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Book Review

Music and Sentiment

Music and Sentiment by Rosen
Charles Rosen
Yale University Press, 2010. 146 pages.
Numerous musical illustrations.

ISBN-10: 0300126409
ISBN-13: 978-0300126402
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Rosen's title, in common with Peter Kivy's Sound Sentiment, seems to emit an air of the 18th Century. Both authors seem particularly drawn to music of that period, so perhaps this is not altogether inappropriate. To be sure, most of Rosen's small book in fact deals with music of the Baroque and Classical styles, but he continues his analysis of musical expression or expressiveness, in more current language, through the 19th and into the 20th centuries.

In this book, which had its beginning as the 2002 William T. Patten Lectures at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, Rosen indicates that he shares the general assumption that music can and does express human emotions. He also maintains that music has the power both to illustrate sentiments and to awaken emotion, a claim that is not so generally agreed to, but which it is refreshing to encounter. His challenge is to show just how composers bring this about. Music does not have the vocabulary to specify the content of these "affects," in his view, but it does have its own syntax. Music may be more precise than language with respect to feelings, but it does not communicate information.

Unlike Kivy, who is a philosopher with musical training, Rosen is not at all concerned with theoretical aesthetic argumentation. His whole effort is showing, with great specificity and extensive musical examples, just how composers of different periods and styles produce expressive effects or affects.

Trained musicians will best be in a position to get the most out of this book, but his prose is so clear that if a reader has at least a rudimentary understanding of musical theory, such as knowing what tonic and dominant mean for traditional tonality, s/he can probably follow his discussion. Personal disclosures: my own score reading ability at the moment is such that you certainly would not want to hear me play anything, but I experienced excitement and much of great interest all the way through this book. I am trained as a philosopher – in aesthetics – and I would certainly expect some philosophers to dispute some of Rosen's claims, but I found satisfaction in finding myself generally in personal agreement with Rosen.

It is refreshing to read, on the very first page of Rosen's Preface, that "many aspects of music, of course, benefit from a long study, but grasping its emotional or dramatic meaning is either immediate or requires only becoming familiar with it. Understanding music in the most basic sense simply means enjoying it when you hear it." He goes on to note that specialized study can help listeners understand why they enjoy what they do and "how music acts upon us to provide delight." And Rosen feels that seeing "how the sentiment is represented is more important than putting a name on its meaning." He does not often do the latter: readers will not be told what to expect to feel when hearing particular pieces. He takes it for granted that it will usually be quite obvious that a piece is sad or jolly, tranquil or disquieting, menacing, ferocious, passionate, majestic, funereal or tender. Rosen does not go into the question, as some do, of the "universality" or "culture-bound" nature of such expressive effects. Clearly he is speaking to readers familiar with Western classical music.

Rosen begins at once, in a short "Prologue," with an example of "a completely unified theme that…portrays vividly a series of contrasting sentiments in a succession that amounts to a small narrative," this provided that the tempos are played correctly, bringing out the contrasts clearly. Such contrasts did not exist before the late 18th century or after Beethoven's death. His example is the opening of the finale of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Rosen leads us through the piano's first fourteen bars, with the score occupying one full page. This is how Rosen is going to approach his task in this book.

Just a word about the printing of Rosen's musical examples: the stave lines are close together – sometimes very close – and in my copy of the book the soft paper sometimes blurs them a bit. Otherwise the book is attractively printed and firmly bound.

Rosen uses the opening of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto to show that "no isolated element of tonal music can ever give us a satisfactory approach to the expressive character of any work or of a phrase in which it may be found." Rather, a combination of harmony, rhythm, melody and phrasing can do that. Individual elements are ambiguous or imprecise, and easy to misinterpret out of context. Trying to make too much of particular "motifs" was where Deryck Cooke's efforts in The Language of Music, were inadequate, he argues. This emphasis on the importance of a combination of elements is perhaps Rosen's most significant claim. One of the biggest mistakes, he says, is to ascribe "affective meaning" to certain keys or tonalities. Rosen does, however, devote a whole chapter to the "C Minor Style." In the late 18th Century there developed a tradition of dramatic works in that key. Material of opposing sentiments juxtaposed drama and pathos.

Pre-Classical sentiment is generally characterized by the "unity of sentiment" within a piece. Rosen notes that toccatas or fantasies might, in combining different affects, offer exceptions to this generalization, and subtle inflections might relieve monotony. Rosen offers a Bach allemande as an example of this.

