Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity

Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity

Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity

Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity

Synopsis

In this erudite and elegantly composed argument, Karol Berger uses the works of Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven to support two groundbreaking claims: first, that it was only in the later eighteenth century that music began to take the flow of time from the past to the future seriously; second, that this change in the structure of musical time was an aspect of a larger transformation in the way educated Europeans began to imagine and think about time with the onset of modernity, a part of a shift from the premodern Christian outlook to the modern post-Christian worldview. Until this historical moment, as Berger illustrates in his analysis of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, music was simply "in time." Its successive events unfolded one after another, but the distinction between past and future, earlier and later, was not central to the way the music was experienced and understood. But after the shift, as he finds in looking at Mozart's Don Giovanni, the experience of linear time is transformed into music's essential subject matter; the cycle of time unbends and becomes an arrow. Berger complements these musical case studies with a rich survey of the philosophical, theological, and literary trends influencing artists during this period.

Excerpt

The change that is the subject of this book is well captured when you place two paintings side by side—Nicolas Poussin’s Il ballo della vita humana (A Dance to the Music of Time) of ca. 1639–1640 and Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Il Mondo Novo (The New World) of 1791 (Figures 1 and 2). the earlier of the two abounds in circular images: bodies move along circular orbits to the music of Time’s lyre. Poussin’s time is cyclical, ruled by the sun’s daily rising and setting, the annual succession of recurring seasons, turns of the wheel of fortune—all the eternal cycles that govern human life. Tiepolo, by contrast, observes from behind a thoroughly modern crowd assembled to gawk at a spectacle made possible by the newest technological medium (shortly to be featured also in Faust ii)—a magic lantern displaying the exotic marvels of “the new world.” These humans are not subject to an eternal, unchanging order. On the contrary, they are children of a unique historical moment, their gaze fixed on a dimly imagined future, a new, emerging world. Tiepolo’s time is linear, progressive, oriented toward the future (one might go further and say that Tiepolo contemplates the human condition not with the awe that Poussin had shown but with detached irony). It is the shift from Poussin’s to Tiepolo’s view of time that will be my subject here.

The generation of Europeans from after the fall of Napoleon, whose memories reached back to the days of the ancien régime, shared the sense of having lived through the most profound upheaval and transformation in human history. This sense is the leitmotif running through Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe, where it found its perhaps most unforgettable expression. “The old men of former times,” Chateaubriand wrote in 1822 . . .

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