Apart from the mysteries and riddles of inspiration, there are two successive stages in the creative process, a sequence generally true of music, or literature, or any of the other art-forms. First one must have good ideas; then one must know how to develop them. In music, the good ideas are represented by motives, themes, tunes. It is not a simple task to find them, nor a universal gift; Brahms is reported to have said that he would be grateful for those tunes which Dvořák threw away in mere transitions. Given the basic ideas, however, the task of transforming and proliferating them into new, evolving patterns becomes the crucial challenge. The degree of inventiveness and imagination displayed in this process is often the distinguishing characteristic of the great artist.
Haydn and Schoenberg both excelled in this way. Blessed with good ideas to begin with, their methods of exploring and unmasking these building blocks—discovering their secrets and potentialities—was the tangible sign of their compositional alchemy. It would appear as though these basic motives had a will and destiny of their own, independent of the composer and driven by their own profile and genes. In literature, authors often talk about the self-possessed will of the characters in their stories, a will which manages to defy the expectations of both author and reader. Evolution is inevitable, but unpredictable.
We cannot know whether this is a conscious or unconscious process. But this gift for elaboration occurs in surprising, uncanny abundance in both of these composers. They are masters of grammatical play, discovering and exploiting every feature of the motive, or more precisely those features (fractals) which accommodate the grand design and vision of the individual work. They are masters of play, in particular the play of ideas – as are scientists and philosophers. (Incidentally, one plays the piano.) Each has his own brand; in some ways they are different, in some ways overlapping.
For Haydn, play implies the following attributes: the wide range of characters and sonorities; implicit conversations, whether profound or mischievous; abrupt exclamations or extended discourse; registers hollowed and distant or thickly clustered; textures sparse or dense; an intricate and elegant piano style; colors which are radiant and colors which are starkly contrasting; humors good-natured, sometimes hilarious or mystical, ribald or divine; forms which often surprise, even shock, and which use every conceivable device of syntax and punctuation, including the dot-dot-dot of heavenly limbo; musical thought itself which may be either consoling or startling, delicious or dissembling, but which in the end always charms the ear, the heart, the gods.
For Schoenberg, play means: a wide range of characters and sonorities; sonic images graven or antic; colors that may be dark or wildly disparate; moods which mimic the fleeting transience of mind itself; counterpoint which can entangle or illuminate; voice-leading which fathoms the extravagant curve and reach of nature; an intricate and elegant and original piano style; humors that are despairing, capricious, brazen; by-play, horseplay, the rituals of saints and clowns; the crackle of creation and its stoic descent into entropy; satire, compassion, and the brooding figures of demon and melancholy.
The illusion persists that Haydn is the optimist, Schoenberg the pessimist. However, such value judgments can often be superficial. For in fact they are both supreme optimists, above all in that they celebrate and exemplify the human imagination in its legacy of play and wisdom. Play and wisdom, features that are entirely compatible and often corresponding. And if the word and the very concept of beauty is still alive and valid, then they both wrote music which is supremely beautiful.
- Russell Sherman