MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Another Look at Bach

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715; or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715 — or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

J.S. Bach has been much on my mind of late. I need to make time to plunge into John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on the composer, especially after George B. Stauffer’s review in the recent New York Review of Books has whet my appetite.

In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner distills a lifetime of devotion and study to the music of the Thomaskantor (one of the epithets by which Germans refer to Bach). According to Stauffer, this weighty tome basically revolves around the great question of “just how Bach managed to express the inexpressible, especially with regard to death, and what life experiences stood behind his compositional decisions.”

Gardiner recently started serving as president of the Leipzig Bach Archive and has managed to create a controversial portrait by drawing on recent findings of the archive — a portrait dramatically at odds with the longstanding image of an obedient musical citizen:

Moving beyond the hagiographies of the past, he presents a fallible Bach, a musical genius who on the one hand is deeply committed to illuminating and expanding Luther’s teachings through his sacred vocal works… but on the other hand is a rebellious and resentful musician, harboring a lifelong grudge against authority — a personality disorder stemming from a youth spent among ruffians and abusive teachers. Hiding behind Bach, creator of the Matthew Passion and B-Minor Mass, Gardiner suggests, is Bach “the reformed teenage thug.”

What sounds especially fascinating is that, according to Stauffer, Gardiner roots his speculations in the music (though he apparently omits discussion of the instrumental and keyboard pieces), since he views the music as “the anchor to which we can return again and again, and the principal means of validating or refuting any conclusion about its author.”

The result is that Gardiner “forces us to rethink Bach’s life and how adversity and faith affected his vocal compositions. And [he] takes us inside his world, allowing us to see the works from the standpoint of composer, performer, and listener.”

Over at The Guardian, Peter Conrad points out that Gardiner takes Bach’s intense faith for granted in his exploration of the sacred music, yet “he still makes the effort to account for the emotional force and consolatory balm of Bach’s music in ways that are humanly engaging.”

He treats the cantatas as psychodramas, and thinks of the Passions as three-dimensional versions of opera which, rather than exhibiting the vocal and histrionic antics of sacred monsters in a fictional world onstage, address us directly when the soloists perform their hortatory arias and require us, in chorales that were sung by the entire congregation, to participate in Christ’s tragedy and in the divine comedy that is its sequel. Gardiner’s analogy for the way the Passions work comes from a literary form that could not be less spiritually exalted: he draws on theorists of the novel such as Bakhtin to explain the “dialogic threads” and complementary “subjectivities” that Bach draws together, and despite his own orthodoxy he makes frequent allusions to Philip Pullman, for whom art is our demonic repudiation of an oppressive God.

While the title Bach in the Castle of Heaven suggests something emphatically pious, Conrad adds, “Gardiner’s is a festive book, enlivened by the ‘joy and zest’ of Bach’s ‘dance-impregnated music.’ Those dances are sacral but also rowdily profane… Quoting the sociologist Émile Durkheim, he defines religion as a ‘collective effervescence,’ a shared ecstasy – more readily available, perhaps, in the mud at Glastonbury or clubbing under the arches in Vauxhall than at a church service in 18th-century Leipzig.”

Just like Shakespeare, Bach will always be the mirror of our own age as well.

Filed under: Bach, book recs

The Devil Made Me Do It


I came across this very interesting London Review of Books discussion of Brian Levack’s The Devil Within Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West by Terry Eagleton. According to the jacket copy by one of my erstwhile employers, Yale University Press, Levack’s examination of the epidemic of reported demonic possessions in Reformation Europe takes into account “the diverse interpretations of generations of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, physicians, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and historians.”

The “common sense” model today of course ascribes what was believed to be or presented as possession to the symptoms of mental or physical illness. But Levack’s contextual approach argues that “demoniacs and exorcists—consciously or not—are following their various religious cultures, and their performances can only be understood in those contexts.”

Eagleton, a prominent literary critic who delivered the Terry Lectures in 2008, homes in on this cultural contextualization as a problematic method:

“In [Levack’s] view, falling prey to the lures of the Devil is always culturally specific. One cannot, he claims, use contemporary psychological models to explain the mentality of people who lived several centuries ago. This is surely implausible. Psychological ailments, like physical ones, display a degree of continuity across the ages….All illnesses, Levack writes, ‘are socially constructed, and can be understood only if they are studied in the cultural context in which they took place’. Yet cancer is not a social construct in the sense that melancholy is, and a German physician could treat an arthritic Peruvian peasant without knowing much about his or her cultural context.

