Written by: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s address to the Incorporated Society of Musicians on 10 April 2007…
In De Divisione Naturae, written in the 9th century, Erigena, more popularly known as John the Scot, wrote: “musica innata est quaedam communis secundam se ipsam delectatio” – that is, “music, by its very nature, is a delight to everyone”. In this talk I shall take his dictum as my central proposition, remembering that “diversi diversis delectantur” – “different people enjoy different things”; and that according to Vitruvius, “ars sine scientia nihil potest” – “art is powerless without knowledge”.
In a recently published essay, Susan Sontag wrote: “Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitely exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov”. I understand her enthusiasm for those four Russian writers, but the choice of examples for influence could be almost infinitely varied: on many lists would appear the names of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, for instance, as well as far less well-known authors.
What all these authors have in common is that they are serious, their work concerned with the most fundamental aspects of our humanity, our relationships with each other, and with our environment. All require time and patience to get to know. To return briefly to Susan Sontag: she adds something I think is most significant – “be serious, which doesn’t preclude being funny”.
An educated person could construct a list of authors who have influenced his whole life and outlook, and will be able to refer to characters and situations, and even to quote directly – it is extraordinary how, in Britain, phrases and characters from Shakespeare and Dickens have made their way into the collective imagination and into everyday conversation; although there are now attempts by educators to undermine this, and dumb down a young person’s contact with literature, as if this were something from which the young must be shielded.
Let us turn to music.
How often do we meet people who are otherwise cultured and educated, who have no awareness whatever of even the very existence of serious music? The epitome of this ignorance is particularly cruelly exposed on the radio programme Desert Island Discs, where you listen to the musical choices of someone whose work you admire enormously, who can discourse on science, theatre, literature and most things cultural outwith his speciality, but who is happy to display absolute ignorance of our musical culture.
Of course one has sympathy with the Desert Islander’s choice of a musically insignificant gobbet which happened to be playing when marriage was proposed and accepted, and Mahler and Shostakovich have demonstrated how such a musical morsel can be highlighted to make private significancies become universal in the course of an extended symphonic argument.
This is a time when one can not only be “definitely exalted and influenced” by Dostoyevsky, etc; but we have an equal chance, theoretically, to be influenced by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, or whomsoever. However, it would appear that young people are being ever more actively dissuaded from having contact with these masters than with the literary giants.
Before I attempt to elucidate what I think of as some of the unique qualities of serious Western classical music, I would like to mention certain attitudes within the professions of music and music education which have disturbed me most.
The first and most common abuse hurled at the likes of me is that an education towards an understanding of, and working with, serious Western classical music is “elitist”. Michael Billington, discussing this year’s Edinburgh Festival in the Guardian, wrote: “there is a strange reversal of values, particularly in the media. A concert or opera attended by 1,000 people or more is seen as ‘elitist’; a small-scale event attracting a dedicated handful is regarded as ‘popular’” – ie, inverted snobbery at its most pungently destructive.
“Classical” music these days, as Colin Bradbury has pointed out, does not mean music from the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, as opposed to Baroque or Romantic music; but everything from plainchant to Palestrina to Purcell to Puccini to Prokofiev to Penderecki, as opposed to other genres from folk to pop to the latest “popular” music fashion, as elucidated in page after page, with additional specialist “music” supplements, in the most respected national newspapers; while “classical” music receives ever less coverage, relegated, often heavily edited and cut, to obscure nooks and crannies.
I have great respect for Marc Jaffrey, of the “Music Manifesto”, and have had what I hope has been constructive dialogue with him: he is, however, working for an utterly philistine government, whose Prime Minister recently read a platitudinous speech about the health of the arts in Britain, when his own horizons are rock and pop. I do not wish to be unfair, but the only minister I ever saw at a “cultural” event was Roy Hattersley at an Ibsen play – apart from the last night of the Proms, and a Royal concert I arranged to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War 2, which they had to attend.
Perhaps one should turn Howard Goodall’s complaint around – “how many hip-hop commentators, teachers and pedagogues have diverted their analytical skills to classical music?”
When I was working at the Royal College of Music a few years ago, as part of an “outreach” programme, I met music teachers who thought that even to teach standard Western musical notation was to indulge in extreme elitism, claiming that it would inhibit the children’s creativity, and was alien to the “working-class values of ordinary people”. Just imagine not teaching how to write the alphabet, or numbers …..