From 1770, especially in opera, "dramatic articulation became essential to musical style and contrast of sentiments became important. Sometimes a theme or motif, even a single phrase, itself represented opposing sentiments. Rosen offers as examples the opening of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, his Prague Symphony; and his Viola Quintet in C, where an emphatic off-beat accent on an unexpected chord does this. Haydn also could give a single theme more than a single character. Rosen declares that "it is clear that at this time any theme can be given whatever emotional significance the composer chooses if he knows how to go about it."

Returning to Beethoven in a short chapter, Rosen notes that this composer paradoxically clung to stylistic procedures of his predecessors, such as the opposition of forte and piano, even as he expressed sentiment on a greater range and more heroic scale than Mozart and Haydn. One thing he did was write big contrasts of tempo and dynamics, sometimes in the form of crescendos, sometimes with sudden surprise. Here Rosen begins to speak of increases of intensity, something he carries through to later discussions. He uses the Hammerklavier Sonata to illustrate the use of the same material for two extremes, and the Appassionata, in which a seventeen bar climax, with a four octave ascent from the bass and an eleven bar fortissimo, represents "a continuous rise of intensity further than it had ever been taken by any composer."

After Beethoven, "themes with an interior opposition of sentiment almost cease to exist." Something like a late Baroque unity of sentiment returned, indicating "a profound change in sensibility." The Romantics wanted to realize the continuity of experience. Chopin did this with slurs that sometimes covered pages and beyond. And "certain aspects of the musical style from 1830 to 1850 acquire a density that transforms the affective power of music." Rosen again gives examples from Chopin. Melodies ranging to two octaves, agitated rhythms, dissonant intervals and chromatic harmony, with no contrast or opposition "results in a continually growing passion." Liszt's expansion of the "build-in passion of the material itself…is more spectacular and more insistent," with upward direction, unresolved harmonies and almost unbroken crescendos, methods derived from opera. Wagner sustained unbroken growing tension at enormous length in the preludes to Das Rheingold and Tristan, "beyond what anyone would have thought possible…. It is doubtful that the unity of sentiment can be taken any further." Rosen says that the postponement of resolution is an essential element of musical Romanticism. Tension was "magnified through rhythm, harmony, range, dynamics, dissonance, texture, and any or all of these combined, or even by static iteration…"

Rosen's final chapter, all too brief, is called "Obsessions." He surprises us by crediting Brahms with effects "created largely through tone colour... often at the heart of his conceptions." And he says that "the crisis of tonality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries explains why tone colour began to take over some of he importance of pitch in fixing musical meaning." He mentions a moment in Strauss' Salome where a string technique in the basses "provokes a sentiment of impatience by irritation" in the listeners on account of its repetition.

Tchaikovsky and Verdi are quickly passed over and Rosen goes on with what he has to say about twentieth century music, which is regrettably not very much. He notes that Stravinsky's austere shock technique is powerfully expressed in Petrouchka's second scene with an "unexpected explosion" of off-beat accents and reiteration of small detail. In Sacre du printemps and Les noces, "the disruption the bodily expectations of rhythm and accent are essential parts of the tradition of the sentiment of the twentieth century." In Stravinsky's neo-classical Piano Sonata almost every note of the opening melody is harmonized by at least an implied dominant. The very austerity of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments is itself an expressive emotion, Rosen says.

Rosen finds that Debussy's first Etude reflects Stravinsky's brutality in its combination of rhythm, dissonance and dynamics. Debussy's use of obsessive fourth and second intervals in Image, Book II, yields a sentiment more from sonority than melody. Rosen says that one of Debussy's Preludes exhibits a sentiment arising from obsessive use of a chord; the sentiment eludes any name. Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit is dominated by the use of a certain sonority "repeated in various transpositions." The last composer Rosen discusses is Berg and here he speaks of tone color and obsessive use of a note, a chord and a tonality.

Rosen finds the second half of the twentieth century chaotic and he ends with remarks on the importance of performance: "the power of music on our sensibilities depends much less on composition than on execution." Because Rosen is as much a pianist as a musicologist, this seems fitting.

Rosen is an important musicologist and this is a significant book. It should go without saying that it is highly recommended for those able to appreciate it.

Copyright © 2010, R. James Tobin