Monday, March 21, 2011

Mozartian Counterpoint: Part VII

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Having discussed already the Overtures to La clemenza did Tito, [24] and Die Zauberflöte [25] we have left to discuss the scene from Act II of The Magic Flute with the "two armed men" and Tamino's trial and the Requiem.

37. Die Zauberflöte, KV.620. Act II, Finale: Der, welcher wandert diese Strasse voll Beschwerden

The laws of counterpoint in the era before "Classical" or "Rococo" taste took over were not simply musical rules. Perhaps one might say with greater accuracy that musical rules were not simply rules for composition. In 1739 Johann Heinrich Dedler's encyclopedia the Grosses Universal Lexicon music defined music as, "everything that creates harmony, that is, order. And in this sense it is used by those who assert that the whole universe is music." [Wolff, 2000. 335] Musical rules were then identical or proportional to the "musica universalis" or the "music of the spheres," i.e. the proportions and relationships of the movements of heavenly bodies. The origins of this thinking lie with Pythagoras' theories that, as related by Aristotle, "the principles of mathematics are the principles of all things."[Metaphysics I.v] In the 17th century this view took on additional relationship to God's creation and ordering of the universe and his eternal reign. There were, of course, variations on these views as well as disputes about their academic and theological implications. [26] I only mean to suggest that in many respects to many composers and theoreticians, the laws of musical composition were not artificial but natural and universal, at least to some extent.

Yet times did change. While contrapuntal procedures retained associations with grave, and often sacred, music, and with a "learned" style it was not necessarily on account of a perceived fundamental relationship. Tastes too changed, evidenced by Rousseau's famous distaste for baroque complexity [27] and later, by Koch's distinction that the "Contrapunktist" was more grammarian than poet. [Chapin, 101] Counterpoint of course would endure, as it does to this day, although:
The respect for the principles of strict counterpoint seems to follow pendular swings in history. If in the 1780s musicians began to experiment with counterpoint, in the 1840s they increasingly aimed at historical accuracy, and in the early twentieth century they again sought malleability. In other words, although the strict style always carried symbolic associations of law and order, this law had different implications at different times. [Chapin, 104]
It is the world and weight of this association with immutable law that Mozart invokes with the style and procedures of the choral fantasia of the two armed men. As a slight aside, I do not concur with Chapin (but rather with Hammerstein) that the scene emphasizes a fluidity to the law because it is neither at all clear precisely what the laws are nor whether exceptions to it are made for Tamino and Pamina.

The scene of course works as a scene of cinema and drama. Too, as Abert notes, the words to the song are inspired by those sung in Masonic lodges at the time and the melody is the old chorale "Ach Gott vom Himmel, sieh darein, which Mozart likely saw the theoretical work, Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, "The Art of Strict Composition in Music" by Johann Kirnberger, composer, theorist, and student of J. S. Bach. Abert also traces the dotted (first appearing piano in the second violins) to the Kyrie from Heinrich Biber's Missa S. Henrici of 1701, and suggests, correctly I would say, that Mozart intended by it to give the scene an "ecclesiastical coloring." [Abert, 1291]

Mozart draws on all of these associations for this scene of terrible and perpetual power in which the "ticking of the Kyrie theme" calls forth "demonic restlessness" and the "choral melody moves through the intricate weft of the voices like the voice of implacable fate itself. This whole section attests to the greatest contrapuntal rigor, limiting the interludes to their absolute minimum, so that the course of the chorale is never interrupted. [Abert, 1291]

Too one could not miss the parallel to the aria, "Blute Nur, Du Liebes Herz" from Part I of Bach's St. Matthew Passion[28]

Here Mozart has drawn on counterpoint not just as a musical device but for symbolic purpose by also drawing on the cultural traditions with which it was associated.

36. Requiem, KV.626 

Latin text and English translation of the Requiem Mass (Missa pro defunctis) via Wikipedia.

