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Saturday morning quotes 3.45: Ars longa

March 22, 2014

Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons.
[The prime source of good writing is good judgment.]

Ars Poetica, Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC – 27 BC)

Peering backwards in time for the purpose of examining the cumulative knowledge (and multitudinous mistakes) of our forebears reveals patterns of behavior and endlessly repeating cycles, indicating that, collectively, we aren’t very successful in this enterprise of learning from history.  While there are many amusing examples that readily support this observation, at least for today we’ll stick to the subject of music, words, composing, and the endlessly repeating cycles of change and changing back again.

We can speculate that “plainsong” was once plain, words sung to their inherent spoken rhythms.  Since (most) humans abhor simple repetition, there must have been experimentation and variation from the very beginning.  Pope Gregorius I (c. 540 – 604) is either lauded as the great codifier of Gregorian chant, or accused of chucking the more interesting local traditions of chant for the sake of a more uniform ritual. Troping, or adding textual and melodic variation to chant, was noted as early as the ninth century, later developing into the nascent polyphony of Magister Perotinus (c. 1200).  When more than one voice is declaiming a text at slightly offset intervals, the meaning of that text can become a bit obscured by the variety of vowels and conflicting consonants.  When more than one voice riffs on a single syllable of text in rhythmic triple-time for the span of several minutes, as in the organa of Perotin, listeners can become confused and Councils are convened to address the issue.

The cycle turned towards simplicity and, as early as the late 15th century, church officials with a grammarian bent attempted to adapt (hack away at) the existing melodies of liturgical chants in order to follow the natural accent patterns of their texts, truncating the long melismatic phrases of earlier chants.  There is a parallel in the secular music of the time, as evidenced by the popularity of the relatively simple poetry of the Parisian chanson, apparently cultivated in reaction to the complex repeating forms fixes such as the rondeau.

But the cycle turned again and later in the 16th century airy simplicity gave way to complex polyphonic treatment, resulting in reforms in sacred music mandated by the Councils of Trent, and derisive remarks from the likes of Vincenzo Galilei and Count Bardi regarding the competition of sounds in polyphonic settings of secular poetry.  This led to the monophonic declamatory style of Monteverdi, pretending to simplify music for the sake of words yet rendering the words unintelligible with long stuttering melismatic lines of bellicose barking sounds assigned to a single syllable.

So later in the 17th century, music became puritanically simple again with tuneful melodies and a rejection of complex polyphonic episodes.  Then along came Bach, famous for writing long melismatic phrases on a single syllable, but with the added feature of Ha-ha-Ha-ha sequences that must be navigated as they leap from one odd interval to the next.  The cycle turned again and music became simple and galant, classical in form and utterly predicable.  This time the turning of the wheel was slowed, impeded through most of the 19th century and almost breaking loose through the bombastic excesses of Beethoven, taking a long rest on the overstuffed furniture of Brahms’ parlor, and finally collapsing under the weight of  the massive overly-long indulgences of Mahler—although he did write a few nice songs.

The badly-bent wheel began to squeak along with the nonsensical experiments of the early 20th century, with composers competing to prove that not only was music no longer functional but, with a bit of elbow grease, it could be a means of conveying all that is truly ugly and horrible.  The wheel was finally repaired with the rise of Broadway musicals that produced harmonically interesting and attractive dance music as well as songs with melodies that are actually singable.  But this was the realm of popular music rather than art music, which many agree has simply lost its way in the modern world.

Currently, the cycle seems to be completely stuck because things that turn are analog and do not conform to the boring uniformity of the relentless exchange of ones and zeros.  Over the last several generations, the archetypal composer is seen as a tortured soul who is driven to use odd devices just for the sake of standing out among the crowd and being noticed.  To achieve this end requires the rejection of conventional things like melody, harmony and beauty .

Some of us believe that art shapes the public perception and can change the tenor of the times.  It may very well be that the world is a less than wonderful place because music of today is so very, very ugly.  Perhaps it may take a generation or two to achieve, but looking backwards in time and recognizing the patterns and cycles is the basis for gaining knowledge and developing a good judgement—and a way forward.

Ars longa, vita brevis, iudicium difficile.

  1. DFavid Lamb permalink

    “… the world is a less than wonderful place because music of today is so very, very ugly.” Yes, much of it is. But I think the real problem is that much of it is so very, very dull. I can stand ugliness if it is also interesting and thought provoking. But dull music contributes neither emotional nor intellectual rewards. There is some truly fine music being composed these days, but it is generally not the music that wins big awards and commissions. It takes some work to discover these gems, but it is worth it. David Lamb in Seattle

  2. Thanks for your reasonable and enlightened comments, David. I admit to overreacting in making such sweeping dyspeptic generalizations concerning the current state of music, but the standard fare really is fairly dismal. One encounters so much tedious and formulaic music because that is what sells, and the music industry moguls are so panic-stricken over their dwindling profit margin that they simply no longer take risks with music that causes consumers to do anything other than reach for their credit card.

    Donna points out that there is a fairly well-established repertory of more recent choral music that tends toward the melodic. But having spent a great deal of time immersed in very old music, I hear so much new music that is not merely derivative but outright uncredited quotations of older pieces. In fact, this seems to be the standard in pop music. The act of creating a deliberate mash-up of sampled material (more often than not violating copyright law) with prefab synthesized rhythm tracks really is the industry norm today.

    In my opinion, art music thrives among those willing to ignore the status quo, which is really the lowest common denominator.


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