Lately I have been introduced to different ways of thinking about specific pieces of music. Three examples of prominence come to mind. Firstly is the final movement from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 (BMV 1004), or perhaps just infamously known as the Chaconne. The second example is the final movement from the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ Beethoven Sonata (No. 14, Op. 7 no. 2) ‘Presto Agitato’ movement. Finally an interesting Channel 4 Documentary ‘Chopin Saved my Life’ covered the subject of the impact of Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor (Op. 23).
I was introduced to the Chaconne and the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ in particular detail through a couple of MOOCs on music history recently, I discovered that these pieces had been received particularly well by composer peers. Brahms wrote of the piece to Clara Schumann:
On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
Likewise, there is a certain universality spoken of Beethoven’s final movement in Quasi Una Fantasia attributed to Chopin, in his praise of the movement. The idea of having a ‘Baroque’ or a ‘Classical’ period suggests conformity or some sense of homogeneity, which oversimplifies the greater moments of which the period is supposed to represent.
In a likewise comment, Vladimir Ashkenazy claims in the Channel 4 documentary that anyone who attests that the Ballade is Sentimental is ignorant of what this piece is about. Any simplistic overview of 19th Century work would use such terms as sentimental, or Romantic, or perhaps terms such as ‘world-weary’, supernatural or such.
There seems to be a tension. How autonomous was Bach’s greatest work from that of his peers? How Baroque was Bach? We can speak of a Baroque in terms of having certain features: figured bass, textured harmony and melody lines and so-called terraced dynamics of loud bits contrasting with quiet bits, but does that really distinguish whether Telemann is worth listening to compared to JS Bach?
The problem with historicising is oversimplifying and contextualising without emphasising the individuals. On the other hand, sometimes emphasising the ‘greats’ through history ignores us from everyone else who does not count as one of the pantheon. Will Durant’s ‘100 Greatest Books’ is an list of intellectual works that shows breadth and a critical sort of dialectical line progressing through the historical dates of the books. However, often the connections between those dates are interesting in themselves and overly canonising works diminishes the value of other works.
Examples of this would be the Renaissance philosopher Campanella who had a very interesting empiricism that resoundingly looked like that of Hume or Hobbes. Many of these ‘canons’ ignore women systematically, although recent scholarship is working to redefine these lines. When we think of great works of music, I wonder if it is our subjective response to it that grants it our sense of meaning, or our attempt to grasp something universally powerful. It was the Kantian project of aesthetics to say that one was the other. But lets leave that as an open question: is it? Is my appreciation of the Chaconne the same as yours? Is the Chaconne on the violin (original instrumentation) as powerful as Brahms’ Left Hand scoring? In my own head I leave these as untied knots, unresolved thoughts, as each of these open questions brings up more factors.