POETRY, PARADOX AND SONG
"It is a common folly among putatively well trained physical scientists, much more so today than among those born during the period spanning two World Wars, that they tend to go cognitively dead when leaving the experimental laboratory to assume a position before the blackboard." These words were written by Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., in an article that appeared in the October 6, 2000 issue of Executive Intelligence Review, entitled
"Jesus Christ and Civilization."
The same pathology is common among musicians, who may be able to deliver a relatively insightful performance of a musical composition, but wander into a dense thicket of formalisms, into which little light may penetrate, when attempting to explain the method by which it was composed.
Now, how do you suppose that a musician who has painstakingly examined a work by Mozart, noting the significance of every change in vocal registration, every motif, every inversion, and so on, should react to the following assertion by LaRouche?
"... a great composer and a great performer, in music, composes a poem, or a piece of Classical music, as if at an instant... You don't know a musical composition, unless you know it as a single act of thought." (SCHILLER INSTITUTE Labor Day Conference, September 1-2 2001, Open Discussion with Lyndon LaRouche)
The musician, who has spent hours laboring over the complexities of his Mozart piece, should know that Mozart himself said that he composed in precisely this way. ¹
The solution to this apparent riddle, is that every great work of Classical composition is defined by a single, metaphoric idea, which takes the form of a paradox. The human mind always recognizes a paradox as a One; you cannot subdivide a paradox. [see Box One] The musical paradox does not lie in the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, the vocal registration, or any other feature that can be analyzed formally; these are just features of the language of Classical musical composition, with which the idea is expressed. The problem that we face in discussing it, is that for over a century, this language has been a dead language, lost to the culture. So, we need assistance in making intelligible the expression of an idea, which for the Classical composer and his contemporaries, were second nature.
Fortunately, LaRouche has provided us with the necessary assistance. In the early 1980s, he proposed to the members of his association that they study the German art song or Lied, as a Rosetta Stone to unlock the mysteries of the language of musical composition. In the successfully composed Lied, the composer takes a Classically-composed poem, identifies the defining metaphor, and amplifies it by "translating" it into the musical language, so that the poem may be sung with the added power of the method developed by Bach and his successors.
|LAROUCHE ON AMBIGUITY
Early during the 1948-1952 interval, my attack on the fallacy of Wiener's, and also John von Neumann's work, was enriched by reflection upon my earlier attraction to William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. From my special standpoint, I saw flaws in some aspects of Empson's work, but, that taken into account, it was a very good, mature, and searching piece of scholarly work. I recapitulated what I gleaned from him, by working from the standpoint of the notion of cognitive processes which I had acquired in the course of my adolescent and later pro-Leibniz attack on the absurdities of Kant's Critiques.
A truthful ambiguity, whether in the description of a rigorously defined experimental subject-matter, or in the composition of Classical poetry, has the characteristic significance of betraying the shadowy, but efficient existence of something which, in reality, exists outside the scope of a statement lacking that ambiguity.
The physical principle of ambiguity is beautifully illustrated for study, as I did during 1947, by seeking to identify the physical distinction, on principle, which sets the greatest Classical Greek sculpture from the archaic. I began to equate this, already, then, to the roles of the subjunctive, irony in general, and metaphor in particular, in poetry, drama, and Classical song-settings of poetry. This came to serve as an integral part of my reaction against Wiener's radically reductionist notion of "information theory."
There is a recognizable element of imbalance in the Classical piece. It is not an arbitrary imbalance, but, to succeed, must be credibly a body caught in mid-motion. The same is the case in Bach's method of well- tempered counterpoint, in which the development of the entire composition expresses a single conception of contrapuntal development in mid-motion. In Classical poetry, it is irony, ambiguity, especially true metaphor. All Classical ambiguity is truthful, not arbitrarily fanciful; it expresses a true paradox, for which the mind must supply a solution. It is Classical art, only to the degree that the solution to the paradox, is of the quality of a truthful act of cognition.
Try an elementary, but crucial sort of experiment. Take a mathematical expression from the domain of mathematical physics. Now, think of describing the corresponding physical process as such, which leads from an initial experimental form of ontological paradox, through the generation of an hypothetical solution, to the experiment which expresses the proof of that hypothesis. Now, express that process, as a physical, rather than mathematical form, in poetry, or prose. Best of all, if you have the skill for it, compose a compact Classical form of poem, which presents each and all phases of that paradox, hypothesis, and proof. Add nothing not relevant to that mission. No symbol- mindedness, please! No frosting on the cake! If you succeed in that mission, you will probably understand the principle of metaphor as I do. Focus on the essential cognitive feature of that representation: the paradox, as I have referenced the relatively simple, but richly devastatingly significant case of Fermat's paradoxical juxtaposition of reflection and refraction.
