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.

7 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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  3. Speaking of jazz, I put together an idiosyncratic list in my first article in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. I wanted to note Rand’s use (in a talk from 1966) of sensory deprivation studies from psychology (a positive, so far as I’m concerned) while pulling back from her despairing portrayal of The Culture as a value-deprived environment, artistically and otherwise:

    The analogy that Rand wished to draw between sensory deprivation (as it was imposed in these studies) and value deprivation required a virtually total absence of positive moral exemplars or inspiring art in the milieu. What drives the remainder of the essay is a determination to find irrationality, emptiness, and depravity throughout American culture. While the political machinations of Lyndon B. Johnson and the esthetic judgments of New York literary critics were genuine occasions for disgust, Rand overlooked many instances of positive creativity in her surroundings. In just one artistic region—the American music known as jazz—the decade leading up to the publication of Rand’s essay saw the appearance of such complex, challenging, and emotionally fulfilling works as: “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love” (Herbie Nichols, 1957); “Haitian Fight Song” (Charles Mingus, 1957), “Ancient Aeithopia” (Sun Ra, 1958); “Ramblin”‘ (Omette Coleman, 1959), “Better Get It in Your Soul” (Charles Mingus, 1959); “So What” (Miles Davis, 1959); “Giant Steps” (John Coltrane, 1959); “Stormy Weather” (Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy, 1960); “Jesús Maria” (Jimmy Giuflre, 1961); “Somewhere in Space” (Sun Ra, 1962); “Alabama” (John Coltrane, 1963); “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” (Charles Mingus, 1963); “Hat and Beard” (Eric Dolphy, 1964); “Malagueña” (Pete La Roca with Joe Henderson, 1965); “Toothsome Threesome” (Elmo Hope, 1966); “Dancing Shadows” (Sun Ra, 1966); and “Isfahan” (Duke Ellington, 1966). The value deprivation, then, was a good deal less than total. (JARS Volume 1, no. 1, page 114)

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    • Absolutely. Actually, you may be a little too kind to Rand: what New York literary critics did you have in mind? She doesn’t mention any in Romantic Manifesto, much less discuss their arguments. When I think of “New York literary critics” of the era, I think of people like Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler: not always right, but hardly on par with Lyndon Johnson! (Fiedler was not technically a New York critic, but was born and raised in New Jersey, and educated in New York).

      I’ve spent the last few months immersed in a house purchase and a move across the state, so I’ve had to neglect the blog for awhile. But by coincidence, I’ve been preparing for a philosophy seminar I do each summer with Fred Seddon and Glenn Fletcher, and this year’s topic is The Romantic Manifesto. So I’ve been re-reading the book, and will hopefully be posting some of my thoughts on it soon.

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  4. I happen to be re-reading The Romantic Manifesto, as I mentioned in my last comment, but I read it this time with your comment in mind. There are two passages in “Art and Cognition” that are relevant in an odd and paradoxical way.

    On p. 64, she decries the popular music scene ca. 1971:

    The products of America’s anti-rational, anti-cognitive “Progressive” education, the hippies, are reverting to the music and the drumbeat of the jungle.

    It’s not clear what she means (it rarely is in this context), but I assume she’s referring to the rock and roll of the Woodstock era, including bands that didn’t perform at Woodstock, e.g., the Beetles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. Though she professed to hate folk (and would have hated Joan Baez or Arlo Guthrie), I take it that the “drumbeat of the jungle” is a reference to the more blues-influenced music of the time. I don’t know what else it could be (assuming it has any meaning at all, which may be overly charitable to her).

    A few pages later, in a discussion of dance, she famously valorizes tap dancing, and names Bill Robinson and Fred Astaire as its “best exponents” (p. 68). (Not sure why she mentions Fred Astaire but omits Ginger Rogers.) What’s odd here is since tap dancing is an enabling art (my term) of the music it serves, this seems an implicit endorsement of the music to which Bill Robinson danced–including jazz, scat, swing, etc.

    What’s interesting is Rand’s general relationship to music with distant African origins. On the one hand, she wants to say that philosophy determines esthetics: rational esthetics belatedly tracks rational philosophy. Her account of music takes the European classical tradition as the paradigm: melody is central, rhythm peripheral, if that. Those features are somehow supposed to have arisen from the “man-centered philosophy” of the Renaissance.

    On the other hand, tap dancing, her favorite form of dance, arose in part in West Africa, and in part in Ireland, in contexts almost completely isolated from the classical philosophical and the classical musical traditions. And what it emphasizes is rhythm, not melody. How did that happen? How did her favorite form of dance arise from origins totally disconnected from the rational philosophy that supposedly underwrites good art? The apparent paradox is that from her perspective, her favorite form of dance had its sources in music that came from “the jungle.” (I don’t mean that Africa is “the jungle.” I mean that on her hyperbolic conception of “the jungle,” tap dance has its origins in tribal dance that may as well be “the jungle.”)

    For that matter, given her estimate of Aristotle as the greatest philosopher in history, why isn’t she concerned to recover, say, the Hellenistic music inspired by his work? But by her standards, ancient music was all “primitive music” not worth paying attention to. She wants us to believe that Aristotle’s musical influence lay dormant from the time of his death until the development of the diatonic scale in the Renaissance (assuming that we place its development there). Even as a just-so story, that’s preposterous.

    Further, if Bill Robinson was an exponent of the best dance form, tap dancing, which is best because of its obedience to the music it enacts, we have to infer that the music was itself worthwhile. Why then can’t we infer that the general tradition of music involved is worthwhile? She not only doesn’t think that, but seems to suggest the reverse (without quite saying the reverse): it’s as though Bill Robinson’s dance music was great, but the jazz that followed it was unworthy of her notice. That seems arbitrary and bizarre. How could someone valorize Bill Robinson but ignore the entire subsequent development of jazz, and have so viscerally negative a reaction to jazz- and blues-influenced rock?

    In other words, my problem is a more intense version of the one you point out in your JARS piece. It’s not just that she happened to ignore jazz altogether. It’s that when it came to African-influenced music, she had inexplicably idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. Bill Robinson, swing, scat? Great. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, et al: unimportant. Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix? Trash. Music from Africa? Unimportant because unintegrated with the Western philosophical tradition. Greatest music of all time? Late nineteenth century operetta, obviously influenced by Aristotle. Source of the greatest dance music of all time? West Africa and Ireland. Not exactly a set of commitments that hangs together in the most natural way.

    I don’t mean to suggest that there’s any overt contradiction here. My point is that her view lacks coherence without being guilty of outright contradiction (along with an extreme ethnocentrism and parochiality). There are more questions there than answers, and more puzzles posed than puzzles resolved.

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