Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Life and Transformation of European Melody

Over a few crucial centuries, the “classical” music of the West developed a trait that separates it from all other music that exists or has existed: its trademark disconnect with the human voice. Where other cultures (and, in Europe, other times) looked upon the voice as a sort of fertile soil and metaphor for all music, it vanished from the core of European music, taking with it the idiom of vocal melody; in its place, the motive (or “idea”, in its more sublime guise) flowered into the new lifeblood of music. What is, for the world's other musical cultures, an art of the voice and its instrumental proxies is, in the West, and art of ideas and the sounds that clothe them in physical form.

The centuries-long process that took European music from the former art to the latter is, in essence, the story of the fragmentation of melody, and of its disembodiment—that is, the growing disassociation of music and the human voice. In very general terms, it is a transformation that takes us from the music of the late Middle Ages (interwoven melodies of sublime vocal character) to (at least) the music of the mid-20th century (disparate, non-vocal events unified by an abstract concept).

The first heralds of this transformation seem to me to have raised their voices in the early 17th century, although the seeds of this change were likely planted much earlier. The millennium-long melodic heritage inherited by the 16th century masters gave birth to the flower of European polyphony, an art rooted firmly in the powers of the human voice. Through the innovations of 17th and 18th century musicians, polyphony was transmuted; shaped by the forces of instrumental, metered music, and by the new ‘tonal thinking’, the progeny of the old vocal music was a different musical language, in which motive, chord, and meter were the key terms. By the time of Beethoven, melody in the old, vocal sense had vanished, replaced (at least in Germany and Austria) by a fragmented idiom built from the generating force of motivic cells. The composers of the latter half of the 19th century brought this music of atomized melody to its apotheosis; Wagner, in particular, envisioned music as streams of motivic ideas, woven together into a tapestry of ceaseless evolution, a perspective shared by most 19th century composers throughout Europe. Taken by Schoenberg and Strauss, the form-uniting motive gained in power and mystic significance: it became the ‘idea’, an abstract formula holding sway over every molecule of a piece. Music, as understood by the 20th century heir of this worldview, was a series of events in time, unified by warp and woof: the generating idea, and the magnetic force of vertical structure.

One hundred years later, this perspective has become the most widely-believed musical theory that the world has known; it pervades the music of almost all modern composers, from the most abrasive underground experimentalist to the ‘neo-Mahlerian post-Minimalist’ of Grammy-winning fame. Melody is a fragmentary creature composed of borrowed elements, usually the inner parts of some eviscerated harmonic structure; or perhaps it is a symbolic embodiment of the Concept, the social and intellectual significance of which must be discovered in the impenetrable arcana of the ‘artist's statement’. It is an accepted fact that melody is an undefined term, that music without an idea is out of control—and that the composer's task is to give meaning to his sometimes chaotic constructions by musically explaining to the listener what relations bind these events to each other. Idea and structure, warp and woof: and, between them, the manic pandemonia of every sound known to human kind.

Western music grew from roots common to its cultural cousins, yet its flower is of a shape and color that bespeak unique influences. To understand the genetic load of this organism whose inheritors we are, we must trace some stages in its growth.

The Line and the Melodic Tapestry

If there is one feature that renders the pre-1400 musical world alien to the modern musician, it is the purely linear, vocal character of the music. In this time, the first term of musical art was melody. The foremost talent of the medieval musician was for the invention of melodies—lines, as beautiful as possible, harmonizing with the idiom of the human voice and carefully constructed, with close attention paid to their proportions and melodic shapes. The earliest identifiable composers, among them Hermannus Contractus, Léonin, Pérotin, and Guillaume de Machaut, were heirs of nearly a millennium of musical thought—dating as far back as the times of Ambrose and Augustine, if not further—that regarded the perfection of the single melodic line as the sine qua non of musical art. The newer polyphonic approach in which these composers were steeped forced some deviations from this ideal: for example, lines in 3- and 4-voice music could not be as perfectly-formed as their monodic kin if the demands of harmony were to be met. Still, as the following example from Pérotin shows, the strong, proportioned melody of the individual voice had not been seriously compromised in the age of florid organum: 

Fig. 1: (c.f. recording)

Both the “modern” understanding of harmony and the motivic technique were in embryonic form by the early Renaissance. Harmony was concerned with uniting the several voices in a consonance (5th, octave, or unison) on accented beats, and with the avoidance of awkward cross-relations between voices; as yet, it was very much an art subordinate to that of melody. The motivic technique, archaic in origin, was used (to some extent) in the Gregorian liturgy and was probably a common heritage of all composers of the 13th and 14th centuries. For the entirety of the Renaissance, the use of motives was a simple means of relating separate voices and of unifying regions of music—in other words, it was a technique applied to the art of vocal melody, not something intrinsic to it. By weaving a memorable figure into a vocal line, and by duplicating this figure in other lines, the various strands in a polyphonic composition were given a sense of organic wholeness. The motive was therefore a tangible thing with none of the abstract properties associated with it in recent centuries; it was probably not regarded as the ‘fiber’ of music, but merely as an effective addition to the art.

Polyphonic music reached its pinnacle of complexity with the composers of the 15th century. Composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois, and, later, Josquin des Prez wove individual melodies of striking beauty into compositions of immense structural sophistication. Central to this sophistication was a greater scope for the motivic technique; in this music, whole regions of large compositions are unified by motivic units, which assert their presence yet never undermine the integrity of the melodies in which they inhere.
Fig. 2

Harmonic thought had begun to influence the composition of lines as well, although its effect at this point was mainly to broaden the range of melodic combinations; the explosion of the fauxbourdon style (attributed, at the time, to John Dunstaple) brought the intervals of the third and sixth—formerly considered somewhat dissonant—into popular use. This development, in turn, pushed the Pythagorean temperament into gradual obsolescence and spurred the gradual adoption of just temperaments; the way was being cleared for a fully triadic music of greater melodic density. 

Melody in Eclipse, Idea in utero


With the final culmination of polyphonic art in the 16th century came also a simplification. Music for 5 or more voices became common, while, at the same time, a simplicity of melody and form replaced the ornate styles of the previous century. The relationship between these twin developments is clear: the growing density of the ensemble placed greater limitations on the individual voice. Complex methods of unifying separate vocal lines—canon and all its derivatives—that had been popular in the music of the 15th century Franco-Flemish masters now lost ground. The motivic technique had gained by leaps and bounds; 16th century composers like Orlande de Lassus and Palestrina followed the lead of Josquin and others by using motives to delineate separate regions in their compositions:
Fig. 3 (c.f. recording)

The density of the larger 16th century ensembles restrained the melodic possibilities of each voice, while the intricate weavings of 5- and 6-voice polyphony fed the development of stereotyped vertical patterns, popular progressions that simplified complex melodic movements by representing them in cross-section. A transition to a new, vertical understanding of music had begun in earnest: as the art of the line found itself increasingly constrained, harmonic thinking gained ground rapidly: polyphony was being transmuted, in an entirely subjective sense, into a procession of 'harmonic moments'. A newly-popular shorthand—figured bass—provided a simple means of notating these melodic cross-sections, fueling the spread of vertical thinking among practical musicians. By the late 17th century, the chord structure had developed from its origin as a kind of melodic derivative (instantaneous cross-section) into the primal substance of much new music. No prophet of this newly-transfigured art grasped its possibilities more consummately than the celebrated Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713):
Fig. 4 (c.f. recording)

It may be difficult for us to understand the impact of this gradual shift in the concept of melody; it may be described as almost metaphysical. Prior to the growth of vertical thinking, melody was music, was the substance of all musical art; during the ascent of chordal thought, melody, though still crucial, was morphing into a dependent of harmony, an expression of the chordal substance beneath. If a 4-part ‘chord’, to the early 17th century composer, was merely a moment in the (highly distinct) lives of four melodic lines—that is, merely an accident of the melodic substance, the opposite relationship obtained between the two phenomena for the composer of the next century.

