Rich in Invention

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Frédéric François Chopin

200 Years Ago

Chopin’s 200th birthday was March 1rst, 2010.

And the most interesting (to me) facet of Chopin’s career was his aesthetic differences with Franz Liszt – the other great pianist of the era. Chopin, in matters of art, was a classicist and admired the aesthetics of predecessors like Mozart. He believed that greatness was less the product of inspiration (in the Romantic sense) than discipline.  Eugène Delocroix, in one of his last conversations with Chopin, related the following:

The science of a man like Chopin is art itself. Art is no longer what the masses believe it to be, that is to say a sort of inspiration which comes from no one quite knows where, which progresses by chance and only presents the external appearances of things. It is reason itself adorned by genius but following a necessary course and governed by superior laws. This brings me to the difference between Mozart and Beethoven. When Beethoven is obscure and seems to lack unity, he told me, it is not because of his much vaunted and rather untamed originality, it is because he turns his back on eternal principles. Mozart never does.”

Franz Liszt, his friend and rival, was just the opposite. He was the first great artist who, along with Wagner, came to embody the Romantic spirit. Liszt believed that the future of art didn’t reside in the formulations of previous generations but in entirely new forms and structures. In other words, where composers like Bach, Haydn and Mozart worked within and perfected inherited forms, Liszt felt that true innovation called for not just new notes but new forms and even new rules. Liszt came to embody  the Romantic ideal of genius – a notion that the children of the Romantics and Beethoven (the generations of the 20th century) fully absorbed.

In a nutshell, the differences between Chopin and Liszt (or later, Brahms and Wagner) symbolized a new definition of what it meant to innovate, to be great and to produce great art.

Rich in invention

If ever a composer showed polyphony in its greatest strength, it was certainly our late lamented Bach. If ever a musician employed the most hidden secrets of harmony with the most skilled artistry, it was certainly our Bach. No one ever showed so many ingenious and unusual ideas as he in elaborate pieces such as ordinarily seem dry exercises in craftsmanship. He needed only to have heard any theme to be aware—it seemed in the same instant—of almost every intricacy that artistry could produce in the treatment of it. He melodies were strange, but always varied, rich in invention, and resembling those of no other composer.

This was written by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s composing sons. He was describing his father’s greatness. What CPE Bach found most praiseworthy was how his father perfected his art. JS Bach’s melodies may have been strange but they were always varied and ingenious, and he clarifies what he means by that. His musical art was “rich in invention”.

The goal was not, for Bach or for Chopin, to rewrite oneself and ones art from the ground up, but to bring to perfection (to put ones own unique stamp on) ones artistic inheritance. This concept of originality was inherited from Renaissance theories of rhetoric which were themselves developed from ancient Greek theories of rhetoric, debate and oratory. The means by which to develop ideas (with originality) were codified as The Topics of Invention. Naturally, the means by which a composer developed ideas was different than a poet, author or orator. Prior to the 20th century Rhetoric was rigorously taught from a very early age and, especially during the late 15th and early 16th century, ones ability to elaborate on a given subject, ones skill with Rhetoric, was considered the measure of artistic skill, uniqueness and even genius. So familiar were Elizabethan audiences with the Rhetoric that Ben Jonson, in Cynthia’s Revels, could safely turn its method into a humorous parlor game:

Phantaste. Nay, we have another sport afore this, of A thing done, and, & c.
Philautia. I, good Phantaste, let’s have that: Distribute the places.
Phantaste. Why, I imagine, A thing done; Hedon thinkes, Who did it; Moria, With what it was done; Anaides, Where it was done; Argurion, When it was done; Amorphus, For what cause it was done; you Philautia, What followed upon the doing of it; and this gentleman, Who would have done it better. What? is’t conceiv’d about?
All. Yes, yes.
Phantaste. Then speake you, sir. Who would have done it better?
[Each answers and then Phantaste begins to gather the answers together.]
Phantaste. Then, The thing does was, An oration was made. Rehearse. An oration was made.
Hedon. By a travailer.
Moria. With a glyster.
Anaides. In a paire of pain’d slops.
Philautia. A few heat drops, and a moneths mirth followed.
Phantaste. And, this silent gentleman would have done it better. (4·3·160-201)

[Sister Miriam Joseph: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language pp. 91-92]

What composers and poets shared, in terms of ambition, was the desire to prove their genius within the framework of a preexisting aesthetic and to do so through a demonstration of inventive powers – inventive genius. To that extent, composers and poets each knew what the other was describing when they referred to invention. Almost every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a self-conscious demonstration of invention.

