On Literature and Music – an essay about Renaissance and Baroque music
Why did the art of music experience an unprecedented flowering in the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth in Europe, a musical renaissance which produced the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven? Erich Heller argues that artistic expressions of spirituality had previously been shaped by and based on religion, and as a result of the collapse of the Medieval and early Renaissance religious order, of its Church-sanctioned monarchical society, the spiritual power and potential of the other arts diminished. Heller writes that music is the only art which surpassed earlier achievements. Formed from pure sound rather than paint, marble, word or brick, this most ephemeral, immaterial art became the primary mode to convey and embody spiritual experience. Beginning in the eighteenth century Enlightenment – the Age of Reason, science, material progress, and reform – music became the last bastion of spirituality and the primary means to achieve a “speechless triumph of the spirit.”
Was music a marvelous imaginative response to the materiality and objectivity of the Age of Reason, or did it help actively support the “untuning” of the previous order in culture and society? Plato offers, as always, an answer. In The Republic, he opposes the introduction of new music, which is to be “shunned as imperiling the whole state.” Music “insinuates itself” into more and more fundamental parts of society and “ends by overturning everything.” The music of the 1960s in the United States seems to testify to the idea that music is potentially destabilizing, that music can be dangerous and require regulation. Yet, in Plato’s view, training in music is also capable of “imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.” Rather than a threat, music can become a sublime imaginative creation – “the fairest of sights” – by achieving the “harmonious union” of “nobility of soul” and “beauty of form.” No wonder the Pythian Games in Classical Greece were both athletic and musical competitions.
The art form that Plato most fully censures is Classical Tragedy. The tragic vision is faulted for confronting us with untamed manifestations of feeling and irrational motive, without sufficiently containing their turbulence and violence. It admits disordered struggle and striving onto the stage, into society. Tragedy, of course, also brings music onto the stage in the role of the sung Chorus, which literally voices the community’s response to tragedy’s display of the irrational. Yet a sublimation of the irrational is achieved by tragic form in the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, and their transformation of grief and the irrational creates the profoundest form of sublimity, for they take up and give form to the wildest, most threatening parts of human existence. Despite itself, Plato’s view of tragedy helps us to identify music’s wondrous potential, its capacity not only “to tame the savage beast” but to give a noble, beautiful, and sublime form to the disordered life of feeling and the striving of the spirit.
I’ll turn now to the background of early seventeenth-century Renaissance music before addressing Baroque achievements. First, consider the setting of a Petrarch sonnet in Monteverdi’s madrigal “Zephiro torna, e ‘l bel tempo rimena” (‘The zephyr returns, and the lovely weather stirs’). The rich harmonies and the contrapuntal play of voices celebrate a pastoral vision of spring, its sight and song, in the octave of the first eight lines. This is followed by a three-line tercet of poignant lament (“i piu gravi sospiri” – ‘the saddest sighs’) for the rejection by his beloved; at this turn, the madrigal slows and the minor-key harmonies and interplay of voices deepen. In the twelfth and thirteenth of the fourteen lines, the joyous singing returns, only to be supplanted in the final line by a reprise of the music of grief. Here joy and sorrow are each expressed as separate zones of feeling. The work is in no way static, either as poetry or music, but its formulation of the life of feeling is divided into starkly juxtaposed parts in a sort of paradoxical arrangement, not a process of development. Here, the experience of love is to move between discrete, contradictory states of feeling, and not to experience the process of development revealed, for example, in Shakespeare’s contemporaneous dramas.
In the opening of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” for example, the Duke evokes the power of music as a fluid, dramatically shifting and paradoxical process. His speech is reminiscent of the English sonnets of the period, which packs fluid contradictions into every line. The first line here identifies music as nurturing love, the life of feeling, but the second line embraces overfullness, asking for “excess of it,” and in a dramatic initial turn, the result of the excess – in music as in love – becomes sickness and death; dying as an Elizabethan image for sexual climax is also at work here. The drama of these emotional developments is compressed into the next few lines initially evoking “the sweet sound that breathes,” like a soul’s suspirations on a pastoral scene, and then rejecting the music. The Duke’s speech celebrates the shifting, unstable, changeable nature of emotional expression, which makes music “high fantastical.”
