John Robilette | Concert Pianist, Cultural Diplomat
Polish Embassy in Washington, 2006.


  • “He gave a fantastic interpretation of Schumann...Robilette's playing is remarkable for its clarity of expression and depth of feeling. An exceptional musician given to few dramatic physical gestures, he fascinates us repeatedly.”
    Frankische Landzeitung
    Nuremburg/Ansbach, Germany
    April 16, 2007
  • “John Robilette gave a wonderful concert at the Teatro Auditorium last evening.”
    Mar del Plata Musical
    LU6 Emisor Antlantico Radio
    Mar del Plata, Argentina
    November 29, 1988
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You are here: Writings

Aesthetics and Music: a Difference of Music as Taste or Understanding

Given by John Robilette
Speech to the Women of Vision (WOV) group
DACOR Bacon House
Washington, DC
May 7, 2009
Taste, it seems to me, has to do with instinct, formation and culture. Instinct: why do I like strawberries more than raspberries, or one joke better than another? That is hardly worth an inquiring intellectual exercise. Formation, however, is what and how you were taught and directed as a youth. Did your parents listen to classical music, take you to museums, or was your mother a good cook? When asked to talk about his childhood, Abraham Lincoln said it could be described in one sentence: “The simple annals of the poor.” His wife, the much maligned Mary Lincoln, however, was a southern or border state ‘belle’ who spoke fluent French, and played the piano. And finally, there is culture, which is the water that you swim in. If your peers are excited about the latest something or other, chances are you’ll check it out. If you like calves liver but your friend doesn’t, probably your mother made it when you were young and his didn’t.

The other equation is, “understanding.” That has more to do with the mind and comprehension. For example: the law of harmony in music. Harmony is the chordal or vertical structure of a musical composition. If you take three notes on a keyboard and play them together with the notes at a certain distance apart, you have a triad. This triad is called a chord; one note less, and you have an interval. Some chords and intervals sound dissonant while others sound consonant or more sweetly pleasing. The laws of harmony determine how these chords and intervals can be used in progressions that create tension and resolution on their way to the cadence. A cadence is a momentary conclusion to a musical idea, phrase, or the whole composition. It is as if you were speaking a sentence, the end of which is the finish or the cadence. Charles Rosen said that the history of classical music is moving to and away from cadence points. The human mind perceives all of this, much like listening to a sentence or paragraph in the spoken word, with clauses, parentheses, and conclusions. And it is the human mind that developed harmony, melody and rhythm from its earliest, most elemental form.

During the Middle Ages, from the 9th century through the 12th, it became obvious that even in primitive counterpoint (meaning two or three lines of notes moving independently and simultaneously), that certain intervals (two notes sounding simultaneously) sounded better played together than others. This idea moves through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance where experimentation with the triad (three notes sounding simultaneously a third apart) gradually leads toward an awareness that harmonies can be used as building blocks for a composition. Yet it was not until the vertical or chordal structure of Rameau in the beginning of the 18th century that chords became fully realized as structural and compositional elements. But already in the 17th century came something called tonality. This began to establish chordal or vertical movement of music based on chords built on the different degrees of the scale. Then the idea of psycho-acoustical principals (my own term) begins, in which certain harmonies move or pull inexorably in certain directions, while others color the more active tones and serve as intermediaries. This produces tension and resolution upon which the phrase is built, as well as melodic lines whose beauty depends on the arrangement of the harmony or movement of the chords underneath. These psycho-acoustical principles are so called because the intellect perceives the rightness and wrongness of the movement of the harmony. Even a child will feel the pull of a dominant chord to the tonic, or surprise if the resolution of harmonic tension is put off deceptively and artfully. These are principles built through discovery over many centuries, and each was a building block to the other.

The original building block was Greek philosophy and art which purported that both nature and reason is beautiful and simple. They apprehended it as rational thought, every object as a whole – on universal laws governing nature.