Sonnet 38

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Sonnet 59

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

In Sonnet 76

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

In each case, Shakespeare playfully complains that he lacks invention while, with ironic abandon, using that very complaint as a ground on which to invent – to spin off an entire sonnet. In the very act of writing that he lacks the genius to invent, he invents.

When Ben Jonson eulogized Shakespeare, he reflected the artistic values of his age when he wrote:

Nature her selfe was proud of his designes,

And joy’d to weare the dressing of his lines !
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit.

The merry Greeke, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please;
But antiquated, and deserted lye
As they were not of Natures family.
Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
My gentle
Shakespeare, must enjoy a part
For though the Poets matter, Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion.

  • Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare was tinged with some jealousy. Jonson, in his own day, was frequently the butt of jokes due to his extraordinarily slow (by the standards of the day) production. When dramatists like Thomas Heywood were knocking out a play a month (and that doesn’t include collaborations) Jonson was producing, maybe, one or two a year. During the War of the Theatres some scholars believe that Shakespeare lampooned Jonson as the spectacularly dim and slow-witted Ajax. It’s with this in mind that Jonson’s later, more candid appraisal of Shakespeare’s natural abilities should be considered:

I REMEMBER the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any.

Nature & Art

Jonson makes a distinction between nature and art. What does he mean? George Puttenham, author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), was the touchstone for this sort of distinction. He writes:

But for that in our maker or Poet which rests only in device and issues from an excellent sharp and quick invention, holpen by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination… even as nature herself working by her own peculiar virtue and proper instinct and not by example of meditation or exercise as all other artificers do, is then most admired when he is most natural and least artificial: and in the feats of his language and utterance, because they hold as well of nature to be suggested as by art to be polished and reformed. Therefore shall our Poet receive praise for both, but more knowing of his art than by unseasonable using it, and be more commended for his natural eloquence than for his artificial, and more for his artificial well dissembled than for the same overmuch affected and grossly or undiscreetly bewrayed, as mnay makers and Orators do.

Puttenham is defining “nature” as the poet’s innate ability, talent and genius – his “excellent sharp and quick invention”.

George Puttenham: The Arte of English Poesie

What Jonson means is that nature, defined as free from “meditation or exercise”, artifice, contrivance or rote practice, would have been proud of Shakespeare’s “designes” because Shakespeare’s verse was deemed to flow with an innate genius or effortless naturalness. This brings us back to Chopin’s statement that “simplicity is the final achievement”. Simplicity, in Chopin’s lexicon, was comparable to the Elizabethans’ sense of the natural.

And yet, Jonson, Puttenham, and Chopin each go one step further. It’s not enough to possess genius. Puttenham puts it this way: “…our Poet [shall] receive praise for both [nature and art], but [shall receive] more [for] knowing of his art than by unseasonable using it…” By unseasonable, Puttenham means too much in the sense of a dish overly seasoned with contrivance and artifice – when food is ruined by too much seasoning. Let the artist “know his art”, and by knowing, master the proper scope and use of it. Here’s how Chopin puts it:  “After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Chopin and Puttenham are saying the same thing, so is Jonson: “Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art… must enjoy a part, for though the Poets matter [is] Nature… his Art doth give the fashion.” Great talent (nature), alone, cannot achieve greatness, but does so through artifice, through the inheritance of traditions, and by the transcendence of that same tradition. In other words, the great artist returns to nature through his mastery and transcendence of the rules of artifice. The mediocre poet, lacking “an excellent sharp and quick invention, [helped] by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination” will never obtain that “simplicity” that is a mark of innate or natural genius. That is, the mediocre artist lacks the innate genius to transcend artifice.

The importance of simplicity or naturalness to what was then considered great art can’t be overstated. Bach, though praised for his invention, was criticized by a former student, Johann Adolph Scheibe, for “conflicting with nature”. The reason for the criticism might have been sour grapes, but the criticism stung. Scheibe wrote that Bach was

in music what Mr. von Lohenstein was in poetry. Turgidity has led them both from the natural to the artificial, and from the lofty to the somber; and in both one admires the onerous labor and uncommon effort—which, however, are vainly employed, since they conflict with nature.

