Exploring the Reason-Emotion Balance in Music
John Massaro


Ask any “serious” music lover to name their favorite orchestral or operatic composition and chances are very high that they will mention a work written between the late eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Why is it that the majority of these so-called musical warhorses fall into this 150-year period? What is the special appeal of music form this era that has been labeled “Romantic”?

In order to answer these questions we must first understand that, like all art, music is a reflection of the volitional nature of man as a thinking/emotional being with free will; therefore, choices are always possible. Music can be rational and structured or irrational and unstructured, or any combination of the two.

Imagine the history of Western music as represented by a trapezoid (see figure), where the lower horizontal line represents music which is mostly unstructured and sensory, or “primitive,” and the shorter upper horizontal line represents music which is mostly structured and cerebral. Imagine also that the four angles of our figure represent the following dates: the lower left, 1450; the upper left, 1700; the upper right, 1800; and the lower right, 1950. Now let us follow the perimeter of this geometric figure with reference to the changes that have taken place in music composition.

Prior to the fifteenth century, music was used primarily for sacred or ritualistic purposes, deriving from the emotionally expressive needs of man. To the improvised single vocal lines of Gregorian Chant, Western composers from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries eventually added more voices, creating a polyphonic style of music which was experimental in nature. This music was rhythmically complex, full of dissonance and devoid of clear tonal centers. But by 1450, composers such as Josquin des Prez were paying more attention to the resolution of dissonance and to the rhythmic and harmonic structure of music. Here is where we begin the ascent from the lower left angle of our figure.

Influenced by the newly discovered Greek culture, the ideas of balance and form in the visual arts began to capture the attention of composers as well. They began to experiment with counterpoint, which juxtaposes two or more similar melodic lines and results in a harmonic effect. Rules were developed for the resolution of dissonance, while harmonic progressions and rhythmic patterns emerged. At its peak, this “Renaissance” music (the halfway point up the left side of our figure) struck a balance between emotion and reason. The texts were still predominantly sacred, although this, too, was undergoing changes. For a prime example of this style of music, one could listen to a Mass by Palestrina, a composer whose music is an expression of medieval mysticism set in an intentionally restricted Renaissance musical vocabulary.

Continuing up the left side of the trapezoid we encounter many more rules for the handling of melodic movement, harmonic progression and dissonance. As we enter this “Baroque” period we also encounter a great deal more secular music—dance forms, vocal music, and instrumental music—that follows certain rhythmic patterns and is set in particular meters with specific tempo markings. Music becomes more formalized as we reach the upper left angle of our figure, where we come to a turning point. At this juncture, which we have labeled 1700, we meet that great genius of the Baroque, J.S. Bach. His music, although predominantly designed for the church, is filled with mathematical intricacies displaying an enormous amount of cerebration.

Once we turn this corner we discover less sacred music and an increasing number of concert works, solo instrumental works, court music and opera. This period from 1700-1800 is the most formal, structured, cerebral period in music; hence, the term “Classical” music. It is no accident that this time frame corresponds to the Age of Enlightenment. Mysticism had become passé. Listen, for example, to “The Creation” by Haydn. Although the subject is religious in nature, the music is highly cogent, representing the antithesis of medieval mysticism.

Toward the right end of this upper horizontal line we arrive at another significant point, where music begins to break away from the purely cerebral. Emotional expression again becomes an integral part of music, but, this time, it is not in response to the supernatural but rather as a reflection of the human condition. Love, nobility, tragedy, heroism and man’s emotional response to nature are the newly discovered feelings of the age.

Although Mozart was the first composer to “humanize” his works, he did not live long enough to see the idea through. As a result, it was Beethoven who transformed music from the cerebral formalism of the classical period into the highly charged emotionalism of the Romantic period. Just as Bach stood astride our first turning point, so Beethoven straddles this second one.

But Beethoven, inadvertently, spawned two schools of thought in the nineteenth century. The more conservative composers such as Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bruckner continued to utilize the classical forms of symphony, sonata and string quartet, while at the same time imbuing their music with emotion and beauty. Radical composers such as Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner—taking their inspiration from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony—wrote descriptive, narrative works which are generally categorized as program music. They abandoned the structured classical forms in favor of a freer, “through-composed” style, that is to say they composed without the repetition of large sections which tend to hold a composition to form. New harmonic progressions, more complex chordal structures, rhythmic flexibility, and an expanded use of dissonance all come into play at this point.

We are now at the halfway point on the right side of our figure, a very critical time in the history of music. By the end of the nineteenth century there existed a chasm between the two schools. Compare, for example, the First Symphony of Brahms and the music drama Parsifal by Wagner, both of which premiered in 1877.

At the bottom right of our figure we find music that continues to distance itself from the formalism of the Classical Period. Dissonance is no longer resolved, rhythm is unrecognizable, formal structures disappear, and melody is unessential. Then, reacting to the excesses of the radical nineteenth century composers but continuing their philosophy of change, early twentieth century composers (such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg) cut all ties with tradition and sought to invent new musical languages. Unfortunately, in the process they eliminated the poetry and beauty of music.

Standing at the brink of the twenty-first century, we can now look back over the past fifty years and realize that, with rare exception, composers erred when they followed the path of the radical composers of the mid-nineteenth century to its inevitable dead end. One can only bend something for so long before it breaks. Sadly, we are the heirs to these mere fragments of what was once a great art.

Now that we have made our journey around the perimeter of our figure, let us examine the two periods of music history where composers struck a balance between the head and the heart, these being the Renaissance and the Romantic periods. Renaissance music certainly has a large share of adherents. But Romantic music has far more. Why?

The answer may lie not only in the balance between the emotional and the cerebral but also in the emotions themselves. In the case of the Renaissance the emotions resulted from the relationship between man and the supernatural, while in the Romantic period they were responses to man’s relationship with himself, with his fellow humans and with nature. Over the years, science has helped to dispel (in any literal sense) a great deal of myth and mystery, so we do not experience the same mystical awe of the supernatural that men felt in the Middle Ages. We still, however, maintain passions of love and hate, we continue to require a need for heroes, we still want to experience the nobility of humanity, and we continue to be moved by the beauty of nature. All of these emotional desires and expressions can be found in the music of the Romantic period; therefore, the music of this particular period of emotional/cerebral music rings as true for us as it did for those living a century ago.

Have we witnessed the last great age of music? No fortune teller can foresee the future. But it is probable that in order to at least begin to recapture what has been lost to music for half a century, we need to return to that time in the nineteenth century when the two roads diverged. A re-examination of the works of Brahms, especially with his ability to infuse emotion into works of formal structure, will give us insight into the process of regaining this powerful balance.

If from that past period we then create a new road into the future, it can truly be hoped that important and possibly great things can be heard again in music appealing to both the head and heart but, this time, informed by a contemporary context that can be full of fresh promise and possibilities. After all, man does not use his mind devoid of all feeling, (nor the reverse) to the exclusion of the other in life. Why should his art be otherwise? We might well remember that it is the fusion of reasoned intelligence and emotional responses which distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom—a fact worthy of musical celebration.

John Massaro, composer and conductor of note, made his Carnegie Hall debut in the summer of 2005 conducting the Mozart Requiem. As a result, he was invited to Europe to conduct several works by Mozart in 2006 as part of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. This tour includes Budapest, Krakow, Prague, Salzburg and Vienna. For seven years he was Conductor for the Arizona Opera.

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