The relative fault in the mathematical formulation, is that, when applied according to today's generally accepted classroom tradition, it lacks poetry. It lacks the obligation of the poet, to embed a truthfully stated ambiguity in the composition. It fails to compel the mind to capture the image of the idea in mid-motion, the form in which all true ideas exist. "Q.E.D." is a lie, if it is claimed on the basis of what can be demonstrated at the blackboard.
For example, the danger to the student's (and teacher's) mind, in at-the-blackboard mathematics, even mathematical physics, is that the victims lose sight of the reality of the matter, in their zeal to find a deductive or similar form of literal meaning. An elementary example of this, is the attempt to teach at-the-blackboard Euclidean geometry, in which no physical action is taken into account. Kepler's observation of the "equal time, equal areas" definition of the planetary orbit, and of the harmonic ordering within the array of Solar orbits, are examples of an ironical evidence of the existence of an underlying physical principle governing the way the geometry of the situation unfolds. The function of the catenary as the relevant model for isochronic action, is among the best pedagogical exercises for showing the relationship between universal principles of geometries (e.g., orbits, cycles) and physical action.
Ideas are communicated only as what is not said. They are imparted, as Plato's Socratic dialogues do: as the stimulation of the creative (cognitive) powers of the mind, by posing an ambiguity which impels the mind to generate the idea which replaces the ambiguity as such.
The point being developed should be restated for physical-science practice as follows. The characteristic activity of competent physical science, is the discovery of verifiable hypotheses which are generated as solutions for experimentally defined ontological paradoxes. This is the characteristic of an original discovery; it is also the characteristic of the individual's reenactment of a valid discovery of a universal physical principle. When we describe this characteristic feature of scientific activity to a Classical poet, such as a Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Goethe, Schiller, or Heine, his comment would be: "Aha! We Classical poets call that the principle governing irony and metaphor!"
--from "Economics: At The End of a Delusion"
Obviously, no competent poet sets out to compose a poem with the idea in mind to use a specific rhyme scheme, or a particular number of verbs, or a metric pattern -- these are predicates, dictated by the central idea, which comes first. (However, as LaRouche has noted, it is a preoccupation with these epiphenomena, rather than the central idea, which prevents Baby Boomers from effectively reciting poetry; instead of the idea, one hears the "sing-song" effect of a fixation on the formal aspects.) Composing a poem is done "from the top down." Musical composition is no different. As LaRouche recently said, in a conference call on the topic of Brahms' "Vier ernste Gesänge": "It is something in which you start from the objective of conveying important ideas, ideas corresponding to, or equivalent to, universal physical principles; then you turn to your palette, what music can do: you turn to the Bach counterpoint conception, of well-tempered counterpoint, and what comes out of it -- because you use that because the essence of the Bach counterpoint, is irony, it's ontological paradoxes, using the paradoxes inherent in music, in bel canto music; using those paradoxes, as counterpoint, in order to create the tension, which builds up to successions of such paradoxes, to a musical idea, of a whole composition. Now, having developed that technique, you then go back, from the idea to be expressed, and you bring all that you've discovered about music, from that standpoint, to bear on a composition."
However, the spoken language of the poem is not so opaque to the present-day culture, as is the language of musical composition. Consequently, the manner in which one proceeds from the defining idea, to the execution of the poem, is less mysterious to the present-day student of composition, than it is with music.
There is one last hurdle to be overcome, in using the Lied as a Rosetta stone -- the greatest examples all use texts in German. However, with a good translation, we can work around this, for the non-German speakers.
So, let us take two examples. We'll examine two miracles of brevity and clarity, "Meeresstille" by Goethe, and "Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht", by Heine, and then, their song settings by Schubert and Brahms, respectively.
Stille herrscht im Wasser,
Ohne Regung ruht das Meer,
Und bekümmert sieht der Schiffer
Glatte Fläche rings umher.
Keine Luft von Keiner Seite!
In der ungeheuren Weite
Reget keine Welle sich.
Deep stillness reigns on the water;
Without motion rests the sea,
And, distressed, the sailor gazes about
At the smooth flatness all around.
No breeze from any quarter!
Deathly stillness, dreadful!
In the enormous expanse
Not one wave stirs.
