Saturday, June 09, 2018

Raymond Knapp's Making Light: Haydn, Musical Camp, and the Long Shadow of German Idealism

Making Light: Haydn, musical camp, and the long shadow of German idealism
Raymond Knapp
Copyright (c) 2018 by Duke University Press
ISBN 9780822372400 (ebook)
ISBN 9780822369356 (hardcover)
ISBN 9780822369509 (paperback)

I discovered this book through OAPEN library

which I, in turn, learned of through the biblioblogger Jim West

This is a recent publication and it's ... alright.  The core thesis of Knapp's book is that German idealism cast such a long and overpowering shadow on arts criticism that Haydn, who was celebrated across the Western world, was overshadowed by his students and proteges Mozart and Beethoven in Romantic and post-Romantic culture. 

Knapp's proposal is that Haydn's music has fall out of favor in the last two centuries because German Idealism, which posited that music was the highest of the arts and able to convey a sense of the infinite and in a way that allowed the highest of arts to stand in for a kind of transcendental religious experience, could not really altogether make sense of the remarkably self-aware and jocular music of Haydn.  Haydn's musical descendants Mozart and even more so Beethoven could fit into the ideals, ahem, of German Idealism perfectly but Haydn ... was, and this is the substance of Knapp's thesis right down to the title, too camp.

Knapp argues that post Susan Sontag our understanding of what camp can entail is so confined to notions of gay culture (and Oscar Wilde has no small influence in Anglo-American terms, too) that we can forget that there's every possibility for camp to be a straight thing, too.  Camp is to revel in artifice which calls attention to itself, a way of meaning and not meaning what is "said" in the artwork. 

This is not so much a book about Haydn directly as a book that proposes to reintroduce study of Haydn in light of an aesthetic stance that has stood over against German idealism in Anglo-American cultural traditions.  Camp resides in Oscar Wilde but also in Gilbert & Sullivan and also, and here's where Knapp treads lightly and carefully with cause, in the minstrelsy tradition.  Without wishing to diminish or dismiss the virulently racist caricatures of the minstrelsy tradition Knapp argues that we have to remember that this whole tradition of entertainment had to have become popular for reasons that aren't "just" about racist stereotypes.  Knapp argues that the most probable and compelling explanation for the popularity of minstrelsy and musical theater (i.e. operetta, light opera and the more literally recognized Broadway musical all stem from the Gilbert & Sullivan and Offenbach lineages) is that these all revel in camp and are all, as such, artistic traditions that implicitly and explicitly set themselves against the tenets of German Idealism. 

Knapp's thesis is interesting and it seems to have some validation, in a sense, if read in conjunction with a book such as Douglas Shadle's Orchestrating the Nation. Shadle has been writing about the ways in which a large body of American symphonic music has been sidelined thanks to what can be called the Beethoven problem and then the Wagner problem, and this has led to a canon in which the consecrated scores of the European tradition have become canon at the expense of new additions being possible

I don't think cultural conservatives and art conservatives have taken seriously how stained with colonialism the 19th century canon is for a lot of people in our time who have an interest in the fine art traditions of Europe.  What's interesting, in a way, is that on either side of the historic Iron Curtain 18th century musical traditions and norms don't necessarily always have the same baggage.  Fugue is a developmental process you can subject hooks and riffs to, so you can have a Nikolai Kapustin write 24 prelude and fugues in an Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum inspired style while still tipping a hat to Scriabin and Rachmaninoff along the way.  Zaderatsky wrote his 24 preludes and fugues for piano in the 1930s in the Gulag system without so much as having access to a piano.  But the nationalist impulses so prominent in a lot of Romantic and post-Romantic art seem less easily assimilated to 21st century artistic concerns in the United States for a lot of people.  By contrast, even though Baroque era idioms developed under autocratic mercantilist circumstances jazz and art music fusions seem more open to interaction in the jazz/Baroque interface than the jazz/Romantic interface despite the fact that you'd think the latter would be far easier given that jazz has a history of Chopin quotes as jokey codas going back to early Ellington.   If I had to hazard a guess on the weekend ... it'd be that we live in a kind of neo-Baroque era in socio-economic terms and the Baroque philosophy of music was more suited to a polystylistic European scene in a way that gives us more room to play.  Once you realize sonatas and fugues are open-ended flexible script-like processes rather than rigidly defined plans post Hoffmann or A. B. Marx then Baroque and jazz fusions seem natural enough. 