Had I – and I can speak for Birtwistle as well – as an archetypal working-class child, not been taught musical notation, as well as having a totally free education, through scholarship at Manchester University and the nearby Royal College, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and Princeton University in New Jersey, I would have been stymied. As it was, I learned all about the absence of music in the curriculum at Leigh Grammar School in Lancashire, and even then realised what a useful thing in life it would be, to do everything I could to make music available in all schools. I had to teach myself to pass the Lancashire County Music Scholarship, sitting the exams behind the headmaster’s back, as he forbade me to take them, since it would “interfere with my schoolwork”.
In 1959, when I took on the challenge of becoming Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School, it quickly became clear that in order to enjoy music from within and without, a knowledge of notation was necessary. The boys and girls learned maths, Latin, physics, etc, with no qualms, and were simply expected to be numerate and literate. Why not musical notation?
I determined to give the children the musical childhood I never had. I had them sing the sounds before they wrote them down – this is important – so that the sign on paper represented a meaningful sound-object, part of a line as an expressive means of communication. Soon, they were vocally improvising together in class – without crutches in the form of a piano accompaniment – simple chordal sequences with passing notes: it reminded me of the well-known improvising choral groups of fishermen in harbourside pubs in Genoa. There was already a decent school choir, and I established a school orchestra – Gloucestershire County Council was very generous with instruments and peripatetic teachers in those days – also a junior orchestra. By year three, I expected an ordinary class to be able to sight-read simple Palestrina; and I remember particularly, with about 500 children, performing whole chunks of the Monteverdi Vespers, in my own private edition, to an extremely enthusiastic audience new to the work. Many of the children composed, performed and conducted their own music with the various forces available, and new music by the children of all kinds featured regularly at the daily morning assembly.
These musical activities, supervised by me, encouraged the spontaneous formation of jazz and pop groups, and even the establishment of a small choir of sixth formers, called (as opposed to anything I led!) Pro Musica Optima, to explore more arcane regions in the choral repertoire. There were chamber concerts by professionals in the school. I took groups to the Cheltenham Contemporary Music Festival, to the BBC Invitation Concerts at Maida Vale, and to regular symphony concerts in London, Gloucester and Bristol. At the Bath Festival in 1962, after the school had given a morning concert, broadcast live by BBC radio (imagine that now!), Yehudi Menuhin, whom I had accompanied in a violin and harpsichord work by a very gifted school pupil, insisted we attend his concert that afternoon in Bath Abbey. It was sold out, so Pierre Monteux, who was to conduct, insisted that the schoolchildren be placed on stage next to someone who played their instrument. I don’t think the children involved will ever forget that concert.
Those children had no difficulty listening to anything from Bach to Boulez, and I had, on the bus rides back to Cirencester after performances, very constructive discussions with them about the merits of the interpretations and of the new works. I learned a lot. Teaching is an education for the teacher, too, for you learn far more than you teach – as I am discovering again these days, doing some work with very gifted young composers and performers at the Royal Academy of Music.
I found out, writing new works for the Cirencester children, that if you do not let on that something is difficult, such as a high note on an instrument, or a so-called “difficult” interval for a choir, and you can hear and sing the thing yourself, they will not find it hard, so long as it is composed or arranged with their technical capacities understood constructively. You can be very demanding – young people love a challenge when it is musically meaningful, and leads towards technical virtuosity rather than just being awkward to perform. The same is true of listening capacity, given an informed and literate musical environment. This is classless.
I mentioned “outreach” programmes. Some are exemplary, but so often, with the best intentions, and with the best will in the world for the orchestras, etc, who sponsor them, they simply fail. There is little insight gained into how music works when a child with no musical experience bangs a percussion instrument, or sings a slogan-like motto while members of the professional group have the real meat of the specially-written composition. Everyone is delighted that something is happening at all with the children, but all too often they remain musically ignorant and illiterate, and there is no follow-up to this one-off encounter. There is no substitute for having a professionally trained and led music department in a school. Were there consistent, dedicated teaching and funds, classical music, big band, brass, folk, jazz, pop, etc, would all flourish. I have been very moved by performances, by British children as well as by Indians, of classical Indian music. Here, if I may, a personal plea – the unthinking use of Western-tuned keyboards destroys the very essence of the microtonal inflection of many ragas, and the use of amplification, particularly redundant in small halls, distorts the carefully-modulated nature of Indian voices and instruments. The unthinking use of amplification in many kinds of music turns what should be an intimate and sensitive experience into a soul and ear-numbing imitation of a Hitlerian or Stalinist rally, with all sensibilities subsumed in blather and beat. I suppose the theory is that young people respond best to loud thumping music with a deep mechanical beat, so let’s attempt to jump on to that bandwagon.
