musical composition


musical composition

Introduction

      the act of conceiving a piece of music, the art of creating music, or the finished product. These meanings are interdependent and presume a tradition in which musical works exist as repeatable entities. In this sense, composition is necessarily distinct from improvisation.

Societal perspectives
      Whether referring to the process or to the completed work, composition implies the creation of a unique musical event that may or may not be based on original musical materials. At certain cultural levels and in many non-Western societies, unique performance characteristics tend to assume greater significance than composition itself. In oral traditions, related variants of common origin often take the place of unalterable musical entities, so that tune families rather than single autonomous tunes form the collective repertoire. Where certain patterns of musical structure have gained broad recognition (as the ragas, or melody types, of India), musicians will as a rule rework such patterns extemporaneously though in accordance with prevailing conventions.

      European music was communicated orally well into the Middle Ages and received important stimuli from a variety of oral traditions even after musical notation had developed to a high degree of precision. Indeed, the lower population strata, especially in rural areas, never abandoned the relative freedom that comes from reliance on the ear alone, and the sophisticated music of the upper strata, throughout its rapid evolution, rarely severed its connection with folk music altogether. Ultimately, the process of composition, as seen by the American musicologist Alan P. Merriam, does “not seem to differ radically between literate and non-literate peoples save in the question of writing.” As a conscious act of social communication it always “involves learning, is subject to public acceptance and rejection, and is therefore a part of the broad learning process which contributes, in turn, to the processes of stability and change.” Whether explicitly or not, composition is thus subject to rules that represent the stylistic consensus of a specific segment of society at a given stage of cultural development. During the Middle Ages, when man's natural instincts were held in particularly low esteem, musical compositions were often judged primarily in terms of their adherence to the rules. Hence, the supreme authority in matters musical was the musicus as theorist; only he was considered sufficiently conversant with musical science to vouchsafe its continued existence as the sonorous embodiment of universal truths. And it was because the metaphysical properties of numbers were allegedly embedded in the rules of composition that music, on a par with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, attained and retained an honorable place as a constituent member of the quadrivium, the more exalted of the two divisions of the seven liberal arts. Characteristically, music was not classified with grammar, rhetoric, and logic, the “rhetorical arts” gathered in the trivium. About 1300, musical composition as a mere craft was ranked by Johannes de Grocheo, a shrewd observer of the Parisian musical scene, with shoemaking and tanning.

Musical elements
      At its most fundamental level the act of composition involves the ordering of pitched sounds in musical time and space. Pitch relationships are referred to as intervals; their specific occurrence in musical time is determined by rhythm, a concept that embraces all durational aspects of music. Rhythm in turn may or may not be regulated by metre. In metrically organized rhythm, recurring patterns of accented and unaccented “beats” furnish a durational substructure that necessarily affects all the other elements of composition, including the nature of melody, harmony, and texture. Metrical rhythm is nearly always present in dance music because its patterning is largely analogous to that of bodily motions and step figurations. But logogenic, or word-determined, music also often employs metrical patterns, corresponding as a rule to those of the poetic text. The first large corpus of logogenic compositions transmitted through the ages is that of medieval plainchant, consisting of monophonic settings (limited to a single melodic line) of liturgical texts for the entire year, based on a system of eight church modes, diatonic scales abstracted from the melodic motives utilized by medieval singers. Modality—whether referring to a melodic or a rhythmic framework—furnishes compositional frames of reference in a wide variety of essentially monophonic musical styles, especially in Asia. Asian influences upon early European music cannot be ruled out, whether by way of ancient Judaea, Greece, Byzantium, or the medieval Arab invasions. But unlike their Asian counterparts, Europeans at first limited modality to melody, through pitch arrangements. The rhythmic properties of plainchant have largely remained a matter of conjecture, for no systematic discussion of plainchant rhythm survives, and the notation used was noncommittal with respect to rhythm. By the same token, plainchant no doubt owed much of its amazing vitality to the absence of an all-encompassing notation, which made possible the flexibility of performance and regional variation inherent in a partly written, partly oral tradition.

      Music like medieval plainchant, in which the lengths of individual tones tend to be rather uniform, is often referred to as nonrhythmic or rhythmless. Such careless terminology denies the very essence of music as a temporal art, which implies by definition the omnipresence of rhythm as “order in musical time.” Actually, the relative presence or lack of rhythmic differentiation in the duration of tones can act as a decisive stylistic determinant. Thus the rhythmic equanimity of the monophonic plainchant, at least in the interpretation set forth by the 19th-century Benedictine monks of Solesmes, France, and recognized as authoritative by the Roman Catholic Church, effectively symbolizes an atmosphere of faith and inner peace. By contrast, the strictly metrical organization of rhythm in most 18th-century music reflects the thinking of an age of reason, favouring mathematically definable, hence “natural,” structures in its music.

      The smallest melodic-rhythmic unit (minimally two separately perceived sounds) is the motive. Pitched sounds are, however, not of the essence: drum motives are so effective rhythmically precisely because they lack pitch definition. By and large, rhythmic motives are used to endow pitch relationships with identifiable durational characteristics. And consequently rhythmic identity often serves to establish motive connections between different intervals. A famous case in point is the opening short–short–short–long motif of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67, which serves as an effective element of structural cohesion in this large-scale work.

