By Charles Rosen
Yale University Press, 2011
In his book Beethoven, Sir Donald Francis Tovey sets out to explain the great composer’s expansion of classical harmony. Consider, he asks us, the sixteenth fugue of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier:
You see that [Bach] answers his subject in the dominant minor, and that he needs an extra bar in which to get smoothly back to the home tonic for his third entry…
Now consider how you would like an answer in the dominant major. You may take it that, for the purposes of modulation—that is, for change of key—the dominant key of a minor key is always minor. That being so, the subdominant key will also be a minor. It is the key to which the home tonic is dominant, but now notice the peculiarity of the minor subdominant…
Wake up! I’m sorry. No more of that, I promise. You probably have no idea what he’s talking about. Classical music has an air of impenetrability and stuffiness about it (as you can see, even its musicologists are primly named), and Mr. Tovey shows us one reason why: though most people don’t understand musical notation or the theory underlying it, nearly all classical music writing relies on it. Even in Gramophone, a magazine pitched to the general reader, theory lies under the surface, bubbling up now and then, mocking your incomprehension. How are you supposed to locate the development section of a Haydn sonata?
Luckily, things have gotten better in the electronic age. Before the gramophone was invented, if you wanted to read about classical music, you simply had to learn to read music – you had to learn another language. But as recordings came into the household, if you wanted to read about, say, the Romantic composers and you couldn’t read music, there was a rough short cut available: you could try to follow an author by listening to the music they wrote about, matching sounds to words and notes. Alas, you needed a pile of money for the stereo and huge record collection this approach demanded; neophytes stuck to Classical Thunder or Classics for Relaxation, if they bothered at all.
Today, the initiate has a better option: YouTube. You’ll need to buy headphones, but that’s all. You don’t even need a computer, just a library card or a generous friend. YouTube has just about every piece of music you could need, and often in fine performances as well. (If you want free lessons in music theory or sight-reading, YouTube has that, too. Your patience, I promise you, will be rewarded.) For a tiny investment, it’s now possible to read a relatively advanced book about classical music and understand the gist of what’s being conveyed. More importantly, you’re also more apt to enjoy yourself.
There still remains the task of finding good writing, and for that, one of the most reliable authors is Charles Rosen. He was just into a career as a concert pianist when he stumbled upon his matching gift for prose. The sleeve notes on his first Chopin record described one of the nocturnes he played as “staggering drunken with the odour of flowers.” “I had I had many thoughts about the piece,” he told the Guardian,
That was not one of them. So I started writing the sleeve notes myself. People liked them and after a while a publisher took me to lunch. Before he even offered me a drink he said he would publish whatever I’d like to write. Eventually it led to many books and articles. But to begin with I wrote just to keep nonsense off my record sleeves.
His first book, 1972’s The Classical Style, is still a standard for anyone who wants to understand the musical world of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. His newest, Music and Sentiment, endeavors to explain the metamorphosis of the representation of sentiment in classical music, from Bach and the Baroque to the moderns that few seem to stand or understand. To keep the book from growing unwieldy, he mostly confines himself to the initial presentation of a musical theme. Rosen makes few concessions to the uninitiated, and a mere decade ago, someone wishing to grasp what he has to say would have had to know music theory, or have a record collection which spanned three hundred years, from J.S. Bach to Alban Berg. Using our new tools, we’ll follow him by skipping over the difficult theory and replacing the notation in his book with the actual music – difficult enough to conjure in your head even if you know the language.
The Baroque era, which began around 1600 with Monteverdi and climaxed with Bach, was governed by what musicologists call “Unity of Sentiment.” Virtually every piece had a single rhythm, a single idea to express. A composer could thicken or thin the instrumentation, or add ornamentation to the melody, but the chief means of expressing emotion was harmony. “Affective meaning,” as Rosen explains,
is created by the relation of consonance and dissonance…a dissonance is not an ugly sound (some dissonances will seem exquisitely beautiful to any listener) but an interval or chord that must be resolved into a consonance…. Dissonance establishes an increase in tension, and consonance a release. Strictly viewed, everything in a tonal piece is more or less dissonant except for the tonic triad with which the work must end.
Think of the tonic triad as a home chord that a melody implies and at which it must finish. Listen here to Bach’s famous “Air” from his Orchestral Suite in D Major:
The gentle, sweeping tempo is unchanged throughout; there’s nothing abrupt or radical here. Instead, sentiment is conveyed by the sonorous interplay of the instruments, and, of course, Bach’s melodic gifts. Remember that the melody must end in the tonic. The initial statement of the melody lasts about forty seconds. Now, play it again, but stop the playback at any note before the 46-second mark. Doesn’t work, does it? That’s because the dissonance between the notes hasn’t been resolved. Let it meet that final note, and the tension is gone.