Two reciprocal axioms make clear the reversal of this relationship, and the clash between the old and modern melodic worlds. “L'harmonia nasce dal cantare, che fanno insieme le parti delle cantilene” (“Harmony arises from the simultaneous singing of melodies”), wrote composer and theorist Gioseffo Zarlino in 1558; nearly 200 years later, Jean-Phillippe Rameau wrote its antithesis: “La mélodie provient de l'harmonie” (“Melody comes from harmony”).[1] Though the influence of harmonic thought did not transform melodic composition from the flowing vocal lines of Monteverdi to the arpeggios of Mozart overnight, our example from Corelli indicates that, even at this early time, ‘chordal melody’ had made powerful inroads.

Rhythmic developments, too, helped feed the growth of this new form of melody: the sudden explosion of metrical music—in previous centuries, a style associated primarily with secular music, as distinct from the primarily free rhythms of sacred music—in the early 17th century lent a strict rhythmic structure to the progression of harmonies, and melodic composition followed suit. ‘Harmonic rhythm’, a product of strict meter and the new vertical perspective, was to shape the concept of melody throughout the 17th and 18th centuries: with pieces increasingly viewed as metered blocks of empty chord structures, to be ‘filled in’ by melodies tracing a path through these progressions, composers quite naturally began to write melodies that cut close to the harmonic backbone. Arpeggios and other harmonic figurations—frequently in sequence—were entirely idiomatic to the new music, and the best composers of the era made extensive use of them: 
Fig. 5 (c.f. recording)
These factors, combined with the popularity of the new homophonic style, gave birth to an era of music (extending from the early 18th to the mid 19th centuries) that was harmonically conceived, strongly metrical, and with a melodic style that referred to motives and figures, rather than linear composition and the human voice, for its form. Polyphony, as such, dwindled (despite the efforts of Bach and, occasionally, Händel), and the new dichotomy between (chordal) background and (melodic) foreground began to dominate music. No longer could each staff in a composition be called an individual voice; in the music—especially the orchestral works—of the mid-to-late 18th century, the vast majority of voices were employed in doubling the single melodic line for timbric effect, or in providing harmonic filler:
Fig. 6 (c.f. video performance)

As the new music of motivic and harmonic figure burgeoned, the vocal-type melody was gradually relegated[2]; by Beethoven's time, flowing, linear melody was to be found only in specifically vocal music and in regions of larger pieces in which a polyphonic texture was needed.[3] The motivic technique gained rapid ground, especially in instrumental music, as a means of binding together the strands loosed by the decline of melodic polyphony. Perhaps the ultimate blow of this development was landed by Beethoven himself, whose music placed the motive more firmly than ever at the center of the art:
Fig. 7 (c.f. video performance)

Partially due to Beethoven's volcanic demonstration of the possibilities of motivic music, the generation of composers that came of age in the mid 19th century focused almost entirely on this approach. Melodies, in the time of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Berlioz, were shaped along motivic and harmonic lines; accompanying ‘voices’ were frequently tasked with the incessant repetition of motivic rhythms, in addition to providing the standard harmonic backdrop.[4]


With the arrival of the monumental works of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms in the Western musical consciousness in the latter half of 19th century, polyphony began to reassert itself with a vengeance. In this music, counterpoint (newly in vogue, with the revival of interest in Bach and earlier polyphonic composers) was married to the rigorously developmental composition pioneered by Beethoven and his immediate successors; the result was what Ernst Toch calls “fermentative counterpoint”[5], a fluid music in which the tension generated by the motivic interplay between each voice was used to drive larger developmental structures. Gone (to some extent) were the harmonic ‘pads’ of the earlier homophonic orchestral music; in their place, Wagner and Brahms added motive-driven supporting lines that were equally important in shaping the direction and character of the music. A simultaneous development was the return—after over 150 years—of non-metrical melody that eschewed the strict, iambic/dactylic rhythms of the previous era.
Fig. 8 (c.f. video performance)

But this was not the polyphony of Josquin, Monteverdi, or even Bach; the musical transformations of the past three centuries made the polyphony of Wagner and his contemporaries a very different music from that of the earlier arts of interwoven melody. The linear concept of melody, mostly ignored since the mid 18th century, was given only slightly more attention now. Harmonic construction of melody was firmly entrenched, and the motivic technique enjoyed unsurpassed popularity as the main structural element of music: by this time, in fact, the mystic significance of the latter technique was growing, with larger and larger expanses of music deriving their generating force from a primary ‘Idea’. The expanding power of the motive, and its new association with a word drenched in philosophic and spiritual connotations, was the distinctive mark of late-19th century music, and the concept of polyphony, as practiced in this time, must be understood through this artistic lens. Polyphony was understood by the Renaissance composer as the interweaving of independent melodies; for the musician of Wagner's time, it was the interweaving of ideas. Thus, in comparison to the melodies of 15th or 16th century polyphony, the individual lines of Wagner or Brahms appear more as fragments than as internally-complete melodic forms.

Since this distinction captures a crucial aspect of the transformation of melody, let us briefly compare an example of Wagner's polyphony with a few measures from Palestrina's Missa de Beata Virgine:

Fig. 9
Fig. 10

Two interrelated contrasts are immediately noticeable:
  1. The music of fig. 8 is remarkable for the flowing, linear character of each voice and the absolute cohesion of melodic form; each melody presses forward to its conclusion, with careful attention payed to the logic of its linear structure and to the idiom of the voice. In fig. 9, on the other hand, each instrumental voice (excluding the vocal line) is only transiently possessed of a sense of line; no instrumental voice persists long enough to be considered a melodic form in itself—rather, each only lives long enough to present a new collection of motivic figures. Wagner's melodic language, too, is (again, excluding the vocal line) emphatically non-linear.

  1. In contrast to Wagner's intense, line-splintering concentration of ideas, Palestrina's use of the motivic technique is almost disarming in its subtlety. In fig. 8, the primary motives of the composition are woven into the individual lines, and do not, to my ear, draw unusual attention to themselves. Their formal rôle is clear, but the continuity of melody is never disrupted for motivic emphasis. The fragmented instrumental ‘entries’ (one hesitates to term them ‘melodies’) in fig. 9 are, in contrast, aggressively motivic, their linear form dictated completely by the demands of the ideas they present.