Here one should not forget that much “popular” music is manufactured purely for commercial gain.
Since the possibility of making megabucks out of young people by feeding them the lowest common denominator of “music” has been realised, “music” became an industry, not a profession, where, for the least possible work put in, the maximum profit is extracted for the fat cats, with “music” becoming ever more zombie-like, and the bands ruthlessly exploited. (There are, of course, honourable exceptions.) This is new. Folk music, the equivalent of pop music, etc, in the past, and in some places, of the present, is a spontaneous musical expression of a folk, of a people, with no commercial intent or purpose. Its creators were largely anonymous, and we are eternally grateful to exponents like the Wrigley sisters in Orkney, and Kathryn Tickell in Northumberland, for bringing to our ears music we otherwise would not have known. But this wonderful legacy is also being dumbed down, exploited for sheer profit. In this commercial atmosphere, it is hardly astonishing that so little of its kind is produced of Beatles or early Rolling Stones quality. Some months ago, Buckingham Palace gave a magnificent reception for “the music industry”, and it took some persuasion to include in this “the music profession”, so one begins to understand how far purely commercial values have penetrated. Indeed, observing the present condition of music education, and the new aims of education generally, not only in music, to bring the inquiry into knowledge for its own sake in all fields to heel, while promoting newer specialities calculated to facilitate quick money for business, perhaps one should modify Descartes’ dictum “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) to “consumo, ergo sum” (“I consume, therefore I am”). That could well be the motto for our government. “Classical” music has so far proved comparatively resistant to commercial exploitation, unlike certain types of music we are pressed, now, to regard as its absolute equal.
To return for a moment to extremely loud music with a gut-churning thudding bass beat – in 1984, Orwell envisaged the future of mankind as the perpetual stamping of a jackboot on the face of humanity. In this regard our consumer culture has achieved something more subtle and more penetrating than Lenin’s Agitprop or Goebbel’s Reichspropagandaministerium, or anything envisaged in a Huxleyan or Orwellian nightmare future. The exploited victims do not feel themselves the exploited subjects of designs upon their minds and pockets, and while having mind, heart and intellect stamped upon and numbed, and their pockets emptied, they enjoy and welcome the experience, which becomes a drug, an all-powerful soporific, insulating the victims from all reality, and particularly from political reality. To witness “music” being used as an instrument of mind-control or mind-erasure in this manner is as repulsive, in its way, as was witnessing Mozart and Schubert played by the concentration camp band as Hitler’s victims were marched to their fate. Each period of history, each phase of civilization has the art and music it deserves. If this is so, this music reflects something every bit as disturbing in our collective psyche as communism or fascism at their genocidal worst. Perhaps it will slowly become clear to us all in what this consists – and by then, it will be too late to make constructive change. Much minimalist music exhibits the same alarming features, albeit less aggressively.
Many young people can cope, and this musical experience becomes merely a part of their social experience, with no psychic damage, although their ears must deteriorate relatively early in life. Its real victims remain largely inarticulate.
Two generations have now been deprived of the state music education available to many when I was a schoolteacher in the early 1960s. The Thatcher cuts separated millions of children from what we regarded as a God-given human right – access to our own culture, in all its forms, and particularly, access to serious music, in any literate or informed way. Now, in an atmosphere of philistinism actively encouraged from on high, we – you and I – must make our case for serious Western classical music of the past and present, to those in authority not qualified to respond in any positive way, or even to be interested.