What paragraph of summary could serve to introduce Mozart's Requiem? The massive fugues, the harmonic design, the sheer force of the terror it unleashes, the Gothic images. . . not to mention the myths surrounding Mozart's death, its incomplete state, the challenges to its authenticity, the studies of the fragments and, of course the scholarship devoted to all of these facets which has accumulated over the past 200 and some years. One must, I think, approach it with a little modesty. Modesty in the face of what we are unlikely to clear up, before what is lost, and before the greatness and solemnity of the piece. As in the rest of our survey, we will not be performing in-depth investigation or speculation, but rather highlighting this final work of Mozart's counterpoint. In the Requiem we will see that Mozart's use of counterpoint is is so perfectly suited to this unique use, the Requiem Mass, as to seem almost a distinct usage, "the Mozartian conception of the Requiem." For as surely as Mozart had models for opera and far surpassed them, so has he his models for the Requiem Mass. Likewise his use of Handelian subjects and Bachian choral-writing is so subsumed into Mozart's idiom and the unique demands of the Requiem as to be a whole new creation.

He employs counterpoint here not as study, not for humor or whimsy, as "learned style" contrapuntalizing, incidentally, synthetically, or as climax. Nor is it even employed simply as development as part of a larger sonata-form framework, though of course the counterpoint develops the themes. Rather it is employed persistently throughout the work, though in many varieties, as the ideal expression of the musical ideas, musical ideas themselves either inherited from the Catholic tradition of the Mass for the Dead or developed to give musical expression to this particular text. Here is not the standard setting of "Cum sancto spiritu" as a fugue but the creation of precise and unique settings within a large-scale framework for the Requiem Mass. Mozart draws on the natures of the sections of the mass, of the "tuba mirum," "Rex Tremendae" of the flammis acribus," and "lacrymosa" to create unique small-form structures for this unique text, the requiem mass, and unifies them with unique large-scale harmonic and structural symmetry.  This is in essence word-painting in "motet style," i.e., deriving the musical ideas from the meaning of the text and the musical structure from the stanza-structure of the text.

The Requiem certainly, as Eisen has said [Eisen, 167], demonstrates the profound "unity of affect" of late Mozart. Too as Eisen said we have unity of affect despite variety of technique. Even the words traditionally set to fugues, those based on some of the oldest words and ideas of Christianity, while Mozart does indeed set them to fugues, the fugues are quite extra ordinary. Yet the unity of affect is so profound that even in its incomplete state the piece looms impossibly large in the memory. So much that one is tempted to consider this requiem the "Mozartian conception of the requiem."

Yet perhaps this is not a satisfactory classification of contrapuntal use. Perhaps we might say then the Requiem represents a synthesis of contrapuntal usage, both technically via use of inversion, imitation, double-counterpoint, fugato, and fugue, and stylistically, through variety of texture and expression of text, all of course infused with Mozart's technique and inspiration.


The D minor key in which we open will in fact dominate the whole work, particularly the Introit-Kyrie, the Sequence (Dies irae through Lacrymosa), the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei.) Dominate as it does the mood though, with its inherent chromaticism D minor functions as genus chromaticum of the Requiem, the point of departure for the voluminous modulation throughout. The requiem theme, from Handel's Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline ("The Ways of Zion do Mourn") HWV.246, is introduced in canon between the bassoons and basset horns against staccato quavers in the strings, achieving a disconcerting, but not yet overwhelming mood between the eerie sonority of the winds and the stalwart march of the strings.

The basses enter on D with the theme then rising upward through the voices, the altos joining on D and the others a fifth above. Yet soon the voices come together on "dona eis Domine," ending with a  half-cadence on A. Mozart proceeds with homophonic statement of "et lux perpetua luceat eis" followed by "Te decet hymnus in Sion" for the solo soprano, based on the ninth psalm tone (the tonus peregrinus) used only for In exitu Israel de Aegypto[29] but slightly altered to contain a strict inversion of the main theme of the Requiem. [Maunder, 122] This votive is offered over over a new motif (A), which later will set "dona eis requiem." This motif is developed in imitation and inversion in the strings under the solo soprano.