However striking, these observations do not quite succeed in capturing the essence of what happened, in the centuries that passed between the composition of fig. 8 and fig. 9, to the notion of melody. Again, our language must tend toward the metaphysical. In the Palestrina example, we may (metaphorically speaking) regard melody—the line, in its individual, linear nature—as the substance and condicio sine qua non of the music. Palestrina's primary concern seems to be the creation of internally perfect melodies; the ‘ideas’ of the composition inhere within the melodic substance, and serve to unite the discrete melodies—complete in and of themselves—into a larger whole. For Wagner, the Idea is core, the first term of the composition. The presentation of ideas is the business of each instrument, with the goal of spurring motivic and dramatic development; the individual ‘melody’ is merely a component of the idea-fabric of the work, and need not conform to any internal logic beyond that imposed by the ideas themselves. Palestrina's music is a polyphony of melodies; the music of Wagner, a polyphony of ideas.

The last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th brought the implications of the ‘idea-polyphony’ of Wagner to their logical conclusion. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg took Wagner's compositional approach as their point of origin, and developed from them striking new implications: Strauss applied the ideas of developing polyphony to orchestral program music, and Mahler, to a monumentally enlarged concept of the symphonic form. Schoenberg, in perhaps the most far-reaching development of ‘idea-polyphony’, concentrated and streamlined his polyphonic style to an extraordinary extent before bringing it beyond the bounds of tonal harmony. All three composers, along with most of their contemporaries, composed music of great polyphonic complexity with non-metrical, free-flowing melodic forms. That this music was still very much of the 19th century, idea-oriented approach perhaps goes without saying; certainly, no previous era in music ever displayed the kind of ‘melodic fracturing’ present in the works of Schoenberg and his contemporaries:
Fig. 11 (c.f. recording)
Fig. 12 (c.f. video performance)

Few composers have digressed as far from the ideal of linear melody as Schoenberg's remarkable student, Anton von Webern. While fig. 11 is by no means the least ‘vocal’ music ever written (even by Webern[6]), it is a remarkable example of how exactly how far from linear melody some 20th century music had come. It is virtually inconceivable that forms as disjunct and fragmentary as these would be regarded as anything like melody by other musical cultures; only through the centuries-long process of transformation that we have been describing could such a music come to pass. 

The Prestige of System

Although it lies outside of the scope of this essay to consider the music of the mid-to-late 20th century (and of the current century), some fallout of the previous centuries should be discussed. The early part of the last century found composers obsessed with motivic integration (the musical Idea of Schoenberg and Strauss) on all levels of a composition. This obsession metastasized in the generation of composers that followed into a love of organizational systems; while some (e.g. Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Milton Babbitt) championed the serial methods introduced by Schoenberg, others (John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti, to name just a few) argued effusively for a very different set of musical processes. Regardless of their differences, the vast majority of composers of the mid 20th century had some form of unifying musical theory that dictated the content of their music. To propose to musicians of this era and mindset the view that a beautiful, balanced melody justifies itself without reference to any theoretical construct would have been—and still is, to some extent—regarded as a mild heresy. The origin of this bias toward system and idea must be sought in the past: namely, in the historical events that led to the renunciation of melody as the prime musical substance, and to the corresponding exaltation of the idea.

Admittedly, we are only touching upon a small corner of the musical happenings of the past century; vast numbers of European and American musicians were never consciously involved in ‘ideas’ or ‘systems’. The doings described in the last two paragraphs could be classed as somewhat extreme ventures into the depths of idea-music. But the crucial point is that the majority of musicians of our time and culture accept, to some degree, the distorted sense of melody—or the exaggerated reverence for the Idea—that is the fruit of almost a millennium of transformation. No system of musical art has enjoyed the worldwide success of the Western tonal system that reached its stable form in the mid 19th century; therefore, no system has been more successful in foisting its entailed propositions on a world of musicians. We see examples of these assumptions in the language and music of the less venturesome musicians of our era: chords are treated as immutable forms, governing bodies to which melodies owe perfect allegiance—and the interrelationship and basic sameness of the two phenomena is ignored. Harmony is taught as a discipline entirely separate from counterpoint; melodic composition is never taught at all. In the dry circles of academic music, motivic structure is hallowed as the essence of music, and a multivalent compositional system is the most revered approach of all. In the experimental world, too, concept and process reign supreme. All these attitudes owe much to the unique history of Western music.

All score examples used in this article are, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain.

  1. Quoted in Knud Jeppesen, Counterpoint, p. 52 (1992, Dover Publications)

  2. This was not wholly the case in French and Italian music, and even the German and Austrian composers of the time frequently emphasized a linear melody in their homophonic compositions. The important thing to note, however, is that the foundations of polyphony—i.e. polymelody, the perspective that the weaving together of independent vocal melodies as the substance of music—had by this time vanished from virtually all European music, replaced by the melody/accompaniment formula of homphonic composition. Even the lyrical, linear melodies of Rossini, Berlioz, and Schubert were inevitably accompanied by chordal/rhythmic backgrounds; actual polyphony, again, was used primarily as a style or effect.

  3. c.f. Beethoven's Symphony no. 3, movement II. Very much a homophonic piece throughout its A section, the B section sees a sudden division of the orchestra into individual voices of a fugue. These voices emerge essentially out of thin air, and disappear with equal suddenness at the conclusion of the B section.

  4. This technique of using motivic rhythms in the accompaniment was developed primarily by Beethoven, although it was used by earlier composers, notably Bach (surprise, surprise). By its use, the rhythmically bland ‘background’ of homophonic music could be enlivened, and, for a composer as obsessed with the motivic technique as was Beethoven, legitimated. I suggest that this approach and its popularity in the mid 19th century sowed the seeds of the “polyphonic Renaissance” that began with Richard Wagner: as composers became more concerned with motivically integrating all of the voices of a composition, the independent potential of each of those voices likely became more obvious.

  5. Ernst Toch, The Shaping Forces in Music, p. 141-145 (1977, Dover Publications)

  6. c.f. Webern's later works, op. 21 and above (Unfortunately, I am unable to include selections from these works due to copyright issues). In these works, Webern's sophisticated application of the 12-tone technique and other serial processes generates melodic lines of astonishing non-linearity; some ‘lines’, for example, are composed entirely of leaps, while others frequently alternate linear progressions in seconds and thirds with leaps of ninths, tenths, and larger intervals.

    It is frequently asserted that the music of Webern and Schoenberg is ‘difficult’, and that this difficulty stems from their chromatic tonal language, or perhaps from the irregularity of their rhythms. In opposition to this opinion, I would argue that the non-linearity of this music is the main barrier to the listener, and not the lack of key or regular pulse. Schoenberg and Webern scorn the necessity of linear cohesion in their melodies, and the angularity of their linear structures generally has the effect of formlessness on the unfamiliar—and, perhaps, even the familiar—ear. Having listened to both composers for several years, I confess that I am unable to sing more than a few bars of any of their works from memory, so uncongenial are their melodies to the human voice. But enough of this.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


The composer of modern times is taught from the first that his art exists on an ideal plane. He is the creator of invisible cities that are destined to be but imperfectly modeled. The collection of symbols that fill a score are poor empirical markers in a grand scheme of idealized cartography; pencil marks symbolize conceptual tethers across the fabric of virtual time, a frame presented as spatial metaphor by sheets of paper, inscribed left-to-right in perpetual extension. The modern composer, though, does not wish to see this play of symbolism, the masquerade of denotation and connotation that exposes the shadowy nature of his work. He is adamant: he works with concepts, with virtual sound, not with the objects he uses to symbolize them—he is the seer-through of metaphors, the surpasser of the physical symbol. He would prefer to eliminate the intrusion of the empirical into his work entirely; and thus, today, he reduces its physical underpinnings to a minimum.

