The quote of the day is from Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, his survey of the intellectual precursors of Marxism-Leninism, about the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet, author of the momumental Histoire du France:
One remarkable device of Michelet’s has since been exploited and made famous by the novelist Marcel Proust…. The more important actors in Michelet’s history often produce sharply varying impressions as they are shown us at different ages and in different situations—that is, each is made to appear at any given moment in the particular role that he is playing at the moment, without reference to the roles he is later to play. Michelet explains what he is doing at the end of the fifth book of the Revolution—”History is time,” he says; and this evidently contributed in Proust’s case, along with other influences such as Tolstoy, to his deliberate adoption of that method of presenting his characters in a series of dramatically contrasting aspects by which he produces the effect of the long lines on economics charts fluctuating back through time.
If you’re like me, first of all, my condolences, and second of all, then this passage made you think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Much is made of that work’s various “transformations” of the opening rhythmic Morse-code “V” motif, but really, they’re not so much transformed as just presented in different surroundings that create the sense of the motif having undergone some crucial change. This is a common enough occurrence in Romantic music—think of the Liszt Sonata in b minor, or the opening and closing of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben, or the idée fixe in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, to name some more famous examples—that it’s not unreasonable to point to a common Romantic idea as the conscious or unconscious spur to the technique in both its literary and musical guises: the notion that there’s something about human behavior and human nature that’s essentially irrational and unknowable, that the Enlightenment idea of a clear, understandable chain of causality and motivation is a naïve illusion.
But it seems to me that the “thematic tranformation” shorthand we use for this is misleading. It’s not what changes about the motif that’s important, it’s what stays the same, at least from a Romantic standpoint. If a theme is transformed organically and clearly such that it ends up a materially different theme, then, in this sense, it’s a Classical influence—the knowable process—rather than a Romantic one—the unknowable leap. And yet we associate the whole idea of “thematic transformation” primarily with Romantic composers.
This is a retrospective association. Take Schoenberg’s 1933 essay “Brahms the Progressive.” Schoenberg is using the example of Brahms to expain his own preference for developing, non-repeating melody. He traces examples of irregular, asymmetrical melodies and phrases from Mozart through to his own work, with a special emphasis on Brahms. The analysis is all on the level of gradual transformations of motives within the melody.
The most important capacity of a composer [Schoenberg writes] is to cast a glance into the most remote future of his themes or motives. He has to be able to know beforehand the consequences which derive from the problems existing in his material, and to organize everything accordingly. Whether he does this consciously or subconsciously is a subordinate matter. [emphasis added]
I would venture that any Romantic thinker would take issue with that last sentence—the difference between conscious and subconscious motivation would have mattered very much indeed to them, with the true artistic impulse being found in the latter. And its the fundamental unknowability of consequences that many of the Romantics considered vital—it’s one of the main reasons they considered Shakespeare a kindred spirit. But the point is not that Schoenberg is some sort of hypocritical Romantic, the point is that when we consider atonality and the 12-tone method to be just an outgrowth of late Romanticism, and, in fact, when we consider atonality and the 12-tone method to be the one and the same thing, we blunt the usefulness of a term like “Romanticism” by lumping in music that is philosophically dissonant with some of the movement’s most basic premises. And, not incidentally, we’re failing to take Schoenberg at his word:
Analysts of my music will have to realize how much I personally owe to Mozart. People who looked unbelievingly at me, thinking I made a poor joke will now understand why I called myself a ‘pupil of Mozart’, must now understand my reasons.
Schoenberg got it right: serialism is the result of a neo-Classical impulse, not a Romantic one.
This disconnect between the philosphical and artistic terms we most often use to characterize musical styles and the actual non-musical ideas associated with those terms is something I find more amusing than appalling, but it points up the need to be careful not to blithely assume that one leads to another. A lot of the composers we tend to think of as “late Romantic,” in particular, were actually after an artistic experience more in the spirit of the Classical era, their Wagnerian vocabulary notwithstanding—Rachmaninoff, for instance, or post-Rosenkavalier Strauss. Conversely, the juxtapositions and surrealist structures of a lot of “neo-Classical” composers (Stravinsky, Satie, Les Six) seem to be more in sympathy with Romantic literary ideas of fragments and non-linear narratives. Names are useful; realities are more interesting.