In capitulating to a fashionable culturalism, Levack is unclear about what part if any he considers mental illness to play in demoniac behaviour. On the one hand, he is deeply suspicious of universalist claims, regards the modern definition of hysteria as far too protean to be useful, and dismisses too briskly the notion of mass hysteria, which would seem a reasonable explanation for the various epidemics of diabolical invasion which erupt from time to time. On the other hand, he concedes that psychological disturbance may account for some aspects of the business in hand. His book thus combines a scepticism of medical explanations with the concession that hysteria and demonic possession may be closely related.

I’m also intrigued by Levack’s focus on the “performative” aspects both of those possessed and of the rituals devised to exorcize them. According to Eagleton, Levack believes that “demoniacs have to be understood as acting out a script encoded in their religious cultures, in a theatrical performance which involved themselves, the exorcist and the community as audience. Though the performance was predetermined, the occasional ad lib was permissible. People mugged up on their roles by reading accounts of other possessions, so the growth of printing played a vital role in the whole business.”

But Stuart Clark, author of Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, finds Levack’s thesis of possession as the expression not of illness but of the religious cultural context in which it is rooted to be plausible. Clark writes that this explanation “restores a powerful sense of agency to those affected and gives meaning to their bizarre behaviour.”

Eagleton, on the other hand, while he admires Levack’s “erudite, absorbing account,” comes to a very different conclusion about possession and agency:

The idea of being appropriated by alien powers challenges the modern concept of individual autonomy. In its own way, it recognises that there is a level at which men and women do not belong to themselves. Our relation to ourselves is not like our relation to a piece of property. As the concept of the unconscious would suggest, there are destructive forces over which we have only precarious mastery, and which can assume a deadly momentum of their own. It is just that there are more productive ways of recognising that at a certain level we do not belong to ourselves than spewing up frogs.

Filed under: book recs, health/illness

How Do They Do It?

Charles Dickens, by a Boston Daily Advertiser cartoonist (March 1868)

Charles Dickens, by a Boston Daily Advertiser cartoonist (March 1868)

So is genius really “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” as Thomas Edison declared (his variation on the “there are no accidents” meme, you might say)?

Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, looks at the varied routines some of the great artists and thinkers have devised to make the most of their moments with the Muses.

Reviewer Christopher Hart points out that the book offers fascinating examples of the many ways creative types “discover for themselves Flaubert’s famous advice that one should live like a bourgeois and put one’s bohemianism into one’s work.”

Thomas Mann evidently loved his kip, rising at 8am, enjoying a good hour’s nap in the afternoon and going to bed around midnight, in a separate bedroom from his wife. Richard Strauss appears to have slept a good ten hours a night. The results of all this bourgeois self-discipline and these early nights are plain: many of those who followed such a regimen were hugely prolific as well as great, from Bach to Balzac to Dickens. F Scott Fitzgerald, I was astonished to learn, sometimes wrote up to eight thousand words a day. This is approaching Barbara Cartland levels, but it didn’t seem to do his prose much harm.

But don’t forget the importance of exercise:

The best inspiration often came while walking. Beethoven always took a pencil and paper with him in the Vienna Woods, and Kierkegaard often came home and started scribbling again still in his hat and coat. Some always wrote standing up – Hemingway and, I think, Virginia Woolf (who is not covered here). Nabokov started standing up, then progressed to sitting and finally lying down. Few seem to have practised any more violent exercise than walking, apart from Byron with his boxing and riding and, rather surprisingly, Joan Miró. The dreamy surrealist was an ardent practitioner of boxing, running and ‘Mediterranean yoga’. He detested going to parties, telling an American journalist, ‘They get on my tits.’

Rosemarie Bodenheimer paints a detailed portrait of Charles Dickens as relentless walker:

Walking was essential, to bring his books into being, and to calm the effects of his intense engagement with his characters. Repeatedly his letters mention extended periods of walking as he worked toward a new project. The activity of walking allowed him to think his way into new fictional worlds, while allaying the increased restlessness that came upon him when he was still in a state of uncertainty.

