Rebirth of Reason


Evaluating Music -- and Franz Lehar
by Rodney Rawlings

The title of this article might make some modern intellectuals scoff. They hold the subjectivist theories that art is anything intended or recognized as such, and that it has only to be "sincere" to be pronounced worthy. So how can one say any art is good or bad? To them, music is even more problematic, because when it stands alone (as opposed to occurring in a song or play) nothing in it seems to refer to the outside world.

Yet music is all around us-on radio and TV, in elevators, malls, restaurants-and people seem especially passionate and touchy about it. Clearly we would all welcome a little more certainty in this realm. It's irksome to have to say, "I like it, that's all!"

Ayn Rand was able to put the other arts on an objective footing by identifying art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." Just as a word crystallizes a concept in our mind, so a physical object such as a painting or a story encapsulates an entire world view. It is therefore possible to evaluate artworks in two respects: is the view of life valid, and is the artist good at communicating it? But music does not "re-create reality"-it is just a succession of sounds. Rand concluded that the nature of music is presently an unsolvable problem.

Yet in certain contexts music critics are not at all reluctant to speak of the effect, meaning, and merits of various works. Thus, of Rossini's comic operas, The Concise Dictionary of Music says, "Their wit, speed, and grace, their bubbling fun and entirely appropriate orchestration, are perennially fresh." Serious controversy would seem to center only on the value of "bubbling fun."

Of course, opera music is attached to a play, which anchors it to human experience. But even about symphonies, which are not so anchored, the Dictionary feels confident enough to say, "In [Beethoven's] slow movements, music expressed a mystical exaltation which even Mozart had never approached." Clearly many assume some sort of objectivity in the effect of pure or "absolute" music, difficult though this effect may be to describe. Observe, too, the massive, lasting popularity of certain concert works, whose most common feature is good melodies, something independent of any experiential associations.

Indeed, modern man seems ever-hungry for melody. Here, while frankly admitting the perplexities of discussing music, I would like to offer thoughts on why, and to uphold melodic ingenuity as a paramount standard by which music might be judged.

Observe how often words like "logic," "inevitability," "ingenuity," "purpose," and "unity" are used in praise of a moving tune. The "Londonderry Air" (or "Danny Boy")-the world's most beautiful tune to some-weaves its spell by a progression of finely curved phrases to the thoroughly appropriate conclusion, and when we try to account for its magic we are drawn to use this vocabulary of reason. Apparently, melody engages our mind at its highest level, where terms such as "logic" etc. are relevant. The sound-logic is perceived as beautiful, even though we know neither how logic is involved nor how to consciously embody it in a tune.

Many composers, however, seem to be in direct control of this power of music, being able to spin out gem after melodic gem at will, using it like a native language not at all mysterious to them (e.g., see Strauss' concert-waltz The Blue Danube). It is this mastery of the rhetoric of melody-the effective use of its peculiar language-that I posit as a major value in the art of music.

I was first awakened to this aspect by hearing Franz Lehár's Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow, 1905). Lehár (1870–1948), a Hungarian composer, is considered to have revived the dying operetta form largely through this work. Widow's numbers "form a single intoxicating flow of musical ideas of sublimest stamp" (Bernard Grun, in the biography Gold and Silver). Listeners who know only the famous "Merry Widow Waltz" may be shocked by the multitude of treasures they have missed. One recent critic who attended a revival remarked, "I had forgotten how good this music is." For sampling purposes my own suggestions would be the Act I finale or the Act II opening sequence. The latter starts with a polonaise so ingenious and agile that it awes me every time.

As for the emotional component, the theme is sounded by the song "Vilja," a beauty of wistful longing for an ideal love. The Camille/Valencienne duet is said to rival Wagner's Tristan in anguished eroticism. "The hundred melodies in the score sing of nothing but desires, impulses, passions, embraces and kisses" (Grun). One contemporary said the play "is so shocking it does not belong on any decent stage!"

What makes for a good melody? One of the most important elements is purposefulness, our feeling that the composer knew where he was going and exactly how to get there. Along the way, the notes seem to be speaking to us; in the background one seems to be hearing words, phrases, clauses, and sentences in a language that, somehow, we also speak. For example, in the William Tell Overture, Rossini employs ceaseless and rapid notes in the violins, but careful listening shows that that are not just scales and arpeggios, that they are so constructed as to actually say something. The same is true of the super-rapid piano glissandi in Liszt's Liebesträume III. (These are not strictly melodies but the principle is the same.) The overriding sense is that there is a reason for every tiny note.

This element of purposefulness climaxes in a sense of logic at the final note, "doh," which is reached in such a way that one feels "Of course!" The great songwriters usually strive for this. A satisfactory "final cadence" is the real proof that the writer knew precisely where he was going all along (a fact he often underscores by slowing down as he approaches it). Note that it is not his finishing on "doh" that matters, but how he does it. This is illustrated by the celebrated opening theme of Tchaikovsky's First Concerto, which occurs three times in succession. In the first occurrence, the lead-in to the last note is perfect, inevitable-sounding in the above sense. In the second, there is no attempt at rounded melody-which is fine in view of the brilliant piano passage. But in the third occurrence, "doh" is reached in a syncopated, sliding manner that seems less "perfect" than before. Tchaikovsky may have had his reasons for this "lapse," but it does illustrate this elusive idea of logic.

A good melody sounds interesting from start to finish. Even if a song uses the same rhythms throughout (as "Vilja" does), it moves in intriguing ways. It is not the result of simply applying some formula to generate the notes. We can only say what the "formula" was when the melody is over-by perceiving all the relationships it embodies. The artist is making a statement, not arranging notes into a pattern.

The total effect, however, must be of unity and economy; consequently one is sure to find recurrences and patterns in an expert tune. Too many dissimilar materials might frustrate the listener's capacity to perceive relationships.

To concretize these melodic qualities, let us examine the introduction to Lehár's "Hab' nur Dich allein" in his later operetta Der Zarewitsch. (The bass clef is omitted, but guitar chord symbols are provided. Those who cannot read music can hear the tune at www3.sympatico.ca/rr.rawlings/hab.htm.)

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

This dotted-note and quarter-note pattern is used throughout as a unifying device; here it is combined with an unusual scale. The obvious procedure would be to continue this pattern, but Lehár does this:

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

This is a new idea entirely, taking us into a new space, and yet it fits the rest. The next four bars might have been written by any composer, given the above:

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

But nothing so far composed would have dictated the next phrase:

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

The next part is called a "sequence" in music theory, because of the pattern:

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

Now, in typical fashion, Lehár tosses us something completely out of left field; but, again, it fits like a glove:

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

Finally we get a classic logical ending that ties everything up (it sounds a bit inconclusive here because of a seventh chord introducing the main tune):

Reproduced by permission of Glocken Verlag Ltd., London.

The melodic virtues cannot be described any more specifically than I have done above; but they can be grasped by concentrating on the melodic aspect of music one hears. And, in my opinion, no pleasanter way of doing so exists than to immerse oneself in the masterpiece that is The Merry Widow. (I strongly recommend the definitive recording with Lovro von Matacic conducting, titled Die lustige Witwe.) Here is a case in which enjoyment and quality are intimately related. "The man in the street may love The Merry Widow," observed critic Ernest Newman, "but the musician, in addition to loving it, admires and wonders at it, so fresh and varied is the melodic invention in it, so deft, for all their economy, the harmonisation and the scoring."

Newly sensitized to this feature of music, a listener may find, not only that he has attained more certainty about his evaluations, but also that he has discovered new musical loves that speak in tones of reason to the best within him.

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