“I don’t get this piece of 20th century music”
December 9, 2018
I sent my friend Roy a recording I made ages ago with the Polish violinist Hanna Lachert. Among other things it contained the three “Myths” Karol Szymanowski*. Part of his response was: “What’s the structure of these pieces? They seemed episodic, and I did not recognize the music as being in any traditional form.”
I once read an article by Sir Donald Francis Tovey*, about the first movement of Beethoven’s “Arch Duke” trio. He compared “side by side” a phrase taken from later in the movement with one taken from near the beginning of the movement. At first they seem totally unconnected: different number of notes, different rhythm, etc.. However, Tovey demonstrated that if you connected the two phrases with a series of in between phrases heard during the interim in the same movement, they form a chain in which each link in the chain was clearly related to the link before it. If you skipped from the beginning to the end of the chain, the ends seemed to have nothing to do with one another. But if you followed the chain one link at a time you could always see, going on, a process of gradual transformation, or morph-ing. Each link “developed” into the next.
If we let the links of the chain be made out of statements of the same musical theme, each next version of the theme brings out things that were more hidden in earlier version of the theme, though, ‘in retrospect’, were clearly based on what was latent or implied in the earlier version.
Something that was potential in the previous version the theme, had become actualized in the next version. Tracing the history of these statements of the theme, from one version to the next, you would discover that each next step has kept something essential of the spirit of the preceding manifestation of the them, and so on all the way back to the beginning of the movement. When looked at from this perspective, one not only grasps intellectually, but literally ‘hears’, the later material as a true derivation of the beginning theme.
The above process is contained within a single movement of a piece. What if we extend the process to one composer and the another through the span of a century? In the case of Szymanowski the links were forged from the eve of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth.
We would witness the analogous process at work. Each next, great composer, more fully developed something that was lying there in the previous composer, but now developed more fully.
One of the things that makes it harder to see this relationship over decades or even centuries is from our standpoint in the 21st century, what Brahms or Mahler realized out of the essence of Beethoven or Schubert, we now take so for granted, that we “see it” already when we look or listen to Beethoven or Schubert.
If we arbitrarily pick three times: Beethoven’s, Brahms’s and our own era. The quality that was first fully exposed in Brahms’s works we attribute it “backwards” to Beethoven. We hear things in Beethoven that he would not have heard. This leads to some odd observations. Due because of the order within my personal life in which I got to know, let us say Beethoven and Brahms, I would say: “how clever of Beethoven to have stolen this idea from Brahms.”
I think the way to understand the structure in a work like that of the Szymanowski, is to conceive of a process that begins historically with a very clear structural ordering of parts in a movement, perhaps that of a late Haydn Symphony. That the next step in this process takes place a number of years later, say at Beethoven’s time. Comparing the Haydn with the Beethoven we see that the latter has changed the way one of the structural parts of the Haydn evolves into the next. Same two parts, but differently connected. Or the greater or lesser aesthetic significance one of the structural parts has for Beethoven than for Haydn.
Then another decade or two goes by, and similar transformation takes place to the Beethoven. And so on. We continue this process until there is a linked chain of developments from the structure of Haydn to that of Szymonowski, with the latter being simply the “latest” but probably not the “last” state of the evolution of the structure in a movement, a process continuing in our day.
I got this response back from my friend***:
“What a great reply! This explains to me, actually, why a work like Szymanowski’s Myths seems so familiar in its structure, but when your mind tries to analyze what your ears receive, it’s difficult to understand the form. The listener’s emotions flow right along with what’s happening, indifferent to any question of logical process, because, I feel, that that historical underpinning, as you so eloquently have said, is there, even though it’s so difficult to pinpoint. This seems like an In Medias Res kind of issue. Whereas in the Beethoven, as Tovey points out, there is a beginning and a conclusion, both related to and supporting one another, in these Szymanowski pieces, he starts in mid-historical stream, so to speak, and then has a problem about how to conclude. In popular recorded music, they just do the “fade out”, where the music just gets softer and softer, until it disappears. Szymanowski does something similar, sometimes concluding pianissimo, but with a short little epigrammatic phrase that is really quite clever and surprising. In a sense (or so it seems to this musically uneducated mind), he is able to enact a temporary resolution to the piece. You’re mind says, this is the conclusion, but your emotions tell you that nothing really ends, and the music is still going on, but inaudibly, awaiting another composer or composition to revive it. Schubert often does something like this in Die Schone Mullerin (sorry no umlats) by creating a running figuration in the piano, which breaks right through the last sounded note, and keeps going as an earwig in the listener’s mind. Feel free to post this on your site.
Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 – 10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer, conductor and pianist.
*** Please search for Roy Doughty’s poetry on line; you won’t regret it. Here is a link to some older poems: http://doughtyspoetry.com/page/2/