A particularly emotive and unhinged set of pieces at a concert last night brought to mind an old quote about Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Stravinksy called it, “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever,” and I completely agree—those frantic, leaping minor 10ths and diminished 12ths can’t ever sound old-fashioned. Yet, in Beethoven’s catalog, what makes the Grosse Fuge so much more “contemporary” than any other work? Even 180 years after it was composed, it still manages to sound like it’s rebelling against or moving beyond something, a phenomenon that is often lost on audiences today for many of his other works. In its own time the Fifth Symphony was certainly breaking furniture and setting things on fire, but now is the Grandest and Noblest of Warhorses.
It brought up another question: Can we actually hear when the envelope is being pushed to its limits? I decided to think up a few other examples that I would say fit Stravinsky’s description: Gesualdo’s last two books of madrigals, a number of Charles Ives’s pieces, and Scriabin’s late works. Not a significant list and certainly one than can be added to, but I tried to keep historical perspective intact by not picking anything too recent. Doing my best to objectively analyze it, I would venture a guess that it had something to do with extreme emotional and visceral expression in an unfamiliar and malleable musical syntax. But perhaps it’s better said that all these examples are completely insane. They all flirt with madness, and live in extreme worlds that few of us inhabit.
They also, in their own day, elicited equally extreme critical reactions—Ives and Gesualdo were deemed amateurs and madmen, and the immortal Louis Spohr called Beethoven’s late music an “indecipherable, uncorrected horror.” All these composers have been deemed, in one way or another, wildly incomprehensible, and they all crossed a barrier that most people aren’t willing to cross. It is likely that today’s listeners who love the Eroica still find the fugue to be an intimidating behemoth. And yet for many of us, these megalomaniacal attempts to control chaos now actually invigorate and call to attention the most remarkable things about the human condition, from Scriabin’s apocalyptic eroticism to Beethoven’s histrionics in the face of something he knew he couldn’t control.
However, I can’t help but wonder—has this all become passé in today’s contemporary music scene? “Controlling chaos” has practically become a chapter in the textbook for Composition 101, or the latest Max/MSP plug-in. Tearing shit up is now an accepted, analytical process; I guess the only thing that’s lacking is the insanity behind it.