A Historicist Manifesto

Why Classical Matters

by Chadwick Jenkins

22 November 2005

Classical music, as a culturally archaic archetype of stodginess, has long been disassociated from a contemporary relevance. Can we make it meaningful again now that we've told Beethoven to roll over?
Andy Warhol's Beethoven 

In the early 20th Century, a group of Italian artists (including the poet Marinetti and the musician Russolo) published the infamous Futurist Manifesto. Such a manifesto, they felt, was necessary to shock what they saw as the rather backwards culture of Italy into modernity, to throw off the chains of tradition and embrace the eternally and radically new. Perhaps, more than anyone could have then realized, we are the true inheritors of that project, for today we seem to face the opposite problem: any call for a culturally committed acknowledgment of the musical art of the past must justify itself in the face of a pervasive cultural disinterest (or worse, a benign passive indulgence of the past as an empty marker of taste — taste without commitment, taste without risk, the ultimate corruption of Kant’s disinterestedness in relation to the aesthetic object).

Any reader of PopMatters must necessarily be struck by the idea of its including a column that investigates classical music. After all, the classical is not the popular. In some ways, what we consider classical music never was popular, as such. Verdi might have been a hit with the public but the same can hardly be said of Bach. Through a long-established and deeply engrained mode of thinking, the popular is in definitional contradistinction to the high art institution of which classical music is a conspicuous constituent. The popular is the raw and the immediate whereas high art is refined and requires acculturation and knowledge.

And yet, we know better than that, don’t we? What could be more polished and refined in the strictest sense than the latest Britney Spears release? What could be less raw when you really come down to it than the careful calculation that goes into an album by Eminem? Haven’t we come to expect compositional refinement (in the best sense of the word) from groups like Radiohead? On the other hand, what could be more emotionally raw and overwhelmingly cathartic than the burst of energy toward the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? What could be palpably immediate (at first listen, almost bordering on clumsy) than some of the Preludes of Chopin?

The problem with so-called classical music is that most people no longer see it as relevant to their lives and their desired modes of listening (after all, it is rather difficult to sing along with the transition in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony). The term itself is stultifying and potentially elitist: it’s classic, comprised of museum pieces that we move past (or perhaps in the case of music, that move past us); it is a collection of artworks (with all the aloofness we erroneously associate with the term art implied) that we passively admire. For too many of us, classical music amounts to some familiar melodies (through movie soundtracks, train stations, department stores, and other likely venues where we need enough distraction to anaesthetize us in our boredom in order to avoid doing anything ludicrous such as talking to a stranger) that are simultaneously unfamiliar (“What the hell is that tune anyway?” “Aw that’s from that Julia Robert’s movie where her sicko husband wants to kill her”) about which we deliver ourselves of a few cloy, often well rehearsed remarks that give rise to dialogue so saturated with non-sequiturs that it is nearly worthy of Samuel Beckett (albeit a Beckett sadly affected by Alzheimer’s): “Beethoven is so motivic.” “Yeah, but Mozart was a great melodist.” “Did you know Schumann busted his hand by making this contraption for it?” “Didn’t we have this conversation before?”

Certainly, there must be a better way to engage with this music than such platitudinous drivel. Certainly, there must be a way to forge a true relationship with classical music in the same way that most of us believe that we have forged relationships with whatever form of popular music we feel we own. Ownership (or at the very least partisanship) is key here. We know the lyrics to our favorite Radiohead tune or whatever it is we listen to on a regular basis. Classical music, if it appears on our radar screens at all, is dinner music, background ambiance. My brother has the classical radio station playing all night long. He sleeps to it. But when he wakes up, he puts on Bob Dylan, Phish, or something else — almost invariably, music with words.

Two questions necessarily arise. First, where is one to turn should one be interested in cultivating or expanding one’s knowledge regarding this music? And second, why should one be interested in cultivating such an interest at all? Neither question is easily answered. Most CD reviews assume (as reviews tend to do) that you already have the basic knowledge concerning the music and, more importantly, the basic desire to follow the discussion. And that discussion often has less to do with the compositions on the recording qua compositions and more to do with the compositions on the recording qua recording and performance. The other option (at least for those of us to whom some kind of mild formal training is unavailable or less than convenient) is found in the form of all those self-help books, Classical Music for Dummies and the like, books that are often written either to bolster the generic, sometimes misguided statements that sound more like a quip from a Seinfeld episode than genuine insight or to provide their readers with a surpassingly mundane experience of the music that makes listening tantamount to a regular dosage of cod liver oil: you assume it is good for you but you sure as hell cannot figure out how.

The second question is even more recondite. Many of us (justifiably so) are suspicious of the claim to timelessness and essential truth that is often adduced on behalf of this music. We live in a self-proclaimed postmodern age (the dissenters only buttress the overarching acquiescence that this is undeniably so — perhaps provisionally, perhaps not) and are therefore suspicious of grand narratives that trace a genealogical lineage linking the past masters with the music of today. All meaning, we insist, is contingent; there simply are no eternal truths and there is no music that transcends (in any real sense) its own time with the assumptions and knowledge embedded in that time and irretrievably lost to us today. Our Foucauldian (generally propagated by a popularization of Foucault’s insights) realization of the multifarious, all-pervasive nature of power has made us wary of the very notion of mastery.