This brings me back to the largely inarticulate victims of commercial musical exploitation at its worst. From really deprived area schools, so many complete their education with a very limited spoken and written vocabulary – this in itself is absolutely shameful. It amounts to imprisoning young people in the Sun newspaper’s newspeak. Poor education has deprived millions of the possibility of expressing themselves cogently in English, with a vocabulary and syntax capable of encompassing thoughts and feelings associated with any deep experience – particularly those to do with changing from child to adult. Even where communication in English is attempted, so often it is hampered and compromised by ballast getting in the way – “sort of” – “you know” – “like” – “you know what I mean” – a terrible indictment. This has nothing to do with accent or dialect – these are wonderfully rich and expressive, and a joy to us all.
Of course, keeping people in a state of ignorance is good for the government in power – it precludes the possibility of articulate criticism, induces political apathy, and its by-product is a frustration which bursts forth into seemingly mindless, unmotivated violence. Education, or its perverse inversion, becomes a tool with which to keep the underclasses in their place, incidentally ensuring bursting prisons. One begins to understand what the Prime Minister might have had in mind when he uttered his mantra “education” three times. I will not explore here the very real relationship between failed education, certain kinds of commercial music, and drugs.
Perhaps I am being too cynical. However, it would be encouraging to see the government putting real money into real music education of all kinds – its “Music Manifesto” is full of worthy aims, with much very positive outcome already – but we are far short of having, for instance, the musical conditions at Cirencester Grammar School of the early 1960s, obtaining as a general state of affairs. Remember, these were ordinary, unprivileged state schoolchildren. Remember, too, that school music-making, with its physical, emotional and intellectual disciplines, becomes a catalyst for improvement in all other school subjects, and that early exposure as a listener to music which explores the deepest of human experience, at length, abstractly, away from words, can be a life-saving matter for the adolescent.
William of Auvergne wrote, in the early 13th century, “a symphony [a rather free translation of “concentus”!] is a marvellous harmony of different sounds, from the highest to the lowest, producing in us a feeling of extraordinary joy”.
This leads me into a discussion of the major qualities of Western music: I set aside my educator’s hat, and I know I am not trying to convert bureaucrats. You do not need persuasion, so I shall wear no hat of any kind, and give a very personal and – given the time limit – a very incomplete account, from a very particular hearing point of an idiosyncratic composer.
I take for granted that my listeners here at the ISM could well give a brilliant discourse on the qualities of classical music, and that is the background I take as given, while offering my modest contribution.
The masterpieces of Western music are the equivalent in sound of the greatest buildings in our history. I think particularly of the great cathedrals, churches and chapels: it is often said, perhaps sometimes glibly, without understanding the exact parallels, that symphonies are cathedrals in sound, and cathedrals symphonies in stone. I shall try to be precise.
Each work on a large scale is a usually wordless narrative, and is a spiritual journey, often with three or more movements, where the whole, and within that whole, each individual movement, forms a quest, with a beginning, then a wandering away from that – an exploration or development – and maybe a return, but certainly a conclusion.
When I read or perform a great work of our musical literature, I regard the music as a living organism, with its birth, life and its apotheosis, or its death, or simply a satisfactory conclusion, all to be treated as seriously as a person’s birth, life and conclusion, and every bit as alive and meaningful; and never forgetting, so return to Susan Sontag, the possibility of humour in the discourse.
(A little step aside, to say that performing Haydn particularly, it is often impossible to be straight-faced. When Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon, Harrison Birtwistle and I were students in Manchester, we were summoned all together to the Principal’s office in college, the day after a Manchester Chamber Concerts Society evening had finished with a very funny Haydn finale. It had been impossible not to smile, and even laugh, discreetly. We were told our behaviour was unforgivable in a serious concert, and that we were a disgrace to the college, and should have more respect for the composer and the string quartet. I still have to suppress smiles, even giggles, when conducting the finale of some Haydn symphonies, when I try, by emphasising gently the irregular phrasings and the irrepressible wackiness and eccentricity, to put the humour across – I trust without destroying the essential line and cohesion.)
Every quartet, concerto, symphony, has its particular discourse, each of which, despite so many formal archetypes, harmonic progressions, rhythmic shapes, cadences, etc, in common, is absolutely unique. Each was a way of creating a world, or even the world, and each performance, a way – perhaps a new way? – of hearing, of experiencing that world, or even the world.
Classical music is a most excellent way of making clear and meaningful to our human understanding our instinctive perceptions about the nature of time, and possibly, it gives us intimations of eternity. To discuss time sensibly, we must borrow familiar terminology from considerations of space, in painting and in architecture.