Deepest silence rules the waters,
Not a motion stirs the sea,
And the sailor views the glassy
Surface so uneasily.
Not a breeze from any quarter,
Dreadful silence, still as death.
In the vast, appalling distance
Not a ripple shows itself.
Goethe has created here a
very simple and elegant paradox; he depicts a scene
which, on the naive sensual level, conveys a beautiful
serenity, but which simultaneously implies, for the
sailor, a slow death by hunger and thirst. It is a clear
reflection of what Friedrich Schiller describes in his
essay, Vom Erhabenen (Of the Sublime), where he
examines the capacity that poetry has, to evoke the human
mind's freedom to confront mortality. Schiller writes:
the initiation into the mysteries of the ancients,
especially great store was set by a frightful solemn
impression, and to that end one also availed oneself
especially of silence. A deep stillness gives the power
of imagination free latitude, and raises the expectations
of something frightful to come. With the practice of
devotion, the silence of an entire assemblage is a very
effective means, to give vitality to fantasy and put the
heart in solemn spirits. Folk-superstition itself makes
use of the reveries thereof, for as everyone knows a deep
stillness must be observed, when one has a treasure to
exalt. In the enchanted palaces, that are found in
fairytales, a deathly silence reigns, that arouses dread,
and it belongs to the natural history of the enchanted
woods, that nothing living stirs therein. Also solitude
is something frightful, as soon as it is sustained and
involuntary, like for example an exile to an uninhabited
island. A vast expanse of desert, a lonely,
many-miles-long forest, wandering astray on the boundless
sea, are clear conceptions, which evoke dread, and may be
employed in poetry toward the sublime. But here (with
solitude) there is nonetheless already an objective basis
for fear, because the idea of great solitude carries with
it the idea of helplessness as well."
Der Tod, das ist die
Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,
Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.
Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
Sie singt von lauter Liebe -
Ich hör es sogar im Traum.
Death is the cool night.
Life is the sultry day.
It now grows dark; I'm drowsy,
The day has wearied me.
Above my bed rises a tree,
Therein sings the young nightingale;
She sings of naught but love -
I hear it even in my dreams.
O Death, that is the cooling night,
And Life, that is the sultry day.
It's darkening, I'm sleepy,
The day, it has made me tired.
Over my bed arises a tree,
Where sings the youthful nightingale;
She sings of love so boldly,
I dream, yet it reaches me.
The overarching paradox of
this poem is the paradox that has fueled many great works
of art, including Shelley's "Ode to the West
Wind" and many of Shakespeare's sonnets²: the
Paradox of Mortality, that man is mortal, and yet, man is
immortal -- there is a quality in a human being, that can
transcend mortality, and this quality is the real subject
matter of all Classical art.
In contrast to Shelley and
Shakespeare, who are propelled to summits of eloquence by
the profundity of this theme, Heine seems to deliberately
adopt a tone which is terse, almost matter-of-fact. In
doing so, he achieves something that perhaps only Heine
could, which is that the paradox is the more compelling
for his unusual treatment.
Heinrich Heine was a master
of irony; in the first stanza, the poet seems to assert
that he is tired of life, and looks forward to the
release of death. This creates a naive expectation, which
is shattered by the second stanza, and superseded by a
powerful ambiguity. Thus, there is an internal paradox to
the poem, where an initial hypothesis is overthrown,
forcing the mind to rise to the vantage point of an
higher hypothesis, one commensurate with the Paradox of
Mortality. All this in eight short lines!
Both Goethe's poem, and
Heine's, present a similar ironic juxtaposition of death
and beauty. But, Goethe is satisfied with a certain
formal elegance, which permits the reader a degree of
emotional distance; anyone can imagine himself as the
sailor in the poem, but it does not demand from the
reader an intensely personal identification with the
tableau Goethe presents. Heine's poem, in contrast, is
more provocative, more subjective, by being more
ambiguous; the enervating effects of a hot day, with the
implied experience of life as a tiring struggle, create
an association which is universal, as is the redeeming
joy of love. And, the redeeming joy of love adds a
moral dimension to the paradox, which is absent from
The authors of the Schiller Institute's Manual on the Rudiments of Tuning and Registration (Washington, D.C., 1992) present an exhaustive discussion of the conceptual revolution, which took place at the time of Schiller and Mozart, and transformed the method by which poetry was set to music. The authors write: "In order to become human art, music must transcend the natural beauty of the bel canto singing voice. True musical composition is the human creative transformation of, improvement upon, a given poem, theme, or other idea."