Raphael and De Vinci are often presented as great experimenters, but they refined their innovation within limits defined by other artists who created preexisting methods of solving problems. They were able, as have artists from the middle ages up to about 1900, to create newness by discarding traditional solutions while paradoxically venturing forth their ideas based on the exacting standards and contexts previously defined. So newness is built upon oldness. Mozart and Haydn broke away from what they felt was the overladened Baroque counterpoint and ornamentation of Bach and Handel, using instead harmonic textures that were simpler and classically proportioned; Beethoven broke away from that with bolder expression and powerful and rustic development of musical ideas and form; Chopin, Schumann and Liszt broke from that with dream sequences, sweeping sensuality, vivid poetry and blinding virtuosity; and Wagner moved farther afield with harmonies that moved away from their base and then meandered back again, weaving in and out of a given scales with colors provided by adjacent tones and chords that were not part of the key scheme but artfully blended back into the home base. This is called chromaticism. Wagner also used it to delay the resolution of tension in the phrase by avoiding final cadences through overlapping each phrase into the next, and the next, creating the ecstasy of Tristan and Isolde. And finally, Debussy and Ravel, the great French Impressionists, used an exotic scale, the whole tone scale, and ancient modes to avoid cadences and create atmosphere and color unheard of before. But they all had one thing in common: they were tonalists. They built their innovations and mastery, no matter how far afield, on the principles of tonality, on a tonal base. All of it was comprehensible, all of it was commensurate with the Greek ideal of universal laws governing human nature. And then Thomas Aquinas took Aristotle and added the transcendent, so that it might finally be said that all of these composers since antiquity were not at war with a “God given order, with man’s innate sense of proportion, harmony and beauty.”

At the very beginning of the 20th century, the Viennese composer, Arnold Schoenberg, momentously broke completely with everything from the past. Harmony was swept away, disintegrated, and with it, melody. The purposeful companionship of dissonance to create tension moving toward consonance as resolution was changed to exclusive dissonance. Centuries of aesthetic development had been discarded. Contemporaneous with this in painting, Georges Braque and Picasso began experimenting with cubism: geometric designs that are two dimensional in abstract form, with angles intersecting randomly. Objective reality becoming distorted as though, as Jude Dougherty has said, “The Dutch masters had never existed.” Picasso and Braque eschewed beauty in order to depict their own “inner reality.” They broke with the natural order, doing away with the perspective of space and reducing all forms to two dimensional geometric solids, and reducing color to more neutral shades (grey, green and brown), just as Schoenberg reduced all music to dissonance. They did what an engineer could not do; they broke with the laws of nature.

One no longer hears arguments for or against modernism in art and music. There are no utterances like those of Pablo Casals the great cellist, who was asked once if he thought Picasso, his contemporary, was a great artist. “Yes,” he replied, if you think a woman has three eyes.” There are no longer camps in which people take up sides. Modernism is here, and existentially amongst us. There are two ways to look at it: if there is sterility or perverseness in modernism or post-modernism, then it is also within ourselves; if, however, it is merely a legitimate reflection of a new age unlike any other, then we are the beneficiaries of it, and we cannot and should not escape it. But when man places all value on himself, making himself the rule and guide of everything, and self expression becomes independent from the natural order, as the Greeks would say, or the divine order, as Thomas Aquinas would say, than nature itself is changed to serve that vision. God and nature are then supplanted by unnatural juxtapositions, which can lead to novelty.

Last February, I saw a play in London, entitled “Enjoy,” by the British humorist, Alan Bennett. It was advertised as a comedy and concerned about an aging couple who lived in an apartment development that was about to be torn down. They were being provided another dwelling by the developers, and, in order to determine their needs and better serve them in their new surroundings, social workers were brought in to observe their daily life and habits. Through this process it was revealed that their son was a transsexual, their daughter a prostitute, and that the husband was an adulterer and could be physically abusive. This was said to be real life, and the play was heralded for being unafraid to express the truth amongst conventionality.

