Saturday, November 24, 2018

on Scott Joplin's work being listed in "Piano Scores" at the back of the Dover 2nd edition of The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap

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

Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History
Edward A Berlin
Originally published by the University of California Press
Copyright (c) 1980, 2002 by Edward A Berlin
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3064-9

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his era (2nd edition)
Edward A Berlin
Oxford University Press
Copyright (c) Edward A. Berlin 1994, 2016
ISBN 978-0-19-974032-1
ebook ISBN: 978-0-19-024605-1

Ragtime: It's History, Composers, and Music
edited by John Edward Hasse
Copyright (c) 1985 by John Edward Hasse
Schirmer Books
ISBN: 0-02-8716507
ISBN: 0-02-872650-2 (pbk)

It's one of those minor details that would probably not be conspicuous in reviews of the book, but it leapt off the page for me.  In the second edition of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution there's a list of piano scores, available through Dover, understandably, and among those scores there's the complete piano rags of Scott Joplin (ISBN 0-486-25807-6). 

A century ago ragtime was popular but not entirely well-received.  In the three books listed above by Edward A. Berlin and the one edited by John Edward Haase music historians and scholars of ragtime have noted that a good deal of ragtime in the period from the 1890s emerged from what were known as coon songs.  The lyrics for many of these early coon songs were regarded as vulgar and trafficking in brutal, coarse language that depicted African Americans in egregiously stereotypical ways; the songs had texts that generally discussed violence (particularly with razors) and depicted African Americans as cowardly, shiftless, violent, and/or sexually promiscuous.  Scott Joplin, who aspired to elevate the musical style and form, was known to have said that he believed one of the primary reasons many who might otherwise appreciate ragtime as music could not do so was because of the sheer vulgarity of the lyrics for ragtime songs.

As Edward Berlin and others have noted, ragtime was primarily a song form, despite the fact that we now think of ragtime as an intrinsically piano-driven or piano-dominated body of music.  That Joplin's operatic efforts foundered is known among fans of ragtime, and that Joplin aspired to write music that would be taken seriously is also known.  Yet on the whole ragtime seems to have been regarded as light music (which in many respects it could be taken to be, but with the understanding that it has a modular construction that, as Adorno put it about so much light music, featured works in which any number of modular parts could be exchanged for others without altering the fundamental nature of the popular musical styles).

And yet in the second edition of The Classical Revolution Dover seems to have seen fit to include Scott Joplin’s collected piano rags as part of the "Piano Scores" section of scores you can get from Dover.   What is significant about this?

I would say the significance of ragtime being listed among piano scores published by Dover here in 2018 a century after Scott Joplin's death is that Joplin's work was finally taken seriously as a contribution to what we would now call "serious music", even if Joplin's work might be considered thoroughly light fare compared to Brahms' piano sonatas or piano works by Beethoven or keyboard music by Bach.  That may be the case as standard beliefs within classical music performance and study go, and yet as chroniclers of the lives of Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb have described their relationship, Lamb once said that he has a piece he was working on in which he had a passage with octaves moving in parallel motion that Scott Joplin recommended he revise so as to introduce contrary motion, which Lamb then did.  Joplin was eager to have solid voice-leading and part-writing in his piano music and in work made by friends and associates, it seems. 

Of the thousands of ragtime songs and instrumental works and novelty pieces that were published between the 1890s and 1920s (the period in which ragtime and nascent blues converged with Tin Pan Alley songwriting idioms to become what has since been called jazz) a relatively small subset of those works, mainly from the piano rag literature, has made it into the piano literature. 

Yet during its age of popularity at the turn of the last century ragtime was apparently regarded with a suspicion and alarm that could be compared, with a few caveats, to the contemporary African American popular music idioms known as rap or hip-hop.  In fact it seems that some of the core criticisms of the two genres made by those who are advocates of classical music as delineated by the ideals of German Romanticism and German idealism are not altogether different.  There were those that attempted to argue that to the extent that ragtime had any musical merit it was not necessarily traceable to African American or African influences.  Some even attempted to claim a Bohemian lineage for ragtime.  While the racist invective that underlay such a claim is something Edward Berlin and others have already addressed it may be worth noting in passing that Joseph Lamb did call one of his works "Bohemia", and early ragtime pioneers indicated debt ragtime had to Spanish musical idioms.  Ragtime itself had roots in African American songs but also, it seems, in salon music and "ragging the classics" was a popular activity within the emerging popular style.  Advocates of the music were able to point out that ragtime might introduce higher levels of syncopation than might have appeared in European salon music but that melodic invention was still present. 

A century ago opponents of ragtime would not have imagined that any of the music published under that name would end up in what is today considered the classical music canon.  Joplin himself was known to have regarded many of the lyrics for ragtime songs to be vulgar and an obstacle to appreciation of the musical qualities of the genre, and Joplin is indisputably the most famous composer in the ragtime genre. 

Of course a crucial difference between ragtime a century ago and rap, hip hop and electronic dance music today is the medium of composition.  Ragtime was composed at the piano and on the page (Joplin, it turns out, was regarded as a middling pianist who might compose with paper and pen and sometimes had to learn his compositions after working them out on the page); rap and contemporary dance music and song tend to be worked out in recording studios and using laptops and modern recording technology.  Then again, when the nascent mechanical mass-production music industry began to emerge in the late 19th century one of the primary beneficiaries was the genre now known as ragtime, which mortified advocates of German romantic music and European musical works more generally. 

Whether or not rap, hip hop and associated styles "clean up" in the way that ragtime did, or has, over the last 120 years remains to be seen.  Certainly Joplin's work has made it into the piano canon if Dover has seen fit to publish his works and mention them in the back pages of John Borstlap's second edition of The Classical Revolution.  If a popular dance style that was denigrated as unmusical trash during its age of peak popularity has since worked its way into classical piano repertoire published by Dover in our own time alongside the piano music of Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn then Dover's publishing decision may signal to us that something that began as popular music can eventually make it into the "classical" canon if the level of craft and musicianship is high enough, which, for Scott Joplin, it apparently has, at least in Dover's estimation. 

