Bach, Mozart & the Language of Music

JS Bach

JS Bach by Pascal Moehlmann

So, this is going to be a diversion from my usual subject matter, mostly. My original ambition was to be a composer. I studied for two years at Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and studied composition, but soon and somewhat reluctantly decided my real talent was in writing.

Anyway, the question that prompted this post arose during a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Samuel Andreyev.  Jordan Peterson, if you haven’t already heard of him, is a Canadian Professor and Clinical Psychologist (currently famed for his critique of neo-Marxism in, as he labels it, academia’s radical left). He brings Joseph Campbell’s knowledge of mythological archetype to a psychologist’s perspective. He offers fascinating insights regarding the nature of being, rationality, intuition, religion, mysticism and, quite simply, how to be in the world. He recently published a book on just that subject called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I haven’t read it. But he’s a gifted lecturer and well worth listening to. Samuel Andreyev is a composer, poet and teacher entirely unknown to me prior to the interview.

What makes a composer great? What is it about Bach’s music, or any great composer’s music, that survives their lifetime?

Andreyev’s answer struck me as circular in it’s reasoning.  At about the 47:40 mark:

Peterson: How do you decide what you should continue to listen to?

Andreyev: (….) Works that are no longer able to communicate something vitally important—that [only address] a present concern—trend to fall out of favor. History is merciless. (….) Think of the tens of thousands of composers that were active during the baroque period. How many have we retained?  There’s maybe a dozen figures that are still regularly performed and discussed and generally known to the public. There’s an absolutely ruthless selection process that goes on(….) And of course one of the fundamental difficulties of addressing contemporary or modern forms of art is that that process of selection hasn’t taken place yet(….) There is an overwhelming likelihood that what you’re going to hear might not be of the highest standard. If you figure that there are a hundred thousand composers active in the world today, how many of them are geniuses?—how many of them are producing work of the highest order? It’s going to be a vanishingly small percentage.”

So, what exactly is “vitally important” isn’t addressed by Andreyev. He calls it “something”, but he establishes the notion that it is communicating something. Peterson will pick up on this assertion, characteristically thinking of it in mythological terms . But first he makes one of his memorable quips (which is why he’s so enjoyable to listen to).

Peterson: As an avant-garde listener you’re more likely to be killed, so to speak, as the avant-garde in the battle.”

You can take this two ways: Either contemporary art’s greatness will be so far ahead of your own vision that you will be archetypally “killed” (somewhat like peeking into the Arc of the Covenant) or, alternately, that it’s mediocrity will accomplish the same. I’m not sure which death is preferable.

Peterson goes on to ask:

Peterson: What does it mean that Bach still has something to say? It’s the same as Shakespeare I suppose, but it’s isn’t obvious what it is that remains to be said, I don’t get that, it’s got to be something like: The culture has not fully incorporated all of the perceptual genius that that person had to offer. Bach hasn’t been transformed into cliché or implicit into assumption assumption, or something like that. But I think that one of things artists do, visual or auditory, is that they teach people to see or hear.

This is where Peterson picks up on Andreyev’s assertion that great works of art are communicating something that transcends present concerns—that they have something “to say”, as if there were some hidden and mystical “message” to be found in their “art”. Unfortunately, I think this sort of framing is a dead-end mainly because, as happens with Peterson, you next begin asking yourself just what Shakespeare or Bach were communicating?—or, as Peterson puts it: offering. But I think that’s the wrong question. The music of genius and mediocrity are both communicating the same things, it’s just that genius is better at it. It’s not that Bach was communicating something that his mediocre rivals couldn’t comprehend, it’s just that he translated his comprehension into music in a way that, for instance, Scheibe and Mattheson (contemporary composers critical of Bach), never could.

Peterson goes on to ask:

Peterson: Do composers teach us to hear? And once we’ve learned everything they have to say, do we not need their lesson anymore?”

At this point I think Peterson goes somewhat off the rails, equating great composers with, I suppose, great college lecturers (equating their musical compositions to lessons). But why not? Mathematicians are endlessly flattering themselves with their proclamations that Bach was really a great mathematician just like them! Why shouldn’t a gifted Canadian University professor compare himself to Bach? (Is it coincidence that Peterson chose the opening to Bach’s Goldberg variations as the theme for his podcasts?)  The answer is that there isn’t some hidden message in Bach’s music. There’s no “lesson”.

But anyway, more to the point:

Peterson: It still doesn’t answer the question of why those people in particular [survive]…

Andreyev answers:

Andreyev: The great composers are the ones that fundamentally: They own their material more thoroughly and in a more, deeply personal way than other composers. In other words, there’s a minimum of neutral material in their music—material that already exists; that is almost like found material in a sense; and that you don’t have to work very hard to fashion into something resembling a coherent piece. A great composer invents forms. they invent a language. They invent a universe. They take enormous risks.”

