Recreation; Re: Creation

I’ve been in the Bahamas, on vacation, and I’ve also been intoxicated with a piece I’m writing, the slow movement of a prospective symphony. It’s emerging as a pop ballad, with classic doowop harmony; cheesy, some might say, but isn’t it supposed to be? And all scored for a Haydn-size orchestra, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, and strings. Quite a trick, I might say, scoring a pop ballad for those instruments. Where’s the rhythm section? (Though that’s not the biggest problem — cello and double bass, playing pizzicato, can make a lot of rhythm. What’s hard is adapting the lightness, the transparency of a small classical orchestra to music that, first, isn’t often light or transparent, and, second, is normally built from several sonic layers, which the instruments I’m using can’t easily create.)

But speaking of Haydn, there’s something I forgot in my post on his Creation. If, as I suggested, we perform it with an understanding that Adam and Eve really are the climax — because, in Haydn’s conception, God needed conscious beings to see the glory of His work — then one crucial moment is the duet and chorus near the start of Part Three, sung by the two first humans. It conveys both the freshness of Eden and — with its measured pace and especially with the awed timpani that begin about two minutes in — the majesty of what’s happening. Without any special fuss, the conductor should make the awe audible.

And my Creation post spurred this from my music critic colleague Marion Lignana Rosenberg:

Is it possible that much of what we’re up against here is the lingering (indeed, still massive) prejudice that music is an “absolute” and “autonomous” realm? The notion that “the text doesn’t matter” is an inevitable outgrowth of that fancy. Tending to reinforce that idea, on our shores, is the brute fact that relatively little texted music in the standard classical repertory is in the lingua franca of contemporary U.S. audiences. (No screed of my own on the scourge of monolingualism…)

Not to get too hermeneutical on you, but also troublesome is the idea that “the” meaning of “The Creation” (or any other work) inheres in the text or notes and will simply manifest, by magic, upon reaching listeners’ eyes and ears. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an “anything-goes” kind of gal, and I think that we all — performers, administrators, audience members, and critics — need to make a reasonable effort to grapple with Haydn on his own terms, to the extent that that is possible. But doing so requires that we recognize that Haydn’s eighteenth-century Catholicism is very different from today’s Catholicism, and thus demands that we all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, engage with an alien faith. Ultimately, it compels each individual listener to take an active part in the excavation, teasing out and (no pun intended) creation of meanings, since “The Creation” cannot possibly mean the same things to us today that it may have meant to Haydn and his contemporaries.

Well said, all of that, as was something Marion added after we’d traded e-mail, about a 1966 recording of The Creation, conducted by Eugen Jochum, which she and I both like. I’d said that the performers seem to understand the piece instinctively, and she corrected me with fine precision:

Isn’t it possible that [Jochum's musicians] had a mid-century education that included music/choir, elocution, the memorizing and recitation of poetry and Biblical passages etc. – that (some? all?) were native speakers of German – that their society was, at the very least, less religiously fractious (fie on me – but I think you know what I mean) than the 2004 USA?

Or even an early-century education (20th century, of course). And since Jochum conducts the Bavarian radio chorus and orchestra, I’d assume that all of them (as well as the three soloists, all German) were native German speakers. Thanks, Marion, for so neatly summarizing everything that goes into what I’d carelessly called instinct. Cultural traits don’t arise by accident, and we shouldn’t take them for granted.

About that notion that music is autonomous: We run into that throughout the classical music world, whenever anybody claims that a masterwork is “timeless,” or when a work’s structure is alleged to be the most important thing about it. This nonsense underlies Julian Johnson‘s very annoying book, Who Needs Classical Music?. It’s the only book-length justification for classical music I’ve seen, but it’s tendentiously crippled by its claim that complex structure puts classical music beyond the reach of both time and everyday life.

That’s delightfully rebutted in Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form, a book by my favorite musicologist (and certainly the most joyful I’ve ever read), Susan McClary, whom you can read about here and here. Susan shows that musical structure is historically conditioned, just like clothes, literary styles, and philosophical ideas (my comparisons, not hers). And why wouldn’t it be? Don’t composers breathe and bleed like everybody else? Susan’s discussion is in no way reductive. Music, after she examines it, doesn’t dissolve into its cultural meaning. Just the reverse — it seems more vital (and more musical) than ever.

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