… it is the theater that has been the source and location of most of the technical innovations in Western concert music ever since the time of the first Italian practitioners of what they called dramma per musica — drama not just with but through music (what we today call opera) — in the early years of the seventeenth century.
… As the singers became actors, so the composers became dramatists, and they struggled to master those techniques of pacing and timing of events, of controlling tension and relaxation, of working toward a climax and resolution that are the essence of dramatic art. Their musical representation of the relationships and the spectators’ understanding of them were assisted by the fact that the representation was at the same time being acted out on the stage, supported by all the visible artifices and devices of the theater; only later, when the significance of the musical gestures became thoroughly understood by audiences, would they be used in the more abstract dramas of concert music.
It is not to be wondered at that the development of total harmony began in earnest with the beginnings of opera, for it was tonal harmony, with its ability to create in a listener tensions and frustrations, desire and fulfillment, to delay resolutions and to tease expectations, that served their purposes most fully. The parallel between, on the one hand, the cycle of arousal, climax and resolution that occurs in the tonal-harmonic process and, on the other, the cycle of sexual arousal and satisfaction was not lost on those early masters of the opera, or on their audiences, even if later generations have tended to forget or obscure it. They exploited it uninhibitedly. They aimed their music unashamedly, to an extent that we today, with our politer musical manners, find hard to imagine, at their listener-spectators’ solar-plexus.
In the new art of musical representation the musicians drew upon the ancient association between bodily movement and music, between musical and physical gesture. There was little that in itself was new about that; music for dance has always drawn upon parallels between musical and bodily gestures; at its most elementary, slow music for slow movements and fast for fast, strong accents for stamping, staccato for leaping, legato for glides, rising melodies for upward movement, falling for downward, and so on. Even these parallels are of course not literal; music does not move in the literal sense and so cannot be literally slow or fast, nor are tones literally high or low, melodies rising or falling, in anything but the metaphorical sense. Even in the dance the relationship between physical and musical gesture is always metaphorical and has to be learned.
What was new in the early seventeenth century was, first, that the musical gestures were abstracted from physical movement so that the listeners no longer moved their bodies but sat and watched and listened, and, second, that the musical gestures represented not an emotional state itself nor a temperament but the type of physical gesture, both bodily and vocal, with which the emotional state or the temperament was associated. The musical gesture represented metaphorically the physical gesture that the audience recognized as belonging to that state. It thus had to be constructed at one remove, and the masters of that first brilliant explosion of the new art form worked through conscious striving, exchange of ideas, polemics and a good deal of trial and error, to perfect the representation.
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… This suggests that there is no such thing in the Western concert tradition as “absolute music,” that is, a musical work that exists purely to be contemplated for the abstract beauty of its patterns of sound. On the contrary, to take part in a performance of a concert work, whether as performer or as listener, is to take part, no less than if one were in a theater, in a dramatic representation of human relationships, which is no less real for giving its characters neither local habitations nor names. Nor are those dramatic meanings which the listener and the performer take from the piece as it is performed “extra-musical.” On the contrary, they are the musical meaning of the piece. The drama is built into the relationships and is not to be dismissed as external to or imposed upon the real musical meaning.
It is therefore no coincidence that the development of purely instrumental pieces — instrumental pieces, that is, that were aimed at a listener who was supposed to sit and contemplate them — also began only with the inception of the stile rappresentativo in the early seventeenth century. Apart from that intended for dancing, there was no purely instrumental music before then; it had no reason to exist. It was only after the representational style became established, also, that abstract dance pieces, dances that were meant not to be danced to but merely contemplated, began to appear, generally in those dance suites that served social purposes of polite entertainment similar to those which were later served by the early symphonies.
Representation requires, of composer, performer and listener alike, a certain detachment from what is being represented, a certain analytical frame of mind, in order to divine the characteristics of what is being represented or embodied in sound. In addition, since there is no point in representing only to oneself, it presupposes the existence of listeners who are not only separate from the musicians but are prepared to maintain an attitude of detachment in order to appreciate the qualities of the representation.
Just as the spectator stands outside the picture, looking into it, so the listener listens to the piece from outside. Unlike most of the world’s musicking, including earlier kinds of European musicking, the piece does not draw the listeners in as participants but keeps them at a distance as spectators. It is already complete, and they have nothing to contribute to its nature, nothing to do in fact but contemplate the performance.
… This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being created by staid-looking ladies and gentlemen dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds.