Monday, December 15, 2008

"Music of the Gods?" Part III-Romanticism and Sense of Life

So far, Perigo has offered a basic definition of the musical elements. We still need a definition of Romanticism in the context of music. Perigo continues with a laundry list of achievements:


We know that in the Romantic period (nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) composers and performers pushed the boundaries of every musical element, primary and secondary, achieving an unprecedented emotional expressiveness while avoiding the descent into the atonal anarchy that followed. New instruments, bigger orchestras; new forms, and the expansion of old forms; the coming of age of opera and ballet; virtuoso stars, like our modern-day “celebs” only with talent; the cult of the conductor; more inventive melodies using bigger intervals between notes; greater dynamic range—fff (fortississimo: very, very loud) to ppp (pianississimo: very, very soft); more daring harmonies (chromatic and dissonant, without recourse to the sabotage or assassination that became de rigueur later) modulating more frequently into other keys; more rhthmic variety, including greater use of syncopation, rubato (bending of the rhythm),accelerando (speeding up) and ritardando (slowing down), changing of the time signature within movements, etc. They honored but were not straitjacketed by the formalism of classicism, stretching but not eschewing the rules that make music cohere. They knew with their predecessors that coherence was integral to integration, and integration to harmoniousness, and harmoniousness to beauty. They exercised freedom within the rule of law—the perfect mirror of what was going on politically.

Perigo's knowledge of musical history and terminology is impressive, but how does he link this list of achievements to the concept of Romanticism?
Thus did they bring individualism to music—they were each distinguishable from the other; each imposed his distinctive stamp upon the form without going out of it (at least not to the point of disintegration). They united the idiomatic with the idiosyncratic, reason with emotion, Apollo with Dionysus (albeit with a leaning towards the latter, via, it must be admitted, that villain Rousseau). They transformed the “universal language” into an individual language.

Perigo is correct in his usage of Romanticism in relation to the idea of individualism, as Rand used it, and as against the conventions of the "classical" period. But I submit that his "laundry list" does not explain what Rand meant by Romanticism. He makes much talk of form:
Romantic-era composers kept the forms of Classical music. But the Romantic composer did not feel constrained by form. Breaking through boundaries was now an honorable goal shared by the scientist, the inventor, and the political liberator. Music was no longer universal; it was deeply personal and sometimes nationalistic. The personal sufferings and triumphs of the composer could be reflected in stormy music that might even place a higher value on emotion than on beauty. Music was not just happy or sad; it could be wildly joyous, terrified, despairing, or filled with deep longings.

Romanticism, as defined by Rand, was in opposition to Naturalism; one held up free will and the other determinism. Rand talked of Romanticism of this kind in the arts, particularly literature. But she made sure to define it against the use of Romanticism as used by the philosophers of that time, particularly the "Byronic" view of existence (which Perigo acknowledges in his reference to the "villainous" Rousseau.) Now, Rand clearly defined what she meant in regard to Romanticism (see the essay "What is Romanticism?"), but she never stated what Romanticism meant in a musical sense, at least not explicitly, and it's been a point of debate ever since. (Indeed, the big argument has been how music qualifies as art in Rand's definition, since Rand claims that art "recreates reality," and there is much debate on how music does exactly that.) Musically speaking, form is required in the sense of hierarchy of tones, but apart from that, it’s not clear that a sonata is “better” than a song, or a symphony “better” than a sonata. More complex? Sure? But better morally? It doesn’t stand. Yet Perigo speaks of “the rule of law” when he talks of composers not feeling “constrained by form.” Who sets these “laws?” The nature of consciousness dictates what an individual can or can’t integrate. From there, however, it is not clear that nature dictates a sonata or cantata, so more is needed from Perigo to qualify such a statement.
Though Rand didn't spell out "Romanticism" in music, it's not wrong to say that the composers such as Beethoven WERE asserting their individuality against the strict form of the classicists, much as Howard Roark, via Lloyd Wright, built skyscrapers instead of copies of the Parthenon. Perigo DOES touch on components of what it means to be a Romantic composer, but his laundry list of achievements is not the end of the story. First and foremost, being a Romantic musically requires independent judgment. It requires an individual reaction to the music one is composing, and/or listens to. If Romanticism requires value judgments, one must be allowed to judge for himself what one can or cannot integrate. Rand outclasses Perigo in her analysis of music and cognition, which is why she can be forgiven for her more glib statements. But even she knows the boundaries, even when giving warnings against "modern" (atonal) music: "in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music." (Her argument is against "noise": "it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but the physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain.") Perigo also is right in that the Romantic composers DID expand the vocabulary of music expression, which IS an achievement along the lines of a technical achievement, of a "scientific nature." It is overstating it, however, to say that an artist must use ALL of those tools in order to be considered Romantic. Again, Romanticism is about free will versus determinism, not about virtuosity, and if an artist voluntarily limits his palette, it is no crime if he is still able to express himself freely.
Perigo claims that Romantic music employs form and structure while not FEELING constrained by form and structure. Well, if he were an honest critic, he would know that most rock music does have form and structure (or at least show proof that it doesn’t), and that many rock musicians would classify as virtuosos. Perigo states elsewhere that the diatonic scale was a great achievement that should not be overturned; well, rock musicians DO use the diatonic scale, very few would could be accused of employing the 12-tone row or atonality (or pan-tonality, for the technically minded.) It could even be argued that most rock musicians are CONSERVATIVE, being that rock music is a "genre" invented for marketing purposes, invented to sell to a mass audience. It could be argued that basic rock music is more akin to "folk" music in its simplicity, but that's for another argument. But Perigo's treatment of "rock" music needs to be considered in light of this statement:
This superiority can also be ascribed, I should add, to the myriad forms of what one might call “mini-Romanticism” such as operetta, musical comedy, jazz (the intelligible kind), pre-80s pop, movie scores, Ayn Rand’s “tiddly-wink music” and so on. The standard pop tune of my youth was a veritable miniature sonata with a clear theme, stated, developed then reiterated (A-B-A), value-orientated (usually about love!) with meaningful if unchallenging lyrics, audibly articulated. Any of the foregoing is superior to Slayer and all other headbanging caterwauling.

Again, Perigo is not a stupid man, he has demonstrated his knowledge of musical form, so what is the basis for his ignorance? Most rock songs ARE built around an A-B-A form, and beyond. The issue of lyrics is simply irrelevant, many people are moved by songs in foreign languages that they do not understand, so the meaning of the lyrics has no bearing here. And it is Perigo who is being a classicist with his emphasis on the sonata form.
(On this note, I'd like to present a comment from Perigo's essay that appears in the beginning: "Here I propose to deal only with the “arguments” of the caterwaulers; the case for or against including the likes of Mahler among the Great Romantics will have to wait ... ". But this exclusion is telling when one considers Perigo's "list" of achievements of the Romantics. Indeed, he does set up the debate as being between Romantic music and "headbanging caterwauling," but if he were to address Romantic versus Romantic, he would have to confront problems within his own preferred style that betray his basic thesis, that Rand was wrong in her call for more information before judging. For example, even in the time of his favorite composers, there were complaints about music that was "too intellectual" or "too demanding," such as the work of Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven, which led to a public preference for Italian composers such as Rossini, who was said to "have been brought into this world for the express purpose of conjuring up visions of ecstatic delight in the commonplace soul of the Average Man." This is somewhat ironic, given Perigo's next arguments.)

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