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Realism and Perspective in Eighteenth-Century Music


I want to suggest that the fundamental innovations of eighteenth-century musical style are in some way equivalent to two other ‘classic’ moments in the arts: the modern realist novel and Renaissance pictorial style. In her book Realism and Consensus in the English Novel, Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth argues that ‘neutral time and space’ is represented in art for the first time both by Florentine Renaissance painters, through their pioneering of realistic perspective, and later by the ‘invisible narrator’ that emerges in the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The conventions of medieval painting represent everything in its own foreground with no governing vantage point. This works towards a ‘maximising of essential qualities’ of each object: a round thing is shown to be round regardless of its position relative to any viewer; a knight is depicted as a similar height to a castle if he is an object of particular attention. In a similar way, Ermarth suggests, much premodern literature is structured around separate, unreconciled points of view, as in early epistolary novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a novel rich in the very language of enclosure and misunderstandings. In the Iliad, she writes, battle scenes tend to describe one hero fighting and then another falling, rather than the fight between them; each character has a destiny tied to the centre of a static universe, so no character can really influence another. Erich Auerbach sees the literary world of Rabelais as a prime instance – perhaps even a parody – of unreconciled perspective: the giant Pantagruel at one point holds cities in his mouth, and at another, pigeons happily use it as a birdhouse. Auerbach also notes the tendency of medieval prose romances to pass over all historical particulars, further weakening overall integration: ‘nothing is found in it which is not either accessory or preparatory to an adventure.’ Castles ‘appear before us as though sprung from the ground’, since the world is ‘specifically created and designed to give the knight opportunity to prove himself.’

The later achievement in both literature and visual art, according to Ermarth, was to create a point of view that is arbitrary and anonymous; ‘the narrator as nobody’ as an ‘energy source everywhere in the work’ together with plots that advance through causal sequence rather than ‘divine fiat’. It acts as a source of consensus, allowing us to imagine that everyone within the work inhabits the same fundamental reality. Ermarth even makes a comparison between the two invisible, intersecting ‘cones’ that create perspective in painting (akin to the visual cones that radiate from our two eyes and allow us to perceive depth), and the two tenses of realist narration in which every moment is simultaneously past and present (the narrator in the present describing events in the past). When a narrator in a Dickens novel is able to access the thoughts of both characters in a dialogue, it gives each of them a sense of history and interiority, and depth to the ‘bundles of surface attributes’ that formed the more typological approach to character in earlier literature.


How are these ideas relevant to music, all too often thought of as insulated from such trends in the history of ideas? Karol Berger’s study Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow explores the changing conception of temporality in eighteenth century music, in which a static, ‘eternal Now’ gives way to a dynamic, goal-directed conception of the flow of time. J.S. Bach’s fugues, for instance, may dramatically announce their impending closure, but for most of their duration it is hard to locate ourselves in the overall structure. Bach is concerned with the atemporal contrapuntal possibilities, the ‘working-out’, of his fugue subject – a static temporality centred on the timeless divine. The instrumental and vocal music of the late eighteenth century, by contrast, exhibits a powerful sense of linear time. Berger relates this paradigm shift to various cultural trends, especially the broad shift from a Christian to an Enlightened secular worldview.

We can begin to draw this together with Ermarth’s insights with a basic observation about eighteenth-century musical form. From 1700, musical structures became increasingly decisively oriented around a sense of large-scale return: an initial large block of music returning more or less intact later in the movement, often modified in some crucially ‘resolving’ way, usually after some kind of intermediate contrasting section – a practice common to da capo arias in Handel operas of the 1720s and most movements of Beethoven symphonies at the turn of the nineteenth century. Even movements whose patterns are more circular than linear are shaped by this pattern; theme and variation sets tend to round off with a concluding reprise of the theme, and ‘rondo-finale’-type movements are perhaps even more greatly preoccupied with the idea of structural return, even if it takes the form of evenly-spaced pillars that punctuate episodes rather than a single, dramatised moment of homecoming. In a sonata movement by Mozart, the point at which the linear quality is most audible is the moment described by theorists as ‘essential structural closure’. This is the point at which the secondary group of material (previously in the dominant or other related key) is ‘conquered’ by the tonic and the movement’s ‘structural dissonance’ resolved. These eighteenth-century practices unite the past and the present through the workings of our memory, giving long spans of music a powerful sense of implication and necessity. Could we hear this as akin to the decisive quality of the realist narrator, the simultaneously past and present tense of its voice?

