Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Postscript to Dance in Vienna

This is a postscript to Part 1 of the historical series completed yesterday. This was originally a very long footnote to the first sentence: “What Schubert found when he began composing waltzes about 1812 was not a simple, innocent country dance, as it is sometimes portrayed in an attempt to put as much distance between mass art and high art as possible.”

The literature has many examples of the damage done to style studies of nineteenth century and twentieth century music when mass art is ignored, but Leonard Meyer offers a particularly egregious instance that makes the point with unusual clarity. Meyer examines "the fortunes of the cadential 6/4 progression[,] tracing its rise and demise" (250). In the course of this, he points to the familiar notion of Romantic ideology as favoring the anti-conventional, and thus he says, quite plausibly, that Romantic values, which favored endings that are "gradual, continuous, and open," militate against such a clichéd and emphatic ending gesture as the cadential 6/4:
The very sonic salience that made the cadential 6/4 progression such a forceful signal made it seem routine and commonplace–a bit blatant. This is one reason why, as the years passed, the cadential 6/4 progression was less and less frequently chosen by composers (248).
Meyer's statistics come from pieces included in The Norton Scores anthology (a pedagogical collection), and his conclusions, although broadly correct for the repertoires involved (if one ignores Brahms and Bizet), are nevertheless useless as generalizations about all the musics of the period concerned. Meyer claims that, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, "[t]he cadential 6/4 progression . . . continued to be used in popular music and in the music of somewhat conventional composers" (250). It was employed "by composers of a more adventurous kind" only for special purposes.

It is true that Johann Strauss, jr., for one, was quite fond of the cadential 6/4 (and often displayed it prominently, stretched over several bars): my own quick survey shows that the ten strains in five waltzes use this chord 4, 8, and 6 times, respectively, in opuses 314, 325, and 340. Schubert, on the other hand, rarely used it in his dances: for example, in the waltzes of D. 779, nine times in 68 strains; in D. 681, only once in 16 strains; in the ecossaises of D. 421, 511, and 529 combined, ten times in 30 strains; in D. 781, three times in 22 strains. Johann Strauss, sr., was equally disdainful of the cadential 6/4: there are twelve appearances in the forty strains of opuses 201, 213, 218, and 230, combined. Josef Lanner was even more parsimonious: six appearances in sixty strains for the five opuses 19, 20, 40, 42, and 46.

Thus the dance repertoire completely upends Meyer's claim: in fact, the Romantic "extinction" of the 6/4 had already occurred in this popular music by the early 1820s. The chord had to be restored in the music of the mid-century, in the case of the younger Strauss, probably because of the space provided by longer sixteen and thirty-two bar strains, but equally also because of the greater volume and dramatic effect, useful in music for the larger orchestras and venues for which Strauss normally composed.

Meyer, Leonard B. The Spheres of Music: A Gathering of Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.