The total moment of the perfect melody

When all else fails, there’s still a Schubert melody.

Melodies sound like total moments which float freely, unchained, outside the regular course of time.  Adorno explains:  “The concept of melody first gained ascendancy in the nineteenth century in connection with the new Kunstlied, especially Schubert’s.  Melody was conceived as the opposite of the ‘theme’ of the Viennese classicism of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  It denotes a tonal sequence, constituting not so much the point of departure of a composition as a self-contained entity that is easy to listen to, and expressive” (Adorno and Eisler:  Composing for the Films, 1994, pp. 6-7).

The expressive melody of the Byronic Schubert sounds perfect because it seems to arrive complete.  As the movement unfolds and the opening statement does not evolve, its self-contained perfection becomes apparent.  “The truth of Schubert doesn’t emerge through development, at least not one that we’d term ‘Beethovenian,’ … Instead, more or less, it’s articulated in a virtual instant, as in the shape and turn of a melody (and distinctly not in its working out)” (Richard Leppert:  “On Reading Adorno Hearing Schubert,” 19th-Century Music 29:1, 2005, p. 60).

To the great musicologist Leppert, the famous Andante of the Piano Trio No. 2, D. 929, is a model of such perfection.  We listen to it without looking for anything since nothing is missing.  “The ‘counterpoint,’ such as it is, seems to accomplish very little more than to comment by default on the perfection of the theme’s first statements.  How can perfection be elaborated?  The three voices gradually acknowledge that it can’t.  It’s as though they engage the tunes, passing bits of them back and forth, as if to say, ‘Can you believe how beautiful this is?  What happiness it gives me to sing the sadness’” (59).

Romantic melodies do not develop into variations and codas, as Classical themes do.  Themes arrive properly introduced and, if you follow them, they take you to several places till you reach a meaningful destination.  On the other hand, “Schubert’s themes wander just like the miller does, or he whose beloved abandoned him to the winter.  Those themes know of no history, but only shifts in perspective” (Adorno: “Schubert” [1928],” 19th-Century Music 29:1, 2005, 10).  Melodies arrive unannounced and immediately possess you.  They do not take you somewhere so that you may take them with you anywhere (the way, for example, movies like Barry Lyndon and The Piano Teacher have been taking the Andante of the 2nd Piano Trio to very different places).

I can tell the difference from the ways in which my other self Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis and I experience these two kinds of music.  When encountering a theme, we are eager to follow all its versions and variations till we reach a reassuring resolution.  When struck by a melody, though, we wallow in its enchantment, knowing it represents an absolute instant of our friendship and that we will never be friends like this very instant again.  The happiness granted by a perfect melody, like those of Schubert, is inescapably melancholic since its music may always be the same but its fleeting total moment never.

February 2, 2019

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