Monday, December 12, 2011

The Good in Music

Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

I’m not at all a religious person—or perhaps the closest thing I have to a religion is music—but that quote above resonated with me. Indeed, this is pretty much the way I approach music. I seek out whatever is excellent and admirable. Well, why wouldn’t you? And when did we stop doing this? I suspect it was a long slow process, much of it in the 20th century, that time of many, many sins. I suspect it was a side-effect of the “long march” of the left through the institutions of Western Culture that led us to replace seeking out the excellent and lovely with – uh, what exactly? The shocking, the political, the ‘interested’? Or just that which seems able to make a lot of money? Somehow the virtue of ‘authenticity’ which seems to underpin a lot of popular music, well, not lately, but a while back, smells ever so faintly of class warfare. Blues, jazz and all the popular music based on these earthy foundations, all have an authenticity that is really related to proletarian culture.

But the noble, the excellent, the admirable, these virtues strongly recall aristocratic culture—the harpsichords of the nobility burnt on the pyres of the French Revolution. On the one hand we have Lady Gaga and on the other J. S. Bach. Of course, that juxtaposition is so much stronger than a mere ‘straw man’ argument that I’m not even sure we have a word for it! But to tone it down into slightly more credible territory, it is worth noticing that musicians like Bach and Beethoven and Brahms were learnéd. They possessed profound knowledge of music gathered from many years of study and exercise. True, there were young prodigies like Mozart, but he too spent many years studying and was not shy to admit learning much from Haydn. And they all—all—studied Bach as did Chopin and many others.

To set up a better juxtaposition, the most successful musical ‘act’ in history is probably the Beatles. Paul McCartney has a personal net worth much greater than any other musician at any time. But the Beatles very much eschewed any suggestion of the ‘learnéd’. To this day, McCartney claims not to be able to read or write musical notation. Of course, the Beatles were, within their own realm, very learnéd indeed. All the young British musicians of their time absorbed the records of American, particularly black, popular musicians. The Beatles’ later procedures in the studio, guided by George Martin, were also the kind of thing that learnéd musicians do. They experimented with every possible device to achieve strict aesthetic goals and this resulted in their greatest achievements such as Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s. But I’m afraid that this might have been the last gasp of the learnéd in popular music. Since then it has become ever more repetitive, dull and captured by mere spectacle. I think that brings us to Lady Gaga.

Now Lady Gaga has some interesting aspects—her song/video “Bad Romance” is not a bad pop song with a very baroque style. The intro and extro use electric harpsichord sounds and there is certainly something baroque about the costumes. But since then she seems to be reverting to disco/Madonna.

My post yesterday about young composers raises the question, what exactly is the goal of their music? Is it really to find something pure and lovely, the age-old goal of beauty? I wonder...

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