Historians always seek the first. If they examine a style, they try to locate the first artwork that reflects such style, or the first artist to create such style. Quite interestingly, after the so-called the ‘first’ is found, not lasting for a long time, another the ‘first’ appears. For the now-famous minimal style which has swept through many of the 20th century musical works, we always speak of Terry Rily’s “In C” or Philip Glass’s many minimal pieces. But could you think of Richard Wagner’s music dramas?
The following discussion may lead you to a new terrain of understanding of the so-called musical minimalism. Be it a style of 20th century music only, or through broadening its definition, that we can also find some extraordinary works which may also be called minimal music before the 20th century.
Wagner’s four minutes length prelude Das Rheingold unquestioningly shows three significant Romantic traits: 1. sublime orchestral sonority; 2. kaleidoscopic timbres; 3. prolonged melodic line. The overall mood portrayed in this grand passage is extensively dramatic, yet profoundly poetic and sensationally touching, rather than only elegantly classical under the aegis of well-proportional and symmetrical. Apart from the apparent Romantic appearances, however, this inspiring passage is not without having other novel features that invite further scrutiny.
In short, Wagner’s prophetic setting comprises much novelty and innovation, despite its apparent Romantic outlook. The single Eb tonic triad successfully maintains the entire musical motion and tension. In order to retain audience’s interest within a monothematic background, the orchestration, timbre, dynamic, harmonic pattern and texture are altered incessantly. This restless small-scale change is the key factor for the gradual growth of musical tension, building up a more complex texture and bombarding sonority until the climatic conclusion. Das Rheingold, therefore, can be regarded as an extraordinary example of hybridization of Romanticism and somewhat nascent Minimalism.
David Leung (theorydavid)
Foreword: I have been teaching Beethoven’s Eroica for these few weeks. So I would like to share an article about this unusal symphony. In addition, this writing may be a good reference for the students to learn how to express musical sound in words.
However, whether the 18thcentury Viennese aristocratic listeners disliked this symphony, the old epoch has passed. Eroica was just like a short gleam from dawn after a long deep night, anticipating a splendid coming of a new and dazzling era.
David Leung (theorydavid)
前言: 當我們談到十九世紀的歐洲浪漫主義，總不免說到這時期的藝術作品的宏偉與壯麗。查實，浪漫主義，也跟各類藝術發展起來的美學觀點有著千絲萬縷的關係。其中一種美學感受，就是 sublimity，我現在翻為壯美。但凡壯美的作品，必定是宏偉與龐大的。可予人一種然生畏的感覺，就如你看著波濤洶湧的海浪，翻騰不息，那種感覺經驗，就是壯美了。
The “Sublime” and “Beauty”
我已經常常說，香港的現代教育，簡直是混賬到極，不知所謂到不能忍受的地步。香港那所訓練未來老師的最高學府裡頭的 “教授” 們給了 assignment 同學，又驚同學們沒有時間做，又驚他們不識做，又驚題目出得深，就說叫他們抄書就可以了。我有一位私人學生急急 call 我，並告訴我看完 Palisca 那本 History textbook 天書，都沒有直接答案談及有 Beethoven 對後世音樂 和音樂家的影響。現在是江湖告急。嗚呼! 連那些修音樂為主科的學位學生，隨口也不能 present 十分鐘有關貝多芬對音樂的貢獻和影響，還敢說自己是讀音樂，懂音樂的嗎? 看著書本也不懂 “抄”，(應該是偷)，怎辦? 我們常說，熟讀唐書三百首，不會吟詩也會 “抄” 嘛。坦白說，平時我指導這些私人學生，也常常提及不同作曲家和作品的風格特色和對後世的貢獻。些個同學是學 AMusTCL 考試研習的，Set piece 是 Schubert 的第五交響曲，我也談及過這首作品和 Beethoven 的交響作品的相同和不同的關係。我也曾教過同學，舒氏一生以 Beethoven 這位同期的前輩大師為學習對象，連死前也想學習 Counterpoint (這是Beethoven 最精，但 Schubert 最弱的技巧)，皆因要寫偉大的交響曲，沒有精練的對位技巧是不行的。可是同學們就當私人老師是補鑊助理，”求其” 要他們改改 past paper 就算是跟他們學了。他們就只關心學校是否給他們一張證書，所以對校內的課就比較認真，私人嘛….嘿嘿….