But to make them you have to be willing to embrace the sheer artifice of the process.  In a word, camp, and an openness to camp as diametrically opposed to German Idealism has to come up as an issue and approach to be accepted or rejected.

So perhaps it's not a surprise to me, being a fan of Haydn most of my life, that I have no problem embracing Haydn and also embracing Haydn's monothematic sonata form approach as a foundation from which to explore fusions of jazz with 18th rather than 19th century norms.

Knapp's book is alright.  I felt the descriptions of the camp traditions went on longer than I felt was necessary, and I was hoping the book would discuss Haydn and his music a whole lot more.  But I suppose the book has to be thought of as broaching the topic of Haydn and camp as a preliminary proposal for future research and discussion.  What's interesting about Haydn and camp as a premise is that it invites us to consider that Haydn's aim was to pelase his patrons and his audience and that the question of whether he "meant it" is secondary.  There's a lot of reason to suppose that he did "mean it" as a composer but that this was secondary to figuring out what pleased his audience and patrons.  Haydn's work has borne a stain of having been written to please an aristocratic patronage and thus, especially in comparison to his pupils Mozart and Beethoven, to be less "authentic".  If we cast off the ideals of authenticity as formulated by Romantic era thought in German Idealism we might find Haydn is no less "authentic" for working within the patronage system of his time and place.  Haydn's no less a composer who "means it" by calling attention to the artifice of his craft.  That's where Knapp's book opens up potential for future thought and writing, that Haydn can be thought of as camp in the sense that he takes the work seriously without necessarily taking himself seriously and his music invites us to be in on the joke, too. 

The idea that minstrelsy can be understood as part of a camp reaction to German Idealism seems persuasive on paper, even though I'm sure nobody will want minstrelsy back in the 21st century.  Knapp is aware of how much racism resides in the tropes of minstrelsy but makes a careful, perhaps even too careful, case that minstrelsy couldn't have become as popular as it did without appealing to some basic American sentiment and he proposes that minstrelsy's antithetical style and substance over against German Idealism is probably the best way to understand how it became so popular and what it was considered to be the healthier alternative to in terms of alternatives.  Minstrelsy, in Knapp's argumentation, was the tonic to the suffocating and not-so-American German highbrow tradition to which American art couldn't match up and to which, in any case, it arguably didn't need to match up.

It doesn't seem too surprising that those form whom the European art music tradition represents a pinnacle of human achievement would regard any and all stunts to the effect of "Beethoven was wrong" as offensive, most of all coming from the likes of John Cage, musical provocateurs and philosophers with non-Western sympathies who can be regarded as hucksters and frauds. But if Cage's rhetoric can be seen as part and parcel of a larger radical/reactionary impulse within American musical culture against the impossibility of measuring up to the German Idealist legacy in the fine arts then Cage's stance can be seen as having a sympathetic core even if some of us will never bother to move beyond intermittent listening to his prepared piano music without bothering with his other music.

It's in this sense that someone like Francis Schaeffer could only grasp that Cage was seemingly in favor of Zen this and aleatoric (not music) that without getting the history within which Cage's perceived stunt was being perpetrated.  To put what he may have been getting at in another way, he was saying Beethoven was wrong without necessarily saying who was right.  in terms of my own musical interests I love a lot of Beethoven.  I admire his late piano sonatas and string quartets, but while I wouldn't go so far as to say Beethoven was "wrong" I think his disciples and worshippers overplayed their hand.  I awould also suggest that in the 21st century we might want to say Haydn gives us a path to keep exploring independent of the Romantic readings of Mozart or Beethoven.  The Romantics could not find a bad word about Haydn and what they did, paradoxically, was to sort of canonize him into irrelevance while they tried to keep building on what they believed was the more important legacy of Mozart and Beethoven. 

So, of Knapp's book, it's alright.  I think only Haydn fans would read the book and I think it's a starting point more than a satisfactory end point.  I had hoped for more discussion of Haydn's work.  But so it goes.  Academic monographs are often starting points for future scholarship whether said future scholarship materializes.  With Hepokoski and Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory we've got a more recent door-stopper tome that admits throughout that Haydn's whole approach to sonata form is so eclectic and mercurial it's almost impossible to describe what he did as if it could be normative but with the concession that his unpredictable and rug-pulling antics help explain why it was he rather than Mozart and others who was most praised and celebrated within his own era.  As Charles Rosen put it, Haydn was praised by academic and learned musicians and loved by the public in a way that has arguably never been repeated since. 

So I figure I've been pretty straightforward in loving Haydn's music and looking to his music as an inspiration for how to synthesize affection for the Western art music tradition with American vernacular and popular styles.  I also think, the more I read and think about these things, that a lot of the objections to the Western art canon are not necessarily objections to everything about the Western canons of art.  People can still appreciate beauty in Shakespeare or poetry by John Donne or music by Beethoven.  What people are objecting to is how inseparable the artistic canon is from an age of imperialism that conflates beautiful imitation-worthy elements of the artistic canon with the innate superiority presumed to be given as to the societies that are credited with creating the artistic legacy and lineage. 

But ... now that the Cold War has been over for decades I think we should reconsider that axiom from both sides of the divide.  It's not a foregone conclusion that we throw out the Western canon as elitist, racist, sexist and so forth without considering what we want to keep from that tradition ... but to put it another way, the more I look at how musical innovation played out on either side of the Iron Curtain it was not just George Rochberg introducing a polystylistic rejection of the teleological arc of history in which tonality was replaced by atonality; composers like Alfred Schnittke and Rodion Shchedrin began to riff on multi-style and eclecticist musical ideas during the post-Stalinist thaw.  Here's a point at which Adorno did a great disservice to musical history by assuming the entirety of Soviet cultural activity couldn't even be art.  In a sense his blanket condemnation was played out across the West even among those who weren't Marxists. There might have to be a separate post about this topic, but I'll say that the idea that art can't be made in totalitarian societies or that, if it is,  it's not "good" art is a myth that needs to die.  Art can be made by artists contracted to serve regional autocrats that is beautifully made art.  I'm hoping to get to reading a book about Soviet composers in Poland and Eastern Germany during the Stalinist years called Composing The Party Line, which is also available
at the OAPEN library online.

The idea of the autonomous artist is in all sorts of ways a 19th century bourgeois ideal.  It's in that respect, too, that Haydn's life and legacy is too awkward a fit for German Idealism's legacy and cultural ideals.  But in the 21st century when it seems we have a neo-feudal era of corporations and in which even ostensibly blue-state liberal types who editorialize at The Stranger are implicitly and explicitly arguing for an archipelago of city states ... that sort of ties in with Mounck-ish thoughts this weekend about an antidemocratic form of liberalism ... maybe we really are living in a new kind of Baroque era.  So having written all that, might as well link to a score-video of an ensemble playing the first movement from Haydn's Op. 76, string quartet No. 1, first movement.

I know this was much less a book review than a post riffing on ideas that's inspired by the book but I hope you'll cut me some slack.  The earlier book review I wrote was 12,000 words long, covered twenty years of material from a public figure in Seattle history and was reviewing an academic monograph on that topic.  I figure a weekend blog post about a book on Haydn I read recently can be a bit less formal attire. ;)

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