I love "In der Nacht" — the way the piano acts as both an additional voice and accompaniment, the soprano and tenor voices enter, intersect, and join. Schumann's spare piece, in which every part is so exposed, captures the romantic spirit, but also foreshadows gestural 20th century writing: it is expressive yet measured, innovative yet accessible. In declaring ownership of his material, Schumann was able to take the conventions of vocal writing and mold them to suit his aesthetic, as the greatest composers had done before him.
Music history is marked by composers who unraveled current conventions or made them unfashionable. Classical composers of the late 18th century rebelled against the intricacies of Baroque counterpoint. Beethoven turned the prim Minuet into dark and brooding Scherzi, Wagner stretched tonality with endless sequences that avoided a tonic key, and Schoenberg abandoned key signatures in favor of a twelve-tone technique.
Composers took similar liberties with structural conventions, and some, such as John Field and Frederic Chopin, invented new forms.
All of these creators had two things in common: they had consummate skill, and they refused to let convention shape their aesthetic. Rather, they let their aesthetic shape convention.
Writers who have a clear aesthetic vision and the craft to carry it out have also molded or abandoned convention to suit their needs. Any why not? When a story's elements—tone, voice, point of view, character, setting, action, plot, and theme—are so clear that only unconventional means will do them justice, why conform? Why not exercise authority?
Consider Ring Lardner's hilarious short story, "Mr. and Mrs. Fix-it." It does not have an arc—a current popular convention in short stories. The narrator begins by describing the friendly people in his new home town who want to know how he and his wife came to settle there. He then suddenly shifts to what seems to be an unrelated tale about an overly helpful married couple he and his wife befriended. As the relationship develops, and the couple's helpfulness starts to backfire, the tale rises to its climax, then ends...abruptly. There is no denouement. There is only a brilliant punchline, which serves as a perfect counter-balance to the story's beginning, slow crescendo form, and irony.
Now, listen to the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 78 (played here by Wilhelm Kempff). Although written in Sonata Allegro form, a form which traditionally consists of an Exposition (repeated), followed by a Development and Recapitulation (repeated as one section, which Kempff doesn't do in this performance), Beethoven immediately declares his ownership of the form by starting with an Introduction.
As the piece progresses, think about why Beethoven began the movement this way. Try to imagine how it would have sounded without the Introduction, which, by the way, is not repeated. Would the material have had the same weight? The same tone? How does the Intro establish Beethoven's intent for the material and affect its overall structure? Why was it necessary for him to reshape convention?
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