Sunday, 13 March 2011

Haydn did it first!

"Up until Bartok, there was nothing in string quartet writing that Beethoven didn't do first." Heard that before? Truly, almost every compositional technique, every structural innovation that you see in the quartets of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, even Ravel, has its antecedents in Beethoven's quartets.

But much of that original exploration of the medium was not Beethoven's. A lot of the things that amaze us in the middle and late quartets were invented by that greatest of innovators, Papa Haydn. Here are some of them:

The heartbeat

In the Grosse Fuge, Beethoven writes, instead of quarter notes, two eighth notes tied together:

(The Grosse Fuge, played by the Harlow quartet)

Performers have for years puzzled over this notation. What does Beethoven mean? does he want a quarter note or not? The Alban Berg quartet plays these like quarternotes, with a slight accent on the beginning of the note:

(Alban Berg quartet)

The Emerson quartet plays these like two eighth notes:

(Emerson quartet)

The Takacs quartet plays them somewhere in between; you can hear the difference in quality, but there is no real distinction:

(Takacs quartet)

But Beethoven did not invent this idea. Here are the tied eighth notes, same thing, in Haydn's Quinten quartet, Opus 76 number 2:

And here it is again, later in the same movement - not quarter notes, but dotted quarters, written as an eighth and a quarter, with very much the same halting feeling that Beethoven creates in the opening of his fugue:

Here, too, performers face the same dilemma: play them as quarter notes, like the Cleveland quartet

(Cleveland quartet)

or like two eighth notes, like the Mosaiques:

(Mosaiques quartet)

What key is it in?

Here is the opening of Beethoven's opus 59 number 2:

(Quan Yuan, Jennifer Wey, Matthew Davies, David Meyer)

What key is it in? Beethoven leads us through a labyrinth of loosely related chords connected by a series of suspensions, keeping us in a state of suspended imbalance until he breaks out in his assertively C major theme. That opening is almost atonal.

But that same sense of tonal ambiguity appears in Haydn's string quartet opus 33 number 1:

(Delian quartet)

It sounds like D major - no, that dissonant major seventh means - what? B minor? No, it's wandering about going to... There's B minor again, no, it's E minor, no, it's ... And then the assertive D major theme.

Same ambiguity, same sense of wandering about, searching for a light in the darkness, and then, a step out of the cave into the sunlight. Remember, Haydn did it first.

(Of course, Haydn isn't the only precedent for this idea. Consider the opening of Mozart's Dissonant quartet, K. 465.)

Schoenberg is usually credited with writing the first atonal piece. The last movement of his second string quartet is written without a key signature, and, indeed, there is no tonal center to that movement. But Schoenberg was not the first. The Fantasia movement of Haydn's quartet Opus 76 number 6 has no key signature in the first half. The beginning is in B major, but it then modulates through a series of unrelated keys - E major, G major, B flat major, B minor, A flat major, finally settling back to B major. The entire first half of the movement has a sense of meandering through a forest of keys, with no single sense of tonality. Schoenberg, 150 years early.

(This is turning into a long post. So I will stop here, and continue in a later post)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

What does music mean?

And, the next question, what does it matter? These are questions that I have been grappling with since I started taking the study of music seriously, in the last 10 or so years.

As for what music means, I think the answer is: it means a lot less than it did 200 years ago. I think that at at least until the middle of the 19th century, many musical messages that were integral to many works were immediately obvious to every listener. There is the storm:

and the muffled drums of a funeral:

and a drinking song:

and a shepherd's pipe:

These semiotic messages, which mostly have to be explained to modern listeners, were, I believe self-evident to those who heard these works when they were composed. Today, when we hear Haydn's quartet Opus 33 number 3, nicknamed "The Bird", we may well associate what we hear with a bird. But Haydn's listeners probably also knew which bird was being quoted. For example, is this

a  willow warbler?

And this

a  partridge clucking in the hedge?

One of my future projects for this blog is to sit with an ornithologist and identify the exact birds that Haydn is quoting in this quartet.

How did we come to forget that music was trying to tell us something? It was, perhaps, the work of Brahms, Edward Hanslick, and others of the second half of the 19th century, who emphatically rejected the idea of programmatic music in favor of "pure music". Music, wrote Hanslick, by its nature "is specifically musical. By this we mean that the beautiful is not contingent upon nor in need of any subject introduced from without, but that it consists wholly of sounds artistically combined." This was a reaction against the Wagnerians, who claimed that the day of pure music ended with Beethoven, and that the art needed the crutch of a program to advance.

Is it true? Is pure music dead? Do we need theatrics to prop up out music?

But even "pure music" is programmatic, in the sense that it is the expression of the composer's inner thoughts and feelings. "Is not all music program-music?" asks Charles Ives in "Essays before a Sonata". "Is not pure music, so called, representative in its essence? Is it not program-music raised to the nth power, or rather reduced to the minus nth power? Where is the line to be drawn between the expression of subjective and objective emotion?"  In the case of Ives, of course, much of the external referents of his music is explicit. His first string quartet, for example, quotes from six American hymns, and is a conscious attempt to create an American music. And it really sounds American, whatever that means.

I am a believer in the return of meaning to music. And for this reason I want to recommend  New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini's series of videos on his top 10 list of great composers. His seat-of-the-pants method of analyzing music ties the technical structure of pieces - the harmonic structure, the rhythmic changes, all the things we studied in high school and wondered why - to their musical meaning. This is the way music should be understood.