Tag Archives: Beethoven

Literature as Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aspects of music can be spatially represented through notation and recording, which freeze moments in time. But, as an experiential medium, which relies on performance and audition, music reveals itself in the present tense. This temporal quality is not only thought to distinguish music from spatial arts, such as illustration, sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics, but also from written language, which cements ideas and oral expression into fixed letters. However, this characterization has its limits.

Author Anthony Burgess restricts the framing of words as concrete objects to informational writing. Scientific texts, legal documents, historical records, and other types of non-fiction primarily appeal to reason rather than imagination. They are written for study, reference, and comparison to other writings in the field. Their words are artifacts to be mulled over, digested, quoted, and critiqued. Contrastingly, Burgess sees literature as a “twin of music,” which, like music, occurs in real-time, transcends physical space, and manifests in the imagination.

Burgess’s interest in the link between music and literature stems from his biography. Best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, featuring a deranged gang leader obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Burgess was also a composer of some 150 works, most of which have been lost. He wished the public would view him as a musician who writes novels, rather than a novelist who composes music on the side. Yet, in his memoir, This Man & Music, Burgess concedes: “I have practiced all my life the arts of literary and musical composition—the latter chiefly as an amateur, since economic need has forced me to spend most of my time producing fiction and literary journalism.”

Burgess’s fiction brims with musical content, from characters who are musicians or music lovers, to writing styles that consciously borrow from sonata form, symphonic form, and the like. Stressing literature’s performative essence, Burgess complains: “We have come to regard the text as the great visual reality because we confuse letters as art with letters as information.” While non-fiction works might be understood as monuments of human thought, literature is a lived experience akin to traveling through a piece of music.

This discussion has more to say about literature than it does about music. Like the poet E. T. A. Hoffman, another composer who made his living in words, Burgess idealized creative writing as an art approaching music. Central to his argument is the conception of time as the canvas upon which both art forms take shape, and imagination as the invisible realm where their meaning is made.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

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Goal-Directed Movement

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music listening is an unfolding experience. Without prompting, the listener naturally follows the direction of a piece, traveling through its curves and contours in a linear progression toward completion. In both the Republic and Laws, Plato comments on the ability of this temporal movement to “charm” the inner life of the listener. Roger Scruton contends that the mind moves sympathetically with motion perceived in music, such it is felt as physical motion. These and other observations address the goal-directed movement of music. The whole piece is not revealed at once or in an order or manner that the listener chooses. Musical developments, whether simple or complex, lead auditors from beginning to end.

In contrast to print communication, which can be read and reread at any pace the reader wishes, music imposes its own duration and agenda. In pre-recording days, this necessitated formalized repetitions and recapitulations to get certain messages across, hence the use of sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), the doubling schema of keyboard partitas (AA/BB), the verse/chorus form of folksongs (and later commercial songs), and so on. Michel Chion notes: “This enormous redundancy—which means that if we buy a recording of Bach’s English Suites that lasts an hour, we only get thirty minutes of ‘pure’ musical information—clearly has no equivalent in the visual arts of the period.” Audio recordings afford greater freedom in terms of playback and repeated listening, but each listening remains a temporal experience.

The situation is not sidestepped with printed notation. Although a score can be read and studied, similar to a book or article, the notes on a page are essentially illusory. The paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre argued in L’Imaginaire, a treatise on imagination and the nature of human consciousness, that music is never located in the silent symbols of a musical score, however detailed. Using Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as an example, Sartre explained that the inability of written notes to capture music is rooted in the nature of sound itself. Unlike something that is empirically real—defined by Sartre as having a past, present, and future—music evaporates as soon as it is heard. Each performance is basically a new creation, and, we might add, each exposure to a recording is a new experience, due to changes in the listener and her surroundings from one hearing to the next.

Time, not paper, is the fundamental surface upon which music is made. Music involves a linear succession of impulses converging toward an end. Whereas a painting or sculpture conveys completeness in space, music’s totality is gradually divulged, sweeping up the listener—and the listener’s inner life—in the process.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Timeless and Time-bound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Western classical music, as a generic term separate from the segmented musical chronology, has a quality of timelessness. Works spanning more than three-hundred years—from Bach to Stravinsky and beyond—are grouped together in concert halls, radio programs, and the public’s imagination. Judged as outstanding specimens of their kind, they exhibit wide stylistic variations and expressive techniques, yet reside comfortably side by side as “classics.”

