13 enero 2011

Music and Sentiment (Charles Rosen): Chapter I


“Understanding music in the most basic sense simply means enjoying it when you hear it”. In this book, Charles Rosen tries to allow us to comprehend how music is full of sentiments and how these sentiments are showed.
  1. Fixing the meaning of complex signs
At first, Rosen prefers not to name the sentiments: “music is much more precise in these matters (sentiments) than language”. He says that, with language, we can give information but that isn’t valid for music. However, when the sentiment is evident, Rosen doesn’t avoid naming it, but the identification of the sentiment isn’t his principal task. This book tries to explain how sentiments are represented in music, for example, how a motif could have different meaning depending upon its position (“a motif repeated does not have exactly the same meaning the second time).
Thousands of years ago, music already had sentiments, for example, as we can read in an example of the book that describes how Pythagoras ordered the band to play in a different mode to change the behaviour of the people.
However, Rosen remembers that “experiencing a sentiment in life is very different from experiencing that sentiment represented by a work of music”. In this case, we have a distancing effect.
In opera, supposedly, the sentiment is given by the libretto, but is a mistake to consider the text as primary. In fact, by the end of the eighteenth century, some musical theorist (like Wilhelm Heinse) affirmed that music was more important than text, so words illustrated the music. But, according to Rosen, music and text are inseparable and both must be understood together “in a reciprocal relationship”.
Sentiments in classical music are represented by the relation of consonance and dissonance: “a dissonance is not an ugly sound but an interval or chord that must be resolved into a consonance”. Consequently, “dissonance establishes an increase in tension, and consonance a release”.
Anyway, dissonances and consonances are relative:
The notes of a melody are dissonant and consonant in relation to each other         successively, both to the basic triad implied by each phrase and to the tonic chord established at the opening; and every phrase is consonant or dissonant in relation to any subsidiary tonal centre implied by each section of the work in which it occurs.[…] The different degrees of tension are the initial basis for the expression of sentiment of any kind.
Minor and major modes can demonstrate what Rosen says because minor mode was for a long time considered a form of dissonance. Modulations in the dominant direction are perceptible as more dissonant than modulations in the subdominant. That’s why before 1750, most of the composers emphasized the dominant at first reserving the subdominant for the second half of the piece. In this case, minor mode is more like a subdominant colour. According to Rosen, “we may even conclude that eighteenth-century tonality was actually more complex than nineteenth-century, as harmonic dissonance was defined more strictly and elaborately”. For Rosen, both eighteenth and nineteenth-century tonality were more complex than twenty-century tonality, because in the last century the conception of dissonance between harmonic areas has disappeared.

Rosen says that is not possible to establish a code to recognize sentiments in music because music is a poor system of communication: it doesn’t have a defined vocabulary. This problem was treated by Denis Diderot in Letter on the Deaf and Dumb. According to Diderot, sentiments depend on our disposition, on how we feel when we listen to music. Same music can be felt on different ways depending on the listener. Diderot compares music to painting and poetry with this answer:
How does it happen then that of the three arts that imitate Nature, the one whose expression is the most arbitrary and the least precise speaks the most powerfully to the soul?
For Rosen, due to the ambiguity and imprecision of music, context is extremely important to guess the meaning. He says that, at first, we perceived pleasure, beauty, and these sensations give us access to the real meaning of the music. For example, it is said that music and dance are older than language, as well gardening is older than agriculture.
Rosen affirms that, of course, is necessary a professional training to appreciate some aspects of music, but is not necessary any training to percept sentiments in music. But, we have to remember that there isn’t a code to understand sentiments in music, although some prefabricated motifs are used by different composers. An example of this is a fragment of Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer, where the soprano admits that she loves the tenor and the tenor replies accompanied of a tremolo in the strings and a solo cello. Verdi use the same procedure in Un ballo in maschera, when the soprano admits her love and the tenor replies accompanied by tremolo and solo cello too. But it doesn’t mean that a string tremolo with a solo cello is a symbol of passion. Verdi only used it due to the success of Meyerbeer, but is not a universal symbol.
To understand and enjoy sentiments in music, we must be used to the style, feeling that we are “at home with it”. Rosen mentions some clarifying examples of this:
When Sebastian Bach came into fashion at the end of te eighteenth century, many experienced music-lovers […] insisting he had no feeling for sentiment and knew nothing of the human heart. A simple familiarity with Bach’s work gradually made the next generation aware of its affective power […]
Yet, around 1810, when Beethoven was still very controversial, many were horrified by their first contact with his music […] After later hearings, as Zelter admitted, the majority of music lovers generally became fanatical devotees of his work. 

Talking about music and sentiments, we can’t forget the Affektenlehre. It was like a code of different sentiments expressed with a group of motifs in the early eighteenth century. For example, a descending bass chromatic fourth between tonic and dominant in the minor mode was a symbol of death. But, actually, this was a very common procedure of that century, descending from tonic to dominant was part of the basic musical language of the time. Anyway, this kind of interval has a sad character but not always related to death.
At the end of this chapter, Rosen says that harmony and melody are very important to determinate the sentiment of a phrase, but we can’t forget other aspects like texture or rhythm as well. He exposes a fragment of a work of Beethoven where the harmony is apparently very simple and consonance but, after analysing, we can recognize a A minor chord (second degree in G major) as a dissonance.
In conclusion, if we suppose that music is a language, it must have a vocabulary. Like in painting, in music we can recognize some aspects clearly: birds, countryside character, military, nostalgia… but abstract music uses neutral elements that appear everywhere, all of them similar, In painting, there are theories that associate colours with emotions so, in music, it would be possible to associate keys with emotions. But the meaning of each key is different to every composer, even one key can be considered “bad” by a composer and this composer use it equally (for example, Beethoven declared that A flat was a “barbarous” key and, surprisingly, he wrote two sonatas in it). So we can not determine the character of a piece focusing on the key.    

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