Sunday, September 21, 2014

Class 6: Bach, The Father



I’m going to start this class by playing the first prelude of Book 1 from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You have all heard this piece, but it’s highly possible that you have never heard it played this badly. I haven’t practiced at all in days, and I have never properly practiced this piece at all except to play it from memory, and I always screw it up after about 75 seconds. I’m not sure I’m going to get through this music in one piece. But there’s a reason I want you all to hear it played by me. So much music, whether it’s Bach or Bob Dylan, is in some sense more meaningful when it’s played badly and you hear the struggle of the musicians to master it. Today’s classical music is usually played by professionals in a well-furbished concert hall, but hardly anyone except for professionals truly lives with this music anymore. For hundreds of years, what we now call classical music could only exist in people’s homes, played mediocrely by amateurs who loved this music all the more because they rarely heard it except in bad performances. When a good performer plays great music, he may well be sleepwalking through it. But when a bad performer plays great music, you know he must love it.

While we do this, I want you to look at the score. Even if you don’t read music, I think you’ll see that a three things are immediately apparent.

  1. How many different voices play simultaneously? (Is it one, two, three, or five?)
  2. Are there chords in this piece of which we can properly speak?
  3. Does this piece have an immediately discernible melody?


This work may seem baby simple, and if I told you that this could be the most complex and influential piece of music ever written, you’d probably think I’m out of my mind. But it’s nevertheless true. What Bach achieves in this piece is a miracle, and set the stage for every musical development which came after it.

Look at the score to this piece again? And let me ask again, what are we listening to? Is it a melody? Is it a series of chords broken up? And look at the note values. You may have noticed that I played it somewhat differently than you’ve heard every piano student play it. Usually it’s just a series of five note chords swallowed up by the pedal so that every note has an equal sound. But look at every measure. Bach clearly wants something different. He wants the first two notes of the measure held through, and every other note articulated as a short note. When you hold every note, it sounds like five intersecting lines that blend into a pool of sound. But are we in fact three different intersecting lines playing against each other, two of which are simply one note in every every measure?

The answer is that it is all three. Let’s look at Milan Kundera’s definition of musical history which he provided in his amazing novella-length essay Testaments Betrayed:

In a 1931 radio lecture, Schoenberg speaks of his masters:..."in the first place, Bach and Mozart; in the second, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms." In concise, aphoristic remarks, he goes on to specify what he learned from each of these five composers. Between the Bach reference and the others there is a very great difference: in Mozart, for example, he learns about "the art of unequal phrase lengths" or "the art of creating secondary ideas," that is to say an utterly individual skill that belongs to Mozart alone. In Bach, he discovers principles that had also operated in all the music for centuries before Bach: first, "the art of inventing groups of notes such that they provide their own accompaniment"; and second, "the art of creating the whole from a single kernel"-- These two sentences summarizing the lesson Schoenberg drew from Bach (and from his predecessors) can be taken to describe the whole twelve-tone revolution: in contrast to Classical music and Romantic music, which are built on the alternation of differing musical themes occurring one after the other, both a Bach fugue and a twelve-tone composition, from beginning to end, develop from a single kernel, which is both melody and accompaniment.

Never mind who Schoenberg is, what is the single kernel from which Bach builds the music we’ve just (perhaps tortuously) listened to me play?

Twenty-three years later, when Roland Manuel asks Stravinsky: "What are your major interests these days?" the latter responds: Guillaume de Machaut, Heinrich Isaak, Dufay, Perotin, and Webern." It is the first time a composer proclaims so firmly the immense importance of the music of the twelfth, the fourteenth, and the fifteenth centuries, and relates it to modern music (to Webern's).

Some years after that, Glenn Gould gives a concert in Moscow for the students of the conservatory; after playing Webern, Schoenberg, and Krenek, he gives his audience a short commentary, saying: "The greatest compliment I can give this, music is to say that the principles to be found in it are not new, that they are at least five hundred years old"; then he goes on to play three Bach fugues. It was a carefully considered provocation: socialist realism, then the official doctrine in Russia, was battling modernism in the name of traditional music; Glenn Gould meant to, show that the roots of modern music (forbidden in Communist Russia) go much deeper than those of the official music of socialist realism (which was actually nothing but an artificial preservation of romanticism in music).

Let’s hear some of this Webern, just to get a sense of how radical it would be to play it in the Soviet Union.



Never mind that this comparison is unfair to Soviet music, let me just ask: Is the American musical tradition hewing to older traditions in a similar way that Schoenberg’s is? Or is American music generally a mirror image of Socialist (Capitalist?) Realism?

The history of European music covers about a thousand years (if I take as its beginnings the first experiments in primitive polyphony). The history of the European novel (if I take as its start the works of Rabelais and Cervantes) covers about four centuries. When I consider these two histories, I cannot shake the sense that they developed in rhythms resembling, so to speak, the two halves of a soccer game. The caesuras, or halftime breaks, in the history of music and in that of the novel do not coincide. In the history of music, the break stretches over a big part of the eighteenth century (the symbolic apogee of the first half occurring in Bach's The Art of Fugue, and the start of the second half in the works of the earliest Classical composers); the break in the history of the novel comes a little later: between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries--that is, between Lados and Sterne on the one side and, on the other, Scott and Balzac. This asynchronism shows that the deepest causes governing the rhythm of the history of the arts are not sociological or political but aesthetic: bound up with the intrinsic nature of one art or another; as if the art of the novel, for instance, contained two different potentialities (two different ways of being a novel) that could not be worked out at the same time, in parallel, but could be worked out only successively, one after the other.

Has America been around long enough that we can divide various contemporary American genres into two halves? Or are the arts in America a tribuary in a larger stream that history will show over a much longer timespan?

The metaphor of the two halves of a game came to me some time ago in the course of a conversation with a friend and does not claim to be at all scholarly; it is an ordinary, elementary observation, naively obvious: when it comes to music and the novel, we are all of us raised in the aesthetic of the second half. A mass by Ockeghem or Bach's The Art of Fugue are for the average music lover as difficult to comprehend as Webem's music. However enchanting their stories, the novels of the eighteenth century intimidate the reader by their form, to the point where they are much better known in movie adaptations (which necessarily denature both their spirit and their form) than through their written texts. The works of the eighteenth century's most famous novelist, Samuel Richardson, cannot be found in bookstores and are practically forgotten. Balzac, on the contrary, even though he may seem old-fashioned, is still easy to read; his form is comprehensible, familiar to the reader, and even more important, it is for that reader the very model of the novel form.

Think of film or popular music for a moment. What are examples of film and popular music that seem completely remote to us today? As though they come from the first half of the story. And what changed to make such work remote to us?

