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     Dec 23, '13

What is musical style?
By Spengler

The physicist Max Planck, whose concept of quantum mechanics set in motion the 20th century revolution in physics, couldn't make sense of Western movies. During the 1920s, he would go to the cinema with one of his students and pepper him with questions: "Who are those people? What are they doing there? What's happening now?"

If you are baffled by what seems self-evident to other people, it does not necessarily show that you are stupid: you simply lack

the cultural expectations to make sense of the sequence of events.

Most people today find themselves in a position analogous to Max Planck's in the case of classical music. We lack the points of references to form expectations about where the music is going. What distinguishes Western classical music from all other tonal art, observes the dean of American music theorists Carl Schachter, is that "it creates a sense of the future". Once you form expectations about the future, a broad palette of emotions becomes accessible: suspense, anticipation, triumph, humor, or sensual self-absorption.

Bach wrote for a public that learned to sing four-part harmony in compulsory elementary education. In Mozart's Vienna, a servant in a respectable household was expected to play an orchestral instrument in a home orchestra. Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann wrote for a middle-class public for whom the piano was the home entertainment center. Even then, Chopin complained that most pianists resembled an actor who had memorized lines phonetically in a foreign language he didn't understand. Only 8% of Americans play a musical instrument, according to the 2009 census. More sing in choruses, although the data are unreliable.

We still can hear a great deal of what music tries to tell us, to be sure. Perhaps the most effective composer working today is John Williams, a gifted purveyor of musical cliches, who succeeds precisely because we need cliches in order to form expectations about where music leads us. We know instinctively that the music for Star Wars is heroic, that the Raider's March is self-deprecating as well as heroic, that the Jurassic Park theme is nostalgic, that the opening music for the Harry Potter films is weird, and so on.

Williams is not a great composer but a gifted craftsman, who proves that the classical style of composition never will die out, as Professor Carl Schachter once said, because the cinema needs it: it's the only kind of music that can tell a story.

The subtlety of the great composers, though, mostly eludes us. We have to train our ears up to the level of their audience to follow their moves, and the work involved is considerable, as I learned teaching music appreciation to undergraduates and theory to graduate students. Almost everyone understands what John Williams is doing; almost everyone who tries understands something of what Bach or Mozart or Mendelssohn is doing. One meets music lovers all the time who have an impassioned involvement with the great composers but feel frustrated at their incapacity to grasp the whole picture.

Once in a very long while a new insight emerges into the workings of the great composers, and it is cause for great joy among those who care about the cultural heritage of the West. One of these insights has just appeared in print, a posthumous work, sadly, from an Israeli music theorist, Erez Rapoport. Dr Rapoport was my fellow student and friend, and I had the honor to prepare his dissertation for publication.

Erez died four years ago, a few weeks short of his 50th birthday, depriving the world of an exceptional mind and a generous soul. Fortunately for the musical world, he brought an important new idea to fruition. To be sure, one isn't supposed to review a book one has edited, but this is not a review, it is an encomium to the work of a departed friend.

Musical "style" - the idiosyncrasies that distinguish the music personality of a Beethoven from a Mozart, or a Chopin from a Schumann - is one of the hardest attributes of music to explain. It's like pornography: we can't define it but we know it when we hear it.

His book centers on Mendelssohn but proposes a more general idea about how composers form expectations. Musical form is something we take for granted. When we hear the antecedent phrase, "Way down upon the Swanee River/Far, far away," concluding in dominant harmony, we know that the consequent phrase ("That's where my heart is turning over/That's where the old folks stay") will return us to tonic harmony.

Virtually every pop standard falls into three parts: a first section in tonic harmony, a bridge leading to dominant harmony, and a repetition of the first section. Great composers work in more dimensions. The boundaries of musical form, the markers in time for our expectations, are there to be bent and sometimes broken. How composers traverse formal boundaries is a hallmark of style. Form leads the listener into the music with a set of expectations about the way a piece will begin, develop and conclude.

The great composers play with their listeners' expectations arising from form, Rapoport shows, but in different ways and to different effects. The rules of form are there to be broken, but not broken in an arbitrary way: the way in which different composers smooth over formal juncture or displace or disrupt them is key to the composition effect they wish to achieve.

Most of Dr Rapaport's book, of course, is devoted to a comprehensive review of Mendelssohn's approach to formal junctures in a wide variety of musical forms. This remarkable body of investigation is conducted in the service of an ambitious project: to understand how the "subjective" feel of musical style arises from compositional practices that can be identified analytically.

To trained ears, Mendelssohn's style is unmistakable: There is no-one who sounds quite like him. A differentia specifica of this style is the treatment of formal boundaries. As Rapoport wrote:
Mendelssohn habitually evades expected divisions between formal units. These consistent efforts to avoid the expected norms with regard to certain formal boundaries are an unmistakable feature of his personal style. In trying to assess this salient feature, we can perhaps view the effect of smoothing over formal divisions as a unique synthesis, resulting from Mendelssohn's attempt to reconcile two apparently contradictory principles of composition: first, the Baroque ideal of constant motion, momentum, and growth (especially relevant in this respect are genres which habitually feature a one-part tonal structure, such as binary forms and fugues); secondly, the Classical standard of clear formal articulation, which often yields distinct division and repetition; this is the usual practice both in small forms - ternary and rounded binary prototypes - and in sonata forms.
Dr Rapaport advances here nothing less ambitious than a unified approach to analysis by form and analysis by voice leading, in the common interest of explaining what for lack of a better term we call "style": the unique and personal characteristics that make a composer recognizable even to untrained ears.

The dialogue among the great composers, becomes vivid in Dr Rapaport's discussion of stylistic borrowing. Mendelssohn's affinity for the music of J S Bach is universally acknowledged. The smoothing-over of formal junctures, though, is an investigative premise that helps explain just how this influence operates. Rapoport argues:
Impossible to prove as it might be, one could assume that Mendelssohn's superb technique of bringing back the beginning of a theme seamlessly, often emerging almost unnoticed out of a fresh harmonic and rhythmic context, can be linked to his excellent knowledge of Bach's fugues.
Mendelssohn's Instrumental Music was written by a professional theorist for professional musicians, and employs the graphic system of analysis developed by the great Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). This powerful analytical tool for the hearing of deeper structures in tonal music is impenetrable to the untrained, and a great deal of Dr Rapoport's discussion will be inaccessible to non-professionals. It is a book with which to teach teachers, and teachers at an advanced level. Nonetheless there is a great deal of material that will be of interest to musically literate laymen.

This book is our inheritance from a career cut off much too soon, and its wider impact will develop over time. Nonetheless, its appearance should be a source of satisfaction for all of us who strive to maintain classical music as a living art form that speaks to a contemporary public.

Mendelssohn's Instrumental Music: Structure and Style by Erez Rapoport (Pendragon Press, 2013). US$48.00; 182 pages.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. He is Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You, also appeared that fall, from Van Praag Press.

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