Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mostly Mozart, 2011

Iván Fischer
I just stepped in from my first Mostly Mozart concert of the season. I do not know who programmed the Ave Verum Corpus, Symphony KV.551, and Vespers de Confessore into one concert, or why, but the evening was terrific. The utmost credit to Iván Fischer. The Ave Verum was delicate and affecting and the final symphony came to glorious life. Jupiter's first movement fugato was especially vigorous yet never bombastic. Well-balanced forces brought out Mozart's extraordinary writing for winds and interplay between strings and winds in the allegro cantabile. The winds were especially beautiful in their fleeting moments of the menuetto.

With finely articulated rhythms and crisp fugatos Fischer brought out the ecstatic energy of that famed last movement. So much, in fact, that one acutely sensed the counterpoint keep the whole affair from bursting apart even as it amplified the energy by way of synthesizing the themes. The contrapuntal coda pushed the whole experience over the top, as it should. A most stirring performance of the symphony.

Lucy Crowe
Soprano Lucy Crowe made her Mostly Mozart debut tonight with Mozart's second set of vespers, proving she's not just at home in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic opera and oratorio but Viennese sacred music too. She brought a delicacy and restraint to the potentially operatic writing, gently covering the wider intervals of the Laudate Dominum and even the octaves of the Magnificat. Fischer's rather swift tempo for the Magnificat took away some of its heraldic grandeur but Crowe let that "Et Exultavit" out and Mozart's lively rhythms were in good hands for a spirited finale.

Last but not least, James Bagwell and the Concert Chorale of New York did a fine job with all of the counterpoint and Latin, especially the great and grave fugue on Laudate Pueri.

This concert, the Mostly Mozart debuts of both Fischer and Crowe and one of the few all-Mozart concerts of the festival, was a great success.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America

Directed by Joe Johnston. 2011.

Contains Spoilers!

Captain America sort of works. I think. Maybe. I don't know. I find it frustrating, infuriating even, when so much is wrong with a movie that you have a hard time deciding whether as a whole it even works or not, qua movie. Persevering, let us start with what works.

Captain America has one heck of a chorus line with more wagging gams than any flick since Gold Diggers of 1933. In fact it is so good and the scene is shot so well that it bears further comment. Early in the film when Steve Rogers has been given his super strength by the American government's experimental procedure but before he has gone to war the generals relegate the proto hero to campaigning for war bonds across the states. This montage, overflowing with images of Uncle Sam, burlesque fights with Adolf Hitler, kicking chorus girls, and straight out sloganeering is slightly off-putting in its effectiveness. Nonetheless it is spectacular, more so than the action scenes. In fact I think many viewers will feel that way. How many gun fights and enemy base infiltrations have people seen? And chorus lines?

There are not many ideas to speak of in Captain America. Here's one, sort of. According to the scientist who invented the serum, Steve Rogers is a good and simple man. He knows the value of strength because he used to be weak, unlike people who have always known strength. (The scientist does not like bullies.) This sounds like a meaningful aphorism, but is it true? Does someone doing good with strength he has always had mean more than someone who is, in fact, given strength, like Captain America? I don't think this is quite what they were trying to set up. Also, doesn't someone who has had power for a while already know how to control it? Maybe Captain America would have to learn that. Either way the idea does not really play out in the movie. In fact In fact the Skull took the treatment too, implying he used to be weak, or weaker than he became. Now what does that aphorism mean for the movie? What about power and corruption? I guess his newfound power didn't tempt Rogers. Or was it the case that the treatment just amplified your existing character, which in Rogers' case was fine because he was good? If so, that's a cheap evasion of the question about whether power corrupts.

Let's look at some other apparent significance. In a scene in which Rogers and his buddy Bucky, formerly the brawn of the duo, storm a Hydra train to capture a scientist, Rogers is knocked down and Bucky picks up the Captain America shield and starts to fight with it. He loses and dies. Again, that looks important, but is this reversal significant? What was Bucky's flaw? Was he really so lacking in awareness that he didn't see Rogers was despondent about his weakness? How do we know Bucky's strength was unearned? How did Rogers earn strength by being good? Why is it significant that Bucky lacked the strength to be victorious? Maybe we're supposed to see that finally he knew what it was like to struggle when he was not strong enough.  Well, the writers could have made this significant by having it happen before Rogers was fighting or even with some cheesy dialogue a la Spider-man, that "with great power comes great responsibility." Maybe they could have had Rogers, after Bucky's death, say, "I always wanted him to know what it was like to be weak. But now. . ." We don't get that, though. In fact there is not much continuity between scenes. Jay Bauman at the great Red Letter Media tersely called Captain America, "a series of things that happen." Indeed.

So in the absence of my ability to make sense of any of those ideas I am forced to conclude that Captain America is just good guys versus bad guys. The bad guys are Nazis, well sort of.  I didn't notice anything that identified them as Nazis and that's a rather embarrassing evasion. It reeks of political correctness when the Red Skull's troops shout, "Heil Hydra." So we can't even attribute any ideology to the bad guys. Yet the Skull spouts quasi-Nazi notions like, "We are beyond humanity." Who is he actually talking about here? Only he and Rogers had the treatment so he must mean them. So he's trying to persuade Rogers to join him? Maybe, but then he doesn't mean his men. (Don't tell them that!) Maybe he means that the powerful weapons his side has makes them better? So that makes them bullies, which makes the Americans the underdog. Although unlike in the doctor's aphorism they obviously didn't always have the powerful weapons but got them. So either the power made them evil or they were already evil. Based on our look at Rogers and the Red Skull and the fact that the war was underway already, the former doesn't seem plausible so the latter must be the case, which means the super powers shtick is just that, a shtick to allow for bigger explosions.

