Per Caritatem

Jeremy Begbie makes the interesting observation that “in music, structure is built primarily on relations based not upon difference or contrast but on attraction” (Theology, Music, and Time, pp. 158-159). Music of course utilizes sameness and difference, and repetition is largely responsible for the sameness. Yet unlike other art forms, music “tends toward the pole of absolute sameness” (p. 156). In a musical score, one commonly finds entire sections repeated note for note at the command of a repeat sign. Begbie also points out that repetition comes in different flavors and types. Repetition can be of the concealed sort and one only becomes aware of this type with intimate familiarity. Other kinds are more “immediate,” i.e., the repetition is obvious and repeated in close proximity (e.g., a section repeated by means of a repeat sign). Then there is “remote” repetition (or “return”), when the section or motif recurs after a significant time interval (p. 157). To illustrate the way in which music “gets away” with repetition in the extreme, Begbie cites the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, op. 68, bars 151-162, where we find a rhythmic motif relentlessly repeated. Begbie then asks, “Why has this music claimed so much enjoyment? What is novel amidst the almost the almost obsessive reiteration? Prima facie it would seem that we should be thoroughly weary after only a few bars. Why are we prepared to put up with so much repetition?” (p. 158). Begbie suggests that though “variation of musical parameters” (e.g., changes in orchestration, dynamics, re-harmonization etc.) and a constantly changing musical “environment” in regard to the repeated unit are partial answers, they do not reach the heart of the matter, viz., “each repeated component of music will have a different dynamic quality because each occurs in relation to a different configuration of metrical tensions and resolutions.” In other words, Begbie is highlighting the various points of tension and resolution in both micro and macrocosmic view. “It follows the every re-iterated note, motif or whatever is going to possess a different dynamic quality. The repetitions ride the waves in different ways. This is where the fundamental novelty lies within tonal music—two occurrences of the same motif can be sensed as different because each relates to a different combination of metrical tensions and resolutions. Viewed from the point of view of metre, everything is ‘new,’ […] This is why, as Berleant puts it, ‘Repetition … becomes regeneration rather than reiteration’” (p. 252). Thus, Begbie concludes that the harmonic, dynamic and other alterations do not serve the purpose primarily of keeping our attention and staving off our boredom, rather “they bring to our ear the patterns of tension and release in metrical waves. We are left with a fascinating irony:
The tones do not alter for the sake of variety, that is in order to give the same thing an appearance of being different; on the contrary, because what is apparently the same is basically always different, the tones do not always want to remain the same” (p. 162).


2 Responses so far

Unity and diversity explains the reason why much of our musical heritage as Christians is so attractive and worth listening to. Comparing Western music and its flowering in the increasingly Christian–really trinitarian–environment and comparing it to the music of other civilizations makes the point very nicely, I believe. Not that other musical traditions aren’t enjoyable or grand works of art. This just remains a strong point for trinitarian Christianity and one we should think about when approaching the topic.


Some time ago I got into a heated argument with a violist from the Seattle Symphony about Philip Glass. She complained about how difficult his work was to perform because of the repetition. Later on she flew into a fit of rage when I suggested that P.Glass had made musicians and live performance an anachronism. She has been with the Seattle Symphony for about 40 years.