Sunday, September 23, 2018

John Borstlap on why he thinks Charles Ives is overrated, and a recent nod to John Ruskin which, ironically, brings me back to Charles Ives and Kyle Gann's case that Ruskin was more influential to Ives's thought than generally credited by scholars

While this is not a direct discussion of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution (yet), which I'm still reviewing in an episodic fashion by topic, what I'm about to discuss seems necessary to bracket into a discussion of the recently reprinted book by way of a case study.  This case study, however, derives not from Borstlap's book but from his blogging.  Now having read his book a couple of times I never got the sense he ever managed to define what music actually is in contrast to the stuff that he considers to be not-music.  But in his blogging he sometimes clarifies things.  

For instance, he regards Charles Ives as a seriously over-rated and not-a-great composer.  But let's consider what he has to say as to why that's so.

Today – 23/8/13 – I stumbled into an article on the interesting website 

So I entered a comment:


“His father also told him that any harmony at all was acceptable if you knew what you were doing with it. Nobody had ever told a young composer that before.” The reason that no young composer had heard that before lies in the caveat in the first sentence: “… if you knew what you were doing with it”. That Ives went-on doing his thing with any harmony does not mean that therefore the results are artistically great. His music has to stand on its own, autonomous feet, and has to be judged on its intrinsic artistic qualities. Ives’ approach was materialist, not spiritual: he threw-in all his eclectic bits of material into the pot in a literal way, without working them through, synthesizing them, modelling them, integrating them. This explains the messy nature of so much of his work and the lack of a real, worked-through idiom. [emphasis added]

…  Ives had talent and fantasy, but lacked understanding of the musical work of art, which is also demonstrated – for instance – by his lack of understanding of Debussy’s music, of which he talked with contempt. That ‘audiences cannot take it’ may be because of a conservative outlook, but may as well be the result of a better understanding of what a musical work really is, an understanding better than Ives himself entertained. Here, the article falls into the very trap of modernist mythology, which confuses non-conformist handling of material with musical quality, a mythology already half a century old and without any real cultural substance. Ives was indeed far ahead of his time – but a time which gradually destroyed classical music as a living and dynamic tradition, so nothing to celebrate, really. New music nowadays is in a profound existential crisis on all fronts, and appreciation of the work of Ives as ‘great music’ merely helps eroding any sense of musical greatness.

And then – what an ugly sound that 4th movement is! What an uninteresting, messy chaos, what a pretentious exercise! It is fun, nonetheless, to perform it once in a while, but to call it the great American symphony goes, in my opinion, much and much too far.

John Borstlap / 2013

Kyle Gann has spent more than just a few years working to dismantle mythological presentations of Ives as primitive, for instance, or Ives as someone who was somehow unfamiliar with the Western European concert repertoire.  That Charles Ives could write fugues and sonatas and then chose not to does not necessarily mean that he couldn't write in those forms or didn't understand them.  During the 1970s through the 1990s there were scholars who went so far as to declare that Dmitri Shostakovich never properly "mastered" sonata form despite the fact that he wrote plenty of sonata forms, but did not necessarily always write sonata forms that hewed closely to "textbook" definitions of sonata forms.  

To borrow the typology developed by Hepokoski and Darcy in Elements of Sonata Theory, Shostakovich didn't have to write "Type 3" sonatas all the time to demonstrate a mastery of sonata forms. Truncated and radically recomposed recapitulations are all over sonata forms from the 18th century up through to today if you care to look them up.  Simply because some academics claimed Shostakovich did not master sonata form doesn't make it so, and by extension, simply declaring that Charles Ives didn't master sonata or fugue because he made use of cumulative forms and cyclical modes of thematic development that weren't explicitly tied to Western European norms of cyclical development doesn't mean he was a musical rube. 

So it was interesting to read Borstlap link to an article in The Guardian recently about the art critic John Ruskin. 

Ruskin was born in London in 1819 to a wealthy Scottish wine-merchant father and a strict Evangelical mother. Having graduated from Oxford University in 1842, he came to public prominence with his defence of JMW Turner, published in the first volume of his acclaimed treatise on art, Modern Painters. He gained fame as a public intellectual – writing, teaching and delivering lectures on art, architecture and other subjects, all in his eccentric style. Ruskin’s art criticism and advocacy was a particular inspiration to the pre-Raphaelites.

In the 1860s, he turned his attention to politics and society against the backdrop of the inequality and rampant poverty many suffered in the industrial capitalist age. He railed against the exploitation of the poor and the self-interest of the wealthy. Ruskin proposed reform, and carried out practical projects – such as getting his students to work on widening roads in Oxford – which provided a hands-on social parable for his beliefs.

While much of his thinking was considered radical, and could be considered a precursor to socialism, he adhered to an older conservative tradition that believed in hierarchy and the established authority; it also suggested that those who naturally held power had a duty to serve and protect the poor. By the mid-20th century, some of his ideas had filtered into the perceived wisdom of the British welfare state.