      Types of melody owe their aesthetic associations in many instances to their motivic peculiarities. In Western music motivic contrast has been identified with emotional conflict since at least the mid-16th century, when composers of madrigals (Italian polyphonic secular songs) began to set dramatic texts. The opening of Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K 385 (the Haffner Symphony), offers an excellent example. Analogous in its motivic structure to a section of the first act of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, the opening of the symphony engenders emotional contrasts similar to those inherent in the opera's dramatic action when Donna Anna, under the double impact of attempted rape and her father's violent death at the Don's hands, impulsively rejects Don Ottavio's sympathy until, realizing that she has no one else to rely on for help, she reverses herself and induces him to swear revenge. Conversely, melodic lyricism correlates with a high degree of motive affinity.

Peter Crossley-Holland

Development of composition in the Middle Ages
      The European written tradition, largely because it evolved under church auspices, de-emphasized rhythmic distinctiveness long after multipart music had superseded the monophonic plainchant. But multipart music might never have gone beyond the most primitive stages of counterpoint had it not been for the application of organized rhythm to musical structure in the late Middle Ages. This era witnessed the emergence of basic polyphonic concepts identified with European art music ever since. The precise measurement of musical time was simply an indispensable prerequisite for compositions in which separate, yet simultaneously sounded, melodic entities were combined in accordance with the medieval theorists' rules of consonance (specifying the proper intervals to be used between voice parts, especially at points of musical repose). Toward the end of the 1st millennium of the Christian Era, church singers had grown accustomed to enhancing their chants through organum. “Parallel” organum was followed, in turn, by “free” organum, which allowed the synchronized voice parts to utilize contrary melodic motion.

      The decisive relationship between text and melody in early European music led to stylistic distinctions that have survived the ages. Thus, “syllabic” denotes a setting where one syllable corresponds to one note; “melismatic” refers to a phrase or composition employing several distinct pitches for the vocalization of a single syllable. Late medieval composers made clever use of these distinctions, including an intermediate “neumatic” style (Greek pneuma, “breath”) to create ever more extensive polyphonic pieces. By the 12th century musicians at Notre-Dame in Paris, led by Léonin, the first polyphonic (polyphony) composer known by name, cultivated a type of melismatic organum that featured a highly florid upper part above a slow moving cantus firmus taken from a suitable plainchant melody. The melismatic sections alternated with strictly measured, or “discant,” sections. This very effective procedure possibly was inspired by Middle Eastern practices with which the crusaders must have been well acquainted. In Eastern music, the rhythmically measured portions following the virtuoso singer's florid “outpouring of the soul” are nearly always played or at least supported by instruments. In the 13th century the clausula, a short, textless composition in discant style, tended to be dancelike in its systematic sectionalization, strongly suggesting instrumental derivation if not necessarily actual performance. The motet, a major genre of the medieval and Renaissance eras, was in its 13th-century form essentially a texted clausula, frequently employing two or three different texts in as many languages. This fact merely reinforces the suspicion that little distinction was made between vocal and instrumental composition in an era that so blithely based dancelike settings of erotic, in a few instances outright obscene, texts on a chant-derived cantus firmus. The point is not without its broader ramifications. For, brought up largely on 19th-century notions about the “purity” of church music, one easily overlooks the fact that even Bach and Mozart had few compunctions about the use of secular—in their cases mostly operatic—styles and specific tunes in church music. Over the centuries, the church has been the most important employer of composers and has offered far greater outlets for newly created music than any other social institution or category. Thus, composers of sacred music have had to satisfy the aesthetic needs and expectations of its highly differentiated “public.” The church in turn repeatedly permitted the adaptation of promising secular types of composition, even though instrumental music, because of its more lascivious associations, remained suspect well into the 17th century.

      In accordance with medieval tendencies generally, Gothic polyphonic music was conceived in loosely connected separate layers. Thus, two-part motets could be converted into three-part motets, and Léonin's successor Pérotin expanded the organum to three and four parts. Inevitably, as their compositions gained in length and depth, musicians began to search for new integrative procedures. A system of six rhythmic modes (short, repeated rhythmic patterns) evolved rapidly. Pérotin used a single rhythmic mode for the multiple upper parts of his organums so that, separated from their cantus firmus, they resembled the conductus, a syllabic setting of a sacred text for two or three voices sharing the same basic rhythm. Finally, as organum faded into history, conductus-type motets were composed outright. Most prominent among the devices used to achieve structural integration in the 13th century were color, or melodic repetition without regard to rhythmic organization; talea, or rhythmic repetition without regard to pitch organization; and ostinato, or repetition of a relatively brief melodic-rhythmic pattern. Exchanges of melodic phrases between two or more parts in turn led to canon, a form in which all voice parts are derived from one tune—either by strict imitation of the basic melody or by manipulations stipulated in often quite sophisticated verbal instructions (canon = law). For instance, the canon Ma fin est mon commencement (My End Is My Beginning), by Guillaume de Machaut, the leading French composer of the 14th century, demands the simultaneous performance of a melody and its retrograde version (the notes are sung in reverse order). French musicians of the 14th century were particularly partial to isorhythm which refers to repetition of the rhythmic organization of all the voices in a given compositional segment. It enjoyed considerable popularity for more than 100 years.