The action scenes play out like sequences from a video game. Duck, shoot, take cover, doge, reload, sprint. Things blow up. There are even mid-level bosses. Sheesh. The casting and performances are fine. The cinematography is good as is the color palette and there are some nice shots. The score is forgettable except for the jingle from the war bonds chorus. There's also a teensy bit of Wagner to make the bad guys seem ominous. The direction is competent. The script is garbage.

Overall, it's like World War II got turned into a comic book, then into a video game, and then halfway into a movie.

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part I

"In order to write true church music, look to the plainchants of the monks." Ludwig van Beethoven [1]

The problem is clear. Anyone who has long pondered sacred music knows it. Music lovers evade it as long as they can but eventually the rift becomes undeniable. Of sacred music, there is chant and everything else. Foremost this admission seems a blasphemy of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven to say nothing of the Renaissance masters. If music is excellent, can it not serve or be adapted to serve a liturgical purpose? One path to answering this question is technical and that is the path we will trod in this series. Today we will look at how the mechanics of chant function as a style. Let us examine what this music does and what effects it brings about.

1) Melodic Intervals

Chants use relatively conjunct motion, that is, they avoid wide intervallic leaps. Wide leaps arrest the attention and tend to segment the line whereas lack thereof permits long, unbroken, unfolding lines. Stepwise motion is the most common, with skips of a third and fourth not unusual.

2) Monophony

The lack of accompaniment focuses attention on the one melody.

3) Rhythm

In chant the rhythms are derived from the text. This has two effects. First, it frees the music from the demands and constrictions of a meter like 3/4 or 4/4. There is no predictable rhythm to "fall into." The music ceases to be "in time" and time itself fades away, leaving only the text. Second, that text is the scripture. It is the words of the sacred texts themselves that direct the music.

4) Anonymity

There is no intrusion of a personality into the music. There is no place in chant to say, "Ahh, this is classic Brahms." The listener won't be enticed to think that a change of register, a change of key, a chromatic line, a chord, a figure, or whatever, is "typical" Handel, Haydn, or whoever."

5) Text

The text is always intelligible, never obscured.

The Meditative Style

These five essential features of chant constitute a "meditative" style of sacred music. Of course not all chant from all times from all places conforms to these practices. There is scholarly debate what the norms were when and where. Nonetheless these features represent compositional practice and a unity of effect that makes them worthy of attention. These practices let the text in every way remain the center of the experience. This gives the text prime place and fosters meditation on it. The way in which any piece of sacred music diverges from these fundamentals is the degree to which something else enters the experience. That something is usually, a 1) stylistic trope of the age, 2) an affectation of the composer, 3) an attempt to dramatize the text.

Chant utilizes the unifying, transporting, and time-defying powers of music, music's most abstract properties, without adopting a discrete musical syntax (a syntax which varies from age to age, culture to culture, and so forth.) I say discrete because there is attention to musical fundamentals like pitch, pitch classes, intervals, cadences, and rhythm. Too there is of course room for composition, i.e. the choice of the composer in deciding on the most appropriate setting. Yet the text (its rhythmic demands and potential) and the text's function in the liturgy always dictate most. The text remains the essence of the musical language. Hence chant is most truly catholic, i.e. universal, and Catholic, i.e. of the Catholic Church, by being of its sacred texts. Music scholar Richard Hoppin described Gregorian Chant best as, "music in its purest state, fashioned with consumate skill, and perfectly adapted to its liturgical function." [2]

Musical fashions and fads, the personalities of composers, and even emotions themselves all constitute additions to the musical experience. In the future we will examine the way such departures affect the experience and consider which, if any, are justifiable or desirable.

[1] Beethoven's journal of 1818, quoted in The Creative World of Beethoven, ed. Paul Henry Lang. G. Schirmer Inc. 1970
[2] Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. W. W. Norton. New York. 1978.

N. B. The above points have often been made but never as concisely and transparently as in Robert Greenberg's Great Courses class, "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music," which I highly recommend. See also,  Appel, "Gregorian Chant"  and Hoppin, "Medieval Music" for invaluable scholarship.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ancient Music: Euripides' Orestes

The Remorse of Orestes, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Euripides' Orestes (Ορέστης) was produced in 408BC, 50 years after Aeschylus' Orestia and its topsy turvy plot takes place between the Libation Bearers (Χοηφόροι, Choēphoroi) and the Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες.) Here Orestes, son of King Agamemnon, has just wrought vengeance on the murderer of his father. Yet it was his own mother, Clytmnestra, who killed the king and now the Furies pursue Orestes, driving him mad for the matricide.

Yet it is not solely for the great and terrible saga of the house of Atreus or the dramatic and political dimensions of Orestes that the play is important. In 1892 papyri of the play dating to the 3rd  century were discovered at Hermopolis, and one of the scraps contained  musical notation. The papyrus is damaged and incomplete and whether the music is truly by the hand of Euripides is not entirely certain. Still, the fragment is a fascinating and revealing glimpse at ancient music and [musical]-theater for while we know the Greek culture was highly musical, precious little written music survives.

Bearing in mind our significant lacunae in understanding the Greek modes with any precision, the Lydian mode, in which this music was written, was said by Aristotle to produce "a moderate and settled temper" (Politics, III.5, 1340b) and Plato described the "mixed" and "tense" (συντονο-) Lydian modes as "dirgelike" (Republic, III.398e) and the Lydian as "soft" (μαλακαί) and even "for drinking-songs" (συμποτικαὶ) and "loose" (χαλαραὶ.) Writing what perhaps seems most appropriate for this piece, Cassiodorus wrote that the Lydian "is a remedy for fatigue of the soul, and similarly for that of the body." (PL, LXIX, 571C)

The voices were possibly but not certainly accompanied by a kithara and an aulos, which were often used to accompany solo lyrics in competitions and festivals. The monophony of the piece emphasizes its chant-like quality.