[The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents p. 338]

The majority of musicians and composers were quick to come to Bach’s defense. What’s so fascinating is that even in Bach’s day, direct parallels were being drawn, explicitly, between the arts of music and poetry. When Johann Abraham Birnbaum wrote an article in Bach’s defense, the comparisons between poetry and music continued (unfortunately not in defense of the poor poet Mr. von Lohenstein). Birnbaum wrote:

[Bach] is further accused of “taking away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style.” This is as severe as it is obscure. What does “turgid” mean in music? Is it to be taken in that sense in which in rhetoric that style of writing is called turgid  in which the most splendid ornaments are lavished on matters of slight import, so that their worthlessness is only the more brought to light thereby[?] (….) …there is nothing either turgid or confused to be found in the works of [Bach], the natural element—that is the necessary agreeable melody and harmony—cannot be taken away from them by this means. Instead, the praiseworthy efforts of [Bach] are directed toward the end of presenting this natural element to the world, through his art, in its highest splendor. [Ibid 343 & 345] – Emphasis is my own.

What’s so interesting to note is that both sides are trying to define natural. Some one hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, in a different country, competing aesthetics were still fighting for legitimacy through competing definitions of nature and naturalness in great art. Those who defended Bach, at the time, triumphed, but Scheibe’s aesthetic presaged the future. Bach’s music would be forgotten and, indeed, considered too “turgid” or “baroque”. The art of polyphony would be abandoned by the generation of the Enlightenment in favor of the “singing melody”. How would they rationalize this new aesthetic? They would call it natural and contrast it with what they considered to be the unnatural artifice of the baroque era.

Invention versus Creativity

In terms of subject matter and the general spirit of the times, 19th literature and music evolved in tandem. The new Romanticism, rightly and wrongly, came to be exemplified by Beethoven. To Chopin (who was, surprisingly, a classicist at heart) Beethoven “[turned] his back on eternal principles”. But it was Beethoven, not Chopin, who exemplified (for future generations) the image of the lone genius who tore down and rebuilt art in his own image.

After Beethoven, invention was no longer enough. A new word entered the lexicon: creativity. The appearance of the word may or may not have had anything to do with the change in how art was understood. However, there’s ample evidence that the premium placed on inventiveness shifted to creativity (and did so as the ideals of Romanticism established themselves).  The first appearance of the word creative, according to the OED, was the early 19th century. Creativity was first recorded during the 1870’s – these words are distinct from create, for example, which goes back to the 16th century and earlier.

Well into the 21rst century, we no longer put a premium on invention or inventiveness (not in art). We hear the phrase, Creative Arts, but almost never Inventive Arts. And when we praise artists, we use the words creative or creativity, but  seldom or rarely, inventive.

As George Lakoff likes to remind us, words have consequences.

Inventiveness carries the implication that one is making something from the materials at hand. Creativity carries the implication that something is being created out of nothing. Creativity has become artistically paradigmatic. For instance (and without commenting on its validity) Creationism implies that God created something out of nothing. God creates. Man invents. (We would never think in terms of God inventing.) These usages reflect our understanding of the words. There’s also the phrase: inventing excuses. In this sense, the word invent has come to carry a negative connotation.

How does this apply to art? Think back to Liszt. Liszt was the quintessential Romantic artist who believed the future of art resided in discarding old forms and building new ones out of whole cloth. He felt that true innovation called for not just new notes but new forms and even new rules. In a sense, Liszt was the first self-consciously creative artist. If you were a poet or composer in the age of romanticism, like Mendelssohn, then you were considered “backward looking”. Mendelssohn continued to compose music using the traditional forms of the classical composers. At the heart of Romanticism is the primacy of the self, the vision of the self as God.

It was no longer enough to be inventive.  In the mid 1800’s, shortly before Bach’s death, another word made its first recorded appearance – originality.

Along with originality, there was another component, another word and paradigm popularized by the Romantics. The late 18th century, very early 19th century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) redefined Genius. Before Kant, genius had a more mundane meaning: a particular ability or talent for a given task. Kant changed that and his influence on the thinking of the early Romantics, Goethe among them, would be hard to overstate. Kant defined genius as “originality” and as “talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given”. [A Kant Dictionary: Howard Caygill p. 249] Kant’s conception of Genius entailed a whole way of thinking about the production of art, music or literature. He wrote that genius “gives the rule to art” (rather than the other way around). Gaygill characterizes Kant’s description of Genius and art as follows:

The ideal of the beautiful consists in the exemplary products of genius; the products of genius do not follow rules, but are nevertheless exemplary, self-sufficent archetypes. [Ibid. p. 239]

Creativity. Originality. Genius.

These became the Romantic ideal. To the extent that this ideal hasn’t change, we still, two hundred years later, live in the Romantic era. Modernism was just a continuing manifestation of ideals established by the Romantics.

Genius does not follow rules.