“In some ways, Ruskin seems like the most Victorian of the Victorians, so not applicable to our lives now,” says David Russell, associate professor of English at Corpus Christi College Oxford. “People get hung up on how eccentric some of his ideas were, but the core of his claims remains relevant and important. That is to say: our aesthetic experience, our experience of beauty in ordinary life, must be central to thinking about any good life and society. It’s not just decoration or luxury for the few. If you are taught how to see the world properly through an understanding of aesthetics, then you’ll see society properly.”

Ruskin, who died in Brantwood in 1900, has been cited as an influence on William Morris and Gandhi, the arts and craft movement, ecological thinking and the foundations of the welfare state.

His most searing social critique is contained in his 1860-62 essays, Unto This Last, in which he takes a scythe to Victorian capitalist values: “the art of establishing maximum inequality in our own favour … the rash and absurd assumption that such inequalities are necessarily advantageous, lies at the root of most of the popular fallacies on the subject of political economy”.

In his conclusion, Ruskin states baldly: “Luxury is indeed possible in the future – innocent and exquisite; luxury for all, and by the help of all; but luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant; the cruellest man living could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfolded.”

A central line of thinking for Ruskin, cutting across his art criticism and political writing, is that a society founded on structures that are embroiled in heartlessness – in brutal treatment of people and the environment around them – is indifferent to beauty. As we see the growth of vast inequalities today, such billionaire tech firms employing precarious workers with diminished rights and pervasive environmental ruin, it is not hard to see parallels in our current moment.

This year, David Zwirner Books published the long out-of-print Giotto and His Works in Padua, Ruskin’s consideration of the Italian painter’s 12th-century fresco cycle at the Arena Chapel in northern Italy. Even here, when contemplating the beauty of early Renaissance art, Ruskin writes: “As long as it can bear to see misery and squalor in its streets, it can neither invent nor accept human beauty in its pictures.” As Robert Hewison adds in an introduction to the new edition: “Is this 1860, or 2018?”
Whether Ruskin remains an influence on the left, however, is another matter. “There is an important echo in contemporary radicalism,” says Jeremy Gilbert, a member of the founding national committee of Momentum and a professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London. “Ruskin is not really much of a presence in contemporary left culture, but there are definitely resonances, especially in the popularisation of post-work politics.”

Ruskin’s criticism of the alienating nature of work and the aesthetic impoverishment of industrial capitalism chimes with current arguments about inequality and the despoiling of the environment. But, for Gilbert, “it’s never clear with Ruskin what the strategy was meant to be politically to resolve the problem.”

Where Ruskin’s continuing political influence is concerned, Gilbert says he remains central to an ethical-socialist radical tradition, a belief-system embraced by Tony Benn and even Jeremy Corbyn, whose “own vision of the world is a moral one: it’s not really about class struggles, so much as it is about wanting a moral and ethical society”. While Ruskin is not widely cited by the left today, this concept is something he espoused.

Gilbert suggests that the strongest link between Ruskin and contemporary discourse lies in the possibility that automation might be a liberation – allowing people to lead more creative and and aesthetically fulfilled lives because they don’t have to do boring work anymore.

In Unto This Last, Ruskin offers, in his elaborate style, exhortations: “The equality of wages, then, being the first object towards which we have to discover the directest available road, the second is … that of maintaining constant numbers of workmen in employment.”

There are also provocations: “Whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich have no right to property of the poor.”

And there are dramatic paeans to what might be possible. “There is no wealth but life. Life including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration,” he writes. “That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.”

I've quoted at length to establish Ruskin's role and influence in arts criticism. It would seem Borstlap in some sense approves of some ideas by Ruskin and the role Ruskin played in informing arts criticism. That's something to keep in mind because we're going to go through parts of Kyle Gann's monograph on Charles Ives's Concord Sonata in a bit.  

First, we'll get to some blog posts, one in which Gann points out that there's a case to be made that Charles Ive's opposition between "substance" and "manner" may have derived from an opposition that was earlier formulated by John Ruskin, whom Borstlap took time to mention at his blog.

So I start here with the passages explaining why I think Ives’s opposition between substance and manner may have had its source in the art critic John Ruskin. In an early review of my book proposal, an anonymous prof sternly warned me that the subject of Ives’s intellectual inheritance had been exhaustively mined by Peter Burkholder in his Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music, and that I would find nothing new to report. Peter’s book is indeed excellent, but Ruskin is not mentioned in it (nor is Tolstoy, Hegel, or Henry Sturt, all of whom I discuss in terms of their appearances in Essays Before a Sonata). Peter had his priorities and I have mine. My book does not render his superfluous, nor vice versa. It would be as ludicrous to fault him for not doing what I did as it would to fault me for not duplicating him. There is room in Ives’s world for at least two people to frame complementary narratives of his mental development.
One recurring idea in my book is that when one traces the quotations in Ives’s Essays to their source, the original context often tells us more about what Ives was thinking than the specific quote does
On the topic of Ives as a primitive being a straw man depiction of his music, Gann had the following to say (let's just take some of the post for consideration): 

