Monday, March 14, 2011

Diachronic Speculations

As a result of having read Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies, I have had a long-standing interest in trying to map out “influence networks” of composers throughout the history of Western music, drawing upon the same categories of links that Collins had used in his network graphs:  master-pupil, acquaintance, and “conflictual.”  In the graphs he drew in this book, Collins tried to situate each name along a vertical time axis before drawing the necessary links.  However, after my efforts to write about Yefim Bronfman’s recital last night on, I suspect that this may be too coarse an approach to the time line.  Where composers are concerned (and probably philosophers as well), we rarely want to think of the entire life of an individual as a single node in a graph structure.  Thus, I have found myself thinking about influence relations at the granularity of individual compositions, which means that I probably need to introduce an additional link to account for self-influence from one composition to another.

Much of the effort in my piece involved trying to establish a useful listening context for Robert Schumann’s Opus 20 in B-flat major, which he titled “Humoreske” (with the result, suggested by Michael Steinberg, of his having coined the word).  The chronology given in Grove Music Online has this music being composed in 1838 and 1839.  Schumann was very productive in 1938, to the point that his Wikipedia entry devotes three paragraphs to piano works composed in this year:

Kinderszenen, Op. 15, completed in 1838 and a favourite of Schumann's piano works, depicts the innocence and playfulness of childhood. The "Träumerei", No. 7 of the set, is one of the most famous piano pieces ever written, which has been performed in myriad forms and transcriptions. It has been the favourite encore of several great pianists, including Vladimir Horowitz. Melodic and deceptively simple, the piece has been described as "complex" in its harmonic structure.[8]

Kreisleriana (1838), considered one of Schumann's greatest works, carried his fantasy and emotional range deeper. Johannes Kreisler was the fictional poet created by poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, and characterized as a "romantic brought into contact with reality". Schumann used the figure to express emotional states in music that is "fantastic and mad." According to Hutcheson ("The Literature of the Piano"), this work is "among the finest efforts of Schumann's genius. He never surpassed the searching beauty of the slow movements (Nos. 2, 4, 6) or the urgent passion of others (Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7)...To appreciate it a high level of aesthetic intelligence is required...This is no facile music, there is severity alike in its beauty and its passion."

The Fantasie in C, Op. 17, composed in the summer of 1836, is a work of passion and deep pathos, imbued with the spirit of the late Beethoven. Schumann intended to use proceeds from sales of the work toward the construction of a monument to Beethoven (who had died in 1827). The closing of the first movement of the Fantasie contains a musical quote from Beethoven's song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98 (at the Adagio coda, taken from the last song of the cycle). The original titles of the movements were to be "Ruins", "Triumphal Arch" and "The Starry Crown". According to Liszt,[9] who played the work for Schumann, and to whom it was dedicated, the Fantasie was apt to be played too heavily, and should have a dreamier (träumerisch) character than vigorous German pianists tended to impart. Liszt also said, "It is a noble work, worthy of Beethoven, whose career, by the way, it is supposed to represent."[10] Again according to Hutcheson: "No words can describe the Phantasie, no quotations set forth the majesty of its genius. It must suffice to say that it is Schumann's greatest work in large form for piano solo."

Note that I included the third paragraph because, in spite of the year given, Grove states that Schumann did not complete Opus 17 to his satisfaction until 1938.  As I worked on my piece, I realized that there were a variety of influence links in Opus 20 going back to Opus 15, including what I described as a “warped image of the poet whose oration concludes the earlier work.”  However, there is also the connection of that “Humoreske” title to Galen’s bodily humors and the volatile combination of those humors in Schumann’s own personality.  Schumann had already confronted that volatility in “Kreisleriana” (Opus 16).  As I wrote about this composition on, its inspiration was “the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, the fictitious creation of E. T. A. Hoffmann, who had originally considered writing about this character under the title Lucid Intervals of an Insane Musician.  So there is probably an equally strong influence link from Opus 16 to Opus 20.  To this we may add influences attributed to other composers, since one may make a case that Schumann put time into learning Franz Schubert’s D. 960 B-flat major piano sonata, whose final movement has a volatility of its own that may have insinuated itself into Opus 20.  Even if this last gesture had not been a deliberate act, one might consider that the early nineteenth century saw the emergence of a “rhetoric of volatility” in conjunction with the Romantic movement developing at the time.

Such thinking may turn out to be little more than idle recreation;  but, if we are to take a diachronic approach to how compositions emerge over the broader flow of time, then we should approach that flow in terms of the works themselves rather than the overall life of the composer.

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