buxtehude was an important north German predecessor of Bach. It was Buxtehude’s keyboard music, particularly his fugues, that laid much of the foundation that Bach would build on.

Georg Telemann
It was Telemann and not Bach who was the most sought after musician of his day. Very little of his music has survived for us to study now but this has more to do with the carpet bombing of Germany during the Second World War than any artistic shortcoming on Telemann’s part.

Claudio Monteverdi
If there was a “first” Baroque composer Monteverdi would be the one. Compared to most of the subsequent Baroque composers I just don’t find him that interesting but he, more than the others, represents the transitional time of the “low” Baroque when the two styles were on a pretty equal footing.

An absurdly truncated history of Western music, part 1

What if We All Sang Together?
A Simplified History of Choral Music in the Renaissance
est 1450 to 1650 CE

Perhaps a brief history of Renaissance music is beyond me. Perhaps I’ll end up being fair to the Renaissance and not to the Medieval period because the seeds of the music of the Renaissance lie in the Medieval period. The sketch presented below is a simplification as most summaries of musical periods must be. I trust any professional musicologists specializing in Renaissance or Medieval music who might read this will forgive me since I’m not claiming to write an academic treatise.

In so far as we think of Gregorian chant when we think of the medieval music we also think of a lot of “fa la la la la” and other fancy singing when we think of the Renaissance. With my apology in advance, the entire Renaissance can be defined as a revolution in Western music founded on the idea that lots of people singing together can sing independent parts and that a keyboard can be used to play more than one tune simultaneously. With such a revolution, of course, was the obligatory debate as to whether and how things out to be done.

This isn’t about singing something like “kyrie eleison dona eis requiem” in parallel fifths while bringing out the Holy Hand Grenade (that’s not how Medieval “organum” actually worked anyway, never mind that Monty Python & the Holy Grail was funny). This is about a fiery time in the history of Church politics and Church music. The Church splintered off into many directions in the West and people spent time trying to determine what true Christianity was and to defend it. Naturally everyone else was supposed to look bad in the process. This period saw the reemergence of the city-state and as these spread their power over provinces they sought to extend their newfound power even further. The world seemed to be looking bigger all the time and many people in Europe started getting the faintest idea that it would be nice to have more of that world. The Renaissance and Reformation are roughly parallel so I’ll touch briefly on the Reformation. Much of the changes in this period happened within church music as much as anywhere else..

Between the 1450s and the 1650s Luther and various other reformers within the Roman church began to break from Rome over doctrinal and liturgical disputes. Among these concerns were the authority of the papacy and priests, the desire for vernacular worship, translation of the Bible and literacy, political independence of state rulers from Roman church authorities and, perhaps as always, concerns about the links between the Church, political leaders, and organized crime (after all, crime and sin aren’t always so different).

Another famous concern just prior the Reformation was the selling of indulgences. If I don’t get this right I’ll be nailed for it and will make any needed corrections later so here I go: Suppose the performance of a set of actions in church was considered effective as a pleasing sacrifice to God, a repentance of sin and an offering of thanks (Mass, for instance), in short a sanctifying grace. Suppose then that during this time you would pay your regular tithe, tax, whatever you wish to call it. Suppose further that you want to do something the Roman church considered sin or blasphemy (say you’re married and you like oral sex, for instance). Perhaps this thing is so fun you fail to attend church or a friend or loved one does this stuff regularly and you want to preserve them from being sent to Hell.

The indulgence served as a kind of absentee vote, a way to get absolution without having to actually go through the motions in the cathedral or the confessional booth or where ever all that was done. This was also something you could do on behalf of the degenerate cousin of yours on the other side of the village. Indulgences could also be obtained for already departed souls thought to be in purgatory and the sale of indulgences in this case especially became lucrative.

Keep in mind all these “absentee votes” were for confessions and for rituals done in Latin, a language very few people used in daily life. In the sale of indulgences all the social, political, and religious controversies of the day came to a head. Through this you could end up paying a lot of money for people to pretend your cousin was better than he was by having ceremonies paid for (but not done as such) that were held in a language you didn’t necessarily understand; and this might fund a building project you had no influence on. And while the promise was that an indulgence would count as saving the soul of your degenerate cousin from limbo you never saw that cousin getting better. In fact, it sure looked as if rich people were the only people to benefit from this. It was this institute that came under fire from Luther and other Reformers.