It is the score, the composer feels, that expresses the form and materials of a work most perfectly, usually in a language of inexorable certitude: but it is here that he appears as a strangely careless worker. The language of his score is perfect, determinate, it conveys his creation in symbols more crystalline in their significance than those of any other century, but the calligraphy of this language is flat and inelegant, the ink poor, and the paper cheap and indifferent. Fixed on the perfection of content and seduced by the dignity of his language, the composer is shockingly unconcerned with his materials. Like some anguished Augustinian who, reflecting upon the impossibility of realizing the perfect Form in an imperfect world, regards all but the rudest works as insulting in their pretension, the composer hacks out models of his creations in the cheapest stuff available—if the Form is sublime and immaterial, what matter if the model is of finely-worked gold or of refuse tin?

But the 21st century composer is no latter-day Neo-Platonist. The high regard in which he holds the products of his slipshod craftmanship owes nothing to “the Sublime”, but to their “functional efficiency” as “communicative media”. “Functional efficiency” might well be the credo inscribed above the modern composer's desk—the phrase captures the spirit and ideal (dissonant words, surely) of everything he does, down to the sawdusty clunk with which it drops off the tongue. The modern composer fetishizes efficiency down deep. His scores are written quickly and with the most convenient means available, they are efficient with regard to both time and material—and if their performance results in something like what he expects, they “work”. Let the symbol be functional, let the minimum in time and resources be expended, let the desired effect be achieved; any additional effort is superfluous, “ornamental”, inefficient.

What has given rise to this obsession? An over-weening belief in the truth of the first proposition of this essay: that the composer's materials, tools, and creations are concepts, processes, and relationships in virtual time and space. And it is true that the composer works with the immaterial, with “music”, let us say; but he works with it through the physical tools and materials of his craft. If we exclude, for a moment, the cocoon of sybolism that envelops the composer's work table, he is a person whose work involves drawing shapes and lines of various forms, sizes, and contours, on a piece of paper with a certain texture and weight, with a pencil, pen, or marker that produces so much of a mark with so much pressure, etc. Or perhaps he clicks or types these shapes into place on a laptop, using a piece of software that inscribes them upon a liquid crystal field with algorithmic precision. Regardless of its symbolic essence, the act of composing, in short, involves constant, minutely modulated interaction with the physical world.

Elementary, says our composer—what of it? Just this: the physical world—especially that postage-stamp corner of it that the composer transforms into a score—has a way of talking back to the one shaping it. The composer's fancy not only acts on the score, but is acted upon, first (and most importantly) in the feedback-like process of composition, then in the interpretive creation of performance. As embryonic music is written out, as its shadowier reaches are tied down to specific, notated events, the emerging shape of the score and its every physical detail begins to influence the conception of the piece being written. A powerful sound in the idealized composition is now a B-flat in cello; not just B-flat, but that B-flat, the quarter with the smudged notehead and slightly crooked stem. The composer is confronted, whether he knows it or not, with his concepts in physical form, and the beauty or ungainliness of that form speaks to its creator, reveals (or creates) aspects of his work—moods, assumptions, implications, flaws—that he could never have discovered in its mental blueprint. His symbols are not silent messengers of creation, but physical objects that carry with them a host of connotations and metamessages.

Score-writing is a craft, for this very reason. The score as object may be graceful or clumsy, beautiful or indifferent, confident or timid; ipso facto, the piece represented will bear with it overtones of gracefulness or clumsiness, beauty or indifference, etc. To have an awareness of the significance of physical detail and to possess the skills necessary to mold the object to suit both its material and conceptual goals—this is the essence of craftsmanship. The modern composer, however, is no craftsman—his final product reveals an awkward, tangential relationship with the physical materials of his art, reveals the indiscipline that makes his work a coaxing of these objects into rudimentary form. One finds that great music (with exceptions) goes hand-in-hand with beautiful manuscript and attention to physical detail; there is something in this craftmanship that is integral to the compositional process[1] and which, in the final product, speaks volumes about the creator in its perfection or absence.

1. An anecdote of Morton Feldman's gives an example of what I have in mind. Toward the end of his life, Feldman's publisher encouraged the composer to send his just-finished manuscript to them, and to skip his habitual step of re-copying his music in calligraphic score. The effect of this time-saving idea was dramatic: “my music deteriorated”, Feldman relates, without “the opportunity for extra thought while copying”. (from this interview).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Porcupine Tree's "Anesthetize"

This post assumes a familiarity with the principles and language of music analysis, and a basic level of fluency in reading standard notation.

In the past few months I've become acquainted with the music of Porcupine Tree, a remarkable quartet whose work is generally described as “alternative” or “progressive rock”. Regardless of genre, I find their music quite beautiful and demonstrative of an impressive sense of form and attention to detail. I'm aware that few musicians attempt to apply traditional motivic analysis to music of this sort, but Porcupine Tree's sophisticated songs amply repay the effort; in this post, I shall examine “Anesthetize”, the longest and probably most substantial track on the group's 2007 album, Fear of a Blank Planet.

As with any analysis, it is very important that I clarify both what I mean to say and what I do not mean say. My hope is that certain compositional techniques, which, for the most part, are not discussed in connection with “rock”, will prove to be as important to this music as they are to that of Bach or Schoenberg. I do not want to suggest that the elements analyzed here fully describe the piece of music in question, or even that they constitute its most important aspects. The experience of the piece itself is the final word, and without that experience all analysis is worse than useless; analysis can only hope to elucidate elements of the performance that the listener might otherwise miss.

Porcupine Tree Anesthetize from Micas on Vimeo.

All musical examples were transcribed from the recording by myself, except where noted. All transcriptions sound as written. The timestamps refer to the Vimeo video embedded with this post, and are all approximately 3 seconds later than the track on Fear of a Blank Planet.

“Anesthetize” is a multi-movement composition with three distinct sections, each of which is a self-contained song form. The relationship between these forms is not evolutionary, but continuous: while each section deals with a distinct textural, thematic and lyrical content, these diverse elements have been carefully linked; they are distinct, interconnected structures within the overall architecture of the composition. The first section (I) begins with the opening of the piece, and ends at 04:59, when the second movement (II) begins without transition. This, the longest section of the piece, extends until 12:13; a transitional section then introduces the third and final movement (III), which begins at 12:56 and closes the piece.

In this analysis, I shall be mostly concerned with the formal, motivic, textural, and lyrical construction of the piece. “Anesthetize”, like the majority of Porcupine Tree's music, is linearly constructed, with harmonies arising from the intersection of multiple instrumental voices. As such, I believe that a tonal harmonic analysis would require a great deal of creativity—in the worst possible sense—on my part, and would not be particularly fruitful.