There is an enormous range of expression possible within a system like this, and as Rosen notes, once you understand the expressive language a composer is speaking, ostensibly subtle changes begin to mean more to you – one thing ceases to sound like the next. Here’s another example from Bach, one Rosen uses to show what was possible when a composer tests the limits. This is Glenn Gould playing the Allemande (a dance form popular in Baroque music) from the first Partita in B-flat Major:
The tempo, like before, is constant. The top note of the running figuration in the beginning ascends three times, ratcheting up the tension until the bass jumps in to change the tone and sing its own theme alongside the treble. Then the quicksilver notes jump to the left hand and the right takes up a second theme before the two finally unify. The whole section is repeated in full before the final portion, starting at 1:11, which begins like the two previous but moves into minor keys, which you’ll notice because they tint the familiar themes with a bit of pathos. Bach is bringing us right to the edge of the Baroque period:
Although accompanied by no break in the continuous motion, the undulations of expressive intensity are extraordinary…the variations are so significant that we might like to claim that the sentiment has altered as the work proceeds, but there is no place where we can draw a line to differentiate one affect from another. We may retain the idea of unity of sentiment, provided that we understand that the basic sentiment is presented in an ever-changing chiaroscuro.
This makes a fine place to turn to Haydn and Mozart. The rudiments of the classical style are already here – what Rosen describes as “establishing a firm tonal basis, contrast, increasing excitement and pathos, and eventual resolution” – but “not the classical articulation,” the stark contrasts, the easily discernible changes in sentiment and the structure designed to support them.
The resolution of dissonance remained a crucial part of the composer’s repertoire until twentieth century, when tonality itself became passe. Mozart and Haydn broke the Baroque mold, and essayed themes and melodies with techniques that often shocked their contemporaries, as atonal composers like Schoenberg would surprise their Romantic predecessors over a century later.
To harmonic dissonance the Viennese masters added thematic dissonance: melodies no longer had to be monolithic, and very different sounds could be combined within a single musical phrase. But these clashing notes needed resolution, too. Rosen shows us Mozart’s Viola Quintet in C major, a splendid example because the opposition is not only between disparate notes but different instruments, here the violin and cello:
After the instruments make their initial statements, Mozart achieves a partial synthesis by inverting the instruments; a reconciliation has begun. Later on, six minutes in, Mozart goes a step further, allowing the two statements to overlap partially, and they “become much more of a single if more ambiguous effect.” Mozart brings them even closer together at 8:30, and finally switches the two motifs back to the instruments they belonged to in the beginning. The union is complete. With this technique, Rosen declares, “the representation of sentiment in music has become a new art: a sentiment is not something static but a character in an action, in an agon.”
Mozart and the elder Haydn were contemporaries (the latter taught the younger for some time, and would tutor Beethoven for a few years as well). Each knew the other’s work well, would borrow and elaborate and refine ideas, or do something entirely different with them. Haydn, for example, rarely used oppositions of character within a single phrase, preferring instead to create dramatic contrast by realizing a single theme in completely different ways. In his Piano Trio in E major (Hob. XV.28 is the catalogue number, if you’d like to pick it up), after the violin and cello have plucked the main theme, the piano takes it and does something radically different:
The theme morphs again at 4:40 (in the middle of that pesky development section), unplucked, in a different key, and set in further relief because the opening contrast didn’t involve any change of key. “Of course,” Rosen writes,
dynamic contrast and echo effects were possible many years before the last decades of the eighteenth century when Haydn wrote his great trios, and so, certainly, was the addition of expressive ornamentation, but nothing like the astonishing and dramatic juxtaposition of two ways of playing a theme could have been realized before this time.
These early fireworks were changing the nature of music: dramatic shifts of sentiment used to be saved for the middle of a piece, well after the main themes were presented. Now that drama was being displaced to the beginning, resulting in more multifaceted, more complex, and more intense music.
Ludwig van Beethoven represented these qualities in extremis. His was at once grander and more personal than his predecessors. This sometimes lent his music what music historian David Dubal calls an “ethical ring.” At times Beethoven seems to be dealing with existential crises and metaphysical questions, and in his Ninth Symphony and its “Ode to Joy” finale, with its call for universal brotherhood, he does that explicitly.
What strikes you first when you compare him to Mozart and Haydn is his intensity. Consider his Third Symphony, done in heroic style (originally written for Napoleon, a dedication which the composer scratched out when the diminutive Corsican declared himself Emperor), where Beethoven takes the continuous increase of intensity to a new extreme, and does so in the middle of the piece, no less, not its climax. It begins at about 7:40 and continues for a minute (though to get the full effect, you need to start at the beginning):
Notice too that when the music recedes back to a familiar theme, the pitch of emotion is relieved, not resolved. You have to wait until the end for that to come, and every twist and turn after that is colored by the resolution you’re still anticipating. The revolutionary quality of Beethoven’s music stems in part from his continuous experimentation and willingness to push past old barriers, even his own: he outdoes this moment in the Third Symphony a year later, in the tumultuous first movement of the Appassionata sonata.