In response to this and other issues the Reformation emphasized vernacular worship (if you’re German you worship in German) and promoted the idea that if people could read Scripture for themselves they could discern what true Christianity was supposed to be. It was a period defined by the beginning of what we may call anticlericalism. This simply meant that established church authority and organized religion (if only in their existing form) were considered suspicious. It also sowed seeds for nationalism. If you weren’t all members of the Roman Church you could be members of tribes like the Swabians or the Prussians or the Saxons (not that it wasn’t this way already).

Parallel to this development of anticlericalism and the independent political state was the rise of humanism (not the kind you hear about from the likes of Tim LaHaye as such, since that form of humanism is a short hand for secular humanism or logical positivism). Defined broadly humanism was the idea that the individual human being mattered. Humanism also included an interest in the humanities (the fine and performing arts and the natural sciences in contrast to theology). Where art and music were concerned this meant that secular work came to receive as much promotion and patronage as church music.

Why was all of this significant? Guilt by association. Into all this came people singing either for the Church or for other patrons. By now the political climate was so tumultuous the musical climate couldn’t help changing. Up until the Renaissance and Reformation liturgical music didn’t have much harmony. After centuries of everyone singing the same melody or a melody in lockstep with another melody (organum, more or less) people wanted some change. A lot of change.

The truth is that most of these changes had begun to happen in the Medieval period with Leonin and Perotin and Guilliame Machaut. The first two composers wrote a lot of two-part chants where one started the chant and another followed, and Machaut wrote music in which people sang harmonizing parts. People already wanted to sing independent parts. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to sing something like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. They wanted to sing the melody in something besides unison. What if one person sang the melody first and another person sang the melody but started singing it a little bit later? Yes, that’s a great idea. They weren’t singing that song by any means but I’m just illustrating the kind of thing that started happening all over Europe during the Renaissance. Where before it was somewhat rare in the Renaissance it started to become the rule.

But as people started running with this idea of different people singing different tunes came the need to get these tunes to work together. It had to all sound like one piece of music, not just a bunch of people singing different parts that didn’t relate. With the advent of this powerful idea, of setting different notes in motion at the same time, there quickly arose the need for some kind of order. The modes inherited from Gregorian chant still sounded good but how could four people wanting to sing different parts still sing in the same mode and not have everything sound bad? The answer was to tinker with individual parts of a musical work until the whole thing sounded like it was being sung in a mode. After two centuries of this kind of experimentation the result was voice leading. The rules were summed up in one general principle: don’t write music that people can’t sing or music that people can’t sing well.

In practice this is immensely complicated because the human voice, for all its expressive power, has more and more profound limitations than any other instrument. There are certain intervals two people can’t sing together without having a ruinous tendency to screw up. There are melodies boys can sing that men can’t sing except in a lower range (there was little chance of women singing in this era). You start getting the idea. Quickly people had to make a note of every musical experiment people kept wanting to try that never yielded pleasing results. After a few centuries of never getting something to work it was considered a general rule that you didn’t want to do that thing.

The Renaissance is defined chiefly by choral music because instruments were generally too expensive to have in large supply. Yet when instruments became cheaper and had better quality control courts and churches began to build small orchestras of brass and string instruments. The question was then how to write for these new ensembles? The Renaissance answer was this: If it works for the motorcycle it works for the car. Everybody drives on the road in exactly the same way. More or less, that was how it worked. Vocal writing and instrumental writing was done pretty much the same way. Put on a recording of a piece of brass music by Gabrieli and a choral work by Orlando de Lassus and you still get that Renaissance vibe.

But there was more afoot in this era than musical revolution. There were the nagging questions of what to do with all this new stuff and some old controversies showed up, too. The debates on church music are a great case in point. A controversy over the use of secular music in church settings had raged off and on for some time.

Many people know the talk about how Martin Luther used drinking songs as melodies for hymns (there are some scholars of early Western music who contest this) but Luther was just one case in point. Some of the followers of the Reformer John Calvin banned this idea of corporate singing in which everyone got different parts. Once again the principle was guilt by association. If the Catholics did it you couldn’t do it because the Catholic Church is full of antichrists and you can’t sing music that sounds like their music. The Roman church had these fat castrated men singing all these fancy melodies using just a single phrase like “quoniam tu solus sanctus”. By the time that fat man was done singing that single line it was practically time to get out of church and go home. As if that weren’t enough there were five or six of these guys (some of them weren’t castrated) all doing the same thing at different times and it could last forever! Why spend forever listening to fat castrated men and men with their testicles who weren’t much better? What’s more those castrated men were certainly man-whores for some perverted dukes and cardinals! And they were all singing for a heretic church at that. Talk about pretense! Nope, none of that! Not while I’m around!