At some point in the 1980s, all the musicologists started trying to demonstrate that Ives hadn’t been so original after all. They compared his piano figurations with (very dissimilar) ones by Chopin and Liszt, showing triumphantly that he was well versed in the European literature. They downplayed the influence of Ives’s father, and hinting that Ives learned a lot more from the German-trained Horatio Parker than he admitted. Everything he did in music he actually learned from the Europeans, if you just look at it the right way, and that’s why he was a great composer after all. They set out to prove (and here I’m going to start quoting from an article, to be named later, that I find particularly inspiring for its perspective on this) that Ives “. . . was as much a part of the European tradition of art music as were Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg, and the other progressive composers of his time.” (p. 99) Their aim, this author said, was “to prove the worthiness of Ives’s music, to remove the stigma of its ‘outsider’ status, and to show that it ‘lies squarely within the European tradition, extending and transforming the aesthetic assumptions . . . of late Romantic tonal music. . . .’” (p. 99) 
This bugged me. In fact, for many years in the ‘80s and ’90s I refused to read any books about Ives, because everything the musicologists were saying about him made me wince (and after the Maynard Solomon episode it only became worse). It was Jan Swafford’s biography of Ives, which was sent to me by the publisher and which I avoided even opening for years after I got it, that I finally grudgingly picked up one day and couldn’t put down. Jan – a fine composer himself – got it right, and lured me back into the Ives musicology fold.
I bought the box set of Ives’s symphonies as a teenager, and you would have to be deaf or illiterate or a moron to listen to Ives’s First Symphony and think that Ives had no cognizance of European tradition. Peter Burkholder, in his magnificent book All Made of Tunes, has shown at admirable length how Ives carefully studied, and imitated, symphonies by Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky in a studious attempt to master the traditional forms. But you knew it without the demonstration. Someone who could play the Mendelssohn organ sonatas at age 15 is going to be awfully difficult to paint as an untutored savage. Ives knew as much about European music as a young American composer possibly could have at the time, without actually going to Europe. That much, some of us always knew, and learned some of it from reading Cowell. And then, as corrective to Cowell, we all have to switch to the opposite side of the argument, and pretend that everything Ives ever put in his music turned out to have precedents in the classical repertoire. I’m not even going to dignify that perception by listing counter-examples. You know what they are.

Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata, if you read it closely – and perhaps this is why academics have avoided doing so – advances an aesthetic much at odds with classic modernism. In his view, if a piece of music can be analyzed, reduced to a single principle or small set of principles, then it is insufficiently reflective of how we experience the real world. To be true to nature, a piece of music must be messy, incommensurable in its parts, containing shards of truth that suggest but never add up to a whole. A piece that can be fully analyzed is a piece Ives would regard as a failure, or a triviality. I argue in my book that he took this view from the most Romantic of sources – not only Emerson, but John Ruskin, although they can only have confirmed what his artistic intuition already told him. As Jonathan Kramer has shown in his writings on postmodernism, Ives poses a challenge to the modernist paradigms, and will never fit neatly within them. Did Ives master the European musical idiom? Yes. Did he do a lot of things in his music that he had never seen or heard in any previous music? Yes. Is it really such a burden to keep both those facts in one’s head at the same time?

All Made of Tunes is a fantastic read, by the way.  Burkholder does a masterful job of laying out how and why Ives developed cumulative form as an alternative to the scripts of sonata forms and other more conventional European instrumental syntactic scripts--the short reason was that Ives could take up cumulative form as a way to frontload developmental processes that would culminate in a recognizable American folk tune, hymn, popular song or some recognizable musical moment in a way that would not be chained to formulas of symphonic "argument" that were current in the symphonic literature.  That's my take on Burkholder's argument, and I would also suggest that if you have some familiarity with the ideological and aesthetic aims and interests of the later 19th century the ideal of "endless melody" or constant organicist transformation of material could be observed without fixing it to a preset range of macro-structural norms.  In other words, Ives could constantly develop his ideas without being obliged to do so according to formulaic plans for sonatas, for instance. 

But I should do more than just summarize Burkholder. I should quote him.  

All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing
J. Peter Burkholder
Copyright (c) 1995 by J. Peter Burkholder
Yale University Press
ISBN 0-300-05642-7

page 137

The ternary and sonata forms that Ives used in his First String Quartet and first two symphonies depended upon the presentation, development, and reprise of themes. But from about 1902, he turned increasingly to forms that did not use large-scale repetition and did not present their themes at the outset. The most significant of these new forms is cumulative setting. This is a variety of cumulative form, a thematic, non-repetitive form in which the  principle theme is presented, not at the beginning as in traditional forms, but near the end, and is preceded, not followed, by its development. In cumulative form, there is no repetition of long segments of music, as there is in ternary, sonata, rondo, and many other forms, but rather a continual development that leads up to the definitive statement of the theme.  

page 138 
... In a cumulative setting, the borrowed or paraphrased theme is first heard in fragments, often varied; is gradually assembled and clarified; and appears in full for the first time near the end of the movement. In most instances, the full statement of the theme is accompanied by a countermelody that is developed in a similar manner and usually appears complete before the theme itself.  In a cumulative setting, Ives uses paraphrase not only to create themes and countermelodies, but as part of a process of discovery, as the theme slowly emerges from the fragments and varients that precede its culminating appearance. The elements of the theme, its countermelody, and their accompaniment gradually accumulate until the borrowed tune and its setting appear together in their entirety--hence the name "cumulative setting."