      Meanwhile, though somewhat eclipsed historically by the increasingly abstract nature of polyphony, the primacy of poetry was safeguarded in 13th-century music by the troubadours of southern France and their northern counterparts, the trouvgres, as well as the German Minnesingers. These noble poet-composers created a rich tradition of purely monophonic secular song that furnished convenient points of departure for much of the secular polyphonic music in both 14th-century France and 15th-century Germany. By the beginning of the 15th century, European music had also begun to feel the impact of English music. The English emphasis on the rich sonorities of the third and sixth provided welcome relief from the aesthetic consequences of the earlier continental dedication to the “perfect” intervals of the octave, fourth, and fifth. Because the perfect intervals were also those formed by the lowest pitches of the harmonic overtone series, their “naturalness” had long been an unassailable theoretical axiom.

      Late 14th-century French secular music virtually lost itself in rhythmic complexities without any substantive changes in the basic compositional approach, which continued to favour relatively brief three-part settings of lyrical poetry. But in the ensuing 15th century the simpler melodic and rhythmic ideas associated with the rich harmonies of the English style were eagerly embraced; often melodies were outright triadic in contour; i.e., they outlined the intervals of the triad, an increasingly important chord composed of two linked thirds (e.g., C-E-G). But the truly amazing stylistic development from the influential English composer John Dunstable to Josquin des Prez, the Flemish composer who stands at the apex of his era, was equally indebted to the flowing cantilenas, or lyric melodies, that characterized the top parts of Italian trecento music. If the French music of the waning Middle Ages was structured essentially from the bottom up, with relatively angular melodic and rhythmic patterns above the two-dimensional substructure of tenor and countertenor, its Italian counterparts were quite often monodically conceived; i.e., a highly singable tune was sparingly yet effectively supported by a single lower voice. Indeed, the passion for melody, if need be to the detriment of other musical elements, has been a constant of Italian music. It sparked the nuove musiche, or “new music,” of about 1600 and is exemplified in innumerable works of composers as diverse as Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) and Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75). But it found its first major artistic expression in the city-states of northern Italy during the lifetimes of such 14th-century literary figures as Giovanni Boccaccio and Petrarch.

Composition in the Renaissance
      During the latter part of the 15th century, French rhythmic sophistication, Italian cantilena, and English harmony finally found common ground in the style of Renaissance polyphony that, under the aegis of Flemish musicians, dominated Europe for nearly two centuries. Often referred to as modal because it retained the medieval system of melodic modes, Flemish polyphony was characterized by a highly developed sense of structure and textural integration. Although the older cantus firmus technique was never totally abandoned, Renaissance polyphony is identified above all with imitative part writing, inspired no doubt by earlier canonic procedures but devoid of their structural limitations. After a canonic or freely imitational beginning, each of the subunits of such a polyphonic piece proceeds unfettered by canonic restrictions, yet preserves the fundamental equality of the melodic lines in accordance with contrapuntal rules amply discussed by various 15th- and 16th-century theorists and ultimately codified by the Italian theorist Gioseffo Zarlino. Through the works of Giovanni da Palestrina, the model composer of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Renaissance modal counterpoint has influenced the teaching of musical composition to the present, suggesting the near perfection with which it conveys some fundamental aspects of the historic European ideal of composition as the art of lasting musical structures.

      Whereas imitative polyphony affected virtually all 16th-century music, modal counterpoint was paramount in sacred pieces, specifically the motet and mass, probably because of its close kinship with the traditional modality of liturgical plainchant. In contrast, the beginnings of functional harmony (chordal relationships governed by primary and secondary tonal centres) manifested themselves first in the polyphonic French chanson; its Italian counterpart, the madrigal; and related secular types. Under the influence of less sophisticated music, such as that of the Italian frottola, a popular vocal genre, these secular polyphonic genres favoured rather simple bass lines highlighting a limited number of related harmonies. Thus, undisturbed by the theoretical writings from the pens of church-employed musicians, secular musical practice in the later Renaissance laid the foundations for the harmonic notions that were to dominate three centuries of Western art music. The increasing emotionalism of texts taken from the leading Italian poet of the 16th century, Torquato Tasso, and his immediate successors acted as a further stimulant, as Italian composers, searching for appropriate musical symbols, discovered the expressive possibilities of chordal progressions.

The Baroque period
      Inevitably, the strong desire for heightened expression through harmony led at first to new, mostly chromatic, chord progressions. Eventually it precipitated the total abandonment of traditional polyphony about 1600 in the monodic experiments of the Florentine Camerata, a group of aristocratic connoisseurs seeking to emulate the Greek drama of antiquity. The accompaniment for these passionate and heroic solo recitations is based on a simple basso continuo. Only the bass part was written down; it was played by low, sustaining instruments bowed or blown, while plucked or keyboard instruments supplied the chords suggested by the bass and melody lines. The small figures used to indicate the proper harmonies gave the system the alternative name figured bass (basso continuo). monody had its historical antecedents in mid-16th-century solo lute songs and in the plentiful arrangements of polyphonic vocal compositions for single voices accompanied by plucked instruments and for solo keyboard instruments. But it was the attempt to resurrect the spirit of antique drama in the late Renaissance that created the textural revolution that has been equated with the beginnings of modern music: the monodic style with its polarity of bass and melody lines and emphasis on chords superseded the equal-voiced polyphonic texture of Renaissance music. Monteverdi (Monteverdi, Claudio), the undisputed master of the monodic style, recognized the possibility of two basic approaches to composition: the first, or polyphonic, “practice” and the second, or monodic, “practice.” Thus, with penetrating analytical insight he formulated the basic stylistic dialectic that has since governed the course of Western music.

