Divine Laws and Musical Composition

This morning Maestro Gekic related the following anecdote to me:

A young composer brought a new work to the elderly Rachmaninoff who told him he would take a look at it and to come back in a few days. When the young man returned, he found his score full of little corrections, notes crossed out, sometimes replaced with other ones. He asked Rachmaninoff the meaning of this.

“Those were notes that shouldn’t be there.”

“By what authority do you decide whether they should be there or not?”

“By the laws of musical composition.”

“Isn’t composition these days free from all the laws of former times?”

“But these laws are divine laws, not from man…”

Rachmaninoff liked to put a lot of notes in his works, but the more we look at them the more we realize that every single one was necessary, not gratuitous. He conforms to structural laws that manifest in a more complex way in his works than in those of his predecessors Chopin, Mozart, Bach… They seem simultaneously to possess  a special emotion and to reflect cosmic laws of the structure of the physical universe at a level almost impersonal.

Earlier this summer I had a conversation with a Columbia architecture student who told me that beauty is almost a dirty word in their profession. Andrew Wyeth is considered kitsch, and a building needs above all to reflect an idea rather than be beautiful. He says this came about because of the atomic b0mb: humanity can now destroy itself, and this nihilistic capacity should be reflected in its architecture. I asked him, but what about the beauty of mathematical proportions such as the golden mean which are found even in nature? “No, no, these should be avoided.”

Thus because of a philosophical stance, architecture is biased towards ugliness and away from divine laws. Similarly Andrew Ross, in The Rest is Noise, writes how WWI brought composers to avoid expressing emotion in music because the consequences of emotional expression would be too horrible to contemplate.

But to be faithful to humanity, shouldn’t we be trying to reinstate these divine laws in our creations, to be faithful to them even in the face of our potential annihilation? Why, 100 years later, are we still suffering from an aesthetic that betrays our humanity instead of celebrating it?

One Comment

  1. Bruce Marshall
    Posted 31 January 2015 at 00:42 | Permalink

    I am very touched by this for it really speaks to the heart of our present troubles
    and where artists have lost their courage and principle in beauty
    An important anecdote has not only been well told
    but has further come to life, in awakening an important observation
    in your life and ours

    The trap though is to apply rules to appropriate beauty
    as though it were some sort of formalism that can be copied.
    Here are two offerings to continue upon the insights, discussion
    counterpoint and unsaid~

    http://www.schillerinstitute.org/music/1995/lyn_motivic_thorough_composition.html

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