Thursday, January 21, 2010

a useless observation about repetition in sonata allegro forms

I have been listening to music by Sor and Diabelli lately (one of the awesome things about living in areas that have great central library systems is that when CDs get discarded through lack of circulation libraries either sell them or give them away and this can be a way to get out of print CDs). I have noticed in many contemporary performances of Haydn, for instance, that the repeat of the exposition is often discarded, or the repeat of the coda in Op 76, 2. I have been intrigued lately about the reasons for omitting these repetitions.

In listening to sonata forms by Sor and Diabelli what impresses me about their handling of the form is that the disadvantage of the repetition of the exposition is that the recapitulation forms a disproportionately small part of the work. The structural climax of the sonata form is generally understood to be the beginning of the recapitulation. In the hands of composers like Beethoven or Haydn or Mozart this comes about two thirds of the way through a work or closer to that. In the case of Sor or Diabelli the arrival point is more like three quarters of the way through the sonata form and in some cases as far forward as four fifths of the way through.

But what are the advantages of repeating the exposition in a form where the recapitulation does not take up such a paltry proportion of the elapsed time of the sonata form as a whole? These last few weeks it dawned on me that the advantage of a repeatign exposition in a more classically balanced form is that if you have a coda to balance the end of the work the repeating exposition creates a balanced form that resembles the nearly ubiquitous pop form of the verse chorus verse chors bridge verse chorus. Think about it, theme 1 in your sonata exposition is the verse. Theme 2 can be considered the chorus. There is a repetition of these to reinforce the material and the contrasting key relationships between the themes. The development section takes up the role of the bridge in a pop song and, frequently in Haydn and Mozart, takes up the proportional length you would expect to see in the bridge of a pop song. Then we get the recapitulation where theme 1 and theme 2 are presented in the tonic key with a little coda at the end.

In Beethoven the coda can often be larger than the exposition itself and this doesn't make as much sense if the exposition isn't repeated. Beethoven is, in his own way, writing forms that have structural commonality with Tin Pan Alley and pop songs but on a mammoth scale.

Classical forms developed in a setting where the music was not only played for patrician patrons but might also be played for gifted amateurs and for middle-class listeners who would be as immersed in popular music from their time and place as anything. Haydn was not just familiar with academic styles of music but also played in street bands and this dual perspective as a performing musician and composer can help make sense of his compositional approach. He didn't need to trump up a conflict between selling out and having artistic integrity. He was too workmanlike (in the best sense of that phrase) to let himself be bothered by the kinds of artistic integrity issues that became more prominent in aesthetics and music from Beethoven on. A person can play in a garage band on Saturdays and listen to Varese and Xenakis on Monday and Arvo Part and Palestrina on Tuesdays and round off the week with some Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker, and Thelonious Monk. As the Preacher put it there is a time and a season for everything under heaven.

pastoral cases of wanting to have it both ways

In the last ten years I have heard more than a few sermons by a pastor and it has struck me recently that there come times when a pastor wants to have things both ways. If I hadn't spent ten years listening to the pastor it wouldn't be on my mind a tenth as much as it is now. Wanting to have your cake and it, too, may not be a sign of a weak pastor. It may be a sign of a strong pastor, but it still puzzles me. Perhaps this is because I'm not a pastor and don't understand these sorts of things the way a pastor would.

For instance, a person may want to emphasize the certainty of Christ's return and the eschatological significance of that and yet scrupulously avoid any actual committed school of interpreting the Apocalypse. Say, we'll avoid premillenial dispensationalism because Hal Lindsey whackos and Jack and Rexella van Impe hoodwink people with crazy theories. We'll also avoid postmillenialism because that leds to theonomistic thought and Christian reconstructionism and we don't want to be THAT closely linked to the likes of Doug Wilson. The historicist position has problems because it can be used to rip on churches we can't afford to rip on without losing a lot of public credibility and it has been a thorn in the side of churches in the past. Yet we also DON'T want to articulate a position like amillenialism or partial preterism because that's preferred by theological liberals or Catholics.