The meter is the very variable dochmiac verse, used mostly in tragedy and for moments of great joy or grief. Scansion and transliteration of the first four lines follows, (u = short & – = long.)

N.B. The 1892 papyrus orders the lines differently than other manuscripts, so please note the line numbers.

uuu–u–/uuu–u– (341) ka-to-lo-phy-ro-mai / ka-to-lo-phy-ro-mai
–uu–u–/uuu–u– (339) ma-ter-os hai-ma sas /  ho s’a-na-bac-cheu-ei
uuu–u–/–uu–u– (340) ho me-gas ol-bos ou / mo-ni-mos en bro-tois
uuu–u– (341) a-na de lai-phos hos

ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ᾽ ἀναβακχεύει;
ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς: 340
κατολοφύρομαι κατολοφύρομαι.
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς
τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς τινάξας δαίμων
κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν πόνων ὡς πόντου
λάβροις ὀλεθρίοισιν ἐν κύμασιν.

Complete translation and transliteration of the text: [Link]

Within this ancient play we have a moment of the sacred, with music amplifying the emotion of the scene and the larger drama. The tonality, meter, and text all produce a haunting moment in which the Argive women plead for the tortured son of the slain king:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Passing Through Infinity

The shade of Bach over Beethoven's gentle fughetta infuses a pathos to the sublime andante dance through time. (Compare to the similar but more abstract Contrapunctus XIII of Bach's Art of Fugue.) Here there is an element of dialogue, of longing, of tenderest and ineffable joy, but fundamentally of the human element to the passage through time and the human connections through past, present, and future.

Alfred Brendel once applied a line from the poet Heinrich von Kleist to the Diabelli Variations:

"When perception has passed through infinity, gracefulness reappears."

Beethoven. Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

See Variation 24 at 1:32
Alfred Brendel, piano.

Presidential Rhetoric II: John Adams

In Part I of our series on presidential rhetoric we look at President Obama's Inaugural Address. Today we will look at John Adams', delivered in the city of Philadelphia on Saturday, March 4, 1797.

As with the first speech, we will not be addressing the truthfulness of the assertions but rather we will consider primarily two questions: what is it trying to persuade us of and how does it do so. We will also, as before, look at some rhetorical criteria as set forth by Aristotle. Due to the complexity of some of the sentences I have chosen to annotate the sections.

When it was first perceived, in early times, that no middle course for America remained between unlimited submission to a foreign legislature and a total independence of its claims, men of reflection were less apprehensive [of danger from the formidable power of fleets and armies they must determine to resist] [than from those contests and dissensions which would certainly arise concerning the forms of government to be instituted] over the whole and over the parts of this extensive country. Relying, however, on the purity of their intentions, the justice of their cause, and the integrity and intelligence of the people, under an overruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from the first, the representatives of this nation, then consisting of little more than half its present number, not only broke to pieces the chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an ocean of uncertainty. 

We first notice that the first sentence is rather long. Syntactically it is not quite so complex, though, simply indicating that on the one hand in early times when X was the case, men were still more worried about Y than Z. That is, even when men were fighting armies, they were more worried about the debates to come than the immediate threats to their lives. This statement has several effects, 1) praising the founders for their bravery, 2) praising them for their wisdom in fearing the present political challenge, and 3) suggesting the gravity of the current challenge (i.e. "if those men, who were both brave and reflective, feared this debate, and we face more than they did, then we ought to take this seriously.") Compressed as that is, more details paint an even more vivid picture. Adams uses the passive voice, "when it was perceived" not to stoke the flames of faction and point fingers at those who were reluctant to declare independency. Too, a less precise description of the men he was speaking of ("men of reflection") portrays the men of that era as equal and united. Immediately then, before he uses any obvious terms like "peace" or "accord" or "unity," the structure of Adams' first sentence reflects the theme of unity, that he seeks to bridge the factions he saw forming. Adams also impersonally expresses that "no middle course remained" to suggest inevitability of the split with England; he does not say that the risk was to great, or that no alternative was perceived, or some people or reason would not permit it. He simply says, "no course remained" and follows it up with a clause of interlocking phrases with parallel thoughts to complete the idea. No course remained between

unlimited submission to a foreign legislature and total independence of its claims.

The alternatives could not be any clearer. We have a clear, compact, opening sentence which paints a scene and situation for the audience to get drawn into. Adams continues by listing why the men were successful: they were, guided by pure motives, they had a just cause, they were wise people, they were under under God's watch. Yet he doesn't blandly list these traits, but rather breaks the parallelism of the third trait of the trio by using two words with a conjunction and alliteration (the i's.) Adams then adds yet another trait, here avoiding monotony with of a visual, "under an overruling." Also, notice the ascending significance of the traits that allowed these men to succeed: first their own qualities, then the qualities of the people who elected then, then God's watchfulness. Adams continues, using the word "representatives" to emphasize the republican nature of the country, the slightly anachronistic word "nation" since technically there was no nation until after the declaration, and "growing population" to suggest subsequent prosperity. The second sentence has built from the descriptive literal opening and concludes in metaphor.

not only broke to pieces the chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an ocean of uncertainty. 

Again, Adams' balanced clauses make the situation clear: the men broke A and B, cut C, and then launched into D. Notice also the tenses, the chains "were forging" and the iron "was [already] lifted up," suggesting that the men were only responding to actions that were already in progress against them. Note the use of "frankly" instead of the expected "also," an example of Adams using a stronger word wherever possible. Adams concludes with the classic and classical metaphor of risk and of statesmanship.

