Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Is there "timeless" music?

I keep coming back to a small group of questions, but that's ok, because there are only a few important questions. One of the ones that is important is the question of historicism, the view that there are overwhelming historical forces that determine the course of events. There are varying versions of this with varying amounts of plausibility. Karl Popper wrote a telling critique of the stronger versions in his book The Poverty of Historicism.

I'm giving this background because I think it helps understand a recent debate about what is going on with the humanities (which include the arts) in academia. Here is an interesting discussion of a recent dust-up by Peter Wood, President of the National Association of scholars. This quote will give you a good idea:
In December, the New York Times in an article headlined, "Humanities Studies Under Strain Around the Globe," emphasized that the United States is not alone in treating the humanities as "nonstrategic." Australia, Britain, India, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and France have joined the decline. 
So there is abundant reason to wonder why the humanities are in trouble. These disciplines have thrived in the academy in various forms for some 800 years. Why should they be in such steep decline today? One explanation is that students are worried more than ever about their career prospects and, fearing that a major in history or English will reduce their chances of future employment, the students have hived off to study accounting and economics. There is surely something to this explanation. Faced with crushing loads of student debt, students do need to take counsel on how they will pay their bills.
But that explanation goes only so far. Even students who major in accounting could take plenty of history and English courses if they wanted to. To explain their reluctance, we need to look deeper. My answer, offered in various places, is that the humanities have in many cases descended into triviality. They have become aggressively ideological in causes such as race, class, and gender equity; they have turned into engines of contempt for the great traditions of cultural achievement and scholarly inquiry they used to represent; and they have become smugly self-referential, as if the declarations of the professors matter as much (or more) than the deliberations of statesmen and the profundities of great works of art and literature.
I think I have noticed before that deep irony of scholars of the humanities, whose fundamental responsibility is to transmit the content of culture and civilization to each new generation, have instead reconceptualized their role as to be the main critics of this content. I have often chosen musicologist Susan McClary as my example because of an early article she wrote accusing Beethoven of creating the impression of being a frustrated rapist in the way he handles the recapitulation of the first movement of the Symphony No. 9. Sure sounds silly summarized that baldly! But the general trend of sneering at the great artistic traditions of Western Civilization as a means of advancing one's career in academia, under the guise of race, class and gender analysis, is widespread in the humanities. Read all the above article for a sense of it.

In music departments, all the pianists, violinists and orchestras play Beethoven all the time. But the musicologists tend to steer clear of him, unless they can find an angle like McClary's. The reason is that, unless you are deconstructing him according to race, class and gender, it seems as if what you are doing is old hat, old musicology, already done to death. One of the most important pressures on young scholars is to come up with new angles and they have been going to the well of race, class and gender for decades now, though music departments have been slow to catch up.

This past weekend I went to two concerts by a string quartet that I first heard last season and gotten to know a bit. The first violinist is from Vancouver and they are based in Toronto. They are the Afiara Quartet and the link is to their website. I won't review the concert as I know them personally, but I would like to take the concert, and one piece in particular, as a good example of the timeless timeliness of music.

Afiara do Beethoven particularly well (one member even told me that they wouldn't mind only playing Beethoven quartets!) and they ended the second concert with a terrific performance of the Quartet in C# minor, op. 131. I have talked about this piece before here and here. The rest of the pieces performed over the two concerts were by Haydn, Mozart, Dvorak, Hugo Wolf and Schumann. What really stood out for me was how different the Beethoven was from the other music. All the pieces were very fine, of course, but there is something different about Beethoven. The late quartets are full of the most extraordinary contrasts of mood, meter, tempo and harmony. The remarkable thing is how they hold our attention. The music is so extraordinarily expressive that we listen, on the edge of our seats. No matter how lovely the other music was, it never quite grips the listener as thoroughly.

And this is an important aesthetic fact. Musicology tends to steer clear of Beethoven (and Haydn too, for that matter) as he provides little for them to deconstruct. Sure, he had race, class and gender, but these lenses add little to our understanding and enjoyment of the music. Trying to put Beethoven through the academic blender just tends to make the scholar look a bit foolish. Like Shakespeare, Beethoven stands there defying the tools of our doctoral thesis and demanding to be taken seriously as a great artist.

The real irony here is that music is the most timey of the time arts as every vibration from the pulse of the tempo to the vibration that gives the pitch of the melody note, is all about time and nothing but time! But still, despite this, music contains many pieces that certainly seem to transcend their immediate historical and social context and speak to us with as much or most likely more, aesthetic authority now than they did when they were written.

So yes, there is timeless music, or will be as long as we have ears to hear it. I was fortunate to find a clip on YouTube of the Afiara Quartet playing the whole of Beethoven, op. 131, so you can see what I mean:

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