Saturday, November 02, 2019

Bryan Townsend on Macolm MacDonald on Schoenberg as an essentially religious composer reminds me of an extensive comment by Richard Taruskin on Scriabin and early atonal music as a form of religious transcendentalism
This won't be philosophy exactly, but that seemed the closest tag. I am nearing the end of Malcolm MacDonald's book on Schoenberg and he sums up like this:
Schoenberg, then, was essentially a religious composer. I mean that in the widest sense ... Almost all Schoenberg's vocal works deal in some fashion with the relation of the individual to the inner and outer the spirit and to the collective, to humanity at large and, beyond that, to the yet larger, eternal world of religious conviction and speculation ... Schoenberg would have placed far more importance on this aspect of his work, than on his intellectual achievements as a constructor of systems. In his music he sought to reassert the traditional romantic and religious values of European civilization. In this sense he was a conservative composer.
But because such a reassertion was not just aesthetic but ethical in intention, it inevitably involved an attack on the bogus traditionalism and intellectual inertia of the decaying society in which he found himself; and in this sense his approach was a critical, even revolutionary one.
That is certainly not how I understood Schoenberg for most of my life in music. I think the turning point for me was a couple of years ago when I was in Madrid for a couple of weeks and the opera then being performed at the Teatro Real was Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. Seeing that wonderful production and being in the theatre full of 2,000 or so people enjoying that music made a fundamental change for me not only in how I saw Schoenberg, but how I saw music.


That reminded me of something I read years ago in Richard Taruskin's Defining Russia Musically.

ISBN 0-691-01156-7


So it is not enough, never enough, to attribute early twentieth century maximalism--of which the grandiose unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable, eschatological torsos of Schoenberg, Scriabin and Ives stand as preeminent musical mementos--simply or solely to a "pressure within art." The arts are not detached from the rest of existence or experience; they receive and react to pressures from many sources. Not only their contents, but also their forms and procedures--including the procedure of detaching them from the worldly--arise in response to worldly pressures. "What form will religious sentiment assume?" What will be its new expression?: asked Balzac in the preface to Le Livre Mystique, of which Seraphita was a part. "The answer is a secret of the future." That future is now past to us, and the religious sentiment has again become a secret. But it is a vision of human perfectability, at the very least, a vision of "ascent to a higher order," that we may look upon, and take inspiration from, the early atonal vision.

The quoted phrase formed the conclusion of Schoenberg's letter to Slonimsky, describing what Schoenberg saw as the victory of the twelve-tone technique. It could just as well have been a citation from Seraphita. As Webern revealed, Schoenberg justified his explorations on a specifically Balzacian, occult basis. The surmounting of the major-minor dichotomy was for Schoenberg no mere technical breakthrough but a spiritual ascent--a provi--to a superhuman condition. "Double gender," he proclaimed, "has given rise to a higher race." No less than Scriabin, then, Schoenberg spoke in the voice of the vatic androgyne, as the text of Die Jakobsleiter and the mesmerizing title page of Promethee (by the Belgian theosophical artist Jean Delville) jointly declare. ("The fire that blazed in his eyes," wrote Balzac of his angelic messenger, "rivalled the rays of the sun; he seemed not to receive but to give out light."

p 358
The cold war rationalization and academization of dodecaophony caused that voice to grow cold and that face to grow dim. "As you read," said one of Balzac's characters of Swedenborg, "you must either lose your wits or become a seer." By now we have long consigned Scriabin to the former estate, that of lost wits, but we have been unwilling to consign Schoenberg to either category. Instead he sulks in positivistic limbo, his methods venerated but his deeds ignored. But it is precisely the academic despiritualization of dodecaphony--more broadly, of atonality--that has led to its widespread, and justified, rejection.

Indeed, it is precisely the rationalization and refinement of dodecaphonic technique to the point where it has become a kind of abstract numerical logic that has brought attack from those who question the cognitive relevance of its logical concepts. Twelve-tone music has come to seem a conceptual game to which listeners can never gain perceptual access. Those who attempt to finesse the problem by placing the blame on the inexperience of listeners (their "incompetence," to speak cognitively), invariably come across as special pleaders. 

