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.