Lecture: to what extent can what Plato tells us about the Good, the True and the Beautiful be translated into concrete technical terms

According to Plato’s Allegory of the Charioteer, the Good, the True and the Beautiful are to be found outside of the earthly atmosphere. The gods can go there and thus behold these phenomena as they truly are, whereas we mortals can as a rule only perceive them through a mist of our views and dogmas, our taste, the Zeitgeist, etc. Plato’s words, however, imply (among many other things outside the field of music) that the quality of a given composition is determined by elements that transcend our subjective perception. This in turn implies that the Good, the True and the Beautiful ought to be the central issue in studying composition.

When we limit ourselves to the classical music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, we have material at our disposal that helps us understand in concrete terms why their music is simply better than the music of for instance Johann Christian Bach or Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and enables us to pinpoint the difference in level of quality in their scores. Charles Rosen’s brilliant book The Classical Style and Edward Lowinsky’s eminent article On Mozart Rhythm deserve special mention here.

An interesting question now emerges: to what extent could it be possible to pinpoint similar concrete things in music from other times? A problem here is that the more we progress in time, the less we can apply rules about things like harmony, counterpoint, form, etc., because at some point such things were found to be too limiting. While abandoning more and more any clearly demarcated ‘rules’ has greatly expanded our possibilities and our fantasy, the downside of this is, that we have lost what consensus there was about elements that were ultimately meant to help us steer a composition toward the Good, the True and Beautiful. Composers are more and more on their own, in this respect. The absence of clearly defined rules, however, does not imply that anything goes. The ultimate goal of composing has always been and will always be that each and every note is at the right place.

Although I cannot pretend to have any definitive answers to the abovementioned fascinating question, as I am no Greek god myself, raising the question itself is thought-provoking, and I do derive some conclusions from what Plato wants to make us clear.

I think, in composing there are two basic categories of quality criterions. There is a level where everything simply needs to be right; like a carpenter needs to be able to make skilful use of his tools and other materials, and what he produces should reflect this. When a composer has reached this level, ideally speaking he can then function in society like a Salieri or a Dittersdorf could function in their time. Beyond this, there is a higher level with less tangible criterions, where not everything needs to be perfect, but whatever is good helps to enhance the impact of the composer’s music.

Things that belong to the first category are for instance: notation, basic writing for the instruments; and in traditional music: harmony / counterpoint, voicing, etc. In the second category we encounter things like phrasing, harmonic rhythm, alternation between sections with and without chords, etc. I will here give some examples, taken from my own music, to demonstrate how a change in this field can improve the overall musical impact.

With all this in mind, in my lecture I compare a few fugues of Czerny (fugues, because these belong to his output of what he himself called his ‘serious’ music) with fugues by Bach and Mozart. My conclusion is that Czerny isn’t just ‘all right’ at level one, he is absolutely brilliant – and much underrated. However, when you look beyond this, you can perhaps pinpoint a few things where he maybe doesn’t quite reach the level of Bach or Mozart.

I also compare the second symphony of Ernst Krenek with the second and fourth of Dmitri Shostakovich; two compositions that were written in an idiom where seemingly anything goes. This comparison also reveals some interesting differences in impact.

I also present a number of excerpts – in condensed score – from recent compositions for wind orchestra. I demonstrate where things appear to go wrong and, where possible, I show how to correct such errors. This proves to be easier than looking at the music of Krenek vs. Shoatakovich, because here the general musical idiom is much more traditional, which implies that the rules belonging to such an idiom can to be applied here, at least to a certain degree.

The nearer we approach the present time, the more difficult it seems to pinpoint what is objectively good or not so good in a composition. Therefore, when dealing with music from the 20th and 21 st century, I limit myself to looking just at ff tutti orchestration of orchestral scores. There are several reasons for this. One: the orchestra as it is today has developed in the course of several centuries. The difference in loudness between especially brass and percussion on the hand and strings on the other has become something a composer needs to deal with in a correct way. And it is relatively easy to see what is correct in this regard and what isn’t. Two:  ff tutti sections tend to be high-points in a composition, so it is all the more important that they sound well. Investigating this, it appears that there is a relation between orchestration as such and the notes chosen to orchestrate.

What is the ultimate goal of (composing) music? In his Republic, Plato states: what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty? (Book III, verse 403) A dangerous thing to state, these days, and if you are of the opinion that this is still valid today, you will have to explain this (I do so in my article Music and Spirituality). Plato also makes it clear that, according to him, music is nourishment for the soul. Also here I agree with him, to the extent that we humans indeed have an immortal soul, and that therefore composing good nourishment for the soul has nothing to do with trivialities like Zeitgeist or personal taste and everything with the pursuit of the timeless phenomenon beauty.