The zeal and ardor of the people during the Revolutionary war, supplying the place of government, commanded a degree of order sufficient at least for the temporary preservation of society. The Confederation which was early felt to be necessary was prepared from the models of the Batavian and Helvetic confederacies, the only examples which remain with any detail and precision in history, and certainly the only ones which the people at large had ever considered. But reflecting on the striking difference in so many particulars between this country and those where a courier may go from the seat of government to the frontier in a single day, it was then certainly foreseen by some who assisted in Congress at the formation of it that it could not be durable.

Adams moves on to a more direct paragraph in which he simply, as a historian, recalls the first confederation which in three ways he characterizes as temporary, first insofar as it provided but the bare minimum of order that the people demanded, second insofar as it was written based on certain models simply because those models were the only complete ones, and lastly insofar as those countries for whom those models were written were quite different from America. For those reasons, it was inevitably temporary. Adams is careful, though, not to offend the authors of those articles either, stating, "it was then certainly foreseen by some who assisted in Congress at the formation of it. . .," i.e. that they must have known it was temporary.

Negligence of its regulations, inattention to its recommendations, if not disobedience to its authority, not only in individuals but in States, soon appeared with their melancholy consequences-- universal languor, jealousies and rivalries of States, decline of navigation and commerce, discouragement of necessary manufactures, universal fall in the value of lands and their produce, contempt of public and private faith, loss of consideration and credit with foreign nations, and at length in discontents, animosities, combinations, partial conventions, and insurrection, threatening some great national calamity.

In this dangerous crisis the people of America were not abandoned by their usual good sense, presence of mind, resolution, or integrity. Measures were pursued to concert a plan to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. The public disquisitions, discussions, and deliberations issued in the present happy Constitution of Government.

Adams continues with a list of the problems that occurred and while he is specific in describing the natures of the problems he refrains from listing any specifics. We will see that Adams tends to do this throughout the speech and at the end of our discussion will consider why and what he gains and loses in terms of impression and persuasion.

He  is careful to lay the problems at the feet of the imperfect confederation, not the people themselves, let alone anyone in particular. In contrast, he praises the people for their "usual good sense" for deciding to form another constitution. Adams quotes the preamble to the constitution verbatim and thus the thought of his speech flows seamlessly from the imperfect articles of confederation, through the strife which succeeded it, to the "more perfect union" of the day, ending with, "the present happy Constitution of Government." To set the stage, then, Adams traces the history of the nation from the revolution to the day of this speech in 1797. The thread most visible again and again that Americans of integrity and sound mind were who permitted success.

Employed in the service of my country abroad during the whole course of these transactions, I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great satisfaction, as the result of good heads prompted by good hearts, as an experiment better adapted to the genius, character, situation, and relations of this nation and country than any which had ever been proposed or suggested. In its general principles and great outlines it was conformable to such a system of government as I had ever most esteemed, and in some States, my own native State in particular, had contributed to establish. Claiming a right of suffrage, in common with my fellow-citizens, in the adoption or rejection of a constitution which was to rule me and my posterity, as well as them and theirs, I did not hesitate to express my approbation of it on all occasions, in public and in private. It was not then, nor has been since, any objection to it in my mind that the Executive and Senate were not more permanent. Nor have I ever entertained a thought of promoting any alteration in it but such as the people themselves, in the course of their experience, should see and feel to be necessary or expedient, and by their representatives in Congress and the State legislatures, according to the Constitution itself, adopt and ordain.

Adams finally makes his own entrance in the narrative, deferring his entry further even into the middle of the sentence. He describes himself not merely as "working" or "living abroad" but as "employed" abroad, suggesting service. Adams uses in the next sentence another tripartite construction of parallel phrases with the verbs at the beginning of each, then breaking the parallelism by beginning the next sentence with "I": Irritated [by nothing], animated [by nothing], heated [by nothing], I read. . . Adams most cleverly does not stop this sentence but rolls right into his evaluation. Had he stopped he would have had introduce his evaluation separately and draw attention to the fact that he was judging everyone, a feature he acutely would seem monarchical. Instead he introduces his thoughts (which are an evaluation nonetheless) with a simile, "I read it as the result of good heads. . ." which bypasses his act of judging but not his judgment. Having softened its entry, Adams then offers more of his judgments, though still deferring himself to the middle of the sentence. 1) It was as comfortable as he had ever seen in the general and specific, 2) it was even as good as the state constitutions (an indirect, multi-pronged compliment), 3) he approved of it as a free man, and 4) he approved of it as a father. He approved of it in private and public. In contrast, he refrained from three things: hesitation to approve, object, or entertain the thought of changes. Only according to the will of the people themselves and the rules of the constitution itself could it be changed. Adams here echoes the Declaration of Independence's "in the Course of human events" with his "in the course of their experience." He is also careful of just who is doing what; it is ever the people who both "adopt" and "ordain" by means of their representatives.

At this point we ought to make a note about style. The prose of the second president, a classically trained man and a lawyer, reveals his training and occupation. We see large-scale structures (Adams not only read Cicero and Demosthenes but often spoke of them) andspecific ideas (the lawyer must always make specific claims.) As a result we have organization with dense content.

Returning to the bosom of my country after a painful separation from it for ten years, I had the honor to be elected to a station under the new order of things, and I have repeatedly laid myself under the most serious obligations to support the Constitution. The operation of it has equaled the most sanguine expectations of its friends, and from an habitual attention to it, satisfaction in its administration, and delight in its effects upon the peace, order, prosperity, and happiness of the nation I have acquired an habitual attachment to it and veneration for it. What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?