      The emergence of an essentially nonpolyphonic style went hand-in-hand with the rise of a variety of specifically instrumental idioms. Not only did accompanied vocal music offer instrumentalists various opportunities for improvisation; the basically chordal style also facilitated the emergence of virtuosity in the modern sense of the term, especially among keyboard artists. But as the singer and composer Giulio Caccini demonstrated in the preface to his influential collection Le nuove musiche (The New Music; 1602), singers, too, put their newly found freedom to good improvisational and ornamentational use. In short, after two centuries dominated by the highly structured, rationalistic polyphony of the Renaissance, the performing musician reiterated his creative rights. Inevitably, under such forceful pressures, the teaching of composition, previously tied to the laws of modal counterpoint, quickly shifted to the harmonic challenges of the figured bass.

      Because the bass-oriented music of the 17th century relied primarily on chord progressions as fixed by the bass notes, it was structurally quite open-ended; i.e., the new technique suited any number of formal patterns. Even so, the incipient rationalism that was to reach its peak in the 18th century soon led to the consolidation of broadly accepted structural types. Indeed, the very concept of musical “form,” as generally understood from the late 17th century on, was intimately tied to the growing importance of instrumental music, which, in the absence of a text, had nothing to rely upon save its own organically developed laws. At least for a while, vocal music, which had been so largely responsible for the monodic revolution, continued to adhere to the Monteverdian principle that the words must act as “the mistress of harmony.” Both melody and harmony, therefore, reflected often minute affective textual differentiations. And as late as the early 18th century similar musico-rhetorical considerations led to Affektenlehre, the theory of musical affects (emotions, feelings), developed primarily in Germany. Following this theory, German musicians dealt with composition systematically in terms of a specific but broadly adopted expressive vocabulary of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic figures. Meanwhile, the Italians laid the foundations for such lasting categories of instrumental music as the symphony, the sonata, and the concerto. In each instance the structural outline was harmonically determined through juxtapositions of principal key areas acting as focal centres of tonality. As for tempo, the earliest 17th-century solo sonatas had relied on drastic short-range changes in accordance with a general predilection for “instant sensations.” Subsequently, as musical composition fell in line with the prevailing rationalistic trend, tempo served above all as a means of differentiation between the various movements, or self-contained sections, that constituted the large-scale works of the Italian string school and of French and German instrumental composers as well. Texture, too, was used to provide contrast, particularly within a given movement, as in the concerto grosso with its alternation between small and large groups of players (concertino and tutti).

      Interrelated with the spectacular rise and amazing vitality of instrumental music was its unprecedented variety. By the early 18th century, composers drew freely upon everything from contrapuntal forms like the fugue (an adaptation of the imitative techniques of the Renaissance motet within the context of functional harmony) to stylized popular dances, such as those that make up the suites and partitas of J.S. Bach. The figured bass era took full advantage of the possibilities of variety and contrast through judicious manipulations of all elements of composition. Whereas accompanied solo music pitted bass against treble (the latter often split up into two parts, as in the trio sonata), composers generally liked to juxtapose figured bass and polyphonic textures. Melodically, the far-flung phrases of Italian bel canto, the florid singing style characteristic of opera seria (17th- and 18th-century tragic opera), had little in common with the concise, symmetrically balanced phrases found in music of popular inspiration, whether in opera buffa (Italian comic opera) or the many types of dances. As for the latter, their impact on sophisticated 18th-century music is evident not only in many dance-inspired arias and concerto movements but also in certain polyphonic compositions. Both the chaconne and passacaglia, related polyphonic types, were based on dancelike ostinato patterns, often with specific harmonic implications. Perhaps the most famous example is Bach's “Chaconne” for solo violin, which concludes the Partita in D Minor.

      Even though the Baroque preoccupation with style worked somewhat to the detriment of structural definition, certain closed forms did gradually emerge. The da capo aria distinguished clearly between an initial section (A), a contrasting section (B), and the repeat (da capo) of the initial section, as a rule with improvised vocal embellishment. In instrumental music, the French opera overture began with a slow, stately introduction followed by a fast, often fugal movement, whereas its Italian counterpart had a tripartite fast-slow-fast scheme. Dance-based suite movements were binary in outline: the first of the two sections, each separately repeated, moved to the dominant key (a fifth above the tonic or principal key) or to the relative key (i.e., a minor third above the tonic in the case of a minor key); the second section, after some modulatory activity (i.e., passing through several key areas), returned to the central key. Even more decisive in its far-reaching historical consequences was the structural organization of a number of the keyboard “sonatas” of the composer Domenico Scarlatti. These works consisted of single, essentially binary movements, the first section of which differentiated not only between two key areas but two contrasting thematic ideas as well.