... Once cumulative setting is recognized as a form, many difficulties in analyzing, understanding, and performing these works disappear, and both the overall design and the individual features of each movement come into sharper focus.

Now how would this proposal connect to Borstlap's claim that Ives had imagination and creativity but lacked the discipline or formal knowledge to "properly" develop his ideas?  Let's go to what Burkholder has to say on page 146 of All Made of Tunes:

The form here is of particular interest, It is something like the development and recapitulation of a sonata form without the exposition. The two forms share the presence of two themes of contrasting characters; the process of developing these themes through fragmentation, variation, transposition, and recombination; the sense of arrival at a subsequent statement of the principle theme; and the harmonic closure created by presenting the secondary theme at the end in the tonic, after first presenting it in another key. Yet Ives avoids both the clear exposition of themes at the outset and the exact thematic repetition of traditional sonata form.

Burkholder spells out the significance of this formal reversal on page 147:

Saving the full presentation of the theme for the end of the movement reverses the sequence of other thematic forms, such as sonata or variation form. However, as one might expect, the surviving sketches show that Ives first worked out a countermelody and harmonization for the theme and then drafted the earlier sections in which those ideas were developed. Sketches for a number of other cumulative settings show a similar process, suggesting that it became Ives's typical practice to draft the theme, countermelody, and accompaniment in combination before sketching the earlier sections of the movement. The compositional process is not unlike that of other composers or of Ives's own earlier music, as it relies on common procedures of elaboration and development. What has changed is the order of events within the piece; we don't hear the parts in the order in which they were conceived, but rather begin with the peak of fragmentation and variation and work toward the relative clarity and directness of the theme itself. 

I've quoted Burkholder at such length for two reasons.  

The first has to do with an observation made about the evolution of sonata forms in the 19th century compared to the 19th century that was made by Leonard B. Meyer.  Should we wish to get a sense of why an American composer in the early 20th century would make such a drastic change to the syntactics of procedural development of thematic materials let's look at what could be said about the way sonata forms were handled in the 19th century. 

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 142
... our age has conceived of creativity almost entirely in terms of the discovery and use of novelty. ... undue emphasis on the generation of novelty has resulted in almost total neglect of the other facet of creativity--choosing. Of course, choosing is always done by some individual. But the constraints that seem most to influence the compositional choices which shape the course of music history are not those peculiar to the psyche of the individual composer, but those of the prevalent musical style and of the larger cultural community. [I will very quickly get to the choosing part as it connects to an 18th century compositional tradition, this isn't as much a rabbit trail as it seems]

page 220
Put aphoristically: radical individualism seeks to undermine the norms on which its expression depends 

age 245-246
... While music of the Classic period employs plan-based patternings, these are almost always coordinated with and dominated by syntactic scripts. In the nineteenth century, the situation is more or less reversed: what had been specific syntactic scripts tend to be subsumed within or transformed into general plans. [emphasis added] For instance, from this very broad point of view, the history of the practice and theory of sonata form during the nineteenth century might be interpreted as the transformation of a script--a tonally defined hierarchic schema of slots--into a thematic plan, often of a dialectic or narrative sort (thesis/antithesis --> synthesis; opposition/conflict ---. resolution). More generally, as suggested earlier (and argued later), the role of the secondary parameters in the shaping of musical forms and processes becomes increasingly important during the course of the nineteenth century. The forms and processes thus shaped are based on plans, not on scripts.

So by Meyer's accounting, at least, the 19th century approach to sonata became more plan-based than script-based.  As I've put it before, you can go "off script" any time you want but if you change your plan you basically need a whole new plan.  Or you needed a whole new script, and the development by Ives (and others) of cumulative form and cumulative setting was the development of a new scripting possibility for composers.

The second reason has to do with the nature of cumulative form, and another charge that has been made against Ives, that he wasn't "original" enough to create his own melodies.  

In her monograph on Haydn and variation (it's literally called Haydn and the Classical Variation, ISBN 0-674-38315 , Elaine Sisman's first page recounts how musicology has tended to look down on the Classic era variation tradition. 

Why has variation form in general and the Classical variation in particular received such [harsh academic] treatment? Simply put, its common practices do not accord with several cherished assumptions about musical value. First, the form is associated with borrowing a theme and keeping it more or less in full view, thus violating the principle of original thematic invention. Indeed, the eighteenth century presided over the shift in meaning of invention from finding to making. [emphasis added] Second, as a repetitive series of short, discrete segments with the same structure, variations seem artificial and arbitrary, incapable of sustained organic structure, and thus violate one of the central tenets of German Romanticism. Third, the ornamental and decorative techniques assumed to prevail in the variations of Haydn and Mozart are considered "surface" features, failing to penetrate and transform the thematic model like "deeper" contrapuntal, characteristic, developmental, or transformational techniques.  Finally, enormous numbers of variation sets produced by virtuosos between about 1790 and 1840 provoked a reaction against their empty display, or what Momigny called "much speech but little sense (Sisman, pages 1 to 2)

I realize I keep beating this particular drum but it bears re-beating--the people in "classical music" composition and theory who have been showing themselves most open to any kind of reproachment with popular and vernacular styles seem more in the 20th century (or, obviously, the 21st century), but also in 18th century specialization.  I'm seeing attempts at a fusion of jazz with fugue, whether it's Nikolai Kapustin or Michelle Gorrell.  Another way to put this, with a far more polemical twist, is to say that for people interested in popular music who are open to classical music, the "enemy" within the classical side is not necessarily going to be a "modernist" or a Baroque specialist but more likely a Romanticist, someone who advocates for the 19th century style post-Idealist Germanic or French art religion.  