Adams continues with another relatively lengthy sentence in three parts with the verb coming at the beginning of each clause and with careful attention to the aspect of the action: while he was returning, he had the honor to be elected, and has since been obligated to support. Adams once again starts describing something in the past, describes its transition, ends in the present time, and then in the subsequent sentence describes the situation of the moment. Adams in the next sentence makes a subtle argument: on the one hand the government is operating well based on the theories of those who liked it
and on the other he himself is persuaded by its goodness by the following reasons, from his 1) attention to it, 2) administration of it, and 3) the effects of it. For those reasons he "has acquired an attachment and veneration." That is, the government is sound in theory and sound in practice. "What more can you want?" Adams essentially concludes in a short sentence whose brevity (contrasting the previous sentences) drives home the argument. Nonetheless, Adams elaborates on this point more overtly in the following.

There may be little solidity in an ancient idea that congregations of men into cities and nations are the most pleasing objects in the sight of superior intelligences, but this is very certain, that to a benevolent human mind there can be no spectacle presented by any nation more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good. Can anything essential, anything more than mere ornament and decoration, be added to this by robes and diamonds? Can authority be more amiable and respectable when it descends from accidents or institutions established in remote antiquity than when it springs fresh from the hearts and judgments of an honest and enlightened people? For it is the people only that are represented. It is their power and majesty that is reflected, and only for their good, in every legitimate government, under whatever form it may appear. The existence of such a government as ours for any length of time is a full proof of a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue throughout the whole body of the people. And what object or consideration more pleasing than this can be presented to the human mind? If national pride is ever justifiable or excusable it is when it springs, not from power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national innocence, information, and benevolence. 

Theory may be unpersuasive, he says, but the conduct of this government is surely testament to its righteousness. Adams is again most deliberate in his use of tense and voice: like that which has so often been seen. What has been seen is not simply something Adams saw and, if you don't like him, which you'd be inclined to disagree with. Rather, Adams suggests, "it has been seen" by many people. Adams is very subtly suggesting if not consensus a general observation. And what has been seen? Adams continues to summarize the essence of the government: representatives elected by the people at regular intervals to legislate for the general good. Adams again apostrophizes, essentially saying, "What can you add to this?" Whatever you might think it lacks, he says, those things are details. Surely you wouldn't prefer a king, who has his authority by accident, or a government so old it does not fit you? In a very clever turn of argument Adams says, "For it is the people only that are represented." which essentially challenges the listener by saying, in effect, "This is your government. You control it, so what could be the problem with that? If you don't like something you can change it." Adams chooses not to entertain any specific complaints about the constitution and government. We will discuss later the benefits and losses of this tactic. He continues to praise the people that they must in fact be very wise for such a government to have endured at all. That itself should be cause for praise and that is a legitimate cause for national pride. A very interesting paragraph of persuasion and argumentation by means almost exclusively of questioning. Adams concludes with a now familiar argument: neither A nor B is the case, but rather C, D, and E.

In the midst of these pleasing ideas we should be unfaithful to ourselves if we should ever lose sight of the danger to our liberties if anything partial or extraneous should infect the purity of our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections. If an election is to be determined by a majority of a single vote, and [if] that can be procured by a party through artifice or corruption, [then] the Government may be the choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national good. If that solitary suffrage can be obtained by foreign nations by flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or venality, [then] the Government may not be the choice of the American people, but of foreign nations. It may be foreign nations who govern us, and not we, the people, who govern ourselves; and candid men will acknowledge that in such cases choice would have little advantage to boast of over lot or chance.

Adams now, at last, depicts the dangers of his time as he sees them. He has argued that as of that day they had a great government and will now say, in effect, that if we lose it, it is our fault. What are the dangers? Adams describes two with very straightforward if/then clauses. First, notice what he does not do: Adams does not summarize his arguments or introduce his arguments with single words, what we today might call "buzz words." He simply makes an argument for or against a course of action. He does not use the words "Federalist" or "Republican" or "faction." He does not invoke an idea with one simple word but insists you follow the argument. The if/then statements are annotated above and it is not necessary to summarize them. Adams' conclusion of that paragraph makes a subtle point, though: if we allow this to happen, if we allow foreign nations to govern us, then our deliberately chosen and crafted nation is no better for us than something else we might have by accident (an alternative he decried above.)

[Such is the amiable and interesting system of government (and such are some of the abuses to which it may be exposed) which the people of America have exhibited to the admiration and anxiety of the wise and virtuous of all nations for eight years] under the administration of a [A] citizen who, [B] [by a long course of great actions, [C] regulated by prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, [D] conducting a people inspired with the same virtues and animated with the same ardent patriotism and love of liberty to independence and peace, to [E] increasing wealth and unexampled prosperity,] has merited the gratitude of his fellow-citizens, commanded the highest praises of foreign nations, and secured immortal glory with posterity.

This is probably not the best section of the speech, being rather long and wordy and without any particular unifying device. Here Adams' penchant for pairs of ideas starts to weigh the speech and the lack of larger-scale structure hampers the flow of ideas which is thus: government-people-nations-Washington-people-nations-posterity. It works, but not quite smoothly or readily. It is, in fact, a large, simple sentence and as such it feels weighted. The paragraph is clearly all about Washington but it ends with posterity and the argument and line of thought from government to posterity is not as clear as one would like, though the sense of Washington being the preserver of government for posterity remains.