The chasm between the aesthetics of these two halves makes for a multitude·of misunderstandings. Vladimir Nabokov, in his book on Cervantes, gives a provocatively negative opinion of Don Quixote: overvalued, naïve, repetitive, and full of unbearable and implausible cruelty; that "hideous cruelty" makes this book "one of the most bitter and barbarous ever penned"; poor Sancho, moving along from one drubbing to another, losing all his teeth at least five times. Yes, Nabokov is right: Sancho loses too many teeth, but we are not in the world of Zola, where some cruel act, described precisely and in detail, becomes the accurate document of a social reality; with Cervantes, we are in a world created by the magic spells of the storyteller who invents, who exaggerates, and who is carried away by his fantasies, his excesses; Sancho's three hundred broken tooth cannot be taken literally, no more than anything else in this novel. "Madame, a steamroller has just run over your daughter!" "Yes, yes, I'm in the bathtub. Slide her to me under the door." Must we bring charges of cruelty against that old Czech joke frommy childhood? Cervantes' great founding work was alive with the spirit of the nonserious, a spirit that was later made incomprehensible by the Romantic aesthetic of the second half, by its demand for plausibility.

Is there such a thing as realism in music?

The second half not only eclipsed the first, it repressed it; the first half has become the bad conscience of the novel and especially of music. Bach's work is the best-known example: Bach's renown during his lifetime; Bach forgotten after his death (forgotten for half a century); the slow rediscovery of Bach over the length of the nineteenth century. Beethoven alone almost succeeded toward the end of his life (that is, seventy years after Bach's death) in integrating Bach's experience into the new aesthetic of music (his repeated efforts to insert fugue into the sonata), whereas after Beethoven, the more the Romantics worshiped Bach, the further they moved away from him in their structural thinking. To make him more accessible they subjectivized and sentimentalized him (Busoni’s famous arrangements); then, reacting against that romanticization, came a desire to recover his music as it was played in its own time, which gave rise to some notably insipid performances. It seems to me that, having once passed through the desert of oblivion, Bach's music still keeps its face half veiled.

Let’s listen to one such ‘vulgarization.’ This is an orchestration of Bach’s Passacaglia for Organ by Ottorino Respighi. It’s incredibly exciting, but as we listen, let’s ask, why, if any reason would Bach object to this legitimately?


Rather than discuss the forgetting of Bach, I could turn my idea around and say: Bach is the first great composer who, by the enormous weight of his work, compelled the audience to pay attention to his music even though it already belonged to the past. An unprecedented phenomenon, because until the nineteenth century, people lived almost exclusively with contemporary music. They had no living contact with the musical past: even if musicians had studied the music of previous times (and this was rare), they were not in the habit of performing it in public. During the nineteenth century, music of the past began to be revived and played alongside contemporary music and to take on an ever greater presence, to the point that in the twentieth century the balance between the present and the past was reversed: audiences heard the music of earlier times much more than they did contemporary music, and now the latter has virtually disappeared from concert halls.

Is the situation Kundera’s describing now the situation of American music? Since classical music is saturated to the gills with tradition and history, has the world moved out of that storehouse to create a new one without tradition? And most importantly, are we beginning to feel cramped in this storehouse too?

Bach was thus the first composer to establish his place in the memory of later generations; with him, nineteenth-century: Europe not only discovered an important part of music's past, it also discovered music history. Europe saw that Bach was not just any past but rather a past that was radically different from the present; thus musical time was revealed abruptly (and for the first time) not just as a series of works but as a series of changes, of eras, of varying aesthetics. I often imagine him in the year of his death, in the exact middle of the eighteenth century, bending with clouding eyes over The Art of Fugue, a composition whose aesthetic orientation represents the most archaic tendency in Bach's oeuvre (which contains many orientations), a tendency alien to its time, which had already turned completely, away from polyphony toward a simple, even simplistic, style that often verged on frivolity or laziness.

Who are some examples of American artists who, like Bach, conservatively (at least aesthetically) maintained their status quo because the new developments seemed intellectually lazy.

The historical position of Bach's work therefore reveals what later generations had begun to forget that history is not necessarily a path climbing upward (toward the richer, the more cultivated), that the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity), and that the new (the unique, the inimitable, the previously unsaid) might lie in some direction other than the one everybody sees as progress. Indeed, the future that Bach could discern in the art of his contemporaries and of his juniors must to his eyes have seemed a collapse. When, toward the end of his life, he concentrated exclusively on pure polyphony, he was turning his back on the tastes of his time and on his own composer sons; it was a gesture of defiance against history, a tacit rejection of the future. Bach: an extraordinary crossroads of the historical trends and issues of music.

Do we have a Bach-like figure in the American popular tradition, who synthesizes all sorts of different techniques and creates a new music out of it?

There is an enormous amount of information in this quote, and we’ll have to disregard some of it today, though we’ll come back to an enormous amount of it in the future. But for the moment, let’s concentrate on that football metaphor: two halves of a game. It’s a good metaphor. People often have contempt for artists for pretending that art is more important or intelligent than sports. In a sense, they’re absolutely right to say that. Art is a game like any other game, but the difference is that art gives you many, many more games to appreciate and master than sports does. Every single work of art is its own game that makes its own rules, and every time that one particular work of art is presented, that’s little different in its own complexity than playing a game of baseball or football.

But let’s just say, for the moment, that the entire history of every art form is no more complex than a single game of football or soccer. In such a metaphor, the only rule of play in the history of music is that music must remain music, and otherwise the game simply develops as it does. It starts with a single idea, an idea like perhaps Gregorian Chant.


A few themes, repeated endlessly in the church over a period of nearly a thousand years, with no particularly new musical developments except perhaps in the oral tradition, of which, of course, we have no record.

But then, a figure like Leonin, or Magister Leoninus as he was known in Latin, appears, who comes up with the idea of putting one theme over another. It serves to remind us that once everything, even the most basic things we take for granted, was a revolutionary change. This was a new, linear concept of music in which our ears can perceive an evolution rather than simply hear it declaimed in a manner that mimics conversation. Music before Leonin was music for the Age of Arithmetic, music after Leonin was music for the Age of Algebra.

A hundred years later comes Guillaume de Machaut, a musical genius so profound that he can sustain four different lines of counterpoint over a period of a half-hour, and with this four voices, creates the rules of modern composition and the modern choir as we still know it today. Let’s listen to a bit of his music:


As the decades and centuries pass, these four lines of counterpoint get increasingly complicated. They reach a kind of apogee in the music of Josquin dez Prez, the fifteenth century composer revered by Martin Luther, among many others, as the greatest who ever lived. Before Josquin, these lines generally had many of the properties of melody. But in Josquin, these lines of counterpoint cease to seem like melodies at all. They are merely small cells of notes arranged in such a way that each voice imitates the cell, states it backwards and upside down, and sings the cell in quick sequence. It is a new kind of development, in which the composer’s technique was the entire point of the composition.


Chronologically, the distance between Josquin and Bach is the same as the distance between Machaut and Bach. And there are enormous developments we won’t cover. But let’s say for the moment that Leonin and Machaut are the beginning of a professional sports game, and if the game we’re playing were to be basketball, then let’s posit that Josquin is the beginning of the second quarter. But let’s say that this basketball game is also a bit like a cricket game, and the game is more than a week long without a stop. At the end of the game, or even halfway through it, we would barely be able to remember what happened toward the beginning of the game. Moreover, if basketball players had to play for as long as cricket players do, then would be so exhausted that if they played without interruption, they’d be dead. Carry that metaphor over to real life. As shockingly different as the music of these two masters would appear to the people of their eras, they both seem a bit like ancient history to us, and we can only appreciate the differences between them with enormous effort.

