There’s a beautiful passage in Bjork’s song “Jóga,” the refrain, with intricate string music weaving around her voice. But look at the words:
They puzzle me,
Then the riddle gets solved,
And you push me up to this
State of emergency,
How beautiful to be,
State of emergency,
Is where I want to be.
So again we’re in a modern realm of beauty, where beauty has an edge.
And now let me clarify what I’ve been saying, in case it hasn’t been clear. I’m hardly arguing that beauty no longer exists. Instead I’m saying that it isn’t simple. And unfortunately it’s presented—in classical music, these days—as if it was simple. You see this in marketing copy (“come hear the most beautiful music ever written”), in criticism, in program notes, even in academic writing by musicologists. The connotation is that beauty is pure, that it needs no explanation, that it’s calming, ennobling, transfiguring, radiant. This tracks with surveys of the orchestra audience, where you can find people saying they love orchestra concerts because there’s something spiritual or transfiguring about the music.
And this also tracks with something you hear a lot in conversation, that people like classical music because it’s “calm.” Classical music beauty, then, is completely good, with no alloy of trouble. And here’s Bjork, saying—with more aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional depth, if you ask me—that beauty can be a state of emergency.
Love…beauty…heightened perception…emergency. This is where the world is now. Classical music, where beauty is calm or transfiguring, is a refuge from the world.
You can read something parallel in Michael Shurkin’s valuable essay, “Why We Still Need Beethoven: Why Modern Art Survives in a Postmodern World,” which appeared in Zeek, a Jewish journal of art and culture in 2002. He says, but from the opposite side, exactly what I’m saying, that classical music speaks to a purer, more untroubled, more hopeful vision of the world than current culture does, and that this is why we need it. The counterargument might be that this older vision can be unrealistic, and sets us up to fail, because it doesn’t show us what the obstacles might be. In that way, though it’s painful to write this, classical music becomes like Top 40 pop, too simple to be realistic.
Curiously, as I was writing this past paragraph, my iTunes shuffle brought up the second of Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, 20th century classical music shaking with angst. Which should remind us that this beauty-filled view of classical music—Shurkin’s, the marketers’, to some degree the audience’s—doesn’t track with classical music’s history. Beethoven didn’t seem so noble or untroubled to people in his time. There was wildness, despair, and mania mixed in. And the romantic era was underlined with sadness, as the certainties of the 18th century disappeared in the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the growth of industry. Nothing was certain any more, and artists started to depict themselves as isolated, expressing only themselves, in opposition to society.
How “beautiful” was that? Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, one of the most influential books ever written, provides one answer. Werther is so dislocated that he kills himself. The influence of the book was that young men started dressing like Werther, and killing themselves. This leads us to Schubert’s Winterreise, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, and other works of romantic emotional extremes, which don’t affect us as they affected their contemporaries. We hear Schubert, and we think he’s beautiful. His contemporaries heard him, and burst into tears. How do we bring the classical repertoire back from a realm uncomfortably close to new age music, and put it back in touch with both itself and us?