He proceeds with a dense contrapuntal section for all of the strings and the chorus, the strings developing a portentous dotted figure as the chorus cries "Exaudi" and the soprano tutti developing a more lyrical version mostly doubled by the basset horns. The movement ends with a final fugue for which the basses enter with the "requiem theme" followed by the altos a fifth above with the "new" (A) theme that accompanied the soprano.

Requiem in D minor - Introit - m.34-35

What a contrast of textures in such a brief period! Too Mozart varies the instrumental accompaniment: colla parte here, strict obbligato there. The tension builds until arriving at "et lux perpetua luceat eis," first declaimed forte and then pleaded piano over a lamento bass, ending on A and preparing the way for the great double fugue of the Kyrie.


This Kyrie is a tense and twisting ride. Unlike the Kyrie to the C Minor Mass this is one big fugue without a central section on Christe. Too there is no arrival at, or moment of, renewal or respite, only the despair of guilt and the imminence of judgment. The subjects enter and re-enter suddenly, the jarring Kyrie subject always seemingly a moment away. Even the sections in F and B-flat retain the terrible urgency.

Requiem in D minor - Kyrie - subjects

At m.28 the Christe subject (B) enters for the first time in stretto, rising from the bass. Here, as Abert points out, "its ascending diatonic line is compressed to he point where it becomes chromatic," [Abert, 1321] yet another harmonic daring which troubled Mozart's contemporaries. The fugue rushes headlong into a rest, cutting off eleison mid-word as if the day Judgment has indeed arrived. In the following, mostly homophonic, movement of the Dies Irae, it has.

Rex Tremendae

In awe and supplication the chorus cries out three times, supported by the basset horns and bassoons and followed immediately by a descending dotted semiquaver figure, suggestive of both kneeling and collapse. Then the upper voices treat the theme of "Rex tremendae maiestatis," unfolding with its octave leap, in canon over the lower voices in canon alternating "qui salvandos salvas gratis," and all of this over the orchestra which treats yet another theme in canon between the upper and lower strings. The choral parts converge in a homophonic section before switching roles, the tenors beginning the canon with the basses as we modulate to D minor. The movement concludes with the plaintive cry "salve me!"
 Requiem in D minor - Rex Tremendae - m.9-10


This is the longest movement of the Requiem, setting six stanzas of the Sequenz. The notion of "Recordare" permeates this movement, which Abert wisely describes as possessing a "discursive" character due to its rondo-like structure and an "interiority" through the counterpoint. We begin with two themes in counterpoint which perfectly set the tone of "Recordare" and whose dialogue throughout will maintain it. The first [A] enters in canon between the basset horns and its first minim followed by the rising quavers followed by entrance of the other voice is astonishing like something taking shape in the memory. So too is the other figure, [B] which enters along with the first but in the bass, a descending figure with a trilled motif. Mozart maintains the intimacy and "interiority" throughout with only the soloists and strings and contrapuntal development. This scalar theme then enters in canon in the violins against a bass pedal point, again suggestive of things tumbling from the memory to one's attention. The soloists will take up theme A with "Recordare" and theme B will become the main theme between the episodes. There interiority and internalization we associate with the inversion of the themes and canonic entrances of the soloists contrasts the emotional and physical reality suggested by the homophonic declamation of phrases like, "Ingemisco" and "tamquam reus," set off as they are by singultiary pauses.


Where the Recordare ends in hope and assurance the Confutatis begins in terror and tremor with the hellfire in the bass instruments crackling over and over. The basses enter "confutatis maledictis" and the tenors follow in close imitation, as if writing in the flame. (The effect of the close imitation, the relentless elevation of tension, is similar here to that in KV. 497.)Yet at m. 7 the women enter in C with the pure, plaintive cry, "voca me cum benedictis." Modulating through the dark realms of A minor and G minor Mozart concludes in F major, the key not of despair but of the mystic brotherhood in Die Zauberflöte.

This movement, one of Mozart's most glorious, has been brilliantly described by a source I now defer to:

Amadeus, dir. Milos Forman. 1984.

