Twentieth Century Music Idioms, by G. Welton Marquis

October 1, 1965

Twentieth Century Music Idioms, by G. Welton Marquis. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

In a Preface, the author deplores the fact that so "few are able to compose without concocting an eclectic mixture of old and pseudo-new," and that "too few are able to conduct, perform or listen to the various Twentieth-Century styles with true understanding." To increase the possibility of this understanding he sets forth a list of rules, to serve as a guide to the inquiring student. Most of these rules, which are those generally familiar to all, are mentioned below. They are given according to a normal schedule of instruction in counterpoint, in chapters dealing successively with the melodic line, two part writing, three part writing, composition in four or more parts, and contrapuntal devices. Illustrations of imitation and fugal writing are given in the last named chapter, and also, surprisingly, of melodic doubling and ostinato. There follows a chapter on increasing dissonance that includes illustrations of "disjointed melodic lines" and of "pointillism," and one on the twelve tone technique, in which the elementary operations of this system are presented. The book then concludes with a discussion of chordal forms, in which extensions of the triad are given primary consideration. A rather bland, smooth quality prevails in the musical illustrations, although quotations from major twentieth century figures also are interspersed. The twentieth century orientation of the given rules is reflected principally in a reduced dependence on the triad and a fixed tonal center in vertical formations and melodic line.

It seems reasonable to assume that the training of a composer is directed toward development of the faculty of musical thinking. This type of thought concerns itself with the manipulation or exploitation of musical material, and, more precisely, its exposition, diverse order, developmental and combinatorial potential, and susceptibility to variation. Such a faculty will be strengthened, of course, only through its exercise. Traditionally this has been done, during the initial stages of a composer's activity, by operation within the tonal, harmonic and contrapuntal coördinates of the eighteenth century. None of these primary manipulations is essentially dependent, however, upon this set of coördinates; they are equally germane, for example, to material extracted, because of symmetric or combinatorial properties, from arrangements of the notes of the chromatic scale, in post-Webern fashion, and may be explored here with great thoroughness. The passage from one set to the other, consequently, need not do excessive violence to the fundamental processes of musical thought. It may be anticipated, indeed, that as the eighteenth century recedes gradually into the past, the more contemporary framework will be constrained to replace the earlier one, even at the introductory level of musical training. It should be evident that this does not imply the invalidation of the tonal procedures, harmonic progressions and contrapuntal relations that were observed during the earlier period; many of them simply have become less relevant, to the point that often, in current practice, no trace of them is to be found. This might be initially disconcerting, but should cause no alarm; merely does it demonstrate that these procedures or characteristics, whatever their former importance, no longer are, if they ever were, fundamental to the musical process.

Because of the constant quality of this undercurrent of musical thought, the young composer will discover that he can survive without undue shock the shift in coördinates, that he can bring with him rather intact, though he may not be entirely conscious of it, whatever fundamental technical capacity he has previously acquired, and that he may continue to develop this technical capacity indefinitely, within an expanding horizon. When this has been demonstrated to him, modification of primarily stylistic coördinates will not prove baffling.

It follows that if this is true for the composer, it will also be true for any student of the subject, historian, performer and conductor, whose training has directed attention to the proper exercise of the faculty of musical thinking. That such attention could be absent may seem strange; yet, the possibility of its absence is indicated by the fact that no one in this country has taken it upon himself to write a text that might assist in such fundamental training. What is required is an exploration of procedures available for the manipulation of material and the exploitation of its properties in the altered circumstances of recent and current practice. The book in question here, though "introductory," must imply the existence of such a preliminary text, which, however, probably would then render this book quite superfluous, since stylistic characteristics will derive, in a functional relationship, from the quality of the material and the manner of its manipulation. By directing attention primarily to the exterior features of the musical process, it may encourage little more than an amateurish toying with stylistic devices. Although the intention of the author obviously is not to promote the propagation of pseudo-professionalism, this result may occur, precisely because of the restriction to external features.

The propositions that are set forth, though external and ever less relevant, are indisputably sound in themselves, and may even condemn, by implication, pseudo-professionalism. The injunction against aimless wandering about, and the warning against shallowness, if endowed with legal power, long since would have paralyzed vast areas of compositional activity on this continent, and reduced them to a stunned, if wholesome, silence. The sense of aimlessness, or better, pointlessness, unfortunately cannot be eliminated solely by the invocation of external criteria, as in the familiar warnings given here against successive leaps in the same direction, arbitrary insertion of accidentals, frequent use of the same note, equal high or low points, repeated rhythmic patterns, and symmetrical phrases. Conscientious avoidance of these sins will reduce apparent aimlessness, but is not sufficient to transform pointlessness into significance.

Likewise insufficient to this purpose, though, again, ever valid and ever less relevant, are general admonitions to mix consonance with dissonance, to precede entries with a rest, and to strive for contrary motion and independent melodic curves. One promising, if patent, hint, given during the presentation of a twelve tone series, that of the Fourth String Quartet of Schoenberg, is to the effect that some melodic intervals should be chosen "which can be identified later as developmental patterns in a composition."

Musical significance derives in great part from an inner coherence and rigor in the use of the material itself, from a logic, ideally unanticipated but convincing, whose unfolding continuity engages and compels the interest of the listener with its own intrinsic force. To a composer concerned with a deep penetration into the nature of his materials, and with the discovery of all possibilities, however hidden, for its manipulation, in the effort to approach this ideal goal, the thought of gratuitous insertion of accidentals, for example, would not likely occur. It is the child, the dilettante, and the illiterate, whose grasp of logic is weak and easily shaken, who tend to act thus pointlessly, perhaps in the superstitious hope that some deeper and more obscure logic, or the need for the unexpected, will fortuitously be served. Warnings against thoughtless behaviour are inadequate, though experience may show them to be necessary; rather ought the operation of this internal musical logic be demonstrated, insofar as possible, and the manner in which musical thought, concentrated on given premisses, can develop through the presentation and exploitation of the material contained in those premisses. The result of this mental activity may at last be music of sufficient consistency to deserve consideration; awareness of the nature of this activity on the part of the performer and listener in turn will improve understanding, at a level beneath that of stylistic appearance. Perhaps it is not possible to prepare a text on such primary matters; it may be that the printed word, which has its own logic, can cope only with phenomena closer to the surface. If this be true, the value of the present book would stand to increase perceptibly through the default. It is at least plausible, however, to consider the lack of such a text an additional, if minor, symptom of the superficiality that distinguishes our educational system, rather than to take it as proof of an inherent incommunicability of elementary subject matter. Musikdenken heute of Boulez does, after all, exist.

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