Monday, 12 April 2021

Charles Rosen / lecture on modernism

An interesting time capsule: a video of a lecture by the late musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen about modernism in music.

I stopped watching after half an hour, because Rosen simply follows Schoenberg’s mistaken idea of the ’emancipation of the dissonance’ as an inevitable historic process undermining tonality and leading towards ‘acceptance’ of all 12 notes of the basic musical material. Thereby, playing examples, Rosen isolates details to show this ’emancipation’ but thereby destroys their linearity, their being embedded in a whole – as is obvious with the Mozart ‘dissonance quartet’ example. It shows the problem of modernism: invervening rationally into a texture and destroying its organic wholeness. It is like taking X-rays of lips and MRI scans of brains to explain a lovers’ kiss.

If you think a dissonance is a thing that can be emancipated, you don’t know what a dissonance is…. A dissonance is a tonal relationship in a particular context: and such relationships have different effects in different contexts. Or said otherwise: in a particular style a dissonance can sound as a consonant or the other way around. (An example of the peculiar latter is the sudden sound of a major triad in Berg’s painfully-chromatic opera Wozzeck when a protagonist utters the word ‘money’; another is the sudden and entirely unexpected tutti fortissimo triad in the chromatically floating Adagio of Mahler's 10th symphony, announcing approaching catastrophe.)

Starting from such false premises makes all that follows intellectually chimaeric and nonsensical. Rosen never noticed the fundamental character of the modernist ‘music’ par excellence: sound art, i.e. pattern making, to keep the sound objective, removing the subjective side of music which is carried by tonal relationships.

The rest is linguistic confusion: what is meant by ‘difficult’, on which level, in which context? Music is not a rational art form, but a psychological one, and ALL rational structuring – however complex or simple – is merely a means to an aesthetic and thus, psychological end.

There is a passage in Satie’s cantata ‘Socrate’ where, at a dramatic moment in the text, the orchestra merely repeats a succession of triads in the doric mode (d to d) many times. It is impossible to find a more ‘stupidly simplistic’ musical idea, a child of 4 could find and play it thoughtlessly. However, Satie laboured for weeks on end to find the right music for that very spot, throwing away many attempts. Till he found those crazy repetetive simple triads and knew: this is the right music. And it is: the effect is wonderfully expressive – why? Because of the context, of the work’s idea and style, because of the text, and of the particular moment in the text, and the aesthetic background of Satie’s work. Such an example completely dissolves any argument Rosen could have come-up with.


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