Late Afternoon Thoughts on Listening to Mozart’s Requiem

I’ve been attending the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York for about twenty years now, and spent Friday night at its penultimate performance of the season–Bach’s “St. John’s Passion,” Frank Martin’s “Polyptyqe,” and Mozart’s Requiem. Here’s a nice write up. A few random thoughts:

1. The festival is financially supported by a long list of corporate and private donors, and by The New York State Council on the Arts. A real, rather than rhetorical question: is state funding really financially necessary to put on the Mostly Mozart Festival? Or is it there so that, for political reasons, the imprimatur and funding of the state is implicated in the festival, in order to create an inextricable link between state funding and otherwise private artistic performance?

2. The Bach and the Mozart were, of course, traditionally tonal; the Martin piece, composed in 1973, was dodecaphonic, or twelve-tonal–interesting, but certainly harder to listen to. The Martin piece was played by the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, who performed it barefoot, in a rather odd-looking (but not at all unpleasant) dress, reminding me, in her performance style, of a cross between AC/DC’s Angus Young and Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Elizabeth in the 1994 film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  (I mean that as a compliment on both counts).

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The enjoyable result was a bit like listening to contemporary classical religious music performed by a crazed shred metal guitarist–a first for me.

I suppose it’s one of my idiosyncratic obsessions, but I couldn’t help reflecting, even in my enjoyment of the concert, on the inadequacies and missed opportunities of Ayn Rand’s writings on aesthetics. Nothing in Rand’s Romantic Manifesto prepares one for an experience of the kind I had at the concert, and a great deal in the book militates against it.  What is one to make of a book on aesthetics that offers a theory of music but makes no reference either to Bach or Mozart? And however unconventional one might find Frank Martin’s music, it (and music like it) surely deserved more engagement than Rand’s dismissive, moralistic rhetoric in that book would suggest. I realize that there’s recently been some interesting revisionary work on Rand’s aesthetics, and I’m the first person to say that her Romantic Manifesto contains some brilliant ideas (along with the fatuous ones). But on the whole, I’m inclined to think that Rand’s aesthetic writings are a dreary, joyless, and depressing affair, which detract at least as much from aesthetic experience as they contribute to it–something I often find myself thinking in the midst of novel-but-enjoyable aesthetic experiences like the one I just had. I wonder whether others influenced by Rand’s writings have had similar reactions.

3. A parting thought: as I watched the chorus and soloists make their way through Mozart’s Requiem, I couldn’t shake the thought that they all looked like children: they looked the way children do when performing on stage for the first time, beaming rapturously and ingenuously at the audience, engrossed in the performance, but thoroughly enjoying the attention being lavished on them–with the difference that these children had the musical skills of phenomenally talented adult professionals. I also can’t help thinking that a scene like that is part of what makes life worth living–and, I guess, part of what will supply the inspiration I’ll need to teach the six course load I have this semester. Classes start Wednesday.

4 thoughts on “Late Afternoon Thoughts on Listening to Mozart’s Requiem

  1. Regarding Rand’s aesthetics, in all fairness to her, the subtitle of The Romantic Manifesto is “A Philosophy of Literature.” Music is a rather small part of the book, and she not only does not mention Bach or Mozart, she does not mention any of her personal favorites. I believe the only piece she mentions is one by Liszt and that was in passing.

    As a philosophy of literature, however, The Romantic Manifesto offers many literary examples, from Shakespeare to Hugo to Sinclair Lewis to John O’Hara to Mickey Spillane. This is clearly what interested her, not so much music.

    I don’t find the book dreary or fatuous. Over the years, as I’ve grown to be less of a fanboy, my reaction is that I have to find and analyze good art myself (actually, largely in conjunction with my wife, who is a novelist). As usual Rand leaves a good deal of “de-condensing” to the reader. One Objectivist I know became a Christian because he wasn’t up to the task, but I find it a refreshing, if challenging and sometimes frustrating journey. See my essay: http://www.kurtkeefner.com/2012/09/descending-mount-olympus/

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    • I think we’re only disagreeing at the margins here. Yes, the subtitle of Romantic Manifesto is “a philosophy of literature,” but the book is supposed to be a manifesto for a general aesthetic movement based on romanticism, so the subtitle is actually rather puzzling. Why a “philosophy of literature” if the book defends romanticism across the board? And why discuss music at all in a book devoted to literature? I think it’s a deficiency in the book’s account of music that it doesn’t discuss examples. As you say, the Liszt comes up only in passing, but what she says about music is badly in need of concretization.

