Explorations - 20 Essays In and Around Music, Sound, Literature and Places

Essay, 2012
67 Pages



In and Around Music


Let me say at the outset, and to forestall at least some of the criticism that is likely to pursue these offerings, that they are not meant to be dry “academic” essays, and should not be judged as such. I sincerely hope that the reader of them will not need a dictionary to hand, as can be the case with much so-called academic writing where the rule seems to be “always use long and obscure words in preference to short and commonplace ones- and the longer and more obscure, the better.” Thus, in the pages that follow, there are no phrases whose meanings are as impenetrable as:

“(Lyotard) is led to a valorisation of difference, of contrary repressed impulses, open to the multiple and incommensurable.”[1]

And that contemporary favourite “paradigm” does not once occur. However, to write succinctly and informatively about a subject as complex as music, does need some use of musical terms, which I have tried to keep to a minimum, and then only in those pieces concerned with technical matters such as harmony and form.

The essays are divided into three sections: those featuring some of the composers whose music has been of particular significance to me; then a group of pieces on compositional matters including aspects of style and form such as minimalism, improvisation and repeats; and finally a miscellaneous group on diverse topics including education, the sonic environment and the meaning of music and art in general.

The final essay entitled “Explorations” is a summary of those many enthusiasms that I have indulged in over the years, but actually, all the essays are attempts at sharing my love of music, sound, literature and places without in any way pretending to be authoritative. In fact I discovered that the more I try to write about a subject dear to me, the more aware I am of not knowing nearly enough about it. Therefore I plead guilty if it is levelled at these pages that enthusiasm outpaces concrete knowledge, although I would hope that it could not be said of them, as John Butler Yeats once said of his more famous son’s opinions, that they are drawn “from the depths of (my) ignorance”. I have tried not to theorise, feeling that there are altogether too many theories in the world. Some of these items celebrate, some explore. They are simply the results of numerous interests which I just do not want to keep to myself any longer. Whether this is wise or not- let the reader judge. The least I can hope is that I might stimulate others to explore some of the subjects which have inspired and indeed kept me going (mentally that is) through six decades.

Michael J Regan, New Malden 2010


Recently a friend, whose opinions I respect, said that he found the music of Palestrina, and of the Renaissance period in general, to be uninteresting because it was too much bound by “rules”. Now I have to admit that there is an element of truth in his statement concerning rules, or shall we say restrictions, which pertain to a large quantity of music of the 16th century, and that Palestrina took to its limit all those tendencies towards a refined harmonic and melodic style which had taken shape from 1500 onwards. But I doubt that he would have called them “rules” or found them irksome.

The fact of the matter is that what was uppermost in Palestrina‘s consciousness in relation to his art (and this is something we can hardly comprehend today) was to find the most perfect way of expressing profound religious doctrines. To this end, and not for any musical reasons, did he employ so many restrictions on melodic shape and harmonic style.

That Palestrina’s music has, when sympathetically performed in a resonant location, a great beauty of sound will impress itself on any receptive listener but it is a rarefied beauty devoid of any extremes of human emotion, an Apollonian beauty which can only come through the discipline which his self-imposed regulation of melody and harmony imposed upon it. And is it not true that when we listen to such depth of beauty as for example the Missa Papae Marcelli what does it matter whether the music follows rules or not?

If we today find Palestrina’s music too bound by rules, or too restricted in its colouristic palette, or too unemotional to engage our attention, these are our problems- not the composer’s. We have been so conditioned by a century of rejection of rules, which we now believe to be perniciously restrictive of artistic freedom, that we can no longer put ourselves back in time to when what we regard with suspicion were living and respected conventions followed by the majority of the artistic community. That former era of the community of artists working within a single universally understood style has been replaced by that of individualism taken to extremes. in which each artist cultivates his own plot without any regard for the well being or the comprehension of his art as a whole.

So I would urge, come to Palestrina with an open mind (and ear), forget everything you have heard about him and his music, whether for or against, and just listen.



