Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Class 11: The Symphony of Peace - Slightly Revised Beginning

One of the ideas I had for this final class was to not talk at all and simply have us listen to a dozen-and-a-half five-minute excerpts from symphonies just show us exactly what it is that the symphony does better than any other musical form. But then, I realized that we would need to put it in the context of all that other music, and talk about exactly what makes the symphony different, more abstract, not a better form of art, but perhaps, and I emphasize, perhaps, a higher form of art, maybe the very highest of all, and one that, because it has so little obvious connection to our daily lives, is again, perhaps, capable of pacifying the world in ways we won't even yet realize for centuries yet.

I've talked a lot in here about 'greatest' this and 'best' that, but the truth still is that there is no such thing as 'better than' in art. Any sense that Beethoven is a better musician than Tchaikovsky or Chuck Berry is just a child's game, not a serious examination of the humanities. You can't quantify quality. You can only qualify it and say that this is why this particular human expression is great, and that is why that particular one is. But you can quantify uniqueness, and the fact is that every culture, from the beginning of recorded time, has had their own three minute songs with lyrics that express the very specific concerns of their particular time and place. Now just because, in fifty years, there will be a new Beatles that will be so beloved and necessary to people's lives in 2067 that it may render the songs of 1967 as irrelevant to daily life of its time as the Beatles rendered the songs of 1867 irrelevant to the life of it's time. Some of you in here are Baby Boomers, some of you are pre-boomers. But for every person in here too young to have been an adult in World War II, 1968 seems to have been the defining year of your lives just as 2016 seems to be the defining year in the lives of the generations around my age. But if you go to a classical concert, even today, it seems clear that the base of classical support is still people born before 1946 who have memories of an America that wasn't confident enough about its culture to not feel inadequate next to the culture of Europe. Go to their concerts, and you fundamentally hear the sounds of 1868 - Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky... 

But Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan still do three hour shows nearly every day of their lives, and seventy year olds buy their tickets for hundreds of dollars to remember what it was like to be twenty, and they bring their children, and now they even bring their grandchildren, to teach them to love this music as the pre-Boomer parents and grandparents taught them to love Verdi and Chopin. This music has become a kind of classical music in America, and please, take it from the classical musicians, it's not the state of being you want for the music you love. It probably means that your music will, to a certain extent, be remembered long after you or your grandchildren are gone, but it will increasingly be remembered as a burden, a chore, something your descendants have to learn about to appease their elders, who loved this music for exactly the opposite reason - that it was subversive and new, but it can never be new again. 

But that does not mean that She's Leaving Home or Sempre Libera are not amazing works of art, or that they won't live on, but they can never again revolutionize how the world saw itself in the earth-shaking way they did when they were first heard, because once they've entered the world's bloodstream, they're much too familiar to ever have the same impact again. The three minute song is the most atomic form of music there has ever been, and there will always be new songs that can express the concerns of an era better than the songs of a previous era can. The greatest performers of these songs inevitably die out, and so then do the memories of their greatest performances. Eventually, everything that once revolutionized the world becomes the establishment, and then a force of conservatism, and then even a reactionary force. That's the rule of entropy at work in politics and culture in addition to science, that's how the dialectic works, and that's just what history has shown to be true again and again. With any concept to which the world can apply a definite meaning, the concept will outlive its usefulness, and the world will eventually have need of some other concept to revolutionize their lives as the older concepts once did for their ancestors. 

And eventually, maybe it'll take a millenium, but the extremely vast majority of this music we love will no more speak to the concerns of daily life than the songs of the Troubadours of the Gothic era do. And that doesn't just go for rock or R&B or any other popular 20th century genre, it goes for the vast majority of what we consider great opera today, it goes for almost all the art songs we call lieder. If one day, the world stops believing in religion, it may also happen to a thousand years of sacred music. If the humans ever evolve from the religious impulse, and bare in mind this is a semi-religious Jew saying that this is a possibility, the entire tradition of sacred music will have no value that isn't historic, anthropological, academic. 

So that leaves us with absolute music - sonatas, chamber music, and especially symphonies: abstract philosophical forms rendered through sound to speak with a direct physical presence. Instrumental jazz is plenty complex, but by its nature, jazz is usually more interested in the visceral experience of moment its being played than it is in larger spans of time. In common practice classical music, in the way it makes us speculate about what we've already heard, and what we have yet to hear, we are not experiencing the present moment nearly so much as, at any point in the music, we are contemplating the relationship of what we've heard to what we have yet to hear. As Heidegger would put it, we are being thrown through time, from the beginning of the music to the end of it, and simultaneously experiencing every moment of this piece even though we can only hear it moment to moment. 

So what then is the point of this kind of very abstract, very distant, very pompous, very unrelateable conception of music? As best I can tell, the point is to quiet the agonies of our spirit by showing us that there is another dimension out there, a different kind of dimension, in which we relate to thought, to consciousness, to our goals, completely differently than we do in real life with its many unfulfillable concerns. Here, in music, in these dramas of harmony, we achieve those ideal worlds in art which are never possible in life, ideal states of mind and soul which are only possible in the worlds of the spirit, and if we ever try to effect them here on earth, and try we do very hard, leads to still greater suffering than ever. 

Lots of musicians deal with words, and many of those musicians who deal with words use them for an actual purpose, the purpose is to inflame their listeners to some kind of cause. That's as true for Wagner as it is for Dylan. But there is no famous composer of symphonies or string quartets for whom that's true. I suppose one could argue that's true for Beethoven, but it wouldn't be a correct argument. if Beethoven were really trying to inflame us rather than pacify us, he would have shown us that transcendence is not a foregone conclusion: maybe he would have given us a symphony that ended in a minor key, and he never did. Even if he ends some beloved sonatas and quartets in an angry minor key, the reason hundreds of years of music lovers have listened to Beethoven is not because he agitates us, but because after he agitates us he always seems to pacify us and reassures us that whatever our suffering, it will never be in vain. "Take action if you feel the need," the music seems to say, "but even if you don't, you're life has meaning and is worth living." He always leads our spirit back home. It was also perhaps true for the young Sibelius who wrote Finlandia, but by the time he wrote the last few bars of the Second Symphony, he was no longer the angry revolutionary, the music seems to tell us that even if the revolution loses, life is still worth living. The Symphony does not revolutionize, it pacifies. 
Beethoven 5: https://youtu.be/1HQa5fto1oA?t=22m38s (Szell Dresden)  
Sibelius 2: https://youtu.be/8emoZjQU6do?t=11m45s (Szell/Cleveland)

And so we come to what the Symphony does better than anything else: along with the less ambitious cousins from its family like the sonata, the trio, the quartet, it's the only form of music that is meant to genuinely pacify your spirit. Because you've experienced transcendence in music, you don't long for transcending the frustrations of your life with quite the same sehnsucht. You can deal with the endless suffering and frustrations of your life more practically, because while life itself might be unremittingly ugly, there is a dimension you to which you can always go to experience a place where all dissonances are resolved in harmony, all contrasting ideas are fused together in agreement, in which sounds of the entire world can be represented, coexisting together and engaging with one another in music as they can't in real life.

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