Friday, December 02, 2005

Emotional, Cerebral, and Spiritual Aspects of Composition

Listening to Beethoven's late string quartets has gotten me thinking about various qualities that are embodied in, or expressed through, musical composition. After some reflection, I decided to apply three labels: Emotional, cerebral, and spiritual. This seems cleaner and less pretentious than, say, expressionism, intellectualism, and spiritualism, and has the added advantages of not relating to any particular trends of any given era, plus the words don't end with "-ism", which always arouses suspicion in me anyway.

Obviously, any good composition will have elements of all three of these factors present to a greater or lesser degree, and it is precisely the relative degree that I wish to ponder. Admittedly, what I am going to talk about is subjective, and there will certainly be room for dissagreement with the examples I bring up, but the idea here is to offer food for thought, as well as to give me an oportunity to work through this issue for myself. In the great composers, some sort of balance was achieved, but the particular aspect that is most prominant varies from man to man.

Since it is a question of relative degree that I am addressing, I have decided to use as examples composers as opposed to speciffic compositions of theirs, which I believe will offer a better chance for consensus and will also help me to avoid getting bogged down in minutae. This may wind up being an epic post in any event.

For me, the most sublimely spiritual composer of all time is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). As a composer of counter-reformation works for the Catholic Church, this is natural. From what I have learned about him over the years, apart from his music, it would seem that Palestrina's music was very much a reflection of Palestrina the man: He gave all appearances of being a classical conservative, and seems to have been well grounded and eminently practical in his approach to life and living. This practicality, however, was a reflection of his profoundly deep and secure faith as a Christian and a Catholic. The security he derived from his faith evidently allowed him to go about his daily business with complete confidence that while he was in the world, the world was nonetheless no threat to him because he was not of the world. Obviously, this peaceful overall outlook is perfectly reflected in his music, as is the conviction of his internal spirituality, and all to devastating effect for listeners who share his faith, as I do (If not his denomination).

It is important to note that a composer's temperament may or may not be overtly reflected in his work, and one of the things I am trying to decide is if it is advantageous to be particularly expressive, or if it is not. Speaking only for myself, I can say that my internal emotional life is quite highly-strung and in many ways discordant. That is one of the reasons this subject is interesting to me: I find that I have nothing in common personality-wise with a man like Palestrina, and yet I hold his compositional style up as one of my main ideals of perfection. Some may argue that I am allowing historical simplifications to reduce my view of Palestrina to something that it is not, but I don't think so. I believe that he and I are diametrically opposite types of personalities.

It goes without saying (But, I'm going to say it anyway) that Palestrina's music has a super-high degree of the cerebral in it, loaded as it is with contrapuntal machinations an intricacies, but these "mind games" never usurp the overall spiritual goals of the music. To the contrary, the contrapuntal devices that Palestrina employs seem to always and profoundly enhance the spiritual nature of his work. Listening to Palestrina leads me to a peaceful, introspective, and contemplative place where I can ponder the sublimnity of God and creation, and I believe the seamless and highly ordered musical universe that he creates out of music's potential for chaos is his homage to God's creation of the universe in which we live (If you haven't already noticed, fractal self-similarity and the theory that there are boundaries of chaos which are actually highly ordered are inextricably linked, and I believe these theories have profound implications for musical composition). Bringing this seamless, peaceful order out of chaos is also the main thrust, and end result, of the teachings of Jesus of course.

Perhaps it may seem needless to some readers, but needful to others, that I mention that there is simply no way for me to address these subjects without puting at least a modicum of my own faith on display here. I share the outlook of Thomas Jefferson, who was loath to share his faith, and always replied to inquiries with something along the lines of, "It is between me and God and no living man." That is exactly how I feel about it, but in this instance there is just no escaping the issue.

Also a truism is the fact that music that moves us spiritually will also move us emotionally, but in the music of Palestrina these emotions - while they may be profoundly deep and affecting - do not swing wildly to and fro. Just the opposite effect is achieved, as Palestrina elicits deep, steady-state moods that seem to vary more in depth than in character. I believe that this is an important point to note: Depth of a certain speciffic emotion (Or, a few similar emotive states) rather than a contrast of emotions with radically different characteristics.

