Tuesday, December 5, 2017

History of the Symphony - Class 11 - The Symphony of Peace - 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 American culture not being confident enough to feel independent from Europe. Go to their concerts, and you fundamentally hear the sound 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 our elders, who loved this music for exactly the opposite reason - that it had all the subversion it cannot possess any longer.

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 do the memories of their greatest performances. Eventually, everything that once revolutionized the world becomes the establishment, then a force of conservatism, then even a reactionary force. That's the rules of entropy at work in politics and culture, that's the dialectic, that's simply what history has shown to be true again and again. To 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. 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 (and this is a semi-religious Jew saying this), it may also happen to a thousand years of sacred music. If the humans ever evolve from desire for religion, and bare in mind this is a semi-religious Jew saying that this is a possibility, the entire tradition of sacred music has no value that isn't historic, anthropological, academic. 

And 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. 

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. 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 given us a symphony without a happy ending - 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, 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.

And so we come to what the Symphony does better than anything else: along with less ambitious cousins 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 no longer 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.

Before we get to the music, I'm going to leave this to Ian McEwan in a quote from a novel I've loved for years - Saturday. It's worth saying that he was describing a blues band, not a symphony orchestra, and describing performance and not composition, but the end result is still the same.

“There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever – mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.”
The one thing McEwan neglects to mention is that this ideal kingdom can be visited whenever we are in need of it. When we need music to pacify our agonies, music is always there, and always obliging. And if more humans used music in this way, then maybe, just maybe, the world would be a more peaceful place, both internally in the spirit and externally in our interactions.

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