He also built upon Mozart and Haydn, playing with the compressed opposition and reconciliation of tiny cells of sound, making music more esoteric, intense, and sometimes very strange, as in his Piano Sonata in E minor (Opus 90), published in 1815, a favorite of mine which Rosen uses to demonstrate the point.
It begins, as Rosen has it, with “a commanding and peremptory two bars of forte,” but the second half of the phrase, separated by a short rest, is in a lyrical piano. The opening bars are repeated again, but this time the soft counter statement continues, growing quieter and lower, further widening the expressive gap with the first notes. Then Beethoven does something incredible. He continues in lyrical style but superimposes the original theme on top, in the highest registers of the piano, and displaces the counter statement to lower registers, connecting both with a slur (an arcing line indicating that all the notes it covers are connected to each other), and ordering that they be played at the same volume. The dynamic opposition of the beginning is not only reduced but “overridden.” The new theme is a hybrid, something resigned and sad, a combination of the rhythm of the first and the lyricism of the second, but unlike either. “In short,” Rosen summarizes,
all the articulated oppositions of the style that Beethoven inherited are realized now with an organization that is much more tightly knit and subtly unified. Starting with two opposed phrases, a rise and a descent, and then combining high and low registers together in a more intense expression, has the effect of narrative form. It has a plot.
Like almost everything else he did, Beethoven’s crescendos were bigger than anything anyone had heard before. The beginning of his famous Hammerklavier Sonata (incidentally the largest sonata ever written at the time and for some time after) opens with an epic contrast, a clangorous double statement of fortissimo chords, followed by a soft and lyrical passage. Rather than combine the two, he brings the second into the world of the first chiefly by raising the volume.
The Romantics who followed would hew to a very different aesthetic from the Classical masters, but Beethoven’s radical intensity and heroic sense of individuality would continue to guide composers for nearly a century.
After Beethoven, themes with self-contained contrast nearly vanished. As Rosen explains, drawing on the wide ambit of his interest (I commend to you his essays on art and literature):
Just as Romantic poets wanted to realize, not the underlying logic of experience, but its continuity – not a series of independent events, but the metamorphosis of one state of sensibility into another – so the precise and dramatic articulation of late eighteenth-century musical style….became not merely old-fashioned but even antipathetic for the most progressive musicians.
We have seen how Beethoven reduced contrast between notes by slurring them. This he did for lengths a little longer than those Mozart or Haydn would have contemplated, say, no more than one or two dozen notes, as we heard in the Hammerklavier. Chopin would slur notes for pages.
Though the Romantics returned to something like the Baroque era’s “Unity of Sentiment,” they continued Beethoven’s expansion in other ways. One method was density. Listen to Chopin’s first Nocturne in B-flat minor, Opus 9 number 1, published in 1833. After the first, brief statement of the theme, Chopin amplifies the intensity, not by any of the various means employed in decades past, but through an extravagant use of ornamentation:
As with the big contrasts and transformations of Mozart and Beethoven, the decoration Chopin employs here was something heretofore used for the central development of a piece of music, a technique the Polish composer borrowed from Italian opera. Chopin was a small-scale dramatist – almost all of his works were for the piano – but he was a radical innovator nonetheless. Compare that early Nocturne with one published just three years later, Opus 27 number 2 in D-flat Major:
As in the Bach example we saw above, the shifts in expression are subtle: there is no easily identifiable border at which you can mark a clear change in sentiment. The melody expands its range, the rhythm grows more disturbed and the notes more dissonant. “All this is done,” Rosen writes, “with no feeling of contrast or opposition, a unity that results in a continuously growing passion.”
A generation later Richard Wagner took the constant increase of intensity further than anyone else: some of his music is characterized by nothing but escalation. The infamous prelude to Das Rheingold is a pleasing example (much of his music, like his personality, is excruciating), one which director Terrence Malick used for the glorious opening of The New World:
Romantic composers experimented with other methods of tension-building. Chopin’s Ballade in F major (Opus 38) heightens it by changing nothing at all. The idyllic tone of the opening continues unaltered. We wait for the expected change, and it never comes. The theme doesn’t evolve; it simply recedes into quiet. Then, after two long minutes, the music explodes:
Some pieces begin at the most extreme pitch of intensity, “starting,” Rosen says, “at a level of tension that makes only a descent into exhaustion possible,” before the composer jerks us back and subjects us to it again, foreshadowing the obsessive quality that characterizes much of the music that followed Chopin and Liszt, and which remains with us to this day.