In Herman Hesse’s semi-autobiographical novel Steppenwolf[2] a contrast is drawn between the life of the main character- the Steppenwolf himself- Harry Haller, which is depicted as disorganised, aimless, without belief or hope, and the abundantly creative, overcoming and fulfilled lives of those few whom Hesse terms “immortals” – in particular, Goethe and Mozart. Of the latter, Hesse says that

“Mozart’s perfected being …[is] the outcome of his immense powers of surrender and suffering, of his indifference to the ideals of the bourgeois, and of his patience under that last extremity of loneliness which rarefies the atmosphere of the bourgeois world to an ice-cold ether, around those who suffer to become men, that loneliness of the garden of Gethsemane.”

Humanly speaking “immortality” is of course, impossible. As a species we had a beginning in time on this planet and no doubt we will have an end also. But there are degrees of immortality if we use the term to mean “exceptionally long lasting”. Thus, a brief selection of prime candidates for “immortality”, whose works and thoughts live on and are always fresh and relevant to our unchanging human condition: Homer, the Greek dramatists and philosophers, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Rubens, Michelangelo, Milton, Handel, Bach and, of course, Mozart. In the works of these and others whom we consider to be among the geniuses of humankind we recognise a lasting quality, which every generation can come to and be moved by. We may not be able to pinpoint exactly what makes for a work of genius, but we can sense that such a work will always speak with the same degree of forcefulness to each succeeding generation.

Concerning works of music, Busoni in his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music[3] says

“The spirit of an art-work, the measure of emotion, of humanity, that is in it- these remain unchanged in value through changing years; the form which these…assumed, the manner of their expression, and the flavour of the epoch which gave them birth, are transient and age rapidly.”

Where does this mysterious quality of unchanging value of spirit, emotion and humanity reside? In music, we think it must be in the notes- the sounds as conceived by the composer and played by the performer. But may we not agree with Charles Ives’ father when he said that music is not in the notes and that if we pay too much attention to them we will miss the music? Thus the “music” in Ives’ meaning of the term is not in the notes as written on the page. Nor is it in the notes performed, and perceived by us as sounds. Mozart and, for example, Dittersdorf[4] used the same notes (the 12 in the chromatic scale), the same instruments and voices, the same forms, and even the same melodic and harmonic formulae, and yet one is regarded as a supreme master and the other as no more than a competent minor figure. Rather, does not the identity of any piece of music lie in the relationships between the notes, how one note follows or combines with, another, and is it not in these that we discern the value and quality of a work?

It may be useful at this point to remember the literal meaning of “composition”[5], i.e. “putting together”. The secret of the immortals is not so much that they invent new things but that they put together existing things in ways that convey depth of expression (for want of a better term) and that will always move and excite us in whatever time or place we encounter them. The minor artist will entertain us for a while, but we soon tire of his offerings- attractive though some of them might be. Also minor talents cannot say things that are able to outlast the styles of their times and be as effective in meaning for later generations, as Busoni hints in the quotation above. Great works transcend the style of their era and speak always with the same intensity of expression.

All great, as opposed to merely proficient, composers either break “text-book rules” of harmony, counterpoint, etc. or else impose their own stylistic restrictions- as could be said of Palestrina, for example. It would take another essay just to begin to illustrate how Mozart “puts together” in ways which are both more original than his lesser contemporaries, but also more daring, in that he breaks the “rules” of what was acceptable in harmony and, especially, in the treatment of dissonance, during his time, but never steps beyond what is still a recognisable idiom- that of late 18th century European classical music. Let one brief example suffice: there is absolutely nothing original about the dominant 7th chord either during Mozart’s time or earlier, but to follow one such chord with another in the same position was unusual and also creates “forbidden” consecutive intervals , in this case major 2nds and augmented 4ths:

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(From Sonata in F major, 2nd movement, K.533)

Notice how the parallel 2nds Bb/C and C/D in the left hand chords are continued by the appoggiatura Eb in the melody at bar 3 of the example clashing strongly with the D in the chord, thus in effect creating three consecutive dissonant 2nds, the third of which is expanded to a compound minor 9th. The example is actually an elliptical version of this more conventional, and less striking, progression:

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This is just one simple example among hundreds that could be cited as evidence of Mozart’s originality as a composer and to what degree he stands above most of his contemporaries. It is this freedom from convention- a desire to explore beyond the petty restrictions imposed by the rule-makers and be absolutely true to his inner nature that Hesse finds in Mozart and in all those who have gained immortality. We can see, in the notes on paper the quality and interest of the ideas- but what can neither be notated, nor even adequately explained in an objective manner, is the depth and range of expression that lie behind the sounds. Arresting ideas, like the one quoted above, do not, of and by themselves, make for masterpieces- there has to be both depth and variety of expression as well.