If you remove the asides and extraneous details, the awkwardness is apparent: a citizen. . . by a long course of actions. . . regulated by xyz, conducting a people. . . to increasing xyz. . . has merited, commanded, and secured. . .The distance between conducting and increasing makes one want to take them as parallel and independent when in fact increasing depends on conducting. The pairing is also awkward, "conducting to increasing." Lastly, do we take C to modify B or A? I think we ought to take B, C, and D as parallel and modifying A, though if so the conjunction "and" before D would have been most clarifying. Overall, the passage is comprehensible but slightly overburdened.

In practice, though, with all eyes on Washington, with pauses for applause, and perhaps with gestures from Adams to both Washington and the people, this list of praises could have been more effective than it seems in print.

In that retirement which is his voluntary choice may he long live to enjoy the delicious recollection of his services, the gratitude of mankind, (the happy fruits of them to himself and the world, which are daily increasing), and that splendid prospect of the future fortunes of this country which is opening from year to year. His name may be still a rampart, and the knowledge that he lives a bulwark, against all open or secret enemies of his country's peace. This example has been recommended to the imitation of his successors by both Houses of Congress and by the voice of the legislatures and the people throughout the nation.

Though he concluded with "posterity" he was talking about Washington, who he returns to. Again, though, the previous sentence-paragraph is so big that the transition back to Washington feels like a jump. Adams emphasizes the voluntary nature of Washington's retirement before giving us another one of his lists. The fact that "fruits of them" is parallel to "recollection" and "gratitude" but refers to them and depends on them for sense, and that the list continues on to "prospect" which is parallel to them also, is slightly jarring. The next sentence is a rather bold (and complementary) assertion: so great is Washington that his mere name is a rampart and the fact that he lives is a bulwark against the nation's enemies. The phrase "recommended to the imitation of his successors" sounds perhaps awkward or in too grand of a style to the ears of non-Classicists. Today one would probably write, "recommended as a model to. . ." This is less an issue of style than grammar. The idea is nonetheless clear: everyone wants the subsequent presidents to be like Washington.

On this subject it might become me better to be silent or to speak with diffidence; but as something may be expected, the occasion, I hope, will be admitted as an apology if I venture to say that if a preference, upon principle, of a free republican government, formed upon long and serious reflection, after a diligent and impartial inquiry after truth; if an attachment to the Constitution of the United States, and a conscientious determination to support it until it shall be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people, expressed in the mode prescribed in it; if a respectful attention to the constitutions of the individual States and a constant caution and delicacy toward the State governments; if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interest, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without preference or regard to a northern or southern, an eastern or western, position, their various political opinions on unessential points or their personal attachments; if a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations; if a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; if a love of equal laws, of justice, and humanity in the interior administration; if an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers for necessity, convenience, and defense; if a spirit of equity and humanity toward the aboriginal nations of America, and a disposition to meliorate their condition by inclining them to be more friendly to us, and our citizens to be more friendly to them; if an inflexible determination to maintain peace and inviolable faith with all nations, and that system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe which has been adopted by this Government and so solemnly sanctioned by both Houses of Congress and applauded by the legislatures of the States and the public opinion, until it shall be otherwise ordained by Congress; if a personal esteem for the French nation, formed in a residence of seven years chiefly among them, and a sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been so much for the honor and interest of both nations; if, while the conscious honor and integrity of the people of America and the internal sentiment of their own power and energies must be preserved, an earnest endeavor to investigate every just cause and remove every colorable pretense of complaint; if an intention to pursue by amicable negotiation a reparation for the injuries that have been committed on the commerce of our fellow-citizens by whatever nation, and if success can not be obtained, to lay the facts before the Legislature, that they may consider what further measures the honor and interest of the Government and its constituents demand; if a resolution to do justice as far as may depend upon me, at all times and to all nations, and maintain peace, friendship, and benevolence with all the world; if an unshaken confidence in the honor, spirit, and resources of the American people, on which I have so often hazarded my all and never been deceived; if elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country and of my own duties toward it, founded on a knowledge of the moral principles and intellectual improvements of the people deeply engraven on my mind in early life, and not obscured but exalted by experience and age; and, with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.

Now this is quite a bit of prose, flowing nicely as it does from the previous thought. To paraphrase the thoughts, "Speaking as to what the President ought to be like, well, I should probably not say anything. But the occasion calls for something so I'll say this. . ." Adams continues with a massive anaphora through the repetitions of if. This is where Adams outlines himself and his principles for the people. The whole list, though is structured as an argument, and a simple one at that: "If all of these things will help me do the job, which is to serve you, then I'll take it." This list is, again, specific in idea but not in execution.

With this great example before me, with the sense and spirit, the faith and honor, the duty and interest, of the same American people pledged to support the Constitution of the United States, I entertain no doubt of its continuance in all its energy, and my mind is prepared without hesitation to lay myself under the most solemn obligations to support it to the utmost of my power.

This is essentially an oath which sums up the speech (about the virtues of the government, the people, and his predecessor), announces his hope for the future, and commits himself to the task.

And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.

Adams concludes with a prayerful invocation for God's blessing, asking for order, justice, and continued protection.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall we may say this speech is characterized by a great density of ideas. No one could accuse Adams of being vague. (Such specificity, as we said, is a lawyerly tendency.) Adams is ever precise and not afraid to use a parenthetical reference to avoid a misreading of his statement. There is a preponderance of pairs and trios of ideas and Adams clearly enjoys such pairings.

Adams too took great pains to include all Americans in his praises and exclude no one from the events he depicted. He was careful not to name people or groups as responsible for the nation's problems. Certainly he was trying to bridge the growing divide he saw between the Republicans and Federalists, using Washington as the model and rallying point. He depicted the situation he came to as positive and put the burden of continued success on himself, the current congress, and the American people. He balances a commitment to the government and constitution itself and the more general principles of republicanism and democracy. He repeatedly emphasizes that the government and constitution is true to these principles. Adams is consistently humble, praising only the wisdom of the people, congress, and Washington.