Most people are put off by modern classical music. If eighteenth and nineteenth century composers seem difficult to understand, the principles behind moderns like Schoenberg are more forbidding – they appear to be art born of psychosis. This is an excessive though understandable reaction. But there is something to it.
As the music of the nineteenth century evolved, the diatonic scale of the Baroque and Classical period, which was specifically regulated so that the notes of a seven-note scale were separated by five whole tones and two semitones, began to disappear. We needn’t dwell long on the technical aspects of this. What is important is that nineteenth century tonality was becoming increasingly chromatic. The notes of the twelve-note chromatic scale are separated only by half tones, so, very simply, though they made new key relationships and sounds possible, they began to drown older, more clearly defined tonal relationships. The “home notes,” the harmonic foundations and clear transitions of the Baroque and Classical periods became increasingly hard to discern, as Rosen explains:
In eighteenth-century music each chord and each note has a measurable harmonic distance from the tonic… and functions as if it were moving away from, or towards, resolution. This gives each phrase of a work a precise tonal significance that allows the listener to feel the precise degree of harmonic tension… The richer mediant relations that dominated the nineteenth century made a new range of affects possible but reduced the simple precision of harmonic meaning that was more easily audible to earlier listeners.
By the advent of the twentieth century, tonality itself seemed inadequate, just as the old forms of art seemed ill-equipped to interpret a modernizing world, and composers began to abandon it altogether, or fashion their own systems of musical organization.
With Brahms, a contemporary of Wagner, we aren’t there yet, but we can see how composers were beginning to adapt to the tonal revolution that was coming. In his Intermezzo in B minor, the top notes of the repetitive, descending phrases are held until the next phrase, and the second note is held until the third is finished. Each successive note “reactivates” (as Rosen has it) the note or notes above, allowing the sonority to build gradually, even a little obsessively:
A generation later, composers like Debussy and Ravel were using tone color in the same way Chopin used ornamentation, that Beethoven used volume, and that Haydn and Mozart used thematic opposition. Listen to Debussy’s incredible Prelude, “The Engulfed Cathedral,” published in 1910. We’re not outside of tonality yet, but we’re close: can you sense a home key anywhere, a point at which the music could rest if you stopped it? This and the use of the color the piano is capable of producing give the piece a wandering, imagistic quality, like a mural, which is exactly what the composer had in mind. You can almost see yourself floating through the nave of a flooded church:
Ravel, a rough contemporary of Debussy, had frequent recourse to another technique that Debussy used as well: the obsessive repetition of a single note, chord or phrase, which could lend a piece the definitive character that tonality could no longer bestow. Ravel went furthest in Gaspard de la nuit, a tone poem for piano, a piece which also has picturesque tonal qualities reminiscent of Debussy. The first piece, “Ondine,” is “the sound-image of a nymph” and “opens with the shimmering of light on water,” a trilling sound that, slightly altered throughout, characterizes most of the piece:
Tone color could be used for darker effects. The music of the Russian composer Scriabin is neurotic, despondent, sensuous or mad, or all at the same time. He was drawn to mysticism and prone to delusion – his unrealized ambition was to create a gigantic, multimedia uber-composition, which, when performed in the Himalayas, would create a kind of Armageddon, a religious synthesis of all the arts which would signal the dawn of a new world. But when he wasn’t contemplating the ludicrous he could write music that conveyed a manic, orphic sensibility unlike anything heard before. He published this, his Fifth Piano Sonata, in 1907 about midway through his career, as he was abandoning tonality:
About a decade later, hundreds of miles to the West, in Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg was creating with the dodecaphonic, or twelve-tone, system, which avoided tonality by sounding each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale as often as the others. This is what it sounds like:
I don’t like this music and find it difficult to see how anyone could, but Schoenberg was the most influential composer of the twentieth century, and Rosen, strangely, ignores him. After Ravel he touches on Alban Berg, a somewhat similar contemporary of Schoenberg, and then brings his tour to an abrupt end on a note of uncertainty:
The second half of the twentieth century still seems chaotic in retrospect with all of the competing ideologies: neo-tonal classicism, neo-tonal romanticism, orthodox dodecaphonic style, Darmstadt serialism, minimalism, neoclassicism, and so on. If serious music survives in something like its present form, in a decade or two we may have some idea of which fraction of these competing dogmatisms will remain seductive and coherent.
It’s difficult to argue with this, but in his other career, as a pianist, Rosen has chosen to play many of the composers bound to these “dogmatisms.” So who better to explain them? Still, we can take comfort in the possibilities modernity affords us, and continue ourselves from the spot where he left off, learning about what we don’t understand and searching for something striking, some sentiment that hits home.
Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.