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Book Review

Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow

Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow by Berger
Karol Berger
University of California Press, 2007
ISBN-10: 0520250915
ISBN-13: 978-0520250918
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"The recapitulation is no longer simply a return; it is the necessary outcome, the final closing of gaps and reconciling of differences" [p. 198]. This largely sums up the contention of Karol Berger's new book, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow, which is subtitled, "An essay on the origins of musical modernity". This book is that – to a point. But that's not the whole story.

Berger deals with much wider cultural milieux than those of musical history. He is at home too in musical technicalities and abstract philosophies, though always well-anchored in art history. These he uses to make a simple, central point: that some time in the eighteenth century, some time between Bach and Mozart, between the High Baroque and Classical eras, composers fundamentally changed their conception and execution of music to reflect an altered view of time. For millennia up to and including the time of Bach and his contemporaries, time had been conceived of as cyclical… events recurring, the seasons, (church) year, births, marriages, deaths. Between these two composers, the circle became straight and time came to represent more of a straight arrow to composers and thinkers; it became linear, directed and moved only "forward".

This shift in the way in which music was conceived and written is concomitant with a change in views of the individual's (and indeed society's) relationship with a god. Those same changes in musical structure corresponded with a move away from artistic life lived in the service of (a Christian) god to(wards) one intent on defining the individual's uniqueness in his/her world and examining his/her place in it – and place in relation to other humans. Berger follows the idea expressed by Ernst Robert Curtius in his book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages that there were two great "caesuras" in European history – the "decline" between 425 and 775 CE; and the onset of the "Modern" period around 1750. Berger further suggests that Monteverdi ushered in the modernity. Other areas of cultural life only experienced what we now know as modernity up to four or five generations later.

At first sight, these theses are simple enough (though neither plain, nor simplistic) ideas; they are not particularly new, controversial or contentious. But they require truly expert exposition with multiple examples to illustrate and prove. They need to be extrapolated from considerations, above all, of musical structure, tonality – and the complex and abstruse relationships between structure and tonality. These propositions require that generalities and particular examples are explored in depth for them to be adequately demonstrated. They get more than adequate such treatment in this book.

Karol Berger takes a careful, detailed and clear approach. It is both an eclectic and a refined approach. It convincingly makes a body of links between those two hypotheses and musical (and literary, philosophical: there is a lengthy chapter on Rousseau) form, progression, technique, tonality and construction. His central claim is that "… in the later eighteenth century European art music began to take seriously the flow of time from past to future" [p 9]. For Bach, harmony was a metaphor for God; for Goethe a hundred years later God was the metaphor for harmony! Key works by Bach and Mozart successively explore how such a change came about. Bach wanted time to stand still; Mozart (and Beethoven) needed to exploit time in order to map character, contrast, mimetic reality and purely musical concerns onto the experience of writing and listening to music.

Such a development, as Berger sets it out in his chapter on Rousseau, became inevitable as the idea of a self gained ground – and a self for its own sake; and a self answerable more than ever before to… itself. So by the end of the several chapters and sections on Mozart, Berger convinces us that even Mozart's tempi and the very structure of his concerto allegri, for example, act in the service of a linear forward movement – as opposed to anything cyclical; and that despite sonata form. The chapter on Don Giovanni is particularly lucid in this respect. Other examples nicely paced throughout the book set out to illustrate the particularities of this thesis. The Da Ponte comedies all acknowledge the forward motion of time through their bipartite structure, which Berger explains very clearly with ample apposite musical examples. In fact, the whole book is very rich in well-presented musical examples; some continue for many pages and are effectively indispensable to the points Berger makes.

A caveat must be entered at this point, though not one which in any way devalues the (impact of) the book. Instead of stating his theme or hypothesis (really, a series of chapter-by-chapter sub-themes) and then illustrating it/them, he tends to jump straight in and engage in an (albeit superb) exposition of the detail, only to draw the conclusion midway; at the end; or even merely by implication. Even those familiar with the music which he takes to illustrate these hypotheses (the St. Matthew Passion, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte, the B Minor Mass, Das Wohltemperierte Clavier etc) may not be completely clear why they are being led (albeit expertly) through the music despite the many clear examples, carefully-annotated passages, tables, references, cross-references and scores. The theme before its variations would have made following Berger's argument easier.

