It has been observed that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. Duke Ellington said that if it sounds good it probably is good. Peter Schickele, the well-known avatar of P. D. Q. Bach (1807-1742), dedicated his weekly radio programme, Schickele Mix, to the principle that all musics are created equal, so you might think that he doesn’t believe in the good and the bad. Each episode is a light-hearted, although somewhat heavy-humored, presentation of diverse musical excerpts loosely connected by a musical, historical or literary thread.
Professor Schickele is a very good composer, especially when he shakes himself loose from his eminent forbear, and, in spite of certain appearances to the contrary, is very serious about music. I don’t think, however, that we should apply strict philosophical standards to his dedicatory remark, which clearly falls into the “Bah, humbug!” category. He is trying, in a few words, to convey a sentiment that may defy exact expression even when a whole book is devoted to it. It may turn out that an exact statement would resemble Heisenberg’s Principle in that it would put a limit to how far we can go before we start talking nonsense. How about, for instance, “There is no clearly discoverable meaning to be attached to the statement that one kind of music (e.g. jazz) is better than some other kind of music (e.g. rock).” Or, “We can not say that one piece of music is better than another simply because of the kind of music that it is.” According to the former statement, terms like “better” and “worse” have no meaning in relation to categories of music, from which it would follow that “equal” is meaningless too. The second implies the same thing but invites the question, “Are there any criteria that would make it possible to apply ‘better’ and ‘worse’ to individual pieces irrespective of the categories?” We’ve all heard of apples and oranges, so perhaps it would be safer to say, “Judgements of relative merit are meaningful only with regard to pieces that fall into the same category.” It is meaningless to say that Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is better than Basin Street Blues but perhaps it is not completely nonsensical to maintain that Beethoven’s Fourth is better than his First, and we may even feel that there may be some meaning to be discovered in the assertion that Beethoven’s Fourth is better than Schumann’s Third.
After a few sentences of this kind the reader (and the writer) might well be excused for asking, “Who the Devil cares?” The fact is that some people care enough to make sweeping statements and even to involve themselves in bitter controversies about the relative merits of different composers, and different kinds and pieces of music; and they seldom stop to wonder whether what they are saying makes any sense. In discussions involving “classical” music it is extremely rare for anyone to question the idea, tacitly assumed, that the composer has given his piece of music a complete and independent existence. The music is often considered as if it existed in vacuo, so to speak, and not in relation to living and breathing performers and listeners. The composer is the kingpin, the be-all and end-all of the music, and his compositions are sometimes discussed and diagrammed as though they were architectural designs. But music, to quote Michael Flanders’s reversal of Schelling’s famous dictum, is more like “defrosted architecture,” and it only melts and boils when it is performed. Beethoven’s use of structural principles to achieve his artistic ends is at the highest possible level, but the degree of unanimity with which generations of music lovers have preferred Beethoven’s symphonies to Schumann’s is the result not of formal analysis but of impact. Beethoven simply packs a much stronger punch. People who experience this impact need no explanations. Those who don’t may get some idea of what I’m talking about from the following words of Hubert Foss. He is speaking about Borodin but in some form or other what he says applies to the music of all the “great” composers.
What distinguishes both Borodin’s and Mussorgsky’s work from that of their colleagues [Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Cui] is something that is very difficult to pin down on paper for analysis, for it is a combination of imaginative and musical qualities which one can describe only as ‘meaning’. An extraordinary intensity of emotion, the direct utterance of the peasant and his folk-songs, a primitive sense of colour, all of these things complicated by intellectual power and high culture, are some of the ingredients that go to make up Borodin’s meaning. He had an unrivalled capacity for crowding an immense quantity of truth and significance into the shortest possible musical phrase.
It is quite possible, however, that Foss’s words, eloquent as they are, will not make any impression. People who get it, so to speak, can share their experiences. Those who don’t tend to stay on the outside, looking in and wondering what all the fuss is about. Once, when I was about fifteen, I stayed with some family friends who had the habit of switching on the BBC Home Service and leaving it on all day. This meant that every so often there would be classical music in the air. On one occasion there was a performance of the New World Symphony, and afterwards, referring to part of the slow movement, I said something about a “very emotional passage.” My hosts stared at me uncomprehendingly and laughed. I found this devastating and it was a long time before I talked about music with anyone again.
This kind of experience is of some help in understanding why such a large proportion of what is written about classical music is concerned with various aspects of form or structure, rather than the “combination of imaginative and musical qualities which one can describe only as ‘meaning’.” The relationship between form and impact is an indispensable component of classical music, but form is often discussed as though it were and end in itself; a listener who is preoccupied with form will probably miss the “meaning,” the “truth,” the “significance” and the impact; and all the formal mastery in the world will not make up for a lack of anything potent to say.
You can tell if music is potent by listening to it, not by taking someone’s word for it, but you are seldom on your own in coming to your conclusion. Generations of listeners have flocked to hear Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because of what the music did for them, carrying them into realms of vivid experience not otherwise attainable. Many people find experiences of different kinds but comparable intensity in the music of composers from Bach and Handel to Britten and Shostakovich. The implication that there is a kind of potency that somehow belongs to the period from 1700 until some time in the twentieth century is something that will have to be examined, but we can immediately note that this is also the period to which nearly all discussions of form apply.
Without potency form is a useless concept. We may make an interesting, diverting and possibly helpful occupation out of musical analysis, but what really matters is what goes on the body, heart and mind of the listener. Form, however, can be quantified, and therefore discussed, whereas the effect of a Beethoven symphony on an individual listener can’t, unless we are prepared risk talking the kind of nonsense to which I referred earlier. And now I must hasten to add, at the risk of appearing to contradict myself, that formal mastery is what enables a composer to make sure that his message gets through. A succession of striking non sequiturs adds up to less than the sum of its parts, while the use of connective material that is merely connective dissipates both tension and attention.
Composers in the seventeenth century, Monteverdi being a prime example, certainly liked to play on their listeners’ feelings, and they did so primarily through vocal music. The desire and ability to play games with the listener through purely instrumental music came to the fore in the eighteenth century, and its most accomplished exponents were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Such games depend on the mysterious unity of substance and form, and, as we shall see later on, some of them are extremely serious.