Monday, September 11, 2017

JHU Osher History of the Symphony - Class 1 - Haydn: Founder of the Tradition - First Half

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 - Founder 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 experience 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. And in order to do this, we're going to have to talk quite a bit about the symphony's place in history, in philosophy, in the totality of the arts, in our own lives, and about how it all fits together. And in order to do that, I think the easiest way to do this is to think of everything we talk about as dual concepts.

And dual concepts, or what I'm going to pretentiously call dualities, will be how we organize this class. The reason I call them 'dualities' is because I believe that more than anything else, it's the divided self, the tensions between our ideals and our realities, that creates new and better thoughts. Every thesis has an antithesis, every pleasant fantasy has a nightmarish mirror image, every person has a mother and father, and the first movement of nearly every symphony has two main musical subjects that they develop. We'll talk about that in the second half of the class. But this way, you can say to your neighbor 'What the hell is Evan talking about?' and you can point to this part of the lecture and get basically caught up.

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. 

Please don't think that you've signed up for a class that has any kind of scientific or philosophical paygrade, because 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. 

So the first duality we'll talk about is a duality that is seen throughout the problems of music appreciation. We're going to call this:


We don't actually mean either positivity or history, but two concepts associated with them. The philosophical concept of positivism vs. the philosophical concept of historicism. And don't worry, like everything in philosophy it's only complicated if you decide to make it complicated.

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, and therefore maybe you can make the world a little 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. This is called 'historicism' the belief that the truth is something mutable and changes from time to place to person. 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 millennia? 

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 then becomes that if science can poison the entire planet, if it develops so many weapons to kill us all, you have to ask yourself, is finding the truth even 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. Let's take the opposite tack for a minute. 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. If it's a fact that unbaptized souls go to hell, what's the problem with torturing people in order to make them convert and burning them to purify their souls? 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. What would be the problem with enslaving millions of members of a race for hundred of years just so your family and friends can live in greater comfort? 

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. There is no way of saying that music means anything at all, and yet it means so much to everyone!

The Symphony the first kind of 'high' or 'serious' music that questions if any kind of actual spiritual transcendence is possible because before the Symphony, the vast majority of 'high' music was church music. Yet many pieces of music, particularly symphonies, clearly imagines that spiritual transcendence can still be achieved. The difference, however, is that there's a chance that we never can. So, the second duality.


What do we mean by transcendence? What do we mean by truth? Let's think of Beethoven's 5th.

(play transition to the last movement of Beethoven's 5th, Szell/Dresden)

You could literally imagine anything to this.

What does this sound like to you?

I could name half a dozen images right away. Christ resurrected? Plato's Cave Dweller emerging into the light? The first ever sunrise on Earth? The process of birth itself? The entrance to heaven upon death? Perhaps even the moment of orgasm in sex and the narcissistic triumph that follows it... It's the ultimate piece of music that sounds to millions of people like some sort of transcendence, any sort of transcendence, is possible. But we have no idea what this music means, and we don't need to know. It holds us in terrible suspense, and builds and builds and builds until it breaks through into celebration.

But what if I told you that Beethoven may have had a secret program in mind? Listen those first three notes of Beethoven's 5th's Finale? Can you sing them? (sing) C E G? Do Mi So? LI-BER-TE!

Beethoven wrote this music between 1804 and 1808. This was the period when Austria was under siege from Napoleon's France. It's possible that this is still the most famous music written in any country, period, or genre. But if I told the vast majority of people who've ever listened to this that this is music meant to depict the struggle of the ideals of the French Revolution against forces that conspire to destroy them, a majority probably wouldn't care at all, a lot of people would tell me that I'm obviously wrong, and a few people would regard that view is as a revelation. We'll talk a lot more about Beethoven in two weeks, let's keep listening a bit.