The speech is dense with ideas and especially dense with verbs, emphasizing action and energy, and modest with use of figurative language, which Adams employs sparingly but effectively. Its argumentation is careful and rather subtle, relying most often on his ability to paint a situation. Adams' lengthy opening, depicting the republic up to the moment of his speech, is quite effective. It draws everyone into the narrative and, by not excluding anyone, makes everyone feel as if they were part of it. As such, it puts everyone on a level playing field and invites all people to take part in the government and not retreat into parties or private life. Though the opening is in a rather learned style and the construction is complex, as a whole the speech is quite approachable.

To consider again Aristotle's categories, we may say that the inaugural speech has two functions: for a president to outline his particular ideas and policy, and to celebrate America. Adams speech is a success as a ceremonial speech, praising the American people and government thoroughly and specifically. Aristotle also noted (Rhetoric I.ii) that three modes of persuasion exist: 1) of the personal character of the speaker, 2) putting the audience in a particular frame of mind, 3) proof or apparent proof of the words themselves. Which does this speech use?

Adams utilizes Mode 1 two times, first suggesting that since he was abroad he was impartial and able wisely to reflect on the constitution and then at the end of the speech that his ideals qualify him for the post. Adams begins with Mode 2, putting the audience in the frame of mind to approve of the government by painting its history and intertwining it with their own wisdom and the ideals of the revolution. The fundamental argument of the speech is that, "If the revolution was just, and you are wise, then the government is good," the argument which Adams makes most subtly in the paragraph of questions. Too, in his final paragraph, he outlines his goals (to maintain peace, to respect state's rights, et cetera.) Adams, then, avails himself of all three modes of persuasion. Adams recommends a course of action (faith participation in the current system) and praises the nation.

Adams does not, though, make any specific recommendations in terms of implementation. The concluding large paragraph is not so much a statement of implementation as of principles. What does "a spirit of equity and humanity toward the aboriginal nations of America" mean in terms of action? What about, "an inclination to improve agriculture?" What does, "an attachment to the Constitution," mean in practice? Too, throughout the rest of the speech Adams talks more of ideas than specific events. He speaks of the "zeal and ardor" of the people but not of specific battles, he mentions that people are represented but not how (i.e., whether sufficiently), and he recalls the "universal languor, and jealousies and rivalries of States" without reference to specific events. These glosses and omissions miss opportunity for potency and vividness, though no doubt Adams made the concessions from a concern not to appear partisan. Unfortunately, when you do not address the alternatives to your policy you inevitably lose some of your ability to praise yours by making the alternatives appear unworkable, immoral, et cetera.

Yet while we are not inclined to see controversial material in the speech we ought to recall that the government was still young and Adams inauguration was the first peaceful transition of power. It was not yet clear that the government would remain and many had doubts about its ability to. Thus Adams' course of action, avoiding potential controversy and emphasizing praise, is quite understandable and one could certainly argue appropriate or even necessary. The narrative is clear: set up, complemented, and most importantly, maintained by the structure. The structure of sentences and the attention to tense and voice are polished and effective. The speech is well-paced and the transitions from idea to idea are elegant. Adams is very effective at suggesting causality, e.g. "because these things are so, such must necessarily follow," and "if we avoid these things, then we will also avoid these." He makes the situation at the time of his speech seem the natural and positive outcome of past events. The whole speech is augmented by varied and vivid diction and careful attention to word order, though Adams' penchant for pairs and trios of words adds some length. There is always a mode of persuasion in use, that is, the speech is always rhetorical. Perhaps most of all, it is always engaging. Overall, a fine speech.

Friday, July 22, 2011

So You Want to Write a Fugue?

Gould wrote this fugue as the finale to, "The Anatomy of the Fugue," a television program he also wrote and directed. Airing in the early 1960s, it discussed the concept and construction of fugal music. The four-voice fugue is terrific fun, quoting and demonstrating as it does some bad contrapuntal practices.

Years later in a 1974 interview with Bruno Monsaingeon, Gould would reflect on writing the piece and some of its many music-theory jokes.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Anonymous Artist

The common, perhaps predominant, concept of the artist is someone who expresses himself in his art, both as virtuoso and an individual with unique ideas. The art, in turn, is a reflection of him. He is the star of his art, which reflects his ideas about the world, his character, his style, his theories, and so forth. Art is particular instead of universal.

In contrast to this conception, seen in a long-running trend but typified and exalted in Nietzsche, consider the thoughts of some of the twentieth century's great artists on the idea of the anonymous artist.

Glenn Gould, in conversation in
Glenn Gould: The Alchemist (dir. Bruno Monsaingeon, 1974)
A funny thing happened on the way to the 16th century, to put a bad pun on a musical from a few years back. Composers went in search of identity. And identity somehow became, by what we think of as the high renaissance, equated with system: my system versus your system. On the way to the 16th century there were some characters who preserved something of the pre identity-quest sense.
The thing about [Orlando] Gibbons is that he is not a completely individual composer, he sort of straddles the era of delicious anonymity that the pre-Renaissance knew about and explored and the era of really, almost total, exploitative individuality of the Early Baroque, which was about to come.

He's quite different from his contemporaries. Contemporaries like. . . William Byrd, for instance who. . . played Richard Strauss to his Mahler. . . was much more virtuosic, much more obviously composer-like, as opposed to a more spiritual entity. . . Byrd is marvelous, but every canon is there to be admired.