But where Ives is concerned, even if it were proven across dozens of his scores that he used tunes he didn't originally come up with this is hardly a charge to seriously hold against him for two reasons.  The first is we've established that "sampling" has run through the Western art music tradition going back millenia, whether through parody masses or variations on popular ground bass lines in the Baroque era, variations on popular opera songs in the 18th century and folk songs in the 19th century up through Ives's day.  The second is that copyright law was different and so whatever was in public domain in Ives's day was quite simply free to be appropriated.  The trouble some people have with copyright may not necessarily be just that they feel copyright is too restrictive as much as too many composers these days only draw from the well of copyright-protected musical styles.  I would strongly urge them to listen to a whole lot more public domain music that they can rip off with impunity ... it arguably worked out well enough for Ives!

So ... since the Romantic era moving forward inventio was regarded as the creation or literal invention of a thematic idea for formal development or variation, whereas in the 18th century inventio could be taken to mean you or some other composer discovered something and made use of it in an entertaining and surprising way.  Haydn might make use of Croatian folk songs as the basis for movements in one of his symphonies, Wenzel Matiegka might transcribe materials he heard or read from Haydn scores or performances and transform those into sonatas or variation movements for solo guitar.  

Now, of course, Matiegka is so late 18th century as to be early 19th century!  But my polemical point is that it's been known that openly making use of someone else's tunes happened in the 18th century and that what might today be colloquially called "sampling" was okay back then, and probably in no small part because if you have military sinecure day jobs with the local militia, army or aristocratic courts you can quite literally afford to have your music known about via bootlegs the way Haydn's was.  Or you had some other clerical job by day (Sor) or a teaching post (Matiegka, turns out, taught theology ... so perhaps readers will pardon my sympathy for a guitarist composer who occasionally likes to discuss theology ... . )  But I digress.

How does this connect to Ives?  Well, Ives may be beloved by some "modernists" but his philosophy and approach to composition do not necessarily mean that he was a modernist, certainly not a modernist in a post-World War II sense or maybe even a post-World War I sense in any "Eurocentric" conception of modernism. 

If Charles Ives didn't know how to properly develop his ideas by what standard did Ives fail?  It's at this point we'll quote Borstlap's book to show what's going on.

Copyright (c) 2013, 2017 by John Borstlap
ISBN 9780486814483
ISBN 0486814483


page 103-104

Almost all great composers since Beethoven either had no academic training, or in case they let themselves be subjected to it, strongly rebelled against its life-draining character, or/and got into trouble with "official authority." [emphasis added] It has to be stressed that this specific kind of rebellion against authority was not common in the old master-pupil system, because in those times the relationship was much more personal and the overall consensus left enough space for personal expression. Berlioz suffered severely in his conservatory days, as did Debussy who, though winning a Prix de Rome, carried a profound dislike for all academic enterprise with him for the rest of his life.  The continuous rejections Ravel received for his Prix entries created a public scandal resulting in the resignation of the director of the conservatory.  Rimsky-Korsakov wisely did not want young Stravinsky to enter the conservatory, thus recreating the old master-pupil situation, which had also served Chopin, Brahms, and Schoenberg so well.  Hugo Wolf was kicked out of the conservatory in Vienna, where Gustav Mahler was a close friend, and who, after some rebellion, chose to submit to its authoritarian rule, which must have been very painful for someone of his temperament. Bruckner never studied at a conservatory--which might have crushed his already low self-esteem--and only hesitatingly accepted a post as a teacher there later in his career.  And it can be argued that Berg and Webern, who studied privately with Schoenberg, would never have come under his spell within a conservatory context, although it has to be doubted whether that would have been, in comparison, a bad thing. 

... but Ives apparently needed to learn how to really develop his themes?  

It may just come across as if when John Borstlap likes a composer their bridling at scholastic routine and rigor becomes a sign of their tortured and straijacketed talents but if Borstlap doesn't like a composer then all of a sudden the strictures of a conventional 19th century music education are what the unliked composer would have benefited from.  What if it could be (and has been) demonstrated that Ives had that kind of education and also rejected it but that Ives simply chose to develop new syntactic processes and scripts that would help him avoid writing what were increasingly formulaic developmental procedures from the 19th century Romantic and post-Romantic eras?  

What if, furthermore, this process could be shown to have been indebted to Ives' familiarity with John Ruskin?  It's at this point I finally get to quoting Kyle Gann's monograph on the Concord Sonata.  It is worth pointing out that for Borstlap to declare that Charles Ives composed from a "materialist" perspective has to account for why on earth a "materialist" would compose an entire sonata paying tribute to the New England transcendentalists while invoking Ruskin.  

