This passage by the French critic and thinker Roland Barthes has stayed with me ever since I first read it:

On the one hand there is what it is possible to write, and on the other, what is no longer possible to write...

He captures the experience of artists of all kinds: the writer staring at the blinking cursor, the composer staring at blank music paper, or even the lowly pianist wondering how to inflect a phrase of Mozart. You ask yourself, “What do I want to say? What do I not want to say?”—all the while knowing that certain kinds of expressions are no longer viable. A modern composer can’t write a symphony in the style of Beethoven; a cellist can’t play Bach in the style of Casals. Possibility, Barthes reminds us, has an expiration date.

My recital at this year’s White Light Festival is about the sweep of Western musical history, a story I love—eight centuries or more, depending on how you think of it. We can view this story as a series of logical fashions: styles arriving one after another because of changing mores, social conditions, or economic needs. This contextualization is important, but doesn’t quite grab the story by the throat. Composers are certainly at the whim of social forces; they are products of evolving tastes, but they are also, within those constraints, making choices: “What do I need to express?”

Sometimes those choices are desperate. In late Beethoven, for instance, you have the sense of a composer squeezed out onto a precipice by the greatness of the works he himself has written. It’s no longer possible to write the Eroica, and he’s forced to the periphery of his own domain, to a place where the style that sustained him is about to fall apart, where he chooses to mine the most extravagant and strange discoveries—the Grosse Fuge, the “Hammerklavier.”

On a larger scale, music history has similarly squeezed-out decision points, like the late 19th century into the 20th. How do you go on after Wagner and the chromatic excess of late Romanticism? Debussy says, “This is no longer possible,” and completely rejects the hyper-expressive premise, replacing it with French clarity, a certain remove, attention to color, sound for its own sake. Schoenberg says, “Well it is possible, but we need to update it, take it to the end of the line,” and so morphs late Brahms’s motivic thinking and chromatic harmony into atonality. One choice tells the last generation to go to hell; the other says they were right, but didn’t go far enough.

A key part of the story of music history is how much of “ourselves” we put in music, an X-factor that changes dramatically over the centuries. In the abstractions of complex medieval church music and some serialism of the 1950s you sense numerical distance: music free from human mess. But in the Renaissance, and again in the 19th century, you sense we as a species are making music over in our own image, as a reflection of ourselves: freeform, novelistic or operatic, rising up in triumph, searching, doubting, wondering, anticipating, doing many of the things we do, for better or worse.

One choice tells the last generation to go to hell; the other says they were right, but didn’t go far enough.

There is a very specific example of human agency in music: I have noticed a peculiar and obsessive pattern in the music of Schubert. A phrase begins, and lands somewhere; the next begins identically, but lands in a totally different place. A pair of choices: a flowchart with two contradictory emotional states. In the absolutely most Schubertian Schubert, the first destination will be almost too innocently and sweetly beautiful to be believed; the second destination will be haunted, dark, and empty. The first connotes a fragile happiness of the past that can’t be reclaimed, while the second negates any possibility of future happiness. Not the ideal set of choices: a Viennese Catch-22.

In middle Beethoven, you also have pairs of phrases, obviously—that’s how the classical style works—but they mostly don’t contradict each other in that way. They amplify each other, building in waves. Look, for instance, at the opening tutti of the “Emperor” Concerto. Even when Beethoven wavers between major and minor, like Schubert, there isn’t the sense of alternating joy and despair; there is no Catch-22; the optimism of the grand plan remains, because of the way the phrases interact. A different notion of choice is built into the musical fabric. Beethoven’s music feels more optimistic, in part, because there are fewer options. In Haydn and Mozart, just before him, the pairs of phrases often tend to bounce and balance off each other, like halves of a seesaw, reflecting each other’s energies. The sense is the play of options, forces in tension, not Schubert’s two paths forking off into the lonely wood.

Have all the choices been made? Is style dead?

A friend from college sent me an amazing letter after we graduated, which concluded with a giant flowchart looping all over the page, basically asking, “What will I do with my life?” (For me, a pianist, there was always basically one answer—practice.) There are points of decision, and then inevitable consequences: a soulless job leads to an eternity of boredom, for instance; “amicable divorce” brings on a “brief marriage to Swede”; “gratifying solitude” gives way to “Italian lovers.” At the end of every thread, of course, is death. Now, it may seem a bit irreverent to compare the present moment in music history to my friend’s post-college angst, but they share a quality: too many options.

The predicament of the modern composer is well documented: an eclectic all-you-can-eat buffet of styles. Many of the extremes have been tried; we’re surfeited with excess. It would be helpful to have an algorithm, like on Netflix, to tell us which thing to do next. Popular music lurks over everything—there you can see a certain consistency—while so-called classical music seems to have abandoned the idea of common practice. Have all the choices been made? Is style already dead? I’m glad I’m not a composer, but I imagine they feel like I do, for instance, while listening to recordings of old master pianists (Cortot, Friedman, Fischer): I listen with longing to the “no longer possible,” I say to myself yes, that’s no longer possible, people would laugh if you played like that, but what if I extracted something from there, something beautiful, and made it new somehow? In 50 years, then, the historians and critics can come in and explain to us the choices we’ve made.

Pianist Jeremy Denk is the recipient of MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the Avery Fisher Prize. He has recently appeared with The Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His writings have been published in The New York Times and The New Yorker, among others.

Above: Photo by Michael Wilson