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.