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Classical music's relation to science

 
 
Reply Sat 9 May, 2009 06:21 pm
Why is it that with the progress of science and objective statistics/discovery of mathematical principles runs in an opposite direction to the character of classical music before 1900?
For instance, Bach's contrapunctal precision 'weakening' into Brahms's sentimental harmonic 'slush'?
I would google this but i'm not sure what to google.
Why did it take this 'opposite' direction?
pq
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Type: Discussion • Score: 3 • Views: 2,776 • Replies: 15
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Chumly
 
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Reply Sat 9 May, 2009 06:46 pm
I’m not aware of a definitive long-term negative correlation between the advancement of science and a decline in the (admittedly subjective) quality of music.

In fact quite the opposite can be argued because without a number of the applied sciences, modern musical instrument manufacture, music's performance recording and transcription would not even be possible.
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Shapeless
 
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Reply Sat 9 May, 2009 10:04 pm
@The Pentacle Queen,
You should read Schoenberg's essay "Brahms the Progressive" (written in 1946, I believe... I'll double check that). In it, he traces a direct lineage from Bach's counterpoint to Brahms's motivic writing--and, unsurprisingly, to his (Schoenberg's) own 12-tone technique. There are plenty of reasons to doubt Schoenberg's interpretation of history, but it still shows that not everyone thought of Brahms as less "intellectual" than Bach. That includes Brahms himself. The finale of Brahms's 4th Symphony begins with a wholesale quotation of a Bach passacaglia as if to announce his direct descent from The Great Father. Even today, not many analysts view Brahms as "sentimental mush." I could refer you to countless analyses demonstrating the subtlest motivic manipulation in Brahms's music. Whether you buy these analyses or not is of course up to you, but on the whole Brahms has had no shortage of champions who privilege the "scientific objectivity" that technical analysis is purported to represent.
Shapeless
 
  2  
Reply Sun 10 May, 2009 12:42 am
@The Pentacle Queen,
p.s. Your question also assumes that counterpoint was viewed as quasi-scientific and that this was incompatible or different from "sentimental" effects. That may be the way we view it now, but it is anachronistic to attribute it to the past. There's quite a lot of reception history documenting the sheer sensuous effect of Palestrina's polyphony, as well as that praising the contrapuntal precision of Chopin's piano music. We take for granted the dichotomy between form and feeling, or between mind and emotion, but those binary oppositions are almost wholly an invention of the twentieth century. Organizing music into those categories says more about us than than it does about the past.
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farmerman
 
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Reply Sun 10 May, 2009 04:39 am
@The Pentacle Queen,
The rise of Romanticism paralleled many other expressions in artforms. I always look at the paintings of "Parsifal" in a style that was almost Impressionistic. In the 1820's and beyond, the expanded chromaticism and use of tricks like dissonance and extended scales made it possible to explore greater ranges of notes expressly for the aid to longer pieces of music.

Hardly "mush"
You should look at a time line of the arts during the Post BAroque.
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The Pentacle Queen
 
  1  
Reply Sun 10 May, 2009 06:37 pm
Thank you for the responses.
I have not got time to post currently, but shall do after thursday.
The first post was very badly worded- 'slush' not meaning a negative connotation or criticism, or negation of the harmonic complexity and intricate thematic progression present in brahms's writing.
Will read Brahms the progressive, but I can guess what it's gonna say. Wink
Shapeless
 
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Reply Mon 11 May, 2009 01:11 pm
@The Pentacle Queen,
Quote:
The first post was very badly worded- 'slush' not meaning a negative connotation or criticism


That may be, PQ, but the real problematic word in your post was not "slush" but "weakening." And the problem is not just a value one but a historical one. The whole question in general makes all sorts of assumptions about history that simply aren't true. For example, even if we do associate counterpoint with objectivity, to say that Bach's heirs were less contrapuntal than Bach and that the history of music after the Baroque period was therefore moving in the opposite direction from the history of science is to assume that Bach was the defining composer of the Baroque period and Brahms the defining composer of the Romantic period, which they weren't. Bach, for his part, spent his entire life within a 450km radius (Eisenach and Cöthen being the furthest endpoints), so it would have been extraordinary for an 18th century listener to have even heard his music, let alone think of him as the defining composer of the time. To the extent that any one composer can be taken to represent the early 18th century, it probably would have been Handel, who's career took him all over Europe and for whom "contrapuntal precision" was only one (and not even the most important) of a whole series of characteristics.