Just as much as in the visual arts, passing time in Western music has a foreground, middleground and background. This is clearly expressed in the writings of Heinrich Schenker, who is perhaps to music what Sigmund Freud was to psychiatry and psychology. One can think, in tonal music, of the home key’s tonic as the vanishing point in time and sound, as the vanishing point of visual perspective is in space, as first formulated by Brunelleschi in the early 15th century: the harmonic rhythm – crudely put, the basic-rate change of harmony – being the audible background. This is an oversimplification, but probably a good working model – the middleground can be heard as the inner parts moving against that background, and the foreground is the main part, floating above, in, or under the middleground. The play of change as to what is, at each moment, at each phrase, back, middle or foreground, is one of the special delights of our music. I always enjoy particularly listening to Sibelius symphonies – wondering whether the conductor will get it right – Sibelius was a great innovator in this field, which is tightly bound up with his melodic and harmonic transformation processes, with foreground, middleground and background melting into each other, as these transformations occur.
A related feature, presaged as early as in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria of Monteverdi, is the change of focus possible, particularly when a large orchestra is involved. Think of the zooming-in of the lens – or of the ear – in so many instances in Mahler symphonies, when the texture suddenly transforms into the tightest chamber music, or of the extreme pathos of the sudden close-up of the bassoon solo in Shostakovich’s Symphony No 9; and, in Sibelius again, the painful intimacy of the flute and bassoon resigned figure, after the passion of the strings, at the close of his Symphony No 7.
A good composer can play with perspective, and with fore, middle and background, and with focus, in a way that involves us in completing the picture: think of the empty space between the high solo and the deep bass accompaniment at the opening of the second movement of Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, which space our ears and imagination transform into a vast and desolate inner soundscape, a kind of hollow, resonating, extremely lonely moonscape, if you like. All the composer did was to give us a foreground and background, enough to suggest how we, the listeners, should imagine the infill, the middleground.
An earlier and more familiar example would be the arioso dolente in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A flat Op 110, where the steadily pulsating three-part background accompaniment is so far below the foreground melody that we, in our minds, must fill in the space between, taking our clues from the almost expressionistic dissonances, made bearable by, and filling up, that space between.
At the risk of being repetitive, I must insist that it is supremely important to understand the unique concept of perspective in time, etc, in the way just outlined, to grasp one of the most extraordinary contributions of Western music to human culture. Without the dimensions liberated by harmony, unfolding through rhythm in time, this music would have been as impossible to create as Florentine Renaissance painting and architecture would have been, without scientific spatial perspective.
The form of classical music is one of its most distinguishing features. When Ulrich of Strasbourg discussed consonantia dispositionis ad formam (the consonance of form and content), I have no doubt that he did not foresee the application of medieval metaphysics to modern musical theory, but such speculations, controversial in their time, have helped me to clarify differences between form, structure and architecture in classical music.
In some institutions, “form” is still talked of, and taught, as a given, where it becomes an abstraction, after the event, from an overview of the musical literature of a defined period of time. I would like to think particularly about sonata form, which, as such, was only talked about after the Classical period of Haydn through to Schubert, sonata form movements from that time being held up as perfect examples of the type: that is, sonata form was only discussed when, as many have argued, it found itself in difficulties in the Romantic era, starting with Mendelssohn.
Books on “form” by Ebenezer Prout, and RO Morris, for instance, or the article on “form” in Percy Scholes’s Oxford Companion to Music, treat form as a one-dimensional abstraction, or as a set of bottles with different shapes, into which to pour the wine of music; and as such, “form” was used, in my student days, as a stick with which to beat the likes of Birtwistle and me.
At best such studies of “form” were some kind of very general post-mortem, from which guidelines for music’s present and future could be extrapolated: even rules were invented.
Let me pluck out of the air a few random examples, where such rules are seen for what they are worth.
We are told about sonata form having an exposition, then a development, which modulates, and works the material from the exposition, leading to a recapitulation in the original tonic. However, think of Schubert’s posthumous Piano Sonata in A major, whose first movement has a development which hardly modulates at all, only slipping (and that’s the right word – it hardly modulates!) the semitone several times between C major and minor and B major and minor, with no actual development of material, while the bridge passage of the exposition modulates madly and rampageously, exhibiting all the characteristics of a development.
