Polarity in Music: Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Their Consequences (1995)
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Polarity in Music: Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Their Consequences There are two great nodal points, two great dividing lines visible to the historical eye and audible to the discerning ear, that mark the morphological development of Western music with its unique twistings and turnings-and yes, in the precise spirit of Harold Bloom's term, its strangeness. If I can convey some sense of this, I will have put before you the outlines of a pattern or configuration of the action of large natural forces working invisibly on the human spirit, mind, heart, and soul, and of the musical culture they have produced. In order to limn out this pattern, this configuration, three things are necessary . First, to delineate the nodal points, the dividing lines themselves. Next, to describe what I mean by natural forces. And third, to show the action of these forces at the very points of the breaks produced-and the cultural changes wrought. Before doing this, however, one more thing is needed: to put before you the idea that, from its inception, Western music has been a great communal effort on the part of an unbroken chain of generations of composers, a still ongoing human project whose end must remain opaque to us. Within these countless generations individual composers have made their greater or lesser contributions. Cultural creatures that we are and often enough helpless before our own human proclivities, it is the greater individual contributions we tend to select out and celebrate. Thus we have been blind to the grand morphological design that lies behind this communal endeavor. The consequence is to have missed the essential purpose of the project itself: to fashion-however slowly, arduously, even tortuously, and inevitably with all its conflicts, disruptions , cul-de-sacs, dried-out streambeds, disappearing pathways-the most complete , the most inclusive, the most powerful and satisfying artistic language of musical expression biologically and culturally fitted to the peculiar needs of our species. Some grasp of all these elements combined-however dimly perceived at first-is crucial to an understanding of what music is as an art in its own terms as well as a cultural manifestation. It will also help to explain why, at the very end of this unfortunate century, confusion persists over the seeming divide and conflict between "classical" and "modem" music. Tonality, that highly developed musical speech of "classical" composers, did not suddenly die, as was Widely proclaimed at the beginning of this century, nor was atonality, its self-proclaimed destroyer, the bete noire of music. To show why neither of these misperceptions is true is also part of my purpose. POLARITY IN MUSIC 247 The First Nodal Point: 1600 The first of the two major breaks is a high moment in Western music, full of the drama occasioned by the head-on clash between two diametrically opposed views of the relation of music to text setting. Beneath the surface of this controversy deeper currents were running. The controversy itself took shape in the savage attack Giovanni MariaArtusi, archconservative and defender of the 15o-yearold Renaissance style of polyphonic setting of texts, published against Claudio Monteverdi in 1600.Artusi accused Monteverdi-and othercomposers ofhis persuasion -of having "nothing but smoke in their heads." He was outraged that they should be "so impressed with themselves as to think they can corrupt, abolish and ruin at will the good old rules handed down from days of old...."1 Artusi was particularlyexercised over the issue of consonance and dissonance. "We have reached," he said, "the point of absurdity, but it is altogether possible that these modem composers will so exert themselves that in time they actually will find a way to tum dissonances into consonances and vice versa." He concluded his diatribe: "For such composers it is enough to set up a great roar of sound, an absurd confusion, an array of defects, and it all comes from the ignorance which keeps them benighted."2 Monteverdi replied toArtusi in 1605 in the preface to his Fifth BookofMadrigals , where he coined the phrase seconda prattica (second practice), and in a statement appended to his first book of Scherzi Musicali (1607), where he declared that "the words [are] the mistress of the harmony," a statement that became the slogan of the time. With these two phrases and the musical principles they embodied Monteverdi gave focus and direction to what became known as the Baroque Era, which stretched ahead to about 1750. The Renaissance saw the high maturation of a richly...