Monday, February 24, 2014

Popular vs. Classical Music : A Matter of Criteria

Originally written as a reflection on Start Making Sense! Musicology Wrestles with Rock by Dr. Susan McClary and Robert Walser.

 In this particular article, taken from a compilation of essays on popular music titled On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, the authors discuss the difficulties musicologists face when wishing to devote their time and energy to the analysis and interpretation of popular music, from rock to heavy metal to the blues.  Popular music is very often at a disadvantage due to the fact that it is traditionally seen as the enemy of classical music.  Musicologists who have a genuine interest and appreciation for rock and pop music typically are presented with a unique dilemma in that, since analysis of popular music according to the typical criteria used in classical music is typically far less insightful, they have to look at the music from a different perspective, drawing up their own criteria. the understanding in traditional musicology of the superiority of Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart, Bach, etc. to popular music has largely been due to the attempts to judge popular music according to the rules and practices of classical music.  For example, classical music is typically analyzed according to tools such as pitch centers, a method which falls flat when applied to most popular music. This is decidedly unfair, calling to mind a quote from Albert Einstein which reads, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Similarly, if musicologists judge popular music according to its exploration of pitch centers and tonal goals, it’s going to be found wanting. Furthermore, an analysis according to pitch centers is only one way to discuss the content and the value of music.  Popular musical styles can be just as meaningful and complex as Beethoven, Strauss, and Stravinsky, but in different ways.  Musicologists cannot deny the attraction and the emotional impact that this music is able to evoke, whether it is Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Coldplay, or heavy metal.

Down the Abbey Road, The Beatles
McClary and Walser say that this is one of the central aspects of popular music : its ability to move the passions in ways that cannot entirely be explained or controlled, a source of frustration and perhaps even fear for musicologists.  However, just because they are afraid of what they don’t understand doesn’t mean they should avoid engaging it or discussing it.  I find it intriguing that, while both classical music and popular music have the power to illicit an emotional response from its listeners, these emotional responses can come in a variety of forms.  Pianist James Rhodes said that he was emotionally knocked to the floor when he first heard Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto at age seven; the second movement was the first piece of classical music that caused him to weep at its beauty. Then we have historical documents of more violent emotional responses: the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring elicited such a violent emotional response that it caused riots in the theater.  Similar violent responses also occur in popular music : moshing has become a common response to live performances of hardcore punk and most styles of metal.

Apollo Belvedere/Pythian Apollo
It is obvious that music has this ability to create this emotional response, but are all emotional responses equal? Are all styles of music equal?  If we cannot judge them according to the traditional criteria used in discussing classical music, then what criteria should we use?  To answer this question, I think one must return to the musical discussions of the Greeks.  In his writings, Plato categorizes music according to two genres which he names Dionysian and Apollonian.  Apollo was typically identified as the god of truth and knowledge, whereas Dionysus was the god of wine, ecstasy, and merry making. Plato describes Dionysian music as a style in which reason is forsaken in a type of emotional intoxication. It advocates a type of anarchy, almost animalistic in its reckless abandonment of the intellect for the sake of revelry in one’s own passions. By contrast, reason remains primary in Apollonian music, ordering our emotional response towards a higher end.  This should not to be misinterpreted as a controlled environment in which emotional responses are allowed to occur. Rather, Apollonian music is a genre which engages man’s intellectual, sensual, and emotional faculties in their proper hierarchy. In the words of playwright Robert Bolt, “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” (Taken from Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons)

Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, 1966.
It seems to me that, while all forms of music may have their time and place and are certainly worthy of study and appreciation on multiple levels, not all musical genres are created equal or have the same value.  The highest forms are those which engage the human person on rational, sensual, and emotional levels as these levels were intended.  In C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, he describes the image of a man with three faculties : the chest, the stomach, and the head.  The chest represents the heart, the stomach the appetites, and the head the power of reason.  Man fully alive uses all three of these faculties together in their proper ordering.  He states that while it is a gross poverty to raise men “without chests,”  -- meaning they have been figuratively castrated of emotional responses -- it is equally wrong for them to allow their emotions or their passions to rule their actions.  He adds, “No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”  Just as man fully alive is made possible through the integration of the head, the heart, and the appetites, so great art and great music is created through the integration of the rational, the sensual, and the spiritual.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio. 1599-1600.

