Saturday, 7 May 2022

Ordering life experience


Music – art music - is stylized psychology, in the sense of offering an experience in sound of life experience, in terms of metaphor. It is not about the ‘what’, but about the ‘how’, and not merely as a reflection of experience, but organised, structured according to organising laws which are absent in the pure processing of direct emotional stimuli. This is the reason why music, written long ago, is still accessible to contemporary listeners, from different times and different places and cultures. Music addresses a perceptive framework deeply embedded in the human psyche, on a level where emotional stimuli are ordered and thus given meaning, even if this meaning is impossible to pin down.

But how does this work in practice? Let us take an example, and why not a very popular and great work: the Second Piano Concerto of Brahms – and have a look to the impressive first movement.

The material consists of two different types: the first one in major, announced by the horn theme with which the piece begins, with the character of a positive, welcoming question, vaguely invoking ‘nature’, as a tender voice from afar beckoning the listener into its sphere. The theme is worked-out in a way which suggests some trouble to come, like a positive, optimistic mood sometimes being undermined by something like premonition. The second type, following the first, is different: an intense, stormy group of themes and motives depicting conflict and downright despair in its wandering harmonies and insistent phrasing - darkness has descended. What follows, is an extensive ‘discourse’ of conflict and worry, and when the tumult dies down in a cloud of shimmering vagueness, the horn theme from the beginning rises above the mist, as a sun after a bad night. The return of the first material after the turmoil solves the conflicts and shows the overcoming of despair. But after that, the second material returns as well, as if the music wants to make sure it is not forgotten. But now, this material appears in the context of solution, which gives it a different meaning: yes, the darkness is still there, but it has been integrated within a context of meaning and overcoming. Again, the music dissolves in a desintegrating cloud and the first theme rises again, as a reassurance. And the rest is an insistent confirmation of the overcoming of darkness and despair, concluding in the major.

It is in this way that music orders emotional experience, without suppressing negative emotions, but overcoming their destructive effects and giving them a meaningful place in the context of the whole. It is a psychological process of integration. This reflects a development of inner growth, a way of coping with negativity, without denying its impacts, but offering a way of dealing with them in a constructive way.

This is a quite Jungian way of looking at classical music, but has the composer meant it as such? After all, the return of the second material is also simply a requirement of classical form: first, an exposition with two contrasting material types, followed by a develoment section, followed by a recapitulation with again the two types of material. So, the ‘overcoming’ is also determined by an aesthetic formula. But the original classical structure of this form (the ‘sonata allegro’) is defined by the relationships of keys: in the exposition two different keys are established, and after the development section, both material types of the exposition return, but now all in the original key of the beginning. So, this ‘overcoming’, this symbolic synthesis, is already embedded in the key structure of the original aesthetic idea. This way of exploring difference and, at the end, harmonizing the differences, is a deeply psychological feature, stemming from the idea that in life experience and human development, harmony and balance should be the goal. Hence the term ‘classicism’, with deep cultural roots in the culture of the ancient Greeks.

Of course there are many different ways to achieve such harmony in form and meaning, but the idea of an ordering balance of forces and expressions remains an inexhaustable source of inspiration and psychological meaning. Brahms, who had a profound relationship with classicism – taking as his examples the icons of classical music: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, plus more contemporary sources like Schumann and Chopin – struggled to get different life experiences synthesized in his music, and the rightfully famous Second Piano Concerto is one of the greatest testimonies of his power to achieve such synthesis.

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