The Classical period
      The Classical era in music is compositionally defined by the balanced eclecticism of the late 18th- and early 19th-century Viennese “school” of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, who completely absorbed and individually fused or transformed the vast array of 18th-century textures and formal types. Expansion of the tripartite Italian overture had produced the basic three-movement scheme of the symphony even before the 18th century reached midpoint. Shortly thereafter, the minuet, borrowed from the dance suite, was inserted with increasing frequency as a fourth movement between the slow movement and the fast finale. The French opera overture in turn lent its slow introduction where needed for structural variety. Texturally, homophony (chordal texture) and polyphony soon assumed rather specific roles, with polyphonic writing usually reserved for the central or development section of the classical first-movement form. The organic fusion of a number of stylistic traits previously associated with strong and immediate contrast is exemplified by the obbligato accompaniment, the texture most typical of Viennese classicism. Here the relative equality of all the melodic parts in a given composition is ensured without denying the melodic supremacy of the treble and the harmonically decisive role of the bass. The evolution of this characteristic texture can be traced in the string quartets of Haydn (Haydn, Joseph). At first, following earlier 18th-century custom, Haydn wrote strictly treble-dominated compositions with a simplified bass (as compared with the more varied basso continuo); then, with the six Sun Quartets, Opus 20, dating from the early 1770s, he defied precedent and concluded each work with a fugue in the “learned style” of Handel. Finally, in his Russian Quartets, Opus 33, written, in his own words, “in a new manner,” Haydn achieved the fusion of elements of both the learned and the treble-dominated styles. The result was a harmonically oriented, yet polyphonically animated, texture that was to affect both instrumental and vocal ensemble music for generations. It was also at this point, when compositional procedures reached a degree of stability and universality unmatched since Renaissance polyphony, that composition began to be taken seriously as a separate musicianly discipline. Johann Joseph Fux's famous Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), published first in Latin in 1725 and subsequently in every important modern language, was still basically a didactic treatise on counterpoint abstracted from 16th-century practice. As such it served its purpose throughout the 18th century, while harmony continued to be taught as the art of accompaniment—i.e., the improvised realization of a figured bass. But eventually the general fascination with comprehensive knowledge, sparked by the French Encyclopédie, inspired at first sporadic, then ever more numerous, volumes dealing progressively with all aspects of composition. During the ensuing 19th century the rapid institutionalization of musical education in the image of the National Conservatory of Music in Paris, created while the French Revolution was still raging, added further to the academic systematization of all musical studies along lines that have essentially remained in force. Thus the teaching of musical composition reflects to this day the biases of the 19th century, specifically its concern with functional harmony as the principal generative force in music—a doctrine first proclaimed in the 1720s in the name of nature (as being consistent with the harmonic overtone series) by the composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The Romantic (Romanticism) period
      With the onset of the Romantic era in the wake of the French Revolution, composers began to view their own role in society as well as the social function of their work, and hence also its aesthetic prerequisites, in a radically different light. With respect to social function, Beethoven (Beethoven, Ludwig van) was actually the first musician of stature to achieve emancipation in the sense that his work reflected, with relatively few exceptions, purely personal artistic concerns. He simply took it for granted that patrons would supply funds sufficient for him to pursue his creative career unfettered by financial worries. This attitude represents a total reversal of the basic assumptions of the preceding century, when composers were hired by and large to satisfy the musical needs of specific individuals or institutions.

      The view of the composer as artist also changed. If during the Middle Ages the craft of musical composition had been evaluated largely in terms of its strict adherence to established rules, instinctiveness and spontaneity had remained suspect well into the Italian Renaissance. For a 15th-century composer-theorist like Johannes Tinctoris, the value of a musical composition depended on learned judgment as well as spontaneous reaction. Thus his admiration for certain composers of his time stemmed both from the happiness and from the enlightenment that he found in examining their music. But the Swiss theorist Henricus Glareanus, writing 70 years later, explicitly preferred natural talent to the most exquisite craftsmanship. The Renaissance was the first epoch in European intellectual history to recognize that the greatness of a composer rests upon his inherent talent and unique personal style, and that genius supersedes both experience and the observance of theoretical precepts. Likewise, it was the first era in which the process of composition was viewed as linked to powerful internal impulses. The rising tide of academicism notwithstanding, this basic attitude on the whole dominated the European scene more or less consistently from then on. According to E.T.A. Hoffmann, the early 19th-century poet, critic, and composer, “effective composition is nothing but the art of capturing with a higher strength, and fixing in the hieroglyphs of tones, what was received in the mind's unconscious ecstasis.” And Romantic composers from Schumann and Chopin to Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler did in fact produce much of their very best creative work in precisely such a state of exaltation, in a few tragic instances (e.g., Schumann and Wolf) to the ultimate detriment of their sanity.