Instrumental and vocal music before 1700 tends to be more variegated and unpredictable in its overall organisation. Sacred cantatas and oratorios by Carissimi or Buxtehude, or early instrumental sonatas by Marini or Merula, sound somewhat formally ‘ad hoc’ to our ears, cast in sectional structures of various kinds but without any comparable sense of overall closure. Sometimes the music seems to lack any global organising principle at all, as in Purcell’s fantasias for viol consort, where every line of counterpoint is a thread is a seamless, richly patterned foreground. Frescobaldi’s toccatas for keyboard are even written with the expectation that the performer could finish wherever desired, the work being more a repository of diverse rhetorical effects than an integrated plot to be followed from start to finish. This music can sound disconcertingly open-ended or structurally ‘flat’ to modern listeners, trained as we are by eighteenth-century conventions – perhaps an experience more akin to casting an eye over a painting than experiencing a story unfolding through time. Like a medieval tapestry that represents a star in the sky at the same level of detail as the face of a central figure, there is little sense of fluctuating importance and structural weighting through the work.

The eighteenth-century norm of structural repetition serves as a means of balance and closure but also spatial and temporal depth, an index of distance travelled and time elapsed. It seems to favour a sense necessity and and narrative closure, similar principles to those guiding the rise of the novel in European literature at the same time. Literature’s ability to exhibit teleology and resolution was nothing new, but the works of this era exhibit a particular preoccupation with the very issue of closure. Laurence Sterne’s novels take as their subject matter the possibility of linear storytelling itself: an autobiography that can’t decide on its own starting point and never gets beyond age two and a half (Tristram Shandy) and a travelogue of a journey through France in which the purpose of the trip is unclear and the destination never reached (A Sentimental Journey).


If form is one pillar of this new system of representation, the other is harmony. Much as a simple notion of modal harmony ‘evolving’ to tonal harmony through the seventeenth century erases all kinds of complexities, a crucial change in practice does occur through the seventeenth century. It was a radical simplification: the limitation of the available modes to two (our modern major and minor) generating variety within a piece by transposition of these modes, i.e. modulation to related keys. The diatonic scale itself, from which the familiar major and minor modes are derived, is in its internal construction ideally suited to this new axis of motion. When transposed sequentially by fifth – adding or subtracting a sharp or flat at each step – a it keeps six out of its seven tones in common with the last, creating a smooth continuum of proximity and distance when moving successively away from and back towards any given key. (At the other end of the spectrum, in the case of the whole-tone scale, every possible transposition either changes all six of its tones or retains all six, meaning there are in total only two possible transpositions which share no common tones at all – any transposition creates total identity or total difference). The tonal plan of a Vivaldi concerto or Haydn sonata movement dramatizes this potential, staging a journey away from a tonic key to the dominant, through more distant regions, reaching (as Richard Taruskin describes it) a harmonic ‘far-out point’ before a decisive return to the tonic. This principle reaches an apotheosis in Beethoven’s symphonic first movements and finales, which in Charles Rosen’s view, require such long and tautologous codas as a ‘grounding of tonal tension’ after such epic harmonic journeys, like a large aircraft needing a long runway to slow down. The themes and textures of these eighteenth-century genres work in tandem with their tonal structures: the ever-wider-ranging excursions of the solo instrument in between the tutti ritornellos of the concerto, and the fragmentation and recombination of themes in the sonata movement’s development section.

Before tonality-driven form of this kind there was no comparable sense of long-range harmonic motion within a single movement, and little evocation of spatial depth. Just as in linear perspective in Renaissance painting, the illusion of depth of field depends on seeing from two ‘angles’ at once: the local key and its distance from the governing tonic. And just as the arbitrary point of view can be moved, so can an entire piece be transposed up or down without any qualitative change. It is little surprise that this period also sees the first published full scores, a tangible way of ‘seeing’ all the music at once. The impetus behind all these practices is essentially humanistic. In a discussion of Italian renaissance religious art, Erwin Panofsky notes that linear perspective ‘seems to reduce the divine to a mere subject matter for human consciousness’. There is a tempting parallel to be made with a movement of a Mozart or Haydn mass, which in its own late-Enlightenment way rephrases religious subject matter in a way comprehensible to the earthly. The words that declaim the mystery of the eucharist are now arrayed along tonality’s rationalising grid that seems to radiate outwards from our listening ears. We replace God as the ideal vantage point of the music.