Which may involve an irony if Lowell H. Shreyer's observation in the Haase edited monograph on ragtime that early ragtime may have primarily evolved in banjo music before migrating to the piano as African Americans gained more access to the larger instrument.  Inter-instrument adaptation of idioms is common enough in the history of music but I mention this element if ragtime's history because Richard Taruskin made a point of noting in the first volume of his Oxford History of Western Music that many developments in written scores could merely constitute the first observable case of something being preserved in a musical score for posterity, but that the music itself could have predated such notation for generations if the musical idiom existed in oral and folk traditions. 

Yet since the habit of "ragging the classics", particularly Mendelssohn, has been attested by Edward Berlin and other authors noted in the books above, the study of ragtime is significant in relationship to the contemporary popular style of rap and hip hop in the sense that ragtime evolved as musicians sampled existing classical works and reinterpreted and revised the rhythmic phrases of existing classical works.  It has been noted of ragtime that the melodic phrases themselves don't have anything so inherently unique as to separate them from salon and march music that was contemporary to ragtime, but that the rhythmic phrasing was what set ragtime apart.

Yet here, too, ragtime in its earliest forms was not as syncopated as it would become in the later 1890s through the 1920s.  Early ragtime had more intra-measure syncopation than cross-measure syncopation and there was very little of what scholars have called "secondary ragtime", a flexible extension of 3+3+2 style patterns within four-measure phrases, or a 3+3+3+3+2+2, for instance.

Joplin died before his Piano Concerto could be completed and the reported manuscript of that work was lost, but between that lost piano concerto and his opera Treemonisha we know he was aspiring to elevate ragtime to the level of serious music.  He died before he could successfully complete that effort and, since his death, ragtime has managed to secure a place in the piano literature but is clearly not regarded as being as substantial as other forms of classical piano music.  But Debussy's cake-walk and the works of other European composers paying tribute to the style suggests that within Joplin's generation the style had become popular enough to have been heard by European composers and taken up in tribute or mockery (which is more how Stravinsky's take on Ragtime can come across). 

A contribution by Max Morath in the Haase monograph notes that although ragtime was initially associated with African American men from red light district music the popularity of the style exploded so quickly that many ragtimes were composed by white women such as May Aufderheide, Adaline Shepherd and Julia Niebergall, though many of those works have not gained the longevity of the rags by what is known as the "Joplin school", specifically the works of Scott Joplin himself, James Scott and Joseph Lamb.  Lamb himself may be seen as an outlier within ragtime since he was an Irish Catholic from the New York era who developed his love of ragtime through studying sheet music and only later befriended Joplin, while historically ragtime is regarded as having evolved more in the St. Louis region.   

As musicians playing ragtime, blues, and Tin Pan Alley songs began to amalgamate these respective styles and forms into what is now known as jazz the age of ragtime became the age of jazz, which received many of the censures from institutional American arts critics that was previously directed at ragtime. For this reason it’s worthwhile to consider, if only in passing in this essay, that there were many heated debates about the musical merits of ragtime, whether it was even “real” music and whether the style could transcend the gutter-level lyrics that were so often associated with the songs that dominated the style. The classic piano rags that we associate with the style today were proportionally a small body of work within the larger popular style and we know from what biographical work has been possible about the lives of Joplin and his associates, at least, that he intended to elevate the style to the level of art music.  Joplin himself managed to be well spoken and spoken well of despite the disdain that was often heaped upon the style of music he was known to compose.  John Sousa was known to have incorporated Joplin’s works into his concert programs.

All of which indicates that within the late 19th and early 20th century popular music, published and disseminated as published scores, existed in a continuum with concert music and that these styles mutually influenced each other, a point that was simple enough to observe when Dwight MacDonald wrote his polemical work “Masscult and Midcult”; high art and folk art managed to interact but he claimed that it was with the emergence of masscult and midcult that a fake high art developed from a top-down marketing regime deigned to sell a kitsch form of high art to unsuspecting masses.  MacDonald regarded jazz as a late blooming form of genuine folk music and jazz, as has been established by music historians over the last century, was a musical convergence of a variety of American popular and folk styles that drew upon ragtime.   

What is the significance of this?  Well, let’s turn to John Borstlap’s assertion about what contemporary classical composers of first-rate ability won’t be doing.

The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century
revised and expanded edition
John Borstlap
Dover Publications
Copyright (c) 2013, 2017 by John Borstlap
ISBN 9780486814483
ISBN 0486814483

page 21
... A contemporary composer with the talents of a Beethoven, Mahler, or Debussy will not be found among the "composers" who think that tonality is a superfluous and outdated tool or that they can infuse their work with the drab confections from pop or world music, jazz or film music [emphasis added], without restricting the art form's potential.  Given the immense richness of past achievement, a really great talent will try to emulate, not to destroy or deny it. ...

So what was Debussy doing writing a cake-walk? 

What was Ravel doing making use of gestures that could be found in blues and jazz?  If by some alchemy of sonata form or concerto conventions Ravel can draw upon chords and melodic gestures that might appear in jazz but does not write jazz the alchemy, at least as Borstlap seems to describe it, is the process by which Ravel did not write jazz. If Ravel bothered to include the word “Blues” in the second movement of his second sonata for violin and piano how did he avoid infusing his work with drab confections from pop, world music (since blues was an American rather than a French form of music, after all), or jazz (which, as we’ve been observing here, evolved out of ragtime and other American popular styles). 

If Ravel in his time did not see drawing upon blues and jazz vocabulary as a decision that would restrict the potential of the art form known as classical music then why should we?  Would not emulating the past achievement of Ravel entail the possibility of making use of blues, ragtime, country and other forms of American vernacular and popular music as a way to explore possibilities for sonata forms, fugue and other 18th century developments of musical syntax and form?  If a cakewalk was good enough for Debussy it was surely also good enough for Scott Joplin who, by all accounts, was a man living in the land where the cake walk dance and the style of ragtime were invented.  If ragtime has gone from being seen as a musical scourge in the eyes of those who saw the Germanic symphonic tradition as the apotheosis of good music to becoming part of a canon of piano literature in the Dover 2nd edition of John Borstlap’s The Classical Revolution, ragtime seems to have gone from being regarded as a drab confection from popular music (and a prototype of jazz) to being included in Dover’s catalog as part of the immense richness of past achievement.  

