Episode in the Dial M G-Word Fugue

Jonathan Bellman

My word. I split for a couple of weeks and all heaven breaks out?
Apropos the ongoing discussion, I want to direct readers’ attention to the July 23 New Yorker, which on pp. 38–42 has a fascinating article by neurologist Oliver Sacks (he of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) on the subject of how certain brain injuries (lightning strikes, strokes) can result in greatly increased sensitivity to and passion for both music and, for lack of a better term, spirituality. The departure point is the case of an orthopedic surgeon who was hit by lightning and who completely recovered—but acquired an all-consuming passion for piano music, especially Chopin (no surprise there), and he began obsessively playing and even composing. What is even more arresting, and particularly relevant to the discussion, is the mystical component. The new raison-d’être seemed like a gift, something about which the subject chose not to inquire too curiously. He told Sacks, “If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, ‘It comes from Heaven,’ as Mozart said.” No more tests; the neo-pianist will simply accept and enjoy what Sacks calls his “grace.”

Where does this put us with respect to our Mystery? To me, nowhere new—thank God. A hard-core atheist (that oft-excoriated construct) might conclude that the disposition to spiritual consciousness is, in addition to being a superstition of the psychologically infantile mind, a demonstrable product of brain injury or simply physical or organic disposition. A Believer of whatever flavor (an equally convenient whipping-boy) might conclude that awareness of God and music both are thus demonstrably like an awareness of sound or color: some brains are better at it than others, but there is no question about the existence of sound or color. The two positions don’t need to change, in other words, which is the best insurance that they won’t.

The specific relevance of Sacks’s article for our discussion, though, is the connection of music and spirituality. Robin suggested that art music may have a major role to play in spiritual awareness in the new century. Some of the comments that followed disagreed, reaffirming that art music is a cultural island, that few care about it, that most are interested in soft porn and reality TV (or Bud Light and lottery tickets, or whatever). I think I see Robin’s connection, though. In the Renaissance and Baroque*, the real art music was religious, and whether the people who composed were godly** or just musicians finding the best gig, the cultural effect was tremendous—though I suspect most worshippers attended churches without sufficient resources to support trained polyphonic choirs. Aside from being superb in its own right—I speak as someone devoted to it yet utterly untouched by the sponsoring theologies—the art-music aspects of that Church repertory really established the cultural framework for Cultivated Music as Gateway to Higher Things. Of course, we see this play out in the concert hall today: dressing more formally, restrained behavior, contemplation of Ennobling Utterances. It may well be that the much-decried museum historicism of the symphony concert parallels the breakdown of major religious institutions: profound commitment in generations A, B, and C becomes honor, civic responsibility, and duty-bound obéissance in generations D, E, and F, which inevitably gives way to “Are you kidding?!” and ultimate demise in generations G, H, and I. Habit does not translate into emotional commitment and belief, in other words, and at some point the flying buttresses collapse. I would add, though, that low church and pop music and the vaunted “participation” seem to have an even shorter shelf-life, maugre protestations to the contrary; it is as if widespread participation breeds distrust. “Look, I can sing all the hymns and songs!” soon becomes “Oh, man, this again?” Similarly, “An audience will always come for a Mostly Mozart or Beethoven #3, #5, #7, and #9” becomes “We need to be more up-to-date; here is a program for grant acquisition, music from hit movies, and John Tesh residency.” Too often, that kind of creative impoverishment is followed by…silence. The auguries are not, obviously, favorable.

So I would like to end this with a question for Robin and anyone else. I can see that art music, the cultivated tradition (however that is formulated), can provide an opportunity—even a portal—for the contemplation of higher things, of the Mystery even. In my view, it has done so using non-verbal but nonetheless codified vocabularies that are comprehensible to, and have meaning for, listeners. How might this work in the twenty-first century? In what ways might art music (and what kinds of art music, please) serve as such a conduit in our morality-poor epoch?
*I am speaking generally, of course, and intend no disrespect to the corpus of Baroque instrumental music. As I may have mentioned already, though, I have long suspected that while J. S. Bach preached in his church music, he prayed in his instrumental music—exhibit A being the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin.
**There is the well-known case of Nicholas Gombert, c. 1495-c. 1560, who was exiled from the Papal Chapel for an offense upon a choirboy. Given the love-songs and so on composed by the supposedly celibate composers of church music, I myself lean toward the flesh-and-blood-musicians-needing-good-gigs theory.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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12 Responses to Episode in the Dial M G-Word Fugue

