Tag Archives: Proverbs

Surviving Context

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Some people are sticklers for context. They are hypersensitive about how words are handled and hyper-protective of original sources. For any statement, speech, painting, essay, song, novel or other cultural artifact to have legitimate meaning, it must be appreciated in, and only in, its native confines. Removing an idea from a specific discussion or an object from its historical period damages the intent and invalidates later applications. In the extreme of this view, ancient scriptures have no lasting relevance, reports on an event cannot describe anything else, and artistic creations from different periods or locations cannot be properly reproduced. Timeless wisdom becomes time-bound information. Ageless beauty becomes situational aesthetics.

It is fair to say that the extreme position is rarely (if ever) taken. Even sticklers treasure an occasional proverb or a piece of Classical music, though both were contrived for foreign audiences long ago deceased. Where the issue becomes problematic is when a comment is given wider relevance than the author intended. This is especially frowned upon in the guarded field of musical analysis, where fidelity to context is almost a maxim. True, ink spilled in the examination of one composer or piece of music is necessarily distorted when applied to a different work, let alone something more general; and egregious distortions can and do occur. But to insist that every musical insight be understood only in its document of origin restricts its potential readership and potential to enlighten.

If staunch contextualism were to prevail, then popular books like A Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Croften and Fraser) and Music: A Book of Quotations (Galewitz)—as well as specialized books like my own Quotations on Jewish Sacred Music—would lose much or all of their value. However, most of us recognize that words written on a particular situation or creation frequently retain and accrue beneficial meanings when expanded to larger contexts.

An example is composer-musicologist Hubert Parry’s warning, “Look out for this man’s music; he has something to say and knows how to say it.” Parry wrote this after attending the premiere of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899), but it could be describing any sincere and competent musician. Similarly, Beethoven unknowingly wrote on behalf of many composers when he included this statement in a letter to Louis Schlösser (1823): “You will ask where my ideas come from. I cannot say for certain. They come uncalled, sometimes independently, sometimes in association with other things.”

The governing ideal of a remark may reside within specific borders, but unconditional truths can still be happened upon. Indeed, various and sundry quotations find their way into anthologies precisely because their usefulness survives their context.

Part of this durability owes to the fact that observations made about any one thing take place within a grander sweep of experiences. No phenomenon exists in isolation and no reflection on a phenomenon is without underpinnings in a larger reality. In this sense, the constricted setting of a given quote already exists in a wider context, and the sagacity it possesses can speak to a wider context still. For instance, words about a Romantic composition may capture the essence of Romantic music, or elucidate music composition in general.

Of course, we should always be sensitive to the original target and meaning of a statement, and be habitual citers of sources. It is also obvious that not everything brilliant is applicable outside of the page it is printed on. But when it is, we should be free to adopt it as wisdom to think by.

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

Composing Legends

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Prolificacy is a common characteristic of the creative mind. The creator must create. By definition, a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts, a cake decorator decorates cakes. Yet there is a certain (if unspecified) quantity of creating that must be done before one can earn such a title. And in most creative fields—artistic, culinary or otherwise—a substantial body of work is a prerequisite for being considered exceptional. In the musical world, astounding output is seen as a sign of special insight, sensitivity and genius. The giftedness of a musician is thought to be proportional to his or her productivity. Thus, we find large sums of music attributed to two biblical figures remembered for their astuteness, sagacity and wisdom: David and Solomon.

Tradition ascribes the entire Book of Psalms to King David, and 73 psalm chapters bear his name. A version of the Psalter from the Dead Sea Scrolls goes further, claiming that David wrote 3,600 psalms, along with 450 additional songs. Solomon, David’s son and successor, is said to have authored 1,005 songs and 3,000 proverbs (1 Kgs. 5:12). That reference prompted a veritable library of Solomonic pseudepigraphy, including two biblical psalms (72 and 127), the books of Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon, and the Psalms of Solomon (an extracanonical book from the first or second century B.C.E).

Doubts have been raised about whether these monarchs authored any of the songs to which their names are attached. For one thing, it was customary to put wisdom in the mouths of kings, regardless of their reputation. It could thus be that David and Solomon were made into fertile songwriters as a way to venerate their wisdom above that of “ordinary” monarchs. Another problem is that epigraphical evidence from their time is scanty. The world of David and Solomon was virtually illiterate, and it is likely that neither was capable of writing—let alone scribing beautifully intricate verses.

There is a more basic question apart from these historical considerations: Is it even possible for the kings to have been so musically prolific? The answer is a qualified yes.

Über-prolific musicians have been known in every epoch of human history. Purandara Dasa (1484–1564), the father of Carnatic music, wrote at least 1,000 songs. The oeuvre of German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) is believed to comprise over 3,000 pieces. Simon Sechter (1788-1867), who taught music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, wrote over 8,000 pieces (a comparative few of which were published).

Super-productive musicians of modern vintage include Sun Ra, an avant-garde jazzer and self-styled extraterrestrial, who is credited with 159 albums. Musical polymath Frank Zappa put out 62 albums during his brief lifetime, and 29 additional albums have been released posthumously. Minimalist composer Philip Glass has nearly one hundred albums to his credit, and Ennio Morricone has provided scores for some 340 films.

It hardly needs mention that the work of these creative personalities is not always masterful in terms of quality, originality or care of construction. Anyone who has done a lot of anything knows this to be an inevitable truth. Nonetheless, a simple fact must be acknowledged: prolificacy requires time, diligence and dedication. This makes the idea of David and Solomon as fertile songwriters all the more doubtful.

As a rule, prolific musicians are fully absorbed in their calling. In contrast, David and Solomon are portrayed as warrior kings whose days were full with diplomacy, strategizing and nation building (not to mention their eventful personal lives). At best they would have written songs in their limited spare time. So, even if we set aside questions about ascriptions and literacy, the volume of material attributed to them would have been exceedingly difficult to achieve. It might be a remote possibility, but remote bordering on highly improbable.

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