The Music Of The Spheres

Thus how supremely ironic it is that this revolutionary school of music, Romanticism, should today be enshrined as the official culture, marginalizing what preceded it and what was to come after. Works that literally incited revolution in Wagner’s Dresden, in Verdi’s Milan, are now considered to be the stately theme music of established authority. Pieces that modern audiences listen to in hushed reverence sometimes provoked outrage at their premieres. Christoph von Dohnanyi recently made this comment in a private conversation: “Everyone thinks that he understands Beethoven better than contemporary music. In fact, it is much more difficult to understand Beethoven than any modern composer you can name, without a great deal of study.” We may interpret that to mean that unless we understand the musical world order that Beethoven was overturning, we shall never understand the meaning of his achievement. Yes, it is great music — but why? Not because it has lovely melodies, nor because its stirring rhythms stimulate nervous excitement. It is great music because it pointed the way to a new direction.

Yet for all its imagination and sheer musical power, Romanticism is an anomaly in the history of music. This music we were all taught to regard as the great music — the symphonies of the nineteenth-century Middle European composers, Italian and German opera of the same period — actually constitutes a relatively small sliver of the whole Western musical repertory. Characterized by a high pitch of emotional expression and a frequently anthropocentric “subject matter,” the music of the Romantics might have seemed like much pompous ado about nothing to the composers, musicians, and audiences of the centuries, the millennia, that preceded it.

The victory of the Romantics was absolute. The music of their great standard-bearers ultimately triumphed in the concert halls and opera houses of Europe and throughout the New World, sweeping all before it (though that in itself is not so extraordinary — after all, in the eighteenth century Handel and Haydn, to name just two, had achieved astounding popular success in their lifetimes). In the Romantic age for the first timemusic became a commercial institution, another important similarity with what was happening in the sciences. Composers before the rise of Romanticism, like court scientists, only had to please one person, their royal or ecclesiastical patron. However, beginning in Central Europe in the late eighteenth century, concerts became public affairs, and for the first time musicians had to deal with the phenomenon of the box office. No longer was it enough simply to be good; one had to be successful.

Music publishing became a major force in popularizing compositions for home consumption. In the nineteenth century, many more people knew the operas of Wagner and Verdi, for example, from piano redactions of their scores than from experiences in the opera house. Later on, at the beginning of the twentieth century, radio and the phonograph made Romantic music — now known as “classical music” — a vast business institution. Just as was the case with the rise of science as a social institution, once a great deal of money was at stake, the criteria shifted irrevocably. If being correct became the overriding imperative of science, the same thing held true in concert halls — listening to the “right” music has been a social obligation for the elite audience of classical music for the past hundred years.

One of the most remarkable corollaries of the triumph of Romanticism has been its powerful transforming effect on the compositions of preceding eras. In the nineteenth century, Handel’s oratorios and Bach’s masses were shamelessly tarted up for elephantine public performances, lavishly re-scored and performed by forces far exceeding what their composers intended. This practice lasted well into the twentieth century, when even so powerful and highly respected a musical figure as Sir Thomas Beecham thought nothing of rewriting Baroque music to make it sound magnificently (and inappropriately) Romantic.

More subtle but not less pernicious is the way in which the Romantic sensibility has affected the way we hear the music of any era, even when the performance itself may be blameless in intention. Take as an example Henry Purcell 's Dido and Aeneas, the earliest surviving English opera. While the opera is alive with passion, it is an exquisitely refined Mannerist passion, firmly grounded in the classical tradition, with a sophisticated irony that is almost sure to be lost on a modern audience. Dido's Lament, the opera’s finale, is sublimely pathetic, but it is not sentimental. When the dying Carthaginian queen sings “Remember me, but ah! forget my fate,” the audience is moved, but there is a dignity and nobility to the emotional response that is worlds away from the exaggerated self-pity of, say, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut when she sings “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” in an equally pathetic situation. A sensitive modern concertgoer attending performances of these two operas might very well respond to them in approximately the same way; yet the intentions of the composers, and the sensibilities of the audiences for whom they wrote, are vastly different. This interpretive dislocation has been remarked upon in the visual arts far more often than it has in music; it is just this phenomenon to which Christoph von Dohnanyi was referring.

The composers of the twentieth century, that is to say most of the best of them, have broken with the exotic and passionate musical idiom of Romanticism as cleanly as the Romantics broke from the refined, stately music of the Age of Enlightenment. Paradoxically, modern concertgoers brought up on a steady diet of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms (and, as we have noted, Bach and Handel, who until recently were made to sound as much like them as possible) often find themselves perplexed when they hear the music of their own time. They have been conditioned to expect, and thus they demand, a thrilling emotional impact, what might be called the Romantic buzz, from music. When they hear the music of their contemporaries they are puzzled, because it does not sound like music from the last century. That might seem to contradict Christoph von Dohnanyi’s comment, but what he was driving at is that a sensitive modern concertgoer is more likely to arrive at a true, intuitive understanding of music composed in his lifetime, however enigmatic it might be, than of Beethoven’s works; yet a simplistic misunderstanding of Beethoven is nonetheless the most common interpretive attitude of all.

One reason new music sounds the way it does is because many twentieth-century composers have returned, in their own eccentric ways, to the great theme that dominated music until the aberrant irruption of Romanticism. The avant-garde recitals and operas now being performed in Brooklyn and Berkeley and Berlin may have more in common, conceptually if not musically, with what was going on in Greece three thousand years ago than with what was happening in fin-de-siècle Vienna. The works of Bach and even much of Mozart’s music, of post-1911 Schoenberg and Philip Glass — indeed of virtually all Western music outside the century that spans the Romantic movement — are not really about the concerns of this world. They are about the cosmic harmony that their composers believed constituted the universe. It is only now, at the close of the twentieth century, that Romanticism is loosening its powerful grip on the musical life of the Western world. Throughout America and Europe there is now a strong and continually growing interest in early music on the one hand, and on the other a resurgent interest on the part of contemporary composers in the cosmic theme that was the dominant strain in music throughout most of Western history.

Music contains in its essence a mystery: everyone agrees that it communicates, but how? When a poet is happy, the reader knows it because the poet has told him so; and furthermore, through the symbolism of language, the poet can explain precisely how happy he is, which delicate shades of the emotion he is experiencing at the moment, and why. Yet when we listen to the allegro of a Mozart symphony, if the performance is vivid and heartfelt, it actually creates in us the sensation of joy. It is true that music is a form of symbolic language, but it is of an entirely different species than the symbolism of language. The symbolism of language evokes external reality, however farfetched the subjective imagery it uses to accomplish that end, while what is created by the symbolism of musical staff notation exists only in the world of ideas. (We may set aside the occasional phenomenon of programmatic music, such as Renaissance madrigals that duplicate birdsong, or the tempest in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, which conveys the idea of a storm by having the orchestra imitate the sounds of one: its very novelty consists in the non-musicality of its method.)

Somehow, Mozart's symphony, rather than telling us aboutjoy, creates joy. The music is a zone of joy. How is that possible? The Greeks knew the answer: music and the human soul are both aspects of the eternal. The one stimulates the other powerfully and, one might almost say, with scientific precision, thanks to the essential kinship of the two. Nowadays, many people squirm when you talk to them about their eternal soul, so we use other words. Of an evening at the opera, if the music was beautifully performed, we say, “It was sublime,” or “a transcendent experience.” These words have become empty figures of speech, but they arise from the deep-seated human need to feel a connection with the absolute, to transcend the phenomenal world. Even as science and music abandoned their classic mission — the former leaving behind the larger questions that had launched its great intellectual adventure, while the latter was turning its focus inward, concentrating on the emotional life of man rather than on the vast scheme of which it was always believed that he formed a part — the questions continued to be asked. There would seem to be an inextinguishable yearning in the human soul, almost its defining characteristic, to form these connections, to find a meaningful order in the bewildering complexity of the perceptible universe.

In this century the classics have slipped to the periphery of the curriculum, and in the place of enquiring humanism we now have condescending nihilism: the modern intelligentsia smiles at Christian fundamentalists, at credulous followers of absurd schools of psychotherapy, at adherents of what is called the New Age. Yet if people are driven to feel a connection with the absolute by wearing crystal jewelry and listening to voices from beyond the grave, as naïve as those beliefs may be perhaps we ought not castigate them for abandoning science — for has not science abandoned them? Is it reasonable to expect that the man in the street will be content with being told, “Your life is pointless, and you are destined to be a sterile, meaningless speck of stardust, but be of good cheer: science will tell you how to power your automobile with pig dung”?

Likewise, as glorious as the music of the Romantic era is, the anomalous nature of its purely emotional appeal ensured that it would not be able indefinitely to satisfy the needs of the audience. The world order of music is now splintering: the audience for stately performances of Romantic music is slowly shrinking. It is literally dying, as the generation that grew up on the musical equivalent of the Harvard Classics, big boxed sets of “The World’s 100 Great Classics,” side by side with the leather-bound Shakespeare, is dying. Yet as the hegemony of Romanticism declines, the modern audience often finds itself, bizarrely, alienated from the music of its own time.

Yet despite the odds, the ancient tradition of the musical cosmos, embracing and unifying noble rationalism and ecstatic mysticism, has survived. What we may call the great theme — the belief that the cosmos is a sublimely harmonious system guided by a Supreme Intelligence, and that man has a place preordained and eternal in that system — runs throughout Western civilization, even if during the declining era of Romanticism it is a muted leitmotif. As the orthodox culture focussed its attention earthward and selfward, the impulse to connect with the universal became more and more esoteric. On the one hand it has been channelled into the compositions of the twentieth-century avant-garde, as we shall see in the later chapters of this book, and on the other hand the great theme per se has survived in what might be called the folk culture of the occult underground, now beyond the pale of respectable intellectual activity.

Until we understand the sublime cosmic order that Beethoven and his progeny overturned, to revert to our previous example, he will remain as remote from us as the ancien régime itself. The history that follows does not pretend to be a comprehensive treatment of one of the most basic and widely held systems of knowledge and belief in the history of Western culture. Yet it does aspire to be something more than simply a miscellaneous catalogue of images of the cosmic. Perhaps it is not of the utmost importance to prefix too precise an advertisement. For now, let us simply call it an anecdotal history of the symphony of science and its counterpoint, the wisdom of music, traced across the centuries from its inception up to the most bewildering period faced by any historian — the present.