But Bach seems to mark the beginning of music for most people that they can appreciate with pleasure, and without any academic knowledge. Even if his music sounds demonstrably different than any later composer’s music and bound up in old styles, his language is still our language. Let’s listen to that recording of the Art of the Fugue which Kundera talks about.


On the one hand, this sounds completely melodic, almost romantic. And yet you’d never mistaken it for something by Chopin or Liszt. Even by the standards of our day, it’s completely melodious, and yet, it’s a completely different type of melody than any we’re accustomed to hearing. The music’s constructed out of all those broken fragments you hear in Josquin, but it’s so ingeniously assembled that it sounds little different than a romantic melody. Insofar as I could ever give you the secret to Bach’s greatness, that is it. Bach sounds like no other composer because he operates by rules completely different than any later composer did, and yet his style still sounds like our own. Because with the rules of his time, he recoded music to mean something completely different. He organized music so brilliantly that his music almost always serves that double-purpose. From Machaut until Bach, the goal to which all the greatest composers seemed to aspire was to inspire in the ear the kind of awe which people derive from cathedrals and castles with their eyes. But Bach, an austere Protestant reforming the relatively gaudy styles of Catholic composers before him, didn’t just want to create something that awed the listener with its glory. Good Lutheran he was, he wanted the listener to feel a personal relationship with God in the same way we might with a parent or child. He certainly created all those cathedrals in sound, but more important was that he brought to this extremely technical music the kind of expressive melody which we find familiar from today’s music, and which in his day was more familiar from folk music than it was from the church or concert hall

The way to explain how he did this is to go back to that Well-Tempered Clavier prelude. Bach wrote many towering works, but there isn’t a single one that towers in music history like the Well-Tempered Clavier, and frankly, not a single one that towers more than this extremely simple prelude. This prelude is, at least in my opinion, the end of music history’s first half, and the beginning of the second half.

Why is this simple work so important and complex? Because, just like in the rules of music’s first half, the music is its own accompaniment and the whole thing comes simply out of three notes - the simplest possible notes in the world, a C-major chord, which are plucked on the piano as though it were a guitar for two minutes. And like music’s second half, the rules of music by which we still play, it is clearly a melody with a harmonic chord, requiring nothing but itself to feel complete. The harmony just happens to be the melody itself. And without going through them all, the harmony which Bach creates in this piece is every rule of harmony by which we still play today. After Bach, the old scales of the Church (play them) that go all the way back to Gregorian Chant are done away with. Bach wanted a music in which every possible harmony can be interrelated to every other, and if you listen to the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, you realize that he succeeded. I have no idea what the greatest piece of music ever written is, but I’d name this one the most miraculous.

This piece is so simple that the great French composer, Charles Gounod, created a melody around it and formed a second immortal piece of music. Here is Bobby McFerrin performing a second miracle around Bach’s.




After Break:

So who was the man that created all this? In order to answer this, let’s first listen to some of PDQ Bach’s “A Bach Portrait”, based actually rather closely on Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait. Let’s see what you think of it.


I think this is truly an amazing work of parody. Aaron Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait during World War II to show us an inspirational man. Peter Schikele, better known as PDQ Bach, wrote A Bach Portrait, to show us that this great man, who’s served as an inspiration to just as many people as Abraham Lincoln, not only has very little memorable to say in words, but that what he did have to say makes him sound like an especially peevish bureaucrat.

First, let’s take a look at these pictures.

Can anyone tell me what kind of man Bach looks like? What qualities does he exude?

Bach is one of those figures, like Homer or Shakespeare, about whom we know next to nothing. He’s not quite as well-concealed as some older masters, because we have plenty of circumstantial reports about Bach. What we lack is first-person testimony, and we have very little testimony of friends or family. Except for some mild anger, he revealed very little in his letters about what kind of person he was. So here are the basic facts of Bach’s character that we know:

We know that he was an orphan by the age of ten and had to spend his adolescent years living with his older brother. We know that he was a member of the Bach family, a venerable clan of German musicians that stretched back two-hundred years, consulted each other on music, and pulled strings to get one another the best possible jobs. We know that as a student, he was difficult to get along with, because there are reports of his getting into fights, most famously with a bassoonist whom he referred to as a ‘Zippelfaggottist’, which, as literally as can be translated, means ‘nanny-goat bassoonist.’ We know that he was often at loggerheads with his various employers, and was even thrown in jail by one of them for a month. We know that he never left a 200-mile radius of what we’d now mostly think of as Eastern Germany. We also know that he possessed a fantastically elaborate library for his time of musical scores from as far afield as Italy and England, and wasn’t above plagiarizing them (in Bach’s defense, neither was any other musician of his time, none moreso than Handel). Also, contrary to what a few scholars allege, we can assume pretty safely that Bach was fanatically religious, because he accumulated a collection of religious volumes that rivaled any in a mid-size German church. The irony of Bach is that he was a tradesman first and foremost, not an artist. It would probably have scandalized him to know that history now views him as one of the three greatest composers who ever lived. On every church score he completed, Bach wrote the inscription ‘Solo Dei Gloria,’ which means ‘to the Glory of God alone.’ Success to Bach was not counted in any worldly matter, it would have been counted by how many souls his music saved.

He was born to the lower-middle class, and like the lower-middle class of seemingly all cultures, his feelings towards authority was one of profound gratitude, because like so many lower-middle class Christians of today, he viewed his social betters as having saved him from poverty. Even after having been thrown in jail for a month by the Duke of Weimar for trying to seek better employment, his letters to the aristocracy read like non-stop grovelling, so much so that you begin to think that he really must believe in what he’s saying. But there is no authority in the human mind which figures higher than God, and Bach’s belief in God was absolute. if we had to venture a guess as to his religious belief, it would probably be that he was a Lutheran of the most orthodox variety. Martin Luther had been dead for two-hundred years when Bach was alive, and even before the Enlightenment, people thought of Luther as a fanatic. But the evidence would seem to point to that Bach believed in every word Luther wrote as though Luther were preaching personally to him.

We also know Bach liked sex, because he had twenty children, yes, twenty, and was once admonished as a student for bringing a woman into his church’s organ loft. We also know that only nine of his children survived him. We also know that Bach once returned from a journey only to find that his first wife was dead and buried for a month. All this means that Bach was intimately acquainted with the severest tragedies life has to offer. Let’s listen to the famous Chaconne for Solo Violin, which every true music lover loves desperately and every violinist fears horribly. But this is a recording with a difference. Twenty years ago, a German scholar named Helga Theone discovered that within the harmonic scheme of the Chaconne, you can find four separate Lutheran chorales which fit perfectly in the harmonic scheme of this music, all of which are about death and resurrection.