One of the core tensions in The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap lays dormant in the gap between his prescribed precepts and prohibitions for contemporary classical composers and the liberties taken by the historical exemplars he invokes.  It can also be found in the distance between the prescription Borstlap has for the present regarding popular music and jazz and the historical process through which ragtime went from being late 19th century popular music to being 21st century classical music available through Dover editions.  It is possible the boundaries between high and low musical styles are more permeable in historical terms than Borstlap has allowed them to be in his theoretical proposal about what contemporary composers of classical music should be doing or not doing.


This post was partly inspired by reading Ethan Hein's interaction with a number of people about hip hop as popular music.  While I admit hip hop isn't exactly my favorite style I've been enough of a fan of ragtime in my life to recognize that there are some fascinating parallels between the ragtime debate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States and more recent debates about the musical value or lack thereof in rap, hip hop and electronic dance music.  Since in historical terms the age of ragtime transformed into the age of jazz ragtime's history as popular music that became an accepted genre in the classical piano literature seems pertinent to a couple of things Ethan Hein has been interested in exploring.  

Ragtime exploded in popularity because of manufacturing innovations for pianos in the United States and also because of the advent of player pianos and piano rolls.  The comparison is necessarily an imperfect one but ragtime could be seen as benefiting from what was then new production and publication technology and, as noted above, the "ragging the classics" practice within ragtime could be compared to a more contemporary custom known as sampling.  The number of parallels, imperfect or indirect as they might seem to some, perhaps, between ragtime and rap as genres of popular song, seems worth considering. 

And since pretty much all ragtime that I'm aware of from the Scott Joplin/James Scott/Joseph Lamb school of ragtime is gloriously public domain by now it's ripe for sampling.  

Friday, November 23, 2018

John Borstlap has left a comment, and has a blog post with a response to one of my posts, and that invites a considered response

Since yesterday was, of course, Thanksgiving here in the United States I was spending the holiday with family and wishing relatives and friends a happy holiday.  So I wasn't in a position to write a reply or situated to review or post comments as a matter of spending time with family. 

But today I've got time. 

Borstlap left a comment at this post.

Now my contention has been that George Steiner didn't say that high art was in some way responsible for the Holocaust.  Steiner said he was taking up the idea proposed by T. S. Eliot that the war was a culmination of conflicts explicable in terms of the psychology of religion.  Steiner granted that in taking up this idea he was taking up a minority view.  A minority view is not necessarily a right view but it may not be a wrong view, either.  But I would venture to say that Borstlap and I simply disagree as to what Steiner's primary point actually was in the lecture series that became the book In Bluebird's Castle.  That might ultimately be all there is to it. 

But Borstlap wrote a post at his blog since what he had to write was too long to fit into comments sections.  I can thoroughly appreciate that since I write at length when I write.  So Borstlap's post is over here.

While Borstlap is certainly able to decide that Steiner's proposal that the Holocaust was the culmination of generations of tension between monotheistic and polytheistic legacies in the Western European cultural legacy is utter nonsense, the case is not necessarily nonsense because Borstlap declares it to be nonsense.  Eric Kurlander's book Hitler's Monsters, for instance, is a book-length exploration of the extent to which National Socialism indulged border science, occult religions and sought for modes of spirituality fused with some kind of scientific or quasi-scientific thought in a way that could move German culture toward a desired aim. 

The popularity of theosophy and other modes of occult spirituality are well-attested enough in the lives of composers like Scriabin or even Schoenberg that, as Taruskin has put it, we may be dismissive of the religious convictions of the early atonal composers but we will dismiss their spiritual views at the risk of missing a key to understanding what they were trying to explore and express in their music. 

ISBN 0-691-01156-7


So it is not enough, never enough, to attribute early twentieth century maximalism--of which the grandiose unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable, eschatological torsos of Schoenberg, Scriabin and Ives stand as preeminent musical mementos--simply or solely to a "pressure within art." The arts are not detached from the rest of existence or experience; they receive and react to pressures from many sources. Not only their contents, but also their forms and procedures--including the procedure of detaching them from the worldly--arise in response to worldly pressures. "What form will religious sentiment assume?" What will be its new expression?: asked Balzac in the preface to Le Livre Mystique, of which Seraphita was a part. "The answer is a secret of the future." That future is now past to us, and the religious sentiment has again become a secret. But it is a vision of human perfectability, at the very least, a vision of "ascent to a higher order," that we may look upon, and take inspiration from, the early atonal vision.

The quoted phrase formed the conclusion of Schoenberg's letter to Slonimsky, describing what Schoenberg saw as the victory of the twelve-tone technique. It could just as well have been a citation from Seraphita. As Webern revealed, Schoenberg justified his explorations on a specifically Balzacian, occult basis. The surmounting of the major-minor dichotomy was for Schoenberg no mere technical breakthrough but a spiritual ascent--a provi--to a superhuman condition. "Double gender," he proclaimed, "has given rise to a higher race." No less than Scriabin, then, Schoenberg spoke in the voice of the vatic androgyne, as the text of Die Jakobsleiter and the mesmerizing title page of Promethee (by the Belgian theosophical artist Jean Delville) jointly declare. ("The fire that blazed in his eyes," wrote Balzac of his angelic messenger, "rivalled the rays of the sun; he seemed not to receive but to give out light."

p 358
The cold war rationalization and academization of dodecaophony caused that voice to grow cold and that face to grow dim. "As you read," said one of Balzac's characters of Swedenborg, "you must either lose your wits or become a seer." By now we have long consigned Scriabin to the former estate, that of lost wits, but we have been unwilling to consign Schoenberg to either category. Instead he sulks in positivistic limbo, his methods venerated but his deeds ignored. But it is precisely the academic despiritualization of dodecaphony--more broadly, of atonality--that has led to its widespread, and justified, rejection.

Indeed, it is precisely the rationalization and refinement of dodecaphonic technique to the point where it has become a kind of abstract numerical logic that has brought attack from those who question the cognitive relevance of its logical concepts. Twelve-tone music has come to seem a conceptual game to which listeners can never gain perceptual access. Those who attempt to finesse the problem by placing the blame on the inexperience of listeners (their "incompetence," to speak cognitively), invariably come across as special pleaders. 