What of Hesse’s immortals now? Are there any? Have there been any over the last century? As I look at the present situation in the arts and sciences I do not see one figure who has the stamp of immortality in Hesse’s sense of the word. I would go as far as to say that the times are not right for works of lasting profundity to be produced for the reason that the striving for formal and expressive perfection that we can see in the great works of the past has been replaced to a great extent by other goals- notably the desire for originality and for personal expression. Perfection such as that achieved by the great masters of earlier ages- Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Brahms for example- can only be attained within strict limitations of style, form and idea. When artists are possessed by the urge to explore and go too far beyond what is, by general consent, considered acceptable means of expression, it becomes more difficult to perfect a style and also to measure achievement within a prevailing idiomatic norm. We can observe how, from the early part of the 20th century, many artists have striven to create personal languages, with the result that we get a plethora of “styles” but no single prevailing style. Consider a few figures who stand out in this respect and observe how very different they are stylistically from one another. Thus in music: Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Messiaen; in literature: Joyce, Mann and Eliot; in painting: Klee, Rothko and Hockney. With such different personal idioms we find it difficult to make the kind of value judgements that we can make when comparing works contemporary with each other from earlier centuries. When faced with modern art-works, one either accepts these idiosyncratic styles or rejects them.

Thus, maybe our age cannot produce geniuses of the calibre of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Bach, or maybe we just do not need them anymore. Or, maybe there are some whom we do not at present recognise as immortals, but whom future generations will. Only time will tell.



I used to like to play this chord to groups of undergraduate harmony and counterpoint students and ask them to put a date to it:

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Most said that it sounded modern, probably 20th century, and some were amazed at the dissonance. They were even more amazed when I told them that it was from a work by Chopin dating from 1831! It is taken from the Scherzo in B minor Op. 20, a work otherwise fairly conventional harmonically speaking. To give even more emphasis to this chord, Chopin marks it fff and sounds it 9 times before resolving it.

The chord can actually be classified, and it has a history. It is an augmented 6th on the submediant (6th) degree of the scale, over a dominant pedal. In earlier usage it would have resolved onto the dominant chord thus:

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What Chopin does is to sound the chord together with its note of resolution, a procedure already very familiar where dominant chords sound over tonic pedals, but here producing a sharp dissonance. This dissonance of two adjacent semitones- E#/ F#/ G- was about as far as most 19th century composers ventured. The same chord crops up from time to time throughout the next century, a later example occurring in the Menuet movement from Ravel’s Sonatine for piano (1905), where the dissonance is made stronger by having the semitones right next to each other:

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In Chopin’s fine Barcarolle Op. 60 of 1846, we come across the same chord but this time extended into a florid cadenza at bar 110. This comes at the end of a section in which the tonic pedal (F#) is heard beneath chords of G major, G# major, E minor and A# major, all occurring on strong beats and creating some pungent dissonances. One wonders what audiences of that time would have made of them.

Chopin may not have mastered every aspect of the craft of composition. His orchestration is just adequate, for example, and he seldom ventured into longer forms. But he was a master of harmony of the most subtle and original kind, and incidentally (although this is beyond the brief for this essay) of an un-academic counterpoint too, as a glance at some of the late works, such as the Nocturne Op 62 No 1, will demonstrate. His harmonic style is unique to himself and has the distinction of being not only “academically correct” when he employs familiar chord progressions-i.e. leading notes rise and 7ths fall according to the “rules” of traditional harmony, but of going beyond the norms for the early 19th century in the number of unexpected passing modulations, often to remote keys, and often employing enharmonic note-spellings; and in the dissonance level in certain examples which I will come to later.

