Friday, September 8, 2017

History of the Symphony Class 1: Haydn - Founder of the Tradition (A Little More)

My technique has always been to write out a script and then depart from it as much as I can. So without further ado....

JHU Osher History of the Symphony Class 1: Haydn and Mozart - Founders of the Tradition

Afternoon everybody! So first I'd like to present you all with a hearty welcome to The History of the Symphony. My name is Evan Tucker, and my best qualification for teaching a class on the History of the Symphony is that I'm the youngest person to have ever listened to one. 

I have to admit that the title is a bit misleading. There is, as with so many things, a dual purpose for the class. One purpose is to listen to a lot of good music, the other purpose is to do our humble best to understand what the music means. We don't have to understand the music on a musical or theoretical level, though I'm sure many of you would  be surprised how easy it is to understand basics of music theory. But moreso than asking you to understand this music in any kind of musical framework, I'm going to ask you to describe the music you hear in all kinds of other contexts - of history and politics, of books and thought, of art and theater, in the contexts of your own lives, and of course, in the context of other music. The problem with music as we generally see it is that any experience we have of it is subjective. If we hear a beautiful slow piece of music as a love song, we have to realize that the music is not necessarily meant as a love song, but in the moment we hear the music, our perception of it is true to ourselves and is therefore, in a sense, absolutely true. So by sharing those perceptions we can encourage and hopefully inspire each other to perceive more and different and more interesting ways to epxerience the music we hear. 

If you've come to this class, I would imagine that you're here because you're already fond of music, but you also want to understand more about it. What's most extraordinary about music is that music is both just music that can be enjoyed as music, but because it's just music to which no definite meaning can be attached to the sounds, we can associate an infinity of concepts with music. The reason that music has such a universal appeal for so many people is that it has this dual-concept, can both be appreciated as nothing more than pleasing sounds, and that these pleasing sounds may have infinities of meanings behind them. 

Now, dual concepts, dualities, dialectics, whatever you want to call them, will have an enormous importance in this class. I had a friend who used to tell me, exasperated with my tendency to do this, that there are two types of people in the world: those who don't divide the world into two types of people and those who do. Dividing the world into two camps can, obviously, be a very dangerous slippery slope, and if we indulge in what's generally referred to as dialectical thinking, it's very important to understand that it can never be anything more than an intellectual game we can use to theorize about the world and there is absolutely no scientific value to it without going through the exact same process scientists do - thousands of trials and errors through which recorded data and statistics. Which is exactly how not to think of the humanities. How, statistically speaking, do you ascend to the skies and see Platonic forms or see beyond the world of appearances to Kant's thing in itself. And even if you did, how would you come up with the scientific measurements for it?

This probably seems like a much higher philosophical paygrade than anybody signed up for, but the point is this: Science can explain the facts of how music is made, but four thousand years of recorded culture have not given us any scientific rules about why we experience music the way we do. Science, for all its progress, hasn't even come up with a widely accepted explanation of why humans evolved to listen to it. 

So let me ask you to do an exercise. Do me a favor and imagine for a moment, that you're talking to someone who is completely tone deaf, or an alien who speaks perfect English but has no understanding of music. Now try to explain music in such a way that the person you're talking to doesn't question your sanity. Let's see how easy this is... (point out flaws in people's explanations)

The best possible definition of music I could ever come up with is that it's made of vibrations and patterns through which make you perceive connections and associations in your brain which you never realized were there. So the obvious problem is that how is this description different from what a psychotically ill person experiences? 

But even if music is a collective insanity of us all, there are some insanities in the world which are truly benign, and I don't think I'm wrong in thinking that if music comes from a piece of neurologically faulty wiring that can damage the rest of our brains, then to put this insanity to the purpose of music appreciation, then music is easily the best possible use of our mental defects. 

The first duality we have to talk about is a duality that is seen throughout the problems of music appreciation. For a long time, nearly a hundred years, classical musicians have been mostly discouraged from discussing what music means. 'Just play it' is usually what we hear. According to this school of thought, a key like C-Major (play C-Major, play Mendelssohn's Wedding March - probably most famous piece in the world in C-Major) doesn't mean happiness, it just means C-Major. A piece that sounds like you could dance a waltz to it is not a waltz unless the composer specifies that it's a waltz. This kind of thought is called a 'positivist' thought. A positivist thought doesn't mean that a thought is happy or optimistic, it just means that the thought is definite. It means that this concept has an absolute meaning which, if properly studied, can be completely understood. According to positivism, every word and concept we use has an absolute meaning, and if you understand the absolute meaning, you've understood the world better. 

(see if you can get discussion going about what the problems with positivism might be... attempt at discussion may fail...)

To me, at least, the main problem with this way of looking at the world is that meanings always change. The use and purpose of every object changes from person to person, every person has their own memories, their own associations, their own ideas, their own background which they bring to every meaning. If there are absolute meanings, then why, after a million years of human existence, have we found proof for the truth of so few absolute beliefs over the millenia? 

What might be some beliefs that have been proven absolutely true?