It is only when the original conception of atonality as a transrational, uncanny discourse is recognized, and its nature as a medium of revealed--which is to say undemonstrable--truth is grasped, that aesthetic apprehension can begin. It bears the aura of the sublime (Seraphita: "Why, if you believe in number, should you deny God?") and the sublime purges and terrifies. It is important, therefore, to refresh our memory of atonality's motivating liminal impulses. Renewed contact with the early atonalists, with Scriabin, and with the sources of their inspiration, can help restore perspective, but only if they are "put together again." At the very least it should be apparent that musicians who dismiss Scriabin's spiritual vision as "cosmic hocus-pocus," and literary investigators who assume it impossible that a spiritual vision could be "communicated musically," are cut off equally from the vision and from the music. It is only the music that can communicate the vision, but only if we have vision enough to receive the communication. 

That art and religious impulses overlap and intertwine is probably not a point that either Borstlap or I are likely to contest.

Now while it is possible to attempt to explain the Holocaust as though religion were not a variable in its history that seems hard to sustain.  I could suppose that religious beliefs played a role in a web of causes that culminated in the course of centuries in the Holocaust but I'm not so dialectical a materialist in my approach to history as to look at religious beliefs as having no role. 

And, in any case, as I noted earlier, Steiner's proposal that the Holocaust was a culmination of a conflict of religious views was not even an idea Steiner himself came up with. Early in the book In Bluebird's Castle he credits the idea of conceiving of World War 2 as the culmination of a conflict in religious ideals to T. S. Eliot.

From In Bluebird's Castle, pages 33-34, George Steiner
George Steiner
Yale University Press
September 10, 1974
154 pages, 5 x 8
ISBN: 9780300017106

What had been miscalculation and uncontrollable mishap during the first World War became method during the second. In turning to the question of genocide, I must try and be as scrupulous, as skeptical as I am able to be, regarding my own motives. Much of my work has concerned itself, directly or indirectly, with trying to understand, to articulate, causal and teleological aspects of the holocaust. My own feelings are patently implicated. But so is the conviction that an analysis of the idea and ideal of culture demands the fullest possible understanding of the phenomenology of mass murder as it took place in Europe, from the Spanish south to the frontiers of Russian Asia
between 1936 and I945.

The failure of Eliot's Notes towards a Definition of Culture to face the issue, indeed to allude to it in anything but an oddly condescending footnote, is acutely disturbing. How, only three years after the event, after the publication to the world of facts and pictures that have, surely, altered our sense of the limits of human behavior, was it possible to write a book on culture and say nothing? How was it possible to detail and plead for a Christian order when the holocaust had put in question the very nature of Christianity and of its role in European history? Longstanding ambiguities on the theme of the Jew in Eliot's poetry and thought provide an explanation. But one is not
left the less uncomfortable.

Yet in approaching the theme I find Eliot's insistence on the religious character of genuine civilization, and his "conception of culture and religion as being, when each term is taken in the right context, different aspects of the same thing," largely persuasive. It seems to me incontrovertible that the holocaust must be set in the framework of the psychology of religion, and that an understanding of this framework is vital to an argument on culture.

This is a minority view. Understandably, in an effort to make this insane material susceptible and bearable to reason, sociologists, economists, political scientists have striven to locate the topic in a rational, secular grid. ...

So Steiner granted at the time his agreement with Eliot was a minority view. 

To read Steiner's book as if it said that high art was in some way partly responsible for the Holocaust suggests Borstlap either did not, would not, or simply could not understand what Steiner's proposal actually was.  Certainly not everyone agrees that the post-industrial Western world may have introduced enough war and ecological precarity to raise questions of whether the Western conception of a kind of bid for immortality through the arts is a worthwhile endeavor, but that isn't actually the same thing as Borstlap's allegation that Steiner claimed that the high arts traditions in some sense caused the Holocaust.  If the arts are a mirror then the arts mirrored ideas that Steiner took up and interpreted.  The mirror is not culpable for the deeds of that face that looks in the mirror.  In that sense Borstlap and I probably agree, but I am not convinced yet that Borstlap has shown that he understood what Steiner's central thesis was in the book In Bluebird's Castle; alternately, if he rejects the thesis he has simply rejected the thesis without offering much by way of a counter-proposal (yet).  As Borstlap has from time to time said he doesn't think one interlocutor or another has understood the materials he's referenced I'm sure he won't mind having the same said of himself every now and then.

Now for the enumerated points.

1.  Recommended reading lists certainly don't presuppose endorsement.  In the case of the Steiner book the general description turned out to seem so at variance with the actual book Steiner wrote it struck me that if a reader had nothing to go on but Borstlap's description of In Bluebird's Castle the reader would never come to an accurate understanding of what Steiner actually said. 

Borstlap recommends Taruskin's Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, which is a worthy read.  In those books, however, Taruskin outlined the ways in which Stravinsky made use of a range of lowbrow and folk materials in his famous ballet scores; as well as the ways in which he built upon and expanded traditions and innovations in Russian music.  Borstlap has written in The Classical Revolution that classical music is not going to be revitalized by any incorporation of pop, world, jazz or film music even though the history of 20th century concert music shows us otherwise.

Shostakovich played music for silent films.  Stravinsky's ballets were not film music but Adorno's scathing assessment was that Stravinsky's music depended on the visual spectacle of dance to compensate for its lack of compelling musical "argument" in Philosophy of New Music.  Adorno identified jazz as a form of popular music that was a debasement of the march and salon traditions and that could not be regarded as a way to revitalize European classical music as far back as the 1930s.  So in that sense John Borstlap has demonstrated that he is in agreement with Adorno on jazz and pop.  Yet even Adorno granted that up through the eighteenth century music that was genuinely popular and successful as high art was possible and that it existed in works by Haydn and Mozart.  What neither Borstlap nor Adorno have managed to persuasively articulate is why anyone should assume that a successful fusion of high art achievement with popular level materials taken as inspiration cannot occur again.  Even Schoenberg could praise Gershwin, for instance. 