Domine Jesu

Perhaps even beyond the relentless entrances of the Kyrie and the hellfire of the Confutatis the Domine Jesu is the most terrifying movement of the Requiem. The piano opening quickly gives way to the forte outburst "Rex Gloriae," the alternating dynamics, startling imagery, and abrupt entrances of "de poenis inferni" and the dark tonality of "et de profundo lacu," and the sudden forte leap of a seventh at "de ore leonis," and the rearing of the lion's hear create a scene of terrible grandeur.

The subsequent fugato on "ne absorbeat eas tartarus ne cadant in obscurum" for the chorus has the rhythm of a dance but is no merry gigue but rather reminiscent the dance of death. The gaping sevenths suggest both distance from God and outcry as the twitching semiquavers in the bass nervously urge the movement on.

The soprano soloist enters with the entrance of the image of St. Michael the Archangel, urging the music though a canon and brighter tonality on "sed signifer sanctus Michael repraesente sanctam," with each successive voice entering a fifth below.

The movement ends with the great "Quam olim" fugue on "quam olim Abraham promisisti," thematically contrasting the terrors of the underworld with the promise of God's covenant with Abraham for his descendants.  The fugue is dominated by the one idea and figure, "quam olim Abrahae. . . promisisti" here and there punctuated by "et semini" eius." The absence of a counter-subject and the accompanying motif in the bass make starkly clear the reality that God's promise is all that saves from "de poenis inferni," "de profundo lacu," and "de ore leonis."

"Domine Jesu," "Quam Olim" Fugue, m. 55-57

Benedictus, Sanctus (Hosanna Fugue) & Amen

It would require great length and discursion usefully to discuss these incomplete movements. I would, though, make a few brief points.

While the unusual subject of the Hosanna fugue is certainly by Mozart its working out by Süssmayr is clearly of a rather pedestrian nature. The Amen fugue survives only as a sketch It is unknown whether Mozart intended to repeat the material from the Introit at Lux Aeterna. Abert points out [Abert, 1335] such a repetition was not uncommon at the time and in KV. 220 and KV.317 Mozart himself had made such repeats. Likewise we must wonder whether it was the composer's intent to use the Kyrie fugue for the "cum sanctis tuis in aetarnum" fugue. Clearly the structure of the Requiem demands a fugue at cum sanctis. . . but whether the frightful Kyrie fugue suits "with your saints in heaven" is not obvious. 

Final Thoughts

This Requiem, for all of its thematic borrowing from other works, is an astoundingly original work. For all of its drama and imagery, it is grave and dignified. Despite its incomplete state, it is demonstrates extraordinary unity. We see here what we have seen throughout our look at Mozart's counterpoint: technical mastery and erudition, drama and lyricism, variety, and an overall unity of affect which reconciles the myriad details of the work. With this one, incomplete, work Mozart struck such a chord in the hearts of men as to have defined "requiem." Who imagines another when he hears the word? For something he wanted "to try his hand at" [Wolff, 1994. 73] the Requiem was beyond ambitious.
[Mozart's Requiem] is no longer content to stir specific emotions in the most general terms but that seeks to reflect the detailed psychological development of the work. Time and again it is Mozart the dramatist who emerges from the score, not in the sense of an opera composer or man of the theater, but in the way in which Bach in his vocal works and Schubert in his lieder occasionally plays the part of the dramatist. Mozart was right when he said that he was writing his Requiem for himself, but his remark goes far deeper than he himself intended; it is his most individual and personal confession of his thoughts about life and death. . .  [Abert, 1336]
Mozart reconciled all, leaving us with the sight of man humbled before God at the breaking of the world.


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.
Chapin, Keith. Strict and Free Reversed: The Law of Counterpoint in Koch’s Musikalisches Lexikon and Mozart’s Zauberflöte. Eighteenth-Century Music 3/1, 91–107. Cambridge University Press. 2006.

Eisen, Cliff. Mozart's Chamber Music, essay in The Cambridge Companion to Mozart. Keefe, Simon P. (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Mozart. Cambridge. 2003.

Maunder, Richard. Mozart's Requiem: On Preparing a New Edition. Oxford University Press. New York. 1988.

Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton and Co. New York, New York. 2000

Wolff, Christoph. (Whittall, Mary. (trans.)) Mozart's Requiem: Historical and Analytical Studies, Documents, Score. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1994.

Recommended Reading

Gutmann, Peter. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem. 2006.


26. see: Yeardsley, David. Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2002.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

András Schiff on Beethoven, op. 13

Pianist András Schiff on Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 
in C minor, op. 13.
  • Listen to more of this series here
Part I | Part II | Part III

Libertarianism and Moral Authority

A brief inquiry with no answers into some moral and epistemological issues of politics.

Two Definitions

The notion of "moral authority" carries two associations one of which by far predominates. In this common conception someone by his own observance of a particular law or virtue is said to have the "moral authority" to pass judgment on someone else's violation of that principle. For example, a very honest man might have the "moral authority" to pass judgment on someone else's honesty. We see this logic more casually adopted when a man is said to be a hypocrite for accusing others of violating a principle he himself violates. For example most people would balk at the notion of a frequently tardy man chastising someone else for being late. The reasoning of this interpretation of moral authority is that observing a law or exercising a virtue gives you the authority to judge whether or not that law or virtue has been violated. This concept of moral authority is concerned with identifying the moral deed or misdeed.

The second notion of moral authority concerns more complicated matters. This aspect concerns what to do when some principle or virtue has been violated. "Authority" in this sense means someone has the authority to act, either preemptively or punitively, on someone else's actions. Where might this authority come from? We will not here get too bogged down in metaphysics and epistemology so let us merely examine two alternatives. In one conception some authority exists, derived from somewhere. Perhaps it comes from a council of men or a king or a deity or by sheer nature. Most people would fall somewhere in this category since most people believe, I suspect, that it is moral, for example, to incarcerate murderers and offenders of equally serious crimes. Fewer people believe, though, that they have the authority to tell someone what kind of food he can eat.

Now it is not easy to justify telling a man what to eat but it seems rather so to justify incarcerating a murderer. Yet anyone concerned with liberty must ask: where does the authority come from? Even if a given behavior is thought to be wrong, what gives you the authority to right it? The only explanation seems to be that because the world ought to be a certain way that it is naturally moral to make it that way. Corrective action is merely returning nature to its proper state. There are two extremes to this question of moral authority, one in which the individual has the moral authority to order others as he desires and another in which he has no authority whatsoever. It is not hard to imagine the totalitarian world of the first scenario but trying to imagine the second might be fruitful. Could this most liberal society exist?

Let us take an examine the situation of an alleged crime where no one has any moral authority to compel anyone to do anything. Let us say only that a man has a right to his life and his property. Suppose a murder is committed. Whose rights were violated? Only the murdered man's. Where would the authority to jail him come from? How does the authority to arbitrate what happened and to decide how to react to it fall to particular people? How would it fall, say, to me? My rights weren't violated. Do the man's rights somehow get automatically delegated in certain situations? What if I came upon him as he was being attacked? Could I intervene? How would his authority to protect himself get to me (obviously presuming he wasn't aware of my presence)?

Now this example naturally seems ridiculous but it defines more clearly this other sense of "moral authority" because I think most people would justify intervention or incarceration of the offender by saying something like, "Because it is always/naturally wrong to murder someone it is always/naturally right to prevent a murder from occurring." Stated as such this notion of moral authority is essentially the justification for all laws and it is more often and more simply stated that "some things are just wrong." Most people agree about murder, but what about issues of the environment, or poverty, or inequality, or abortion? There is discord about those issues.

How we arrive at what we think is morally right and wrong, as we said above, varies. Yet inevitably we create some conception of a world with particular "natural" rules. We may justify it in a variety of ways. It may be unique to us or common amongst a few or many. Now we have separated judgment from action in distinguishing two types of "moral authority." If one denies the latter conception, the right to force someone to do something, can there be said to be a political aspect to that type of authority? It would seem not since no action is involved. Of course if you acknowledge the authority to enforce, even in some circumstances, then agreement on the "natural rules" (however many there are) and the methodology of justifying them are unavoidably political matters.