We live in the present and there is plenty of music out there that represents our times, our attitudes, our desires and fears. Inasmuch as the music of the past concerns us at all, we use it to forge our own meanings irrespective of what the music may ask of us. The idea that music should demand anything of us strikes one as ludicrous in the extreme or, at the very least, as blithe poetic nonsense. The musical past is like a yardsale: we know these dilapidated objects had some meaning for the benighted original purchaser but should we buy certain of these objects (provided the cost is low) they will serve whatever purpose we desire they should while others serve no purpose beyond bemusement (“Who could have possibly found this of interest at any time?” “Man, the ‘80s were hard on all of us”).

And yet should we not desire more from our relationship to the past? An encounter with something from the past (including, if not especially, cultural artifacts) is an encounter with a stranger. And an encounter with a stranger opens up the possibility of discovery (both of the other and of yourself), of revelation, of renewal, of falling in love. It is not simply by recognizing what is similar between the music of the past and the music of the present that should be revealing (or worse, the assumption that music has always been and will always be essentially the same) but rather the recognition of the radical estrangement between us (with all of our diverse cultural backgrounds and assumptions) and the past (with all of its diverse cultural backgrounds and assumptions). There need not necessarily be some sort of Gadamerian fusion of horizons.

When I become friendly (become intimate) with someone from a different culture (or even the same culture) and I come to know that person (perhaps to know them on a deep and loving level), I do not come to fuse my horizon, my understanding with the understanding that person has. I am not sure that would even be desirable. But I do learn to hear that person speak with his or her own voice — however mysterious the tones may continue to be — and I come to love that person’s voice as an emanation of his or her being. I do not reduce him or her to some external (obscure?) object of desire, but rather, I come to meet that person in an act of engagement. This is the responsibility to the mystery of love and the otherness of one who is not you. Such an approach to music is not grounded in the belief that you are tapping into eternal truths; the experience is still beautifully contingent, as all encounters with strangers are.

Music presents systems of thought. A composition is thought made palpable in sound and it is thought that is not reducible to the language we use to describe it. Even this is a well worn platitude but it need not be if we are willing to explore that aporia, that limit that seems to emerge between music qua thought and language’s attempt at explicating that thought. Language is not nearly as limited in relation to music as we might fear. Language need not give us a substitute experience of music; clearly it is too much to ask of any medium that it be able to fully stand in the place of another. This is why people going to a movie based on a book are disappointed that the movie does not live up to the book. It could not possibly do so. A movie lives as a movie and a book lives as a book and yet there are ways in which the two reach out toward one another across that seemingly unbridgeable chasm. It is a leap, perhaps not of faith, but of feeling, of understanding, of recognition.

Language may illuminate the dark spaces of a piece of music. History may show us that the familiar is quite strange, the commonplace mysterious. The only genuine and unselfish justification for the engagement with classical music may amount to this: the past speaks to us with its voice and we listen to it, as we would a lover, with caring and the commitment to try to understand — or better yet, to come to an understanding, to establish and maintain a relationship. The music of the past offers a mysterious engagement — simultaneously comforting and distressing — and we can choose to listen carefully or risk losing the rarefied suavity of that voice altogether.

Music, like a lover, makes demands of you. It presents you with a view on the world and asks you to consider it; the Romantics would have it that music creates a world and asks you to inhabit it. Let us take an example: the opening gestures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. All of the instruments play at the same pitch: that is, in unison. It is a bold gesture and immediately identifies the piece for us. We all know it (three notes at the same pitch followed by a lower note: dum-dum-dum-DUM; the gesture is then repeated at a slightly lower pitch level). I bet you are hearing it in your mind’s ear right at this moment. Resist it! Don’t imagine it. Go listen to it. If you don’t have a recording, get it online. The thing is everywhere, ubiquitous. And because of that ubiquity, I would argue, largely unheard. Listen to it anew. What is it telling you and what is it asking of you?

Try to forget what you know about the piece. What do you hear now? Four different pitches (I am not counting the repeated notes on the same pitch). No chords yet. Is the first note supposed to be strong (that is, on a metrically strong beat) or is it weak? What is the meter? What is the key (I know you know it is minor but does the music actually tell you that or is it your memory)? In fact, for all the assertiveness of the gesture, the notes are ambiguous. They hide far more than they are willing to reveal. The opening is an enigma, an open-ended puzzle. Now let it proceed. That same motive, constant reiterations but reimagined — at different pitch levels, different rhythmic configurations, turned upside down, stretched out, fragmented (yes, even four notes can be fragmented). Why does the music work this way? What was Beethoven thinking? What should we be thinking in relation to this music? In what way should thought enter into it at all?

These are the questions we should and will ask in this column. Every article will engage either a specific piece (for instance, Beethoven’s Fifth) or a specific genre of a specific period (for instance, the motet of the 13th Century — a bewildering genre if ever there was one). At the end of every article, I will include a brief list of suggested recordings but this will not be a review column as such. We will ask what this music might have meant and what it might mean still. We will engage this music as we might engage a lover: amazed at its provocative otherness, caring for it despite its flaws for even such highly revered music has flaws. However, our awareness of those flaws verifies that (as is the case with lovers) the flaws are often the site of the greatest beauty. There is no room here for pusillanimity, no need for treating this music with kid gloves. If it is to mean anything to us today, we must be willing to grapple with it, to listen once again to its voice, attentive to both what we wish to hear and what we would rather ignore. The commentary, of course, will be mine but the intention will be merely to indicate — like a tour guide who says, “Look at that; don’t miss this”. The commentary, while I hope useful and interesting, will hardly be the point. I ask only for your patience and your indulgence. The experience of the music itself and the relationship you may forge with it will be worth the effort.

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