When music becomes one focus of a play – as it does in Shakespeare’s late comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” – music’s range of effects get marvelously manifested. There is the pastoral vision of its potential for grace, in “How still the evening is, / As hushed on purpose to grace harmony!” Then, the awareness of paradox, of the imbalance between flawed humans and the beauty the human can generate, in the musician Balthazar’s lines before he sings “Sigh no more, ladies” – “tax not so bad a voice / To slander music any more than once” and “There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.” The irony of the imperfect human producing sublimity out of his mundane condition is intensified by Don Pedro’s response to that last line: “Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks! / Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!” – in which for Elizabethans ‘nothing’ rhymes and is pronounced as ‘noting.’ The more intense irony is that music is close to nothingness, is ephemeral, can soften into silence, and disappear into nothingness. Finally, in this scene, the music leads into a comedic plot to deceive Benedict about Beatrice, and so it is located in a world of hidden motives, of deceptions and ambiguities in flawed human relationships. Music’s sublimity coexists with this unfolding chaos.
The sense of encroaching chaos is intensified in the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment, with the weakening grip of monarchical rule over society, the collapsing rule of the Catholic Church in the face of Reformation, the rise of scientific thought in the Age of Reason, and the increasing power of the Bourgeoisie, the burgeoning class of business owners and professionals. In this period, the Baroque is a response to these emergencies, to the unhinging or untuning of society, and to the encroaching possibility of chaos and apocalypse. Its response is to be seen in the ambitious church architecture, the enthusiastic literature, and above all in the great musical compositions of the period. It was as if, in the face of the possible collapse of the inherited social order, the arts responded by releasing a great overfullness and outpouring of all that was then conceivable into the yawning morass of an apparently approaching chaos.
Confronting this possibility of chaos, Baroque music reveals just such an outpouring of grandeur, an enthusiastic elaboration of expression, and a thrilling upwelling of energy and power. In order to control the great upwelling of feeling, of change and instability, the imposition of severe, even reactionary formal controls seemed to be necessary. For example, audacious scriptural texts order Bach’s ambitious Passion oratorios and Handel’s Messiah; characteristically they are not Catholic texts but Lutheran or Anglican. Variation form, based in a single ordering melody like that in Bach’s Goldberg Variations or his Chaconne, yields an encompassing, compelling multitude of expressive possibilities. And the fugue establishes the control required in mounting the great contrapuntal edifices of Baroque music, some of them for organ or chorus appropriate for performances in the vastly elaborate churches of the period. Finally, arias are enhanced by brilliantly expressive ornamentation.
An aria from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – “Erbarme Dich” – offers one such example of Baroque expressiveness. The contralto sings with understated and all the more piercing sorrow asking God to “have mercy” for “my heart and eyes weep before you bitterly.” The aria’s beautiful expression of pathos, baring such deep grief and vulnerability, is one of the great achievements of Baroque art, and it is shaped by the period of its creation, for it is poignantly full with an awareness that death, chaos, and disintegration are close at hand. The formal qualities both enhance but also control and contain the contralto’s tragic singing, the beauty of her dialogue with the lone violin’s expressively ornamented obbligato and with the lento communal procession of the chamber orchestra’s accompaniment. Recently, an austerely apocalyptic film by Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice, plays Erbarme Dich as part of its score. The sublimity of this ineffable expression of despair in Bach’s aria gives solace before the fateful Baroque dilemma of living in a nuclear period.
Handel’s setting of Dryden’s “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” can serve as our final example of another facet of the Baroque, its upwelling of energy and invention. The outpouring is achieved within the stringent order of the Oratorio’s sections, which produce invention after invention featuring a cello, then trumpets, a flute, violins, and an organ. The proximity of life to death is a recurrent motif in each section, and the music’s counterpoint embodies the implacable connection between Creation and the Last Judgement: “Arise ye more than dead.” The music of the orchestra, soloists, and chorus produces a fullness – even overfullness – of creative invention confronting and overcoming the specter of chaos and death “in a heap / Of jarring atomes” (which is the fate the Enlightenment, and not only the Last Judgment, may bring). The control over this outpouring of harmonic and contrapuntal richness parallels the order imposed by the poem’s mesh of rhymes and artifice. The final fugue here is the oratorio’s greatest musical expression of the Baroque control imposed on our “crumbling Pageant” – setting the poem’s last lines: “The Dead shall live, the Living die, / And Musick shall untune the sky.” The music of this period triumphs over the proximity of chaos by means of its strict, inexhaustible formal elaborations generating a creative fecundity unique to the Baroque.