Those modulations had an influence on many later composers, notably Faure and Scriabin (in his earlier music). Out of numerous examples, space has limited me to mentioning just two: in the Fantasy in F minor Op.59 at the point, near the end of the introduction, where the tonality changes magically from that of the tonic to a totally unexpected E major- (one semitone lower) -by means of a C flat being changed enharmonically to B natural. The reader is urged to look further at this passage and note how effortlessly Chopin takes us back to the home key by means of that familiar augmented 6th chord.

The other example is the central section of the 3rd Sonata’s slow movement which shows Chopin’s art of modulation in its most subtle and perfect form. In a section ostensibly in E major we pass in succession through G# minor, back to the tonic, to G# minor again, then we head towards C# minor, then unexpectedly to G# major and thence enharmonically to F minor, then, again enharmonically (via that favourite augmented 6th chord) to the tonic. At this point Chopin wants to move back to the reprise of the first section of the movement which is in B major, a very simple task and one which most composers could accomplish with one or two chords. But, look how Chopin now takes us even further away from our objective: after some uncertain harmony using diminished 7th chords we get one of the most imaginative of his progressions. At 4 bars before the return of the first theme we hear these chords over a descending bass:

G#7- Gdim7- Bb/F- F7/Eb- Db7/Cb(=C#7/B)- F#7/A#- Gdim7- F#7

which finally leads to the tonic of B major. It needs to be added that Chopin’s mastery of modulation was not for the sake of it, but entirely for expressive purposes. The modulations here and elsewhere in his works sound completely spontaneous and never forced.

As for dissonance, Chopin was definitely among the avant-garde of his age in that the level of it in his work is higher than that for the period as a whole. He seemed to have a special fondness (or psychological need?) for dissonant clashes. Probably the most well-known example is the extraordinary Prelude in A minor Op. 28 No.2, a piece that seems the very embodiment in sound of a mood of the utmost dejection, heightened by its occurring after the contented No. 1 in C major and before the happy and flowing No. 3 in G major. The dissonances are created mainly by the left hand patterns and can all be explained as arising from those ancient devices of ostinato and changing note, here occurring simultaneously without regard for their agreement. Notice in particular the semitone clashes in bars 5: A, G#, G and F# (in the melody) all sounding almost together and a similar collection of notes transposed up a perfect 5th in bar 10.

I would also like to point the reader to the very fine, but not well known, Nocturne Op 15 No 1, which is a concise example of all those personal harmonic touches so characteristic of this composer, including some far reaching modulations in the first section, some striking parallel 9ths in bar 3 caused by the tenor voice in the left hand faithfully imitating the preceding right hand motive regardless of the dissonance caused, and an agitated minor key middle section with two changes of meter to add to the interest.

The 4th Ballade in F minor, Op. 52, one of Chopin’s supreme achievements, shows the influence of Bach in its contrapuntal textures and contains an example of complex dissonance which has an almost expressionistic feeling of “angst” about it[6]. I refer to the notoriously difficult section from bar 211 to 226. The dissonances can again all be explained in traditional terms as passing and auxiliary notes etc. elaborating classifiable chord progressions. What is disturbing here is the speed with which it all has to happen. The most electrifying version of this that I can remember was that recorded by Arthur Rubinstein in about 1950 in which this whirlwind of sound had the utmost clarity and precision.

Now I want to say a few words about another aspect of Chopin’s writing, namely those examples in his work of a complete absence of harmony: notably in the Finale of the 2nd Sonata Op. 35, and the extraordinary Prelude in E flat minor, Op.28 No. 14.

It must be said that Chopin was not at home with sonata form. One gets the impression that he uses it as just a convenient form to work in, and not, as with Beethoven or Brahms, as a springboard to personal variants and explorations. His first piano sonata in C minor Op. 4 is of not much interest, although it has a charming Menuetto 2nd movement and an expressive slow movement, unusual for its time in being in 5/4 throughout! With the 2nd Sonata in B flat minor however, we are into first rate Chopin, except that the central episode of the famous Funeral March is a touch too trite (or maybe just too often sentimentally played). The finale is almost entirely in octaves with no harmony until the one chord which finishes the movement (and the work), but harmony is implied throughout and often of chromatically shifting major and minor triads. The opening implies none other than the famous Tristan chord:

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which is what we would call Abm 6, transposed up a whole tone:

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In the Prelude the effect of bare octaves is similarly agitated and made more so by the higher dynamic levels, going up to ff in bar 11. The notes do spell out chords, but they are not always easily classifiable: what can we make of bars 8-10 with their whole-tone scale fragments, for example?

