Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Modern Century

No, not the 20th; and no, not the 21st. I mean the 19th century, the 1800s.

I never tire of reflecting on the speed with which the West develops ideas; that is, not so much the ideas themselves, but how the West grabs an idea and runs with it. For example, in 30 years, the West went from this:

to this:

And in 25 more years to this:

A virtual eyeblink.  And while 20th century aerospace is fascinating, these examples are shown only to introduce a more beguiling process in the 19th: the development of music.

You don't need to listen to these all the way through, just enough to get a sense of what geniuses imagined music could be at different points in the 1800s. They are all piano pieces, partly to focus on the music rather than the instruments; but also so you can hear the newer ideas being played with the same 88 keys by the successive composers. In other words the development isn't technical (like airplanes), but imaginative.

First up is the 2nd movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata from 1801.

Followed by Frederic Chopin's Berceuse (lullaby) from 1844.

And from 1888, Arabesque #1 by Claude Debussy.

Can you hear these men standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, each making music that the prior generation could not have imagined? That's the sound of the West at work.

I never get over the fact that the Arabesque is a 19th century composition. Its sensibility seems better matched to my life than to Teddy Roosevelt's. It's still a mystery to me how Debussy could conceive of such music, and a bit surprising that it didn't kill him; like seeing the face of God, which I expect all artists glimpse from time to to time.

This post is linked to Sunday Snippets.