Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory

Two Favorite Theorists

Edward Lowinsky and Edward T. Cone
Edward Lowinsky is on the top of the list. His “Secret Chromatic Art in Netherlands Motet” is a great mystery story and, coming out in the 1940s, is the great proto-Cold War music theory. Caught up in the vicious dogma-eat-dogma world of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, Lowinsky’s thrilling theory captures the 16-century drama of Protestantism versus Catholicism as told through the hidden accidentals of musica ficta which made heretical modulation possible. As the theory goes, the church frowned upon chromaticism, and the suppression of new ideas by the Inquisition was par for the course. Fear of detection on the part of reform-minded musicians living in the Netherlands under the Spanish yoke was claimed to be a prime factor in the secrecy in which the new art was forged. Writing out the unusual modulations, in addition to making explicit the chromaticism, would have drawn attention to the text passages inspired by heretical ideas. So the secret chromatic art was a double agent of sorts (not unlike Shostakovich‘s music): it allowed for a diatonic interpretation on the surface, but also a chromatic take that was infinitely more expressive. The secrecy of the new technique was intimately related to the conspiratorial character of the growing heretical movement. I quote Lowinsky: “One of the most extraordinary works of the Medici Codex is Andreas de Silva‘s ‘Omnis pulchritude Domini’…we find two striking augmented fifths, intervals more strictly forbidden and more out of tune with ordinary 16th-century counterpoint than diminished fifths…these intervals lend their eerie floating sound to the depiction of the miracle of the Risen Christ…If de Silva’s Ascension motet did not appear in the Medici Codex of 1518, no one would guess that this work, with its futuristic sounds, was written in the early sixteenth century.”

This well-articulated theory is fun and functional because it relates the music theory to social events and upheavals of its time (a big no-no back then and thereby considered “controversial” by sticks-in-the-mud). It’s not music theory sealed off from the world, and makes the music more interesting than it already is.

Another favorite of mine is Edward T. Cone, who has written one great essay after another. One of which, “Stravinsky: Progress of a Method” in Perspectives in New Music, reveals much in Stravinsky‘s structure and tone-assembling in a method he dubs “stratification” which Stravinsky employed from the early octatonic works to the late serial works.

From Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory
by Robert Hilferty
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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