Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Romantic Generation

Professor Gossett has suggested that instead of writing books I should consider reading some. Ouch. I am taking this pretty well.

One of his suggestions is Charles Rosen's The Romantic Generation. This covers the period from 1830 to 1850, the period of Schumann, Chopin, Bellini, Berlioz, Liszt and Mendelssohn.

Rosen is a pianist, and his book reflects this bias, a bias that the era may also be seen to reflect. Schubert and Beethoven give hints of what the piano might achieve, but it is Schumann, Chopin and Liszt that bring it to its full idiomatic glory.

On the down side: he picks over every damn piece for an unbelievable 710 pages.

In the first chapter he talks about "Conception and realization" as it applies to the Romantics. I'm always looking for a good generalization, and this is quite a nice one. Looking back from the present we might assume that in any given era the composer imagines a specific performance for his composition. Stravinsky insisted on this--he optimistically rejected the whole idea of interpretation. This point of view, Rosen is saying, only extends into the past as far as the Romantics. They attempted to notate the precise expected sound the piano was to make.

In previous generations composers planned for improvisation. That's what the figured bass is all about--it is a plan for improvisation. In the modern world someone composes a keyboard part for the continuo player and sticks it in the score. Baroque composers would have expected it to sound different each time, especially when played by different people, like a fake sheet.

In the Baroque the conception created a structure for a variety of possible realizations. In the Romantic era the composer tried to spell out the precise expected performance, to imagine in advance how it would sound.

There is a chapter called Fragment, a prominent feature of Romanticism. He seems to be saying that the Romantics instead of changing or attacking the classical forms focused on fragments, bits often taken out of context, or deprived of a context.

I have always loved the song "Im wunderschoenen Monat Mai" by Schumann and used to play and sing it just to try to get the right expression. Rosen explains how it begins and ends on the wrong notes, achieving proper tonal cadences only in the middle of the verse. It is a fragment, and Schumann was the master of fragments.

More later. [See here, here, here, here, and here.]

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