Ingmar Bergman
Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman (1960)
There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

. . .it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; 'eternal values,' 'immortality' and 'masterpiece' were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

T. S. Eliot
Tradition and Individual Talent, 1919
Poetry is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. . . significant emotion has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives not merely in the present, but in the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Reflections on Political Moderation

In light of our recent discussion of political moderation in our look at Harry Clor's book On Moderation, it seemed prudent to try to apply, or at least consider, its role in current political discourse. Sven Wilson's article at Pileus and the recent discussions about pragmatism at Ricochet have prompted me so do go at both. For the most part here I just want to bandy the ideas around and see what turns up, so pardon my discursive rambling and lack of final answers.

First off we should consider definitions. We remarked that one aspect of political moderation is simply settling for less (with the factor of expediency being the tradeoff.) For example, you could consider the authors of the constitution of settling for less by signing a document that didn't address slavery and lacked a bill of rights. Passing it despite such flaws was a compromise, and with liberty of all things. They didn't know whether what they did would trend toward liberty or tyranny, but I think most people would suggest the outcome was reasonably positive for liberty. Yet not all compromise is inherently moderate. I'm sure much of the left considers recent healthcare initiatives as precursors to more comprehensive plans.

Such proposals, and many other contemporary ones, present a particular challenge because they present conflicts not just of administration or policy but of philosophy of government. You can debate and compromise about administration or policy rather easily if everyone agrees about certain fundamentals. The notion of government, and society in general, implies some type of accord. Federalism itself implies that everyone agrees on some things, most people agree on a larger set of things, and so on down to the local level. One of the political benefits of federalism and liberalism is that they allow people to get along without agreeing on everything. (It is the contention of many liberals, i.e. classical liberals and libertarians, that society trends toward centralization and consensus, creating a need to fight regularly and vigorously for individual rights. Even Aristotle, no libertarian, observed that the state was a naturally occurring construction.) Let us, though, consider political moderation specifically relative to liberty since I think it is the principle people would least like to compromise with.

Let us consider the non-political, though, for a moment. Internally we compromise even with liberty. For while in the political sense we may free to do what we wish so long as we harm no one, we must curb certain desires in order to preserve the ability to do certain things even though we would wish to do everything we wanted all the time if possible. Perhaps there is a philosophical question we must address in the difference between a hierarchical organization of values and one that is based on imperatives. Compromise is certainly more amenable to the former.

Most people compromise somehow, but perhaps the more interesting question is whether the compromise leads to an unraveling of the value. Is the current illiberality (as perceived by libertarians) of the U.S. simply the result of previous compromises with liberty? It would seem so, at least to a large extent. How else could it have come about? Unfortunately, though, taking a "hard line" might not actually bring about the idea, as much as it preserves the integrity of the person holding the idea.

Does one compromise in the case of emergencies? (Rand's "The Ethics of Emergencies" comes to mind.) What if the alternative is globally catastrophic? I recall not too long ago there was a discussion by mainstream libertarians (it might have been at The Volokh Conspiracy) where the question was if you would violate property rights to save the world somehow. Is this "extreme?" If not, what is? On the other hand the left frequently labels Ron Paul as an extremist. Perhaps in order to be moderate one has to be aware of the most absolute extremes and then see where a given proposal lies. Such was Clor's contention and it seems a prudent, even necessary, measure in order to recognize the moderate position. 

Is there a hierarchy of values, though? Are some more important or at lest more generally agreed upon than others? A prohibition of murder is quite common amongst societies. It is safe to say if one person believes you can kill and steal, that he can't live with anyone else. But how many values are there which require accord? Very few, libertarians would say. On the other hand there are people who believe it is acceptable to pass extensive laws protecting (or that they think will protect) the environment. Can these two groups live together?

Ought either side compromise? The answer seems to be rather obvious, that people agree on some things and not others. Federalism would seem a force of help here for any number of parties. Perhaps living together is only possible within some federalist-libertarian framework in which initiating force is not permitted and people tend to live and move to jurisdictions with laws they favor. For example, one might have strong or even extreme ideas but not don't claim the right to exercise them over anyone else. Is this plausible, utopianism, or simply libertarianism? Do permanent institutions like states mandate bonds among people, bonds which force accord and thus compromise? If this is so, then one's opinion of the legitimacy and/or necessity of the state might dictate whether compromise is a necessity. If the state is necessary, then you have to compromise with it lest you prevent it from completing its necessary function.

Now if there is a hierarchy of values then to be "completely" free, intelligent, et cetera, one might have to sacrifice much else and be completely lacking in other things to accomplish such consistency in one part of your life. Is this desirable? Even if the situation is moderated, who wants to be "half-free" or "half-loved?" Perhaps the missing element is the role of choice and hence (in part) why liberty has found so many adherents. Everybody does, as we said, make compromises, but everyone wants to make them themselves. Still this approach does not seem to help in a situation of hierarchical values.

In that situation perhaps one may only compromise with a value if one thinks the compromise will benefit that same value somehow later. Perhaps it is only acceptable to jeopardize it temporarily if you hope by that means eventually to strengthen it. As we said, in the manner of Aristotle, these situations are too many to foresee. We observe though that imperatives are not so amenable to compromise. Is to have one, then, even "to be moderate" itself immoderate?

Perhaps this is a case of over-thinking an issue. Many people, even people who believe strongly in a cause, recognize limits to it in some circumstances.

One thing seems clear, though. As Mr. Wilson said, compromise is not a virtue in itself, only doing something good is (regardless of whether or not compromise is involved.) Moderation is a good not insofar as it splits the difference but as it achieves some particular good.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Glenn Gould on the Goldberg Variations

Pianist Glenn Gould in conversation on his 1981 recording of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Part I | Part II | Part III