Charles Ives’ Concord: Essays After a Sonata
Kyle Gann
University of Illinois Press
Copyright © 2017 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
ISBN 9780252040856
Ebook 9780252099366

Page 275
… Monteverdi and Josquin prove Ives’ hypothesis that even the highest peaks of music can recede into the past if the social conventions on which their performances depend become simply too foreign—not because the music has been found less worthy than once thought, but because the cultural assumptions of that music have become too foreign as society has evolved.

Page 276
… But there seems to me to be a striking parallel between Ives’ project here and that of John Ruskin in volume 2 of Modern Painters (1846). Ives quotes Ruskin only three times, but the contexts from which those quotes are taken are so apposite as to make me think Ruskin’s influence on Ives was more pervasive than has been noticed. …

… Ruskin draws a distinction between fancy and imagination parallel to Ives’s manner and substance … [bold emphasis added, italics original]

Page 277
… Ruskin then describes the process of an artist who is capable of imagination …

If … the combination made is to be harmonious, the artist must induce in each of the component parts (suppose two only, for simplicity’s sake,) such imperfection as that the other shall put it right. If one of them be perfect by itself, the other will be an excrescence. Both must be faulty when separate, and each corrected by the presence of the other. If he can accomplish this, the result will be beautiful; it will be a whole, organized body with dependent members:--he is an inventor. If not, let his separate features be as beautiful, as apposite, or as resemblant as they may, they form no whole. They are two members glued together. He is only a carpenter and a joiner.
[John Ruskin, Modern Painters, edited and abridged by David Barrie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1987, pages 249, 247]

Page 278
Ruskin’s division is more severe than Ives’s: a painter is capable of either fancy or imagination, but the processes are mutually exclusive. And, like Ives, with his Beethoven/Strauss pairing), he [Ruskin] draws this line not between good art and bad, but between sublime, permanently relevant art and pretty good art that people like but that does not manifest eternal values and will probably go out of fashion.

Page 279
… Ruskin pointed to imagination as a harmony of imperfections conceived as a unity, as opposed to a collection of self-sufficient types.

Page 280
Manner, on the other hand,has to do with for, quantity, media, comfort, platitudes, sentimentality, prejudice, “unearned exultation,” “a symphony written to amuse and entertain”. … A composer of mere manner wants to “impress, startle, and shock the audience,” and will gauge success based on “the appreciation of an audience rather than in the effect on the ideals of the inner conscience of the artist or the composer”.

Page 281
Manner can take an opposite, less entertaining direction—that of being merely academically correct, as was true of so much American classical music before Ives. 
… Many would agree that the viral spread of twelve-tone technique after 1950 created a massive new repertoire of such works in another idiom altogether, particularly in the United States, where, in symbiotic combination with a sudden influx of composers into academia at a time of Space Age science envy, an entire generation of composers learned to write “blackboard music” that was more interesting to analyze than listen to.

At this point, having volumes of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, we can also skip straight to the unabridged source.

Chapter 2, section 6 "Of Imagination Associative"
page 161 of Volume 2 (but page 195 if you're reading the PDF copy from

But all this time the imagination has not once shown itself. All this (except the gift of fancy) may be taught; all this is easily comprehended and analyzed; but imagination is neither to be taught, nor by any efforts to be attained, nor by any acuteness of discernment dissected or analyzed.

It has been said that in composition the mind can only take cognizance of likeness or dissimilarity, or of abstract beauty among the ideas it brings together. But neither likeness nor dissimilarity secures harmony. We saw in the Chapter on Unity that likeness destroyed harmony or unity of membership; and that difference did not necessarily secure it, but only that particular imperfection in each of the harmonizing parts which can only be supplied by its fellow part. If, therefore, the combination made is to be harmonious) the artist must induce in each of its component parts (suppose two only, for simplicity's sake), such imperfection as that the other shall put it right. If one of them be perfect by itself, the other will be an excrescence. Both must be faulty when separate, and each corrected by the presence of the other. If he can accomplish this, the result will be beautiful; it will be a whole, an organized body with dependent members; he is an inventor. If not, let his separate features be as beautiful, as apposite, or as resemblant as they may, they form no whole. They are two members glued together. He is only a carpenter and joiner.

section 7
Now, the conceivable imperfections of any single feature are infinite. It is impossible, therefore, to fix upon a form of imperfection in the one, and try with this all the forms of imperfection of the other until one fits; but the two imperfections must be; co-relatively and simultaneously conceived.

This is Imagination, properly so called; imagination associative, :the grandest mechanical power that the human intelligence possesses, arid one which will appear more and more marvellous the Ionger we consider it. By its operation, two ideas are chosen out of an infinite mass (for it evidently matters not whether the imperfections be conceived out of the infinite number conceivable, or selected out of a number recollected), two ideas which are separately wrong, which together shall be right, and of whose unity, therefore, the idea must be formed at the instant they are seized, as it is only in that unity that either is good, and therefore only the conception of that unity can prompt the preference. Now, what is that prophetic action of mind, which out of an infinite mass of things that cannot be tried together, seizes, at the same instant, two that are fit for each other ; together right, yet each disagreeable alone ? [bold emphases added, italics original]

The likelihood that a John Borstlap can "prove" that Charles Ives failed by the measures of John Ruskin to have had "imagination" rather than "fancy" isn't zero, but the way he has tended to argue against Charles Ives the likelihood still seems low.  A person might be forgiven for thinking that Ives pioneering a cumulative setting approach to thematic development would be an apotheosis of rejecting the hidebound rule-governed pedagogy of 19th century music instruction.  It seems, however, that where Ives is concerned Borstlap wants to make a case that Ives is "fancy" rather than "imagination".  I like a lot of Ives's music but I'm open to someone trying to make a case like that, it's just that nothing Borstlap has written so far suggests he's made that case successfully yet.