So, we'll ... uh ... affirm that Revelation is really important and that in it Jesus comes back to open a can of whoop-ass on the world ... without explaining what the seven seals and plagues are, let alone get into how different Christians have interpreted those symbols. We certainly won't get into the history of apocalyptic literature or the integration of non-canonical texts into canonical writings because that would open up cans of worms that the average Christian doesn't think about and maybe doesn't need to think about. Yeah, I look askance on that because my idea of fun is researching non-canonical literature referred to in Jude but I recognize that the armpit is not less a part of the body for not being the mouth just as the mouth is not more a part of the body for not being an armpit.

Take the statement that Christians can't learn anything about the Bible from Jews. On the one hand that objects to a rabbi teaching Christians. On the other hand ... Jesus was a rabbi. I'm not some Christ-denying apostate because I have the JPS interlinear on my bookshelf. If a pastor is going to alternately claim that Christians can't benefit from learning about the scriptures from Jewish teachers then why mention the Targum Neophiti as though it proved anything whatsoever to do with Christian teaching?

If the scriptures properly interpreted and understood are all about Jesus why no typological elements in the Song of Songs, just erotic content? I'm not claiming to argue persuasively for just one or the other, it is that polarity I find problematic. Paul drew upon Genesis 2 and explained a mystery of how Christ and the Church are like a husband and bride by the typological precedent of God's marriage in the prophets was hardly positive! Where could Paul have turned to, as a good Jew, in the scriptures, to examine how marriage is presented in a positive light? Oh, yeah ... but that couldn't be about Jesus and the Church even though Jesus pointed out how He came to fulfill the scriptures. The solution for that would be the evangelically untenable escape hatch of saying Song of Songs wasn't really part of the canon or defending an extremely late date of authorship. In other words, this is the sort of pastoral maneuver that attempts to have it both ways, to have all scripture point to Jesus except the parts that I don't want pointing to Jesus.

The temptation to want to have it both ways may be indicative of temptations we have felt for generations. Criticism in art and of the arts can often hinge on the observation that you can't have your cake and eat it, too. You can't use spectacles of violence to protest violence (actually, you can but it depends on how you approach it). You can't emphasize eschatological fervor without compromising a reasoned approach (this, too, is not impossible). It does seem, though, that in the hands of many people what we would like to claim for ourselves as paradox appears to others to be nothing more than oxymoron. "Holding things in tension" can often come across as wanting equally badly two or more mutually exclusive things. Yet our purity is often dubious and a foundation for terrible words and deeds.

In conservative evangelicalism a form of wanting it both ways is to reject the "social gospel" when it appears to move in a liberal direction while embracing a social gospel of men being "real men" and taking care of widows and orphans through their exploits in private enterprise and from their overlowing happiness and abundance deigning to take care of others in need for Jesus' fame (a little sarcasm alert here). The mission is to get as many people on mission as possible and if people aren't effectively and productively on mission perhaps they are consumers.

On the other hand, there's no community that doesn't have a weakness for this. There are many church communities that focus mainly on themselves at the expense of sharing with outsiders. True, they have the relative advantage of not trying to shove their take on the faith down someone else's throat but then by the opposite measure the good news simply isn't good enough news to them that they have any incentive to share it with other people. Things are just fine for me and my own and the real people of God so I'll just soak up what I want from whatever rituals are in place for me to benefit from. To say that there are Christians who are beyond a consumeristic approach to the faith in this country, regardless of confessional affiliation, is profoundly naive. The temptation to be a light that shines for ourselves can't be that new if Jesus said that no one hides a light under a basket. Yet the other temptation is to consider ourselves the salt of the earth and a light that shines so that people can look at us and then we persuade ourselves that we're pointing to someone else, to God.