It is only when the original conception of atonality as a transrational, uncanny discourse is recognized, and its nature as a medium of revealed--which is to say undemonstrable--truth is grasped, that aesthetic apprehension can begin. It bears the aura of the sublime (Seraphita: "Why, if you believe in number, should you deny God?") and the sublime purges and terrifies. It is important, therefore, to refresh our memory of atonality's motivating liminal impulses. Renewed contact with the early atonalists, with Scriabin, and with the sources of their inspiration, can help restore perspective, but only if they are "put together again." At the very least it should be apparent that musicians who dismiss Scriabin's spiritual vision as "cosmic hocus-pocus," and literary investigators who assume it impossible that a spiritual vision could be "communicated musically," are cut off equally from the vision and from the music. It is only the music that can communicate the vision, but only if we have vision enough to receive the communication. 

and for fun I'll cross reference this to the Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer describing, maybe a bit cryptically, the distinction between what he called "above the line of despair" and "below the line of despair".

The God Who Is There
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A. and Canada)

Escape from Reason
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A) and Hodder and Stoughton (Canada)

ISBN 13:978-0-89107-561-5
ISBN 10:0-89107-561-5

The God Who is There

page 8

Notice that I call the line, the line of despair. Above this line we find men living with their romantic notions of absolutes (though with no sufficient logical basis). This side of the line, all is changed. Man thinks differently concerning truth.

In order to think of this line of despair more clearly, think of it not as a simple horizontal line but as a staircase ... Each of the steps represents a certain stage in time. The higher is earlier, the lower later. ...

page 10
But at a certain point this attempt to spin out a unified optimistic humanism came to an end. The philosphers came to the conclusion that they were not going to find a unified rationalistic circle that would contain all thought, and in which they could live. ...

In Schaeffer's reading of Hegel (and there's plenty of reason to suspect he didn't necessarily grasp the continental European philosophers whose works he was engaging with but I'm mentioning that more as an aside) was above the line of despair; the first European philosopher Schaeffer regarded as below the line of despair was Kirkegaard.  In Escape From Reason Schaeffer wrote:

page 245-246

We observed that from Rousseau's time the dichotomy was drawn between nature and freedom. Nature had come to represent determinism, the machine, with man in the hopeless situation of being caught in the machine. Then, in the upper story, we find man struggling for freedom. The freedom that was being sought was an absolute freedom with no limitations. There is no God, nor even a universal to limit him; so the individual seeks to express himself with total freedom, and yet, at the same time, he feels the damnation of being in the machine. This is the tension of modern man.

The field of art offers a variety of illustrations of this tension. Such tension affords a partial explanation of the intriguing fact that much of contemporary art, as a self-expression of what man is, is ugly. He does not know it, but he is expressing the nature of fallen man, which as created in the image of God is wonderful, yet now is fallen. ... In contrast, much industrial design is becoming more oderly, with real beauty. I think the explanation for the growing beauty of some industrial design is that it has to follow the curve of what is there--it follows the form of the universe.

This also illustrates how science as such is not autonomously free, but must follow what is there. Even if the scientist or philosopher says that all is random and meaningless, once he moves out into the universe he is limited, no matter what his philosophic system is, for he must follow what he finds there. ... 

Schaeffer was critical of artists and musicians and writers who attempted to place art as the divine or transcendental experience "above the line of despair" that could give people hope.  Because Schaeffer never really engaged the writings of Richard Wagner or a Schoenberg and seems to have had only indirect contact with the writings of John Cage it's possible he would, had he gone to the trouble of reading those composers' writings, claimed that these composers were attempting to create musical art that was based on a transcendentalist aspiration that he would have described as "above the line of despair".

Instead, Schaeffer regarded a lot of modernist art and music as ugly because it was, in sum, "below the line of despair" when, I would argue based on my study of avant garde music in European modernism, precisely the opposite aspiration and claim was the case.  Thus, we get back to Taruskin's observation about what Scriabin and other early atonalist composers were attempting to achieve based on the music they wrote and what they wrote about their interests.  The early atonalists were exploring music along what could be thought of as occult lines of reflection.  Francis Schaeffer would, arguably, have rejected all that as occultic thought that Christians ought to reject on doctrinal grounds, but he could have then at least been able to more accurately understand the work of some of the musicians whose works he disliked in terms of his taxonomy of art and thought and literature that was wither "above" or "below" what he called "the line of despair".  