Given that we live in the post-industrial age, with lower early mortality rates, how much is the kind of tragedy which Bach lived with from day-to-day still a concern for us?

There is no mistaking Bach’s view of the world as anything but tragic, just as there’s no mistaking Mozart’s as anything but comic and Beethoven’s as heroic. But the best testimony to Bach’s character will always be to listen to his music.

And if we go by the music, then Bach’s true religion was order. He believed in a Leibnizian God who runs the world as though it’s as perfect as a grandfather clock. All the suffering of our lives is just the briefest test we must undergo to prove ourselves worthy for the joys that come from an eternal world. A God of an eternal heaven must run the world in such a way that his infinitely complex greatness is always manifest, even if the ways he displays his glory can be elusive in the extreme. Bach’s music was a mission to discover the extremely elusive glory of his god, and in order to expose such glory, his music had to be craft itself. And Bach wrote music not as an artist, but as a supreme craftsman, an engineer and architect in sound.

Form is what gives music its physical definition, and when it came to creating the finite limitations which gives music its substance, Bach’s craft is truly infinite - a craft never beaten in any artistic realm, and probably not equaled (Dante?). Just as Newton discovered the formal patterns and possibilities of physics, Bach laid bare the formal, contrapuntal, and harmonic patterns and possibilities of music - he marked the end of a counterpoint-dominated music and the beginning of a harmony-dominated one. He also marked the end of an old concept of form, but he did not mark the beginning of a new conception. That was left to the next generation.

Let’s listen to a very brief piece of pure harmonic invention. Another piece of music so completely simple, and yet you hear Bach testing out every possible harmonic crevice to milk and wring every possible emotion over two minutes. If you’ve seen the movie Before Sunrise, you’ll recognize this immediately.


How would you describe the emotions present in Bach’s music?

To me, a few fundamental facts about his music stand out. One is to stand the absolute command of musical form with the almost complete lack of concern when it comes to what instruments play his music. So much of Bach is simply written for whatever is available to play. The prelude I played earlier could just as easily be played by a harpsichord. It’s hard to imagine a composer who would devote so much effort to getting every detail of the notes on the page exactly right, and then care so little for who plays it and how it’s played. But that seems to be the case with Bach. Bach wrote these absolutely amazing musical forms, as the musicologist Jan Swafford said, no composer ever wrote better notes than Bach. And it really is true. But qualities beyond the notes - the tone colors, the tempo markings, the dynamics, are next to non-existent. How can a composer be so careful and still leave so much to chance? So let’s listen to a piece which shows just how endlessly adaptable Bach was.


Is the fact that Bach can sound this good in a manner he never could a thought of a strength or a weakness of his music?

Part of the reason was, of course, that Bach never expected many other people to play his music. He knew the musicians who were playing, and he did his best to write according to their abilities. And when you played keyboard instruments as virtuosically as Bach did, what point would there be in asking someone else to play? And just to give an example of how great a keyboardist Bach must have been, let’s hear the last few variations, from the Goldberg Variations. But before we do, I just want to point out a few small details of this perfect piece of music - and it’s about as close to perfect as music gets. The Goldberg Variations is comprised of an aria, or song. The song is repeated once at the beginning and once at the end, in the middle are thirty variations (which means a restatement of the main theme, but in a completely new musical guise that follows the theme’s outline without imitating it). So in the Goldberg Variations, there are 32 movements. Each of these movements is 32 bars long. Furthermore, each of these thirty-two bars are divided into two sections, an A and B section like any pop song, each are sixteen bars long. But Bach leaves instructions for each section to be played twice, which means that every section within every variation and song is 32 bars. Music does not get more perfect than the Goldberg Variations, but the perfection is its own kind of limitation if you don’t have a performer who’s willing to conjure up the imagine of Bach improvising like a madman on a keyboard, varying the music even after he wrote it to be completely consistent. The approach it demands is not too far away from jazz. Jazz rarely approaches this perfection if it ever did, but playing Bach usually requires Jazz’s vitality and freedom anyway.


As we said, nobody wrote better notes than Bach. And it’s really true. If music simply existed in two-dimensions in which we could hear notes written on a page in our heads, then there is no question, Bach would be the greatest composer of all time. But when it came to the more ineffable qualities of the music, the instructions on how it’s played, Bach was anything but perfection. Recently, a famous Bach conductor suggested that perhaps Bach suffered from something not unlike ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder). Personally, judging by the almost fetishistic quality, I can’t help wondering if Bach instead had Asperger’s Syndrome, in which semi-autistic people can function incredibly well in a given subject, with skill well beyond the capacities of even the most gifted normal humans, but with limited sympathy for people, or anything outside their given field of study.  

Perhaps this is why, in another one of those great ironies which would probably have enraged Bach, Bach is fundamentally known for his secular, instrumental compositions. Bach saw himself first and foremost as a composer for the Church, and there’s an enormous amount to love in his his 200-odd surviving cantatas and his two surviving passion plays and hundreds of organ improvisations around church chorales and so much else. There are plenty of people who love his church music above all, but the vast majority prefers his instrumental compositions. I think most people would agree that there is something about a lot of the Church music that is limited by the religious dogma it carries. All the talk about Christ and the Resurrection doesn’t do nearly as much for people as instrumental music in which there is no religious limit to what it can express. Bach’s instrumental music has all the fanatical conviction of everything he wrote, but people don’t have to be believers in order to be moved by his conviction. There was a famous conductor named Thomas Beecham who was a great exponent of Bach’s exact contemporary, Handel. He was once asked what he thought of Bach and why he didn’t play Bach nearly as much, his answer was “Too much counterpoint. What’s worse, Protestant Counterpoint.”

Like so many artists, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Bach’s religion got in the way of his music-making. Many composers have died too early, but Bach died a different death. The Church was always at the center of Bach’s inspiration, but Bach was so committed to the church that his last twenty years were by-and-large spent not composing. Until his final three years, Bach spent his more venerable years training and educating his choir boys and simply recycled his church music for the next time it was required for performance. When Bach exchanged the court instrumentalists for the church choir, the quality of his music already took a step back from the ‘divine’. Whereas his music could once stretch out to the infinite with instrumental suites and partitas, it became beholden to the dogmatic strictures of whatever Biblical lesson he had to impart for that week’s homily.

Imagine if Bach could have taken a step back from his Church obligations and become a bit more liberal in his secular sympathies as he aged. Imagine if he were not quite so intractable about his conception of music and allowed himself to write in the new styles. Perhaps we could have Bach symphonies, Bach operas, Bach string quartets. All those forms already existed during Bach’s lifetime, even if no great composer yet put their stamp on them. But like many great classical musicians of our day, Bach had a tin ear for new developments, and perhaps the loss to music and posterity is incalculable.  

But at the same time, it was Bach’s dogmatic Christianity which gave him the devotion he needed to write the music he wrote. Like so many conservatives, Bach helped facilitate the destruction of exactly what he hoped to revive. His music was so good that music could no longer be seen as a subservient art to other more important concerns like God and Drama. Thanks to Bach, music began to declare its independence from everything except music. He wanted to create music so great that it saved your soul, but instead he created music so great that it stirred people to listen to greater music.

