Thursday, 13 January 2000

Charles Rosen: The Classical Style (1971)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1997 (revised edition)
Review number: 420

One of the best known works on classical music (in the wider sense as well as the narrower one of the title) written in the second half of this century, The Classical Style has been re-issued in a new edition. Considering what has happened in the last thirty years, remarkably little has been changed; this is partly because Rosen felt (as he says in the foreword) that to revise it would mean a complete rewrite, as the book he would write today would be very different. The changes consist mainly of a new foreword and the addition of new footnotes in response to suggestions and criticisms made about the original edition.

The aim of the book is to look for the distinguishing features of the classical style, the music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Rosen concentrates exclusively on the three composers acknowledged then and now as its greatest exponents: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He analyses large numbers of works by these composers, to see how the style developed - all three were innovators. The coverage of Beethoven is rather more sketchy than of the earlier composers, concentrating mainly on the works for piano.

What is it that marks out the classical style? Most musicians would probably tell you that it is a meticulous adherence to form, especially sonata form, with set modulations occurring at particular points in movements to lead up to the final resolution onto the tonic for the end of the movement. They would perhaps say that his form was developed by the sons of J.S. Bach and by Haydn, and that its gradual breakdown which was to lead to the romantic style was begun by Beethoven.

To ascribe to the late eighteenth century a rigorous use of schemes not in fact formalised until the mid nineteenth is a ridiculous idea, soon exploded by seeing how frequently Haydn and Mozart fail to conform to the strict dictates of sonata form: the wrong number of themes, the wrong keys, tricks to deceive the ear into thinking the end is approaching, and so on. Instead, Rosen examines hundreds of examples to build up a picture of what these three composers actually did.

From a harmonic point of view, the crucial development, he thinks, was that of equal temperament earlier in the century. This means that instead of one key on a keyboard being exactly in tune and the rest out to one degree or another (making distant keys almost unusable), all keys are equally nearly in tune. This strengthened the relationships between keys, and made the triad the dominant harmonic feature. Earlier harmony was based on the interactions of more or less independent lines of melody, as in a Bach fugue. Bringing in simpler, symmetrical rhythms, as were used in opera buffa, meant that this new type of harmony could be exploited on a large scale, treating modulations as slowly moving dissonances. The ideas which were later codified as sonata form are basically to travel to the dominant as a source of tension, then resolve back to the tonic, and can be seen in many classical movements which it would seem strange to classify as sonata form - slow movements, minuets, rondos. Increasing chromaticism and the tendency to treat all keys as harmonies rather than long term dissonances led to the break up of the classical and the establishment of the romantic style, with longer melodies not lending themselves to the kind of harmonisation fundamental to Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.

Rosen places the first flowering of the style in Haydn's string quartet set, Op. 33, slightly later than would many historians (but then his definition of the style is slightly different, too). He points to the extra-musical evidence that Haydn described these quartets as new and revolutionary. This is usually dismissed as marketing, but it is impossible to deny that they marked at least a change in Haydn's own style. Rosen points to relatively minor composers such as Hummel for the beginnings of the end, classifying Beethoven as more old fashioned than revolutionary. His works were unprecedented in scale, but reactionary in form, particularly his late works which sought to integrate sonata form with the even more outdated fugue.

In some ways, The Classical Style is too overwhelming to be easily assessed. The vast array of analyses of individual works are convincing, though necessarily sketchy. To summarise a thirty minute work in three pages is a difficult task which Rosen handles superbly, aided by the large numbers of quotations he is able to include. Few amateur musicians would have extensive enough music collections, let alone scores, to check what he has to say in detail or to look for counter examples to his arguments among more obscure works by lesser composers. The book is however hailed as a classic, and the points that have been raised between the editions seem to Rosen only to require minor consideration, and so I suspect that his argument is valid. It would hardly seem worth doubting it, except that I wanted to point out that it would be beyond the means of most amateur musicians, myself included, to properly evaluate it.

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