I. “I simply am not here”

The first movement of “Anesthetize” opens with the striking juxtaposition of Harrison's turbulent drum line, tremolo guitar, and a crystalline glockenspiel that delineates the melody of the movement as an unornamented line, almost childlike in its simplicity. At 00:38, Wilson's vocal line enters, legato and suggestive of a narcotic calm that contrasts almost disturbingly with the constant unrest of the accompaniment. The lyrics convey a sense of the stifling banality of sedation; it is tempting to see in the tension of the ensemble a dark, ironic commentary on the superficial calm of lines like these:
A good impression
Of myself
Not much to conceal
I'm sayin' nothing,
But I'm saying
Nothing with feel...
The melody introduces two important structural elements: the half-step motive α and a stepwise ascending figure, A (Fig. 1). As we shall see, α and its inversion, αi will become the central motivic structure of the piece.
Fig. 1: Movement I, main vocal melody (verse)

The chorus (Fig. 2) continues the sense of narcotic ennui, both musically and lyrically:
I simply am not here
No way, I...
Shut up, be happy...
Stop whining, please
The miasmic dreaminess of the vocal line, augmented by other voices, seems to have deepened, but the drums and guitar continue their tense, disruptive counterpoint. The motives begin to intertwine: the main thematic structure underlying this passage is B (fig. 2), a stepwise descending motive which is, in its barest form, A in retrograde (See Fig. 3).
Fig. 2: Movement I, main vocal melody (chorus)
Fig. 3: Relationship between A and B motives

After a repetition of the verse/chorus structure, the music assumes (at 02:57) a dark, distorted timbre, with high-register electric guitar repeating an ornamented variation of B; the tense drum pattern morphs into a more definite, aggressive gesture, with a tumbling anacrusis in 16ths driving home thunderous accents on the first and third beats. The darkness lifts at 03:33 with a return to the opening of the movement; here, though, Mellotron-like synths replace the glockenspiel line. At 03:50 a metallic electric guitar ostinato—a chromatic and rhythmic modification of B—enters (Fig. 4) and repeats once:

This is followed (at 04:07) by a dual guitar passage (Fig. 5) that lightens the texture and closes the movement. Its careful motivic construction is apparent from the very first phrase:
Fig. 4: Movement I, guitar ostinato

Fig. 5: Movement I, dual guitar passage
After 4 measures, the second guitar rests, leaving the first to continue solo for nearly a minute. At 04:59, this solo ends and Movement II begins attacca.

II. “Only apathy”

The opening dual-guitar ostinato of the second movement of “Anesthetize” (Fig. 6) immediately asserts the most pronounced characteristic of this movement: the subversion of meter. The offset, seemingly out-of-sync rhythms of riffs like this suggest heterogeneous time signatures, although a closer look reveals them to be carefully aligned with the prevailing 4/4 of the drums and bass. This subversion also serves a very distinct lyrical goal as well, namely, to illustrate the drugged disassociation and fragmented mental processes of the lyrics' protagonist.
Fig. 6: Movement II, ostinato 1 (transcription by Brendan Keenan)

This sophisticated ostinato introduces the rhythmic motive C, a defining element of this movement. The construction of this ostinato deserves special attention: it is a cyclical passage that aligns with the drums and bass only every 5 bars, passing in and out of phase throughout the opening of the movement. At 05:28, a new melodic motive is introduced by high-register electric guitar (Fig. 7):
Fig. 7: Movement II, opening guitar melody

The transparent texture of this opening is interrupted at 06:19 by a guitar passage (Fig. 8) that combines the melodic material of the ostinato from 03:50 (Fig. 4) with the syncopated rhythms (including the motive C) typical of the second movement. Like the ostinato in Fig. 6, this line cuts against the prevailing metric structure and returns to phase every 5 measures.

This passage, in turn, leads into another syncopated ostinato (Fig. 9) in mid-register tremolo guitar, which contains a variation of D. Unlike the previous ostinati, this passage aligns with the meter every 4 bars:
Fig. 8: Movement II, ostinato 2
Fig. 9: Movement II, ostinato 3

After one repetition, it is undercut by the menacing (and strictly metrical) low guitar/bass ostinato of Fig. 10:
Fig. 10: Movement II, ostinato 4

This succession of four ostinati—most of which are metrically perverted in some way or another—serves the psychological purpose of keeping the listener off-balance, and of gradually heightening the agitated mood of the movement. The section's main vocal melody is the ultimate result of this progressive increase in tension: Wilson's memorable vocal line (Fig. 11) drifts over the continuing undercurrent of the ostinato from Fig. 10 with a sense of restrained menace.
Fig. 11: Movement II, vocal melody (verse)

The melody derives much of its character from the variation of D first introduced (in rhythmicized form) by the guitar ostinato at 06:40, but α remains a strong presence. The lyrics are now more introspective than those of the first movement; there is the sense that the protagonist's clouded attempts to process the external world and its expectations (“I simply am not here/No way, I.../Shut up, be happy...” etc.) have given way to a clearer apperception of his/her broken internal state:
The dust in my soul
Makes me feel the weight
In my legs
My head in the clouds
And I'm zonin' out

I'm watching TV
But I find it hard to stay
I'm totally bored
But I can't switch off
The chorus emphasizes the chemical nature of this debilitation and the sterility of the protagonist's existence:
Only apathy, from the pills in me
It's all in me, all in you
Electricity from the pills in me
It's all in me, all in you
Only MTV, cod philosophy
The ostinato from 06:19 (Fig. 8) repeats, ritornello-like, at the end of the refrain, before the repetition of the entire strophic form. A long transitional passage, beginning at 09:19, includes variations on the melodic motives of the vocal melody (with continued emphasis on α), before the return (at 11:00) of the accompanying ostinato from the verse (Fig. 10), now presented as a primary element. This ostinato is developed in an unusually dense passage at 11:09, with blast-beating from Harrison and Wilson's low-register tremolo guitar; this ends quickly, with a return to the chorus above.
A repeat of some of the earlier transitional material (from 09:19) follows at 11:48, and segues into a long, atmospheric section at 12:13 that closes the second movement.

III. “Water so warm”

The passage that introduces the third movement is almost purely textural, relying on washes of wordless vocals and pulsing, mechanical-sounding synths to shift the mood of the music from the active density of the past 7 minutes to a more static, glassy atmosphere. At 12:59, a guitar ostinato (Fig. 12) enters. Here, Wilson employs a bell-like, chorused guitar tone, unlike any other tone previously heard in the piece; the motivic content of the line, too, bears little resemblance to any of the earlier motives:
Fig. 12: Movement III, guitar ostinato

This ostinato is soon accompanied by chiming synths, long tones in the bass, and a relaxed drum pulse in 4/4. At 13:33, the main vocal theme of the movement enters, in canon (Fig. 13); the effect is hypnotic, with a quality like that of time-lapse photography.
Fig. 13: Movement III, vocal melody

It is immediately apparent that the primary descending motive of these overlapping lines is not new, but B, one of the two main motives of movement I. This is, I believe, a crucial link between these two movements, which might otherwise seem too disparate in their musical characters.