      There are more examples in the parts of the book that discuss literature, but even these are oddly idiosyncratic and elliptical. She writes as though Greek tragedy and nineteenth century British literature don’t exist, and Hugo aside, what she says about most literary works is brief and cryptic. There is truth to what she says about Shakespeare, but none of what she says captures Shakespeare’s greatness or grandeur. She is so dismissive of contemporary literature that if you took her at face value, you’d have to give up on it altogether. (To be fair, her Art of Fiction is a much better book.)

      I didn’t mean that the whole book was dreary or fatuous, but parts of it certainly are. My favorite passage to make fun of is the one about “empty eye sockets” and “stinking basements” in the Introduction. But I would also insist that there are some brilliant insights in the book, so perhaps I shouldn’t dwell so much on the negatives. I find RM challenging too, but I seem to be going through a frustrating phase, where what’s wrong with it stands out.

      I liked your essay (“Descending Mt Olympus”). By a strange coincidence, it mirrors part of my own experience. I started reading fiction in the 1990s at the urging of my then-girlfriend (not an Objectivist) who read a lot of contemporary fiction (probably one novel every two weeks or so). Also by coincidence, one of the books I read and enjoyed was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I hadn’t heard of David Bradley before I read your essay, but I’ve wanted to read Ward Just for awhile now. So thanks for both suggestions. I’ll make a few in the combox on your blog.

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  2. I think it’s a common mistake to treat Rand as a source of general knowledge or experience . No, she doesn’t write about Greek tragedy or 19th-century British lit. So what? RM is a tiny book and it’s not a history. I am reminded of my Objectivist friend who became a Christian partly because he said Objectivism was “barren.” But you’re not supposed to be schooled by Rand. I suspect she presupposes readers who already know about Oedipus and Jane Eyre and can form their own evaluations. Maybe she never read Jane Eyre. That would be shocking, but nobody reads everything. (I don’t.) Just because she doesn’t write about something doesn’t means she’s writing about it as if it didn’t exist. I sure hope people don’t read my book that way!

    It might help to remember how Rand wrote non-fiction: short essays on discrete subjects stitched together as a collections with little “knitting.” She only ever wrote one actual non-fiction book, ITOE. I suspect this was a personal thing with her. There was a lot of turmoil in her life in the non-fiction years, and I suspect that small canvases were all she could manage. She’s a bit reminiscent of Nietzsche in this way. Perhaps we should take it a little easier on the old girl and glean what gems we can from her.

    Anyway I didn’t get enough sleep, so forgive me if I’m rambling a bit. I was eager to respond.

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    • My problem with RM is not that it doesn’t cover everything in an encyclopedic way, but that it has huge aspirations that it doesn’t fulfill, and also that it’s extremely dismissive of art that it doesn’t engage with in any serious way.

      Huge aspirations: “Those who know that nothing is outside of the province of reason will find in this book the base of a rational esthetics” (vi). “It is Romanticism’s identity that I want to transmit to the future” (viii). One shouldn’t write like that if one can only manage “small canvases.”

      On a narrower point, she doesn’t write about Greek tragedy, but she still helps herself to claims about ancient Greek art: ancient Greek art tells us that “disasters are transient, that grandeur, beauty, strength, self-confidence are [man’s] proper, natural state” (p. 23 in the 1975 rev ed). Maybe Praxiteles does that, but how about Sophocles? She treats questions of the latter kind as somehow irrelevant to what she’s saying. But a properly critical reader would ask, and want to know the answer. Sophocles is not, after all, incidental to Greek art. Here is a case where the subtitle (“a philosophy of literature”) is totally misleading. What she’s really discussing in the ancient Greek case (without saying so) is visual art; literature doesn’t bear out what she’s saying at all. It’d be one thing if she wrote in the spirit of saying, “Well, I’ve left a lot unsaid here, and I’d have to qualify a lot of what I’m saying, so be careful.” But she doesn’t. There’s too much bombast in the book for that message to get through.

      And it doesn’t get more dismissive than this: “Our day has no art and no future” (viii). Really? She wrote that in 1969, the year I was born. Here is Wikipedia’s list of the novels that were published in 1969. Could any reasonable or informed writer dismiss all of those novels like that, or even summarize the year that way? The late 60s were the heyday of classic jazz, but Rand writes as though Miles Davis and John Coltrane were not worth mentioning. Her derision for “primitive and Oriental music” (p. 62) overlaps exactly with Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin’s classic “East Meets West” collaboration. But that was the future, and she missed it entirely.

      I agree that we should glean what gems we can from Rand, and that there are gems there to glean. But diamond mining starts out as dirty work–you have to hack at things pretty hard before you can extract and polish the gems. That’s the way it seems to me with RM.

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