Why Nico Muhly is wrong about Romantic music



For a few years now, I have been complaining about the tendency of composers to write music that is sonically interesting that doesn't ask anything of me emotionally. I've been working against this kind of music for most of my life. I try to encourage students to write and perform music that will transform people's lives. However, not everyone agrees with my crusade to start and neo-Romantic movement. In an interview this week, Nico Muhly said the following:

" My main resistance to Romantic music (and that’s really the hole—it’s from kind of late Beethoven through early Stravinsky) is about the forced emotional synchronicity. It’s like the composer is saying THIS is when I want you to feel this specific thing—these moments of singularity. You don’t find that in Bach, and you certainly don’t find it in Byrd and you don’t find it in Glass or Reich. For me, as a teenager, the romantic project seemed like one of forcing emotions out of structure: you build this huge mountain with these classical proportions and then the music is a kind of relentless tour guide."

Before we try to unpack this, let me first say that Nico Muhly has a fecund musical mind and a gift for the English language that I highly respect. That he is not a scholar should not inhibit us from enjoying his music and his rich and important thoughts on musical subjects. I am, however, going to take him to task on this for a couple of reasons.

"You don't find that in Bach." Well, actually you do find that in Bach. In fact, in every Baroque treatise that I know they expressly say that the intention of their music is to move the listener emotionally. C.P.E. Bach said that performers couldn't do that properly without experiencing the emotion themselves while playing. The Baroque thinkers often went to great lengths to explain how they were moving their listeners emotionally — at times almost reducing it to a formula or technique(!) — using (I think wrongly) arguments based on the meaning of intervals, the meaning of keys, appeals to classical rhetoric, and even humors. I can't think of a single Baroque treatise that says anything remotely like what Muhly is saying. I can think of lots that say the opposite (Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, Mattheson, etc.)

"You certainly don't find it in Byrd." Well, I could be wrong about this one, but in pieces like, "Come to me, grief, forever," I have to believe that Byrd might have had some "emotional synchronicity" in mind even if it wasn't "forced." When he sets the text, "My heart with grief doth shake" in "My Mistress had a little dog", it seems like he wants me to "feel this specific thing." I'm not necessarily suggesting he is doing the same thing as Wagner, but to suggest that there are not "moments of singularity" in Byrd is a little much.

As for Glass and Reich, Muhly may be correct on this one. He would know much better than I do. I do think that Glass and Reich tend to write the kind of music that I was complaining about earlier. It's often sonically amazing music that asks nothing of me. 

I would also suggest that Muhly has a fundamental misunderstanding of Romanticism that is a little surprising from such a brilliant mind. My own views on the topic were largely shaped by Jacques Barzun and Carl Dalhaus. Muhly likens the Romantic composer to some sort of manipulative puppet master of the emotions striving to achieve some sort of coup d'etat over your affections. I would suggest that there are other ways of thinking about what the Romantics were doing that are more generous. Barzun argues that the Age of Enlightenment relegated music to the role of simply expressing emotions. It was not worthy of profound thought or ideas. Far from being dictators, what the Romantic composers were doing was rebelling against this idea and making a place for the whole of human experience — both intellectual and emotional —to have a place in our musical lives. It is a desperate cry against an increasingly mechanized society that individuals in all their flawed, emotional, intellectual, spiritual being have a place in the world. It's not, "You have to feel this specific emotion at this time." (That is actually pretty close to the Baroque aesthetic though.) It is, "I have felt this. If I pour my guts out on this stage, maybe you can gain some catharsis from watching me bleed." 

Certainly, we will find exceptions to this, but I think it is a much more honest assessment of the situation and avoids the nonsense about Byrd and Bach. As for me, I'm hoping to start a neo-Romantic revolution. I want music that is sonically interesting and emotionally demanding. I want the full being of the composer in her or his work. To use Schoenberg's words, I want "heart and brain" in music.