The view of eighteenth-century music as a site of consensus is increasingly validated by its changing expressive surfaces. The comic opera style of Neapolitan works of the 1720s allowed multiple musical characters to exist in a single stretch of music, in pursuit of representing the entire social spectrum of the stage characters. Writers around 1750 recognised that the new features of instrumental music came from the comic stage, giving a dazzling mimetic variety to symphony and quartet movements. In Wye Allanbrook’s interpretation, Haydn’s 59th symphony contains, in the first minute alone, the ‘annunciatory, misterioso, purposeful, agitated, urbane, rollicking, [and] valedictory’. In summary, ‘the particular profile of a movement of late eighteenth-century instrumental music, formed by chains of such topoi […] takes the shape of a narrative without a plot, of oratory without a message, presenting a dialectical image of ‘how the world moves’.’ Whereas a string of arias in an opera seria or a sequence of dance movements in a baroque suite each inhabit a singular affect and isolated vantage point, unreconciled with one another, Mozart, Haydn and their contemporaries present a carnival of contrasting textures, characters, topics, and rhythms in close proximity, all made to inhabit common vectors of time and space by the background conventions of harmony and form. Their musical language also creates a corresponding illusion of logical causality. Galant melodies rise and fall as naturally in their course as objects under the force of gravity, and the harmony evokes a similar sense of embodied experience. Modulations require imaginary ‘effort’, often through suggesting a delicately balanced sequence of fifths above each new key, guiding our ears to the new destination by a carefully weighted process of quasi-magnetic attraction and repulsion. A brief and telling exception can be heard at the moment of the first-time bar and the exposition repeat in classical sonata movements. The effort required to modulate thus far is undone at a stroke, and the hard-won dominant key which we are now ‘in’ is simply negated and replaced by the original tonic after a brief connecting convenience. These are liminal moments that show up the music’s conventions as powerful illusions, as if giving us a glimpse of the stage machinery behind a seamless set change.

Artistic revolutions don’t take place overnight, and many practices of eighteenth-century composers are caught between the older and newer conceptions – as was the case for their literary counterparts. Already present in Bach’s music is the powerful engine of goal-directed tonality and the exploratory model of structure derived from the Italian concerto style, even though (as Berger notes) he can be principally thought of as a late representative of the older model of musical time. And we can see many incipient features of the new paradigm emerging well before our period. Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, often heralded as a central work in the early musical modernity, contains (appropriately enough for a story about a return from the Underworld) a ‘ritornello’ punctuating its recitative-driven scenes. It is a structural marker, almost meaningless in itself, but each time indexing the narrative distance traversed by returning.


Like any parallel so broad, we should be wary of searching for exact correlations between art forms, focusing instead on higher-order similarities that emerge – depth of field, a shared sense of time and space and a neutral narrative perspective. It does seem, though, that the subsequent uses of these conventions provide a clue to the suitability of the comparison. The tenets of realist narrative were challenged by a generation of modernist writers but stubbornly persist even in their own work. So too do these conventions endure in music where we might not otherwise expect them. Richard Strauss’s tone poems of the 1880s, considered the zenith of musical modernism at the time, are under their decadent late-romantic surface still driven by the fundamental language of eighteenth-century musical realism. Works like Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan are musical renderings of literary works by the composer who once claimed that he could depict a knife and fork in music if he wanted to. So why does Strauss feel the need to include long, balancing recapitulations of musical material when there can be no direct literary justification from his sources? Perhaps, even amid radical changes in musical language, he felt it necessary in order to achieve an underlying sense of coherence, perspectival depth and whatever else. No amount of obsessing over the particulars of his use of sonata form, his dialogue with all kinds of conventions and sub-conventions, will address the question of why he should have employed these features at all.


Our modern label for Mozart, Haydn and their contemporaries as ‘classical’ composers may have the unfortunate effect of Hellenizing them – casting their music as serene, otherworldly abstraction, when nothing could be further from how they were heard in their era – but it does capture a sense in which their music remains a bedrock of our musical cosmos. The status of the classical style in our collective consciousness comes from its ability to pass off its conventions as nature: its values are still our values.



Further Reading


Wye J. Allanbrook, The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

Karol Berger, Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity

Daniel Chua, Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning

Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Realism and Consensus in the English Novel

Ernest Gombrich, Art and Illusion

Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form

Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form

© Joel Sandelson 2023

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