The other problem with treating the trajectory of Bach to Brahms as a characterization of music history in general is the assumption that there was a direct chain of historical events connecting Bach and Brahms. To a lesser extent, your question also implies that music history can be measured solely with reference to its Germanic tradition. That catchphrase of the "Three B's" encourages us to believe that the German Masters were one big happy family and that each one took up the baton where the other left it, but it didn't work that way. The line of descent that we imagine connects Bach and Brahms was actually a web, with certain paths (including Bach's) leading nowhere and resurfacing only after several decades of nonexistence, and with other paths originating in non-German speaking lands playing decisive roles. For example, if you're wondering why the "objectivity" of Bach disappears by the time you get to Brahms, it may be because Brahms isn't the only place to look. If you're defining objectivity as technical mastery of purely musical elements, then you might have better luck looking at Rimsy-Korsakov (and Liszt before him), whose experiments with root motion by thirds rather than fifths laid the foundation for the octatonic scale that so many 20th century composers would take up as an alternative to conventional tonality.

Anyway, all this is just to say that there wasn't a dominant trend that Bach represented in the the 18th century, and which "weakened" into a different dominant trend that Brahms represented in the 19th century. The big historical picture is much more complicated than that.
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ehBeth
 
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Reply Mon 11 May, 2009 01:52 pm
@The Pentacle Queen,
Why do you feel classical music did not progress during the period you reference?
Shapeless
 
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Reply Mon 11 May, 2009 02:27 pm
@ehBeth,
I don't think PQ is saying that music did not progress. I think she's saying that it did not progress in the same direction that math and science were progressing.
The Pentacle Queen
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2009 02:53 pm
@Shapeless,
Ok, maybe weakening was a bad choice too. I know the tradition is a web and that composers often did not hear each others work etc. etc.

What made me think along these lines is:
In the 1920's the 'new objectivity' reacted against the sentimentality of the romantic era, and the agitated emotion of the expressionists and composers like Hindemith looked back to the contrapuctual precision of bach and the clarity of mozart.
From THAT perspective, I just found it odd that in the era most concerned with the use of instrumental reason over irrationalism and religious belief, the 'clarity' had turned into more 'subjective' forms of expression- sentimentality. I don't mean underlying harmonic clarity or adherence to form, since these qualities are inherent in all the 'great composers' in varying degrees. Just 'type' of expression.
However, as you say, these are 20th century values. I haven't much looked into the perspectives of the times, only the works.
My basic pondering was:
Do you think it is possible that with the growth of rationalism in the enlightenment period had some inverse correlation to the amount of 'expressiveness/sentimentality/etc' in art. E.g. if art is a cultivation of society, then this was an 'outlet.'
Hope this makes sense.
Shapeless
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2009 05:28 pm
@The Pentacle Queen,
There's a couple ways we could go here. As you said, the first thing to note is that what composers like Hindemith and Stravinsky viewed as "musically rational" in the music of Bach or Mozart was not necessarily the same as what Bach or Mozart themselves would have described as such. So figuring how the rise of reason in the world of science was reflected in the world of music in the eighteenth century would require us to know as much as possible how an eighteenth century musician would have interpreted the word "reason" and he would have gone about applying this to music.

One thing we do know is that an eighteenth century musician would not have construed "reason" as the polar opposite of emotion (or "sentimentality," to use your word). That, as I mentioned above, came later. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though primarily known as a political philosopher, was also a very prominent music critic and his writings give some indication of an eighteenth century musician's take on reason. At the same time that he was conceiving of a civic state in which citizens moderate their natural inclinations through reason, Rousseau was also praising Italian opera as the perfect musical expression of this. He was reacting against the opera of his own nation, which was still modeled on outmoded conventions of opera seria, where characters are cast in archetypal (which is to say one-dimensional) roles and in which the unfolding of the story is continually interrupted so that characters can perform soliloquy arias in which they express the generic emotions that they represent. In the Italian operas (especially Pergolesi's) that Rousseau admired instead, characters were still archetypal but they revealed their nature through action and interaction rather than directly informing the audience through a stock aria. In that sense their natures were self-determined rather than preordained. That is why opera buffa (as they were called) relies more on duets and ensemble numbers than on solo arias. And even within arias, the unfolding of the story is usually not interrupted; rather, the drama continues and the characters are psychologically in a different place at the end of the number than at the beginning. They "grow" just like any other human being rather than being preemptively cast into cookie-cutter roles.

