“Eleanor Rigby,” I’d argue, is just as profound as Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.That is just the kind of absurdity that we children of the 60s have been indoctrinated to accept without question. It reminds me of the silliest thing my professor said in Philosophy 101. We were talking about time and he said, with a completely straight face, that whereas humans perceive time as a linear continuum, for dolphins it is an expanding spiral! Honestly, how would anyone know!?!?
So, Mr. Tommasini, let's hear your argument. Resolved that "Eleanor Rigby" is just as profound as Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony." I shall have to provide his arguments myself as he has not bothered to give them.
First of all, some criteria. Let's say that a piece of music might strive for profundity in five dimensions: "message", intensity, innovation, complexity and unity. I am not going to provide the arguments for why I have chosen these--some of them reflect categories argued for in Beardsley's book on aesthetics and the first one, "message", I chose simply because both the works under consideration have a sung text.
Let's take the text first. Eleanor Rigby, with lyrics mostly by Paul McCartney, has this text:
This is a pretty fair picture of English working class life at a certain moment in time and on a level considerably higher than the usual popular music lyrics. Is it profound? Relatively so, I suppose, but not compared to, for example, the poetry of English contemporary Philip Larkin whose most famous verse goes like this:
"Eleanor Rigby"Ah, look at all the lonely peopleAh, look at all the lonely peopleEleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has beenLives in a dreamWaits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the doorWho is it for?All the lonely peopleWhere do they all come from?All the lonely peopleWhere do they all belong?Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hearNo one comes nearLook at him working, darning his socks in the night when there's nobody thereWhat does he care?All the lonely peopleWhere do they all come from?All the lonely peopleWhere do they all belong?Ah, look at all the lonely peopleAh, look at all the lonely peopleEleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her nameNobody cameFather McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the graveNo one was savedAll the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)Where do they all come from?All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)Where do they all belong?
This Be The Verse
BY PHILIP LARKIN
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
What about the text to the Mahler symphony? To save a bit of space, I'm going to link to the Wikipedia article on the symphony which has the original German and English translation:
The Mahler text might be seen as both elegiac and prophetic if you see it as being both a tribute to European civilisation and a harbinger of the First World War, a kind of civilisational suicide attempt. The McCartney lyric gives an evocative depiction of the alienation of the post-WWII English working class, drifting in a kind of limbo with the loss of empire and the diminishing of their horizons. Depending on how you view things historically, you might argue that either text is more "profound" than the other. Perhaps, as the McCartney lyric focuses on a specific social group at a specific moment in time it is less universal than the Mahler lyric, which deals with the themes of death and resurrection.
Now let's move on to the dimension of intensity. In its context, popular music in the 1960s, Eleanor Rigby certainly has an almost unique expressive intensity, likely matched only by two other McCartney songs with string accompaniment: Yesterday and She's Leaving Home. In all three of these songs, George Martin, the Beatles' long-time musically-trained producer, created the arrangements for Paul, who did not read music. Paul apparently sang some melodic lines to him. I suspect that Mr. Tommasini chose Eleanor Rigby over the other two because it has a more appealing social message. Musically it is nice, but perhaps not of great significance. The harmony throughout is a simple alternation between E minor and C major (with an occasional passing harmony). The final harmony is E minor. The harmony is really non-functional therefore and would be analyzed like this:
i - VI - i - VI - i - VI etc.
Not what you would call terribly intense harmonically. Here are the first two pages of the score:
The Mahler symphony has an interesting harmonic ambiguity as well: it tends to hover between the two areas of E flat and C minor, which share the key signature of three flats. Title page says C minor. Here are the first two pages:
Being as this is the introduction to the first movement of a piece about an hour and a half long, and it is late Romantic, this is probably one of the least active areas, harmonically. But there are a few interesting things going on. For one thing, there is a dominant pedal: G. The other parts present different ideas against this: the turn figure at the beginning which is sequenced upward, the dotted motif dropping an octave. By measure 8 we have a hint at a modulation to the dominant suggested by the F sharp. But the modulation does not materialize, instead we have a brief suggestion of the key of E flat major before returning to the dotted motif, but this time on G instead of C. Then there is a descending melodic sequence in the bass. Finally, at the end of this excerpt, we have a new theme moving from C through the outline of a D minor triad to C again.
Motivically there is as much going on in the McCartney song as there is in the first two pages of the Mahler, but bear in mind that the Mahler score has another 200 pages to go, the McCartney just two more and we have already seen all the material in the first two pages.
I don't think I really need to continue this exercise do I? The plain truth is that as soon as you start to do any serious evaluation of the two pieces the overwhelming impression is that the McCartney is a rather nice two minute pop song, creatively excellent within the parameters of its genre, while the Mahler is a huge artwork of considerable complexity and requiring great instrumental and vocal forces, not to mention long-term intense concentration on the part of the audience. To compare them is absurd. It is not a case of comparing apples to oranges, it is more like comparing the economic clout of Andorra to that of the European Union.
What is really seriously troubling is that the music critic for the New York Times can say something so absurd publicly and only be called out by relatively few readers in the comment section. This is probably attributable to the fact that few people these days know much about music or music history or theory.