Then you had the Catholics looking at folks like the Calvinists singing “church” music in the vulgar tongues of the ordinary people (no respect for the sacred); perverting the Bible by translating it according to their own whims; singing trash music only fit to be sung by whores and gamblers and murderers with the thinnest possible musical substance; and this twaddle was accompanied by nothing more than the terrible singing of a bunch of Church hating heretics who couldn’t sing and who surely didn’t comprehend the awesome and centuries-old heritage of the one true Church. They were just toadies for those usurping landowners who wanted to be free of the influence of the Church. Real Christian music shouldn’t sound anything like the worthless contemporary sound these numbskulls had. They might have one or two legitimate complaints but by and large their music wasn’t the proper alternative. The Reformers were all antichrists and haters of Scripture so you couldn’t make music that sounded like their music.

It’s not much of a surprise that people spent a lot of time burning each other’s music and trying to kill each other. Just try being a church musician in a climate like this. Some folks, like the English composer William Byrd, had to write for the Church of England (recently separated from Rome) while trying to find a way to preserve his own Catholic faith and write Catholic music. Other composers, like Palestrina, were settled with titanic restrictions in musical expression in the post-Council of Trent Counter Reformation, in which the idea of groups of people singing together with independent parts was greatly limited.

It might be an exaggeration but Christian music at this time was an enterprise almost as risky as writing music in the Soviet Union under Stalinism! You might not get killed but, who knew, you might get excommunicated which in the eternal scheme of things looked a lot worse. The other side might suddenly take over and have you sacked, to put it nicely. Still, there were a number of composers who rose to the challenge and managed to stay sort of happy. The secular composers didn’t face precisely the same restraints so when they followed their muse, as the Genoan composer Carlo Gesualdo did, only the sanity of a normal man with tempered taste was your limit. If you were insane, as Gesualdo most likely was, there was no telling what you could write.

The only thing that would limit you were the singers. If the singers couldn’t do it then you couldn’t make them. That was the most important musical discovery of Renaissance choral music and it has laid the foundation for musical aesthetics in the West in both harmony and melody ever since. For Eastern ears this was the end of the end for Western music (Gregorian chant was already going too far for them). Harmony became the dominant force in Western music and harmony was defined by the choir. For better and worse the choir was often defined by the Church.

Postscript: A short list of Renaissance composers

There are several excellent choral groups that specialize in “Early Music”. Among the ensembles that have done excellent recordings of all the composers below are the Tallis Scholars, The Cambridge Singers, and the Hilliard Ensemble (who also record a lot by the modern composer Arvo Part). The Tallis Scholars record on Gimmell, their own label. The Hilliard Ensemble seems to do a lot of recording on the ECM label. Most of the recordings aren’t especially cheap but they’re always excellent.

The Renaissance composers consistently wrote very high quality choral music and were often prolific so you can start with virtually anything. Usually only the most influential works by these composers are regularly recorded and performed. Byrd wrote a great deal of English and Latin music for Catholic and Anglican liturgies.

Johannes Ockeghem
Josquin desPrez
“Absalom Absalom” is his most famous work. The Tallis Scholars have a great recording of this piece.

Piere de Luigi Palestrina
Virtually anything Palestrina wrote is worth checking out and only the most important of his numerous works get regularly recorded. Again, go with the Tallis Scholars for a recording of this work.

Carlo Gesualdo
This man became as famous for killing his cheating wife as for the music he wrote. He wrote his own texts (they’re terrible!) and set them in such a maudlin way it’s hard to believe his music is as important as it is. But he, perhaps by dint of insanity, pushed the harmonic boundaries of Renaissance music out so far it took J. S. Bach’s monstrous output to be so far-reaching. Do yourself a favor and avoid his keyboard music!

Thomas Tallis
Spem in Alleum is the apotheosis of academic counterpoint in this period. It doesn’t get more complex than this. Tallils was one of the great English choral composers during the Renaissance. There were actually a lot of great English composers during this period but Tallis is a good place to start.

William Byrd
Probably the most important of the English Renaissance composers. Byrd wrote Catholic and Anglican church music (the Catholic music was circulated underground since it was officially banned). Byrd’s Masses and The Great Service are good examples of his art. The Tallis Scholars have fantastic recordings of Byrd. Byrd also wrote a mountain of keyboard music which has been committed to CD in the last year or so. I haven’t had the chance to hear it yet but I hope it’s more interesting than Gesualdo’s keyboard music!