the secret garden: Rosen, Poe, and Music's sublime deficiency [Tue, 20 Aug 2013 18:42:35 +0000]
I'm shacked up at home for several days, of ill health and without Internet - accursed gossamer, the lack of which is by design and seems to have led to the desired increase in thinking and reading - as in real books, those that rest upon canvases of paper. I send this missive, of course, by other means [http://maps.google.com/maps?oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=benelux+cafe&fb=1&gl=us&hq=benelux+cafe&hnear=0x89ac5a2f9f51e0f7:0x6790b6528a11f0ad,Raleigh,+NC&cid=0,0,6474560201572537015&sa=X&ei=PLwTUtW7MIakyQHov4CwDg&ved=0CDIQrwswAA] ...
As to the reading of things, I recently finished Charles Rosen [http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/arts/music/charles-rosen-pianist-polymath-and-author-dies-at-85.html?_r=0]'s tome The Classical Style [http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/75932522], a book I should have read eons ago in music school. Not that it was ever assigned to me. Rather, I simply should have been responsible enough to have read it.
At any rate, the copy of the book I borrowed from my local university library is now littered with pink sticky notes which I intend to revisit in order to make a spreadsheet of all the choice quotes and any brief musings they conjure as I gently swoop down upon them once again, largely removed from their immediate context to be sure, but then again that is the point. They made me think; thus, they deserve a second glance.
After finishing The Classical Style, I've now begun Rosen's The Romantic Generation [http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/31710528].
I'm still reading one Chapter 3, "Mountains and Song Cycles", but the other night, as I was reading, I recalled a specific argument I had - those eons ago while I should have been engaged with Rosen's grand opus on the "Big Three" of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven - with a gentlemen on the old classical guitar email listserv. That was during the days when the discussion topics were of relative importance. They were less so of the variety of which strings one likes best, assisted fingerings for trivial passages, and hyperlinks to musical trinkets as seen on the YouTube.
The argument stemmed from my declaration that pure, instrumental Music has no inherent narrative value. As one who composes, I do rather enjoy inventing fanciful titles to pieces either after their completion or at least during their more adolescent stages, when some semblance of a distinct musical personality begins to emanate from the conglomerate womb of staff paper, scribblings, brief audio snippets, and questionable memory - both muscle and mental. That enjoyment aside, I still, to this day, stand my ground.
The gentlemen argued that Music does indeed have a narrative quality in that a composition and a given performance has, as it were, a Beginning, a Middle, and an End.
That "they lived happily ever after" upon hearing the fourth of the Ninth [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._9_%28Beethoven%29#Fourth_movement] does not, to me, qualify as evidence undeniable of Narrative.
As to the performance, I think it is the performance itself - that is someone's act of performing - that has a narrative.
I countered with only a slightly more vulgar variation on "So, too, does the act of relieving oneself have all three!". I cannot recall the consequences of my loose words nor the response, but I do recollect at some point not too far from that day I'd read an essay of Poe's (Edgar Allan) which I interpreted to support my position - all the while Poe presenting this lack of narrative ability as a strength, a liberating quality.
I cannot now remember the essay title. I do, however, believe that I read it in the one book that I hold to keep with me until I, or the volume itself - a 1927 edition of the "complete" works of Poe, purchased from a used bookstore those eons ago - breathes its last.
I think it may have been "The Poetic Principle [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/poe/poetic.html]" although I cannot be certain until I re-read the essay in earnest and then again only if I can harness, in part, my interpretation of old.
Rosen, in discussing the elevated status of song by the Romantic composers and Music's anti-literalism, writes on page 132:
"Considered as a form of speech, music is deeply imperfect: it does not rise to the level of even the simplest forms of communication; it cannot convey a proposition."
The word "communication" is a land mine unto itself, but no matter. *I think* it clear what *I think* Rosen "means".
Earlier, on page 131 Rosen discusses the yearning of the other arts, specifically as exemplified through landscape painting, to achieve what is enviable in Music - the ability to access emotion without "reference to history or myth". But he asserts this not to be imitative on the part of any of the arts, as he writes on page 125:
"The creation of the song cycle is a parallel to the replacement of epic poetry by landscape poetry and the elevation of landscape painting [italics mine] to the commanding position previously held by historical and religious painting - more than a parallel, indeed, as these achievements supported each other, and were all part of one cohesive development."
And this is where the matter at hand became almost diabolically stirring, much like the rapturous endings of Poe's best.
While perusing "The Poetic Principle" for references to Music and its powers of non-communication, I happened upon the following:
"The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes - in Painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance - very especially in Music - and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the composition of the Landscape Garden [italics mine]."
Update, Septemebr 29, 2013: I just wanted to add this passage from Chapter 4 of The Romantic Generation, "Chopin: Counterpoint and the Narrative Forms". Rosen writes of the Ballades: "The Ballades are in narrative form but without a program: if there ever was a program that inspired them (they have been said to be based on poems of Adam Mickiewicz, but this is very doubtful), it is no longer relevant for their understanding. There is no narrative sense of opposition and developing struggle: the narrative form is filled by a lyric content. The movement of the Ballades is that of a story (and old story in verse with a refrain), but there are no events, only elegiac expression. This was Chopin's individual solution to the pseudo-problem [italics mine] of Romantic program music that Schumann, Liszt, and Berlioz fretted over."