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Music: Where It All Went Wrong

Music: Where It All Went Wrong - iAM Education

Following on from our colleague Prof. Punktarious’ last blog in the iAM Provocative series, he’s back, after the summer break…and with his soapbox in hand…

Music: Where It All Went Wrong (and yes, it did!)

By Professor Punktarius

Some might say I am Bach-ing up the wrong tree, or even climbing the wrong Green Mountain (get it? Monteverdi – for those who don’t speak Italian…[superior chuckle ensues]...oh, please your selves then) but to me it all started going wrong a good few centuries back. I don’t mean in ancient historical times. King David and his knackered old ‘Fenderstein’ lute weren’t all that bad an act you know, back in their day singing all those Psalms or whatever it was he did. I may be old but I am not that old you know!

The period I am on about is at the cusp of the Renaissance and the Baroque. Why, oh why did it all change from the lovely crunchy sounds of modal polyphony to a clean cut shabby new major/minor idea? Simpler perhaps? Oh yes, much simpler. Nicer? Some would say much nicer to listen to. Less taxing on the old grey matter? Definitely. But boy, oh boy, how damned boring it all became, and personally I blame old Monteverdi. He took some real good material and new ideas and stuck in easy listening chords here and there and, hey presto, just like today, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and they are off like the proverbial Grand National horses. No stopping them or even a second thought for all that glorious music they had been listening to or writing in the tried and tested ways before all this shambles began. So was it all a good idea or not?

Most people never think of whether what Claudio introduced, along with a few other less salubrious celebrity composers of that time (such as the murderer Gesualdo, the sycophant  Cavallieri and the egotist Caccini) was actually the right path to take or not. Most don’t consider it, think about, or even question it. They, just like sheep, accept the fact that they are all going to jump off the cliff because the first one fell by accident and it seems like a good idea at the time. Well…stop accepting everything was a bed of damned roses and start questioning things. There will be a test later so pay attention. [fist hits desk….hard]

So what happened then to make my blood boil? Well, someday Claudio and others must have woken up and thought “Hey what a great idea, let’s put some major and minor harmonies to our melodies instead of all this constant polyphony and let’s make some nice sounds instead of all this clashing stuff.” No, I don’t really think it was at all like that, but you get the picture. It came about by accident, as all ideas usually do in music. Its melody sounded better with certain intervallic support and slowly but surely these traits became the dominant features. It just so happened that it took root in the music of Monteverdi more than his compatriots and detractors. This was really first evident in Monteverdi’s masterpiece Il Combattimento di Tancredi and Clorinda. A form of Intermedi with an allegorical meaning. For those hard of understanding: a short opera with few players and singers who tell a moralistic tale. Ok, got that? Good. Well here it is.

And so we now have the starts of major and minor in this along with the modal melodic writing and ideas of the Renaissance.

As the Baroque period came into existence this idea of keys that were either major or minor (for those who need an explanation, generally major=happy, minor=sad (what I have to put with nowadays!). Just listen to the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

It is dark and threatening. This idea of greater emotional expansiveness is what was most appealing to the composers of the time, not the trickery of twisting sounds in the air like threads of gossamer. The contrasts capable between the major and minor was most salivating to the palate and this led into the classical period where whole works were based on this thinking. Just think of Mozart and how his music shifts happily between major and minor and nothing in between. No ambiguity or questioning. Playing it safe again I suppose? (he said with tongue firmly implanted in cheek…oh go on, shoot me for that one as well!)

Dreary old Haydn bought this idea of contrasts to its pinnacle with the style known as “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress). Not only did he contrast soft and hard, light and dark, but also major and minor. What a big mistake. Just look what he unleashed for inspiration to others!

Now, Beethoven was something of an exception in that even though he, along with everyone else, had jumped on a bandwagon. He also tore these ideas to pieces to reassemble them how he wanted them. Something of a clever dude I suppose. You only have to look at how the musical Romantic movement took what dear old Beety had done and then screwed it all up, producing such incidious works as Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, Berlioz’s yawn making Symphonie Fantastique and of course, the narcoleptic’s nightmare, Brahms. The only really fantastic thing about it is the fact it was even played at all. No accounting for taste I suppose. [haughtily sniffs the air]

This idea of stretching major and minor continued until it began to unravel and come to bits at the seams with the works of Bruckner, Wagner and Gustav Mahler. They pushed and prodded it with sticks until, like a snake, it bit back becoming so bloated and sluggish that something new had to be found, as the proverbial dead end had finally been reached, and there was no way of turning back and heading in the other direction (even though some composers like Stravinsky, Martinu and Hindemith tried to do just that). It was too late and the door had long closed on the world of music that should have been. This was just interminable swimming around on the spot…treading water musically. (Oi! You at the back, wake up and listen!)

The final nail in the coffin came when a certain hero of mine, a mischievous Dr Arnold Schoenberg, came along and said “enough was enough” with all this major/minor rubbish, “let’s try and start anew”. He came up with a new theory, Serialism; not by accident this time, that relied on similar principles of counterpoint and lines that were in themselves imbued with the ideas of the medieval and renaissance interplay and developmental principles. It didn’t matter whether the notes jarred or clashed it was the emotional dramaticism that counted. Only a few composers took this all on board and began writing in this manner. Even then, as usual the rules had to yet again be broken by some clown or other. At least though, for a time, we had escaped the excesses and banality of major/minor harmony.

Schoenberg - such a bundle of fun
         Schoenberg: such a bundle of laughs

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that nearly all new composers accepted that major/minor harmony was dead in the water, outmoded and gone, thankfully. Everyone was writing in new ways just like the freedoms of the pre-major/minor times. Ah the good old days! Then some American idiot in the 1960’s decided he wanted to play it safe and use major/minor again as a basis and so Minimalism was born. Oh dear, old habits and all that.

It has reached a point now that (thankfully) you can write in any manner you want and even dare to mix atonalism with minimalism, with major/minor and, God forbid, the Devil’s music too (Jazz and Rock music).

Well…maybe not that particular example, it clearly doesn’t always work! [cruel chuckle ensues]

So, have we actually learnt anything by taking a wrong direction all those years ago? I personally can’t see that we have, but then some may say that the Prof’ has gone soft in his old age (and no, no I damn well haven’t!). I still think we could have got here by 1700AD instead of waiting around for the Schoenberg Express in 1909AD if we hadn’t screwed up a perfectly good mode of expression and thinking. What was achieved in those intervening years? Well? Little, is all I can say.

What do you scallywags think? No, actually stop right there, on second thoughts I don’t want to hear your inane babblings. Go away! I am off for a glass of claret in the Prof’s study.

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