Why an intervention? Because of my recent obsession with a music video by Kanye West for the song "Runaway." The only person that I know that agrees with me about this song is my 18-year-old driver Santiago! So ok, let's carefully step away from the YouTube controls.
One of the things that musicology has focused on in recent years is what you might call a "thick" description of the social and historical context of music. Have a look at this Wikipedia article for some definitions. Instead of just discussing the dry technical aspects or a chronicle of influences, musicologists try and sort out the reception history of music and its relationship to social context. This can easily get out of hand and you wake up and find yourself claiming that all Western music is a sordid tale of oppression by the white patriarchy! If you manage to avoid this crude ideology though, music can certainly be studied with an eye to its historical surroundings. I think I first picked up on this in the 70s on reading The Idea of History by R. G. Collingwood.
Collingwood thought that history can not be studied in the same way as natural science because the internal thought processes of historical persons cannot be perceived with the physical senses, and past historical events can not be directly observed. He suggested that a historian must "reconstruct" history by using "historical imagination" to "re-enact" the thought processes of historical persons based on information and evidence from historical sources.So let's listen to a stirring performance of that Saint-Saëns movement:
Wow, now that is just terrific, isn't it? For whatever reason, I have had a bit of a bias against French music from after the Revolution until Debussy. I always found it a bit dull and conventional despite the great historical interest of the music written during the Revolution and immediately after. That was perhaps the first music with a populist intent for mass audiences. I think I started to listen to the "Organ" symphony a couple of times but never got past the first movement. This last movement is really powerful. It is powerful in what I would call a "normalizing" way. The materials are solid and essentially simple and the structure is built on strong foundations. It has a kind of monolithic grandeur to which the organ is a major contributor. I have also had a bit of a bias against the organ as well, but here it is used to ideal effect.
What is the context of this music? It is music that brings to mind a particular era in European history that was given a magnificent account of in Roger Shattuck's 1968 book The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I. The Wall Street Journal gave a nice account of the book when Shattuck passed away in 2005:
"The Banquet Years," published in 1968, remains in print to this very day, and both its sly humor and its brilliant combination of anecdote and analysis are as fresh, as amusing and as essential to our understanding of the modern era as the day it was published. So are the deft portraits of the book's principal subjects -- Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie and Guillaume Apollinaire -- a quartet of gifted misfits and oddball talents whose accomplishments, though scarcely noticed by the reigning eminences of French cultural life, offered a preview of the modernism that would in many respects give the arts of the 20th century their special character.The Saint-Saëns symphony was written in 1886, right at the beginning of this period. Now it was decades ago that I read the book, but one interesting aspect of the time that Shattuck captures and, indeed, uses as his title, is the astonishing comfort and confidence of European civilization at the time. In the late 19th century, human progress was both ubiquitous and unquestioned. European civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement and a beacon to the world. It was celebrated with enormous banquets with hosts of formally-clad, prosperous, culturally comfortable guests. It was into this confident world that the oddballs that Shattuck describes inserted their troubling avant-garde ideas.
What ensued, of course, was World War I and the shattering of European civilization. Millions of casualties in a single protracted battle. The sites of the worst conflicts remain scars on the landscape until now, a hundred years later.
But in the Saint-Saëns we hear the joy and confidence of European culture before the Fall. What glorious music. And profoundly "normal." This thought comes from the great English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey who used the term to describe Beethoven. What he achieved in his greatest works was not tortured dysfunction, but hard-won normalcy. The idea is that the best art is built on a solid foundation of the good, the true and the beautiful. In the Saint-Saëns, as in the Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven, a C minor beginning ends with a resplendent C major, the inherent dysfunction of the minor mode redeemed by the "normalcy" of the major mode.
By the time we get to Shostakovich, also writing big, grandiose symphonies, whenever he attempts to write a triumphant finale it is always described as artificial or false in some way. Well, yes, because by the mid 20th century European confidence had ebbed to nothing, bled away in the trenches and killing fields.
So it is a great pleasure to listen to the unalloyed joy of the Saint-Saëns symphony, untroubled by what was to come. And this is how we should listen to it. We should emphatically not corrupt our enjoyment by convicting Saint-Saëns in absentia of the sins of patriarchy, misogyny, oppression and so on. Nope, this ideological tactic is just a symptom of the decline of European civilization, not a sign of progress.