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Thread: Sonata form and enlightenment values

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    Default Sonata form and enlightenment values

    Hello all,

    I have encountered an interesting interpretation about the connection between the sonata form and enlightenment values from the philosophical view point that music, through metaphor, could reflect the beliefs of a society at a given time and give us a glimpse into the deep ideologies that drive different historical periods. In other words, I am interested in how the unique, sophisticated structure of sonata form can be thought of as mirroring:

    -- the belief in the idea of progress: music with a very clear direction -- beginning, middle and end;
    -- rationality as a cure for all human misery;
    -- the human race emerging from religious darkness to the light of enlightenment: main themes presented at the exposition, scrambled during the development and reinforced during the recapitulation; and
    -- the composer's control of the composition and notes as a symbol for the control of man at destiny.


    All this is very far from contemporary thinking about music, I know. but I wanted to ask if anyone knew of any thinkers that embraced this perspective.

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    Quote Originally Posted by dove View Post
    -- the belief in the idea of progress: music with a very clear direction -- beginning, middle and end;
    -- rationality as a cure for all human misery;
    -- the human race emerging from religious darkness to the light of enlightenment:
    ambitions & struggle for power too. Classicism was all about violence, politics & diplomacy.

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    I'd like to think that's the case. But it seems like when I ask academics things like that, they look at me quizzically. (I like to think of Bach's fugues as reflecting the Judeo-Christian view of progress toward an inevitable end as opposed to the cyclical beliefs of Eastern religions and Beethoven's use of sonata form as reflecting Hegel's views of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but others above my pay grade haven't tagged along with me.) Maybe someone else has been luckier in getting a consensus on that than I have.

    I do seem to get agreement that classical music reflects the classical ideals of form, symmetry, and balance.
    Last edited by Manxfeeder; Jan-17-2020 at 19:21.

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    Very good interpretations. They raise the further question: now that Enlightenment ideals (reason, individuality, democracy) seem to be waning, due to the crumbling of the political and cultural structures that support them...what does this imply for the future of music?

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    One of my favorite topics in art is that of "form is meaning". Yet, it seems that often the form of a work is the least apparent concept for interpretation. At least in drama, I would argue, the form that a play's action takes has as much to do with the play's meaning as do the words spoken or the actions displayed. In a simplistic sense, the Sophocles Oedipus is written in the form of a riddle and its meaning has to do with paradoxes and such; both the Medieval Everyman and Second Shepherds' Play are written in two parts, with double plots so to speak, mirroring the Medieval sense of two ongoing worlds coexisting, this one and that other (spiritual) one; Beckett's Waiting for Godot is circular in its actions, a form which reflects the repetitious aspect of life. Etc., etc.

    Sonata form seems to me to be as important to what we think of as "classical" musical art as monophony was to Gregorian chant where all voices join in as one to represent the singleness of the flock. By altering the format of sonata form a composer can make commentaries that his or her sounding notes alone cannot make -- the form can "break down" to show dissolution, or it can introduce theme modulations against the grain to show development and change or exploration or journey. I have long found the progression of the sonata form of Brahms's three piano sonatas to be more telling about the meaning of the music than the notes themselves. The form of the First, for example, is quite strict it seems -- reflecting Brahms's mindset at the time of his early meetings of Robert and, especially, Clara Schumann? But by the Third it seems the structure is beginning to break down and reshape itself into an almost unrecognizable form, mirroring a shattered mind set, one not so stable or satisfied?

    I believe we might learn much by examining the sonata form of various works, from the Classical through the Romantic and Modern ages into our own Contemporary era. If form truly is meaning in literature and painting, perhaps there is much meaning hiding within the forms of music, too.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Manxfeeder View Post
    I'd like to think that's the case. But it seems like when I ask academics things like that, they look at me quizzically.
    Perhaps academics need everything to be defined and unambiguous which leads to their being resistant to big ideas that are not backed up with very extensive and rigorous material and even to the creative in general. At least it sometimes seems like that to me for the field I work in. The quizzical look - something they doubtless learn from their peers and perfect with glee - is also a defense against new ideas that could interrupt their thought processes.