Bach, or at least the Bach everybody loves, is a creation of the nineteenth century. In the 1820’s, a young composer and conductor named Felix Mendelssohn decided to mount a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 in a performance that may come down to us as the most influential performance of any piece of music ever. Bach’s music, which never seemed to move listeners more than any other good composer during his lifetime, made people weep openly. Let’s listen to the opening number, perhaps the grandest piece of music Bach ever wrote and the piece that started the Bach revolution. But let’s listen to it in a souped up, nineteenth century-style performance that shows exactly what it was that people loved about him.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Class 5 (Complete): Modern America, Frederick the Great, and the Temple of Sarastro

I’d like to begin this class with a poem and a bit of music. First, let’s read the poem, which is really just a small part of a much larger poem by William Wordsworth.

OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
         For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood  
         Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
         Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
         But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
         In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
         Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
         The attraction of a country in romance!
         When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
         When most intent on making of herself                       
        A prime Enchantress--to assist the work,
         Which then was going forward in her name!
         Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
         The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
         (As at some moment might not be unfelt
         Among the bowers of paradise itself)
         The budding rose above the rose full blown.
         What temper at the prospect did not wake
         To happiness unthought of? The inert
         Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!                  
         They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
         The playfellows of fancy, who had made
         All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
         Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred
         Among the grandest objects of the sense,
         And dealt with whatsoever they found there
         As if they had within some lurking right
         To wield it;--they, too, who, of gentle mood,
         Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
         Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild,         
         And in the region of their peaceful selves;--
         Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
         Did both find, helpers to their heart's desire,
         And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
         Were called upon to exercise their skill,
         Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
         Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
         But in the very world, which is the world
         Of all of us,--the place where in the end
         We find our happiness, or not at all!  

William Wordsworth composed these extraordinary, beloved, and immortal lines from his long Prelude while recalling The French Revolution at its moment of greatest triumph - that brief period after the overthrowing of France’s ancien regime when every liberty for humanity, every happiness, every hope, seemed possible. Just three years later came the Revolutionary Commune, when Robespierre and Danton sent 20,000 Frenchmen to the guillotine over a two-year period, and the liberals of their era came face to face with the realization that they’d overthrown a despotic regime only to install one no better, perhaps even worse.

Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, and when a powerful government is displaced, the only alternative is a government that rules with just as iron a hand, if only more wisely. America re-learned this lesson quite recently when they dislodged the Taliban in Afghanistan, they settled for a quasi-authoritarian, extremely corrupt replacement in Hamid Karzai. But in Iraq, America tried to replace Saddam Hussein with a democratic government in its own image, and we now see that the result is an attempted Islamic Caliphate which perhaps will make even Saddam look benevolent.

I would ask you if there was any moment that seemed similar for liberals of our generation to how the French Revolution seemed for Wordsworth, but the illusions of 2008 and the Arab Spring are still so close to our experience that I think we know precisely how Wordsworth felt, even if the events were far more dramatic in the Middle East than they ever were here. But the idealists of every generation have a similar moment when its illusions go up in smoke. For our parents, it was that brief moment in 67 and 68 when governments around the world were falling and it seemed as though the governments of America, the Soviet Union, France, West Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, might be turned upside down - that moment right before Martin and Bobby were assassinated, the Soviet Union issued the Brezhnev doctrine and his their tanks went into Prague, before every country turned the police on their protestors, and before Tricky Dick was elected twice.

How does this happen?

I don't know for sure, but I'd venture that it has something to do with the fact that, occasionally, the best and the brightest do become our world leaders. And when they do, the effect on the quality of our lives is so easily measurable that we begin to convince ourselves that since our lives have become so much better so quickly, so much more is possible. Rather than become satisfied with our new lots, entirely new vistas open their possibilities to us. It’s precisely what’s happened in the last few years. No matter how unsatisfied many liberals have become with Obama, how many of us pleaded with whatever God we might sometimes believe in for a president with Obama’s flaws during the heydey of the Bush administration? I hate to break it to you, but the liberal revolution most of us have been longing is happening right now, and it was never going to be all it’s cracked up to be. It will take an entire generation to affect the change which many people in this room want to see, and at the end, our revolution will in all likelihood have created as many problems as we solved. Perhaps we’re the generation that breaks history’s cycle, but every generation thinks they are, only to find their illusions mercilessly crushed. This is the way history has always seemed to work.

And this was, in all probability, how the 18th century enlightenment happened too. As Thomas Carlyle said, “Find in any country the ablest man that exists there, raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him, you have a perfect government for that country.” Thomas Carlyle will come up a number of times in this course as one of history’s great idiots, but yet again, his idiocy comes from the fact that what he says is not completely untrue.  

Name, if you can, an instance when a ruler truly was the ablest man in the country.  

The ideas of Renaissance Humanism, pretty obviously the Enlightenment’s most important ancestor, existed at least in the 14th century, but it didn’t gain any true kind of mass traction until the 18th. In the meantime, it didn’t truly impact historical progress except for the aristocrats literate enough to have heard about such ideals and clergy literate enough to suppress them. The reason is because when the European world is ruled by hereditary monarchies, the idea of a king who can also be your greatest philosopher is at mercy of the lottery of genetics, lottery preserved by a series of inbred families that may not have been particularly bright to begin with.

But in Frederick the Great of Prussia, there was, finally, a true genius on the European throne for nearly fifty years who, through a series of wars and treaties, transformed a stale East German backwater into the preeminent European power. As a youth, he was called Fritz, and was supposed to have a purely religious and military education. He was literally woken up every morning by a canon, and was beaten for falling off a horse and wearing gloves in cold weather. But behind his Father’s back, Fritz accumulated a secret library of over 3,000 books. Frederick, artistic and quite clearly gay, bristled at the militarism and religiousness of his kingdom and when he was still crown prince planned to run away to England with his tutor, who may or may not also have been his lover. His father caught him, nearly sentenced his son to death for desertion, and succeeded at least in imprisoning his son for a few years, in court marshalling him, in forcing him to watch the beheading of his tutor, and tried to pass over Fritz in succession for his younger son, whom he vastly preferred. He probably would have been successful too had the Holy Roman Emperor - also known as the Austrian King - not intervened. If Fritz's father were successful, we would have lost the King whose power and intelligence probably enabled the entire Enlightenment to happen.

What are some famous stereotypes of the German people?
But even if his father nearly killed him, lots of people credit the father, Frederick William (or Friedrich Wilhelm) the First, with enabling the conditions that made the reign of Frederick the Great possible. The older Frederick was precisely the type of obsessive micromanager whom history remembers as a buffoon, but who nevertheless creates the conditions for long-term prosperity. He was a kind of hoarder. He loathed everything that was impractical, and disdained the theater particularly as 'the temples of Satan.' He was such a control freak that he personally dictated all 297 paragraphs of the manual for Prussian State Employees. He was such a cheapskate that he literally kept the Prussian treasury in the basement of his own palace, but he ran the treasury in such a way that his son inherited an enormous surplus. This man also raised the finest army in Europe, drilled every day to a perfection of execution which no army had ever approached, and always using the latest technological innovations, like the iron ramrod - or musket bayonet - to make the drills still more impressive. Yet Frederick the father was so risk averse that he took this army to war only once, and only very briefly. For Frederick I, these possessions were like toys or fetishes - they were ends in themselves, never to be used. For his amusement, he even had his own personal regimen of soldiers who were particularly tall. Before there were notions of German humorlessness and discipline, there was Prussian humorlessness and discipline, and those notions come not from Frederick the Great, but from his father.