It doesn't seem too difficult to propose Ives made use of Ruskin's fancy vs imagination distinction. 
The use of themes or ideas that seem imperfect by themselves but that make sense as part of an organically conceived whole (and how Romantic is that!?) does take place in Ives's work, just not according to the plans that were considered normative and acceptable within 19th century pedagogical terms.  A John Borstlap can't exactly have it both ways.  If 19th century era musical pedagogy was so stifling wouldn't it be beneficial for composers to not be hamstrung by it?  

On the other hand, if the problem with Charles Ives was that he didn't know how to develop his ideas "properly" in the opinion of Borstlap perhaps Borstlap doesn't see a rigid conservatory education as a bad thing in itself.  He's definitely set against serialism and atonality but in that case, so what?  Kyle Gann thinks that atonality and serialism have run their course and that composition students these days have more fun and interesting options than the Darmstadt scene to draw inspiration from.  The most compelling arguments I've seen against twelve-tone and serialist music have not come from self-designated traditionalist polemicists but from the microtonalists and advocates of popular styles like jazz and rock.  I could even eventually trawl through works by Edward Berlin to show that many of the scabrous polemics related to rap and hip hop today are mirrored in polemics that were made for and against ragtime ... 

But there's this other element of a double bind or a double standard in Borstlap's polemics, which has to do with Benjamin Britten. But first let's get through a very long quote from Borstlap's concluding chapter of The Classical Revolution (this is all one undivided paragraph in the second edition):

pages 123-124
In this time of redefinition for Europe, of its cultural identity and the political future of its society; it is about time that the cultural achievements of the past and their progeny in the present are given their rightful place and role in public space (which would also have implications for American musical life). Performing bodies of classical art music should not—under the pressure of economic crises—be subjected to materialist profit assessment and thus to government cuts, but instead be generously supported as iconic spaces which would justify any financial sacrifice. The humanities at the universities, where cultural studies are taught, should likewise be considered as important for society as a whole and not subjected to economic functionalism or pragmatism; understanding of the best of art (particularly from the past) should be a normal part of the curriculum at every level of general education, including for young children. Also—and particularly—in times of economic hardship, art (i.e. real and meaningful art), should be the island of civilization where people will drink at the well of real humanity so that they can be able to face the challenges of modern life and protect the values of the human spirit. High art is an exercise of what is best in the human being. It offers a learning process of the intellect and the emotions that can lead to an increased awareness of what we really are and should be, and, as such, a source of inner strength.  It was exactly this role that the classical music repertoire played in World War II and in the period directly following this fundamental crisis; it would be unthinkable that people would scramble among the ruins of bombed city centers, desperate to hear a performance of Xenakis, Stockhausen, or Boulez (or in a later period along the glass and steel facades of modernist office blocks to hear the sonic art of Lachenmann, Widmann, or Birtwistle) hoping to be uplifted and to feel again what it means to be a human being.  Their work is a product of, not an answer to, the devastation of war trauma and the emptiness of the modern world. If we allow sonic art to be music, we finish off the jobs of destruction set in motion by Hitler and Stalin.  Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was the right answer to that destruction, also in terms  [page 124] of beauty—and the most important works of far-reaching implications after the war were, from our perspective of the early twenty-first century, not the sound art of Boulez’s Marteau sans maĆ®tre (1954), or Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge (1956), or Nono’s Il canto sospeso (1956), but Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945),  and Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto (1948), both works now in the regular repertoire and still growing in stature and reputation. And perhaps the piece that has been, with hindsight and in psychological terms, the most far-reaching in its stubborn faith in humanity, beauty, and the immortality of the soul, is that unexpected flowering of pure and beautiful expression, hovering over the ruins of a destroyed civilization, the last gasp of atonement of a man who saw his world go down but yet believed in the endurance of its best achievements in another, better world: Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder (1948).

Firstly, it was precisely Richard Strauss whom Charles Ives set as "manner" against the "substance" of Beethoven.  Having taken my own semi-pitiless shots at Lachenmann and Ferneyhough for using extended techniques in guitar duets that were all used in blues recordings from the 1920s and 1930s I don't really mind if Borstlap can't stand those sorts of composers.  I'd take John Lee Hooker of Lachenmann most of the time.  But Strauss?  I've got better things to do with my life than take Strauss as the apotheosis of believing in the immortality of the soul.  Strauss was an atheist, wasn't he?  If I want to hear songs about the immortality of the soul I'd much rather hear Aretha Franklin singing Gospel songs or hear Mahalia Jackson sing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord".  Or, for that matter, I'd probably more interested in singing hymns composed by the Native American Thomas Commuck in his shape-note hymnal Indian Melodies.  If you want to point to someone who saw his civilization dismantled by wars or plagues or foreign intervention and who put hope in salvation and a better life to come through an explicitly Christian belief Thomas Commuck seems like a more plausible choice than Richard Strauss.  Since I've made no secret about having a half Native American lineage or being a Christian (and I used to be Pentecostal) I don't think anyone can reasonably hold it against me if I prefer Franklin and Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson or even Charles Ives to Richard Strauss.  