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    Something came up quite recently in another discussion on another forum. I said that modernity started around 1500, because for me, the start of the renaissance comes with the rejection of the idea that the universe is meaningfully ordered, the characteristic of the renaissance is the idea that the universe is ultimately contingent correlations, modelable in maths. There was then a big kerfuffle because Du Fay is supposed to be a renaissance composer, and the reasons given were all stylistic -- things like an awareness of a vertical harmonic progression as opposed to thinking of the music as linear musical parts.

    I pointed out that I'm not very musical, but I am a philosopher.

    It seems to me that musical people think in terms of style more than idea.
    Last edited by Mandryka; Jan-19-2020 at 00:03.

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    I believe sonata form was a pivotal device for Classical Period composers to put such essential Enlightenment values as purity, balance, and logic into practice. In this way, I see much of Mozart's music as embodying a sublime order of diversity within a unifying scheme. Bach did this as well, but within a different aesthetic. One could make an argument that the Enlightenment's focus on the liberation of man through reason translated somewhat indirectly to music since the sonata form is a "restriction" on the composition of music (I don't believe this, but I could see how someone could think it). Beethoven would go on to make incredible use of the sonata form for personal expression (though I still hear a sort of "reason" and "logic" in movements like the Eroica 1st movement), and Bruckner pretty much blew it up to its highest potential. After hearing a movement like the finale of the 8th, I find it tough to see how sonata form still had somewhere to go. But, this begs the question, does this mean that such sprawling, innovative, nearly unrecognizable uses of sonata form like the finale of Mahler 6 possesses Enlightenment qualities?

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    "Sonata form" allows for a wide range of structural and expressive possibilities, but considering its basic scheme an expression of "Enlightenment values" makes sense to me. I'd speculate that the basic, tripartite sonata structure was embraced in the 18th century because the employment of themes - usually two contrasting themes - subjected to various treatments and finally brought back "home," with their return reinforced by their embedding in a hierarchical tonal scheme beginning and ending in the tonic area, can represent an image of volitional action: the themes are felt to be "protagonists" in a "narrative" analogous to a novel or a play, with characters moving through various adventures and conflicts to a resolution. This "personification" of themes as agents engaged in actions and relationships must have seemed a fine expression of the changing sensibility of the culture as it moved away from the rigid social hierarchies of the absolute state toward individualism and democracy. The basic concept of a musical movement as a "story" was dramatically exploited by Haydn, Mozart and, especially, Beethoven, and proved so necessary to the Romantics that it didn't lose its appeal all the way through the 19th century and into the 20th.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Honkermann View Post
    Very good interpretations. They raise the further question: now that Enlightenment ideals (reason, individuality, democracy) seem to be waning, due to the crumbling of the political and cultural structures that support them...what does this imply for the future of music?
    I would say that modern pop music with its repetitive, cyclical, mostly computerized nature teaches us a lot about modern society...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Honkermann View Post
    Very good interpretations. They raise the further question: now that Enlightenment ideals (reason, individuality, democracy) seem to be waning, due to the crumbling of the political and cultural structures that support them...what does this imply for the future of music?
    I would say that modern pop music with its repetitive, cyclical, mostly computerized nature teaches us a lot about modern society...

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    Quote Originally Posted by dove View Post
    I would say that modern pop music with its repetitive, cyclical, mostly computerized nature teaches us a lot about modern society...
    I'd say it tells us that modern society produces whatever makes the fastest buck.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Enthusiast View Post
    Perhaps academics need everything to be defined and unambiguous which leads to their being resistant to big ideas that are not backed up with very extensive and rigorous material and even to the creative in general. At least it sometimes seems like that to me for the field I work in. The quizzical look - something they doubtless learn from their peers and perfect with glee - is also a defense against new ideas that could interrupt their thought processes.
    As an academic i think you are quite spot on. Modern academia kills the humanities. Kills the creative spirit with the demand for a"courtroom" style arguments.

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    Quote Originally Posted by dove View Post
    pop music with its repetitive, cyclical, mostly computerized nature teaches us a lot about modern society...
    however, it would still take a Mozart to portray the world today.

    only, maybe this time his music would sound more like Prokofiev's.

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    How are enlightenment values different from renaissance values?
    Last edited by Mandryka; Jan-21-2020 at 10:50.

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