[Smt-talk] Addendum on Bach

Ildar Khannanov solfeggio7 at yahoo.com
Fri Jan 22 17:51:59 PST 2010

An intresting point! 

Norm and normative aesthetics is the attribute of Classicism. Nicolas Boileau-Despreau wrote a treatise L'art poetique in which he established the rules for classicism, among which was the suggestion not to choose anything peculiar for the subject matter and not make the reader weep, to find topics of universal importance and to use tight-knit language. So, unlike Baroque or Romantic composers who seek peculiar topics, like to express individual feelings, and look for the unique forms and techniques, the artist of Classicist art does not create new forms but brings the existent forms to perfection, to the the ideal state, making them the classical norm. In this sense, from the point of view of the aesthetics of Classicism, the art of poetics as the set of abstract laws must be studied in order to compose. 
The textbooks in harmony, published in this classical period, were intended for those who compose music of tonal paradigm. Our textbooks are intended for those who primarily analyze already written tonal works. Hence the difference in style and purpose of pedagogy. Thanks to God that our students do not have to write tonal music: they would have failed a theory class with Tchaikovsky or Glazunov en mass. Our requirements are much more modest: just to be able to analyze some excerpts from Mozart's piano sonatas. For that, we do not need to know the norms and the laws of harmony. Just look, compare, draw graphic representations.
Ildar Khannanov
Peabody Conservatory

--- On Fri, 1/22/10, Richard Hermann <harhar at unm.edu> wrote:

From: Richard Hermann <harhar at unm.edu>
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Addendum on Bach
To: "smt-talk smt" <smt-talk at societymusictheory.org>
Date: Friday, January 22, 2010, 2:09 PM

Dear SMT-Listers,

Around 30 years ago Robert Cogan made an interesting comment on "Common-Practice" music in that by that yardstick, common-practice would be better applied to modal music as it has been around a lot longer. Why should "norms" of one period trump those of other periods/practices? On what specific grounds should one specific period/practice be made paramount?  As the king of siam said in a musical along time ago: "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...."


Richard Hermann, Prof. of Music
University of New Mexico

On Jan 22, 2010, at 12:58 PM, Dmitri Tymoczko wrote:

On Jan 22, 2010, at 11:46 AM, Steven Rosenhaus wrote:

I have found that while following rules can make for some exquisite music, it can also result in G*d-awfully boring stuff. When I teach the craft of composition I make sure the students understand that what they are learning are not hard and fast "rules" but practices, and that learning them is like knowing where the walls are in an unlit room; much easier to push/break down those walls (or just find the light switch and/or door, to further the metaphor) if you know where those walls are.

While Stephen Jablonsky wrote:

Using the words "normal" or "usual" when referring to the output of great composers is quite amusing. It is only the second rate composers who stick to the predictable or the probable.

Two points:

1) It is important to distinguish the project of defining a harmonic grammar from that of doing analysis.  The activities are as different as linguistics and literary criticism.  Great authors play with grammatical rules, but this doesn't show that grammatical rules don't exist, or aren't important.
The problem here is that music theory comprises many different activities -- analogues to linguistics, psychology, literary criticism, etc.  What defines our field is the subject matter, not the style of thinking.  So when someone like me starts talking about grammar, others are always going to talk about how irrelevant that is to what they do.  This is a reminder that we all do very different things.

2) Interestingly (or perhaps predictably) enough, I've always been surprised by how *infrequently* great composers violate some of the musical conventions that defined their style.  In this respect, I think, they were very different from contemporary artists, weaned on modernism and the violation of norms.

For instance, there are very, very few clear root position V-IV progressions in the music -- despite the fact that this progression sounds good.  Likewise, there are hardly any sonata-form movements in major with the second theme in the relative minor, or in the supertonic.  (Yes, I know a few.)  Or pieces in Lydian.  Or parallel fifths.  Or pieces in 5/4.  Really, the list could go on and on.

In large part, I think this is because these composers did not think of  the principles of their musical style as being arbitrary and conventional, but rather as being rooted in something much deeper.  In this respect I would think that theory played a huge role in defining for them the limits of the acceptable.

When I imagine myself projected back in time, and composing in the 18th- or 19th-century style, I always imagine exploring all these relatively obvious alternatives.  And I always tell my students: "these composers were very different from us.  The things we think of as natural, like mixolydian mode or VI-VII-i or V-IV-I progressions, were not at all natural to them."  I think it is very hard to understand how they distinguished between norms that were not to be trifled with, and norms that could be violated.

The great classical composers were, of course, very inventive.  They broke rules.  But it's equally important that they preserved rules and didn't even think about breaking with them.  This is how some of the conventions survived for so long.


Dmitri Tymoczko
Associate Professor of Music
310 Woolworth Center
Princeton, NJ 08544-1007
(609) 258-4255 (ph), (609) 258-6793 (fax)

Smt-talk mailing list
Smt-talk at societymusictheory.org

-----Inline Attachment Follows-----

Smt-talk mailing list
Smt-talk at societymusictheory.org

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.societymusictheory.org/pipermail/smt-talk-societymusictheory.org/attachments/20100122/dde309de/attachment-0004.htm>

More information about the Smt-talk mailing list