Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review: Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought

Alexander Rehding, Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pess, 2003).
It was impossible to keep from comparing this book to Thomas Christensen’s Rameau and Musical Thought in the Englightenment, which I read about a month and a half ago and has since become for me somewhat of a “gold standard” for research on the history of music theory. Not only are their titles structured similarly, but the two books attempt similar goals. Both endeavor to explain how the evolving theories of these two giants in the history of music theory engage with the philosophies and other cultural ideas of their time. Basic knowledge of music theory is essential for readers of these two books, as Rameau’s and Riemann’s theories are explained only as much as is necessary to situate the authors’ larger arguments. Unfortunately, Rehding’s book was far less successful than Christensen’s. I identified some mechanical difficulties with the organization and format of Rehding’s book, and his topical organization lacked the elegance of Christensen’s, lacking Christensen’s simultaneous chronological thread. This may not be entirely Rehding’s fault; it was perhaps serendipitous for Christensen that as Rameau’s theoretical ideas evolved chronologically, they also engaged with various philosophies, one at a time. Christensen’s large-scale organization had an elegance that few musicological books can match. Rehding’s book gave me an overall impression of functionality without elegance. For my taste, he provided too little guidance for readers. There were few to no moments where Rehding included any metadiscussion telling his readers what arguments he would be making. Chapter titles were cute but not descriptive. Near the end of each chapter I had to go back through my notes to assign new chapter titles for myself detailing the overall theme of each. Subdivisions within chapters were numbered rather than titled. This would have worked if Rehding’s prose had clearly introduced the new topic, but it was often difficult to tell where he was going. This constant ambiguity made it slightly frustrating to read. Rehding’s arguments were, overall, quite good, and it would have been nice to have a clearer sense of how he was organizing them.
The goal of this book was to explore conflicts surrounding Hugo Riemann’s theories: internal conflicts within and between his theories, conflicts between his theories and contemporary compositional practice, and the conflict between Riemann’s universal aspirations and his national bias. Riemann, a 19th-century German music theorist, is acknowledged as one of the “greats,” and despite aspects of his theories being completely discarded today, his theory of harmonic function and the resulting notation he created are still in wide use. Riemann’s work was systematic: he wanted to understand music from general principles first before moving on to study specific instances. His goal was to formulate normative rules for all music. He believed very strongly in the idea of responsibility: how the listener “ought” to hear the music and how the composer “ought” to write it. This, of course, put him in conflict with composers whose work did not follow Riemann’s rules. It was fascinating to read about Riemann once re-barring a piece by Beethoven; Riemann argued that Beethoven’s music was right, but that the notation itself was faulty.
In case anyone is interested to know what this book contains, I will list my own descriptive chapter titles here:
Chapter 1 – on harmonic dualism
Chapter 2 – on harmonic function
Chapter 3 – on cadential models
Chapter 4 – on language and national bias
Chapter 5 – on notation and tone imagination
It was interesting to trace Riemann’s evolving stream of justification for his theory of harmonic dualism. He began with a “eureka” moment in which he believed that he had heard undertones in a sound wave. It’s a lovely story, one apparently frequently taught in undergraduate-level music theory classes in Europe, until you realize that the science of acoustics makes Riemann’s experience impossible. He goes through several levels of justification, trying to argue his way around the facts and stating that undertones “ought” to be so, before arriving at an argument in line with the “as-if” philosophy popularized in 19th-century Germany. This philosophy promotes the value of creating a fiction that “ought to be true” in order to support one’s further research. However, Riemann missed one crucial tenet of this philosophy: the fiction must be abandoned when proven wrong. Similarly, his cadential models TSDT and TDST are not normative prototypes, but are presented “as if” they were. Riemann spends much of his time arguing how music “ought” to be, reacting against what he sees as the imminent fall away from tonality, which he likens to the Fall in the Garden of Eden. (And according to Riemann, this fall would be due entirely to French influence.) It’s an interesting metaphor; taken to its logical conclusion, Riemann’s theories are likened to paradise and any deviation from them to sin. (Those wicked French composers!)
Chapter 4 was, I think, Rehding’s most interesting and most successful argument. In this section, he discusses language and national bias. Rehding first establishes how language assumed new meaning in the 19th century, and a particular new significance for national culture. Logicians became comparative linguists, trying to find the origin of language, and the supposed universal grammar. Riemann was similarly trying to identify a universal grammar. Despite his extensive knowledge of non-Western musical traditions, Riemann ended up declaring that the diatonic scale was the universal basis for all music. Of course, ethnomusicologists of the time disagreed, rightly pointing out that the diatonic scale is a cultural construct, not a metaphysical truth, but Riemann simply criticized the researchers and their methodology in response. This strange conclusion makes sense when you understand Riemann’s thinly veiled cultural bias and current ideas of national superiority.
In 19th-century Germany, language was the supreme factor in German nationalism because of the complicated political situation in which Germany was divided up into 39 small states. This situation lasted even after Germany’s unification under Bismarck in 1871. This assumed national language was, in fact, ideology rather than reality; the truth is that the many German dialects made communication between different regions difficult. Riemann’s own theorizing about musical language took a highly nationalist turn in the 1890s. In trying to prove that basic musical principles originated with German music, Riemann created a myth of music history in which he set the “southern cultures of antiquity” (source of monophonic music) against the “Germanic peoples of the north” (who invented polyphony). He constructed subsequent analyses of actual music to explain and excuse German composers, such as Liszt, while condemning others, such as Berlioz, by idiosyncratically interpreting his own rules. Rehding spent a lot of time on what I thought at first was an irrelevant digression: in his historical study, Riemann introduced Stamitz as the missing link between Baroque figured bass and Viennese classicism. Halfway through this subsection, however, the significance of this argument took shape, and the section remains my favorite from the entire book. (This is a further argument, perhaps, for some metacommentary by Rehding, introducing new sections and guiding his readers.) Riemann needed Stamitz to link Baroque and Classical compositional practice in order for his German-led myth of music history to work. Trying to link Stamitz directly to Beethoven marginalized the Austrian Mozart and Haydn. However, it turns out that Reimann re-imagined Stamitz as German, despite the fact that geographically, Stamitz was from Bohemia, which was at the time part of the vague Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Severe bias can make fools of all researchers. Rehding spends time analyzing this intentional forgetfulness on Riemann’s part, and the section is well-reasoned and insightful.
Overall, I found this book to be a good, but not great addition to the set of texts making up the sub-subfield of the history of music theory. The task of interpreting theories and their engagement with the theorist’s culture is a worthy and often difficult one. I commend Rehding for his work in this area, and knowing that this book was a revision of his doctoral dissertation helps me to excuse some if its mechanical faults. My own research is not in this area, but I will remember Rehding and turn to him again if I ever find a need to study Riemann, his theories, and 19th-century German musical practice.

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