This is one of my favorite pieces of art by the Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio (1571-1610). It is from the Baroque period as part of the reaction in the Catholic culture to the Protestant Reformation. The painting depicts the scene from the Gospels where Our Lord sees the future St. Matthew with his fellow tax collectors and commands him, "Come, follow me." It is located in a beautiful side chapel in the church of St. Louis of France in Rome, alongside two other Caravaggio paintings from the life of St. Matthew. 

First, allow me tell you a little bit about the painter. Caravaggio was a rather controversial artist from Milan. He was born wealthy, but he was orphaned at the age of ten. Towards the end of the 1500s, he arrived in Rome as the typical starving artist; however, his painting The Calling of St. Matthew catapulted him into success. His style consisted of depicting the ignoble in art, making him a rather contentious figure. He had a violent temper, but he was also a follower of St. Philip Neri, a Catholic priest, a great preacher and a contemporary of his. St. Philip Neri had just founded his oratory, so it is possible that Caravaggio may have come to hear him preach.

Caravaggio introduced into his paintings the use of heavy contrast between light and dark to enhance the drama of the painting! While he was working, he would set up lanterns as spot-lights on his work to help exaggerate the shadows and the light in his paintings. This technique may be contrasted with the style of Michelangelo's use of light and shadows, which is not as intense. The use of light and shadow is a useful tool to help date pre-- and post-- Caravaggio artists. The style of Caravaggio is also in the same spirit of the Italian artist Giotto, who painted the beautiful frescos of the life of St. Francis for the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Giotto used modeling and gestures to help tell the story of the painting.

Now, to discuss the painting itself. If you looks closely, the light is not coming from the window -- in short, it is not from the natural world! The hand of Christ is modeled after the hand of Michelangelo's The Creation of Man, one of the most famous frescoes adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Which hand Caravaggio is imitating (God the Father's or Adam's) is debatable. St. Peter is in front of Christ, and is portrayed often in Baroque religious art because this art is proclaiming the primacy of Peter and Catholicism as the true faith.  
Another intriguing element of the painting is the mode of dress of the two parties.  Christ and St. Peter are clad in their traditional garb, while Matthew and his fellow tax collectors are wearing the garb of the day, thus relating the viewer to the scene in the painting. One tax collector is using his fingers to stack the coins, while another is adjusting his spectacles. Each has a different reaction  to Christ. Matthew has heard and is pointing to himself as if to say, "Me, Lord?" The light is cast on his face, drawing the viewer's eye to him as the focal point. The two figures on the left are unaware of Christ's call. As for the two figures on the right: one is unsure and is ready to draw his sword. The other, looking askance, appears curious and casual as he leans on St. Matthew. One gets the impression that he may do whatever Matthew does. Caravaggio brings you into the scene, and forces us to ask the questions, "To what is Jesus calling me, and what is my response?"

I think part of the reason why this painting is so meaningful to me is because of the different reactions of the men in the scene.  It reminds me of the line from the poem "Aurora Leigh" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861):

"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries..."

St. Matthew was not only willing to see in this scene, but he was also given the grace to see. The other tax collectors are partially or completely oblivious to the call of Christ. St. Matthew has seen and is about to take off his shoes. The beauty of God is all around us : in nature, the people we meet, beautiful artwork and music.  It is up to us to awaken ourselves to His presence. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, The world will never suffer for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reading With a Critical Eye: Manipulation of History and What's Trending

This was originally written as a reflection for my 20th C. Music class on Howard Zinn’s Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Chapter IV : The Use and Abuse of History. I expanded and modified it a little.

 In Chapter 4 of his book Declarations if Independence, Howard Zinn claims that it is impossible to write an unbiased account of historical persons and events due to the unconscious influences of preexisting goals, purposes, agendas, and beliefs. This lack of historical objectivity does not occur through deliberate lying but through occurs the omission or de-emphasis of significant data.  Zinn uses several examples from American history to demonstrate his point, including the omission of the Ludlow Massacre from most American history textbooks.  The Ludlow Massacre was the tragic climax of the Colorado coal strike of 1913-1914 against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.  The massacre -- a fourteen hour face off between a tent colony of coal miners and their families vs. the state malitia during which the colony was pelted with machine gun fire and eventually torched -- resulted in the suffocation of two women and eleven children.

Ludlow Monument erected by UMWA.
Zinn also cites the one-sided historical account of Christopher Columbus told in most American education systems.  This account typically omits that the discoverer was also responsible for the mutilation, enslavement, and murder of the Indians on a genocide scale.  One is reminded of the line from the song "Wonderful" sung by the Wizard of Oz in the Broadway musical Wicked :

"Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It's all in which label is able to persist! ... There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don't exist!"



Zinn believes that these omissions are due to their in-congruence with the image of America that education systems wish to portray to its citizens: a government by the people for the people, a land of equal opportunity for the common man, where its leaders and founders are models to be emulated for their justice and encourage.

Similarly biased depictions are also found in the portrayal of the history of Western Music.  During the Romantic period, various strains of nationalism were appearing all over Europe. In Beethoven's day, this nationalism was part of an attempt to unite the German-speaking nations against the Napoleonic Empire.  During and after Beethoven's life, this German nationalist trend  led to the promotion of his music as well as the music of his German predecessors and successors as the model of Western music.  The focus of the average classical music education on the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner is in part due to the work of German music historians of the Romantic period who wished to create a context for the development of German music and the emergence of Beethoven.  This trend has and continues to be passed on to future classical musicians in many universities and conservatories, although it may not be consciously done.  While the music of these composers is indeed worthy of study, it is necessary to remember that the belief that their music is "the best" is due to this German nationalist trend, and must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)


 A more important lesson to take away from these examples is the need to receive historical data with a critical eye. Just as German nationalism influenced the reception and promotion of Beethoven during the Romantic Period, one should be suspicious of modern trends that influence current perspectives on the composers of the past.  For example, it seems to be an amusing past-time for musicologists and historians to create caricatures of men such as Beethoven and Schubert by pushing our current sexual-cultural fixations upon them.  For example, it has been proposed that the ringing in Beethoven’s ears, known as tinnitus, was caused by syphilis. However, tinnitus is also a symptom of typhus and auto-immune disorders.  Another example : it has also been proposed by certain musicologists that there are homosexual undercurrents in Schubert's 'Unfinished' Ninth Symphony. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony is an example of absolute music -- music that is not based on or inspired by an outside source, story, poem, or theme (as opposed to Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, which is based on Mendelssohn's travels to Scotland and is an example of the opposite genre known as programmatic music). Because there is no preexisting theme, it is relatively easy for writers, musicologists, musicians, and even political groups to read too much into a piece of absolute music and interpret it to promote their own ends, even if they are interpreted in contradictory ways!  For example, both Nazis and socialists adopted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and interpreted it to suit their own agendas. However, in the words of a a friend and mentor, "Such allegations tend to be more revealing of the author than about the subject at hand!"

That being said, it is quite possible that Beethoven may have had syphilis.  It was a common illness in the 19th c. due to the rather loose morals of the era.  It is also possible that Schubert was a suppressed homosexual who gave vent to his sexual orientation through an unfinished symphony.  If these allegations are true, they should not be blotted out from our knowledge of these men as they further inform us of the personality, character, and historical context of these composers.  However, it is misleading to push such allegations onto their characters when we advertise them as true when -- in actuality -- we lack significant facts or data to verify such an allegation!  Likewise, it is equally wrong to omit the faults and failings of businesses, persons, and nations in order to promote a specific agenda. The Ludlow Massacre and the life of Christopher Columbus are prime examples of the deliberate skewing of American history so as to to paint its leading figures and corporations in a positive light.  If Beethoven had syphilis or Schubert same-sex attraction, then it would be wrong to try to hide it. But we don't know that for certain, and emphasizing/advertising these allegations as fact seems more of a projection of our trendy sexual-objectification/hookup culture onto our heroes of Western Music than a search for the truth! It may not be possible to teach history from an objective point of view, but this is no excuse for dishonesty through partial truths, ignoring facts, or disregarding a lack of sufficient data.