Now I think that gets closer to what’s really going on. He goes on to say:

Any composer you can think of that is considered today to be among the greats has at some point been horribly denigrated and humiliated and spoken badly of by the public of their time. That’s just a permanent feature of music history.

Well yes, but that comes with a considerable caveat. Mediocre composers were also “horribly denigrated and humiliated”. Just think of Salieri. While the events in the play Amadeus are fictional, the conspiracy theory that Salieri murdered Mozart was absolutely not. Even on his deathbed, Salieri felt forced to deny that he’d murdered Mozart out of jealousy. No “great” composer was ever denigrated or humiliated like that—and on his deathbed. I think those less conversant with music history prefer the notion that geniuses prevail against all odds, but much of what you read about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others being ignored in their day simply isn’t true. Bach was famous and recognized as a great composer in his own day. Consider Johann Mattheson’s own comment regarding “the famous” Bach: “I have seen things by the famous organist of Weimar, Herr Joh. Sebastian Bach, both for the church and for the hand that are certainly such as must make one esteem the man highly.” If not recognized by all, and not like we do, so what? There are still audiophiles who prefer Telemann to Bach. But Bach was in fact so well-regarded that he was invited to Potsdam by no less than Frederic the Great where no sooner had he stepped out of the carriage than he was made to perform (so eager was Frederick, and the attendant musicians, to hear the great composer). Many years later, long after Bach had died, Mozart visited Leipzig and played at Bach’s organ. An old man, who still remembered Bach, was said to have stated that it was like old Bach had returned. Not only did this old man recognize Bach’s genius, but he recognized Mozart’s as well.

Peterson goes on:

Peterson: It’s what you’d expect too though because someone who is, let’s say, going in the right direction but who is way ahead of everyone else(….) It’s very difficult for them to communicate what they’re doing and it’s very difficult for them to distinguish themselves from the naked emperor.

Again, yes and no. This somewhat buys into the myth of genius, which Andreyev also seems to endorse. Yes, Bach’s music was called turgid by critics, and yes, Mozart’s music was sometimes criticized as too complex, but don’t forget that both composers also had their fierce, and I do mean fierce, defenders and advocates. The city of Prague begged Mozart to leave Vienna. Haydn begged Mozart to come to London where London’s musical patrons were fully prepared to pay Mozart’s way.  Were Mozart and Bach artistically way ahead of everyone else? Yes. Was it very difficult for them to communicate what they were doing? I’m not so sure. If the ability to communicate what they were doing was the barrier to success, then many a lesser composer with a gift for doing just that, as with Bach’s son Johann Christian, wouldn’t have died in poverty.

So all this interests me because defining genius, or greatness in art, has always fascinated me. Defining what makes poetry great is why I blog. So why am I talking about music? Here’s why: Because I have a background in music, have loved music (and Bach in particular) since I was two years old, and because I also love poetry and language. I gradually came to a recognition that music and language are deeply interrelated in a way that, I don’t think, has really been recognized or explored yet—or understood. Andreyev touches on it when he says: “A great composer invents forms. they invent a language.”


Robert Frost liked to say that his poetry was about capturing “the sound of sense”. He liked to say that if one stood outside a door and heard a man and woman argue that, even if you couldn’t make out the words, you might get the gist of the argument solely by the sound (the cadences) of their speech. This is vitally important. What Frost was saying was that speech isn’t just about words. It’s about the cadence and intonations that underly those words; and though every language has its own intonations and cadences, I’m willing to assert, sans evidence, that there are also universal cadences and intonations that underly all our languages; that even were we to hear a couple arguing in Chinese or Swahili, there would be that “sound of sense” that we would innately understand. That ability is ancient and human. It’s evolutionary.  It’s that capability, I’d argue, that is part and parcel of a human being’s ability to learn language.

A baby isn’t born understanding the meaning of words. What a baby is born with, I’d argue, is the ability to perceive the sound of sense. First comes the sound of sense, then, as the baby develops, the meaning of words are understood in relation to the sound of sense underlying them. Mothers instinctively grasp this when they communicate to baby’s using “nonsense words”. The words may be nonsensical but the “musical” sound of sense underlying these nonsense words is instinctively grasped by the child. Rob the human child of the ability to perceive the sound of sense and, I’d argue, you greatly impede, if not make impossible, her ability to discern the meaning of words. One might object: What about a child born deaf? I’d respond that because a child is deaf doesn’t mean he or she isn’t still wired to perceive the sound of sense. Deafness is only an impediment. That said, a deaf person’s speech will always and noticeably lack that underling sound of sense. A deaf person, for example, will have great difficulty learning how to reproduce the inflections of sarcasm. But there are other psychological impediments that impede not just the ability to communicate the sound of the sense, but to perceive it—Autism for example.