Libertarian Politics

With those observations in mind I wish to examine two ideas: federalism and libertarian politics. The first notion would seem to alleviate the problem of both moral authority and epistemology. The laws the most people agree on apply to everybody and the laws the fewest people agree on apply, at minimum, only to the individuals who believe them. If people geographically arrange themselves then the people with similar ideas can live together and most people won't have to live under laws they disagree with. That a democratic-republican society functions at all might seem to suggest that federalism has met with some success. Yet it does not truly answer any question about morality or necessity of moral authority.

Force a libertarian to do something and you will often get the response "On what authority?" (You'll probably get a few other words too.) Indeed one might say the essence of libertarianism is the principle of not initiating force and to varying degrees a libertarian would deny the moral authority to initiate force. We say initiate because it is consistent with libertarian position for an individual to respond with force to forceful aggression against his fundamental rights. Politically this would translate a lack of laws, a system in which all is legal that does not interfere with the rights of another.

Let us take this position to its extreme, though, and suppose that there are no laws (i.e. rules backed up by the threat of force) of any kind. (More practically this idea would be advocated as "no rules you did not vote for," which would be tantamount to our hypothetical situation if you decided not to assent to any.) We will see this position to be the quite similar to the one in  our example above in which we acknowledge no moral authority of any kind. With this position, could you punish a criminal? Since he does not assent to your laws he's not technically a criminal. Suppose you signed a contract with him. You might think you are safe since you have his word. Well what does it mean to "have his word?" Suppose he says you forged his name and denies signing the contract? What if he simply says he changed his mind? By what principle is he bound to the contract and denied the right to change his mind? On what principle do you deny his account of events? As we asked before, what authority would any third parties have in the matter?

Putting aside the question of how to compel someone, what about punishing criminals?  Why is such a thing as a "penalty" legitimate? Why is a punitive measure morally acceptable? Does the person wronged decide the penalty? Are there limits? Why or why not?

Any answer to any of these questions would recourse to some principle, and any action on that principle would effectively make it a law, a law founded on the moral authority to enforce it. Even in such an extreme liberal society some laws would exist as common and in their commonality, in their being conceived as "real" or "natural," would be their legitimacy, i.e. the people would believe them axiomatically (whether they are derived by reason or faith or whether they are inherited or newly-fashioned.) Not only some common morality, but some common conception of metaphysics is required for a community. A disagreement over metaphysical issues, at least certain ones, would seem  invariably to lead to an impasse. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that to disagree over both certain metaphysical issues and then certain moral ones would lead to an impasse and inevitable conflict. Either you have to agree on laws, i.e. both the concept of law and specific laws, or agree to leave each other alone.

Can you have a society with a multiplicity of essential rules and metaphysical principles, i.e. with a multiplicity of "realities." For example, if a crime is committed can the wronged party determine what happened, arrest the perpetrator, and punish him on his own? It is commonly said that one man cannot be the "judge, jury, and executioner" rather some consensus as to what happened, what is wrong, and what to do about it must be reached. In this line of thinking the wronged party, though his right was the one violated, cannot be left to create his own (potentially erroneous) reality of what happened. Now of course consensus is not at all a guarantee of finding the truth but all alternatives would degenerate into either a situation with no authoritative account of what happened or forcing the unwilling guilty party to accept a particular account anyway. Is it necessarily the case then, that some force, majority, and belief in the truth of your principle, are required for a minimum degree of peaceful coexistence? We might say that the more one must believe by compulsion the less liberal the society. Can a society be too liberal? Can the principles of federalism and libertarianism, which push many moral and philosophical problems out of the political sphere, be taken too far? Is there an ideal (probably very small) body of laws which would provide sufficient common law to allow the remainder of decisions to be reached privately and voluntarily?