So, Palestrina's music achieved a balance between the emotional, the cerebral, and the spiritual, but it is the spiritual aspect that predominates in him and in his music.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of balance (Versus imbalance, which I'll cover later), there is Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). If listening to Palestrina is like sitting back and riding a gigantic inter-gallactic Ferris wheel, listening to Beethoven is like strapping yourself in for a sometimes terrifying, and sometimes hilarious rollercoaster ride that has as it's footprint the entire cosmos. As I mentioned in the previous post, Beethoven's juxtapositions of wildly contrasting elicitations of emotion constantly amuse me.

Interestingly (To me, anyway), Beethoven was also a Catholic, but only nominally so (Just as I am an LCMS Lutheran, though I don't agree 100% with all of their doctrines). Beethoven and I (And Jefferson) share a much more populist view of the Christian religion, and I'll just leave it at that. The important thing to note is that Beethoven had definite spiritual convictions, historical revisionists be damned (But, at least, Beethoven's faith has not suffered the indignities that Mozart's faith has, through that brilliant-but-libelous movie Amadeus (I met Tom Hulce once, and complimented him on his brilliant performance, and he is a genuinely cool guy who took keyboard lessons for months to prepare for the role, and I do like the movie as entertainment, but it sucks as history)).

Personally I can relate to Beethoven the man more than I can relate to Palestrina. Though I am not burdened with anywhere near the challenges that confronted Beethoven, I nonetheless recognize the internal turmoil that he experienced, as - like I said - my personal internal life is also plenty chaotic and unbalanced. It was this very recognition that inspired this post: If I am personality-wise much closer to Beethoven than to Palestrina, why are my musical ideals of expression more like Palestrina's than Beethoven's? I can't answer that yet.

Though Beethoven's spiritual expression was far less doctrinaire than Palestrina's (He wasn't writing music for the Church, after all), he nonetheless had a cerebral aspect to his music that was just as deep. However, Beethoven's intellectual constructions had less to do with the mechanics of counterpoint - for the most part - and more to do with long-term and lage-form implications of harmonic practice, which did not even exist in Palestrina's time.

I believe that it is arguable that the harmonic idiom is inherantly more emotionally expressive than the contrapuntal idiom is, and even if you disagree with that you may at least agree that it is easier to be emotionally expressive in a harmonic idiom than in a purely contrapuntal one. That is not to say that it is impossible to be emotionally expressive through counterpoint of course, as the very existance of Beethoven's late quartets would demolish that notion convincingly. Even in fugue Beethoven managed to be expressive and emotionally evocative, but it must be admitted that he was a peculiar phenomenon and no other composer has ever achieved such a thing to such a degree. Far beyond these issues though, Beethoven's particular bent, as a man and as a composer, was vastly more emotion-driven than was Palestrina's.

Nevertheless, Beethoven too managed to achieve a trancendent balance between the emotional, the cerebral, and the spiritual aspects of musical expression, though it is weighted at the opposite end of the spectrum from Palestrina's equalibrium.

For the balanced cerebral composer, there is no better example, in my opinion, than Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach, as a product of The Age of Reason, slips into this niche very comfortably. Beethoven was a product of The Age of Enlightenment, and these different philosophical life-outlooks - which permeated the societies in which these men lived - obviously played a part in the differences between them.

Bach, like Palestrina, was a Church musician, but Bach was a Lutheran and not a Catholic. Obviously there is a huge aspect of the spiritual in Bach's music, and he was a devout man of clear and unequivocal Christian convictions. But unlike Palestrina, Bach often played "mind games" with music that were blatently of paramount importance: Above even that of his constant spiritual declamations. His obsession with canon and musical riddles attest to this clearly enough. That he was able to elicit both spiritual and emotional responses using these seemingly dry and highly technical approaches to music is nothing less than trancendental.

Bach's music also has a much broader range of emotion, and more emotional contrast than that of Palestrina, but in that regard he is still much closer to the introspective nature of Palestrina than to the widly extroverted Beethoven, who is peerless in that regard (Among composers who I judge to have achieved a perfection of balance, that is).

As a person, I find Bach to be difficult to reconcile. He was a family man, married more than once (As was and did Palestrina), and seems to have been a fairly stable human being. On the other hand, he was not above arguing with his superiors, and appears to have "not known his place" - in the terms of the time - with respect to minor royalty and functionaries above him in the Church heirarchy. He obviously knew he was superior to them in objective terms as an intellectual, and it seems as if he had more than a few pent-up frustrations in that regard. These outbursts lead him to be jailed at least once, that I am aware of.

