Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part II

In our first look at sacred music last month we discussed some concrete principals and why they functioned as the essence of good sacred music. It is, however, often said that taste is subjective. This I do concede to a point, and as an experiment I would like to make a less scientific comparison. We may say certainly that people have reactions to music but of course it is something in the music that has generated that reaction. I would like to look at a few incipits from some sacred music and briefly characterize what they suggest. I decided to use the beginnings of these pieces because they invariably receive an enormous amount of attention from the composer and they set the tone of the piece. In short, we can assume them to be the best the composer has to offer and exactly what he wants. Many musical works have weak transitions, lines, and moments, but we tend not to discuss the ones which fall out of the gate.

The incipits should briefly and perfectly capture the essence of the piece, or at least set a clear stage for development. So we may ask, then: first, do they, and second, what do they say?

N.B. I included only pieces using the Latin text of the Gloria from the Ordinary of the mass. I included the intonation of the Gloria de Angelis only once, which naturally excluded many settings which begin with the famous phrase. I have edited the chant and classical examples into the video below. The modern pieces have links to performances next to their descriptions.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Top Ten: Mozart Works for Oboe

Sometimes my lists spiral into large projects. This is not one of those times. I offer only one word of clarification, that I restricted myself to one movement per work. I only mention those other parts of Figaro because the implied "and see other movements of the same work" is not so helpful for an opera.

Complaints/Suggestions welcome! (Did I miss anything?)

Oboe by Grundemann, 1784
10. Trios from Symphonies KV.550-551 in G minor and C major

9. Adagio & Rondo in C, KV.617 - Adagio

8. Oboe Concerto in C, KV.314 - Allegro

7. Oboe Quartet in F, KV.370/3686b - Adagio

6. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in C minor, KV.388 - Allegro

5. Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, KV.491 - Allegretto

4. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in E-flat, KV.375 - Adagio

3. Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, KV.361/370a, 'Gran Partita' - Adagio

2. Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492
1. Piano Quintet in E-flat, KV.452 - Largo - Allegro moderato

Monday, September 5, 2011

Minus Virtue

Aristotle and the Neuroscientists

The NY Times is running psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker's review of the new book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Pinker's review is one of those pieces, of which the Times specializes in, that makes me wince. Not because it is poorly written or even wrong but because it is liable to leave the reader unacquainted with the deeper problems of the issue at hand with a facile, shallow, understanding of the topic while making him think he is at the cutting edge of thought. Unfortunately it is not quite so easy to critique a book review. Whose ideas am I critiquing? Those of the reviewer, those of the author, or those of the author as understood by the reviewer? I will persevere, though, because it is the impression the review leaves which is of interest to me.

Please indulge me, though, with a few minor points. First, Adam and Eve, Odysseus, and Augustine lived at different times. Agreed? Thus saying that "Ever since" and listing those figures is sloppy and, I might add, annoyingly so. Second, Pinker writes, "the very idea of self-­control has acquired a musty Victorian odor." If it rose in the 19th century (the Victorian era) then it was simply Victorian. If it declined starting circa 1920 then when exactly did it, acquire the "musty Victorian odor?" Did it come back after that? Pinker doesn't say. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the opening two paragraphs make a terribly sloppy preface to what Pinker really wants to talk about. Oh, and "a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist." Editor on aisle five!

Anyway his hastening to the 20th century is "rather telling," as I am fond of saying. Pinker passes over the time when not having self-control was considered a moral failing. Now it is not. Now it is a utilitarian "virtue" to be used to get ahead and ensure maximum efficiency in getting whatever it is we want. You strengthen it like a muscle and then gloriously resist temptation. This and the authors' advice about building it up is all well and good. It is, predictably, in concert with Pinker's own notions as he set forth in The Blank Slate. So what am I quibbling about? That he treats this shift as a historical and not a philosophical one. We will revisit this point at the end of our discussion.

Meanwhile, Pinker calls "self-control" a virtue. Is this appropriate? (Also, the title of the book is "Willpower." I suppose we should understand self-control and willpower as synonyms.) Let us first consider what he means by "virtue." In Aristotle, "The opposed virtues are virtues only because they encourage and help constitute a full rich life." [1] They are not the oxymoronic "utilitarian virtues" Pinker in effect calls for. Likewise acting virtuously requires 1) knowledge of your self and the situation, i.e. being virtuous and not simply foolhardy, 2) being virtuous for its own sake, 3) being virtuous out of character and not by accident or incidentally. If there is no particular good for man then it seems inappropriate to call these "useful habits" "virtues."

Let us now consider what "self-control" means. Unfortunately in the review the word is not defined, though it seems simply to mean. . . well I'm not so sure. It cannot simply the ability to do something, anything, since the gist of the article is resisting one inclination to pursue something else.  Interestingly, all of Pinker's and the authors' examples involve physical activity. Likewise the faculty is likened to a muscle which can be flexed to resist temptation. This is a most convenient analogy because it implies that self-control 1) is a faculty, 2) exists in one already, albeit undeveloped. In fact it is just as plausible that one is learning to do something he was not inclined to do at all, but that it is still necessary to do. Does one truly have a virtue before one exercises it, the same way an infant has sight before it is developed into acute vision, or in contrast is it acquired through habituation? The analogy disguises a question of great importance.

Self-control, then, seems inherently to be connected with bodily pain and pleasure. In this it seems akin to temperance, though temperance implies a mean and not just resisting. Yet Pinker uses the word "passions" for that which needs controlling. Yet surely we must distinguish between appetites and passions, the former occurring in individuals without any stimuli and the latter only after some conscious appraisal of a situation. There are then both bare appetitive forces and "deliberative decisions" and thus also a role for reason in virtue. Yet deliberation itself consists both in conscious reasoning and desiring a particular end. Pinker, though, derides the "ghost in the machine" and then glosses over the issue with the problematically vague, "mental entity." So your soul with reason and desire toward an end does not guide the passions, but your "mental entity" with your "self-control" does. This is neither a clarification nor an improvement.