The Political Process and Being "Restrained to Reality"

We said earlier that the principle of federalism may be thought to ameliorate some of these problems by avoiding certain issues and creating a hierarchy of ones which at least some people can agree on. Now mind you, they are hierarchical in so far as the ones at the top are universally agreed upon and those at the bottom may be so unique as to vary on an individual basis, but this does not reflect the truthfulness of the principles. In this respect the principle of federalism allows us to evade the need for accord. Yet when people must interact accord is needed and it is in a courtroom that such accord is usually reached. With our observations above in mind we may ask how well our system deals with the problems we have come across. Let us observe the important aspects. 1) The two senses of moral authority have been broken up amongst parties, the jury deciding what happened and the judge deciding what to do about it. 2) The person who acts to enforce the law is another party still. 3) Both the defendant and the plaintiff receive advocates for their cause, i.e. their version of what happened. 4) The judge is bound by laws of precedent and the jury by laws and processes designed to assure their objectivity. 5) The defendant is innocent until proven guilty. 6) There may be an appeal of the verdict. 7) Lastly all parties are sworn to an oath obligating them to restrain their accounts to the "truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

Features one and two exist to separate "judge, jury, and executioner," a separation which has the virtues of using an expert to handle the law and a group of peers to determine the course of events but there is in fact a more important result and it is that the separation creates a system and thus a delay. Assuming there is no problem with having one man be judge, jury, and executioner if he were he could simply walk around legitimately pronouncing verdicts. (A slightly improved situation from the one we depicted earlier in which every person was judge, jury, and executioner.) Separating the roles amongst people necessitates a delay between the crime and the verdict/judgment, and a separation between the parties in conflict.

The third feature has two results. First it permits both parties to present their versions of events and wholeheartedly to advocate for themselves. Their attorneys prevent them from damaging their presentations of their cases. Second, it allows the jury to deliberate on the potential versions of the incident in question. By assuming each side is presenting the best case possible for his cause they assume that each version is the best presentation of that interpretation of events, thus the more likely of the two is the closest to the truth. Feature four has the effect of casting the net as far as possible when seeking objective observers. The judge is bound by the verdicts of similar situations in the past and the jury is selected to screen out people who might be biased.

Features five and six are designed to "lean on the side of liberty" rather than on the side of establishing order or even ascertaining the truth.

Lastly, an objective reality is presumed and all parties are sworn to it. You do not have to speak but if you do you are restrained to reality. The system does not concede that the situation must necessarily be knowable but it insists that there is only one legitimate version of it. It is even unacceptable to attempt to undermine this search for reality by omitting facts ("the whole truth") or by disguising facts amongst lies ("nothing but the truth.")

These seven features would seem precautions designed to determine the facts of a situation, pronounce a verdict, and pronounce a judgment while being sensitive to the philosophical issues at play (in this case epistemological and moral issues.) They attempt a fine balance between individual and society, philosophical certainty and doubt, and authority and liberty.

How successful are they? Do they defer too much to one principle?  Ought they be less moderate?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crazy Conductors

The role of the conductor is unique insofar as the position may in fact garner as much attention as it deserves. (Is that the snicker of chamber musicians I hear?) This may seem an outlandish claim given the rock star status conductors have had for some time. The position has certainly come a long way from the generations of anonymous conductors throughout the Christian churches in the Middle Ages, through the era of the Kapellmeister, who was often required to compose music for the services, into the era of the composer-conductor who conducted his own work, often from the keyboard at which he played, through the rise of the professional conductor which started with the treatises of Berlioz and Wagner who elevated it to an art form itself.

Wagner actually traced origins of the professional conductor to Mendelssohn, the conductor he credited with refining the rough edges of the poor provincial kapellmeister to some degree of elegance. To its improvement, Wagner says, the position gradually attracted the air of elevated culture, though his compliment is sort of back handed:
They differ widely from the helpless epigonae of our old conductors: they are not musicians brought up in the orchestra or at the theater, but respectable pupils of the new-fangled conservatoires. . . they managed to transform the timid modesty of our poor native Capellmeister into a sort of cosmopolitan bon ton. . . [Wagner, On Conducting]
Wagner would in fact criticize them overtly and more severely, alleging they lacked the passion for the task and a sense of what the position called them to do. Most of all they lacked a sense of the power of the art they were bringing to life. This is of course an unsurprising sentiment coming from Wagner and I think to some extent we all take music seriously. We believe it has unique properties to move and transfix, to depress or elate us. That it is a rich medium for expression, abstract but with great power, is not so esoteric an observation. On top of all of this seriousness is the greatness of the music and the towering figures who wrote it. Still atop that is the often grave nature of the material, be they dark operas, raging symphonies, or solemn masses.