Moreover, towards the end of the exposition, there is a whole bar of silence. It is certainly a dramatic pause, but becomes much more interesting when you calculate that, without that bar’s rest, the “golden section” mathematical proportion would not apply. Now there’s an interesting and controversial element in Schubert’s conscious or unconscious form-building – did this just happen spontaneously, as it does in the mathematical Fibonacci series growth of pineapples or sunflowers, or did he perhaps calculate? And how about Debussy’s La Mer, whose forms Roy Howat has demonstrated are entirely mathematically Fibonacci-based?
Thinking about second subjects, how about the first movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op 50 No 1, where the second subject is just a slight re-ordering of the first? Or that of Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, where the second subject is as the first, but with the internal intervals of a third doubled to a fifth, with some minimal rhythmic modification?
Of course the pundits love to point out exceptions to their own rules, such as in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, the “new material” in E minor after the climatic E/F dissonance over A and C chord, hammered home in the development – without having noticed that Beethoven carefully prepares us for this E minor theme, which is why it sounds so right. The first violins have a version of the “new” theme, albeit a minor third up, then the first flute and first oboe have it in very long augmentation, untransposed: it just needs X-ray ears and an open mind to hear the process, and, paradoxically, it always sounds astonishing and prepared at the same time, when we hear the theme in E minor. Clearly, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert would not pass an elementary form exam, no more than would Bach one in fugue.
I prefer to think of musical form in a more scholastic, medieval way – of structure and architecture, “consonantia dispositions ad formam”, whereby structure becomes a means, or act, of putting together a meaningful arrangement of parts or sections, and architecture, the means of achieving coherence of these diverse structural parts or sections in macro and micro dimensions. As a listener, the understanding of a work consists in being able to unify these macro and micro dimensions throughout its time-space, on physical, emotional and intellectual levels – an effort of very real re-creation.
In his book The Classical Style, Charles Rosen writes, “to speak of any of Haydn’s structures without reference to their material is nonsense. Any discussion of second themes, bridge passages, concluding themes, range of modulation, relations between themes – all this is empty if it does not refer back to the particular piece, its character, its typical sound, its motifs.”
And again – “With all of Haydn’s works of the 1780s, it becomes more difficult to disentangle the central musical ideas from the total structures in which they work themselves out.”
In Quasi una Fantasia, Theodor Adorno discusses the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No 6. (This is my lumpy translation, but I find his German lumpy, too!) “Integral to the 6th is the way that no individual element is accountable merely as such, but only as that which is unveiled in the whole form. In order to understand such works, one must not assume to fix an identity on the themes, but wait and give them credit according to what happens to them.”
In his masterpiece Die Entstehung der Kathedrale, unhappily not translated, Hans Sedlmayr makes much the same point, discussing the unity of motif, content and form in Gothic cathedral architecture. His analysis of “übergreifende Form” (overlapping form) influenced my thinking greatly, particularly in relation to Bach.
To return for a moment to the Eroica Symphony – while it is fine to understand the first movement, up to a point, as being “in sonata form”, I think it is most useful to hear the sonata form dimension we have all been taught as a backdrop against which the real discourse occurs. The C sharp at the end of the first cello figure gives us a clue to the quest (just think of the organ-like D flat chord, functioning as a flattened supertonic to the surprising C major, where harmonic function crosses harmonic division) – and we can hear the whole movement as a quest for the full theme, only sketched incompletely at the outset, and only heard in fulfilled glory in the coda. In other words, the form is duplex, and it appears to me to be thus in any work of real, captivating interest: it works, on the truly fascinating level of its form, with an individual form evolving against a familiar given form, and from this superposition all structural tensions and architectural individuality derive.
Similarly, the finale of the Eroica is billed as a “theme & variations”. Indeed, theme and variation form is in the background, but how can the so-called “theme” be anything but a framework upon which, eventually, to hang material, or a space to be filled in? This is indeed the case, and, like the first, this is a movement in search of a theme, heard in full glory only towards the end.
I enjoy the fact that the triumphant theme of this movement comes from the Bacchus Dance in Beethoven’s 1801 ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, and that a much later jotting on a musical sketch from 1818 outlines, in words, plans for a choral symphony, but finishing up with a celebration of Bacchus, god of wine. Here we see a seed not only of Symphony No 9, but also of the finale of Symphony No 7, where Beethoven very carefully employs suitable metres of ancient Greek poetry, as his pupil Czerny pointed out, to make a Bacchic dance wilder that that in Prometheus, the Eroica, or anywhere else before it in musical history.
