Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fuguing Around with Mozart

This morning I filed an review of last night’s “Candlelight Christmas” offering by the San Francisco Bach Choir.  I began by observing that there was almost no Bach on the program.  On the other hand there was a generous supply of sixteenth-century counterpoint.  My sense of metaphor got the better of me;  and I suggested that the Nativity celebration behind last night’s concert also celebrated the “nativity” of contrapuntal techniques that would later “grow to maturity” in the following centuries, with Bach playing a key role in that “developmental process.”

Since this was the week in which I aimed the Chutzpah of the Week award at Google-inspired quantitative techniques in the study of the humanities, this writing about fugues reminded me of one of my own adventures in “scholarship through search.”  The search space was not that all massive:  It was just the CD-ROM of texts and libretti that came with my Brilliant Classics box of the complete works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  I forget just when I performed the search, but it had to do with how much of a fugue writer Mozart had been.

While today there is a general appreciation of the extraordinary level of inventiveness that Bach could bring to “fuguing on a theme” (so to speak), Mozart’s contemporaries tended to dismiss Bach as old-fashioned and had little patience for composers taking the fugue to new levels of creativity.  Mozart, as always, had ideas of his own, as we know full well from the awe-inspiring “Kyrie eleison” fugue in his K. 626 requiem setting, which made enough of an impression on Franz Xaver Süssmayr that he used it for the final section of his completion of this work.  My question was whether I could use search to get a better sense of Mozart’s general interest in fuguing.

This was not a particularly successful experiment because, while the background notes for the instrumental music on the CD-ROM served as a useful reference source, for those discs on which texts were sung, the decision to include background notes along with the texts themselves was a sometime thing.  Thus, to choose the most obvious example, there were no notes at all for K. 626 or for many of the other compositions in the Sacred Works volume of the set.  As a result search-directed research hit a brick wall very quickly, because Mozart seems to have had a grand old time working fugues into all of those choral works he had to churn out for the Archbishop of Salzburg.  To be fair, however, I should note that the “Church Music” chapter of Louis Biancolli’s Mozart Handbook says absolutely nothing about any sacred composition other than K. 626;  and if it mentions the fugue at all in that chapter, the page reference is missing from the index!  So, while reading more books may provide a better solution, finding the right books to read is not always an easy matter.

The real basis for my Chutzpah of the Week award had to do with the difficulty of deriving semantic results from “relatively brute-force results in lexical analysis,” such as those of “raw” text search.  Put in simpler language, text search is a dangerously ineffective way to find out if a given piece of writing is addressing a particular concept (and where that concept is being addressed).  Where music is concerned, the problem gets even worse.  I have consistently tried to use the verb progressive “fuguing” not to be cute but to follow a key lesson from Alfred Mann’s The Study of Fugue, which is that there is no such thing as “fugue form.”  One can only say sensible things if one talks about the activity of fuguing as part of a more general act of composition.  (This is rather in the spirit of Ludwig Wittgenstein recognizing  that it is easier to talk about the practice of playing games than it is to come up with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to define “game” as a concept.)  Thus, even if research provides us with a “music-based Google,” it is hard to imagine that such a tool would be any better at searching for actions, rather than “objects,” than the text version is.  Consequently, it is unlikely that any question about approaches Mozart took in his acts of composition will ever be addressed effectively by Google-like tools.  We shall just have to fall back on the old-fashioned pedagogical technique of building up greater familiarity with the repertoire.

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