  1. Robin Wallace says:

    Well, Jonathan, since you’ve invited me to do it, here goes:
    My first article on Beethoven as The Gifted Child appeared in JM in 1989. At that time I knew Susan McClary only as a fellow howler in the wilderness, trying to get unorthodox opinions heard. Then her book Feminine Endings appeared a few years later, Pieter van den Toorn got hold of the original version of “Getting Down off the Beanstalk” from the Minnesota Composers Forum, seemingly comparing Beethoven to a rapist, and the battle was on.
    I looked very hard for a way to respond to McClary without going to the opposite extreme and condemning her, and what I came up with was simply to stipulate her idea that sonata form can be read as narrative, but trying to read it in what Jung would call an introverted manner. McClary’s readings of virtually all music are exclusively extraverted; they assume that music refers to things outside of the self. An introverted reading, by contrast, suggests that the narrative contents of music should be read internally, in terms of the contents of the psyche, or soul. (Important qualifier: These are not supposed to be mutually exclusive.)
    What I found was that an introverted reading of sonata form as narrative encourages us to see it not as a rape scenario, in which the masculine element forces the feminine one into submission, but as a psychological quest in which one part of the soul seeks to achieve wholeness by assimilating a missing part (the anima, or female element, if you’re male). As anyone who has gone through this process can attest, it’s emotionally wrenching, and forces you to encounter and try to deal with the darkness within. Reading sonata form this way, then, validated my ideas about Beethoven. All of that passion and aggression that surfaces in his music doesn’t have to be heard as denoting violence. Instead, we can hear it as something that is being redeemed: held up to the light in the process of completing a successful spiritual quest. Beethoven, in Jung’s terms, “met the shadow.”
    That’s why I can’t buy into the prevailing view of Beethoven’s late music as symptomatic of illness, either personal or societal. To me, it is the healthiest music ever written, because it shows that Beethoven’s lifelong quest has been completed (well, maybe not in his personal life, but, as I hinted earlier, that’s not the point). By listening to it, in the context of Beethoven’s other music, others can get a healthy push in the same direction.
    That’s about all I can say in brief. For those who want the full story, check out my article in JMR referenced in my “G-Word” post.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks, Robin. For the general readership, I’ll just point out that those with access to RILM and probably other article databases can locate both html and .pdf versions of the article, but the rules seem to prohibit me from giving the URLs on this blog. I’ve not yet read the article, and will try to comment again after I have.

  3. Galen says:

    I don’t have time to formulate an in-depth response to this discussion, and I’m far to interested in it for a brief response to be worthwhile. So in the meantime I’ll simply offer a minor quibble with a side issue.
    When you use the term “morality-poor epoch” I assume you mean that the current age is “morality-poor” in comparison to past ages. In what sense are we more “morality-poor” today? I look at the modern world and see less racism, more gender equality, more democracy, less colonization, less religious bigotry, etc. From a moral standpoint, I don’t think the world has ever been better, and I see us continuting (at the macro level, anyway) to move in the right direction. Why the pessimism?

  4. Jonathan says:

    A fair question, Galen. Part of the reason for that bitter characterization is my own inherent cynicism and pessimism, surely. Another part is the poisonous level of hypocrisy found in religious and governmental institutions worldwide. I suppose I can’t really argue that there hasn’t been improvement, but the current level of morality I at least perceive is, as we’d say in my family, from hunger. Given that the stakes spiral upward consistently, given information and weapons technologies, I see little cause for celebration. Things may indeed be improving; I am just not convinced that, given other variables, they are improving fast enough.

  5. Eric says:

    I, too, do not want to write a tome here on someone else’s blog, so this forthcoming comment is going to be a bit clumsy.
    What I find interesting and troubling about our epoch is this: why has this era, which has witnessed the decline of racism, the rise of democracy, and the liberation of women, also been an epoch where the fine arts have died. When I look at our culture I often wonder where’s the living Beethoven, the living Joyce, the living Wittgenstein, and so forth (And I don’t mean a bunch of folks holed up in academia away from the Mass; I mean REAL cultural heroes!)? Is there a correlation between democracy and vulgarity, as many past thinkers suspected? With this said, I am not a pessimist, my life is WAY too much fun and comfy for me to brood; instead, I am a happy nihilist.