Moreover at times Berger appears to have strayed a little far from his central argument: there is relatively scant coverage of conceptions of time in his sixth chapter (on Don Giovanni and Faust), for example. The standard, poise and logic of the music criticism and indeed the references to psychology and philosophy are well-explored, interesting and spare of extraneous detail: is the Don actually the embodiment of desire for desire's sake in us all which society needs to suppress, for example? But they at times seem to be commentary for commentary's sake, rather than to advance the basic premise on which the book is predicated. Only later in the chapter when Berger uses Kierkegaard's analysis of the Don's succession of "Now's (his numerous "conquests') to suggest a life without coherence (there can be no meaning to repeated self-indulgence at others' expense) is there a conclusive illumination on a third model of time: neither eternal/cyclical, nor linear/progressive; but disjointed. An analogous "middle-way" Berger finds in Faust where Faust's "attention" to The Moment, dissatisfaction with knowledge and – ultimately – with sentience suggests that what (modern) humans need is "the relative durability and permanence of civilization, freedom and existence won anew every day and eternity made to human measure" [p. 279, emphasis added].

The conclusion – and it remains implied, even in Berger's incisive style – which we are tempted to draw is that something radically altered with Rousseau. And that such an alteration was not that subsequent composers' notions and uses of time changed (as promised by the book's very title); but that they were attenuated. Indeed that other concerns replaced them. Up to Chapter 5, Berger continually anchors us in such constructs. He deals head-on with time as represented by the circularity of the da capo aria; with the nature of tonal resolution as an adjunct of time; with Faust's bargaining over time; and with cadence as a consequence of linear time. But by the later chapters, those ideas take second place to the accentuation of the mimetic in opera, and the notion of utopia etc.

Indeed, by its end Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow seems to have strayed so far from the original thesis on composers' (implicit) understandings of time that one searches in vain for the structure with which it so promisingly began. In the sense that musical examples in early sections clearly illustrated such a thesis, one is brought up short, not by any inadequacy of scholarship or ability to set out examples and draw conclusions (Berger is consistently engaging, expert and exact in that respect throughout the book). But one ends by wondering where the original stance of the book has gone and how it applies to some of the later examples (Beethoven's melancholy and "outcast" status, for example, in the last section). The notions of modernity and changes in how time is viewed are there implicitly, to be sure. But their relevance to the musical examples explored at such great length is at best tangential; really secondary. Unless, that is, our notion of "musical modernity" has somehow moved on from a concern with the nature of time. But nowhere is any such progression made explicit in Berger's narrative.

Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow is an important, useful, an all round excellent book that will appeal to anyone interested in the history of ideas, in musical history in general and – in particular – interested in music around what must be seen as the watershed of the French Revolution. So in the interests of balance another minor criticism to be dispensed with concerns a rather fey use of language: why "Jean-Jacques" and not "Rousseau"? Was the appellation for this important chapter of "Interlude" an attempt to lighten what the author or publisher feared might be otherwise heavy-going text? In fact, although packed with examples, at times dense argument and reasoning, the subject matter with which Berger deals so well is – through his erudition and obvious passion for the material, not to say his gifts of communication and clarity – rendered entirely translucent.

It's true that tightly-focused and closely-argued nature of Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow would not be out of place as a PhD thesis. But at the same time, it is a thesis (in the looser sense of that word) that ought to be understood by anyone interested in music of the past three hundred and fifty years: only by clearly understanding, for example, the development of musical structure from a Baroque Sonata to a Classical one (where the latter quite quickly and inexorably imposed a temporal meaning on relationships between successive moments, as the former did not) can the nature of either be fully appreciated.

But what began as a tight and focused idea – that musical modernity is predicated on fundamental shifts in how (some of most prominent) practitioners conceived of time (both philosophically, and in terms of compositional structure) – slowly takes second place to arguments which begin and end in the music being examined. One would, for example, have welcomed a more explicit examination of why and how Bach wrote for eternity (perhaps without knowing so!) and Beethoven for himself.

This is not to devalue the book; nor to say that Berger hasn't succeeded. He has. He presents a fascinating and extremely well-illustrated path through mainstream music from Monteverdi to Beethoven. But it's a path that serves just as well as a commentary on the music with reference to itself as to external developments in philosophy or epistemology as they occurred so rapidly fifty years either side of the French and Industrial Revolutions. The illustrations are clear, the layout attractive, the indexing, pacing and structuring of the book are all first rate. The underlying thesis is important and fascinating. If you are aware of the diversions in the book and prepared to make your own way through the sometimes dense examples and musical exegesis, then you should certainly investigate Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow.

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Sealey