Attempting to assess Schoenberg's work in religious terms is something that has been  done, obviously, and while the forms of spirituality that show up in atonal music might not be of a kind easily reconciled to popular or conventional notions in journalism of religion that hardly means we treat that as not-religion.  On the other hand, it is something I've been contending here at the blog for a while that we consider a contrast between figures who embrace art as itself a kind of religious experience and figures who, though artists, draw upon religious impulses as a catalyst for work.  To put this in starkly combative terms, the Roger Scrutons who would have us regard art as a vehicle for some kind of divine experience have never created the kind of art which is capable of conveying such an experience.  A Schoenberg, by contrast, who had a kind of religious impulse to his work, created a few works that some people do regard as having a sublime aspect.  There is also, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach or  Haydn, composers who were identifiably religious. At a level that would be regarded as far more kitsch Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson created music that evokes a sense of the sublime for fans of gospel music.  

Scruton, contra Adorno, has argued that kitsch may simply be part of our actual emotional life in post-industrial urban contexts and that the American song book is still full of real art that captures what it feels like to live in such a context, a point that Adorno could not have possibly granted.  Yet Scruton, like Adorno, seems to have believed that there is a lack of "argument" in popular song that prevents it from reaching higher levels of artistic achievement.  It is at that point that I would argue the problem is not a matter of "beauty" but of craft.  I don't see any reason a musician couldn't take a work by Monk or Joplin or Lamb and compose out an extensive sonata movement.  Continuous variation is practically the lifeblood of jazz as a performance art and what are we to say of sonata form and fugue, that they don't involve techniques of continual variation and gestural transformation?  But I'm making that comment as an aside.  Like Roger Scruton, a Francis Schaeffer might have a capacity to recognize the sublime and the beautiful in art without being capable of ever making such himself, and of this it could be said the son is even less likely to be up for that as the father.  Now, of course, atheists can make daring and inventive avant garde art, Xenakis easily comes to mind, but Xenakis, by his own account, did not ignore Greek and Russian Orthodox chants or folk music.  

By contrast, post-Schoenberg approaches to serialism that involved technocratic refinement of his precedents came in for withering criticisms by, paradoxically, Adorno and also Ellul.  

These thoughts are, I realize, something of a postlude to "Between forms of non-choice: Adorno’s criticism of serialism and aleatory as techniques that obliterated the decision-making subject, Leonard Meyer’s observation on the abjection of choice in modernist musical history, and some brief thoughts on jazz".  The reason I say this is because I've been thinking about the simultaneously massive and paradoxically insignificant influence of Francis Schaeffer on Anglo-American evangelical thought about the arts.  Schaeffer's work is impossible to not deal with if you attempt to explore the evolution of what has long since been called the religious right in American and conservative British Christian thought.  Yet fifty years after the publication of The God Who is There there was basically no retrospective consideration of Schaeffer's legacy, whether he got anything wrong, or even if he got anything right.  I wrote at moderate length on how Francis Schaeffer's criticism of the music and philosophy of John Cage mapped surprisingly well on to criticisms of Cage made by Maoist musicians and composers such as Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury, in which I also referenced writing by Richard Taruskin and Leonard B. Meyer on the possibility that Cage's brand of Zen-based avant garde was a paradoxically self-extinguishing form of late Romantic modernism.  

I've read "just" enough of John Cage's ideas about music that I suspect that might have been one of the points, and I write this as someone who only really likes the works for prepared piano.  But those works for prepared piano inspired Nikita Koshkin to apply aspects of that approach to piano to his works for the guitar.  We should grant that influence is not something that can be controlled for.  Cage has his place in Western music and global music whether I actually enjoy most of the music he wrote or not..  I do not regard Cage as a charlatan.  As a Presbyterian I clearly differ with Cage on a few metaphysical issues but my not being a pantheist certainly doesn't mean I don't admire the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  I admit to being something of a classicist so beauty and craft can impress me even if I don't agree with the ideas espoused.