  6. ADA says:

    Quoting Jonathan’s original post:
    > the art-music aspects of that
    > Church repertory really established
    > the cultural framework for Cultivated
    > Music as Gateway to Higher Things
    I’d go even further – this is actually central to my current research on 17th century Italian (and especially Roman) discussions of the connection between music and the sacred: I’d argue that the very discourse of transcendence-through-music that takes hold in 18th century aesthetics and then really kicks in with Romanticism is rooted in constructions of “listening-as-connection-with-the-divine” that emerge in Catholic proto-aesthetic commentary of the mid-17c. And not just *any* listening, by *anybody* with any attitude at all; the early exegetes of transcendence-through-listening were clearly concerned with the kind of attentive, almost “reverent” listening — by a properly trained and disposed individual — that we associate with “art” repertories to this day. Of course, back then there was a clear one-to-one link between those who were able/worthy of such listening and those who were of a superior social class — and we don’t have *that* issue around any more, do we? 🙂

  7. I could imagine that, as are brains are susceptible to all kinds of mysterious excitable states, that correlations between musical and spiritual ecstasy could occur. It might matter not if a God exists, that we can get the same emotional enjoyment through acting as if, means that some of us will practice the music for the “buzz”. Although many academics I know are quite fond of American Black Baptist type spiritual music, does that make it “art” music? It has also grown extremely popular amongst a more bourgeois crowd I know, who although thoroughly modern atheists or agnostics, seem to get a wild kick from it they do not seem to be getting from anywhere else. Then there is trance dance, is that related? For a while, it seemed, that Sufi qawwali music was all the rave, hands stretched up to heaven. In any case, the only reason for pessimism I can see, is the population explosion that does, finally, make everything different then before (but I have faith that nature is cooking up a solution 🙂 )

  8. Bob Judd says:

    Nice, interesting thread w/ great comments!
    Just to address Jonathan’s question: “In what ways might art music (and what kinds of art music, please) serve as such a conduit [to the spiritual] in our morality-poor epoch?”
    This sounds so simplistic, but… I think musicians are perfectionists for an obvious reason: there are right notes and wrong notes. And I think there’s a direct correlation to right and wrong writ large. Music has this element of perfection to it–the old folks even wrote music in “perfections.” (There’s a relation to dance and the completeness of dance units, too.) Because music has this element of perfection, there’s a clear rationale for looking at it as “from God.” Augustine famously voiced the paradox that music is dangerous and can lead away from God just as easily as it can lead the soul toward God.
    I won’t blather on, but I believe music will continue to be a conduit to the spiritual– and the element of high/low art is secondary. And I would assert that “to the spiritual” is bifurcated– we’ve got narratives at least as far back as Homer (Odysseus and the sirens) that music might lead one spiritually to a very wrong place.

  9. Jonathan says:

    Many thanks to Robin for getting this going, and for all the comments; I’m really enjoying this no end. Andrew, for that lucky hit do I get all copyrights and royalties for your research? 🙂 To Bob’s comments: when I taught the music history sequence, one of the things we would do in the first couple of class meetings is go over the pro- and contra-music quotes from Weiss/Taruskin (ST. John Chrystostom et al.) to point up exactly what you’re talking about–music as leading in both right and wrong directions. I would always point out at the beginning, though, that all peoples I knew of–Jews, Christians, Indians singing the world into being every morning, etc.–considered music’s ability to negotiate between the worlds a GIVEN. Vocalized prayer was not just so that large groups could hear the leader, though that was a benefit too; pitched intonation of sacred words (or without words, even) was understood to get to the Deity, the Other World etc. in a way that spoken words could not.
    The point here, I would say, is that this is what you’re studying, what you’re devoting your lives to. Any questions? Is it important enough, worthy enough of your efforts?
    Believe it or not, I do sometimes miss teaching that 8:00 AM class.
    Again–thanks to you all. An intellectually lively mid-to-late July is not all that usual.

  10. Robin Wallace says:

    ADA’s post crystallizes something that I think is central to the problems we have these days with seeing music as a spiritual discipline. There’s always the assumption that it’s an upper-class thing, hence BAD!!! (ADA, I don’t mean to caricature what you’re saying, but there is certainly an element of that kind of thinking going on.)
    My problem with this is that I know careful, attentive listening has always been crucial to the spiritual life. In fact, it is essential to prayer (Mother Theresa: “I don’t talk to God; I listen.”), which requires humility. Those who are truly accomplished in the spiritual life are not known for their arrogance or social snobbery, and yet I would submit that, when push comes to shove, they would all agree with Mother Teresa about the central importance of listening, and doing so with the utmost attention. (When someone asked her what God says to her when she listens, she answered: “He doesn’t say anything, He listens to me.” How many people really understand that? Are they all snobs?)
    So why can’t we get over this idea that listening carefully to art music is a sign of upper-class snobbery? To play devil’s advocate again, I would suggest that we have to, or the vitally important spiritual content of that music is going to be lost.

  11. Lyle Sanford says:

    Followers of this thread might enjoy Daniel Levitin’s book “This Is Your Brain On Music” (with a very positive blurb from Oliver Sacks), as it covers what current brain research has to say about how we experience music and how it effects us.

  12. Borges and God and musicology

    The discussion of God and musicology continues quite strong at Dial M. I think it’s great that issues of music and the spiritual are being raised and considered, esp. since (to my mind) this is an overwhelmingly important element of music.

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