Friday, March 6, 2015

Theft #8 - Stealin' Back Classical Music

Greetings, fellow thieves: 

The following rambling essay may read at first like a rather limited perspective on classical music, but I only want to discuss two composers that fit roughly into the very broad category of classical music. Those two composers are Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner. Arguably both composers are better described--by most music scholars--as part of the late 19th century Romantic movement in music, but this presupposes an understanding of what the terms "classical" and "romantic" actually mean in 19th orchestral music.

So, here's a brief lesson in the philosophy of musical history as it relates to the turmoil generated in the 19th century by the emergence of what became known as the Romantic movement. First of all, the term "classical" as applied to a musical movement was marked by a focus on musical form and intellectual content in composition. In a sense Bach and Handel were "pre-classical" in their adherence to form, but the real classical "crown" certainly belongs to Franz Joseph Haydn, who brought the form and substance of the symphony into it's rightful place in musical history. You can listen to all 104 Haydn symphonies and hear the form of the music, and the mind of the composer, in every single piece. He epitomizes "classical" as a tribute to proper form and the dominance of intellect over emotion.

"Romantic" on the other hand, came as an almost anti-intellectual movement which emphasized emotion over mind, and sometimes emotion over form. This doesn't say that great classical emotion didn't evoke strong feelings in the listener, but that Romantic composers spent more time trying to put their own emotion--rather than their thought--into their compositions. 

So, by these two admittedly simplistic descriptions--if they are correct--we can see that the the terms "classical" and "romantic" represent two opposed philosophical approaches to not merely music and the arts, but to life itself. That is, ask yourself if you approach life led by your mind or by your emotions. That is the question which the 19th century composers were trying to answer in the creation of their art. From a Biblical standpoint, it is the question to which we all must seek an answer.

At any rate, the great Classical/Romantic dichotomy (and debate) came a head first in the works of Ludwig Van Beethoven. Was he the last Classical composer or the first Romantic composer, or--perhaps--a bit of both? Ask two scholars, two conductors, two "fans," and you will get widely different answers to that question. Personally, since this is my blog, I prefer the conductor's interpretations that approach Beethoven's works as Classical, but that shows my bias towards mind leading emotion, which I think is a more Biblical order than the reverse. Nonetheless, which "take" on Beethoven one prefers, his music stands at the crossroads between Classical and Romantic, and his music starts the argument.

(NOTE: I respectfully pass by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at this point, only because he is a bit of an anomaly in his time; that is, he was a "pre-Romantic" composer living and writing at the peak of the Classical era. I personally believe Beethoven could have come to greatness directly from Haydn without the existence of Mozart, but that is an argument for another time.)

So, getting back to Bruckner and Wagner, we have Richard Wagner emerging from the Romantic view of Beethoven, and producing the first full-blown unashamedly Romantic music of the 19th century. Not-surprisingly, it was also the fist totally and unabashedly pagan music of its time. (By "pagan" here I mean European music not tied to the ideas and beliefs of 19th century Christianity.) It was not only rooted in the "emotion leading mind" approach, but also rooted in pre-Christian Teutonic mythology which were expressed explicitly in Wagner's monumental operas, which combined music, art, theater, and philosophy--and most of all: emotion--in one huge "sub-genre" which defied categorization. In the 21st century we would call it "Performance Art," I think. It was unarguably a great achievement from an artistic point of view, and also unarguably, an utterly ungodly abomination from a Biblical point of view. It was the wave of the future, and the pre-cursor to the movement of "Modern" music away from any Christian roots.

By God's grace, however, in the same century we had Anton Bruckner. Bruckner adored and admired Wagner and his music, and there is no doubt that Bruckner's "sound-scape" is--at first listen--much like Wagner's. Even if I reject Wagner for his neo-paganism, I must accept him for the fact that Bruckner probably would not have existed without him. This however, is finally where the aspect of redemption, of "stealin' it back" comes in: Bruckner was a very devout German Catholic, and every composition he wrote he intended for God's glory. In one sense, he was the most thoroughly Christian composer since Bach. 

However, here's where I kick in the real controversy: whereas Wagner's music was both pagan and Romantic, Bruckner's was both Christian and Classical! What? A man using the same musical scope and size as the ultra-Romantic Wagner was not even Romantic? That's it; that's the other side of Bruckner's redemption of Wagner: Bruckner followed the "mind leading emotion" approach. Ironically, Wagner is viewed historically as the "intellectual" and Bruckner as the "country simpleton," but Bruckner's brilliant composition techniques make that comparison a historical and academic fraud. Indeed, Bruckner freely used counterpoint (which Bach brought to it's highest point) and also stuck to classical form in a monumental way. There's something else: Wagner wrote operas; Bruckner wrote symphonies. Indeed, the only vocal music Bruckner composed was for the church (3 Masses, a great Te Deum, and several smaller sacred pieces.) Bruckner's choice to stick to the symphony was--I think--totally linked with his devotion to God, and to classical form.

For those who will argue that Bruckner's music is emotional, I simply say this: look to Bach, for the musical emotion of both Bach and Bruckner is generated in the listener by the impact of the Spirit of God on those composers, rather than by their own fickle emotions. We hear the "voice" of the true God even in the instrumental works of these two great and faithful men, and in Bruckner, we hear not simply Wagner redeemed, but the essence of the Classical philosophy redeemed in musical form. Wagner stole the Classical principle from Beethoven and buried it in the neo-pagan Romantic; Bruckner stole it back and used it for the glory of God.

OK, that was long, but so are the musical pieces of these two guys.

Later in Christ,
The Thief

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