Recently at the Royal Academy of Music, we studied Beethoven’s violin and cello sonatas, with piano. We found that the forms in the individual movements of Cello Sonata No 4 – in A minor? no, in C major – are incomprehensible heard conventionally, and become musically logical only when plotted across the whole work, and in Sonata No 5 in D major, we observed how the whole harmonic progression of the sonata form first movement is transformed into something transcendental, in ten bars just before its conclusion. These ten bars are a passage which opens windows on to the then as yet unrealised visions in Beethoven’s last piano sonatas and quartets – and (this is very important!) this passage of ten bars could, in fact, be omitted, and there still would be grammatical and syntactical sense. But one also realises that the – in this D major context – other-worldly F minor and D flat major chords, against the conventional sonata form backdrop, are the formal climax; or better, a climax by inversion (the dynamics are hushed!) of the whole movement, and its still kernel and raison d’être. Cutting out these conventionally superfluous ten bars would be cutting the heart out of the work.
I would like to dwell briefly on an aspect of “classical” music which, even by musicians, is often taken for granted, and perhaps insufficiently understood.
In his 1944 treatise Technique et mon Langage Musical, Messiaen devotes considerable space to rhythm in his own work in a way which became influential not only among his students at the Paris Conservatoire, but worldwide. Thus, rhythm consists of a single line of note-values, which can be divided into “cellules”, and each of these little cells (say, of three rhythmic values) subjected independently to different kinds of diminution and augmentation by extremely simple subtraction or addition of time values. These lines of note-values can, in theory, be superimposed ad infinitum.
This has produced some fascinating results – think of some of the rhythmic writing in the Turangalîla Symphony (the composer was stimulated by misreadings of ancient Indian musical theory); and some extraordinary analytical work, as in Pierre Boulez’s analysis of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Stravinsky demeure, published in 1953, where the work is examined in terms of these “cellules”.
The custom among the avant-garde of that period was to dismiss the rhythmic procedures of older music, from Monteverdi through to Schoenberg, as played-out and exhausted, and also far too simple-minded, with their regular metric structure.
However, if we examine the metric structure of older western classical music, it is heard to consist of something with far deeper resonances that that which we read from the surface of a written page of score. Think of a work for solo instrument, say, a violin or cello piece by Bach. It is as if the surface of the page has infinite depths below it, with layer upon layer of rhythmic meaning below its façade.
First, there is the line of note-values which the musician plays. Beneath that is the beat pattern, say, of quavers, perhaps divided into a 6/8 pattern. This is not apparent, beyond the time-signature and the bar-lines, but is always present, subliminally determining our comprehension of the surface line throughout. Were the composer to write a 3/4 hemiola or a 12/16 syncopation against the 6/8, no time-signature change is needed – it would register implicitly as an irregularity. The 6/8 bars group themselves into strong and weak bars – again, nothing is written: the rhythmic pattern is just heard and played from the minimal information given by the composer on the one written line. The notes group themselves into phrases, determined by upbeat – accent – afterbeat patterns, with all this dynamic, expressive contour-shaping determining the resultant multi-bar periodicity. We take for granted the four-bar phrase archetype present under the surface of the music, and in our unconscious expectation, also an eight-bar sentence, a sixteen-bar paragraph – and we register the event subliminally when the composer deviates with a three, five, six or seven-bar grouping; in our inner perception we breathe more quickly, or slowly, as this occurs. A rhythmic pattern of harmonic change is set up, sometimes a regular one, say every two bars, but often irregular. I repeat, we hear this behind the one written line of music – there is no need to write it out literally – it is all implied, and present. Often there is a pattern where one chord governs two bars – another chord governs the next two bars (usually tonic and dominant), then we hear one bar on the first chord, followed by one bar on the second, then half a bar by half a bar, a quarter by a quarter, and an eighth by an eighth. (The opening of Beethoven’s very first Piano Sonata in F minor is a famous example of this, where, if one wrote out the right hand melody alone, all would be implicit – one doesn’t in fact need the left hand chords to be stated at all – our imaginations would fill in the harmonic rhythm without hearing the left hand, with its regular halvings making a harmonic rhythm acceleration towards the end of the phrase.)
