Sunday, February 8, 2009

Time in Music

Robert Schumann wrote about the third in a triad mediating past, present, and future. What does this mean? Does music have past, present and future tenses like spoken language? In language a distinction is made between temporal things (like natural processes and historical happenings) and non-temporal things (like spatial and numerical relations). Music certainly has spatial and proportional relations that correspond to these non-temporal types of things. Music also uses the passage of time as an element of space and proportion. How can a composer communicate differences in time? In Mahler's sixth symphony, there is a fanfare-like A major chord that dissolves to minor. Could this perhaps be changing the sense of time from present (life) to future (death)? Mahler is particularly fond of this shifting from major to minor. Das Lied von der Erde is full of examples of this device, and it's interesting to compare the text with the occurrence of these harmonic shifts.

Another aspect of time in music is bound up with the way we perceive it unfolding during performance. Music follows the “arrow of time” in linear fashion, and many pieces use this perception to create a sense of narrative line. Beethoven in his middle period constructs energetic and clear narratives that follow the “arrow of time” in a very direct way. In his late works, this linear process is disrupted in ways more complex than simply changing where the third lies in relation to its neighbors in a triad. Beethoven takes motivic development to a very deep level, allowing him to create structures that contain an ambiguity in the “arrow of time” by disrupting it. A good example of this is the first movement of the Op.132 string quartet. The movement begins with a sort of cantus firmus, very objective in character, which is interrupted by an outburst of subjectivity which seems to have no relation, but in fact is made up of the same musical material as the cantus firmus. Another favorite method in the late works is to use an amalgam of different musical genres. In using different historical styles, Beethoven is making allusion to different historical time frames. For example, a minuet in Beethoven's time is already a musical genre from the past, and his choice of such a genre has
significance in terms of past, present and future.