2. The case of Ravel is instructive since Ravel, as Borstlap points out, took inspiration from jazz and blues.  This would seem in itself to cast doubt on Borstlap's assertion in The Classical Revolution that classical music could not be revitalized by making use of jazz or popular styles (which jazz was at the time Ravel made reference to jazz), since Ravel himself seems to provide a case for another perspective, that in the hands of a composer like Ravel jazz as popular music could be the inspiration for a serious work.  If that's the case, then, Borstlap has refuted his own stance by way of appealing to the work of a composer he admires. 

That attempts to develop a fusion of jazz and classical music have emerged on both sides of the Iron Curtain before, during, and after the Cold War is too long a topic to explore at the moment.  Nikolai Kapustin's observation was that within the Soviet Union if you wrote in what sounded like a jazz style but had no room in your score for improvisation then it was not considered jazz and was thus permissable to compose in a jazz-influenced but-not-jazz style.  But Borstlap using Ravel as an example of someone who wrote music that isn't jazz but drew upon jazz highlights that Ravel borrowed musical textures and gestures from jazz and blues.

Borstlap has referenced the work of Herbert Pauls, whose dissertation highlighted that the persistence of the Romantic era harmonic and melodic vocabulary in jazz indicates that the musical language has retained its popularity.  This suggests, for those of us who read Pauls' work, that jazz is evidence of the persistence of the tonal language as developed through the Romantic era and that it has been the avant garde of the post World War I ideologies set against tonality that have argued that tonality was "used up" and thus not viable when used in a popular idiom such as jazz was in the early 20th century.  Here, too, Borstlap and I may simply reach different conclusions having read the same books, as I think Pauls' work suggests that jazz as a popular style shows the retained viability of the tonal language developed in the 19th century. 

I've discussed this at somewhat greater length elsewhere at my blog but if Borstlap wants to set up a position against Adorno and Adorno's influence he's going to find he's on the same side as Adorno on the subject of popular music and jazz.  Because I think Charles Rosen and other scholars correctly assessed the work of Haydn and Mozart to have been a fusion of high technique and popular appeal I don't take it as given that such a successful fusion of the proverbial high and low cannot be achieved.  That a balance of high art technique and popular appeal is so rarely attained hardly means that whatever Haydn and Mozart achieved in their lifetimes could not be achieved in some comparable fashion in the present. 

If Borstlap means to say that the forms of the art music tradition are operating at a higher level of syntactic and formal sophistication than popular song I am not disagreeing with that.  What I have not seen him make a successful case for is why such advanced syntactic developmental processes and forms are inimical to musical ideas and styles that are at a more colloquial popular level or "street" level of musical expression. If Ravel can lift the material of musical entertainment into the level of high art that Borstlap has more or less conceded the point that classical music can, in fact, draw from popular music, jazz, and entertainment styles as a way to create new classical music. 

3.  If the Holocaust was not the result of philosophies of religion Borstlap has time to argue the point when he chooses.  Asserting as much isn't the same as proving the point.  That World War 1 and World War 2 have a complex of social, economic and political causes has been an industry of publishing for generations, obviously.  At this point I don't think it's plausible to contest that the bad settlement of 1918 catalyzed the resentments that led to World War 2 but I think Borstlap has leaned a bit too much in placing the blame for musical modernism on the post World War 2 ideologues whose work I generally also do not enjoy.  There were beginnings of a rejection of major and minor key tonality in eastern and western Europe prior to World War I.  Haba's experiments with new divisions of pitch within the octave  and Wyschnehgradsky's quarter-tone experiments predate World War 1 and, very broadly speaking, pick up on trends established by the work of Scriabin.  When transcendentalist writings in Europe and the United States inspire composers such as Scriabin and Wyschnegradsky to work with non-traditional tonal materials or inspire Charles Ives to play with unuusual tonal juxtapositions we could try to assume that spiritual views are no more than incidental to the music but if Borstlap were to take this route he would risk doing so by staking out a potentially materialistic view of the sort he sometimes imputes to those he disagrees with. 

As it stands, Borstlap's counter to Steiner amounts to what comes across as the informal fallacy known as "no true Scotsman", the assertion that fascism happens because uncivilized people do uncivilized things and if they were just civilized enough they wouldn't have done those things.  A century after the Russian revolution there are socialists who could make more or less the same kind of appeal, retroactively transforming Stalin into some kind of fascist because he made use of totalitarian means.   

4. If high art is a mirror then that mirror may, such as in the works of Ravel, reflect new developments in popular musical styles, such as jazz and blues.

Art that is not on the hook for barbarism may also not be in a position to elevate humanity.  Roger Scruton has been making a case that what kind of art we expose ourselves to and reflect upon matters and I basically agree, but I think I've been clear that Steiner's case is dependent on Eliot's case and if Steiner is wrong he was wrong to take Eliot's case seriously. 

If it is not the responsibility of the artist working on a a work of art to be understood that could be construed as basically agreeing with Adorno's axiom that we do not interpret art, rather, artworks interpret us.  I've been wondering for a while whether Borstlap's views on art are not actually substantially more in agreement with Adorno than disagreement, a foundational disagreement about the viability of tonality having already been noted. 

5.  Steiner may not be cynical enough, but his proposal that we have a more modest assessment of what humanity is capable of seems like a fair point.  He may overextend the relevance of philosophies of religion as engines of the conflicts that sparked the two world wars. but that the history of the European West has been a combination of influences from Judaism, Christianity, Greco-Roman literature seems fairly easy to grant.  It still seems that Borstlap's falling back on what amounts to a no true Scotsman explanation of the West and its highest ideals not being even potentially on the hook for the two world wars.  If Wagner, for instance, should not be on the hook for the Holocaust should Marx be off the hook for the Gulag?  Or is it possible to suggest that the works of both men were misappropriated and misunderstood in some way? 

One of the paradoxes of Borstlap's work is that he has written about the pernicious influence of Theodore Adorno.  I don't plan to really contest that, because I've read enough newer American musicology to get why Adorno's legacy can be considered profoundly aggravating.  Nevertheless, the guy could be a brilliant writer about music when he could let his Marxist-Leninist ideas slip to the side every now and then.  As Terry Teachout once wrote, a great critic can be great even when being completely wrong "if" the critic is wrong in a way that can catalyze discussion and debate and further scholarship.  In that sense an Adorno who is wildly wrong can be more useful for the literary art of criticism than a literary critic or philosopher who never gets anything wrong. 

