Thinking About Early Music

careofnietzschenewsdotorgFriedrich Nietzsche said that Wagnerian opera expressed “the sublime, the profound and the overwhelming.” Yet he wasn’t giving out compliments.

For Nietzsche, Wagner’s music represented the decadence of their time as well as the composer’s ego, two things that ticked Nietzsche off so much that he devoted The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner to roasting his former friend and now musical Napoleon.  Readers may not agree that Wagner refused or was unable to write a melody or that he distrusted beauty, yet Nietzsche’s descriptions of Wagner’s big orchestra, big effects and big, superheated emotions are hard to dispute.

There’s a sense of girth to Wagner’s works that just isn’t found in the music of earlier composers.  No matter how busy the counterpoint or terrifying the scene, Bach and Mozart never let their textures grow too thick or their sentiments turn too raw. Their music glows while, for Nietzsche, Wagner’s music “sweats.” For Nietzsche, the artist’s sweat, the residue of their own subjectivity and anything that draws too much attention to the artist’s efforts made sublimity, profundity and the overwhelming seem like noisy, smelly passengers on a very bad tour of European culture and its future.

careofpausaniodotdeI don’t have the research materials needed to ascertain whether or not Nietzsche had heard of Galuppi, but he may have liked the Venetian opera composer’s own three descriptors of good music. “Charm, clarity and good harmony” might sound a little too modest for the philosopher who gave the world “will to power,” but Nietzsche might have respected Galuppi’s honesty and self-awareness (possibly even his modesty). Instead of self-absorbed display, a compulsion towards bombastic realism and a cleverly complex technique, Galuppi opted for lightness, directness, transparency, stylization, respect for form and tradition, rhythmic flow and a good dose of humor.

Early music, whether it’s a Baroque suite or a hot dance chart, isn’t limited to those values but it thrives on them. Depending on one’s taste, the music is “balanced” or “small” enough so that all the moving parts are audible, and valuable. The structure and scope of the music are not (yet) so big or so codified that they make anyone feel trapped by them. Practitioners, if they’re not inventing the forms, see them as springboards rather than shackles. Necessity plays an important role, for example with instrumentation, venue and material, leading to invention that wouldn’t be possible with unlimited resources. Musicians treat their craft (rather than “calling” or “mission”) seriously but take themselves slightly less seriously.  Early music is usually also commissioned by a patron or danced to by audiences. It’s usually not the undiluted expression of an “artist.”

It’s hard to imagine Galuppi, or for that matter Vivaldi or King Oliver, calling themselves “artists” or penning the kind of long, personal treatises written by Wagner. It’s harder still to picture any of them pouring their pure, undiluted tears onto the stage. Can anyone imagine Jabbo Smith or Handel using music to show how they felt, rather than crafting something that made the listener feel a certain way?

Wagner’s personal beliefs are an open book courtesy of his music.  The same goes for Charles MingusHaydn would have never gotten away with or even wanted to be so candid in his music.  Could we even imagine Don Redman composing a secular oratorio to honor one of his political heroes, or Hot Lips Page playing his trumpet to protest anything?  Mozart, who created some of the most touching, powerful experiences in sound, never felt the need to confess, let alone scream or cry. Neither did Louis Armstrong. No matter what they expressed, there was always style and play in their work.  They didn’t seem to want to be gods in the act of creation.  They continue to succeed as musicians inviting all of us into their (to borrow a term Albert Murray liked) recreation.

Nietzsche  looked for certain artistic qualities in music but didn’t find them in contemporary sounds. He found the past much more rewarding. In other words, Nietzsche was an early music fan.mound-city-blue-blowers-web_med care of VJM

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2 thoughts on “Thinking About Early Music

  1. tronepone says:

    Well expressed and, at least to me, insightful. Some more illustrative examples?

    Stan Kenton / Woody Herman
    Mahler / Sibelius

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