Musical Critique

Jimmy Mac sent me this link to a brief opinion piece at The Tablet. For me, the text and commentariat both illustrate perfectly how the hermeneutic of subtraction has infiltrated both the realms of religion and music. Many remarks give me pause, and illustrate less a love for music and more a love for particularity. It’s not very catholic:

And yet in no other cultural ambit is there music of equal grandeur to that born in the ambit of the Christian faith: from Palestrina to Bach, to Handel, up to Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner. Western music is something unique, which has no equal in other cultures. (Pope Benedict)

(H)e is upholding the mantle of a nineteenth-century grounded Hegelian aesthetic in which geniuses (white, male geniuses, of course) are the sole recipients of divinely granted talents. (John Bellarmine Vallier)

I love Pope Benedict. He has great taste in music. He knows what transports the soul and it isn’t “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” (anniefitz)

It is a mark of today’s culture to exalt one’s own preferences by diminishing the preferences of others. It happens rather gently and back-handedly by suggesting one’s tastes have no equal. It happens by the political over-analysis of what gets created in the mind of an artist. It happens in the cult of celebrity.

Music critique is a difficult road. Most good musicians I know rarely criticize music not their own. There is a sense of admiration of art that someone else makes. I think some musicians appreciate the artistic creativity as well as effort they know that goes into the performance of fine music. And believe me: it’s more about a perfect performance coming from a perfect composer. One of the reasons why I’ve enjoyed the university symphony and haven’t missed (much) big city orchestras so much these past seven years is that I know the people performing, and I know what making music means to a young student, a professor, and a university community that relishes the atmosphere of learning and creativity.

I suppose I’m a critic across the board on everything in this piece.

I realize that central European composers have given the world amazing music. It’s not the only amazing music. But it’s what some people grew up with. In Pope Benedict’s case, it’s what he played.

I also realize that some artists, probably all of them, were not perfect saints. If one considers Richard Wagner tainted because of his own opinions or those of his champions, consider that the composer is now dead. In Beethoven’s case, I’d say his ninth symphony works not because of how it might be interpreted negatively, but because of the touch of the divine in the creation of it. Will we examine Ugandan music with a critical eye if one of its creators favor female genital mutilation?

Being a fangirl or fanboy is fine. There’s also a value in learning to play or sing music and appreciating from the inside out. And for those thinking, “Oh, I’m not a musician!” Please: don’t give me that. Even if a music fan does it for only one season, join a community chorus. Take music lessons. Play the music of the people one claims to love. Even imperfectly. In my piano lessons ways back in the 80’s, I was assigned people I didn’t really enjoy playing–at first. But one develops a stronger sense of the music–Bartok, Bach, Mendelssohn, by an appreciation from within. Being a spectator isn’t enough. Listening to music as a mental sedative isn’t the (only) way to go.

Now, speaking for my own taste in music, I appreciate things more Catholic, like this fine concert that encompasses a sea with many cultures rather than one small part of one continent.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Hermeneutic of Subtraction, Music, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Musical Critique

  1. Liam says:

    I think the column writer and many commenters about Benedict XVI’s comments are forgetting or neglecting the precision of Benedict XVI.

    Benedict’s statement –

    “There is great literature, great architecture, great art and great sculpture in the diverse cultures and religious fields. And there is music everywhere. But you will not find music of the magnitude of that which the Christian world brought forth – the music of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner – in any other cultural region, . . This music is unique. There is nothing like it and that must be food for thought … it must not disappear from the liturgy as its presence means partaking in the mystery of faith in a very special way.”

    – is specifically in the context of discussing music for Catholic worship (Beethoven is on that list rather exceptionally), even if the statement itself at face value appears universalist. Another way of putting it: the Western musical traditions grew up with the Western (Catholic and its progeny) liturgical traditions, and there’s a mutuality to that which will never quite be the same as with any other musical tradition imported into the Western liturgies. It’s an argument about historical organic development, fwiw, and Benedict is careful to acknowledge that those other musical traditions are not lacking in genius or greatness. (The same kind of argument would be made by an ethnomusicologist comparing and contrasting indigenous music forms before and after conquest by an alien culture – the difference between the organic development before conquest and then the different process of fusion after conquest, never quite organic in the same way as pre-conquest.)

    Again – Benedict XVI’s problem has more often been with his erstwhile fanboys/girls and those who are irritated by those fanboys/girls, as it were.

    • Todd says:

      Largely spot on. I am sure the critiques of Western music are more substantive than presented there. They don’t necessarily interest me, to be truthful.

      I suppose one might ask about the close interface of religion and culture in the West. We make assumptions that in the eras of Bach, Mahler, etc., it was good. But that somehow, any contemporary effort is flawed in some way. Once, Mozart (for example) was not so well-revered.

      And Benedict, even within Europe, is rather narrow in his admiration, as cited above. Russians, Italians, French, and English all produced fine “classical” music, and yet many critics fawn on central Europe. Europe is rather more broad than Germanic culture.

      • Liam says:

        I think the context is that Western sacred music tradition first grew over a period of centuries in an environment of relative freedom – in monasteries and cathedrals and endowed basilicas/palatine chapels. Then it went through a smaller period of centuries of patronage – a dependency what was both empowering and constricting. (Recall that that inflection-point-on-the-curve piece of “modern” Western sacred music – Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the BVM – was essentially a audition piece to get a plum job in Rome that he lost, but got him an even better job in Venice that allowed him much greater musical freedom than he would have had in Rome, a turn of events that ended up revolutionizing Western music.) Then it’s transitioned to an industrialized model, with the relatively recently explosion of copyright protections that change how such music develops.

  2. charlesincenca says:

    I’m not really sure what benefit can be had from such ruminations, Todd. Bach, Handel, Telemann relatively contemporaneous within the genre and era, but to incorporate them as exemplars of art wedded to ritual, um, no- I don’t think that works. Bach’s history illustrates your point about locale and reputation more than WAM. And I’m sure that B16’s affection, clearly Eurocentric (“not that there’s anything wrong about that” re. Seinfeld), extends to outliers such as Bartok, Smetana, Dvorak, Holst, and a whole bunch of Russian guys. Who knows, he might even secretly swoon to the Frenchies, and I don’t mean Bizet. Wouldn’t it be a hoot to know if he appreciates Satie as much as, say, Faure or Durufle?

  3. charlesincenca says:

    Again, Liam, bingo. I was also going to go Venice with Claude GreenMtn v. the Gabrieli boys, but figured I’d stay wis za Jermans. “L’Orfeo,” game changer.

    • Liam says:

      Oh, I loves me some Green Mountain Project. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing their performance of the 1610 Vespers in person. Second best musical performance I’ve ever witnessed*. (The singers and some instrumentalists move around, if you’ve not ever seen them do this in person. It’s very dynamic – if the space offers acoustical choices to accommodate it.)

      * What, you may ask, was the first? Oh, honey, that was Les Artes Florissants in the early Naughties singing the Charpentier Messe de Minuit de Noel and related Jesuit-influenced music of the late 17th century – a repertoire, btw, that I normally don’t care much for. Harmonies so perfectly pitched that you could feel vibrations in the floor of the organ loft (on which I was laying) as they sang in the sanctuary….it was cosmic. And, no, I was not stoned. (I don’t get stoned.)

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