The lyrics of this section possess a very different tone from that of the earlier movements:
Water so warm that day
I counted out the waves
As the broke into the surf
I smiled into the sun
The entirety of this passage is sung in canon at the unison, the voices constantly crossing in densely-layered counterpoint. Wilson's soft, dark-toned solo vocal line (Fig. 14) is significantly lower than his earlier vocal parts; as with the movement's ostinato, however, little connection with earlier motivic elements can be discerned:
Fig. 14: Movement III, solo vocal melody

I confess that the lyrics of this movement remain somewhat obscure to me. In contrast to the first-person perspective of the writing of the first and second movements, these passages seem distant, almost retrospective. Has the narrative shifted to another perspective? What, exactly, is the significance of the scene described, and what is its connection to the protagonist of the earlier movements of the song?
The water so warm that day
I was counting out the waves
And I followed their short life
As they broke on the shoreline
I could see you
But I couldn't hear you

You were holding your hat in the breeze
Turning away from me
In this moment
You were stolen
There's black across the sun.
After the short solo verse, the canonic voices return (at 15:26) with a repetition of their earlier material; they fade out gradually and cease at 16:20. A chorused passage in guitar, accompanied by a distorted synth wash provides a brief coda, and the movement closes on a short reiteration of the same vocal drones with which it opened.
  *          *          *

The first two movements of “Anesthetize” display remarkable continuity and a propulsive sense of development. Motivically, the primary motives of the first movement are transmuted and developed by the second; lyrically, the two movements also possess are strong sense of development and growing depth. Perhaps the most powerful section of the entire piece is the piling-up of ostinati that occurs at the beginning of the second movement; the dramatic subversion of meter in this section—perfectly suited to the lyrical material at hand—is a masterful touch, the impact of which is somewhat weakened by the repetitive transitional material that takes up the latter half of the movement.

Taking into account the unity of these movements, it is difficult to understand the role of the third: it evinces no clear connection to the rest of the piece. Furthermore, it shows a very different side of Porcupine Tree's musical personality—viz. the preference for long, atmospheric passages, built around an ostinato and sound effects, that dominates their early albums—from the tightly-structured, rhythmically assertive earlier movements. Lyrically, as I've noted above, this movement is also a maddeningly enigmatic conclusion to the propulsive narrative of the first and second movements.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The World of Modern Music

“Being that music is our life, in that it has given us a 
life—did we make things clear? That is, do we love 
Music, and not the systems, the rituals, the symbols—the
worldly, greedy gymnastics that we substitute for it?”
                                                      —Morton Feldman[1]

To the outside observer, the world of modern music must often seem a House of Horrors. Seemingly drawn by a love of show-offy philosophical shenanigans, the aspiring modern musician passes the threshold and wanders off into the twisty little passages of this sanctum. Moorings are lost and a strange environment envelops him. The warping ellipses of this Purgatory are divided into the cloisters of various sects; each cell seems dedicated to some all-embracing theoretical conceit, each with its own body of curates and disciples, all engaged in the bizarre rituals of their theologies. He tries to decrypt the numeric mandalas of the Serialists, collegiate Neo-Pythagoreans for whom the nature of music is written in the language of set theory; he stays a time with a band of self-denying Cagian ascetics who seek to liberate music from the desires of its composers, then with a shamanic bunch of Free Improvisers who reject the arid intellectuality of notation and compositional structure.

Our newcomer finds his assumptions assaulted on all sides by this panoply of theories; the axioms of his previous musical life are ripped to shreds, and he is pained to discover that he knows nothing of his art. He is confused—yet he does not run screaming for the exits. For, having once entered, the modern musician rarely leaves this asylum; lost in its higher circles and burning with uncertainty, he searches for answers by delving always deeper into its spiral core. The edifice becomes his home; its eccentric residents, his friends; and their religions, the subjects of familiar neighborhood gossip.

On the whole, it is interesting and generally friendly world. Passing over the occasional dogmatist, the residents are for the most part lovable in their nuttiness, and sincere in their pursuit of some Idea of musical truth. Not all of their theorizing is pretentious claptrap, and the vastness of the edifice of modern music permits a creative mind the much-needed latitude to explore the possibilities of the art. Despite this, the danger of losing one's bearings and becoming mired in the depths of this wacky structure is very real. What, precisely, is meant by this metaphor? Simply that it is possible to become so enmeshed in the theoretical and philosophical problems of composition that one loses sight of the concrete reality—the experience—of music. Worse still, the love of that experience—that is, listening—can be ruptured and cracked by obsessive analysis, until it is little more than a pile of arcane debris.

The musician, one hopes, chose his path because of his enjoyment and love of music. Like all loves, the love of music may develop a melancholy aspect if its object, that is, what the musician longs to hear, is unattainable to him within his current sphere of musical understanding; the only remedy for him is to seek to broaden this sphere, and it is this need to attain to the beloved in music that propels him through the doors of the new monastery described above. If he learns within its confines how to find what it is he seeks, very well. But if, after his stay, his love has become no less problematical, he must leave, for to tarry risks worse than to further complicate his desire. The lost soul of modern music no longer experiences love of music in any real sense; his desire has been misdirected, cheated, replaced in toto by a sterile craving after analytic completeness, systematic perfection. These are strange idols to the lover of music, but their icons decorate every surface of this weird edifice; if much sectarian strife swirls round the identity of the True Form of modern music, we may be sure that all the competing ideals express themselves in the language of analysis and theory. These gods claim the laurels of Apollo, yet they are mute and without substance. It is for the musician to grasp the fundamental disconnect between this idolatry and the love and practice of music; for by no other means can he win passage across Lethe, drink from the waters of Eunoe, and ascend far beyond this citadel's wasteland writhings.[2]

1. “In Memoriam: Edgard Varèse”. Published in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, B.H. Friedman, ed.
2. See Dante, Purgatorio, Cantos 31-33.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Coffin Nails for a Soviet Hero: Soviet Russia and its influence on the musical language of Dmitri Shostakovich

By: Christina Guibas

Music has always been recognized as an abstract medium through which true self-expression can be realized. In an environment where speech and behavior are without restriction, the need for the full potential of musical expression may be too little for true greatness to appear. But in a society where speech and behavior are under such scrutiny as to threaten the very existence of the people within it, the only available mediums through which the self may be expressed are those of the abstract. In fact, in such circumstances, the need for expression and truth is so great that the realization of it brings great power and deep meaning.

Just like any other dangerous and suppressed art form, the circumstance that makes it most powerful is risk. Something has to be at stake. The situation has to be desperate. The declamation has to be so fueled by passion that the risk-taker is willing to put everything on the line just to take the opportunity to make it. During the Communist decade before the Second World War and under the rule of Joseph Stalin, the output of great art was particularly high, perhaps nowhere better shown than in the symphonic works of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich's journey from the composition of his first symphony through his fifteenth and last was long and arduous, and includes remarkable landmarks of self-assertion and continuously revitalized willpower. Never before in history has an abstract artistic medium stood so threatening to the foundation of an institution so steadfast as the Soviet Communist regime, and never before has an abstract medium had so much power to stand as a beacon of hope, a cry for help, a protest, and a timeless and painful scarlet letter as have Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies.