Obviously there are, again, infinite variations on these patterns; but to return to Bach solo string works, all is audible behind the surface of the page. Rhythm is not just a line of note-values – it becomes clear that rhythm and harmony, phrase and sentence, are all a part of the same matrix. I come back to Heinrich Schenker, who traced all movement of harmony and rhythm back, and further back, right back to the architectural vanishing point of the tonic, ultimately governing all.
With early 20th century music, this became far more complex and difficult to hear: when tonality is finally abolished, these rhythmic perspectives formerly implied in one notated line disappear, along with the tonic – the aural vanishing point – and just as in abstract painting, where all perspective melts, so this occurs in music, and it became necessary to indicate very carefully what are foreground, middleground and background. Schoenberg writes Haupstimme and Nebenstimme (main and subsidiary voice) on such abstract scores.
I examined rhythm just to point out how, in our music, harmony and architecture have given rhythm, as such, a multi-layered depth unique in all of music history. To reduce all of this subtlety by placing a rock beat behind Mozart’s Symphony No 40 is like sticking orange plastic boobs on the Mona Lisa. Those people who, because it does not have a thudding, repetitive beat behind it, should perhaps rather have those spaces behind the surface of the Mozart opened up in their emotional, spiritual and purely musical imaginations. Education, education, education. Expensive, and even dangerous, as it makes people sensitive, and liable to think. Subversive. Perhaps that thudding beat, or such a modification of Leonardo’s infinitely sensitive, illusive and allusive masterpiece, helps towards deeper understanding, ultimately, in some people – if so, fine; but in all honesty I have my doubts, and I hate to hear or see great art of any kind misrepresented. When you really love and care about something, possibly to a state nearing insanity, it can’t help but get to you when it is subject to what you interpret as abuse, even for the most high-sounding principles of making it “accessible” – but, more realistically, just exploiting it for quick profit. But then, I do not own, and have no rights on, Mozart or Leonardo.
I know that the tendency in all fields of our culture is to “dumb down” for the sake of accessibility. I am reluctant, and unqualified, to investigate in depth the relationships between this trend and exploitative capitalism, globalisation and the convenient alleged reduction of people’s attention span down to the length of an advertising commercial.
Despite all of this, on the one hand, I try to raise the profile of classical music as much as possible through my position of Master of the Queen’s Music. Here, Buckingham Palace, and the Queen particularly, are being most helpful, supporting, for instance, my suggestion of a children’s concert at the Palace, and my idea of a Queen’s annual medal for music – even to the extent of the Queen presenting her medal live last year on stage at an Albert Hall Prom, when it went to Bryn Terfel – I think Her Majesty was as nervous as I was!
On the other hand, I will always continue to believe in music education as I understand it, writing music for children to perform; particularly, recently, for the children at the school on Sanday, Orkney, where I live.
For most musicians, with the instinct and sensitivity of musicians, such verbal discourse as I have indulged in is superfluous, though I hope at least in part of some interest.
And, while attempting to define what must ultimately be indefinable in words, I remember words by the Aquinas scholar Étienne Gilson – “Si nous connaissons le singulier nous pourrions le voir, mais non le définir.” – I think what is meant by “le singulier” might approximate to Aquinas’s Latin “quidditas”, or the “whatness” of a thing, an idea, a proposition. “If we know a singular thing, we may be able to see it, but not define it.” Let us substitute “hear” for “see”, and be humbled by the infinitely indefinable in Western “classical” music, while still trying, by example in every way we can, without condescension or compromise, to put our message across.
Herder wrote, “Every concert is a symbol of cosmic harmony”. I would go farther – every moment we deal with this great music, we are privileged to participate in cosmic harmony.
It is this cosmic harmony which, in whatever form, must fill the world, and we, as musicians, must do our utmost to contribute towards this, through the music we know and love best.
Dante wrote: “Leva dunque, lettore, a l’alte rote / meco la vista” – “So, reader, raise your sight [I would say, “your ears”] to the high wheels with me: that is, to the wheels on high of a divine cosmic order.
- Incorporated Society of Musicians
- The above text is reproduced with the permission of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and as supplied