But what does this have to do with music? I’d argue that music is the abstraction of language’s sound of sense. Music abstracts not just the sound of words (the ability to differentiate between the different sounds of words) but the falling and rising intonations that characterize the “soundscape” of language—the meaning of its sounds, cadences, inflections). Consider that the same word can have an entirely different implication, even meaning, depending on the sound of sense that underlies it—sarcasm, inquiry, relief, curiosity, anger, happiness, etc… These emotions aren’t communicated by the words but by the cadences that underly them. Humans are quite good at expressing all these meanings without words. The cadences of speech give words context: reinforce, undercut, or alter their meanings in unexpected ways.

Music, I’d argue, is quite literally our residual, childlike, perception of language before we comprehended words.

So then, to answer Peterson’s question: What makes Bach or Mozart’s music great?

I’ll stick with Mozart (though I think the same assertions could be made of the Beatles for example). It’s often said of Mozart that even when he was writing instrumental music, he remained an operatic composer. (The vast majority of Bach’s music, not coincidentally, was vocal, as was Schubert’s.) What’s meant by that is that there’s always the feeling, in Mozart’s music, of the declamatory—the notion that the music imitates the patterns of speech or of someone singing. All this, I think, is just another way of saying that the sound of sense characterizes even Mozart’s instrumental music.  In order to be a great vocal composer, the composer must innately graft not just the word’s meanings to the music, but also the sound of sense that underlies the words.

This is what separates the great composer from the mediocre composer. Where the mediocre composer, with greater or less success, grafts the music’s grammar to the meaning of the words, the great composer is able to translate not just the meaning of the words into music, but musically translates the sound of sense underlying those words. We know it when it happens. We instinctively recognize it without being able to put words to it because it’s a recognition of language that precedes words. It’s what brings us back to composers of genius again and again. They light up that pre-verbal neural pathway in a way that mediocre composers don’t. Listen to Mozart’s instrumental music (and I have listened to his music many times over and have read his music in score) and you begin to hear the sound of sense in every musical phrase (what others like to call his operatic musical phrasing). Mozart (like other great composers) possessed a genius for translating the sound of sense into music. (The Beatles  do this too, by the way.) Musical phrases feel declamatory, as though they’re questioning, arguing, curious, assertive, reluctant. It’s because Mozart was able to translate the evolutionary scaffolding of language into the abstraction of music. Bach, using the musical language of the Baroque, did the same thing. He once said, in fact, that a piece of music should sound as if the instruments were in conversation. Few pieces of music typify this assertion more so than the Brandenburg concertos. Bach’s musical phrases are like declamatory assertions (assertions possessed by the feeling of sense and emotional content) traded, expanded, debated and explored within the confines of the music’s form.

How is it that a musical phrase can evoke the sound of sense?—sorrow, anxiousness, anger, excitement? Through a combination of melodic and harmonic inventiveness that inevitably defines a composer’s genius—and personal musical “language”. Certain modulations, certain chordal progressions, produce an almost universal and concomitant set of emotional responses.  For instance, a minor chord universally produces a different set of emotions than a major chord, and that emotional response, I’d argue, is universal in its commonality. The great composer, among other gifts, possesses a far greater sensitivity to what different harmonies, cadences, and modulations can produce in the listener, and possesses the melodic and harmonic genius to achieve that understanding. The more mediocre or difficult a piece of music is, the more it will be divorced from that declamatory scaffolding, that abstraction, of language’s sound of sense. Though we can learn the language of extremely dissonant music, for example, it will be difficult precisely because it is so distant from the intuitive sound-phrasing that underlies all human language.

In short: The periodicity of a musical phrase, in its likeness to the periodicity of the linguistic phrase, combined with a genius for the harmony underlying the phrase, abstracting and imitating the sounds of sense that universally underly all languages, is what characterizes musical genius and what answers Peterson’s question. If this ability to recognize the abstraction of language’s sound of sense weren’t universal, then we might expect Bach and/or Mozart’s music to be meaningless to speakers of Japanese or Chinese.

You might object that if I’m right, then why aren’t we all listening to Bach and Mozart? The answer is partly straightforward—musical taste. But having said that, I’d argue that within each musical tradition—classical, jazz, country, rock—audiences will, overtime, gravitate toward those composers and musicians most able to abstract language’s sound of sense within their own musical vernacular. Music is, in a way, a linguistic art.

And how does any of this apply to poetry? Perhaps only obliquely. Where composers are working with the sound of sense that underlies language, poets are manipulating the language itself. Poets and composers are both, in a sense, linguists, though their exploitation of language proceeds from a very different place. Music, I think, appeals to an ancient developmental place before words (and which human beings still experience as children) which is why it’s universal. Poetry (Traditional Poetry using meter and rhyme) proceeds from the sound of the language itself. Some might call it the music of the language, but I would be careful not to conflate what poet’s and composers are doing.