The First Symphony and the Yurodivy(юродивый)[1] - 1925

Shostakovich's First Symphony (1925) established him as an artistic power and entity in the circles of Soviet Russia and called attention upon his innovative talent. It was the quality of his music, rather than the political symbolism that his music came to represent, that first captured the public. Maximilian Steinberg, Shostakovich’s own teacher,  points out,

"This symphony was a tremendous success from its premiere, and is still considered today as one of Shostakovich's finest works. It displays an interesting and characteristic combination of liveliness and wit on the one hand, and drama and tragedy on the other. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the works of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. The transparent and chamber-like orchestration of the First Symphony is in quite a contrast to the complex and sophisticated Mahlerian orchestrations found in many of his later symphonies, and the assurance with which the composer imagines, then realizes large-scale structure, is as impressive as his vigor and freshness of gesture."[2]

The source of Shostakovich's success came out of purely musical goals. These goals reflect the position of a rising artist, still using his mentors and colleagues as sources for inspiration, still feeling the desire to join the already established 'musical club' in Russia at the time. The young composer had not yet begun to expand his artistic expression to the broader social and political issues of his time, nor had he become aware of the deeply transformational power that his music could have on society. As Paul Serotsky puts it, "it would be quite a few years yet before he had to sing his socks off to save his life."[3] The bright future and success that had opened up for the young composer came with a price: in the spotlight was not just his music, but also his dignity and individuality, and for the sake of self-preservation these would have to withstand the challenges presented by the monumental Soviet party. Shostakovich was in the fight for his life.

In the introduction to Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich Solomon Volkov lays out the notion of yurodivy:

"The yurodivy has the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about. But he tells the world about his insights in an intentionally paradoxical way, in code. He plays the fool, while actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice. The yurodivy is an anarchist and individualist, who in his public role breaks the commonly held ‘moral’ laws of behavior and flouts conventions. But he sets strict limitations, rules and taboos for himself. "[4]

In much the same vein, Shostakovich was slowly beginning to be paraded with various state campaigns of musical symbols that were directed at the mass of Soviet composers, but with him as the proverbial scapegoat. However, Shostakovich was not a dismissible artist, and authorities soon began to recognize the power and usefulness of his music. As his popularity grew, he inevitably took on the burden of serving as a vehicle for the delivery of propaganda in favor of the Communist party. As Shostakovich himself points out,

"To be an artist in a totalitarian state and survive both physically and creatively, one must play a surreal game with mortal stakes, a game of submission and humiliation, of periodic betrayals of self and others, of tentative advances and desperate retreats."

After the performance of his opera Lady Macbeth in Moscow in 1936, Shostakovich was placed under attack. Stalin immediately decreed criteria for Soviet opera in an article in Pravda (Правда)[5]: It had to have a Socialist theme, the musical language had to be "realistic", themes had to be based on Russian folk songs, and the plot had to be positive–a happy ending in which the state is eulogized, for instance. Music had to be refined, harmonious and melodious, without harsh tonalities, and with particular attention paid to words ("since singing without words satisfied only the perverted tastes of a few aesthetes and individualists").

Shostakovich Under Attack: The Fifth Symphony - 1937

In a second article in Pravda, The Limpid Stream was denounced as "vulgar and showing contempt for our national songs." Any acclaim and prestige Shostakovich had earned quickly evaporated and Shostakovich was immediately in danger. The article lambasted Shostakovich, saying that it alienated “appreciative audiences” that it contained “deliberate dissonance,” “snatches of melody,” and that it was “musical noise.” The opera, it was further argued, threatened the foundations of the socialist state; it was petty and bourgeois. Yet despite the open threat of reprisal against the composer, Shostakovich was not purged[6]. Instead, as Volkov asserts, Stalin gave Shostakovich a reprieve. Following this, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony which was perhaps too genuine an expression of the composer to put forth as a political shield. He abandoned the Fourth Symphony, and began his Fifth. The Fifth Symphony would premiere in 1937, and the Fourth in 1961, fully twenty-four years later.

The deepening ideological conflict that the composer was experiencing began to crystallize in the Fifth symphony. The initial reception of the Fifth was overwhelmingly positive and granted Shostakovich an opportunity to be back in favor with the state, however temporary. As Volkov puts it, "[The] conservative idiom and heroic tone [of the Fifth symphony] found favor both with audiences and officials, who presumably did not notice its troubling undercurrents." And at the time of the Fifth symphony's premiere Shostakovich verbally justified the positive reception by the Soviet party with his statement about the meaning behind the music,

"The theme of my symphony... is the making of a man. I saw man with all his experiences at the center of the composition.... In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living."

However optimistic Shostakovich portrayed his symphony to be at the time of its premiere, he explicitly contradicts that optimism and brings light to its existing sarcasm.

 "I discovered to my astonishment that the man who considers himself its greatest interpreter does not understand my music. He [Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev] says that I wanted to write exultant finales for my Fifth and Seventh symphonies but I couldn't manage it. It never occurred to this man that I never thought about any exultant finales, for what exultation could there be?"

In an early version of an essay written before the publication of Testimony in 1979 Shostakovich states, "[The close] works just as it was intended to work though many a listener may find that the impact and the memory of the questions behind this music are stronger than those of the answer." He also adds, "Clearly, I did not believe in the answer, in the claptrap about "optimism and the joy of living." He further explains,

 "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Mussorgsky's] Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing," and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing." What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that. ..."[7]

National Celebrity: The Seventh Symphony – 1941

Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony was written during the German siege of Leningrad during 1941.

"I wrote my Seventh Symphony, 'the Leningrad,' very quickly. I couldn't not write it. War was all around. I had to be with the people. I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music. From the first days of the war, I sat down at the piano and started work. I worked intensely. I wanted to write about our time, about my contemporaries who spared neither strength nor life in the name of 'Victory Over the Enemy." The authorities "took the famous 'march episode' from the first movement and turned it into a representation of the Nazi onslaught, and turned the entire piece into a propaganda device rallying for victory and perseverance in the face of the Germans."

Shostakovich sheds light on this false interpretation:

"The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme."

The enemies that he refers to were those of the Soviet Party who, for a decade prior had the blood of the people their own people on their hands.

"Even before the war, in Leningrad there probably wasn't a single family who hadn't lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under your blanket, so that no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. Talking about it is unpleasant, but I must if I am to tell the truth. And the truth is that the war helped. The war brought great sorrow and made life very, very hard. Much sorrow, many tears. But it had been even harder before the war, because then everyone was alone in his sorrow […] I began writing [the Seventh] having been deeply moved by the Psalms of David; the symphony deals with more than that but the Psalms were the impetus. I began writing. David has some marvelous words on blood, that God takes revenge for blood, he doesn't forget the cries of the victims, and so on. When I think of the Psalms, I become agitated. And if the Psalms were read before every performance of the Seventh, there might be fewer stupid things written about it."

The Symphony was a genuine expression of the deep-seated anger and fear that Shostakovich shared with his contemporaries and the citizens of Russian during the years of Stalin. The war gave him the perfect disguise with which to mask the true source of such intense and passionate feelings. Regardless of the false interpretation of the Symphony as pro-Soviet during the siege at Leningrad, Shostakovich states:

"Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad symphony, but it's not about Leningrad under siege, it's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler nearly finished off."

In addition to the Symphony's power to express the authentic feelings of the composer, it also put him back in favor with Stalin. The Seventh put Shostakovich back on his feet.