Examples of monody in music for keyboard instruments can be found which pre-date these works, although they are not frequent. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy contains single line writing suggestive of vocal recitative, a device found later in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 31 No 2, 1st movement. In the Chopin works monody has a quite different function, namely to depict an atmosphere of agitation and uncertainty. In the sonata movement the absence of harmony lends the music a certain lack of “body”, a “ghostliness” reinforced by the instruction “sotto voce”- “whispered”. In the Prelude the mood here depicts an extreme emotional state, maybe of fear or suppressed anger, and it is a personal emotion which is given aural substance and shape here and not the stylised, impersonal “affects” familiar in the classical period.



The works of Johannes Brahms have been a part of my musical consciousness for many years. I have known the piano pieces from when I first played through them -or at least through the easier ones- in my teens. The 2nd Piano Concerto was a set work for the Durham B. Mus. Degree that I gained in 1973; and later I discovered his vocal, chamber and orchestral works and grew to love virtually every note of them.

As a “big” name, one of the immortals amongst composers, one would think that Brahms’ reputation was eternally secure. And so it probably is, except that he still has his detractors as well as admirers, and has always had them. One thinks especially of Benjamin Britten’s idiosyncratic dismissal of Brahms, whose works he would play through every now and again to reassure himself that they were, almost without exception, of no interest! At that time, the mid-20th century, with the reaction against 19th century Romanticism still in full swing as it were, there may have been some logic in the view that Brahms was 19th century and therefore Romantic, and therefore, out of date.

But even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is hard to make a fair assessment of Brahms, and indeed of many other 19th century composers, because we are still too familiar with their style, and have been too exposed to the music of the Romantics in general, to judge it by purely musical criteria. Words such as “comfortable”, “conservative” or even the oddly persistent description of Brahms’ orchestration as “thick” come all too readily to hand when the work of that group of composers active between about 1870 and 1930, and including Dvorak, Reger, Parry, Stanford and Elgar is considered.

Stylistically, Brahms is, of course, thoroughly of the 19th century, and is correctly regarded as a conservative in opposition to the more radical and forward-looking Wagner and Liszt. It is true to say that because he looks back to the classical period for his forms (symphony, concerto and quartet etc.) he must be put among the conservatives, but in the details of melody, harmony and rhythm, the Romantic style is fully evident and he can be as adventurous as the progressives. Thus in the field of rhythm for example, we can perceive that his work abounds in novel and unexpected treatment of meter (see the changes of time signature in the 1st movement of the early op. 5 Sonata for a striking occurrence of this ), use of hemiola ( dividing the beat or measure into 2 and 3 simultaneously), a simple instance of which can be seen in Op. 76 No. 6, and phrase length: Brahms does not count the bars, unlike, for instance, Grieg who thought almost unvaryingly in 2 and 4 bar phrases . Thus in the opening of the 2nd Piano Concerto we get two 3 bar phrases, followed by two 2 bar ones. Incidentally when that opening theme is next heard, on full orchestra, the 3 bar phrases are each compressed to 2 bars.

In the harmonic sphere it can again be said that the details, such as chromatic decorations and pedal points, are of more originality than the overall harmonic schemes which often derive from those familiar progressions of common chords within the tonal system of major and minor keys found in the music of the period as a whole. It is the originality of these details, together with certain idiosyncratic turns of melody which help to make Brahms’ music instantly recognisable and personal.

Concerning melody, I believe it is fair to say of Brahms that, together with Beethoven, whom he revered, he was not what could be called a “born” melodist. His melodies are perfectly adequate for his expressive requirements but they do not have the seemingly spontaneous and effortless flow of those by Schubert, Mahler or Puccini, for example. There is no equivalent in Brahms of “Standchen” or “Mio Babbino Caro”. His melodies are usually more obviously “thought out” in terms of the deliberate manipulation of motives, more intellectually moulded and developed, in a word, less “memorable” to the average listener, but well worth the effort to follow their unpredictable contours, for the attentive one.