(listen until 'La Liberte' moment)

We're definitely going to come back to this passage in two weeks, but what's worth mentioning is that Beethoven was as fervent a republican as existed in his era, and during the beginning of the 19th century, the entire world seemed to conspire against Republican ideals coming to fruition. The only stable Republic was the United States where Thomas Jefferson was president, a nation that held nearly a fifth of its population as slaves. France tried to create a Republic in which all people were equal, and the result was first the guillotine that killed 20,000 people, then a French Civil War that killed a million, and then the Napoleonic Wars that spread all through Europe and killed 10 million people. Britain and France were in the process of conquering whatever parts of the world hadn't already been conquered by Spain, so they could plunder the rest of the world's resources for the pleasure of a few lucky men who ran the world as their own personal kleptocracy.

There is significant evidence, which we'll talk about next week, that Beethoven meant his Fifth Symphony, just as he did his Third, as a political statement of Republican ideals in a world doing everything in its power to destroy them forever. Perhaps this moment is the moment when these ideals are finally achieved after a struggle which millions of people have already died for and many more millions later would. But what, ultimately, do you do with that knowledge? Does it mean a damn thing? Most people who've heard Beethoven's Fifth would hear that theory and shrug. Who cares as long as it's a good piece of music?

What's important is not that you ascribe definite meanings to a piece, but that you contemplate the music you hear and find meanings that work for you and you only. You can attach meanings to the music that are pictorial and cinematic, or you can tie the music to the sentiments of your favorite poetry or song lyrics, or you can think of philosophical ideas, or you can think of something a friend said to you or realize that the music makes you think of your loved ones. But what's most important is, like all things in life, the relationships you have. This brings us to our third duality.


(Play Wachet Auf beginning, Harnoncourt)

What emotions does this music inspire in you? Does it inspire a mental picture?

The idea of a personal relationship to art music begins, in some ways at least, with Bach, who was nearly as devout a Christian as ever existed, whose letters show that he had at least some qualities in common with people on the autistic spectrum - let's not read too much into that - and therefore didn't require much in the way of relationships with other people (though sex is another story...). The only relationships which truly mattered to him were the ones which he was ordered to have by God, the partner in what was, next to music, clearly the most fulfilling relationship of Bach's life. He probably never had a doubt in his life that wasn't assuaged by the fervor of his belief. But many of Bach's beliefs - religious, political, and musical - were old-fashioned even in his time in ways we're about to get into. Bach wrote music that in many ways was meant for the spirit and ideals of Martin Luther, who lived 200 years before Bach. The most famous man of Bach's time was Voltaire, and there are no two famous historical contemporaries whose outlooks on life are so completely different.

(Play Josquin Missa Pange Lingua - Kyrie)

How about this one?

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. But this music of a very different spirit than Bach's. It's a little forbidding and cold, it's meant to hold the listener at a certain distance. You're not supposed to love this music, you're supposed to feel awe at it because 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 we'll never hear it. 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 that set down permanent records, when you've never travelled more than fifty miles from your home, it's very difficult to know what's original, so performers took the existing material and transform it to suit the needs of the audience and the talents of the performer. 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 and an act of worship.

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 - Karajan/Janowitz)

Again, if you don't speak German and had to say what this music expresses, what does it express?

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.

And yet, the historical moment Bach provided his sinning listeners 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 has a choice to view God as either a friend or an enemy. And he just might start viewing God with animus considering the things humans hav put each other through in God's name. 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.

The history just of America could be written as a long and extremely fraught struggle to explore the implications of Jefferson's phrase 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal'. But before people can be seen as equals, they have to be seen as free. And it's only been a hundred fifty years since the most powerful two Western Countries, the US and Russia, emancipated their slaves and serfs. It took Western man literally three thousand years to believe in free will, and it will probably take another three thousand years to make mankind realize that every person deserves to be equal. So here we come to our fourth duality:


Imagine yourself in Europe during the first millennium AD, or better yet, imagine yourself stuck in West Baltimore at three in the morning. You see poverty and brutality all around you, people who are treated in all sorts of manners you wouldn't want to be treated, you have no way of alleviating all this desperation, and you worry that if you try, you'll be dragged right into it. If you didn't have a way of numbing yourself to it, of telling yourself that this is the way the world was meant to be, you would never stop throwing up.

