Beethoven's Primitive Cell Structures

By Brindle, Reginald Smith | Musical Times, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Beethoven's Primitive Cell Structures


Brindle, Reginald Smith, Musical Times


REGINALD SMITH BRINDLE finds parallels between Beethoven's music and that of early man

ALTHOUGH one is aware in Beethoven's music of a certain primordial quality, as if some part of it echoes the beginnings of man's existence, one would very much hesitate to associate any part of his sublime art with that of prehistoric cultures. Yet there are certain aspects of his music which would seem to have been gleaned, not from his immediate predecessors, but from the music of man in the most distant epochs of history. Obviously any recollection of such historically distant elements was no deliberate act on his part, as has been the `neo-primitive' artistic movement in this century. Rather must it have been due to a dim stirring in his subconscious, a reawakening of a dynamic creative art practised by his remote ancestors.

Of course, there is no direct evidence of exactly what kind of music man created in prehistoric times. The beginnings are lost in a dateless past, and our histories of music begin only in a comparatively recent period. But a great deal about the beginnings of the visual arts and poetry has been learned from the modern counterparts of the lost races of the Paleolithic Age,' and there is no reason why the same cannot be done as regards music.

There are still communities of primitive races on the earth today, usually those who have been driven into inhospitable areas by successive advancing waves of more developed peoples. In Africa there are the pygmies of the equatorial forests and the bushmen and Dama of the south-western deserts: in America, the Eskimos of the Arctic north and the Selk'nam and Yamana of the southern extremities of Tierra del Fuego. In Australia there are the remnants of various aboriginal races, while Asia has primitive peoples in the Malayan jungle and Ceylon (the Semang and Veddas). The important point is that these races are not all equally primitive, but demonstrate various stages of cultural advance which must correspond closely to the development of other races in prehistoric times. For instance, from the almost extinct Yamana of Tierra del Fuego can be learned the very beginnings of wordless song, while on the other hand, some aborigines in Australia reveal a poetic art developed to a considerable degree. Between these two extremes, other races show various stages of artistic and technical developments.

All this may seem a far cry from Beethoven, but in a moment the relevance can be demonstrated. If we wish to learn what the beginnings of music were, it seems logical to turn to the Yamana as a modern counterpart of man in the Palaeolithic Age.

There is a revealing record of Yamana music when the race was still thriving, on the occasion of the visit of HMS Beagle during 1832-34. It is said that when two of the ship's company landed, the Yamana expressed friendship as follows: `They made Messrs. Waldron and Drayton jump with them on the beach ... took hold of their arms facing them, and jumping two or three inches from the ground, made them keep time to the following song: IMAGE FORMULA7IMAGE FORMULA8

It is important to emphasise here that we are referring to a persistent repetition of rhythmic cells over a large area. Such composers as Mozart, and before him, originators of the galant style, often initiated a melody by repeating a simple rhythmic formula two or three times before the melody culminated or `took flight' with differently shaped material. This `gathering together' of similar melodic strands is common enough, but a very different process indeed from Beethoven's construction of entire edifices through multiple repetitions of one or two cells. Such constructions can be likened to honeycomb structures where each cell is identical, equal in status and indispensable to the strength of the whole.

There is another close parallel between Beethoven's repetitive structures and those of primitive man: relief from monotony is obtained (without resorting to variations or expansions of the material) by volume contrasts and by occasionally moving the music on to different tonal planes. …

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