Novelty has not yet been accepted like modernism. You will still see and hear debate and opinions engaged as to the worth of its progeny. Jonathan Littell, an English speaking American who lives in Spain, wrote in French a 983 page novel entitled “The Kindly Ones.’ This book has won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, as well as a prize from the Acadamie Francaise. It has sold 700,000 copies already in France, and Harpers is publishing it in the United States. To quote the New York Times, it is “a fictionalized account of a remorseless former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage, and most likely kills his mother and stepfather.” A French critic compared it to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Michael Korda, the former editor of Simon and Schuster, hailed it as a masterpiece and Mr. Litell as a genius. But Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that “the novel’s gushing fans…..seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness,” and called the book “willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent.”

We have already said at the beginning of this construction that taste is largely formed by what we are taught and the culture around us. And if art, which expresses the culture, is crass and materialistic because its very purpose is to express the ego and its own sense of inner reality as opposed to a real and natural state of being, than our developing tastes lie prey to it. Have we perhaps gone so far that we can no longer recognize beauty? Both Picasso and Schoenberg were immured in the artistic techniques of the past before they broke with it. Picasso, for example, was so schooled in realism by his father that at the age of 14 he was able to paint Portrait of Aunt Pepa, a portrait that Juan-Eduardo Cirlot, the Spanish art critic, has called “without a doubt one of the greatest in the whole history of Spanish painting.” Arnold Schoenberg knew all the countrapuntal formulations of Bach and wrote definitive textbooks on harmony and form. His rupture with tonality was a private sadness for him. But do composers graduate today without being able to write a gorgeous melody supported by harmonic underpinning that moves according to the laws of harmony? Do painters finish there studies unable to draw or draft anything that actually resembles the world around them? Many artists and composers will tell you that nothing more can be said using the tried and tested solutions to artistic problems that were finely honed by western civilization. But if we are left with only newness, than how far can it go without drifting like a boat that is not moored? Could it be that minimalist composers, who have recently rediscovered the consonant interval and triad, keep repeating it as a structural device because they don’t know what to do with it?

These are rhetorical questions which can be asked within the purview of the given topic of this talk: Music as taste or understanding. Understanding presupposes that we know not only where we are but how got there, and taste demands an informed choice.

There is, however, another word which I would like to introduce into the topic, which has not been heard much either in the 20th century nor today. That word is emotion. Music as an art is essentially an emotive experience. It should make you feel something that transcends your mundane, everyday existence. This emotion is not to be confused with anxiety, chaos, alienation and darkness, which can also be expressed in art and is most often found in our pop culture as a sort of indulgent, never ending catharsis. Rather it has to do with life giving thoughts that help us deal with and survive the human condition, induced by sounds that are so hauntingly beautiful that one feels moved by the power of great joy, or astonishment or nobility. Even sensuality and melancholy can sweep us up on our way to hope and triumph. Where does this power come from, this feeling in Beethoven’s Eroica, or Mozart’s Requiem? Why is it that a Chopin Nocturne strikes a respondent chord so deep within us that we cannot touch that sacred place; charm and elegance felt over one hundred sixty years before are now ours to experience? Why is it still germane? Because the true and ordered expression of human nature is a common denominator for all other human beings. Times may change and modes of expression, but feeling is timeless. And what kind of feeling? Do we speak anymore of nobility or of dignity? Which is more stately, the professional mourner who throws herself across the coffin, or the widow with the veil who sits alone bearing the sorrow? And what of the buoyancy of a dance rhythm, the civility and grace felt even though most of us no longer know how to waltz; or the love songs of Schumann and Hugo Wolf, as gloriously sensual in evoking that particular poetry of life as the The Song of Songs by Soloman in Hebrew scripture. Could it be that we have entered into a sacredness? That taste and understanding can be talked about, but that the soul has its own reasons.

Copyright © 2009