Monday, January 18, 2010

I know this church has got problems but they haven't sinned against ME yet so I don't quite care and you shouldn't either

This has summed up my observation about why people do and don't leave churches. We can talk until the cows come home about doctrine and how doctrine is what unites us and how we shouldn't leave a church or join a church lightly. But in the end it seems that when people leave one church or join another this is what it amounts to in practical, day-to-day lived-out life.

A number of particularly bitter ex-church members I have known exemplified this ethic and rhetorical position right up to about the point where they felt grievously sinned against by leaders at their church. I understand it, though, because that's why ANYONE stays in or joins a church knowing the community has a history of sinning against people (which is what every church in every form will have a history of doing). When someone left because they strongly disagreed with a doctrinal teaching it was sour grapes and bad doctrine. No sooner had those who looked down on others felt sinned against themselves than did the church suddenly become a place that had to be left post-haste. The cycle seems to be to join a church, consider its problems, but still look down on other people at whatever church you left or no longer are part of. Things go fine in the honeymoon/convert's zeal stage.

Then, at some point, something goes wrong. You turn to the leaders or the community for help and the help does not materialize. There can be other ways in which this happens. The community may offer help in a time that is tough for you and you may refuse it because you want to be on your own two feet and you reason that God will work things out. Things then get worse on your own steam and you feel the community let you down.

Other churches are not different. Anyone who surveys the history of every Christian confession will see who has been sinned against and in what ways. It's not rocket science, yet we stay where we stay precisely because in addition to mostly agreeing with doctrine as taught by a particular church and believing it to be the real church as intended and established by the Spirit through the ages, we also stay because as bad as that church's behavior or teaching has actually been in any number of points, they haven't sinned against ME yet so I admonish other people to shut up and keep their spot organized in case there's a general inspection.

It is this more than other established mindsets that troubles me lately about churches. That injustices are done by the church/Church in the name of the Lord is inevitable but those whose reason for staying in a given community amount to the personal application of "Well, they haven't sinned against ME yet so I can't think of any reason why a person should leave." have a troubling position. As soon as they are sinned agaisnt themselves and change their tune they show that their committment was not to the church they thought they were committed to (nor, as a Protestant, do I think it automatically implies that that is a bad response). Many an ex-whatever-you-call-them are an ex what-they-were because they felt sinned against in a way that inspired them to leave. I am here not so concerned with that impulse as the propensity of people to look down on those people precisely because they have NOT been sinned against, or felt sinned against, in that sort of way.

If the only experiences you had with the piano were negative ones then you may never touch a piano again, may never take piano lessons, may never listen to piano music even. If someone were to say that shows that you're the one with the problem that wouldn't mean your emotional response to your unvaried experience with pianos was bad. If you had an initially positive set of experiences with the piano but grew to hate it due to unpleasant experiences later and gave up playing people could still say the problem was you and not the piano, but people can say this who themselves never actually play the piano. Our positive experiences or, to put it another way, our lack of profoundly negative experiences in a church do not give us license to just say that another person must be a bad duck for having had terrible experiences.

In other words, the fact that your church hasn't sinned against you yet doesn't mean you should look down on others who left because they felt sinned against. You might be the next person to get sinned against, after all. Particularly if you are part of a congregation of church movement where leaving is considered effectively leaving the Christian faith altogether this requires more rather than less compassion. After all, if you leave yourself for some unanticipated reason you are consigning yourself to the lake of fire or to being in the presence of God but not wanting to be with God and thus suffering the agony of not accepting Yahweh or who He is and thereby suffering for eternity in your own lack of repentence. Paul didn't say lightly that it is written that on account of us the unbelievers mock the name of the Lord. The goodness of Christ is so very often not the reason people leave, it is our own sinfulness and our refusal to see ourselves as sinful or sinning against others; our propensity to justify our own assaults on the character of others while defending ourselves as above reproach on the things that matter (as opposed to the things that don't matter).

But I ramble.