Emotions were not considered contrary to this project but central to it. To focus on emotions is to focus on the things we all have in common, regardless of social stations or hierarchies. Think of all those comic operas in which characters from lower classes make fools of those from higher classes. The worth of a person is measured by what he or she does rather than the station into which he or she happened to born. If that was one of the goals of the Enlightenment, then it had a direct reflection in 18th century opera.

Nowadays, of course, we are trained to look for "reason" in purely musical structures--analyzing counterpoint, form, harmony, etc. That goes some way toward explaining the general decline of opera in the twentieth century. Disentangling our values from those of the past is still on ongoing project.

More later, I hope.....
Shapeless
 
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Reply Wed 13 May, 2009 01:15 am
@Shapeless,
Quote:
Schoenberg's essay "Brahms the Progressive" (written in 1946, I believe... I'll double check that)


I was wrong: "Brahms the Progressive" was written in 1933.
The Pentacle Queen
 
  1  
Reply Wed 13 May, 2009 07:23 am
@Shapeless,
Thanks shapeless, sorry will get back after 2moz, last exam and then 4.5 months of freedom Smile
Shapeless
 
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Reply Wed 13 May, 2009 11:56 am
@The Pentacle Queen,
No worries. I'm hoping to add some more eventually, but I'm at a busy point in my semester as well. But I'll preliminarily add now that the above blurb on opera buffa should not be taken to mean that 18th century music in general was therefore moving in the same direction as the Enlightenment. As I stated earlier, at any point in history there are usually too many things going on within music to say that it is moving in any one direction. In the mid-18th century and onward one finds no shortage of other composers who used music in precisely the way you suggested: as a reaction against the mechanization and rationalization of science. Ironically, one of them was Bach, probably the most anti-Enlightenment and anti-reason musician of any canonical composer. It's a counterintuitive view for us if we continue to view counterpoint as the musical equivalent of science and reason.
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The Pentacle Queen
 
  1  
Reply Mon 18 May, 2009 08:29 am
@Shapeless,
That's really really interesting.
I hadn't grasped the idea of exactly how much these ideas have transformed. I suppose that is because I have only studied post 1900 music in any depth, and composition, which sings the same song. Can you give me a bit more on how emotionalism and rationality were perceived differently to how they are today? Or send a link?
What do you personally think about the implications of the 20th century influence on structure? I think it's the only thing left which we can 'quantify' or 'make objective' in an effort to understand it.
Shapeless
 
  1  
Reply Mon 18 May, 2009 11:50 am
@The Pentacle Queen,
Quote:
Can you give me a bit more on how emotionalism and rationality were perceived differently to how they are today?


The best way to study these matters is go straight to the sources. In the Baroque period, for example, the relationship between reason and emotions is addressed most directly in Descartes's Passions of the Soul, an attempt to organize the many emotional and psychological states into a system of categories. In this sense, reason was seen not as the antithesis to emotions but as a tool to help us better understand them. Musically, the signal contribution of this systemization was to give musicians a concrete foundation from which to explore how the basic emotional states could best be embodied in notes. This musical-philosophical project was so widespread that it had a name: the Affectenlehre, or the "Doctrine of the Affections." Descartes's most prominent counterpart in music was Johann Mattheson, a music theorist who purported to show how different genres (primarily dance forms such as the minuet, the gavotte, the bourrée, the gigue, etc.), owing to their individual formal characteristics (the continuous upbeat that defines the gavotte vs. the linear melodies that characterize the bourrée) were thus analogies of Descartes's basic categories of emotions.* Quite contrary to 20th century aesthetics, Baroque musicians like Mattheson viewed structure and form as direct translations of the emotions rather than as a means of deflecting attention away from emotions. This also explains the conventions of opera seria, which as I mentioned above are characterized by discreet musical units (arias) in which characters momentarily step out of the drama to express a single, unified emotion. The psychological states of characters in opera seria are just as tidily organized as Descartes's systemization. When opera seria gave way to opera buffa in the 18th century, the goal was not to counteract these emotions with "clarity" and "balance" (as modernists wanted to believe) but, on the contrary, to make these psychological states even messier (therefore truer to life) and to integrate them into the actual plot and dramatic structure of the opera. That is why conflicting emotions can be found within a single aria in a typical Mozart opera, and why the story does not "freeze" but is still unfolding even when characters seem to be delivering soliloquies or "asides" in the middle of the action.




* My favorite line from Mattheson's Der volkommene Capellmeister: "The loures, or slow and dotted gigues, by contrast, exhibit a proud and pompous character, which makes them very popular in Spain."
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