But my plan was to bring things back to Adorno on twelve-tone technique and aleatory with respect to Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer misdiagnosed whether modernist composers like Cage or perhaps Schoenberg were really above the line of despair or not because he did the obvious thing and listened with his ears.  He heard what sounded like soulless desperate technocratic noise and judged that it had to have been made by people "below the line of despair".  What Adorno damned in integral serialism and aleatory was that, as techniques, these approaches to making music so removed the decision-making subject from any resultant musical syntax or sound there was no chance (pun intended there, for once) it would lead to musically satisfying results.  In Adorno's fusilades against popular music and what he regarded as the reactionary stance of Hindemith, Adorno could nonetheless say that jazz musicians had impressive musical chops even if their song forms were false amalgams, and he declared that even if Hindemith was a reactionary he was a competent reactionary, which was not something he was so willing to say about post-Boulez American forms of serialism.

What Schaeffer might have heard but could not articulate was what Adorno did articulate, that there are styles of music that may espouse ideals or even explicitly religious concepts that Francis Schaeffer would have identified as "above the line of despair" but only Schoenberg retained that aspect of spirituality in the art, which subsequent generations of composers seeking to break away from the cliches of the Romantic era divested from the musical practice in pursuit of technocratic refinement of technique for the sake of technique, to shift from Adorno's writing on the arts to Jacques Ellul's writing on the arts.  Schaeffer heard that the results sounded to him like something that could be generated by a machine and decided "below the line of despair".  

As Taruskin put it, it is possible to keep in mind the transcendental, religious and more or less literally occult inspirations for early "atonality".  Transcending the distinctions between "major" and "minor" was part of a kind of millenarian eschatological utopian movement and for those of us who explicitly repudiate forms of postmillenialism as the easy philosophical rationale for gruesome colonial expansion methods (which is not to say that there are philosophies that can be found which can never be so used) it is possible to appreciate the resultant art while rejecting elements of the philosophy when it is used in other contexts.  I can appreciate some of Schoenberg's work without endorsing everything he stood for.  But in a sense dogmatists and polemicists like Schaeffer or Adorno can illuminate spiritual and religious aspects in artists and their art because they are emphatically and explicitly attuned to considering those things, which, of course, not everyone is.  

The irony that contemporary conservative Anglo-American Christians argue against pop culture in a way that recapitulates Adorno without their necessarily having ever read Adorno is something I've written about before.  Dealing with Adorno's actual work so as to accept the salient and reject the dubious isn't something Anglo-American Christians will manage to do if the most they do is repeat Adorno's arguments against popular songs being art without developing some kind of alternative.  I'm reading books on the history of black American gospel music and Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel field highlights something I hope to expand upon, that Thomas Dorsey was very aware that classically trained musicians in black American churches worried that this new pop-based gospel music would lead to a decline in musicianship. 

What Dorsey aimed to do was to promote the new style of gospel blues he was writing while also maintaining high standards of musicianship.  Burford argues that this was not a rejection of respectability politics in black American music but a paradoxical triumph for it--Mahalia Jackson became a super-star and with many good reasons!  She's one of my musical heroes.  But William Levi Dawson had concerns about the evolution of a new "whoop it up" approach to church music.  It wasn't exactly the Dorseys or Jackson he was worried about, it was that churches would favor the new popular style not because it was musically "better" but because it was cheaper and they could afford to hire charismatic but musically less-talented musicians.  White evangelicals can be so bereft of historical knowledge about how the triumph of African American based popular styles was a battle that, so to speak, was adjudicated within the African American church scene in the 1930s through 1950s before there was any "rock and roll".  I don't see that there's an either/or battle between pop and concert music myself. 

I think that in important respects Adorno was wrong but I think it's important to separate the good from the bad in his work.  To take up a bit of what Ian Pace has been blogging about, I do think successful fusions of American popular and vernacular styles such as ragtime with the formal and gestural transformational processes of sonata and fugue are completely practical, but such a synthesis depends on a long-acquired mastery of the music at a practical and also a theoretical level.  Too much of what I've come across in American musicology has amounted to turf wars between "high" and "low" "white" and "black" in ways that suggest to me that the most invidious aspects of the Romantic era ideologies are alive and well in new musicology.  And, yes, the pointed use of "invidious" is a deliberate, parodistic Taruskinism.  Sometimes I think he can't publish a book without using that word at least ten times ... but on that playful note, perhaps I'll just bring things to a close.  If we didn't have avocational trolls making incendiary and contestable points from time to time the process of contesting whether those points are on point couldn't happen.  I happen to think that Taruskin's point about the occult and religious nature of the earliest "atonal" composers is thoroughly accurate, which is why I quoted from him as much as I have.  

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