      The aesthetic effects of this drastic change in conception of the composer's task and potential were immediate and far reaching. For one, every large-scale composition assumed artistic significance of a type previously accorded only a whole series of works, sometimes a composer's entire output. And, concomitantly, many leading composers of the 19th century wrote in considerably smaller quantities than their predecessors. But in exchange they revelled in idiomatic and structural peculiarities even in works that nominally fell into the same formal category. Thus, although “characteristic” symphonies alluding to nonmusical ideas occurred occasionally in the late 18th century, virtually every symphonic composition postdating Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Opus 55 (Eroica; completed 1804), could be so designated. “Characteristic” works like Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Opus 68 (Pastoral; 1808), or his overture to Goethe's drama Egmont are but one step removed from the kind of characteristic scenes that make up the Symphonie fantastique of the French composer Hector Berlioz or, for that matter, Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides (also known as Fingal's Cave), an overture unrelated to any particular drama, spoken or sung. Franz Liszt, in the free-wheeling forms of his symphonic poems, simply pursued the individualistic line to its ultimate consequences, severing whatever tenuous ties to traditional structures the works of his immediate predecessors had still maintained. The Romantic composer viewed himself basically as a poet who manipulated musical sounds instead of words. But if the composers catered to poetry, writing Lieder (German songs) and attempting to retell stories in instrumental works, the poets looked with awe and envy upon the composers' use of a language so utterly dissociated from material existence. “All art aspires to the condition of music,” said Wordsworth. It is thus hardly surprising that opera, whose extramusical connotations had in the past been responsible for some of the most daring stylistic innovations, rapidly incurred the disfavour of progressive composers. Although some, like Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, tried their hands at an occasional opera, others, including Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms, felt no inclination whatever to compose for the stage. Instead, each developed personal idioms capable of a depth of expression that words could not match. Mendelssohn spoke indeed for many when he remarked that, as far as he was concerned, music was more precise in meaning than words.

      As in the late Renaissance, harmony once again furnished the primary expressive means. In defining musical structure, too, harmonic and modulatory procedures predominated at the expense of the contrapuntal interplay of motives. Numerous Romantic composers excelled in concise forms of strong melodic-harmonic import, variously entitled Impromptu, Nocturne, Song Without Words, Ballade, Capriccio, Prelude, Étude, etc. The form of these works was nearly always tripartite, with a literal or modified repeat of the first part following a melodically and harmonically contrasting middle section. Works of larger scope often consisted of a series of relatively autonomous subunits tied together either by the same tune presented in different guises (as in variation sets) or by fairly literal recurrences of an initial musical idea (the rondo principle). Compositions of the Classical sonata-allegro type, to which motivic-contrapuntal development was essential, inevitably suffered from the Romantic love for pure, harmonically defined melody. Thus Tchaikovsky frankly admitted in 1878 that, although he could not complain of poverty of imagination or lack of inventive power, his lack of structural skill had frequently caused his “seams” to show: “there was no organic union between my individual episodes.” Composers such as Tchaikovsky were indeed particularly successful with chainlike formations like the serenade or the ballet suite, which comprised a well-calculated number of carefully wrought smaller entities.

      In the context of functional harmony, the Classical motivic-contrapuntal approach had no doubt been exploited in the last sonatas and string quartets of Beethoven to the very limits of its potential to define musical structure. The heroic image of Beethoven as one who had overcome every possible personal and artistic difficulty to achieve the highest aims of the art assumed well-nigh traumatic proportions among 19th-century musicians. Not only did composers ill equipped both by training and artistic temperament try to emulate him, but theorists from Adolf Bernhard Marx to Vincent d'Indy based treatises on his works. Thus, unwittingly the Classical Beethovenian inheritance turned into something of an aesthetic liability for Romantic composers swayed by the image of Beethoven and unable or unwilling to face the fact that their particular talents were totally unsuited for any further capitalization of his basic compositional procedures. Confronted with the task of writing in the Beethovenian manner, a great master like Schumann, who had created the near-perfect, totally Romantic suite Carnaval, Opus 9 (1835), was clearly out of his element: the development of his Symphony No. 1 in B Flat Major, Opus 38 (Spring; 1841), offers a prime example of the “rhythmic paralysis” that affected so many large-scale 19th-century works. That this symphony managed nevertheless to maintain itself in the concert repertoire, on the other hand, demonstrates the extent to which the best among the German composers compensated for obvious weaknesses in handling motivic development by sustaining above all constant harmonic interest. For their part, the French, always coloristically inclined, turned instrumentation into a principal compositional resource, so that in an unadorned piano transcription Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique retains little more than its basic contours. That by the end of the century virtuoso instrumentation had become universal practice is attested by any work of Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler.

      Characteristically, the most unique compositional achievement of the 19th century, that of Richard Wagner (Wagner, Richard), was also the most eclectic. Wagner represents the apotheosis of Romanticism in music precisely because he fused into musico-poetic structures of unprecedented proportions virtually every musical resource that went before him. Seen in this light it may be more than mere coincidence that Tristan und Isolde, perhaps Wagner's most perfect music drama, begins with the same four notes that make up the motivic substance of four of Beethoven's string quartets (Opuses 130–133). Unlike most instrumental composers after Beethoven, the dramatist Wagner fully assimilated the motivic-contrapuntal process, even though his texture is principally determined by strong harmonic tensions and by a masterful use of instrumental colour in the vein of Berlioz and French grand opera. Just as he integrated diverse compositional techniques, Wagner also achieved a balance of musical and poetic elements so perfect that critics, both favourable and unfavourable, have never ceased to be puzzled by its aesthetic implications. How consciously Wagner proceeded is attested not only by his numerous theoretical writings but also by compositional sketches pointing in some instances to several stages of mutual adjustments involving music and text.