Leonard Bernstein, speaking at a Young People’s Concert,  pinpointed key contrasts between classical and other types of music: “The real difference is that when a composer writes a piece of what’s usually called classical music, he puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing them—even to the exact number of instruments or voices. He also writes down as many directions as he can think of, to tell the players or singers as carefully as he can everything they need to know about how fast or slow it should go, how loud or soft it should be, and millions of other things to help the performers to give an exact performance of those notes he thought up.” Contrastingly, Bernstein argued, “there’s no end to the ways in which [a popular tune] can be played or sung.”

Variations in classical performances stem not from self-initiated diversions, but from trying to interpret what the composer meant as closely as possible. Despite nuances of tempo, mood, and accentuation, the notes and instrumentation remain largely intact. These stabilized traits departed from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, when instrumentation was flexible, improvisation was integral, and notation was under-prescriptive. The meticulous directions and normalized expectations of classical music have ensured its transmission as a repeatable and recognizable art form.

Such timelessness comes into focus when confronted with its opposite. Beginning in the late 1960s, several attempts were made to “update” classical music for contemporary audiences. Switched-On Bach (1968) by Walter Carlos (now Wendy) initiated the trend with ten Bach arrangements for Moog synthesizer. Carlos followed it up with The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), featuring electric versions of Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Handel, and Bach, and her soundtrack for Clockwork Orange (1972), with synthesized renditions of Beethoven’s Ninth. Part of the appeal of Bob Moog’s instrument was its contemporariness. Space Age listeners resonated with its “future is now” aesthetic and “orchestra-in-a-box” convenience. Elites were equally enthralled, handing Switch-On Bach three Grammies in the classical category: best album, best performance, and best engineered recording.

Meco’s disco album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, released in 1977 (the same year as the film), is an illustrative offering from that era of classical retooling. Its showcase piece, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” topped  the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, owing to the popularity both of the film and of commercialized orchestral adaptations. Ironically, with his scores for Star Wars and other pictures, John Williams spearheaded a resurgence of classical film scoring, which had largely been replaced by pop soundtracks in the 1970s. Yet, as much as his writing convincingly retrieved an earlier genre of film music, it could not evade the sonic stamp of its age.

What unites these examples—and all pop treatments of classical music—is their time-boundedness. That which is “up-to-date” only remains so until that date has passed. The Moog sound is passé, disco is dead, but classical music is timeless. Its preservationist ethos—of instruments, interpretations, substances, and forms—has ensured its survival against the vicissitudes of taste.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Wagner and the Music of the Jews

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Anti-Semitism was not uncommon among nineteenth-century composers. Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky and others are on record making derogatory comments about Jews and Judaism. Most of these musicians carry no stigma; their works are performed without hesitation. This is not so with Richard Wagner, whose vitriol was exacerbated by his affiliation with left wing revolutionaries. Two things make it difficult to separate Wagner’s work from his views: the Nazis espoused his music, and he wrote a polemical essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music,” 1850, 1869). While he cannot be blamed for the Nazis’ use of his music—he died before Hitler was born—the anti-Jewish sentiment in his infamous essay is hard to dismiss.

Wagner makes two basic points in “Das Judenthum in der Musik.” The first is that “the Jew” is incapable of reaching the musical heights of European composers. He takes specific aim at Felix Mendelssohn, whom he considered more of a technician than an artist, and whom he thought lacked the passion and heart of a Beethoven (or of Wagner himself). He also mentions Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jacob Lieberman Beer), a once-popular opera composer whom Wagner felt was too practical, too calculated, and too concerned with popular tastes to be truly creative. Not incidentally, Wagner was convinced that Meyerbeer, a Frenchman, had deliberately sabotaged his early efforts to enter the Paris establishment. (Contrastingly, in 1841 Wagner wrote a glowing review of La Juive—The Jewess—a grand opera by another French Jewish composer, Fromenthal Halévy.)

If we remove the anti-Semitism and generalizations that fueled these observations, then Wagner’s views are not far off: Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer are in some ways inferior composers of the Western canon. But there is good reason for this. Jews did not enter the world of European music until the nineteenth century, and even then had limited opportunities to develop their craft. They were late to the party and had a lot of catching up to do. Wagner died in 1883, so he missed out on the twentieth century and its slew of innovative Jewish composers: Copland, Schoenberg, Bernstein, Philip Glass, the pioneers of Hollywood film music, etc. In addition to being a venom-infused stereotype, Wagner’s image of Jews as musically uncreative is simply outdated.

His second point is that “The Jew flings together the various forms and styles of all composers and eras.” Wagner meant this as an insult: Jews have no musical language of their own, but instead appropriate their neighbors’ music and perform it as foreigners. If we take out the negative implication of “Jew as imitator,” then Wagner’s opinion was actually correct—and perhaps even ahead of its time.

Wagner lived when Jewish music was gradually becoming a topic of interest among Wissenschaft scholars, who amplified the cultural uniqueness of Jews and Judaism. As part of that agenda, Jewish scholars perpetuated a myth of musical continuity, wherein some elusive element of “authentic” Jewish music could be traced back to Jerusalem’s Second Temple. This element was never discovered, and was never really looked for in any serious way. Still, it was a powerful sentiment that basically went unchallenged until the mid-twentieth century, when scholars came to terms with the fact that Jewish music is always tied to its surrounding, as Wagner pointed out. Contemporary critics view the ability to adapt music of the surroundings as a strength, rather than a weakness, of Jewish culture.

Not surprisingly, Wagner’s admirers tend to downplay his anti-Semitism, while his detractors emphasize it. As noted, he wasn’t entirely incorrect in his comments on the music of the Jews in his time and place; but the hatred that saturates his words cannot be ignored.

It is sometimes remarked that Wagner was envious of the Jews, but this assertion is rarely elaborated upon. I’d like to add my own theory. Wagner’s greatest claim to fame as a composer is the leitmotif: a recurrent theme throughout a musical composition that is associated with a specific person, idea or situation. Given Wagner’s obsession with the Jew in music, he was almost certainly aware that leitmotifs were a staple of synagogue music in his native Germany, and had been since the Middle Ages. The High Holidays, for instance, were full of them (the so-called “Mi-Sinai tunes”). One might even argue that Wagner stole the concept from the Jews, or was appalled to hear Jews using a musical device he thought he had invented. This could explain at least some of his vehemence. It also suggests that maybe—just maybe—Jews weren’t so uncreative after all.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Walk Like a Composer

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Beethoven’s daily routine included vigorous walks with a pencil and sheets of music paper. Robert Schumann’s regular walks were punctuated with poetry writing and drawing sketches. Tchaikovsky took two walks per day: a brisk stroll in the morning and a two-hour hike after lunch. Benjamin Britten had company on his walks, during which he talked about music and after which he wrote it down. The list of strolling composers could go on and on. More than just mundane details of famous biographies, these examples give credence to Nietzsche’s overstated but still compelling aphorism: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

The link between walking and creativity is apparent across disciplines. Celebrated cases include John Milton, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Eric Hoffer. Again, the list could stretch on without end. A skeptic might note that walking is a natural human activity: it is something that creative and not-so-creative people share in common. But this is walking of an intentional and recreational kind, not the humdrum mode of moving the body from place to place.

Until now, connections between walking and novel idea generation have come from historical and personal anecdotes. Britten working out a musical passage on a leisurely jaunt has parallel in the average person working out an average problem on a stroll around the neighborhood. Perhaps the benefits are so apparent that scientific confirmation is not needed. Be that as it may, the emerging science provides intriguing confirmation.

A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology outlines preliminary findings of four walking experiments. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” (a highly technical study with a deceptively inviting title) shows that walking not only increases formation of creative ideas in real-time, but also for a period afterward. Without going into depth here, the experiments, conducted by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University, record thought processes of people in various combinations of seating and walking. Not surprisingly, walking resulted in substantial creative boosts, with outdoor walking producing thought patterns of the highest quality and novelty.

Without jumping to premature conclusions, the authors predict that the walk-thought mechanism “will eventually [be shown to] comprise a complex causal pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the proximal processes.” This is something we could have learned from Brahms, who was often seen walking around Vienna with hands folded behind his back. He gave this advice to Gustav Jenner, his only formal composition student: “When ideas come to you, go for a walk; then you will discover that the thing you thought was a complete thought was actually only the beginning of one.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Spirituality of the Human

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Many secular people are averse to the term “spirituality.” To them, it connotes something hopelessly religious, patently unscientific and irrationally romantic. These objections are not unfounded. The popularization of spirituality in the twentieth century owed to theologians like Rudolf Otto, religious enthusiasts like William James, and New Age groups like the Theosophical Society. We have inherited the term from pious sources, associate it with mystics and proselytizers, and encounter it in devotional discourse. As a result, the very idea of “secular spirituality” might seem a careless cooption of a faith-filled concept or, worse, a laughable oxymoron.

But a growing number of secularists are adopting “spirituality” as a useful designation. They discard the supernaturalism of an immortal soul, divine entity or astral plane, but recognize opportunities for transcendence in human qualities such as compassion, love, harmony and contentment. These ideals exist prior to and independent of religious doctrine. Without relying on otherworldly interpretations or deistic explanations, secular spirituality seeks inner tranquility, pursues higher virtues and cultivates awareness of something greater than our physical selves.

