Rameau's Apotheosis

Image: Adir Sodré


Commentary on the book by the musician Henri Pousseur

Making music or reflecting on it, what matters more? What is more decisive, author or performer, sound result or fidelity to the score? Music, beyond its fascination, has always raised questions. Controversies that drag on for centuries.

The first question – should a teacher teach to play an instrument or teach to reflect on music? – divides opinions not only in the current Brazilian academic environment, but also set the tone three centuries ago, at the time of the Frenchman Jean-Philippe Rameau. This is one of the guiding points of this collection of essays by the Belgian Henri Pousseur, written between 1955 and 1971.

In the articles, gathered by Flo Menezes, Pousseur analyzes works by Stravinsky, Webern, Schoenberg, among others, seeking to understand their processes and perhaps shed light on the direction of music in the XNUMXth century. In this constellation, he does not shy away from declaring his preference for Webern, the “victorious Icarus” of modern music, who “knew how to radically free himself from the weight of terrestrial harmony”.

Pousseur was one of the pioneers of the new music that emerged in the post-war period, with a strong use of electronic instruments and foundations in mathematics and physics. “Serial music is often conceived as the fruit of excessive speculation, the result of an exclusive application of the powers of reason,” he acknowledges. In another essay, he addresses one of the crucial points of this musical style: “A good part of the metric relations desired by the author remain closed to our listening, practically absent”. It is what you might call paper music, the result of geometric, mathematical, algorithmic speculations or whatever, which can only be visualized and understood on the surface of paper, pencil and ruler at hand. It is a type of music in which, when transformed into sounds, all intention vanishes, the process is lost, which does not manage to be realized on the acoustic level. It's not music to listen to, but to appreciate as a beautiful equation; pleasure should not be sought in listening, but in solving the mathematical problem, in unveiling the proposed symmetry.

Returning to the initial question, about reflecting or doing, this seems to have arisen more urgently in the transition from the ancient medieval conservatories, receptacles and keepers of tradition, to the higher lay institutes of music, modeled on the Faculty of Latin Philosophy. Craft or thought, that is the crossroads. Rameau, a contemporary of this transition, is perhaps the greatest example of a musician dedicated to the subject.

But Pythagoras had also dealt with the matter two millennia before. It is possible to establish an interesting parallel between the two. Pythagoras started from questions such as the division of the octave, tuning and exact pitch of tones, and the relationship between them. He believed he had discovered a universal basis: he saw in music the earthly materialization of the great natural order of things, the harmony of the spheres. Rameau, on the other hand, sought to compile and organize the theoretical knowledge of the time, elaborating a treatise on harmony, defining chords, suggesting rules on how to use them. By theorizing about consonance and dissonance, Rameau believed he had obtained a set of universal rules, which he called a “natural principle”, ordering and governing all harmony. Interestingly, through different processes, both arrived at the same point, the enigma of music.

But, unlike the Greek thinker, Rameau bequeathed a consistent musical work, practical applications of his theory. And with that, he marks a new era in Western music: it was not enough to preserve and reproduce the music of the past, to perfect the technique of playing the instrument without reflecting on music making. More was needed. And so Rameau – at the same time author of countless pieces of all genres, as well as some of the first theoretical compendiums – inaugurates an era of amphibious musicians: they make music and reflect on it, bringing together practice and reflection.

And it is to Rameau that Pousseur pays homage, in the essay that gives the collection its title. He looks to Rameau for an example to try to get out of the predicament music has gotten into over the last 50 years. After the Austrian Schoenberg's proposals, it was clear that there was no way to go back to making music in the old style. But, if Schoenberg showed the way out, he did not point out a consistent entrance door and thus a whole generation starts to dedicate itself to seeking the entrance to a new musical world.

If Rameau managed to mark an entire era with his Treaty of Harmony, Pousseur restricts his zone of influence to tiny circles of experimental music. Rameau's theoretical compendium starts from the musical practice of his time to assemble what would be a kind of valid primer for the next 300 years of music history. The music that Pousseur deals with is at a turning point, restricted to initiates.

The same goes for your essays. The texts of Apotheosis they are not easy to read – they presuppose a broad knowledge of theory and history of music theory. Pousseur does not shy away from that penchant for mathematical foundations, which assumes that the reader must also master the concepts and techniques of algorithms, fractals and other things more.

Pousseur is one of the lesser-known composer-theorists of the XNUMXth century. Boulez, Schaeffer and Schoenberg enjoy prestige outside specialized circles, with the status of thinkers, icons of the century. Part of this semi-obscurity can perhaps be attributed to his disagreements with the Paris group, especially with its main representative, Pierre Boulez. In the article on Stravinsky's work, included in the collection, he literally dismisses Boulez's views on the Russian musician. The unanimity around Boulez helped banish the Belgian, as the dispute ended up slipping into the personal plan.

Coming into contact with a dispute of masters – around a giant like Stravinsky – is in itself an intellectual delight (we almost wish Boulez's text on Stravinsky had been included in the volume). Pousseur's criticism is fierce, accusing Boulez of "irrational refusal to consider valid that which does not conform to the criteria of validity that one admits to oneself as indisputable". It is said in all letters: Boulez is a dogmatist, who only takes into account what is in accordance with his principles. It's quite a turnaround in the way of seeing one of the central figures of last century's music.

Here lies the greatest interest of Pousseur's essays: in seeking to answer pressing questions in music, Pousseur raises many others. It makes sense. The greatest brilliance of intelligence lies in the ability to formulate questions. Not so much in answering them.

*Wolney Unites is professor of music at the Federal University of Goiás and author of Between musicians and translators (UFG Publisher).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 9, May 2010.


Henri Pousseur. Rameau's Apotheosis and Other Essays. Translation: Flo Menezes and Mauricio Oliveira Santos. São Paulo, Unesp, 358 pages.

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