The composer and journalist Robert Schumann, himself a master of the composition of the Lied, discussed human intervention into natural beauty, using these words:
"...so many other composers do not satisfy me, because -- in addition to all their lack of professional skill -- they enlarge on lyrical commonplaces. The highest level reached in this type of music does not come up to the point from which my kind of music starts. The former may be a flower. The latter is a poem; that is, it belongs to the world of the spirit. The former comes from an impulse of crude nature; the latter stems from the consciousness of the poetic mind."
And Beethoven wrote to his associate Czerny, that "...The composer must lift himself far above the poet; who can do that, in the case of Schiller? In this respect, Goethe is much easier."
So, let us examine how Schubert lifted himself above Goethe.
Schubert, in his song setting, takes on the initial challenge of expressing Goethe's paradox in the language of tones. Let us approach this from the top down:
A piece of Classical music always begins, implicitly, with an 8 note scale or mode: in this case, C major, i.e do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. Each tone that appears in addition to this basic set, strikes the ear and the mind of the listener as a paradox, or dissonance, that must be lawfully resolved.
Schubert's approach here is to keep the melody and accompaniment extremely simple, with the piano playing slow, arpeggiated chords, and a melody which is very soothing and serene. However, he soon begins to introduce more and more tones that deviate from the initial C major mode; yet he introduces them in such a subtle way, that the listener does not hear them as shocking or egregious dissonance. By the eighth bar of a song that is only thirty-two bars long, Schubert has already introduced an F#, D#, C# and G#, which creates a very etherial sort of tension with respect to the home key of C. The combination of the serene lyricism of the melody and accompaniment, with the growing tension as the modality is stretched to include more and more dissonant tones, creates a paradox that very precisely mirrors the paradox in Goethe's text.
Must the listener be conscious of Schubert's design, for the idea to have a powerful effect? No -- but the effect can be enhanced, if the listener is conscious of it.
Having identified the overarching paradox, let us briefly examine Schubert's artistry as it applies to his treatment of particular aspects of the text, and in particular, how he leads the mind of the listener toward the apprehension of ironies richer and deeper, than those fashioned by Goethe in the poem. (As the authors of the Manual on the Rudiments of Tuning and Registration document, Goethe probably would have resented Schubert's treatment of his text; he preferred a musical setting to be an innocuous backdrop to the poem.)
The first phrase of the song setting lies entirely within the C Major mode, and the singer's voice stays within the first and lowest register, except for the verb "herrscht" ("reigns"). The first anomalous tone is an F# in the second line, which happens to form the interval of the augmented fourth or tritone with respect to the base note of C; it also falls upon the register break for soprano voice. Therefore this tone carries special emphasis, and it coincides with the word "Regung", meaning "motion", a concept that is very significant in the context of the poem. Both syllables of the word "Regung" are in the soprano's second register, which sets them apart from the rest of the phrase.
(At the end of the song, there is a striking transition where the melody moves from G# to G natural, back to the original C major mode, on the verb "reget", meaning to move or stir -- the root word of the German noun, "Regung." The shift from the G in the second register, to the C in the first register, also establishes a sort of "closure", echoing the "herrscht" in the first phrase. [example 3])
Schubert introduces multiple ironies on the theme of motion/stillness; the arpeggiated chords of the piano, while very relaxed and repetitive, nonetheless suggest a rippling, which the text denies. Schubert, perhaps mischievously, introduces an embellishment in the form of a rapid up-and-down sequence of grace notes, on the verb, "ruht," meaning, "rests"; so, already, "Ohne Regung ruht das Meer" ("without motion rests the sea") has attained a level of irony far beyond what Goethe granted it. [example 1]
The point of maximum harmonic tension is on the lines, "Keine Luft von Keiner Seite! Todesstille fürchterlich!"
There is a slow march, downwards by half-steps in the bass, and upward by half-steps in the treble, of the piano; the voice begins the phrase, on "Keine Luft," with the leap of a diminished 5th, and follows with a rather simple melodic motion on the remainder of the phrase, which is, however, rendered very ambiguous by the shifting array of paradoxes in the piano voices. With the leap on the word "Luft", the singer attains the second register, and stays there as the harmonic tension builds, until coming to rest in the first register, on the penultimate syllable of the word, "fürchterlich!" ("dreadful!"), which, in a potent paradox, sounds almost comforting. Schubert manages to sustain the eerie serenity throughout, and in the final line, "Reget keine Welle sich," he resolves the remaining paradoxes and returns to the basic mode of C major.