"Probably many people think I came back to life after the fifth symphony.  No, I came back to life after the Seventh.  You could finally talk to people.  It was still hard, but you could breathe. That's why I consider the war years productive for the arts. [...] The Seventh symphony became my most popular work. [It] arose from the conscience of the Russian people, who unwaveringly accepted moral combat with evil forces."

The Seventh was awarded the USSR State Prize[8], and found itself a subject of world public opinion for many reasons.[9] In the Soviet union it was raised to the status of symbol, and excerpts from it can be heard in many films and plays devoted to the war.

“Shostakovich: Fascist,” and the New Coffin Nail: The Eighth Symphony - 1943

"When the eighth was performed, it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet.[...] [The authorities] said, why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning of the war we were retreating and now we're attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means he's on the side of the Fascists." [10]

Shostakovich had mastered his language. He was as clear as crystal; the problem was that everyone was listening, including the authorities.

"It's hard to be composer because the audience understands your music. It's probably the other way around in most cases: when they understand, it's easier to write. But here everything is back to front, because the larger the audience, the more informers there are. And the more people who understand what it's about, the more likely that they'll inform."

Musicians would later come to warn against this notion in Russia, but the "politicization of music" had become commonplace throughout the war. The warring nations of 1939-1945 showed an extraordinary ability to preserve and uphold classical music and, through media promotion turn it into something like a popular art. The occupied nations treasured their own musical heritage, particularly the romantic productions of the previous century. The music of Dvorak, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Grieg in American radio and movies was associated with the heroic struggles of invaded peoples. In war-wracked Russia the most mournful strains of Chopin, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky filled the concert halls and airwaves. On the radio, Russian classics were playing continuously over folk music, lyrical songs, and military band music. Soviet composers turned their talents to war-related subjects—Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony being the most famous of these.

This universal popularity of the Seventh Symphony might have worked against Shostakovich in the end. Against a backdrop of increasing tensions between the Soviet Union and the West, backlash on the part of weary State authorities against Shostakovich’s popularity in the West in the late ’40s was, perhaps, a result of this politicization of classical music and mass culture.

"Every report of the success of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies made me ill.  A new success meant a new coffin nail. The reprisals were being reared ahead of time, the reparations began with the Seventh symphony.  They say that only its first part was effective, and that was the part, the critics pronounced, that depicted the enemy.  The other parts were supposed to show the might and power of the Soviet army, but Shostakovich lacked the colors for that assignment.  They demanded something like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture from me, and later on the comparison between my music and the overture became a popular argument, naturally not in my favor. "

A “Cheerful” Symphony for a Triumphant Russia: The Ninth Symphony - 1945

Following the conclusion of the war, Stalin demanded a triumphant Ninth Symphony, celebrating him and the Russian defeat of the Nazis, complete with double choir, and huge fanfares--a regular propaganda bonanza. Stalin, according to Shostakovich had “went off the deep end,” and was completely shocked at the subdued and embittered ironic piece of ‘cheerful’ Symphony which Shostakovich produced.

"I confess I gave hope to the leader and teacher's dreams. I announced that I was writing an apotheosis. I was trying to get them off my back but it turned against me. When my Ninth was performed, Stalin was incensed. He was deeply offended, because there was no chorus, no soloists. And no apotheosis. There wasn't even a paltry dedication. It was just music, which Stalin didn't understand very well and which was of dubious content ... I couldn't write an apotheosis to Stalin, I simply couldn't. I knew what I was in for when I wrote the Ninth.  But I did depict Stalin in music in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin's death, and no one yet guessed what the symphony is about. It's about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that's the basis."

The End of a Long Road to Death: The Fourteenth Symphony – 1969

By the end of Shostakovich's journey, he had come to accept all he had lost.  His expectations for life were of hard, cold reality. His music began to reflect the sentiments of a wise, old man.  Remarkably, even up to the very end of the battle, Shostakovich's dignity and will remained intact.

"I wrote a number of works reflecting my understanding of the question, and as it seems to me, they're not particularly optimistic works. The most important of them, I feel, is the Fourteenth Symphony; I have special feelings for it. I think that work on these compositions had a positive effect, and I fear death less now; or rather, I'm used to the idea of an inevitable end and treat it as such... from people who claimed to be my friends... They read this idea in the Fourteenth Symphony: 'Death is all-powerful.' They wanted the finale to be comforting, to say that death is only the beginning.  But it's not the beginning, it's the real end, there will be nothing afterward, nothing.”

“I don't protest against death in it, I protest against the butchers who execute people."

The tragic subject matter so typical of Shostakovich's style had no real place in art according to official standards, but Shostakovich was a master at “gift-wrapping.” The incorporation of folk music in Shostakovich’s music was a long Russian tradition that continued, but it became more and more political.  Shostakovich would incorporate popular revolutionary songs sung in factories like the “Workers’ Merseillaise,” “Internationale,” and “Varshavianka,” into his works, like the opening of the Eleventh Symphony (1957)

"Revolutionary lyrics were funereal, visionary, accusatory, or menacing, but the tunes were overwhelmingly mournful. As illegal sounds of protest, they had small audiences but they unquestionably deepened and defined radical sentiments of those who sang them. After 1917, as hymns of a Bolshevik religiosity, they nearly drowned out all other forms of public celebratory music."
Nowhere but in Russia have art and music been so firmly bound to the political and social situation, nowhere but in Russia has art been such a substitute for real life, and nowhere but in Russia has the reality of a great country with enormous intellectual potential been so empty and hopeless; these are consequences of fusion of State and society during Soviet time and they cannot be understated. In the Soviet Union music and the arts had to serve one purpose: rouse the masses. One can only imagine the possibilities for Russian music had the lives of Russia's great composers been given the freedom and opportunities to not only survive but thrive freely as those have been given in America.  The conviction and power to move whole countries as well as individuals, contemporaries as well as admirers for hundreds of years to come, comes only through dire necessity. “The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all."[11]

Christina Guibas is a pianist, teacher and master's student at Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is currently studying with Ludmilla Lifson.

[1] Russian for “Holy Fool,” “ the deliberate flouting of society's conventions to serve a religious purpose.” See
[3] Paul Serotsky, writing his socks off, introduces us to Shostakovich's First Symphony.
[4] Solomon Volkov, Ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, As related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. London: Faber & Faber, 1979, 1987. From the footnotes. All following unsourced quotes are from this text, but note that the authenticity of this book is disputed. See
[5] Pravda (Правда) was an important Moscow newspaper, used liberally by the Communist Party. It closed in 1991.
[6] The term for a grim fate under Stalin. This was during what is widely considered the worst of his purges, the Yezhovshchina (ежовщина).
[7] The siege of Leningrad by German forces lasted nearly three years and resulted in the deaths of between one- and five-million lives.
[9] The work made him a star in Russia for its moral message, but audiences in the west were not as receptive, finding it overlong at nearly an hour and a half, and poorly crafted. Alexei Tolstoy’s critical review in Pravda was instrumental in securing its popularity. See
[10] This insult, among others, led in 1948 to the official censure of almost all of Shostakovich's works, starting with the First Symphony. Even works that had been awarded the USSR State Prize were criticized, an unheard-of event.
[11] The Walt Disney Company, “ Mulan”, 1998.