Over time, his son revealed himself as a philosopher of war and economics, an urban planner and environmental conservationist, a speaker of ten languages, one of the history's greatest generals, a reasonably gifted playwright, musician, architect, and wit. More than any monarch in modern European history, Frederick the Great valued education, learning, and tolerance. His father was an orthodox Calvinist, but long before Marx uttered his most famous quote about religion, Frederick the Great said "Religion is the idol of the mob. It adores everything it does not understand." Even among countries who should have feared him, he was almost a universally beloved figure. In the early 1760’s, when it seemed as though his entire kingdom might collapse from war against nearly all of Europe, he was saved by the ascension of a Russian Czar who was such a fan of Frederick’s work that the new Czar immediately ordered his empire to switch sides. The rest of Europe then realized that they could not beat a Russo-Prussian alliance, and they sued for peace too. The new Czar later wrote to Frederick that he would rather have been a general in the Prussian army than a Russian Czar, and as payment the Czar asked for the honor of being given a noble title in Frederick’s court.

What are contemporary examples of political figures who are beloved by those who are in a position to be hated?

Prussia was, first and foremost, a disconnected land - a series of proto-bantustans in which a number of important territories were completely incongruous with each other. The biggest key to uniting them was the wealthy Austrian province of Silesia - the vast majority of which would now be considered Polish territory, but at the time was considered the property of the Holy Roman Empire, who are primarily the ancestors of we now think of as Austria. Six months after Frederick’s ascension came the ascension of the Holy Roman Empress and his principal rival in world history, Maria Theresa - a figure as Christian and conservative as Frederick was secular and progressive. Their forty-year rivalry shapes Europe’s German-speaking lands to this day.

When Maria Theresa ascended to the throne, Frederick disputed her claim to it, and especially her claim to Silesia, and cited an obscure treaty from the early 1500’s as justification. What he realized was that if he did not pre-emptively start a war for Silesia, the Polish King might, because the Polish kingdom was in a similarly incongruent situation, and as the Holy Roman Empire continued its long decline, Silesia was the key for both Prussia and Poland to become the ascendant power their region, and as usual in modern history, the German-speaking country got its way over the Polish-speaking one. Within seven weeks, Frederick conquered Silesia. He did it in so little time because he managed to bluff Austria into thinking he was trying to conquer Vienna. After the war was over, he quickly made a series of alliances with European powers to ensure that the Austrian Empire could not take it back.  Even such a great military genius as Napoleon Bonaparte studied what he did in the Silesian wars and concluded that Frederick was the greatest military genius of all time.

Here is perhaps the most controversial question in post-Iraq War America. Are there moments when pre-emptive war is justified?
If so, what are they?
Are there some modern examples of a master politician pre-emptively making a craven territory grab that vastly improves the position of his state?



Thanks to Frederick, Immanuel Kant never had to leave his native Konigsburg to find fame and fortune, and Bach was finally recognized by a monarch, at least briefly, for the genius he was shortly before his death. Even Voltaire was convinced for a time to settle in Prussia rather than France or England. Practitioners of all religions could worship freely, with royal protection and without tax. A thousand new villages were built, 150,000 new acres of farmland were created, and 300,000 people were welcomed as immigrants.

Eventually, an enlightened despot arrived to give the world everything it needed for a more progressive society. It only took 400 years, and gave the world a taste of freedom that made it crave much, much more freedom. Three years after Frederick died came the French Revolution.

Or think about the 1950’s for a moment; that moment when America reached the zenith of its productivity and economic prosperity. Just ten or fifteen years before, the world seemed on the eve of its destruction, and the Cold War omnipresently kept the threat of it going. But rather than instilling greater happiness in the population, the prosperity of the 1950’s instilled a hunger for still more prosperity. John Kennedy was elected, if he was in fact elected, to bring about a New Frontier in which all was possible.

Let’s read a quote from Kennedy’s inauguaral address:

“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
3
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
4
This much we pledge—and more.”

John F. Kennedy - Inaugural Address 1961


These are stirring, stirring words, potentially as rousing today as they were fifty years ago. But was this vision Kennedy laid out ever attainable? And if it wasn’t, why did people believe it was? Did Kennedy believe it, and if he didn’t why did he say it?

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.
The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.
Your imagination and your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.
Lyndon B. Johnson - Great Society Speech, 1964
Johnson was nowhere near as inspiring a speaker or leader as Kennedy, but he was a much more adept politician. And he came at least much closer, if quite far, from making his vision of America a reality. Was this vision Johnson laid out ever attainable? And if it wasn’t, why did people believe it was? Did Johnson believe it, and if he didn’t why did he say it?

We Millennials came of age in a world where conservatives were filled with utopian visions of reforming the world in its image. Our parents came of age in an era when it was liberals filled with such visions. On Kennedy and Johnson rested the twin pillars of a new liberal world order. From Lyndon Johnson came the vision of ending poverty, from John F. Kennedy came the vision of ending tyranny.

Five Questions
1. Is either goal possible?
2. What, ultimately, is the legacy of the Kennedy/Johnson years?
3. Given that everybody generally agrees that Kennedy and Johnson failed in their goals, were they wrong to try?
4. Would they have been more successful if they had taken a more gradual approach that would not have awakened the dragon of conservative reprisal?
5. Is this what Barack Obama is now trying to do?

The legacies of every president since Kennedy are still being fought over. In many ways, we still live in the uncertain world created by the bullet that broke Kennedy's head. But the seed of every American event that happened since then was already planted. Very soon afterward, we saw the postwar liberal consensus unravel from both the Right into the neoconservatism of the American heartland and from the Left into the socialism of the student generation of 1968. The utopian liberal hopes of our grandparents hardened into a utopian socialist vision in many of our parents when they were our age, and a utopian conservative vision in many of our great uncles.

And even if, for the sake of argument, the hopes of our grandparents were feasible for spreading democracy around the world, assuring financial welfare for all, and civil equality at home; they should have realized that there was so much opposition to what they proposed from racist bigots, from fanatical small government conservatives, from Communist fellow travelers, from people around the world who are reflexively anti-America, that all these opponents would do everything within their considerable power to turn these idealistic projects against themselves. The worst part of governing is that even if the policy is correct, if it is imposed on an unwilling public that cannot be convinced, the result will be as bad as if the policy were incorrect. I’d like us to engage and examine the meaning of this long, slightly difficult passage from perhaps the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin.