And to continue this larger point, the paradox is that Borstlap manages to echo ideas that I can find in Adorno.  Borstlap's statement that the arts have their origins in religion lines up exactly with what Adorno said about the arts in Aesthetic Theory.  He opened that book with a claim that the crises of the arts in the modern era came about because the arts had been shorn of any lingering connection to religious practices and beliefs. 

Aesthetic Theory
Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota

ISBN 0-8264-6757-1

page 1
It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. ...

page 2
As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that—shorn of any hope of a world beyond—strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. ...

Adorno asserts without proving the point, but the assertion itself assumes a historic connection between art and religious impulses that seems to be shared by Borstlap. Where Adorno was arguably thoroughly wrong was to imply or state that art and religious impulses have been permanently severed.  Clearly that hasn't been the case.

While I think Adorno was wildly wrong about a lot of things it has been striking to observe the extent to which Borstlap stakes out positions in connection to popular culture and art that resemble the views of Adorno, despite Borstlap's contention that Adorno's influence on the post-World War 2 European arts scene was pernicious.  This I hardly intend to contest because I could do without a lot of the work of Boulez and Ferneyhough myself.  But I would submit that Borstlap's example of Ravel provides a potential alternative to the esoteric coterie of those who endorsed Adorno's rejection of tonality, by way of restoring a synergistic dynamic between high art traditions and popular musical idioms.  That many partisans of popular and art music cannot conceive of such a fusion being regained as it briefly existed in the works of Haydn and Mozart is not so much a sign that such a fusion could not possibly happen again as a potential indicator of the failure of imagination of those partisans for high and low musical cultures to think beyond the constraints of their preferred musical experiences.

For all his contentions I think Richard Taruskin has had a valid point in suggesting that the chasm between the vernacular repertoire of concert music people pay money to hear and the academic canon of music considered respectable to discuss in musicology classes has gotten too big.  A question I have had about Borstlap's book is whether or not the example of Ravel's music does not in some way exist in tension with the precepts Borstlap outlined in his book as to what will or will not have some role in revitalizing the classical music traditions.  Borstlap's writing seems to insist "no" whereas Ravel's music seemed to demonstrate "yes".

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 32 (Op. 111) video with score--a sonata movement that shifted the development out of the development section and into the expository and recapitulatory transitions

yes, yes, the link will say No. 31 but I meant No. 32 and, in any case, Op. 111 but hit publish too fast.

Thousands of words have already been written about Beethoven's last piano sonata and I hardly feel like I need to write too many more, although I probably could.  Some composers are drawn to the giant variation-finale and it's a wonderful movement, too.  But I admit that as a guitarist who started by aspiring to play Pinkfloyd and Bob Dylan songs I'm a sucker for the mercurial first movement.

What makes the sonata movement so fascinating to me decades after I first heard it and read through the score listening to Brendel's recording back in college was how Beethoven seemed to have such a puny development section.  Supposedly sonata forms are supposed to have a development section that shows how much a composer can do with thematic materials.  Beethoven, so to speak, was the composer who began to "biggie size" developments and codas in sonata forms.

Yet for all that scholastic mythology what's fascinating about Op. 111 is that there's a ton of intense, really intense gestural development in the sonata movement but it all takes place primarily within the exposition.  Furthermore, what inspires me and amuses me as a composer going through Beethoven's last piano sonata is that the most intensive development processes for his thematic ideas are never in the themes but in the transitions!  Yeah, he's got a formal development section in the sonata form because that's what is supposed to be in there but at a gestural level the development seems to call back less to the themes of the exposition than to the introduction.  The rising scalar motion from G through A and B to C of some kind is part of Theme 1, of course, but it's also an anticipatory gesture that appears in the introduction.  So in a sense we could say that the development is drawing from elements of Theme 1 but in a way that calls back more to the introduction than to the exposition proper.

I hesitate to say that Op. 111 is necessarily revolutionary, though.  All of the themes show up syntactically where you might expect them to.  There's an introduction, a theme 1, a transition, and a theme 2. There wasn't exactly a rulebook to say what "had" to happen.  One of the things that has come up in formal analysis and historical work on what is now called "sonata form" is an observation that there wasn't really a thing called sonata form in the 18th century theory or practice.  There were references to grand binary form or a prescribed pattern for first movements but not necessarily in a way that amounted to what 19th century theorists and pedagogues called a sonata form or a "real" sonata form.

Which is why bromides about how this or that 19th century composer didn't observe the rules of sonata form seems dubious in historical terms.  Maybe someone like Schubert didn't compose sonatas based on the rules that might have been credited to Reicha or maybe a Cherubini or an A. B. Marx.  But if merely not composing textbook sonata forms was enough to make a composer a genius of first order then why don't we talk about the guitar sonatas of Wenzel Matiegka?  Schubert adapted one of Matiegka's chamber works into a quartet.  This is not to say Schubert hasn't written music I enjoy, it's saying that a mythology that Schubert broke the rules of sonata form seems like an anachronism at best and a misleading depiction of composerly approaches to large-scale forms.

I've written so much about Matiegka's approach to sonata forms that, even though I plan to do more of that, I don't want to digress too much into that just now--my point is that one of the shortcomings of a kind of Western religion of the highest of high art is that it ignores a lot of composers who would be considered second, third or fourth-rate in craft.  Matiegka is not going to be anybody's idea of a "first-rate" composer.  I like a good chunk of his guitar sonatas, however, and I can see from what has been written about Matiegka is just about anyone who knows who he is is aware that Schubert liked one of his chamber works enough to adapt it into a quartet that his name (Schubert's) is attached to.   Matiegka has a few sonatas where Theme 1 in an exposition doesn't come back or comes back in an attenuated or substantially modified form.  Haydn was known to recompose recapitulation spaces.

Which is to say, with respect to Beethoven, that it was not necessarily revolutionary to not observe a whole raft of rules that had not really been codified yet.  Beethoven may have subverted conventions and expectations about what was supposed to happen in what section, but I'm playing with the idea that if Beethoven's Op. 111 could be considered revolutionary it could be on the basis of shifting his most intense developmental activity into the transitions of his exposition and recapitulation and away from the formal development.  But this wouldn't even count as a subversion of conventions.  I might suggest, a bit impudently, that what made Beethoven's work so brilliant was that he was composing in a way that, if you will, manipulated the conventions themselves.

