The Rambler :: blog

Monday, November 24, 2003

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A really interesting post from Kyle Gann, on the conflict between system and inspiration in modern composition. It's an old chestnut, and Gann has some notable points to make on the way, observing that many (student) composers see the failure of theory to explain what is happening in a piece of Charles Ives, say, as a victory for the composer. I think the composers' argument is a specious one for either side to take up - theory and practice are not opponents: any musical work is an act of composition and reception, and without one or the other it is unfinished. But at the same time, theory can never pretend to tell you everything about a work, it can only mark one way of approaching it, here, now, and by me. Composers really only get upset when theorists try to reduce their compositions to crossword puzzles, shouting Eureka! when they think they've found the solution. Academic musicology has only recently grown-up to this self-evident fact, and a lot of this attitude still persists within certain circles who can't see beyond puzzle-solving.

To be honest, I don't know what Bartók would have made of Lendvai's analyses of his music, had he lived to see them. Probably amusement. Lendvai's work is, after all, a classic, beautifully realised crossword solution. What is interesting, however, in his work is not the question of whether Bartók worked to an all-encompassing system, built around Fibonnacci numbers and Golden Section proportions (according to Lendvai, these series permeate every aspect of Bartók's music, from note-to-note interval selection to large-scale form), but rather the influence this construction of Bartók's music had on others.

In 1955, when the West European musical world was doing backflips over total serial organisation (Boulez's Le marteau sans maître had just been completed, and Stockhausen had begun work on Gruppen), Lendvai's first books on Bartók (An Introduction to the Analysis of Bartók's Works and Bartók's Style) were published in Hungary. As news of musical developments in Western Europe were trickling through to Hungarian composers, coupled with the gradual, and welcome, establishment of Bartók's reputation as one of the century's greatest musicians, it must have been tempting to see within Lendvai's analyses a way of connecting the great Hungarian master with the dominant trends of systemised composition in the West. There is no doubt that Bartók's influence on his successors was immense, but it is intriguing to trace the influence of the Lendvai-mediated Bartók upon those successors. In Hungarian composition since the late 1950s, be it Kurtág, Eötvös or even Germany-based Ligeti, there are traces of a conscious, deliberate employment of the compositional strategies Lendvai claimed to have extracted from Bartók - mirror forms, Golden Sections, key intervals and harmonies built on segments of the Fibonnacci series and so on. Was this an attempt to induct Bartók, and his successors, into the same canon being established amongst Stockhausen and his Darmstadt cronies? It seems to me that this is an interesting - but surely not unique - example of the symbiotic relationship between composition and theory, and an instance in which crossword puzzles could become a powerful inspiration.

Incidentally, if you're interested in reading a lengthy piece by me on Lendvai's relationship to Ligeti's music, you could do worse than click here. There are few examples which need putting up, when I've got them converted to jpegs or such, but all the text is there at least. Cheers.

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