The 20th century
      Wagner's highly expressive harmonic bequest could not but drive chromaticism eventually beyond the retaining confines of the idea of a central key, for the extensive use of chromatic chords tends to blur the listener's ability to perceive the basic harmonic relationships that define a key. In their nontonal compositional procedures, Arnold Schoenberg (Schoenberg, Arnold) and his 20th-century Second Viennese school abandoned the concept of key, using all notes freely without relating them to the system of functional harmony. They thus represent not so much a reaction to as a logical extension of Wagnerian principles. Wagner's compelling artistic personality certainly exercised near-magic powers over many of his younger contemporaries and successors, exceeding even Beethoven's spell. But others, too, contributed to “the music of the future.” As Schoenberg was to point out in one of his remarkable essays, even Brahms, who looked upon himself as a conservative in the best sense of the term, was, historically speaking, a true “progressive,” especially in his propensity for irregular phrasing and complex motivic manipulations.

      The growth of political nationalism in the “peripheral” countries of Europe also had significant repercussions in musical composition. In the last half of the 19th century distinctive folk-music elements, previously totally unheeded by Europe's elitist musical cultures, found enthusiastic response in sophisticated circles, exerting an “exotic” attraction similar to that which had accounted earlier in the century for the Romantic infatuation with Eastern civilizations. Thus at a time when the exhaustion of Europe's “civilized” compositional resources appeared imminent, the “untutored” harmonies of the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (Mussorgsky, Modest)—steeped in the spirit of Russian folk music and based on chord progressions alien to the standard harmonic usage of his day—helped breathe new life into a harmonic language about to succumb to redundant overdoses of functional chromaticism. Mussorgsky thus paved the way for the later whole-tone and pentatonic (five-note scale) experiments of Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók.

      What was being questioned publicly in many quarters at the dawn of the 20th century was the evolutionistic view of Western art music as man's ultimate achievement in the realm of sound and its logical consequent that 19th-century harmony represented in turn music's most advanced stage of development. This increasing skepticism, given by the nature of late 19th-century music itself, was strongly reinforced by the growing awareness of historical compositional techniques that resulted from the mushrooming discoveries of musicological scholarship. Before long, all manner of pre-19th-century textures and structural principles were seized upon to counteract the type of self-defeating post-Wagnerianism—so tragically exemplified in several of the most ambitious works of Max Reger. The 20th-century search for fresh, flexible techniques extended far beyond the nontonal Second Viennese school of Schoenberg. In historical perspective, Anton Webern's fascination with 15th-century canonic techniques, Paul Hindemith's predilection for both modal and early-18th-century polyphony, Igor Stravinsky's emulation of Domenico Scarlatti, and, for that matter, Kurt Weill's reinterpretation of John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) represent but various individual and culturally conditioned manifestations of the same determination: to put the burden of history to positive use in a concerted effort to revitalize an art that seemed moribund by the time World War I changed the socio-economic and political physiognomy of Europe.

      Historically, Schoenberg's formulation of the laws of composition with 12 tones (12-tone music)—involving the consistent melodic and harmonic use of a specifically arranged sequence of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale—sprang in the early 1920s from the same obsession with textural and structural clarity that marked the postwar Neoclassical syndrome as a whole. Schoenberg himself may have considered his most fundamental contribution to musical history to be “the emancipation of dissonance”—a relativistic conception of intervals and chords that disregarded the careful regulation of dissonance characteristic of functional harmony. Actually, the 12-tone procedures he developed so consistently served to restore, to an extent far beyond that which Mahler had been able to achieve within the traditional harmonic framework, the primacy of motivic-contrapuntal development as a musical resource. Thus it was that the profusion of simultaneous melodies that animates Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G Major (completed 1900) found its ultimate potential realized in Schoenberg's most uncompromising polyphonic work, the Wind Quintet (1924).

      Possibly the most successful attempt to regenerate Beethovenian procedures without the total abandonment of functional tonality is represented by the string quartets and certain other instrumental compositions of Bartók (Bartók, Béla). Drawing upon the rhythmic-melodic properties of Hungarian and Romanian folk music, Bartók produced a unique type of functionally extended harmony determined largely by the contrapuntal interaction of motives. Others, such as Charles Ives in the United States and, under the impact of South American popular music, Darius Milhaud in France, transcended traditional tonality by writing polytonally (in two or three keys simultaneously).

      Whatever their specific approach, progressive 20th-century composers everywhere clearly gave precedence to melodic-rhythmic energies. Even instrumental colour was pressed into the service of melodic definition. Years before World War I Schoenberg had advocated in practice (Five Orchestral Pieces) and in theory (Harmonielehre, 1911; Theory of Harmony, 1947 [the English edition omits the pertinent chapter]) the idea of tone-colour (tone) melody, or Klangfarbenmelodie. But it was his pupil Webern who, in his mature works, divided the individual components of melodic phrases over several instruments as an imaginatively coloristic reinforcement of the complex polyphony that characterized his style. After World War II Webern's procedures were adopted enthusiastically by composers on both sides of the Atlantic. Living in increasingly automated societies, the post-Webern composers soon discovered total serialism, a manner of composition in which all musical parameters follow numerical rules laid down in the course of what has been called the precompositional process. Whereas Schoenberg's row technique merely fixed the sequence of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale in accordance with the motivic context of a given piece, Webern had indeed begun to serialize rhythm and to some extent instrumentation, possibly under the influence of medieval isorhythmic techniques. But total serialization, as practiced by the post-Webernians, left little, if anything, to spontaneous inspiration, and the 1950s thus witnessed the closing of a creative circle initiated during the early Middle Ages when spontaneous inspiration was manifestly suspect. Perhaps inevitably, such a hermetically closed system of composition provoked reactions that moved the aesthetic pendulum violently to the extreme opposite position. Spur-of-the-moment action became the watchword in music as well as in life generally. Aleatory (chance-music) composition in its more radical manifestations provides only minimal guidelines for performers who are told to improvise freely within certain temporal or spatial limitations, or both.