His work is valuable to study because you can see within a late sonata like this how a paradigm can be at work.  Let me put it this way, if you're a composer like Beethoven who strictly respects the order in which your themes appear (Hepokoski and Darcy call this "rotation" in Elements of Sonata Theory) then you can flamboyantly subvert expectations or conventions in some other way throughout the course of your work.  Being strict in the sequential presentation of introduction, Theme 1 and Theme 2 in the macro-level allowed Beethoven to substantially breach the expectation that the development section, however defined, would or should be where most of the gestural development and transformation took place.

Had Beethoven composed a conventionally super-sized development section of the sort that a "textbook" sonata form would "require", the surprise of shifting development into the transitions of the exposition and recapitulation would be completely lost.  You wouldn't be able to hear those passages for what they are in terms of the form.

I know people love to write about how sublime and powerful this piano sonata is and it's one of my favorite piano sonatas so I'm not really going to contest any of that.  But as a composer what I have wanted to do for a while is to share what I love about this sonata at a level that, perhaps, only fellow composers might really be able to appreciate.  I love that Beethoven shifted his development sections into his transitions in this sonata.  He wasn't breaking the rules that hadn't been codified or ossified yet; he was playing with conventions in a way that subverted some expectations violently but offsetting that subversion with a carefully and strictly observed presentation at another level that is exactly what would be expected for a sonata movement.

All of this is to say that this is a sonata that can give composers a lesson.  If you are strict in observing one organization rule, convention or paradigm at one level, that is what allows you to ostentatiously breach a rule, convention or expectation at another level while still giving a performer or a prospective audience a way to "get" the nature of the musical game you're playing.  Haydn was absolutely a master at that sort of musical game-playing.

Having recently finished a book by Elaine Sisman on Haydn and variation form (probably deserves a whole separate post for a review of that book), I remember one of Sisman's points about Beethoven and variation technique/variation form was to point out that what Beethoven did was not necessarily revolutionary in terms of "what" he did.  Lots o composers did virtuoso variation movements we don't know about, wouldn't care about, and probably shouldn't care about.  Beethoven didn't "break rules" at the level of techniques or large-scale forms in his variation movements so much as he breached a range of expectations about what sorts of variations were supposed to show up where.  18th century expectation and practice had it that you introduced progressively more complex or esoteric derivations or embellishments of a theme the farther along in a variation movement you got.  For Beethoven to introduce, for instance, a fugato variation on a theme early in a movement was a breach, but not of technique or rules in  some form-identifying or form-establishing kind of way.   He was not trying to build, as it were, a chair with three legs.  He was breaching expectations of propriety as to what conventions would be observed in variation forms in an earlier generation.  Beethoven could play with how far afield from the surface details of a theme he could get while still observing its underlying structure.

Which, I suppose, gets back to my earlier comment about how a skilled composer can seem to break a "rule" at a flamboyant level but we can see in a composer like Beethoven that however distant his variations from a theme might seem to get in style or tone from the originating theme, there's some element of that theme you can hear in the variations.

there are a lot of ways in which this can play out.  Let's take, oh, a piece by Schubert (I'm honestly not a huge fan of Schubert overall), the Wanderer Fantasy.  The first movement has the schematic indicators of a sonata form but the recapitulatory section comes back in what could be regarded as "wrong" keys.  Well, they're not necessarily wrong keys.  The closing fugue re-establishes the "right" key firmly enough but that's not quite what I'm getting at, I'm proposing that in the Schubert a stable procession of thematic ideas at a structural level was what gave the composer wiggle room to drastically alter another convention, the expectation as to which key regions should show up in the exposition and recapitulation of a more or less sonata movement.

Composers who set out to break all the rules are probably setting themselves up for irrelevance because the rules, whatever they are, seem informed by the cognitive constraints and strengths of the human brain as mediated and engaged by artists of all sorts over millenia.  History is full of great artists who did not so much break rules or invent rules but had attained a level of learning and craft to manipulate conventions themselves for artistic aims.  If that seems abstract, well, it is.  Manipulating the conventions through which art gets made is pretty abstract.  It can also seem a whole lot less revolutionary than the high-flung rhetoric of many a 19th century era Romantic.  I love 18th century music and I love 20th century music but a lot of 19th century music leaves me indifferent.  I admire work by Chopin, I "can" enjoy Lizst, I don't really care much for Schubert and even though I'm a guitarist myself it's hard for me to get into Berlioz.  I can respect these composers, however, even if I don't always find myself in awe of them.  But what I'm trying to get at is that for me the 18th century composers worked to formulate a set of conventions that were supposedly set as "rules" in 19th century pedagogy.  Leonard B Meyer wrote a book on the Romantic era where he pointed out something that was a lightning bolt for me--

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 201

... the Romantic repudiation of convention (and especially of neo-Aristotelian aesthetics, which had been associated with the ancien regime), coupled with the denigration and weakening of syntactic relationships, highlighted the presence of diversity. As a result, the basis of coherence and unity became an issue: How did disparate and individualized themes, diverse modes of organization, and contrasts of expression--all intensified by the valuing of originality--form an organic whole? How did the several parts of a set of piano pieces or the different movements of a symphony or chamber work constitute a cohesive composition?

The problem was especially acute in the aesthetics of music. In literature, significant weakening of syntactic constraints and hierarchic organization were never really viable options, and in the visual arts, at least until the twentieth century, coherence was significantly dependent upon iconicity. In both realms, the representation of human and physical nature--often with convention disguised by historical or ethnic exoticism--played an important role in creating artistic unity. But in instrumental music, "unity through representation" was not a possibility, except of course in program music. And it is not implausible to argue that program music flourished in the nineteenth century partly because the use of a program was a way of establishing coherence and, in particular, accounting for the juxtaposition and succession of palpably different moods, connotations, and the like. 