Johannes Brahms, like Heinrich Heine, was a man given to great economy and irony when expressing himself in words [See Gustav Jenner, Brahms als Mensch, Lehrer und Künstler] -- the attraction that this poem held for Brahms, who spent countless hours looking for poems that were suitable for setting as Lieder, must have been irresistable.
Brahms, like Schubert, uses a simple, evocative rhythm in the piano accompaniment, which he intends to exploit for ironic effect. But instead of rippling waves, he uses a short-long, short-long rhythm: the heart-beat. This rhythm is sustained throughout the Lied, but at the second stanza of the poem, the "phase change", he introduces a flowing, arpeggiated figure in the bass, which underscores the shift to an higher hypothesis. [example 6]
Brahms notes the assertion in the first two lines: "O Death, that is the cooling night, And Life, that is the sultry day." Recognizing this as an initial hypothesis that "sets up" a more profound paradox, Brahms embeds in his treatment of the first two lines, the seed crystal of his "translation" of Heine's higher hypothesis.
The first line is like a question (which, in speech, involves a rising series of tones), with an anomalous tone on the word "ist": an F#.
Brahms, like Schubert in the previous example, has chosen the key of C, and assigned the song to the soprano voice. Hence, the appearance of an F# suggests the Lydian mode with respect to C, in addition to being the shift, in the soprano voice, from first to second register. All of this is calculated to emphasize the discontinuity on the word "ist"; in the context where Brahms introduces it, it is hardly a grating dissonance, but it does unquestionably produce a haunting ambiguity: Death is the cool night -- or is it?
The second line is like an answer: the descending F-E-D-C on "schwüle Tag" has an air of finality, all in the first register, with no anomalous tones. [example 4] It is a familiar sound, like the concluding cadence of an hymn. But -- this is the set up. It is this four note motif that Brahms intends to ironically transform, in such a way that he mirrors the paradox in Heine's text.
Brahms takes a four note, step-wise descending line, on the words "schwüle Tag", and proceeds to put it through every possible permutation of whole steps and half steps (note that Brahms repeats some phrases from the text, varying the musical treatment). Note that by line 6, on the word "Nachtigal", we have arrived at a perfect inversion of the original descending intervals, but it is not that striking, because, between E-B, it lies within the C major mode, with no anomalous tones. [example 6] The full ironic power of this inversion is not perceived until it is superimposed upon the initial sequences of tones, with which the motif was introduced: C to G in line 10, which corresponds to line 4, and F to C in line 11, corresponding to line 2. [example 7] The two descending sequences in lines 10 and 11 ("Sogar im Traum, sogar im Traum") define an entire inversion of the intervals of the C major mode, producing something that Brahms often explored, an inversion of the major mode. (This is usefully compared to the second movement of Brahms' 4th symphony, or the finale of his 3rd symphony.) The irony that this inversion creates, is what lifts his song-setting above Heine's already powerful poem.
Ascending/descending interval sequences
1. Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, (Ascending)
2. Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag, [example 4]
3. Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
4. Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.
5. Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
6. Drin singt die junge Nachtigal;
7. Sie singt von lauter Liebe, Derived from first line
8. Von lauter Liebe,
9. Ich hör' es,
10. Ich hör' es sogar im Traum, [example 7]
11. Sogar im Traum.
example 8: C major scale, and its inversion: C Bb Ab G F Eb Db C
Each time the motif appears, there is a new ironic twist, as the intervals are varied. By the final lines, where Brahms repeats "Sogar im Traum", he has transformed the modality of the song from the simplicity of the C major mode, to a new modality where the mode has been entirely inverted, to become a mirror image of itself (what the Greeks called the "Phrygian" mode); the sound that strikes the ear of the listener is exotic, perhaps oriental-sounding; and the mind is aware that what seemed a relatively simple assertion in the first two lines, has been turned upside down, and the idea stands revealed as one rich in ambiguity. In a song setting that lasts just over three minutes in performance, Brahms has captured and enhanced the irony in Heine's poem.
So, the fundamental vocabulary of composition, whether it be expressed in words, or in music, is paradox, irony, metaphor -- apprehended only with the mind, not with the ears. But to transmit an idea from one human mind to another, we avail ourselves of language. The language of musical composition can be restored to common usage, if we recognize it as a uniquely rich means of conveying ideas, not mere "feelings" or sensual impressions. And if music is to be of service to humanity, in humanity's hour of need, then it should convey ideas that make it worthy of the appellation, "Classical Music": ideas, that Percy Shelley called "...profound and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature."
in loving memory of Dr. William Warfield