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A literary look at music history
By the time the twentieth century rolled in, classical music was entering a sort of metamorphosis. Over much of the previous three centuries, one of the important foundations of classical music had been tonality - keys, chords and notes that sounded well with each other; another governing principle was formal structure. Between the two of them, they provided organisation to musical sounds, so that tuneful melodies could be played in different dynamics - varying degrees of volume - to convey sentiment. But the dependence on these was slowly decreasing in favour of different ways of creating more emotional range, while still keeping the music organised in some way.
Imagine listening to a traditional children's story. Children know the characters get introduced in the beginning, there is some negative event in the middle, and all is resolved in the end. This familiar structure gives them a sense of where they are as they listen to the story, a sort of mental anchoring of sorts, so that despite how dark the story becomes as it moves towards its negative phase, there is some inner security in knowing it will end up alright. Because children know the everything is positively resolved, the dark phase of the story is free to explore deep emotions such as fear, anger or betrayal, outside the usual comfortable boundaries. The structure of the story gives it license to explore emotional depth.
Composers in the past had been reliant on form as a governing structure and continually expanded on existing ones in order to accommodate more gradations in expression. This of course meant formal structures became more elaborate with the passage of time. From the time of the Renaissance, simple structures such as binary, ternary and short through-composed forms were popular. Over the later Baroque and Classical eras more sophisticated ones evolved out of these, such as sonata form, and theme and variations. Composers continued experimenting with existing forms, and using untapped formal structures such as bar forms but by the end of the Romantic era the use of formal structures to govern music as a primary resort was pretty much an overused procedure. Composers paid less heed to form because it was restricting the emotional canvas.
Imagine children's writers getting tired of writing the traditional stories with happy endings. Visualise them writing a story, coming to the dark part, wanting to explore even darker emotions in the next section, but being suffocated by the knowledge that they have to return to the happy resolution soon. This is the literary equivalent of how music composers felt formal structures in music restricted the outpouring of emotional output.
Harmony would also follow the same path as form. Music had been governed by tones, notes and chords and like form, by the approach of the twentieth century, composers felt that the method of using scales, chords and keys had been exhausted. When musical tunes did undergo development, they largely passed through keys related to the original, and even if they didn't, they all had to return to the original in the end. It had all become a little predictable and stereotypical, just like handsome princes rescuing beautiful young ladies from evil step-mothers, only to discover the object of their affections was actually a sibling from whom they were actually separated at birth.
For composers, writing music in the same way as it had been done in the past would not be composition - creating new things, ideas and sounds; nor it would not be evolution, but merely repetition of traditional ideas ad nauseam.
And hence composers sought for other areas of inspiration from which they could begin. One of these was the twelve-tone system popularised by composers such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, called serialism, where music would not be biased by having to use certain related chords within a key, but a means of ensuring equality within the notes through the rule that a note could not be repeated until all the other eleven had been utilised. This of course gave rise to a more dissonant style of music, as not all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are harmonious with each other, and with the redundancy of tonal structures that had governed music for centuries, audiences were not necessarily accustomed to such harmonic language.
Imagine the letters of the alphabet. One day someone declares that the rules of language are dead. Henceforth a sentence will not have a subject and a verb, and parts of speech such as relative clauses, non-defining relative clauses and the rules of grammar are dead, because they have too much influence on the text.
For example, if you wrote a sentence beginning "I was ... ", the verb that followed had to be in the continuous form ("going", "running", "eating").
And if someone declared that instead of the language rules, texts would be written in the alphabet, but each letter could only appear after the other twenty five had been used. You would get linguistic chaos.
Sczab delmghin kyjx profq wuvt
But out of the chaos, you might get a more primal, rawer form of expression.
"Sczab!" "Delmghin kyjx?"
Welcome to serialism.
And of course not everyone embraced the switch to a dissonant style of music espoused by the Second Viennese School. In the quest for originality, others sought inspiration from within their own culture and folk tradition, composing music that promoted their own heritage. The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was no different. But he arguably went further than other composers in his time, not just composing music that sounded Hungarian in its atmosphere, but by using the actual folk tunes in his music as raw motivic material, generating ideas off them.
It is easy to see in hindsight how Bartok's compositional style would have arrived at that stage. Like many others, he entered the conservatory and was well schooled in the Germanic tradition of Brahms. His original intentions were to become a concert pianist specialising in the music of Liszt, but that never materialised. Despite the early setbacks in Bartok's career as a composer, he persevered and in the course of his compositional career he wrote three piano concertos. The first two demonstrate the use of the piano almost as a percussion instrument, in their driving rhythms and raw sound, while the last, written at the end of his lifetime, is a return to a more Classical sound.
Bartok remains arguably an eccentric figure in music history and his music perhaps demonstrates that by the time the Romantic era approached its finish there were a myriad of ways and styles available, and musical organisation would be regulated not by musical elements, but by the purpose and function of the music.
In other words, if you are writing a piece of music that is free in form but dissonant in sound, make sure your audience is aware of what you are trying to recreate, so that they are able to mentally organise and relate what they hear to an impression, so that they are able to make some sort of relevance to what they hear.
But can newly-composed music exist as an entity in its own? In other words, can audiences listen to it entirely on its own, purely for what it sounds, without any indication of what it is meant to represent?
A good way to answer that question might be to ask yourself: would you read a book without knowing even what genre it was from in the first place, let alone what it was about?
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