      Thus, with the 20th century in its final quarter, the West has returned, insofar as is possible, to the pre-typographical stage when musical tradition was essentially oral. More than that, the relatively recent replacement of “the public,” once essentially the cultural elite, by a whole host of publics to whom mutually exclusive types of composers cater with great solicitude, suggests that the private musical life of the immediate past is in the process of being transplanted by experiences serving, among other things, the identification of special group interests and needs. At the same time, novelty rather than originality has become the order of the day. Musical compositions, electronically recorded—more recently also electronically produced—and distributed as salable items by mass-oriented corporations, have attained the status of physical objects that are easily discarded and replaced. Still, there are those who try to transform the burdens of history into significant new forms of composition. A new eclecticism is in the making, destined perhaps to preserve a long tradition that has been among the West's proudest achievements.

Alexander L. Ringer Ed.

Additional Reading
Because most writings on musical composition were conceived as didactic treatises for would-be composers, their content has virtually no bearing on a better understanding of crucial aesthetic attitudes and mental processes. Instead, depending on the era from which they hail as well as the specific outlook of their authors, such treatises deal for the most part with contrapuntal rules, harmonic laws, and the like. While numerous books of this type appeared through the ages, it was only with the creation of the educational institutions known as conservatories of music, following the lead of the National Conservatory of France established in the last years of the 18th century, that composition became a discipline formally taught and hence requiring comprehensive textbooks, including the theory of form and instrumentation. This profitable need was satisfied by the voluminous activities of 19th-century writers from J.J. Momigny and Anton Reicha to Vincent d'Indy in France and from Heinrich Christoph Koch to Hugo Riemann in Germany. Few of these books were translated into English, and they are of primary interest to the specialist. The following is a selection of easily accessible monographs and documentary collections with emphasis on firsthand testimonies of the creative artists themselves.Jacques Barzun (ed.), Pleasures of Music (1951), a collection of writings about music, including many from the pens of men of literature; Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music (1959), contains Bernstein's seven “Omnibus” television scripts, including his excellent comments on sketch materials relating to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and its ultimate realization; Frederick Dorian, The Musical Workshop (1947), a discussion of various aspects of musical composition, including comments on creative procedures; Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (1947), rare insights into the problems of cinematographic music from a composer who, during his Hollywood years, tried to turn music into an integral aspect of film art; Max Graf, From Beethoven to Shostakovich (1947, reprinted 1969), a popular study of psychological processes involved in composition; Michael Hamburger (ed. and trans.), Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations (1960), a concise but well-chosen selection of Beethoven's own words concerning both specific compositions and the problems of the composer in general; Lejaren A. Hiller, Jr., and Leonard M. Isaacson, Experimental Music (1959), the first and still basic monograph dealing with the philosophy, procedures, and techniques of composition with an electronic computer; Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World (1961), a leading 20th-century composer looks at various facets of the composer's world, including questions of musical perception, inspiration, technique, performance, and education; Irving Kolodin (ed.), The Composer as Listener: A Guide to Music (1958), excerpts from pertinent writings, including letters mostly by important composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries; Edward E. Lowinsky, “Musical Genius: Evolution and Origins of a Concept,” Musical Quarterly, 50:321–340, 476–495 (1964), excellent documentation of the evolution of a concept that has been associated through the ages more consistently with music than with any other form of artistic production; Alan P. Merriam, The Anthropology of Music (1964), a comprehensive treatment of music in relation to culture, drawing upon fieldwork on every continent and at all social levels (see especially ch. 9, “The Process of Composition”); Sam Morgenstern (ed.), Composers on Music: An Anthology of Composers' Writings from Palestrina to Copland (1956), an excellent collection, mostly of letters, dealing with general and specific aspects of the composer's work; Ernest Newman, The Unconscious Beethoven, rev. ed. (1970), a fascinating, if not unproblematic, study of the successive stages of Beethoen's work as revealed in his sketches by one of Britain's most famous critics; Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte (eds.), Letters of Composers: An Anthology, 1603–1945 (1946), one of the most comprehensive of several collections of composers' letters available in paperback; Josef Rufer, Die Komposition mit zwölf Tönen (1952, 2nd ed. 1966; Eng. trans., Composition with Twelve Notes Related to One Another, 1965), a cogent introduction to dodecaphonic aesthetics and technique by a dedicated Schoenberg disciple; Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea (1950), a discussion of Schoenberg's artistic motivation and procedures as well as those of the composers he admired most, including Brahms and Mahler; Roger Sessions, The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener (1962), a discussion of fundamental musical problems by the American composer; William Oliver Strunk (ed.), Source Readings in Music History from Classical Antiquity Through the Romantic Era (1950), an indispensable collection of relevant excerpts from the writings of philosophers, musical theorists, and composers from Plato to Richard Wagner; Donald Francis Tovey, The Mainstream of Music, and Other Essays (1961), a paperback reprint of some of the finest essays by the great British critic, who discusses basic compositional issues. See also Erich Leinsdorf, The Composer's Advocate (1981).

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Universalium. 2010.

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