...Freedom is self-mastery, the elimination of obstacles to my will, whatever these obstacles may be - the resistance of nature, of my ungoverned passions, of irrational institutions, of the opposing wills or behaviour of others. Nature I can, at least in principle, always mould by technical means, and shape to my will. But how am I to treat recalcitrant human beings? I must, if I can, impose my will on them too, 'mould' them to my pattern, cast parts for them in my play. But will this not mean that I alone am free, while they are slaves?...

Well… will it?

They will be so if my plan has nothing to do with their wishes or values, only with my own. But if my plan is fully rational, it will allow for the full development of their 'true' natures, the realisation of their capacities for rational decisions, for 'making the best of themselves' - as a part of the realisation of my own 'true' self...

Is that possible?

All true solutions to all genuine problems must be compatible: more than this, they must fit into a single whole; for this is what is meant by calling them all rational and the universe harmonious. Each man has his specific character, abilities, aspirations, ends. If I grasp both what these ends and natures are, and how they all relate to one another, I can, at least in principle, if I have the knowledge and the strength, satisfy them all, so long as the nature and the purposes in question are rational. Rationality is knowing things and people for what they are: I must not use stones to make violins, nor try to make born violin-players play flutes. If the universe is governed by reason, then there will be no need for coercion; a correctly planned life for all will coincide with full freedom - the freedom of rational self-direction - for all. This will be so if, and only if, the plan is the true plan - the one unique pattern which alone fulfils the claims of reason…

Is a one true plan capable of being found?

Its laws will be the rules which reason prescribes: they will only seem irksome to those whose reason is dormant, who do not understand the true 'needs' of their own 'real' selves. So long as each player recognises and plays the part set him by reason - the faculty that understands his true nature and discerns his true ends -there can be no conflict. Each man will be a liberated, self-directed actor in the cosmic drama…

(keep going)

The common assumption of these thinkers (and of many a schoolman before them and
Jacobin and Communist after them) is that the rational ends of our 'true' natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong. To force empirical selves into the right pattern is no tyranny, but liberation. Rousseau tells me that if I freely surrender all the parts of my life to society, I create an entity which, because it has been built by an equality of sacrifice of all its members, cannot wish to hurt any one of them; in such
a society, we are informed, it can be in nobody's interest to damage anyone else. 'In giving myself to all, I give myself to none',and get back as much as I lose, with enough new force to preserve my new gains.

Rousseau’s statement seems very rational. What can go wrong with this formulation?

Kant tells us that when 'the individual has entirely abandoned his wild, lawless freedom, to find it again, unimpaired, in a state of dependence according to law', that alone is true freedom, 'for this dependence is the work of my own will acting as a lawgiver'.Liberty, so far from being incompatible with authority, becomes virtually identical with it. This is the thought and language of all the declarations of the rights of man in the eighteenth century, and of all those who look upon society as a design constructed according to the rational laws of the wise lawgiver, or of nature, or of history, or of the Supreme Being. Bentham, almost alone, doggedly went on repeating that the business of laws was not to liberate but to restrain: every law is an infraction of liberty - even if such infraction leads to an increase of the sum of liberty.

If the underlying assumptions had been correct - if the method of solving social problems
resembled the way in which solutions to the problems of the natural sciences are found, and if reason were what rationalists said that it was - all this would perhaps follow. In the ideal case, liberty coincides with law: autonomy with authority. A law which forbids me to do what I could not, as a sane being, conceivably wish to do is not a restraint of my freedom. In the ideal society, composed of wholly responsible beings, rules, because I should scarcely be conscious of them, would gradually wither away. Only one social movement was bold enough to render this assumption quite explicit and accept its consequences -that of the Anarchists. But all forms of liberalism founded on a rationalist metaphysics are less or more watered-down versions of this creed.

Is Anarchism possible? If the answer is no, why do people persist in believing that it is?

In due course, the thinkers who bent their energies to the solution of the problem on these lines came to be faced with the question of how in practice men were to be made rational in this way. Clearly they must be educated. For the uneducated are irrational, heteronomous, and need to be coerced, if only to make life tolerable for the rational if they are to live in the same society and not be compelled to withdraw to a desert or some Olympian height. But the uneducated cannot be expected to understand or co-operate with the purposes of their educators. Education, says Fichte, must inevitably work in such a way that 'you will later recognise the reasons for what I am doing now'. Children cannot be expected to understand why they are compelled to go to school, nor the ignorant - that is, for the moment, the majority of mankind - why they are made to obey the laws that will presently make them rational. 'Compulsion is also a kind of education.’ You learn the great virtue of obedience to superior persons. If you cannot understand your own interests as a rational being, I cannot be expected to consult you, or abide by your wishes, in the course of making you rational. I must, in the end, force you to be protected against smallpox, even though you may not wish it. Even Mill is prepared to say that I may forcibly prevent a man from crossing a bridge if there is not time to warn him that it is about to collapse, for I know, or am justified in assuming, that
he cannot wish to fall into the water. Fichte knows what the uneducated German of his time wishes to be or do better than he can possibly know this for himself. The sage knows you better than you know yourself, for you are the victim of your passions, a slave living a heteronomous life, purblind, unable to understand your true goals. You want to be a human being. It is the aim of the State to satisfy your wish. 'Compulsion is justified by education for future insight.’ The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and suppress my 'lower' instincts, my passions and desires, which render me a slave; similarly (the fatal transition from individual to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in society - the better educated, the more rational, those who
'possess the highest insight of their time and people’ - may exercise compulsion to rationalise the irrational section of society. For - so Hegel, Bradley, Bosanquet have often assured us - by obeying the rational man we obey ourselves: not indeed as we are, sunk in our | ignorance and our passions, weak creatures afflicted by diseases that need a healer, wards who require a guardian, but as we could be if we were rational; as we could be even now, if only we would listen to the rational element which is, ex hypothesi, within every human being who deserves the name.

What then, would happen to people who are inevitably incapable of being properly educated? Are they automatically no better than criminals who should always be coerced?

But I may reject such democratic optimism, and turning away from the ideological
determinism of the Hegelians towards some more voluntanst philosophy, conceive the idea of imposing on my society - for its own betterment - a plan of my own, which in my rational wisdom I have elaborated; and which, unless I act on my own, perhaps against the permanent wishes of the vast majority of my fellow citizens, may never come to fruition at all. Or, abandoning the concept of reason altogether, I may conceive myself as an inspired artist, who moulds men into patterns in the light of his unique vision, as painters combine colours or composers sounds; humanity is the raw material upon which I impose my creative will; even though men suffer and die in the process, they
are lifted by it to a height to which they could never have risen without my coercive - but creative - violation of their lives. This is the argument used by every dictator, inquisitor and bully who seeks some moral, or even aesthetic, justification for his conduct. I must do for men (or with them) what they cannot do for themselves, and I cannot ask their permission or consent, because they are in no condition to know what is best for them; indeed, what they will permit and accept may mean a life of contemptible mediocrity, or perhaps even their ruin and suicide.