And pretty soon it will be time again for those New Year’s resolutions…..

Filed under: book recs, creativity, writers

Shakespeare at Work

Just how “tailor-made” were Shakespeare’s plays for the particular actors in his company? In the TLS, Charles Nicholl reviews Shakespeare in Company by Bart Van Es. This new book “seeks to show that Shakespeare’s achievement as a writer was in crucial ways communal; that the contributions of his playhouse colleagues, indeed his whole immersion in the business and practice of the theatre, are woven into the fabric of his plays; and that in a broadly chronological framework one can see his literary skills evolving in response to certain changes in his working conditions.”

Van Es offers a corrective to the later Romantic image of the lone “lofty genius” — with interesting comparisons to be made along the way, incidentally, with the give-and-take of composers like Handel who wrote for particular performers and within a demanding commercial framework. According to Nicholl, Ven Es gives us a down-to-earth portrait of “a poet at work in the daily professional context of a busy and successful theatre company.”

Of special fascination is the influence of writing for the tragedian Richard Burbage and the comedian Robert Armin. The arrival of the latter to replace the previous “star comic” Will Kemp led to “a stylistic watershed in Shakespearean comedy.” Nicholl explains:

Kemp was an old-style “jigs and bawdry” man, whose typical Shakespearean parts were lovable bozos like Bottom and Dogberry; he may also have been the world’s first Falstaff. By contrast, the parts written for Armin during the first few years of the new century are the more complex, mercurial “fools”, whose wit is satirical and edgy yet tinged also with melancholy. The first role specially tailored for Armin was Touchstone in “As You Like It”….

Further Armin roles, in probable order of composition, are Feste in “Twelfth Night,” Thersites in “Troilus and Cressida,” Lavatch in “All’s Well” and the Fool in “Lear.” The last of these is a radical relocation of the truth-telling jester to the terrain of tragedy. Armin’s last identifiable Shakespearean role is Autolycus in “The Winter’s Tale.”

Filed under: book recs, Shakespeare

The Color Revolution

Color Revolution

Increasingly in this centenary year of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, we’re coming to see how much of modernism has involved an unpredictable marriage of the avant-garde and commercialism. Serge Diaghilev was a daring impresario but also a canny businessman. As for Schoenberg’s “air from another planet,” people who tend to write off atonality nowadays forget its far-reaching presence in film scores.

The management of color, too, turns out to have played a significant role in retuning tastes to the modern era. Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s The Color Revolution gives a fascinating account of color as a potent psychological and social tool manipulated by “color engineers.”

Blaszczyk’s lively history of the modern era’s preoccupation with color and her discussion of color’s influence on innovation in industry and design make me wonder how this shift affected perceptions of music as well — contemporary and canonical. Her focus is on American industry, which took important cues from the Paris scene. But Blaszczyk mentions other developments and influences from Europe, such as Alexander Scriabin’s experiments with color projections synchronized to his scores.

“Ever since Isaac Newton, people had been fascinated by the apparent analogy of the seven steps in the musical scale and the seven spectral colors in the rainbow,” writes Blaszczyk. This line of thinking even led to attempts at social engineering:

During the Enlightenment, a mathematician named Louis-Bertrand Castel dazzled Paris society with the first color-music instrument, an ocular harpsichord that diffused pigment light through windowpanes at the strike of a key. In 1893, a British inventor named Alexander Wallace Rimington had patented a Colour Organ that used gas jets and arc lamps to generate colored light as an accompaniment to musical instruments; the idea was to translate musical tones into visual hues. Rimington’s taste-making objectives presaged those of Albert Munsell: he hoped to sharpen the senses of the British working class and to teach them to prefer the palette of the Chartres rose windows over the crass aniline shades of Manchester calicos.”

In the mood for a little Klangfarbenmelodie?

Filed under: art history, book recs, style

“Missing Out”


I’ve been told I should read Adam Phillips – and I now see why. Just began his latest, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, which shows a real inside understanding of tragedy:

And yet there is something symmetrical about Lear and Cordelia; they both, at the beginning of the play, know exactly what they want. And I don’t think we solve this problem by saying…that what Cordelia wants is better than what Lear wants.

Filed under: book recs

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