The Past in the Present

Jonathan Bellman

I’ve been thinking a lot about Phil’s “I Sing of Arms and the Man” blog, and our differing perspectives on hiphop idiom, because his quotation from Edward Conlon that linked Hellenic fatalism with the hiphop worldview took me unawares, and resonated.  Approaches that echo the Attic have, for me, a kind of authority lying well beyond (as Phil calls it) “the inevitable and stupid pop-cultural cliché of redemption” that reflects a later worldview—to wit, the happy ending of what the Celts called the New Religion.  Happy endings in neat bundles are satisfying and reassuring in the short term, but leave an unpleasant taste of saccharine on the tongue, do they not?

It enrages me that I seem to have lost a mid-1980s thought-piece from the San Francisco Chronicle comparing baseball and football, the former being Mediterranean and sun-drenched (and cruel nonetheless) while the latter is as doom-laden as a Nordic winter.  It was a prodigiously beautiful bit of writing, in part the paean to the 49ers, and all I remember of the author is that he had previously written a book titled The Disciple.  What made me read it again and again was the sure teasing-out of poetic and psychological links between present-day sports consciousness—that most easily trashed and pissed-upon manifestation of low-rent culture—and the bona fide mythic, the high-culture remnants of vanished civilizations: revered by the highest of highbrows, taught and hectored about, and imitated for centuries.

Another example is Electricidad, a superb play I saw in 2005 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (this production, in fact).  This barrio-set version of the Elektra story featured a truly Hellenic inexorability, with the sense of life lived in the face of one or another kind of certain destruction.  The tyranny of the past was represented by the hispanic affinity for rock and roll oldies (an in-script reference to KRTH-101 had me on the floor).  The pop-culture and ethnic references were all there, but the grim timelessness of the worldview and its motivating reality were deeply affecting.

That in turn brought to mind the high school Shakespeare soliloquy and scene competition organized, by a couple of my father’s colleagues, at the local college when I was in my mid-to-late late teens.  Yeah, the good high schools (like mine) often took the prizes, but there was a barrio school in Pomona where the kids were living it, and they brought a weird intensity and monomania to their scenes.  One English teacher at that school was the guiding light, and if she is no longer living (this was the mid-1970s, after all), she is in heaven.  Should there have been no heaven previously, one would have been created especially for her.

On the lighter side, the eight-hour dramatization of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby had a hilarious scene in which the playwright imagined what the cobbled-together happy endings of nineteenth-century productions of tragedy might have been like, and wrote one for Romeo and Juliet.  Hilarious, for the straight-faced wackiness of the entire idea, and slightly discomfiting for the deeper message: we want happy endings; we want nice bundles.  In music (I do try to get here eventually) we may think of this as the tonic return and themes in the right places—the sonata-ization of every form.  (Sonata is, after all, the form that was most often compared to formal oratory, with the different rhetorical ploys and coherently structured arguments.)  With sonatas themselves it makes sense, but with many other works it does not.  I wonder if the ubiquity of happy endings doesn’t affect our musical expectations in ways we don’t really notice?

I am currently working on a major project involving Chopin’s Second Ballade, the one that (famously) begins in F major and ends in A minor.  The number of analyses that describe the piece so that it is “in” A minor throughout—an argument originating with an off-the-cuff epistolary remark by Brahms—is astounding, particularly given the distortion of the form and content that are required for such a view.  See, if it begins and ends in A Minor, and we describe it in a roughly sonata-like fashion, and…we Win: it’s a happy ending, a neat package.  A piece from the 1830s that begins and ends in different keys is not something for which we have the conceptual vocabulary, and to my knowledge the treatises we love to cite don’t admit of the possibility.  Pianists, though, called it “the F major” for well over a century, and I think they’re right, even though it begins in one key and ends in another.  In the face of the wreckage of post-Revolutionary Europe, is that anomaly really so hard to conceive?

My point is not that we should all overcompensate by cultivating interest in the most macabre and grotesque sorts of entertainments because of the inhumanity of the world as we find it; that, too, seems contrived and immature.  It is, simply, that it is worth savoring when we find the distant past vividly instructing us about the present—not the nostalgia-distorted recent past—simplified, watered-down, and conveniently reimagined and misremembered—but the distant past.  The resonance between distant past and present is, first, a validation of every schoolmarm’s assertion that The Classics can speak to all ages and places, eternally relevant if you can pull up your pants and get used to the idea of kings and queens and odd names and archaic language.  Perhaps even better is the way the Ancients can enlighten the present, the real present, with the unblinking and largely pitiless Attic worldview.  I now can clearly see Conlon’s point about hiphop culture, and it makes me smile, not least at myself and my resistance to it.

Speaking of the Past in the Present: today is my 50th birthday.  Yeah, yeah, all right, nothing to see here; no need to stare.  More along, move along.

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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4 Responses to The Past in the Present

  1. Richard says:

    The article you loved and lost was Clark Brown’s “The True Meaning of Football,” published in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 30, 1988. It’s available through Factiva.

  2. Miss Mussel says:

    Bonne fete! Looking forward to the delights of the next fifty.

  3. Happy birthday, and now they say life begins, although that has not been my experience yet. Even if one is a birthday minimaliser, as I am, 50 does seem to be important.

  4. Eric says:

    Speaking of bullshit happy endings, read the ‘Road’ by McCarthy. The text just SINGS (the guy is really poetic!), but the ending had me screaming “Cop-Out.” I wonder if the author couldn’t face the proundly dark implications of his own story, or if he’s watched too many American movies and it’s corrupted his literary gifts. Eitherway, given the crappy ending it’s no wonder Oprah loved it!

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