What are the limits which we are willing to accept on our freedom? How much are we willing to accept limits on freedom of movement and privacy for security’s sake? How much are we willing to accept limits on our freedom of finance for the sake of social welfare? How much limitation is there before such limitations become tyranny?

What can have led to so strange a reversal - the transformation of Kant's severe individualism into something close to a pure totalitarian doctrine on the part of thinkers some of whom claimed to be his disciples? This question is not of merely historical interest, for not a few contemporary liberals have gone through the same peculiar evolution. It is true that Kant insisted, following Rousseau, that a capacity for rational self-direction belonged to all men; that there could be no experts in moral matters, since morality was a matter not of specialised knowledge (as the Utilitarians and philosophes had maintained), but of the correct use of a universal human faculty; and consequently that what made men free was not acting in certain self-improving ways, which they could be coerced to do, but knowing why they ought to do so, which nobody could do for, or on
behalf of, anyone else. But even Kant, when he came to deal with political issues, conceded that no law, provided that it was such that I should, if I were asked, approve it as a rational being, could possibly deprive me of any portion of my rational freedom.

Is that true? If you approve of a law with rational consent, can it in any sense still deprive you of your freedom?

With this the door was opened wide to the rule of experts. I cannot consult all men about all enactments all the time. The government cannot be a continuous plebiscite. Moreover, some men are not as well attuned to the voice of their own reason as others: some seem singularly deaf. If I am a legislator or a ruler, I must assume that if the law I impose is rational (and I can consult only my own reason) it will automatically be approved by all the members of my society so far as they are rational beings. For if they disapprove, they must, pro tanto, be irrational; then they will need to be repressed by reason: whether their own or mine cannot matter, for the pronouncements of reason must be the same in all minds. I issue my orders and, if you resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason. My task would be easier if you repressed it in yourself; I try to educate you to do so. But I am responsible for public welfare, I cannot wait until all men are wholly rational. Kant may protest that the essence of the subject's freedom is that he, and he alone, has given himself the order to obey.
But this is a counsel of perfection. If you fail to discipline yourself, I must do so for you; and you cannot complain of lack of freedom, for the fact that Kant's rational judge has sent you to prison is evidence that you have not listened to your own inner reason, that, like a child, a savage, an idiot, you are not ripe for self-direction, or permanently incapable of it.

In that case, would anyone pass Kant’s test for rationality?

...If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest - to Sarastro's temple in The Magic Flute - but still despotism, which turns out to be identical with freedom, can it be that there is something amiss in the premises of the argument? That the basic assumptions are themselves somewhere at fault? Let me state them once more: first, that all men have one true purpose, and one only, that of rational self-direction; second, that the ends of all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern, which some men may be able to discern more clearly than others; third, that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational - the immature and undeveloped elements in life, whether individual or communal - and that such clashes are, in principle, avoidable, and for wholly rational beings impossible; finally, that when all men have been made rational, they will obey the rational laws of their own natures, which are one and the same in them all, and so be at once wholly law-abiding and wholly free. Can it be that Socrates and the creators of the central Western tradition in ethics and politics who followed him have been mistaken, for more than two millennia, that virtue is not knowledge, nor freedom identical with either? That despite the fact that it rules the lives of more men than ever before in its long history, not one of the basic assumptions of this famous view is demonstrable, or, perhaps, even true?

Isaiah Berlin - Two Concepts of Liberty

We are all compelled to try as best we can to be rational. But to a certain extent, we will all fail in that regard. But in the 18th century, when the utopian idea of a perfect kingdom in the sky was still so omnipresent, it still seemed as though we could perfect ourselves. And this was why the 18th century had an ‘epidemic’ of enlightened despots: Peter and Catherine the Great in Russia, Charles XII in Sweden, Joseph II in Austria, Cardinal Fleury in France. Each of them had their programs to enlighten the masses, all of which had many obvious benefits and just as many drawbacks. Two-hundred years later, we have the same problem. Some of us at least are wise enough to realize that the ideal society, whether in ideals set by the state, or in ideals set by free private enterprise, can never exist in reality. But it's never enough of us to stop the true idealists from trying to make their utopias exist on earth.

What we see here, as the good Professor Berlin briefly alluded to, is the flawed connundrum at the heart of The Magic Flute, which, in its own odd way, clearly contains Mozart’s reflections on The French Revolution. Mozart composed it shortly before he died in 1791, during that period about which Wordsworth wrote “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Of course, it’s one of Mozart greatest operas, and therefore one of the greatest ever. But it is both the greatest and the worst, the most perfect and the least perfect of Mozart’s five greatest operas. Its perfection lies in the perfect beauty of its music, twenty-four numbers in which not a note seems out of place - cut just one from them and the music would bleed. But its greatness also comes from the mysticism of its setting, which posits nothing less than a new religion and spirituality for humanity based upon the worship of reason and wisdom - the world which every good liberal longs for in his or her dreams, in which humanity can guide itself to a perfect world of mutual understanding. I’ve been reduced to tears by this opera, only to turn to my side and see that my father was in a similar state, and that half the people sitting in our row were as well. And yet, it is simultaneously perhaps the worst and least perfect of Mozart’s five greatest operas. For all the awe and beauty and humor which the story’s given to millions of music lovers, the plot is almost completely incomprehensible, the characters are mostly boring archetypes, and the story has all the cruelly fascist overtones to which Berlin alluded in the above quote.

In the scene we’re about to listen to, the Princess Pamina is being sung to by her captor, Sarastro. She is, and we are, supposed to learn to love her captor as a father and realize that her grieving mother, The Queen of the Night whom we meet many times, is in fact a tyrant and harpie. Shortly before this scene, the Queen of the Night sings her immortal aria, so why don’t we play a very brief snippet from it…. In what we’ve just heard (albeit sans the goat…), the Queen of Night appears to Pamina, rotting in captivity, and rather than rescue Pamina, the Queen gives her daughter a knife, and simply orders her to kill her captor. The captor then appears, and the captor is clearly as kind and benevolent as her mother is vengeful and shrewish. It is, not entirely coincidentally, an almost exact copy of how the a German gentleman of the late 1700’s might view the two recently deceased leaders: the superstitious and conservative trollope, Maria Theresa, versus the secular prophet, Frederick the Great.

On one hand, what we’re about to watch is a brilliantly, wonderfully adult subversion of everything we’re brought up to believe in fairy tales - as though Mozart is telling us not to believe what we’re indoctrinated in as children. On the other hand, the logic of this new world is just as perverted. In the world of The Magic Flute, all cruelties are justified, so long as they are perpetrated by a man like Frederick the Great who seems to have reason in his brain and kindness in his heart.


...Now wasn’t that creepy?...

What we’ve experienced in Mozart is also the core problem of implementing democratic solutions in modern America, and was also the intellectual problem at the heart of the Enlightenment. A problem which, as we learned last week, Voltaire had no answer to. How do you impose more liberal and democratic solutions on people who have no concept of or desire for more liberal democracy? The only 18th century figure who had an answer to this paramount question is Montesquieu, and we will see exactly how he answered it when we come back in two weeks.