Thursday, March 6, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #2)

Question 2 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
2.  Most compositions from the 18th- and 19th-centuries use a small number of existing forms (binary, ternary, rondo, sonata, variations). Does this mean that originality, when it comes to form, is not important?
I touched on this in my answer to question 1, but briefly, the use of the same forms by both good and less-good composers might suggest that a composer's originality in the way s/he uses large-scale form is not hugely important to the overall quality of a composition.

One of the reasons theorists and composers delight in studying Beethoven's music and regard it so highly, however, is that he took existing forms and modified them in significant ways.

A specific example of this is his conversion of the coda in sonata form from a simple, short, tonality-affirming and concluding section, to a lengthy, second development section (as in Piano Sonata No. 21 ("Waldstein"), op. 53, I, Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), I, or Symphony No. 8, I.  In addition, he expanded the development section itself to a point where it was sometimes longer than the entire exposition (c.f.Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), and more generally, he wrote significantly-longer symphonies than his predecessors.

Here is a link to a graph that shows this; If accurate, it is a striking visual representation of the difference in proportions between Beethoven's sonata form in the Eroica symphony, and Mozart's in any of his three final symphonies.

Haydn's contribution to the development of sonata form was huge, to the extent that when we describe a "model" sonata form, we are describing the form he established, albeit probably influenced by C. P. E. Bach; just as Haydn is sometimes called the "father of the string quartet," and "father of the symphony," he could also be called the "father of sonata form."

The great composers were not complacent about form. Not every work they composed broke new formal ground, but, over the entirety of their careers, they often did break new ground in terms of large-scale form.

Not every work by great composers showed originality in large-scale forms, but many did, and we recognize these contributions today by performing and recording these centuries-old works, and by studying them in musical form classes.



To summarize, here is my four-part answer to the question above:
  1. For the most part, large-scale forms used by composers are not particularly original, if by original we mean “created directly and personally by a particular artist; not a copy or imitation,” or “not dependent on other people's ideas; inventive and unusual,” two dictionary definitions of the word.

  2. When we speak of originality as applied to form, we usually refer to relatively minor changes within existing forms. Some changes, within this context, were startling and unprecedented, as was the case when Beethoven expanded the coda section of sonata form, but most were more subtle than this. 

  3. Originality of form, in this subtle context, is definitely important; the ways in which some composers effected changes to existing forms is one of the reasons we tend to regard them so highly; Haydn and Beethoven contributed enormously to the development and evolution of sonata form. However, (a) they did not attempt to reinvent the form every time they used it, and (b) their changes to large-scale forms were gradual, occurring over the span of their careers, and were mostly "tweaks" of existing practices.   

  4. Not every composition needs to be unique and unprecedented in terms of large-scale form. We wouldn't write very many compositions if it were otherwise!  Even great composers used a limited number of large-scale forms. They did not attempt to "reinvent the wheel" every time they wrote a work. Nor, I would argue, should we in our compositions. 
Before leaving this question, I will just repeat something from my previous post on this topic:
"Form" exists on multiple levels simultaneously in a composition, from the very small scale, such as the intervalic content in a motive, the way in which a theme is constructed, motivic breakdown, the functions of each phrase segment, thematic structure such as period, sentence, phrase group, "auto-generative," fortspinnung, etc., to increasingly larger scales such as the structure of sections, movements, and entire multi-movement works."
To me, a  core value in great music is the simultaneous existence of all these levels of formal organization; this is more important than the originality of the form.

2 comments:

Byrann Gowan said...

An interesting blog, indeed. What I find is most curious, and even a bit assuring to be honest, is the fact that composers such as Haydn and Beethoven didn't break the rules every single time they created a composition; they did it over the course of their careers. While with Haydn it is very evident, you can especially see this with Beethoven. His life has been divided up into three different eras: the Early period, in which he was strongly influenced by composers such as Haydn and Mozart; the Middle period, in which his music is defined by large-scale works that expressed struggle and heroism (Hence the name "Eroica" for the third symphony); and the late period, in which his works are characterised by their intellectual depth, their formal innovations, and their intense, highly personal expression. So, what we see here is an example of a man who has broke new ground over the course of his career; while he didn't do it in one piece, you can see that it was a gradual thing.

Flutiano said...

I am glad that it is pointed out in this blog post that composers like Beethoven, who we think of as being original in his use of form, made relatively small tweaks in the expected form and didn't make new alterations in every single work they did. The originality of the movement's form was altered in minor ways, and gradually in his lifetime.

Studying sonata form in our current class with Dr. Argentino, and looking at many different examples of sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart, and occasionally Haydn, is revealing lots of small ways that they were innovative while keeping to essentially the model structure. Whether it is a Beethoven sonata form movement with no development, or with an extended coda, or an unexpected modulation, there are frequently relatively small tweaks in the form that add to the interest of listening to and studying these compositions.