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

page 222
In music, one of the discoveries of Romanticism was how to hide convention, yet have it too. [emphasis added]

page 225
... Organicism, which posits the naturalness and virtues of gradual transformation, encourages the emergence of a syntactic gesture from earlier materials; such emergence, at the same time, tends to disguise the presence of the conventional. 

page 231
Of the many factors serving to disguise the presence of schemata in nineteenth century music, perhaps none is more obvious than magnitude.  ...

Magnitude tends to mask schemata, --especially those defined by syntactic relationships--because of the constraints of aural memory. [emphasis added]...

I'm going to put this in the most polemical way possible, the Romantics were total posers.  They pretended to break rules throughout a century in which both equal-tempered tuning was more or less taken as standard on the one hand, and in which major and minor key tonality was also taken as a given.  Theorizing about what a sonata form was and what did or didn't count as a solid rondo, this sort of thing emerged in 19th century music pedagogy and theory while the ideal of ignoring the rules was endorsed as a stance.  It can seem to a 21st century guitarist composer like an absurd double-bind.  

What happened in the 20th century was composers began to actually break all the rules that the Romantics pretended to break for a few generations. Equal temperament?  Why?  Fixed diatonic major and minor modes?  We can bend that a bit.  So there's a lot of 18th century music I love (particularly J. S. Bach and Haydn). There's a lot of 20th century music I love.  And, yes, I even love a lot of music from what's sometimes called "the long 19th century".  After all, no guitarist can ultimately ignore 19th century literature. It's when our six-stringed guitar as we know and love it was actually developed.  So I enjoy some of the works by the early guitarist-composers Sor, Giuliani, Diabelli, Matiegka, even some Carulli.  Less keen on Molitor but I hope you're getting my point--it's not that I can't appreciate 19th century concert music, it's that I ultimately am not willing to buy at any level that the Romantic era was as revolutionary as its devotees, particularly in academic contexts have tended to present it as being.  I'm not really one for making a religion of art.  I'm just fine with religion being religion, possibly something a person could expect of a Presbyterian ... . 

When I look at the debates and discussions that have been happening in musicology I get this strong sense that the people who are most dead set against any potential fusion of high and low musical idioms are the Romantics.  Advocates of Baroque or Classic or even early music can seem more open to the idea that high and low can mix and match more than advocates of Romantic repertoire.  Why?  If I had to guess it would be because Romantic art religion has its canon of divines and there's not really a whole lot you can add to it.  The canon of truly divine revelation is closed for the Romantics.  Being a Presbyterian I'm more set on the idea that the Bible as a canon of religious texts is closed and for art?  All bets are off until Christ returns which, if you've read this far, we can accept could be far enough in the future that though the scriptures tell us His coming is sooner than when we first believed (true), there is still time for religious artists to make art.  And thus in the 20th century we got Catholics like Messiaen composing some gloriously weird avant garde music.  

To put things in a more prosaic way, I heard somewhere it was said by Robert Fripp that to be daring and radical in his art he needed a quotidian and pedestrian home life.  

I haven't written as much as I used to and some of that has to do with "irl" things and some of it has to do with the kind of thinking I've been doing.  

I've wanted to write about music since the start of this blog but it's challenging to write about music if you're using a blog and there's only so much you can do by way of presenting scores or linking to audio.  How do you write about music in such a way that you can convey things about it to readers who may never have heard the music you're writing about or are unable to read scores?  We have access to potential solutions for some of that now by way of videos that have audio and read-along scores.  But you can spend years looking at a score and listening to a recording without  necessarily gaining much by way of understanding what you're hearing and seeing.  This would be, traditionally, when and where and why and how music teachers advocate for music lessons.  It's a fair concern but in the kind of educational-industrial complex the United States has become I'm very, very cautious about suggesting people blow tens of thousands of dollars of money that might have to be obtained via loans to get that sort of musical education, for instance.  And to go by many polemics by many scholars and music-lovers a certain kind of theory and pedagogy seems to be suffocating for musical appreciation and to go by the tales and legends ... it seems to be 19th century era pedagogy.  

It's hardly a master's thesis or anything but it's an interesting musing for a weekend night that the Romantic era music and art that seemed to seek such transcendence was accompanied with a range of theories and pedagogy that seemed to be regarded as soul-killing.  The rules were being handed down in the same era in which the maxim that you not care for the rules ... 

A more plausible and persuasive way to put what I think maybe the Romantics were trying to suggest is what I've outlined above in looking at Beethoven's last piano sonata.  If you carefully respect a range of conventions or expectations at one level you can drastically breach expectations at another level without completely confounding a would-be audience.  I'm not going to claim that's an original thought on my part.  The basic idea was articulated in a more general form by Kyle Gann over at his blog years ago.  All I've done is apply that general observation to a piano sonata I know that both Kyle Gann and I admire greatly, and found a way to show how what Gann was talking about could be demonstrated in a Beethoven piano sonata--you can really break one "rule" at a time in fantastic ways as long as you respect enough other conventions to let people know where you're going.    

Many of the failures of the 20th century avant garde came from an effort to either "break all the rules" at the same time without coming up with any compelling alternatives or, alternately, trying to impose a fleet of expectations on audiences that a series of invented conventions would be something an audience could understand because, well, I put all that in the score on pages, right?  They should get it!  No, they're supposed to be able to hear what you're doing.  You can see and hear that Beethoven shifted all of his developmental work into the transitions of Op. 111.  Even with something as grand as the Grosse Fugue Beethoven can bracket a lot of violent and surreal counterpoint into a macro-structural form that could be, depending on how you map it out, a fairly straightforward five-part rondo!  All of the surface complexity in even late Beethoven is often offset by a beautifully simple handling of the highest-level structural units in his larger movements.   And that's why people still listen to later string quartets by Beethoven and why, honestly, I doubt people will be doing that for the string quartets of Elliot Carter in the same way even now.  By contrast I enjoy works by Varese and pundits ranging from Theodore Adorno to George Rochberg have had an explanation for why that would be, he let his ear guide him.  My own conviction (and everyone is welcome to disagree) has been that when it comes to music you can gently break two or three conventions at a time so long as you're being gentle about it but if you're going to outright detonate a convention you can probably only manage to detonate one convention at a time.  And that, I submit, is a lesson that can be learned from studying the work of a composer like Beethoven, his actual works, not the gushing mythologizing that his work was subjected to.