Neither are there any trivia in the published works of Brahms’, nothing like the complete works for mandolin of Beethoven for example; or if there is, it has escaped my notice! Brahms is one of the very few composers who not only sought for the sublime but actually achieved it (or as near as is humanly possible) in his greatest works. His well-known perfectionism, which would not allow into print anything that he considered second rate shows in his care not to repeat himself, as we see in the apparently inexhaustible variety of accompaniment figures, mainly derived from the humble arpeggio, in his piano works, both solo and in the songs. And, when playing Brahms the pianist must forget the naïve idea that the melody is always at the top and the accompaniment is below. In Brahms one often has to tease out the melody from figuration or counterpoint which is sometimes below, sometimes above or which is continuously crossing over it. Familiar examples of this technique are seen in Op. 117 No. 1 and No. 3 (from bar 21).

Concerning Brahms’ orchestration , the oft repeated criticism of it as “thick” or “heavy” will really not withstand close scrutiny. It is true that Brahms had a predilection for bass and tenor sonorities, and maybe it is not too far-fetched to surmise that this love of deep tones could be connected in some way to his father being a bass player, and that these low sounds must have engraved themselves on his aural consciousness from an early age. Indeed it was said of Brahms that whereas others compose at the piano, Brahms composes at the double-bass! We have to accept the fact that Brahms’ orchestration is entirely suited to his expressive needs. His employment of dense sounds when he wants them is offset by the many examples of chamber music- like transparency in his scores, such as the orchestration of the two Serenades and the slow movement of the piano concerto mentioned above. We must also take into account the lighter and clearer sounds of the brass in Brahms’ day compared to today’s stronger and more strident sounds before judging his orchestration as being overloaded.

Brahms’ well attested pessimism shows itself in works at least as early as the Op. 10 Ballades for piano dating from 1854 when he was 21 years old. There is a sombre mood almost throughout these four pieces, the sadness made more poignant by the shifting between major and minor keys in evidence particularly in nos. 2 and 4. Even the final major chord of no. 4 is not happy, but seems rather to have an air of resignation about it. There are, of course, many other moods expressed in his work including serenity, playfulness, even joyful exuberance (in the scherzo of the 4th symphony for example), but the pessimism always returns and deepens with the passing years so that by the time of the late works it has become a resigned sadness permeating every note of works like the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114. And incidentally the slow movement of the earlier Horn Trio, Op. 40 brings in a note of bleakness which to me seems to foreshadow that wintry mood of desolation occasionally heard in Shostakovich. However, it should not be thought that Brahms’ expression of his melancholy view of life was unique. It was a trait of the Romantic Movement as a whole to have a pessimistic view of things. and we find it in other composers from the early 19th century onwards- expressed in works by, for example, Berlioz, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Mahler; and, in literature, the tendency is epitomised in the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy.

Brahms was nearly a “modern” composer- a brief 13 years separate the Four Serious Songs of 1896 from Ewartung - and had he lived for another 20 years he would have overlapped with Bartok, Stravinsky and early jazz (although it is doubtful if he would have approved or been influenced by any of them). However, in a few late works there is just a hint of things to come. Listen to the opening of the Intermezzo in B minor op. 119 No. 1, with its piled up 3rds, and do we not hear a foretaste of the harmonic effects of the impressionists several years later? And do not the chromatic decorations of the opening idea in its final recapitulation give a hint of the melodic style of Schoenberg in his pre-12 tone, freely chromatic period?

Brahms may not have been a true revolutionary then, but in his fidelity to the classical ideal of perfection in form and technique he is the most important link between the worlds of the classical period epitomised by Beethoven and all those late 19th and 20th century composers who strove to retain classical poise and compositional expertise in their work. We can trace Brahms’ descent from the line of Bach, Haydn and Beethoven and continue it through Schoenberg and Webern, five composers for whom music was predominantly the play of shapes and the building of coherent self-sufficient forms.