5. The whole symphony could be unified through thematic links or a program:
What is program music? This is a slippery term indeed. The definition of such musical genre is different from people to people. If we think of symphony with a programmatic title in a rather loose way, it is quite easy to remind us of Beethoven’s first program symphony. He marked the literal description about the music on the score with a clear title. What is this symphony? Yes, it is symphony 6 in F major entitled ‘Pastoral’. Listeners can understand the work through reading the descriptions. Indeed, no one would denies that Beethoven also used a title to referencing his renowned symphony no. 3 with a title: dedicated to a anonymous Hero after he tore the front page of the manuscript of this symphony when he heard the new of the self-coronation of Napoleon. That is why we called Beethoven’s third symphony in Eb major as Eroica. Apart from using a program to cohere the work, Beethoven also favored to used short motive to structure his lenghy symphonies. He used cyclic form to link the separate movements. For example, the third and finale movements of symphony no.5 are connected together without break, in order to push the music to the climatic triumphant closing moment, glorifying the victory of fighting against ones’ destiny. All these innovative settings in symphonies provide an exemplar to the forthcoming composers in the nineteenth century. Not only Mendelosshn wrote program symphony, but also Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak liked to employ title for their symphonic works. Wagner, a self-claimed follower of Beethoven, invented the use of leit motive, an adaptation of an unifying motive used in symphonic work, for his musical drama, inauguarte a new chapter for the late coming compositional writing of Hollywood film music to follow.
6. Use of dynamic scherzo and the sublime hymn-like slow movement:
Beethoven liked to use scherzo to replace the conventional third movement of Minuet and Trio in the symphony. This is a widely known fact. While Haydn employed the courty dance of Minuet and Trio to please his patrons, Beethoven changed the elegance and grace of this court dance to a more vigorous and energetic movement to serve his extended form of symphony. We still remember that Beethoven’s symphonies are heard as a pschological journey. Scherzo is more suitable to be placed in the third movement, since the third movement, in the hands of Beethoven, is now becoming a storage pool to provide sufficient energy and motions for the outcoming of the triumphant finale. Minuet and trio, quite obviously, is not energetic enough to propel the forthcoming of the glorious finale. Therefore, to replace dynamic scherzo and solemn slow movement are a reflection of Beethoven’s pschological journey of a figurative hero. In the other words, his symphonies are embedded with rich extra-musical meanings that forced Beethoven to change the form and structure of the conventional design of the classical symphony.
7. Large Orchestra: If you think of Beethoven’s use of three horns in symphony no. 3, trombones in symphony no. 5 and four horns in no. 9 with a Turkish March Band, you will not surprised top see why the late coming symphonic composers tended to use a large orchestra for their symphonic works. Whether Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Mahler, employing large orchestra not only for serving their expressive means through a gigantic symphonic works, but also for delineating a sense of sublimity to the audience. This was indubitably a reflection of the nineteenth century German Romanticism.
8. Beethvoen move the center of gravity of the symphony more towards the last movements: In the hands of Haydn and Mozart, the last two movements of a symphony are only a suffix of the main chapter. The most important part of a symphony is the first Allegro movement and its counterpart, the slow second movement. The last two are only additional, in order to enhance the so-called classical perfection of balance and well-control. However, after Beethoven’s triumph of the triumphant ending setting of a symphony, Romantic symphonies could be categorized according to the success or failure of their finales.
9. Symphony became a more earnes, more ‘self-conscious’ compositional exercise than before, one that had to be undertaken with considerable caution and preparation:
Of course, this point may link to the rise of the individualism in the 19th century Romanticism. When ‘genius’, a composer with talent gift, created an art work, originality was the most important than anything. He/she put forth all his/her emotions and reasons to the artistic creations. It is a chance to bring himself/herself out that is different from the others. Brahms, for example, spent almost twenty years to wrote his first symphony, which was regarded as the symphony of Beethoven Tenth. Mahler, furthermore, spent almost his life time to wrote his nine symphonies, and through symphony, Mahler seeked his understanding of universal truth, as well as the meanings of life and death. To him, symphony is a transcendental medium to attain a new level of immortality and eternality.
As such, almost every composer after Beethoven could hardly write more than nine symphonies throughout his life, since they treated symphony writing carefully and cautiously.
Therefore, many music scholars agreed that the symphony is the most important musical genre in the19th century European community. Since symphony is so important and must be carefully to deal with, almost no major absolute symphony were composed between 1850 and 1870. Not until 1870 did the emergence of a “second age of the symphony” arrive. With the works of Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bordoin, Dvorak and Frank, in the 1870s and 1880s, the symphony once again dominated a large part of the concert repertoire till to this day.
David Leung (theorydavid)