Tonality Sucks, and other myths
Last month I gave some of my personal history with Mozart. I wrote about hating him as a high schooler, and how i came around to loving him. There's a few steps I missed.
In my master's degree, I had a chance to study with Ann Chang at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She had studied plenty of fortepiano, but specialized in transferring this performance practice knowledge to the modern piano. So while there was a fortepiano there, and I got to epxeriment plenty on it, we worked on Mozart and Beethoven on a modern Steinway. I came to understand the language of notation that was familiar, presumptuous, in Mozart's day, how translation of that language became transmuted over time, and how we can capture aspects of the fortepiano on today's instruments. I even got to play in a masterclass by fortepiano and classical performance practice specialist, Malcolm Bilson; a true class by a master if there ever was one. He told me at the time that I understood the rules, but I wasn't a very good salesman for the cause; I had work to do to make these ideas convincing.
These were very influential ideas for me. Combined with my discovery of the Golden Age of piano playing, I veered towards contemporary music, because I was so dissatisfied with how pianists interpreted that music of the historical canon.
Then I became a contemporary music snob. My DMA is literally "in contemporary music", and I loved the program I was in. I've written plenty about how I believe in the importance of even the most difficult, abstract contemporary music (see all the posts under the 'contemporary music' category in the archives). But in becoming a advocate of this abstract music, I began to discount tonality entirely. I looked down on the tonal system as one of idiotic simplicity.
This attitude stemmed from my budding appreciation for complex atonal languages that composers of the 20th century have developed. My intellectual curiosity (as well as musical satisfaction) was piqued by composers who used very simple musical material to derive all kinds of music aspects: harmony, rhythm, form, etc. Of course this is not dissimilar to how classical composers created themes and developed them throughout a movement, or in the case of Beethoven, using motives to connect across movements.
But it was all so obvious in tonality. Especially with Mozart. Glenn Gould evidently said that Mozart could never write a proper development section, especially since he never had anything worth developing. I grew into that view the more I grew into contemporary music. Mozart's music was so easy to like that it wasn't worth liking.
I'm not sure what changed that attitude. I finished my DMA in May of 2015 and by that fall I was reworking Mozart's Sonata K 333 to have some good recordings of standard repertoire. Over time, I think I allowed myself to enjoy something whether or not it was intellectually satisfying.
And then the further out I've been from my DMA, the more I see the intellectual underpinnings of tonal composers, especially Mozart. I've been reading Charles Rosen's The Classical Style (which will be the subject of future posts!) and he is able to make incredible connections between obscure aspects of Mozart's music, for instance, how the accompaniment in a piano work becomes the melody later on. Or subtle shifts in Mozart's Sonata forms which revolutionize the sense of drama.
Just because something is 'easy on the ears', doesn't mean the music can't have deep intellectual underpinnings.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act