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The Romanticism Challenge, part 2: holism vs. reductionism

For those of you who read this through syndication (hi, #tut and Samfundet!) a short summary: slightly more than two weeks ago, I visited Anders to listen to parts of his classical music collection. The aim was to test my claim that music from the romantic period is consistently unappealing to me.

My original plan was to post my ratings and time period guesses for each and every song. As we spent five and a half hours listening to in excess of seventy tracks, I think that would bore rather than educate my readers.

My time period guesses, while better than random, were not very accurate. Some of them were probably deliberate attempts by Anders to mislead me. For instance, take a look at these examples:

  • My notes: String quartet, possibly from the Classical era. Some elements of early baroque pastiche.
  • My guess: Late Classicism, ca. 1775.
  • What it actually was: Johan Halvorsen: passacaglia for violin and viola («Fritt etter Händel»)
  • My notes: I don't really grasp this one.
  • My guess: Mid-romanticism, ca. 1850
  • What it actually was: Paul McCartney: Midwife

On the other hand, I am disappointed that I misidentified Gregorio Allegri's wonderful renaissance work Miserere. I found the harmonies much to advanced and refined to be a Renaissance work, and the usage of Gregorian plainsong wasn't consistent with the strict schemes of the Baroque era. So I guessed that it had to be a late romantic piece from ca. 1920 that was deliberately using pieces of Gregorian plainsong as a sort of period colour. Since I claim to really like renaissance music, this ought to be a piece of cake for me. Obviously, it was not.

After about four hours, Anders was busy compiling my reactions to the diverse pieces of music into hypotheses about which qualities about the music appealed to me, and which did not. I don't know what they were, but in the end they all proved wrong, and he culled massive amounts of works from the queue, because he no longer saw a point in showing them to me. He was not able to consistently anticipate my reaction to any of the tracks.

Anders' tentative explanation for this was that I perceived music in a fundamentally different way than himself and other people who like romantic music. In my reactions to the pieces he had played, he noticed that I had some kind of obsession with consonance/dissonance, harmony, chord progressions, and indeed how individual notes sounds together. I would frequently note that the composer was on to something but then squandered the chance and was derailed. It would never occur to music connoisseurs to say something like that, he said, because they perceive the entire composition as an indivisible whole.

Now, I have a suspicion that the reason you don't hear music cognoscenti say such things is that they hold the composer and the integrity of their work in a too high regard. But if we are to take the proposition that they listen to music this way at face value, what does it feel like to them? At first, I thought it must be rather like watching a film or play, or reading a book: you care about the characters and the progression of the story, rather than deriving pleasure from the vibrant colours and balanced composition of individual takes or the poetic sound of a few sentences. Likewise, to really get romantic music, it might be that the music perception has to be lifted to a whole new level of abstraction.

But on further thought, that can't be the whole story. It is quite possible to like part of a film, but hate the way it ends. For its story, not for lower-level points of esthetics. Likewise, it should be possible to focus on the whole of a long work of classical music, while still noticing weaknesses or strengths in the parts.

Anders also mentioned that my reactions to music was reminiscent of that of those with synesthesia. I do actually have some low level of synesthesia, so it's an interesting thought. But I doubt that it really has anything to do with it, since my perception of musical structures, after all, seems to be at a higher level of abstraction than those properties usually associated with synesthesia.

While I am as far as ever from grasping what is so great about those works from the romantic era that is generally considered great, I was lucky to be presented with a few nuggets of gold among Anders' collection of classics.

In particular, a serendipitous moment was when I was presented with a piece by Shostakovitch, which I've now forgotten the title of. The point is that I almost immediately identified it as something by some Brazilian composer that I'd heard on a concert by The Student Society Orchestra maybe two years ago. It turned out that Anders knew which one I was talking about — it was Aria (Cantilena) from Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. I'd totally forgotten what the name of that composer was.

After having bought a few more works by Villa-Lobos, I now have come to the conclusion that I seem to like more than half of the music written by him. This is unique among non-Baroque composers of Western classical music.

Other highlights include:

  • Dmitri Shostakovitch has written music in the style of earlier eras, including a wonderful, wonderful Baroque fugue which I (again) forgot to write down the name of.
  • Ippolitov-Ivanov

[Sunday, Jul 17, 2005 @ 00:00] | [miscellaneous] | # | G