While the subject matter of the poets kept pace with the shift to Romanticism, Romantic poets were still using traditional poetic techniques established two hundreds before. They were still using meter, rhyme, and metaphor. That all changed with the advent of the 20th century.

The concepts of nature versus art changed as well. Just as the generation of the Enlightenment would reject rule-bound geniuses like Bach and a thousand years of  polyphony, the generation of modernists would reject a millennia of song and tradition within poetry. History was strikingly repeated. As with the Enlightenment, 20th century poets claimed for themselves the mantel of natural. Like the critics of the Enlightenment, who self-servingly asserted that polyphony was artificial and contrived (simplicity meant just that, a simplistic harmonic and melodic language), early 20th century poets self-servingly proclaimed that meter was artificial, contrived and unnatural; and that poetry should be like spoken language. And that makes it exceedingly easy to write. Natural. The under riding assumption in both cases, in the mid 18th century and the early 20th century is that what is simple is natural and what is complex is artificial. In both cases, this redefinition of natural wouldn’t have been readily recognized or even, possibly, accepted by the prior generation. Few poets, today, would apply the word natural to Shakespeare’s style, but Jonson meant something very different when he used the word—something subtler and more complex.

The same with Chopin. Few modern listeners would think simplicity when listening to his music, but Chopin meant something much subtler by simplicity.

The Loss of Invention and the Cult of the New

Modern day students—writers, poets, composers and artists—are told, daily, by the generation preceding them that they mustn’t sound like, paint like or write like the artists before them. But such standards aren’t written in stone. They would have been ridiculed in a previous age. (Beethoven slavishly imitated Mozart, at the outset, but no one thinks any less of the music.) The current paradigms of originality, creativity and genius are of an age—they’re a construct that’s been handed down since the late 18th century and most artists would rather not question it. They would rather accept the paradigms as a given because it’s self-serving to do so. But for all that’s been gained, much has been lost.

In the name of originality, creativity and the vaporous pursuit of genius (understood not as the ability to synthesize and perfect but as the wholesale demolition of any antecedent) whole traditions have been wiped out. But mediocrity is as ubiquitous as ever. All that’s diminished has been in the ability and willingness to recognize mediocrity. When an artist, or poet or writer can set his or her own standards and assert that these standards are part and parcel of his or her art, on what does the critic hang his hat?

The poet can say that the critic doesn’t understand or appreciate the new aesthetic in which they are working—genius defined as the cult of the new. The modern poet creates from nothing The most admired (and often the most unread) poets are those who create utterly new aesthetics, forms and rules.  The “reputable” artists and poets are frequently exalted for their originality.

But if the aesthetic as defined by the poet or artist is a mediocre one (albeit original), then they’re art, music and poetry is only going to live up to those mediocre standards. (Fortunately for the poet, or unfortunately, it’s much easier to delude herself into thinking that she’s achieved some measure of mastery when she doesn’t have to measure herself against anyone’s standards but her own.)

Ask a poet to write to standards other than his own and you will get a good sense of his abilities.

There’s a place for invention in art — making, perfecting and synthesizing from the materials at hand or handed down. Perhaps its time to be open to an older understanding of genius, such as that applied to and understood by Bach, Mozart, Keats and Shakespeare. They were inventive. They were rich in invention. Neither created new forms. (One will frequently read the comments of historians, nose deep in the Romantic paradigm, who—as though explanation were needed—state that Bach and Mozart were great although or despite the fact that they didn’t create any new forms or advance music in the sense of a Beethoven, Liszt or Stravinsky—they didn’t innovate.) One might wonder why we consider them great? Shakespeare and Keats certainly didn’t create any new forms or genres. By the standards of our own day they were both backward looking; but they were rich in invention. They mastered, synthesized and perfected traditions that had been handed down to them and which they accepted. They impressed those traditions with their own unique stamp.

When I read and analyze the works of Robert Frost, I read the work of an artist in whom simplicity emerged “as the crowning reward of art”. It’s the same feeling I get when looking at a painting by Andrew Wyeth, another artist who continues to be denigrated by a generation steeped in a two hundred year old ethos.

There is nothing simple in nature.

The tree’s solution to the earth’s gravitational tug may be simple, but that simplicity reflects the complexities of hundreds of millions of years. If I were to explain what Jonson meant by nature and Chopin by simplicity, I would explain it by the tree. This was the kind of naturalness and simplicity that arose (as Puttenham put it, lacking the word for genius) from an  “excellent sharp and quick invention, holpen by a clear and bright phantasie and imagination…” This was genius that grew from the soil of its inheritance.

My advice to the future? Be rich in invention.