Models of Musical Analysis: Early Twentieth-Century Music.
This is not quite the same as saying 'early twentieth-century music', which might be thought to embrace Mahler, Sibelius, Janacek and Strauss. Indeed, a truly surprising feature of this admirable volume is the comparative infrequency of its references to Webern, who until recently would have been absolutely central. It reflects the current state of formal syntactic analysis; since Allen Forte turned the attention of set theorists away from the strictly serial, works like Lulu and Das Buch der hangenden Garten have assumed particular interest. Whatever the reason, Schoenberg, Berg and Bartok occupy central positions in this book.
Before going further, I must declare this review to be bitextual. The first text is written by the book itself, by its lucidity and elegance and the high distinction of many of its authors. The other text is the one its editor would expect me to write, since I suppose I am one of the 'postmodern critics' he mentions in his introduction. But this must wait until the many high virtues have been described.
Each writer has been required to write a methodological exposition before embarking on at least one specimen analysis. This has provided us with a magnificent brief explanation of pitch-class set theory, by Bryan R. Simms, and an elucidation, by Martha Hyde, of how set theory is related to, and distinct from, Schoebergian serialism. I feel that Simms, with his cool style and lofty tone, breaks off too soon; after the best theoretical expose I have seen of this topic, there is a brief flurry of analysis of Webern's song 'So ich traurig bin', Op. 4 No. 4, with just one diagram and two-thirds of a page of text.
The deficiency is supplied by the Grand Master himself. Anyone who thinks set theory is vitiated by an unsystematic approach to segmentation, making it possible to prove anything you wish by simply adjusting the boundaries of segments, should read Allen Forte's analysis of the eighth of Bartok's Bagatelles, Op. 6. It is true that segmentation is motivated by intelligence, not by automatic operations; but this intelligence is guided by 'foreground rhythm', by the simple grouping of notes on the most surface level. As set and interval-class relations begin to appear, the discerning of sets, on both the linear and harmonic planes, is refined and adjusted, taking into account motivic relation and development, contour, dynamics, even--a mellow touch--the intuition of 'most auditors'. It is enormously civilized and compelling.
It is a concern for rhythm, too, that animates Martha Hyde's essay on Schoenbergian serialism. Because of the combinatorial properties of sets, it is possible for rhythmic patterns to bring about new set relations, either by presenting new harmonic aggregates or by suggesting melodic groups of pitch classes; for example, a particular set may be isolated by taking the melodic notes that occur on salient beats and ignoring the short notes in between. Like Forte, she makes it clear that rhythm plays a major part in the subtlety of combination and generation of sets (though she, of course, is concerned with serialism--in particular Schoenberg's Piano Piece Op. 33b--while Forte writes about free atonality). In case a consideration of serial music in terms of set theory might lead to a disregard for pitch contour, she also introduces Michael L. Friedman's notions of Contour Adjacency and Contour Class, and she has a virtuoso ability to take inferences; although it seems to combine both themes from the first part, the two-bar transition between the two main sections of the Schoenberg piece is harmonically (in terms of hexachordal sets) much closer to the second theme. The passage, therefore, is 'not unlike a tonal modulation between keys'. This article is full of such brilliant insights.
In interpreting the words of Schoenberg himself--a theorist if ever there was one--Hyde shows an interest in theory as opposed to mere methodology. On one occasion this gets out of focus. She suggests that analysis should concern itself with 'how the music works in time on actual listeners' (p. 65). The sentimental evocation of 'actual listeners' used to be a familiar cry of the opponents of rigorous analysis. Of course, the effect on actual listeners can only be ascertained by experiments with groups of these listeners; that is, it is a psychological study, not a matter of music theory. I am afraid that Hyde would be disappointed by such a study. She is presumably referring to aural intuition--her own, naturally, and whose could be better?
There is a group of articles--too many, it might be thought--on the survival of a tonal dynamic in early atonal music. The most beguiling is that by Arnold Whittall, who takes a cue from Schoenberg's Harmonielehre to propose a system of chord classification based on intervals above the bass: that is, a kind of modernized thoroughbass. This enables him to analyse certain post-tonal pieces in a language that sounds reassuringly familiar, describing certain pitch-class sets with ad hoc names derived from traditional harmonic theory. The analysis inhabits a happy land of major seconds, augmented unisons, consonant triads and sevenths, dominant chords and whole tones. It is certainly an apt portrayal of 'extended tonality', but one wonders whether this borderline music benefits more from this method than from an out-and-out pitch-class set method, which reveals other, more surprising unities, as when Forte discovers in early atonal music a predominance of 'unique vector entries' (The Structure of Atonal Music, 1973, p. 26).
