The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or
In the comments to the post of the Grieg Piano Concerto last week, Mr JOB and I had a brief exchange about the musical value of the 12 tone scale. For JOB, Schoenberg and his followers are engaged in a perversion of music, while I did my best to defend Schoeberg and especially others who, to my ears, have made good use of dodecaphony, and then some——Bartók and Lutosławski in particular.
I thought about posting something especially modern and outré, but then I realized that would be churlish and decided to take another route instead.
This week I’m offering two of my all-time favorite pieces of music, named above. The Mozart Quintet (K. 581), was written in 1789 for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, who famously helped invent the basset clarinet to play in the same range as a basset horn. Mozart wrote both this quintet and the (incredibly beautiful) clarinet concerto with this lower register clarinet in mind.
Similarly, Johannes Brahms wrote his Clarinet Quintet in B minor for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. It was published in 1891 as Opus 115 (of 122 total) and bears a number of similarities to Mozart’s quintet from a century before. There are very fine descriptions of the piece at Wikipedia and at The Clarinet Pages, but one thing I’d like to point out is that the Brahms is as much a prototypical minor key piece as the Mozart is of a major key. While the different keys obviously reveal much different moods, I think it would be a mistake to assume that the choice of key/mood is somehow historical. Obviously Mozart (and Bach and Handel) wrote works in minor keys, Brahms wrote in major keys (although it makes a kind of obvious sense that towards the end of his life, Brahms would write a work frequently described as “autumnal” in a minor key). And though he was composing in the latter half of the 19th century, I have a hard time seeing Brahms classified as a Romantic. I suppose this is to ever-so-slightly denigrate composers I would classify as Romantic: Chopin, Liszt, Wagner—”excessive”, as JOB wrote. Brahms emphasizes classical forms (sonata, symphony, etc.) far too much, as well as something I can’t quite name in his style. Lutosławski once called him “a reactionary composer”, and maybe there is something to that.
The two quintets make an obvious pair, but the reason I chose them after last week’s exchange with JOB is that I think they also reveal something about the history of music. I may not be a musicologist, but I’d like to play one on this blog, and what I hear in the Brahms quintet is a much thicker or denser chromatic array than what I hear in the Mozart quintet. I think this is evident in the first bars of the Mozart, which begins with the strings before the clarinet comes bubbling up and then descends on steps that are remarkably beautiful imitation of the rhythm already established by the violins. As far as I can tell, the Brahms achieves an entirely different effect: yes, the strings begin and the clarinet follows, just as in Mozart’s quintet, but the clarinet then proceeds to pull the strings into it’s own melancholic tones. There are more glissandi and less stability all the way around. The three note motif Brahms uses repeatedly to interrupt the musical argument strikes me as a vain attempt to pull back from the gloominess and instability.
As for the place of each piece in the history of music, I think it’s fair to say that Mozart’s quintet might well be the zenith of the classical era, Brahms’ obviously towards the end. The tonal system established by Bach (or in that era) was the flowering of many centuries of tradition. Truly, it was a great and beautiful achievement. But this development couldn’t simply stop there. Composers developed a kind of game in which they found ways and reasons to use notes outside the key in which any given piece of music was written. There was kind of destiny at work between the Baroque of the 17th Century and the Serialism of the early 20th. For all I know, future history will reveal that the tonal system of the Classical era really was the greatest way that sound can and ever will be organized. Given the monumental nature of St. Matthew’s Passion or The Messiah or Le Nozze Di Figaro or Beethoven’s String Quartets, it doesn’t at all seem like an unreasonable prediction.
It’s certainly hard to find anything resembling “the sensuous in its elemental originality” in anything by Stockhausen or Babbit. But I find it hard to fault Schoenberg and his followers for trying something new. Not because the diatonic scale was finished, but because the diatonic scale was itself developed by musicians who were trying something new.