While this process takes place in the realm of cognition, the overall effect is, by definition, beyond the ordinary experiences of mind and matter. It is thus better to describe it by way of example than to rely upon the limited resources of language.

There is a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico that boasts of offering Sunday services “minus religion.” It is called the Church of Beethoven, a congregation dedicated to presenting “professional live music performances of the highest quality, together with other artistic expressions from fields including poetry . . . in a manner that transcends the commonplace.” The church gathers each week for a one-hour program, typically comprised of a short musical selection, a poetry reading, a two-minute “celebration of silence,” and a substantial work of chamber music. According to its founder, Felix Wurman (1958-2009), the gathering places music “as the principal element, rather than as an afterthought.”

It is no coincidence that music plays a key role in many of the world’s religions. Melodic expression, it is widely believed, helps prepare us for transcendence. Yet music designed for sacred purposes is generally used in support of words (“worship music” usually refers to song-settings of poetry and prayer). Such music is programmatic, guided by textual narratives and meant to convey specific extra-musical themes. In contrast, most of the music performed at the Church of Beethoven is absolute, or music for its own sake. For example, a past service consisted of Bach’s Sonata in E-minor, Höller’s SCAN for Solo Flute, and Mozart’s Quartet for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello. The intent behind this music is not religious per se. However, as the church insists, these performances can foster the ecstasy and communal bonding one would expect from a religious service—just without the dogma.

Music has the potential to bring us to a higher place. This can occur within or outside expressly ecclesiastical contexts, and may be achieved with music made for many purposes. The Church of Beethoven embraces this realization. It offers an alternative to conventional worship services, which are cluttered with rules of doctrine and practice. Its gatherings are, in a way, “pure” activities, unhindered by agenda or ideology. The same applies when we find spiritual uplift in a child’s joy, the sight of nature and other this-worldly pleasures. Spirituality belongs to us all.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art Is Not Artist

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Biographies and backstories can taint our perception of artistic creations. The more that is known of the life and views of the artist, the more potentially challenging it is to embrace the art. Classic examples include the bigoted composer, the abusive author, the misogynistic painter, the egotistical architect, the politically opinionated actor. Without providing names, these epithets likely bring specific individuals to mind—a fact that itself shows the difficulty of separating the art from the artist. Because human minds and human hands are the imaginative and actualizing forces behind the art, the artist’s personality is, it would seem, inextricably woven into the work.

It hardly needs mention that the foregoing dilemma is specific to controversial creators. The upright artist is outside of this discussion, as is the one we know little about. It is also true that the nature and severity of a negative trait will determine our ability or inability to excuse a less-than-noble artist. Still, the reality remains: as soon as we learn of something incriminating or offensive (universally or personally) about an artist, the experience of his or her art is irreparably influenced.

Although this judgment is natural and perhaps unavoidable, there are three ways in which it is unfair to both artist and audience. First, like any human being, the artist is composed of an assortment of qualities, some good, some bad, some neutral. Artists may differ from “ordinary” people in areas such as talent, training, creativity and vision, but they have flaws and virtues like everyone else. Indeed, the inner complexity of the artist is popularly thought to exceed that of others—a stereotype that should, at the very least, caution us from reducing the artist to his or her blemishes.

Second, artistic expression is an indicator of higher attributes. That things of beauty can emerge from someone possessing a despicable quirk is proof of an internal coexistence of dark and light. It should not be forgotten that Beethoven, whose compositions are among the outstanding achievements of Western culture, practiced his craft in a pigsty apartment, replete with piles of garbage, un-emptied chamber pots, and a stew of foul odors. These physical conditions were an extension of Beethoven’s psychological condition; but just as his music transcended the filth in which it was written, so did it rise above the smudge in his mind.

Third, a work of art is but a stage in a larger process. The creative offering—whether a piece of music or a building—is made to be perceived. Art is not fully formed unless and until it enters the consciousness of someone other than the artist. It has no absolute identity apart from the perceiver’s interaction with it. Reception is, in a sense, the completion of creation. Our own personalities—our characteristics, inclinations and experiences—actively shape what we perceive, thereby nullifying (or mitigating) whatever trace of the creator’s persona is present in the work.

The key is to preserve our initial response to art, which occurs on a pre-rational and pre-interpretational level. It is only when the analytical mind kicks in that gut reactions are obscured by thoughts of the artist and other reflections. To avoid such second-level impediments, it is helpful to remember that art is not artist.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.