Of the three mentioned so far, I believe that Bach achieved the most even balance between our three aspects of musical expression, but if only... if only Mozart had lived into his fifties or sixties he would have taken this honor (But then, Beethoven's career may not have been possible with Mozart looming over him. On the other hand, Wagner may never have seen the light of day if Mozart had lived, and that would have been excellent. Difficult choice to make. ;^)).

In lieu of Mozart, I nominate Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) as the most balanced and versitile composer of all time. Haydn is too often lost in the shuffle between Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, in my opinion, but Mozart and Beethoven would not have been possible without him. The older I get, the more I appreciate him. His output was so staggering that many of his works remain unpublished according to the biography I linked to. He composed music with wit, charm, and grace, and there is as much emotional, cerebral, and spiritual depth in it, though many conclude that it is not as deep as the others aforementioned here. The more I listen to him, the less I am inclined to agree with that. Haydn achieved the balance he displays through subtlty, and not through overly overt displays (Which would have been inappropriate for his intended audience, though he managed to slip a lot past them, which is a testament to his genius). He is a composer for those of advanced and discriminating taste, in my opinion.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) deserves an honorable mention as a composer who achieved a good balance weighted toward the emotive side, and his violin concerto is one of my all-time favorite works. Since he was decidedly of a romantic bent, and of the Romantic era, this bias of his comes as no surprise.

I find it baffling that so many people today find his music unapproachable. It seems like the most logical extension of the precedent set by Beethoven that anyone has ever achieved. He was a master of both harmony and counterpoint, and his music runs the gamut from the emotional, through the cerebral, and well into the spiritual realm.

Last but not least, a Romantic (Russian, no less!) who achieved a good balance is one of my personal favorites, Sergi Ivanovich Taneiev. This brilliant student of Tchaikovsky is much ignored in the west, which is a shame. His fourth symphony is as good as any by Brahms, and he was the greatest master of counterpoint of all time. As such, he had a deeply cerebral streak, but was nonetheless more emotive in the contrapuntal idiom than anyone other than Beethoven. If you haven't heard him, you should.

Now. Lack of balance. I will refrain from naming names, but will confine myself to compositional schools, so as not to offend. And, I may actually like this music - love it even - but I think it appeals to a smaller audience because of these imbalances.

Some of the old Dutch contrapuntists were, in my opinion, overly cerebral. While I personally delight in little more than I do in contrapuntal intracacies, it can be taken too far to the detriment of the emotive and spiritual aspects of the music. I believe some of those guys were guilty of that.

Likewise, some of the Romantics were overly heart-on-sleeve emotional, and the cerebral aspects of some of that music were... trash as a result. There is often a sort of faux spiritualism present, but it's a cheap immitation of the real thing in my opinion.

Associated with the Romantics were some of the great virtuosos of the nineteenth century, who sacrificed content in all three categories for "flash and glitter" as I've heard it referred to. Though, in his old age, Franz Liszt trancended his earlier virtuosic bent, and wrote some incredible choral music, as well as some of the most sublime, religious, and deeply introspective solo organ works I've ever heard. Amazing stuff. I think Liszt is unfairly dismissed by many who have only a cursory understanding of his total output.

Where does this leave me? Well, I continue to be amused that my personality type is probably somewhere in between those of Bach and Beethoven (Probably closer to Bach), but my favorite compositional mode of expression is probably between those of Bach and Palestrina (Again, probably closer to Bach). I'm not sure if this is a problem or not. I just find it interesting.

Pardon the navel-gazing.

"What's wrong with a little navel-gazing?"

Er... Nothing... But I'd rather be gazing at yours than mine.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've found that counterpoint often leads to novel, surprising, and moving harmonic effects. I'm thinking -- just as a start -- of folks like Wagner (Meistersinger is worthy of any of the great contrapuntal masters), Schoenberg, Carter, Bartok, Gesualdo, etc. Or the opening to Mozart's "dissonant" quartet in C major... completely contrapuntal. Not sure what my point is. There's more out there than meets your ears?

3:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops -- meant G major

3:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shush! dummy

3:49 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

If you hadn't pointed out your mistake, I wouldn't have noticed ;^)

One of the things I enjoy about counterpoint is that it lets you get away with "irrational" harmonic structures, as you say. In the Extempore I just finished there is a structure of a major sixth below a perfect fourth: You might think that the minor ninth in the outer voices would be hotly dissonant, but that the outer voices are moving into it and out of it in contrary motion makes it not only work, but seem quite mild.

8:38 AM  

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