Lastly atop that pile of severity  is that music is simply hard to pull off. It requires a lifetime of dedication and study for all performers. For the conductor himself he has to gain access to an orchestra and not just any one but hopefully a competent one and one with the instrumentalists he needs in the quantities he needs. He has to balance the sound amongst the groups, likely having been trained on several instruments himself. He must delve into the original manuscript of the work and perhaps determine the authenticity of a passage (perhaps it is in another hand from the rest), whether or not it is correct as written (did he intend to write these consecutive octaves? should this instrument really be silent here?), what to do about a missing portion (such as a cadenza), how and when to add ornamentation, which make of an instrument to use and whether he must substitute one for another (perhaps he cannot get basset horns and must use a bass clarinet), and at last, the tempo. Discovering these things, but the tempo perhaps most of all, requires a great understanding of the piece, its composer, the instruments it was written for, the form of the piece (rondo, minuet, et cetera) and the performance practice of the day. About the challenge of determining the tempo Wagner wrote:
Sebastian Bach, as a rule, does not indicate tempo at all, which in a truly musical sense is perhaps best. He may have said to himself: whoever does not understand my themes and figures, and does not feel their character and expression, will not be much the wiser for an Italian indication of tempo.
A challenging position indeed. Esteemed too, and rightfully so. It is a bit of paradox, then, and a rather unfortunate one, that one looks as ridiculous as one invariably does when conducting. Perhaps it is because he is not actually doing anything himself, that he is not playing an instrument, (though they often like to imagine that they are "playing" the actual performers) that he looks so odd. Perhaps it is the histrionics needed to convey the emotion. Perhaps it is the gestures and the attempt to translate, however clumsily, the sublime and abstract music into a simple gesture. Maybe it's the dainty baton. Whatever the reason they always look quite ridiculous to me. Whether they're flailing away at a prestissimo, tiptoeing through a dance, or frantically tossing out the entrances of a choral fugue, they're quite the spectacles.

Brilliant spectacles, of course. Rest assured of my respect, though I at times find their gestures as distracting as I do the physical drama of performers. They must be scholars, musicians, artists, and leaders. Still in the spirit of good-natured fun I assembled this collection of some of the greats at perhaps their oddest, perhaps also their greatest, moments. Of course they look odder taken out of context, so let us keep that in mind. Too let us not be thought of as trivializing them but rather let this be some relief, some comitas, from the relentless seriousness of "serious music." Let us remember that while we may soar with the muses at the heights of Parnassos, we sometimes do not. Or at least we don't look it. Remember that the great composers were not just Great Composers, but men who composed great music.

So let us, now and then, recall that Bach was a vigorous man who danced and got into a street scuffle with his bassoonist, that Mozart wrote a canon "Kiss My Ass" and wrote a letter in the mock-hand of his pupil, signing it "Franz Süssmayr, Shithead." Let us remember Haydn's musical fart joke and the humor of Beethoven's variations.

There is a charming moment in Robert Graves' I, Claudius where Augustus Caesar, Emperor of the Roman Empire, who had survived the civil war, wrested control of the faltering republic and defeated Marc Antony at Actium, and grasped together the fraying threads of Roman culture and religion, in his old age tells his wife as they sit in their imperial box at the gladiatorial games, "remember the time I fell out of my chair?"

John Eliot Gardiner
Karl Richter
Leonard Bernstein
Leopold Stokowski

Mariss Jansons
Neville Marriner
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Otto Klemperer
Wilhelm Furtwangler
Wolfgang Sawallisch
Bruno Walter
James Levine
Carlos Kleiber
Herbert von Karajan
Colin Davis
Daniel Barenboim
Georg Solti

Wagner, Richard. On Conducting. Dover. Mineola, NY. 1989.