The monastery of the Madonna del Rosario, outside Rome, in about 1870. In a sparsely but comfortably furnished apartment an elderly man dressed in a black cassock sits at an upright piano, his fingers idly suspended over the keys. His hair is long and white, his nose aquiline, and remnants of a once exquisite handsomeness are still apparent on his features. He wears a resigned expression-he has suffered much and has come here to spend his remaining years in isolation from the society which once idolized him. He begins to play. The other occupants of the monastery know the familiar sounds by now and are used to the apparently aimless melodies punctuated by harsh chords- the music of loneliness and desolation. Occasionally a more mellifluous melodic fragment over consonant harmonies is heard, like a ghost of former, happier days, but usually such moments are short-lived and the music returns to emptiness and despair.

The strange occupant of this chamber, Franz Liszt, remains an enigmatic figure. Probably no other major composer of the 19th century, with the possible exception of Berlioz, has aroused such contradictory opinions. That he was a major figure there can be no doubt- the B minor sonata and the Faust symphony testify to that. But that he was a genius, as Alfred Brendel, and, no doubt, others suggest, is more debatable. Geniuses produce works which (1), withstand the test of time, often of very long periods of time, and (2), are perceived as flawless masterpieces (or as near to it as is humanly possible). Now, although Liszt passes on the first point- his work is still very much with us both in live and recorded form- I do not think it can be said that any of Liszt’s works, even the very best, are flawless. Even the great B minor Sonata has at least two dud bars (708-9), and does not that great tune marked grandioso, and first heard in bar 105, come just a little too many times for the effect that Liszt was aiming at to be fully realised?

On the other hand he cannot be dismissed lightly. His enormous output contains many works, which may not be masterpieces but can still have an uncanny power over unprejudiced audiences. I remember Claudio Arrau’s magisterial readings of some of the Transcendental Studies which almost convinced one that these were indeed masterpieces, and Kempff’s poetic and almost impressionistic touch with some of the pieces from Anees de Pelerinage.

But whatever we may think about his final place in the pantheon of composers, there can hardly be any dispute over the position of the late works, those written after 1860 in which Liszt, virtually on his own, foreshadowed many of the new directions explored by composers in the 20th century. In mostly short pieces, and in the main for his own instrument, we find Liszt anticipating impressionism, atonality, unorthodox chords and progressions, and scales outside of the customary major and minor, all of which did not become common until well after 1910.

It is almost impossible to say exactly why Liszt turned to composing experimental works which he knew would be misunderstood in his own time. We know that he had become disillusioned with his earlier career as one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of all time. Also the 1860s were a time of great personal tragedy with the loss of both a son and daughter (1859 and 1862 respectively). Thus, many of the late pieces abandon all traces of virtuosity in the writing and present us with a stark and pessimistic sound world totally unlike anything else in the musical literature of that time, or indeed since. They are definitely an “old man’s” music, but as often happens in the late works of composers who reach old age, maturity brings not stale repetition but a searching for new means of expression. We may consider Verdi , Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky as other notable representatives of this tendency, who all in advanced years changed style and explored areas which were to some extent new territory for them- as embodied in Falstaff, the Sinfonia Antartica and Stravinsky’s adoption of serial techniques from the 1950s.


[1] From Postmodernist Theories, in A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory 1997, London, Prentice Hall.

[2] Translation in English published by Martin Secker Ltd, 1929. This is more an expounding of Hesse’s personal philosophy than a novel.

[3] Schirmer, 1911

[4] A minor Austrian composer ( 1739-1799 )

[5] A somewhat matter-of-fact word when applied to the supreme art of creating music. The Scots have a better word when they call poets “makeris” (makers). We could call composers “music makers” were it not that the term is already used in the sense of “performers of music.”

[6] I find curious pre-echoes of the contorted expressionistic melodies of Schoenberg and his “school” in a number of works by Chopin, but I do not recall them in works by any of his contemporaries. See for example the more agitated sections of the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61, and especially the B minor section before the B major Piu Lento, with its minor 9ths and semi-tones. But note that the tonality is very clearly heard throughout in the left hand chords.

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Explorations - 20 Essays In and Around Music, Sound, Literature and Places
University of West London
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Michael Regan (Author), 2012, Explorations - 20 Essays In and Around Music, Sound, Literature and Places , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/202807


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