There are many, many reasons for Christianity's proliferation in the first millennium, and many of them were quite a bit more generous than what I've just said. But what can't be denied is that the idea that God willed that the world should be the way it is and should never be changed resulted in a social heirarchy into which everyone was born that basically did not change for 1500 years. Imagine what that means for a moment. On the one hand, by our contemporary standards, misery is the lot of 99.999999% of the people who lived in the Middle Ages, and there is no hope of emerging from it. On the other, there is a kind of absolute security in it. You know your place in the world, you know what tasks you have to complete, you know that your sense of self does not matter, and you are certain that whatever trials you undergo, so long as you believe in God with the infinity of faith that you don't believe in yourself, you will experience joys beyond what any mortal human can experience on earth. There is still a chance, however unlikely it seems, that in this world of tragedy, people might have been happier than they are in our world where everyone is, to greater and lesser extents, free to be everything they choose.

It's not that Christianity did not believe in Free Will, but Christianity also believed, thanks to St. Augustine in the 4th Century, that God was omniscient in addition to being omnipotent. However free your will seems, God knows exactly what you would do, when you would do it, how, and why. To the modern mind, that may make our heads explode. But think of this with a mind which is entirely organized by religious concepts. We humans are the divine image, we are not only made in God's image, but we all have the divine spark within us. We are manifestations of God and therefore our minds are wired directly to God's mind, a God who may cut you off and send you to burn in hell forever if you don't act in a Godly manner. This is so unbelievably powerful a way to keep people in check that Christianity, give or take some obvious changes, basically ruled Europe without an interruption for just about 1500 years.

And yet, for all sorts of reasons we won't get into, there was something in the air which made the 18th century the moment when large swaths of educated people adapted something other than a religious mindset.

But, and this is a very Jewish insight rather than a Christian one, in order to throw God overboard when God is the only thing you know, you can only do so by defeating God with God's own weapons, and therefore, you are making just as much a religion out of opposition to God as you ever were when you believed in Him. By professing Atheism, and maybe even Deism, the enlightenment is just as responsible for creating Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Kim Jong-Il as it is for creating Lincoln and Roosevelt and Mandela and Merkel. 

Just think of Rousseau, who wrote at the beginning of the Social Contract that "Mankind is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains." And compare that to this passage from the Second Epistle of Peter: "Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a coverup for evil, live as God's slaves." The question becomes, as ever, how do you take these two sides who hate everything about each other and show these two sides how much they have in common and what the benefits are of living together harmoniously.  

The point of the Enlightenment, the moment when the symphony took wing in just the same way that the novel and autobiographical poetry did, was to create things that could both express a divided self or divided spirit or divided community, and find a way of making them whole again. Just think of the meaning of 'symphony', it goes back to old French, 'symphonie', and then to Greek 'sumphonos', and all the way back to Aramaic 'Soomponia'. All four of these terms combine sym - harmonious, with phonia - sound. 

The ability to hold a person's attention through music without text over a long span of time requires enormous contrasts, invention, discipline, and knowledge. Just like a great novel takes all the elements of life experience and fuses them into a whole, a Symphony is an attempt to fuse the very best of extremely diverse elements of music and pay tribute to the millions of different sounds and forms and contents and cultures which music can show us. The Symphony is, as literally as can be said, a musical democracy through which every kind and possibility of music's meaning is sounded together in dialogue with one another. Like all dialogues that are worth having, it can be fraught with tension and there's always a possibility that the dialogue will end in terrible discord or tragedy or pathos. But every dialogue between two opposing forces always holds out the hope for greater understanding, better resolution, and more fulfilling lives. The symphony is the ultimate musical, and perhaps even poetic, statement of a culture that means to live together in peace. And Haydn made it possible, we will talk about how after the break. 

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