The Romantic Generation

Some notes below about thoughts and ideas that drew my attention in Charles Rosen’s fascinating book “The Romantic Generation” (one of the recommended texts for Stylistic Techniques). I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Chopin’s Ballades – I was captivated by these when I first heard them as a child and never get bored of listening to them, so I found it very interesting to explore what makes them so successful.

“Conception and Realization”

  • The conception (compositional idea) and realization (performance/sound) of a piece of music began to have a closer relationship in the 19th century
  • Musical aspects such as timbre, register and dynamics started to take on more importance – no longer merely a layer on top
  • Example: the changes of register in the melody line in the opening of Chopin’s Ab Ballade are essential to the overall conception of the piece
  • Schumann’s innovative use of the piano’s sustain pedal shows his heightened awareness of the sound – in Carnaval he employed it to obtain harmonics by depressing keys silently while the dampers are released
  • Contrast with the figured bass of Baroque times where performers, not composers, controlled many details of the final sound such as the spacing of the chords
  • The Romantic Etude tightly links idea and realization. Many of Chopin’s Etudes were studies in tone colour instead of / as well as technical challenges
  • Liszt’s music was also particularly focused on tone colour, and his technical innovations on the piano enabled him to obtain new colours and textures

Form

  • As a consequence of the above – dynamics, tone colour etc. started to be used to shape the form of a piece
  • Classical structures such as Sonata form and binary/ternary forms were used less rigidly
  • Chopin’s Ballades are examples of music that develops more organically, sometimes with significant development or change at the very end of a piece (this would have previously been very unusual). Characteristics include:
    • A kind of ‘narrative form’ but without a corresponding program (a sort of abstract story telling)
    • Lyrical in style
    • Structured through variations in intensity, conveyed through changes in texture, tempo etc.
    • Continuously developing form, in contrast to Classical forms with clear section markers
    • Often polyphonic, with inner voices being important to the overall expression

Harmony

  • Chopin treated relative keys as a single tonality (see the F minor Ballade, which slips in and out of Ab major)
  • The dominant harmony no longer always plays a key structural role
  • Expression conveyed through dissonance – often in the form of ornamental notes on top of the basic melody
  • Tonality sometimes ambiguous
  • Interesting discussion on the relationship between harmony and counterpoint:
    • Consonance/dissonance dictated by the rules of counterpoint
    • Melodies contain implicit harmony (e.g. Bach’s solo instrumental suites)
    • Berlioz was criticised for employing harmonies that seem to contradict the melody, however this can create a certain expressive effect
Advertisements

Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich

I was inspired to read this autobiography after learning about the censorship composers like Shostakovich had to contend with in Soviet Russia in the early twentieth century.  It’s a fascinating insight, not only into Shostakovich’s life but also that of many other composers and musicians – Glazunov and Prokofiev to name just two.  It reveals a very human side to these people, and tells of the fear and desperation they endured in a political climate in which many felt forced to write ‘denunciations’ of fellow composers simply in order to survive.  It’s also engrossing to read from a musical perspective, describing how Shostakovich composed, his opinion of other contemporary composers and how he felt about the receptions of his works.

The Study of Counterpoint

This fascinating book is the English translation of Johann Joseph Fux’s ‘Gradus Ad Parnassum’, first published in 1725.  It was written as a dialogue between student and master about the art of music composition, and counterpoint in particular.  It was a very influential work and is known to have been studied by eminent composers such as Bach and Beethoven.

The book lays out a method or a set of rules for writing counterpoint, with lots of examples and exercises for the student to complete.  It was interesting to read the author’s observation in the foreword that:

‘..music has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself..’

It just goes to show that musicians have always been rebelling!

Here are a few examples of the rules given for two-point counterpoint:

  • Avoid difficult to sing intervals such as tritones
  • Never use similar motion towards a perfect cadence
  • Never leave the unison / octave consonance by a step-wise motion
  • Dissonances are permissible only during step-wise motion

The first is I think still very relevant, even when writing for instrumental music.  After experimenting a little with the second two I tend to agree that this approach ‘sounds better’, although that could very well be because my ear is used to hearing music where these rules are followed.  The last one really needs to be analysed in the context of when it was written – at the time the perfect fourth was considered dissonant, so it would be interesting to explore this further.

Another piece of advice I found quite useful is that the student is encouraged to think of the line as a whole, not just note by note, for example there may be parallel fifths or octaves that are obscured or hidden by an inconsequential note in between.

 

Temperament

Iscoff, S. 2002. Temperament. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

This book has the subtitle ‘How Music became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilisation’, and is a fascinating perspective on the development of the equally tempered scale.  The history of this development is intertwined with science, art, politics and even religion; I had no idea just how polarising the subject has been over the centuries.

As a pianist the story is especially interesting, since the keyboard played such an important role.  I would love to get my hands on one of the prototype keyboards designed to try to overcome the tuning problems by having multiple keys per ‘note’ – as if playing the piano is not hard enough!

As a composer the subject opens up many pathways for exploration and research.  Just what is it that makes the frequency ratios 2:1, 3:2, 4:3 etc sound so ‘right’?  Many musicians from the time found even the slight deviations from these pure ratios required for equal temperament abhorrent; our ears are accustomed to them but are we missing out on something as a result?