I was less convinced by James M. Baker's application of Schenkerian analysis to four rather special works on the margins of this repertory. These pieces set certain problems which defy the whole ethos of the book: Wolf's 'Das verlassene Magdlein' because it is so obviously a setting of its words; Debussy's Canope, Ives's 'In Flanders fields' and the Scherzo from Bartok's Op. 14 Suite because they are not obviously unified at all. Baker's grasp of poetic semantics is naive, and like most writers on song he envisages diminished chords for 'nostalgia' and the minor mode for a 'plea made in deadly earnest'. This is the elementary euphoric/dysphoric distinction which is usually the extent of musicians' grasp of semantics. Baker finds Debussy's music 'vague and impressionistic', but he might have found in some of the piano Preludes a sharp critique of Romantic temporality and the myth of unity. Consequently, his conclusions seem ineffectual. The presence of a governing tonic, of symmetry and reciprocal relations, may be only incidental features in music that is otherwise revolutionary.
Craig Ayrey's systematic amalgam of serial theory and Schenkerism, applied to Berg's song 'Schliesse mir die Augen beide' of 1925, proves more profound. The technique is based on Anthony Pople's study of Act III of Lulu (Soundings, x (1983), 36--57). Where Baker writes pages of close analysis in text form, Ayrey offers comprehensive scores, graphs and diagrams that make his points more strongly. Like Pople (and incidentally also Arnold Whittall, writing of Berg's Violin Concerto in Journal of the Royal Musical Association, cxii (1986--7), 19), Ayrey finds the mixed analysis inconclusive; there is, ultimately, a 'dual system of organization'.
John Ireland once said that he always understood the function of any chord he wrote, however chromatic. Malcolm Gillies finds the same perspicuity in Bartok's music after about 1931; in choosing the appropriate enharmonic equivalent for each note, the composer is able to indicate key or mode. Gillies deduces an elaborate system of irrational and defective modes, based on Bartok's notations. This makes good reading but seems a bit specialized even for a book of this limited scope. Also, I wondered what Gillies would make of some of the composer's earlier notations, for example of the opening theme of the Third Quartet, where the notation seems positively to obscure the music's character and performers have assured me that they have to resort to enharmonic transcriptions.
Apart from Baker, then, these writers show no concern whatever for musical semantics. Which brings us to the other text of this review. It is a pity that Dunsby tries to claim, in his introduction, that the book's limitation to syntactic matters is justified by its unwillingness to embrace 'non-musical, philosophical and critical thinking', as though the semantic level of music were some kind of 'dirty' intrusion into the purity of theory. The sharp definition of field that makes this collection so cogent is surely its own justification; it would have been enough simply to declare it.
It seems worrying that the editor gives only Carolyn Abbate and Richard Taruskin as examples of 'new musicologists'. The systematic study of music's semantic level has been going on for several decades; one is tempted to ask: what about Gino Stefani, Jaroslav Jiranek, Eero Tarasti, Vladimir Karbusicky, David Lidov, Robert Hatten or Bernard Vecchione? The names are grasped almost at random. Britain is, as usual, several years behind; but even here the younger analysts (Robert Samuels, Michael Spitzer, Julie Brown--again at random) are literate in semantics and narrativity. If the semantic structures of music had been taken into account, the missing composers might have emerged into view. Mahler's Nietzschean universality, Strauss's programmatic anecdotalism and Sibelius's Kalevala nationalism are necessary factors even when discussing the syntactic levels, the levels of signifier, of these composers.
Indeed, the semantic aspects of Schoenberg's atonal and serial music are only hidden; they are not absent. Adorno's vision of music as social and cognitive symbol gives it a signification of such breadth that it seems to speak its own truth; surely, we are led to assume, an examination of intervals, pitch classes and rhythms will reveal something of universal importance, without reference to history, culture or interpretation?
This idea needs unpacking, however. Central to the signification of early modern music was the idea of 'organic unity' or unity-in-variety, a metaphysical notion as old as the Greeks. The work, and the world, are seen as manifold and varied and thus potentially chaotic; the philosopher's task is to find the thread of unity which renders them intelligible, and since the modern composer is, in Adorno's view, also a philosopher, he must show, at all levels, that unity pervades his music. To this, Adorno adds the musician's necessary resistance to the reified commodity-culture of the day. To parrot the tonal and triadic cliches of Romantic music would signify surrender to exploitative capitalism. Music must seek a radically new style, its syntactic novelty becoming a sign of its moral purity. Every sentence, then, of a rigorously syntactic analysis of modern music--like those in the present volume--carries these cognitive and moral implications; and this, perhaps, is why formal analysts are so passionate in resisting the 'impurity' of semantic study. But such study is not an intrusion into music of 'philosophical' ideas. They are already present, the fuel of the analyst's conscientious rigour.
Two supernumerary comments. Editorial policy has restricted the language to British terminology, presumably by simply translating the American manuscripts, if the misspelling of 'crotchet' on page 63 is anything to go by (I suppose Martha Hyde wrote 'quarter note'). Yet it is enjoyable, and good for students, to cope with both terminologies. Let's retain them wherever we can. And, finally, the book is meant for university undergraduates, according to its editor (and, one would like to add, students of masters' courses). It is admirably suited to this purpose, except for one disqualifying factor: it costs [pound]45. No student can afford this. With its elegant letterpress, beautifully typeset music examples and immaculate diagrams, it has priced itself out of its own market.
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|Publication:||Music & Letters|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1994|
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