Friday, November 19, 2010

Music and Community

One of the most common criticisms of the left by the right is that the left is collectivist whereas the right is individualist. One of the most common criticisms of the right by the left is that the right is religious whereas the left is secular.  The left thinks the right wants to mix church and state and the right thinks the left wants to use the government to create the communal bonds it doesn't have. Responses by both ardent people of faith and secularists seem to range from casual distaste to wanting to stamp out the opposition. (Though I recall musicologist Michael Steinberg in the preface to his book Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide describing himself as a "religion-loving atheist.") These are of course broad sentiments of general observations, but there is probably some truth in them.

Earlier today we were discussing Aristotle, the present day philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre  politics, morality, the idea of "community as man's end." We noted that while it is not necessarily the end of man's existence, it surely is an important aspect. Everyone seems to have some longing for community, though there is considerable debate as to what that community should be. Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman often put man's longing for community beautifully but sharply:
Does God exist? Or doesn't God exist? Can we, by an attitude of faith, attain to a sense of community and a better world? Or, if God doesn't exist, what do we do then?
Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.

Well, we're grasping for two things at once. Partly for communion with others — that's the deepest instinct in us. And partly, we're seeking security. By constant communion with others we hope we shall be able to accept the horrible fact of our total solitude.

Unmotivated cruelty is something which never ceases to fascinate me; and I'd very much like to know the reason for it. []

Now we also spoke not long ago about music and how with the obvious exception of solo pieces, it is often both communal and individualistic. Everyone brings his unique skills, history, and practice to his instrument but all harmonizes into a whole. We recall Aristotle's statement of members of a community living not in unison but in harmony, a sentiment now rather cliché. We recall also Emerson's statement that “friends do not live in harmony merely, as some say, but in melody.” Now I am not saying if we all made music together we would achieve world peace. Yet the experience of making music together (particularly certain music) and even "only" experiencing music together can give such a sense of shared. . . something, and that something should certainly make one more aware of our shared human situation.

One example of such music the sacred mood of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte but probably the best is Beethoven's 9th symphony. Merely listening to the piece in the concert hall in it's hour-long glory is a shared experience. It is a journey from the harsh opening through turns ethereal, shocking, dazzling, rich with pathos, and celebratory to. . . to what? The simplest of Beethoven's themes, something anyone can enjoy, appreciate, and somehow take part in because everyone is supposed to.

Now I have heard secularists balk about Bach's religiosity, but I have never heard one complain about the line, "Do you feel the presence of the Creator?" in this symphony. Maybe they are overwhelmed by the "awe, mystery, and infinity" (in Tovey's words) the composer has evoked. We see in the finale the composer use counterpoint as a tool of synthesis and with a great double fugue Beethoven combines the two main themes. This synthesis of joy and brotherhood completes the journey from the peregrinate opening and draws all together and as we saw with Mozart's final symphony, creates a most profound sense of unity. In this symphony we feel the sacred as potently as in the "Et incarnatus est" of the Missa Solemnis but with an explosive exuberance, the "consummation of joy in Gloria Dei Patris" as Tovey put it. We have in the 9th Symphony something most extraordinary from Beethoven. It is not a cheap suggestion to "come together" "put aside our differences." It is an invitation to transcend them for a while and share in an experience which will hover over the rest of your life.  In this symphony we have not just a great work of art, but a priceless gift.

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