Greatness in poetry depends on a different sort of genius, one that transcends content. Great poetry, I’d say, is transcendent in its language, its memorableness, and lastly, its content. When Peterson asserts that Shakespeare, like Bach, “still has something to say”, one can interpret that literally or figuratively. If interpreted literally, I would have to disagree with Peterson’s premise. What Shakespeare had to say really wasn’t all that different from what his contemporaries were saying. Shakespeare, in fact, liked to copy, almost word for word in some cases, his source material. What made the result a work of genius was not the content—not what he had to say (which had already been said by Plutarch or North)—but in how he said it (in his sublime poetic alterations). That’s a much tougher nut to crack, but well worth the effort—Shakespeare’s transformation of the proverbial and commonplace into the sublime solely through the arts of language is astonishing. It’s an art that his contemporaries, and our own, remain largely incapable and ignorant of. But Keats understood it; and so did T.S. Eliot, among others.

Saturday February 10th 2018 | up in Vermont

Addenda | February 11th:

MozartMy, I’m-not-making-this-stuff-up addenda.

Just had an interesting email exchange with Samuel Andreyev. Encouraged me to fetch some links that, I think, lend credence to my hypothesis—not yet a theory I guess. A really fascinating and recent study, The Inherent Gender of Names, finds for instance that there’s a universal predilection, across languages and cultures, for differentiating between male and female names by sound. The link above is to a Scientific American Article discussing the study.

So, one could postulate, based on that, that there are musical themes, instrumentations, or chord progression that might feel more masculine or feminine. Did you know that in 70 percent of languages, questions are asked with a rising intonation? The question is why. Is there some neurological basis? Evolutionary? Is it simply linguistic? The preceding link tries to answer that. You can find further information on this question and further studies at Wikipedia.


Another paper from the Canadian Center of Science and Education closes with the following paragraph:

“The universality of emotional colours appears in general intonation characteristics of positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions are, as a rule, characterized by the higher tone registers unlike the negative ones, which have the lower tone level. Those words, which bear emotional load, are pronounced with the higher melodic melodic tone.”

So, again, I think one begins to perceive the fundamentals of our capacity for music in these studies—from what it arises and the mechanics of how it affects the human brain. My assertion that musical genius (among other heightened traits) is characterized by its use of musical intervals (harmony) to abstract the sense of sound that characterizes all human languages, finds some evidence in a study found at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, entitled Musical Intervals of Speech. The abstract includes the following:

“Throughout history and across cultures, humans have created music using pitch intervals that divide octaves into the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Why these specific intervals in music are preferred, however, is not known. In the present study, we analyzed a database of individually spoken English vowel phones to examine the hypothesis that musical intervals arise from the relationships of the formants in speech spectra that determine the perceptions of distinct vowels. Expressed as ratios, the frequency relationships of the first two formants in vowel phones represent all 12 intervals of the chromatic scale. Were the formants to fall outside the ranges found in the human voice, their relationships would generate either a less complete or a more dilute representation of these specific intervals. These results imply that human preference for the intervals of the chromatic scale arises from experience with the way speech formants modulate laryngeal harmonics to create different phonemes.”

The study demonstrates that these intervals are not random but apparently a universal feature of human language which, again, explains why Japanese and Chinese speakers easily comprehend the musical “language” of Bach, Mozart, or Pink Floyd. And that invites the question: If music reflects the ‘intonational’ foundation of all human languages, then can different languages likewise exert an influence on the music of those same cultures. Indeed, apparently, they can and do. An article at NCBI entitled Effects of Culture on Musical Pitch Perceptionexamines just that question, and the answer is yes:

“The strong association between music and speech has been supported by recent research focusing on musicians’ superior abilities in second language learning and neural encoding of foreign speech sounds. However, evidence for a double association—the influence of linguistic background on music pitch processing and disorders—remains elusive. Because languages differ in their usage of elements (e.g., pitch) that are also essential for music, a unique opportunity for examining such language-to-music associations comes from a cross-cultural (linguistic) comparison of congenital amusia, a neurogenetic disorder affecting the music (pitch and rhythm) processing of about 5% of the Western population. In the present study, two populations (Hong Kong and Canada) were compared. One spoke a tone language in which differences in voice pitch correspond to differences in word meaning (in Hong Kong Cantonese, /si/ means ‘teacher’ and ‘to try’ when spoken in a high and mid pitch pattern, respectively). Using the On-line Identification Test of Congenital Amusia, we found Cantonese speakers as a group tend to show enhanced pitch perception ability compared to speakers of Canadian French and English (non-tone languages).”

And that’s that. That should provide anyone with enough links to further explore this subject on their own.

Monday February 12th 2018

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.