Monday, July 09, 2012

Between Style and Invention

Horizontal, nursing a summer cold, I've plowed my way through Daniel Heartz's Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780.  It has a lot of contextual data (especially of the who-met-whom-and-when-and-where-they-met variety) and usefully covers repertoire and composers and locales that have been slighted by the standard classical musical history survey course (which tends to jump straight from Sebastian Bach to Haydn).  Useful, but jeez, it is anything but a pleasure to read, with too little analysis of the music itself and an organization by capital cities and then by composers which often requires the author to do some awkward jumping.  (Fortunately, we have Robert Gjerdingen's delightful Music in the Galant Style to make up for some of the theoretical deficits.) Moreover, it's in a graceless writing style that refuses to invite the reader into repertoire that is often, very much inviting, especially when one considers a cast of composers including Vivaldi, Pergolesi, the younger Scarlatti, Sammartini, Hasse, the Bachs CPE and JC, and Boccherini.  In order to make the book more useful and engaging, I found myself reading it via the index, selecting a person or topic of interest and chasing it through the book, even if this meant redundant readings.

As the Lattice of Coincidence sometimes permits, just as I was tracing the history of the violin concerto through Heartz's index, I noticed that Charles Shere blogged about his own violin concerto, beginning with the words:  "I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED eccentric violin concertos, by which I mean those somehow standing aside from the standard repertory." What was striking to me about this confession, in the context of reading the Heartz, was that even though we now look at much of the repertoire described in normative, even dull, terms — especially the work of composers who turned out dozens of concerti, symphonies, and sonatas — this was the very era in which these very forms were new and only in the process of establishing their conventions, and despite the enormous amount of imitation that took place — thus creating repertoires — and despite the familiarity of those conventions to us now*, this is music which was filled with eccentricities and often even the formal identification by title — as a concerto, sonata, symphony or quartet —  was not yet fixed.  Thus even those most famous concerti of Vivaldi, The Seasons, have an additive, block-by-block construction that borders on Stravinskyan assertion and push the available varieties of scoring patterns to their limit**, and the "Prussian" Sonatas of CPE Bach are harmonically and texturally experimental in ways that still surprise the ears.  For Vivaldi in the solo concerto and Bach in the keyboard sonata, the terms of art were simply not yet set and listening to their works can still provide fascinating occasions to reconsider the necessary balance between eccentricity and standard form, between invention and style, that makes a piece of music stand out among others.
* To be honest, this familiarity is only partially the case. My honest assumption is that very few musicians and listeners really have anything approaching the intimate familiarity with  the galant style that allows one to recognize and interpret its figures, to improvise or criticize ornamentation within the style, or to extemporate and form expectations within its harmonic language.  It is a repertoire that is superficially very familiar, but very foreign in any detail, much the opposite of the learned style which contrasted and, for a time, competed with it, perhaps — and now I'm taking a wild theoretical leap here — because the learned style had a fractal dimension the galant syle resisted.
** That said, it's astonishing how much repertoire is based on two scoring patterns, the first with the violins in unison, viola harmonizing and a bass (cello) line, the second (often when a vocalist enters in opera) with the violins divided and the viola doubling the bass (cello) at the octave above.  A texture with four independent voices is rare and Haydn's — to our ears — modest innovation of the violins in octaves, must have sounded revolutionary.

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