The best absolute meanings we've come up with are the meanings by which science and technology work. You can't argue that science is true because every piece of technology exists as a testimonial to the fact that science is correct. The question with science becomes that if science can poison the entire planet, if it develop so many weapons to kill us all, is finding the truth at all really worth it? 

So I promise we're going to get to music in a minute, but please just bare with me, because this is important. But what do you think might be the problem with this idea that meanings change from person to person and we should therefore always respect people's beliefs?

My biggest problem with historicism, and again, this is a very very very simplistic explanation of philosophical problems about which millions of pages are written, is that it's a very slippery slope to nihilism that says that if there is no absolute meaning, there's no reason to act in the interests of immediate gratification. It's though there is no reason to find any meaning at all. And the idea that everything is meaningless is its own kind of absolute meaning. 

The only solution, at least as far as I'm concerned, is to accept that there can be no truly definite statements about the truth, and that we have to go through life as though we can find them. If we think we can discover the truth, then there is no limit to how much we can inflict suffering on other people in pursuit of the truth. But if we think there's no such thing as the truth, then we can justify any action at all, no matter how evil, as being good. There would be no end to how much we can manipulate others or others can manipulate us, and give us all manner of lies as to why. 

And it's this tension between these two beliefs: 1. That the truth is something innate and ascertainable, and 2. that the truth is mutable and changes from place to time to person, that created the spiritual environment that enabled the form of the symphony to spring up - a music that had a religion-like devotion to the severest possible seriousness, but at the same time, is meant to make us worship nothing more than the music itself. It's the first kind of 'high' or 'serious' music that questions if any kind of actual spiritual transcendence is possible, yet also gives us music that clearly imagines that this kind of transcendence can still be achieved. (long elaboration)

It's, ultimately, neither of these but the tension between the two which creates it. 

(play Josquin Missa Pange Lingua Kyrie)

It begins, in so many ways with Bach, who was as devout a Christian as ever existed. He probably never had a doubt in his life that wasn't assuaged by the fervor of his belief.  Many of Bach's beliefs - religious, political, and musical - were old-fashioned even in his time. But this music is not Bach, this is the music of Josquin des Prez, a contemporary of Martin Luther who was, before Bach, generally agreed to be the greatest of all Church composers. Until Bach, the vast majority of the greatest art music was sacred, and ultimately meant as an act of worship. The intended audience was God, not us, and even if the rest of us weren't exactly bystanders, our interest was sort of secondary. It was hoped that we would be so inspired by this offering to the Almighty that the music would inspire us to feel holy. There was plenty of great music that happened outside of the Church, but the vast majority of it was an oral tradition, passed down from one generation of musicians to the next, most of whom were illiterate, and all of whom put a unique spin on their music that caused it to gradually evolve. Authorship as we understand it today barely exists to people who are illiterate. When you don't know anything about books, it's very difficult to know what's original, so you take the existing material and transform it to suit your needs and talents of the performer and the audience. What we now think of as folk songs are songs that have gone through an infinity of permutations over time and whose lyrics and tunes were constantly changing. Folk music was for the vulgar people, secular written music was for the educated classes who wanted to be as free from vulgarity as possible. But Church music was for God.

Church music was like celestial mood music in which we appreciated our nearness to the Almighty, but in a sense, we were just spectators. If you've been to France, think of those enormous Gothic eglises. The enormity of it is important, so is the contrast of light refracted through stained glass against the vast darkness, but the most important part of the impression which Gothic churches make is the empty space. The churches were, by far, the biggest and tallest buildings a pilgrim would ever see in his life. It is meant to give a sense of the eternal and the infinite. Pondering the sheer enormity of the empty space is what gives you that sense of a kingdom without end in which the worshipper could imagine the infinite space of God, and an infinity of angels and blessed souls.

(Turn on Aus Liebe from the St. Matthew Passion)

Bach, however, was a Protestant, and therefore  believed that God had a personal relationship with every worshipper. God was not an infinite being to feel awed by, he was a divine friend who would be a bridge over troubled water in all your crises. God needed no clergyman to make you feel close to him, and no one but God was so great that he could judge either your conduct or the sincerity of your belief. Protestants needed a music whose spirituality you could feel with the same immediacy that any listener could feel from the eros of any love song.

But the moment Bach provided his sinners with this music of a personalized God was, by and large, the 1720's through the 1740's, the same period that saw the emergence of secular and enlightenment thinkers who did more to de-throne God from the center of the universe than any thinkers before or since: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Vico, David Hume, fairly soon thereafter Immanuel Kant would number among them and so would Jefferson and Hamilton. Once mankind is on equal footing with God, he just might start viewing God with animus considering the things God has supposedly put humans through... but even if people, particularly back in the 18th century, want to overthrow God, then after 1500 years in which God is the undisputed ruler, God can only be overthrown by using the language and concepts which religion gave us.

(plenty more written here)

It's not that there wasn't plenty of very serious secular music before Haydn, but before Haydn, there was in many ways an unbridgeable divide between the serious and the silly. The divide wasn't complete, and for many generations you had a sense - whether in the Oratorios of Handel or the madrigals of Monteverdi or the

If Haydn and Mozart weren't talking about these ideas in their spare time (assuming they had any), then you can be sure that their employers were...

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