Borstlap seems to want a restoration of what a guy like Adorno would have called the bourgeois art religion.  Adorno is, unsurprisingly, one of the nemeses Borstlap sets his sights against in The Classical Revolution but without so much as quoting a single sentence Adorno ever wrote, let alone addressing or dismantling a single one of Adorno's actual arguments.  

But for all he has written Borstlap has nothing to offer by way of a conceptual renewal of the Western European art music tradition as a way of thinking.  He has explicitly denied the possibility of it being reinvigorated by any infusion of popular music or jazz.  Yet he has also made a point of subordinating any and all American (northern or southern American continents) to the fate of Western Europe.  If the entirety of Western Europe were to get hit with a plague this week the guitar sonatas of Carlos Guastavino would still be around for Argentine guitarists to play.  The piano sonatas of Myaskovsky would still get played in Russia, right?  The piano sonatas of the recently deceased American composer George Walker can still be played.  

If preserving the art music tradition that, however it clearly emerged within the context of Western Europe, has spread across the world depends entirely on the perceived (as distinct from actual) rejuvenation of Western European colonial powers as "really human" then everything hinges on the nation states as cultural iterations and not, weirdly, on preserving a way of thinking and making music.  It's possible that the way of thinking in music, about music, and in making music that may have originated in Western Europe can migrate elsewhere.  It seems dubious to claim a continuity of style and forms for Western Europe.  Nobody is singing isometric motets on the streets or even in most of the churches.  The scripts and plans of thematic development change over the centuries and will keep changing.  

I've gone through Borstlap's book twice and while I still admire symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven and Shostakovich I can't share the impression that Borstlap is like someone who was a fan of late Renaissance ars perfecta looking at a new "second practice" and regarding it all as non-musical garbage that isn't even music.  Well, advocates on behalf of the old Palestrina style could share similar put-downs about Monteverdi, too.  In the galant style period Haydn got slammed for doubling octaves that made hsi counterpoint "bad".  He was considered an impudent rule-breaker and yet within a generation he was treated as if he were the hidebound rule-maker whose symphonies were impeccable but whose example had to be transcended by Beethoven and Mozart.  Not really, I love Haydn's music more than either Beethoven's or Mozart's.  Now instead of ars perfecta from the late Renaissance we could say it was the 19th century Romantic and post-Romantic musical style refined by German composers and French composers into what some call "late late Romanticism".  On the other side would be composers ranging from Stravinsky to Schoenberg to Hindemith to Milhaud to Berg to ... also Charles Ives.  

And also Benjamin Britten ... which composer Borstlap regards as having had the "right" response to the horrors of World War II.  But that's interesting because if Britten gets a plaudit across the board then there's a question that has to be asked.  Britten wrote a work for solo guitar for Julian Bream called Nocturnal after John Dowland, one of the masterpieces of 20th century classical guitar repertoire.  

How do we describe the piece ... ?

David J Frackenpohl’s master’s thesis on Britten’s Nocturnal  from 1986

Stephen Goss’s treatment over here describes Nocturnal as "reverse variation", in which fragments of the theme are developed in dramatic and evocative ways until the entire cycle of variations culminates in a closing presentation of John Dowland's theme.  

But wait a minute, if Britten is fantastic (and I admire a good chunk of his music myself), and Britten used reverse variation form in which cumulative variations lead to a final emergence of the foundational theme then why would Benjamin Britten get to use a cumulative form but not Charles Ives?  This is the point at which Borstlap's denigration of Charles Ives while praising Benjamin Britten invites a question as to whether on the basis of his own prescribed criteria for assessing good, bad or great art whether or not Borstlap realizes he might be trafficking in double standards.



Not liking the music of Charles Ives is understandable.  Most of my friends and family can't abide the music of Charles Ives.  As tastes go that's fair enough. What I take issue with is when a case is made against the music of Ives that ends up relying on what seem curiously like double-standardized tests that other composers can "pass" but that Charles Ives "fails".  Britten using cumulative form and reverse-variation, for instance, could establish that Britten used a compositional method that was also used by Charles Ives.  If Borstlap were to say, "of the two composers who used reverse-variation or cumulative form, I think Benjamin Britten handled it better than Charles Ives did"  I'd say that's a fair point both in terms of personal taste and musicological argument.  Saying that Ives somehow didn't know how to develop his ideas "properly" is not nearly as persuasive an argument.

There are times when it is more intellectually honest to just say "I don't like composer X's music" and let that stand.  Borstlap's attempts to formulate arguments as to why he doesn't consider Ives to be a good composer can boomerang on him.  Even if we take Ives as having been a "primitive" or constrained by the limits of his educational approach, Borstlap's lengthy defense of Richard Wagner as someone who was largely self-taught but nevertheless an influential and important composer introduces another level of argument at which double standardized testing can get deployed. 

No comments: