Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Serendipitous Life of the Mind

Philosophy, music, poetry, and myth are recurring preoccupations in this corner of the web. And I see it as part of our vocation to convey some of our own enthusiasm for these endeavors. To that end, we aim at lucidity and sincerity. But much of human cultivation consists in canonization: the compilation and passing on of lists. "To whom shall we go?" is a perennial human question. Whether our goal is wisdom, or beauty, or delight, we largely depend on the guidance and suggestion of our predecessors. That is the chief value of literary, musicological, or philosophical criticism: it aims at the renewal and perpetuation of a canon of artists and thinkers.

One of the ancillary delights in the life of the mind is its bottomlessness: we'll never arrive at the end of these studies. Poetry, music, and philosophy must not only be studied, but lived. As a young man, I often expressed frustration at my inability to comprehend a great many things, but more mature now, I have realized that certain things simply have to be wrestled with for years. Beethoven's last string quartets, Heidegger's Being and Time, Eliot's 'Four Quartets', Bach's Art of Fugue, are not simply artistic or philosophical creations, to be dissected and discussed: they are worlds.

I realize I'm saying nothing new: for those who've discovered these joys, no words of mine would be sufficient to describe their import. But aside from these obvious and lifelong devotions to certain preeminent and canonical artists and thinkers, one of the chief joys is the discovery of the new: the addition (and in some cases, subtraction) of certain creators to the mind's pantheon. I've often experience intense delight at the discovery of a hitherto unknown artist: Bartok, Schoenberg, Heidegger, Jaspers, Husserl, Matisse, Cezanne, are just a few of the names that but recently meant very little to me. Serendipity has to account for much of that discovery: the casual encounter or conversation that sends one to the library.

In that vein, I'd like to commend a recent musical discovery: the symphonies of the 20th century English composer, Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986). (Devoted readers may recognize Rubbra's name as a source for Mr. Vertucci's recent essay on counterpoint: Rubbra's Counterpoint: A Survey is as fine an introduction as one could get to the subject.) Unfortunately, given the mandarin-ism of contemporary classical music and its obsession with novelty and political radicalism, his work is little known, and even less appreciated, such that none of his symphonies are available on YouTube. As my acquaintance with Rubbra has only begun, I will refrain from further comment, but I would encourage readers to seek out his work: I believe he can stand comparison with other great symphonists of the 20th century.

(Viola-players are fortunate in the English composers: it seems that the English must have a particular veneration for the instrument, not only in ensemble, but also as a solo instrument: one thinks of Walton's concerto, Elgar's viola arrangement of his own cello concerto, Britten's Romances and Elegies for Viola and Piano.)

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