Saturday, October 01, 2005

elective affinities

The term "elective relationships" appears in the translation of an excerpt from Wagner's Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft [1850), found in Oliver Strunk's Source Readings in Music HIstory (NY, Norton, 1950), p. 888. This is almost certainly a translation of the term Wahlverwandschaften, which was the title of an 1809 novel by Goethe. The term may well come up in future readings as well. Here are two short definitions of the concept. The first is from the description of a recent conference at the University of Pennsylvania:

Our title has been borrowed from Goethe's 1809 novel Elective Affinities . In the novel, the chemical term “elective affinities” extends to human relationships, both intimate and political. Like the alkalis and acids of which Goethe's characters speak, words and images, though apparently opposed, may have a remarkable affinity for one another. At the same time, as one of the characters in the book objects, such affinities are problematic, and “are only really interesting when they bring about separations.”

The second was written some years ago as an informal response to my request for a definition. Its author is Ruth Ann Crowley, who received her Ph.D. in German studies from Stanford in the 1970s and remains one of the most brilliant people I have ever known:


In Goethe’s work it’s a term borrowed from chemistry to account for the attraction between certain individuals. The use of natural forces (magnetism, which merged with hypnotism in some manifestations, think of mesmer; or here, what Goethe called chemistry, if I recall, but what we would call a kind of particle physics, probably) to account for human behavior--getting at an elemental, subrational, occult cause of behavior--as prevalent in the Romantic period. I think ‘elective affinity’ is commonly used to mean a strong preference that conveys something about the chooser’s occult self.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Nietzschian Look at Berlioz

Lizzie Vieh

Opposing Elements in Symphonie Fantastique
If there is one thing that music critics disagree about more vehemently than the musical merits of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, then it is surely the wisdom of including a narrative program to accompany it. Critics react violently to the program, either lauding it as an innovative way of combining music and narrative, or condemning it as a defilement of pure instrumental music, a tacking on of useless words that music in its purest essence neither needs nor benefits from. The general trend in criticism runs toward two extremes: either the program restricts the power of the music by limiting the listener’s imagination to Berlioz’s written images, or the program rescues the music from obscurity and chaos by giving the audience a series of images to make sense of an otherwise chaotic, unmelodious score. Debating the simple pros and cons of the program seems irrelevant though, when one looks at the larger artistic question posed by its inclusion in Berlioz’s work. How does the program change the essential nature of the musical presentation? Does its inclusion fundamentally alter the nature of the symphony, transforming it from instrumental music to a new hybrid form of music and the written word? And if so, why does this new form seem, in the opinion of critics such as Pierre Boulez, so woefully unsatisfying and incomplete?
Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy provides a template to attack these questions. His theories of the dualistic realms of art help explain why the Symphonie Fantastique provokes such violent reactions, and why, in many ways, it doesn’t live up to its potential.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche proposes that all art can be classified into the opposite yet complementary realms of two Greek gods: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo, the god of light and prophecy, presides over art that is associated with visible forms, images, and rational knowledge. His influence is strongest in the plastic representational arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, and epic poetry. Apollonian art emphasizes the distinct moral individual and the power of knowledge and beauty. Dionysian art, on the other hand, is concerned with that which is formless: namely, music. As the god of wine and frenzy, Dionysus is associated with the dissolution of individuals into an essential, primordial Unity. Because it is neither rational nor representational, music is the supreme Dionysian art. It is not “understood” in the traditional sense of the word, but felt on a deep essential level that is older and more profound than anything humans create in the plastic, Appolonian world.
Nietzsche proposes that Greek tragedy represents the pinnacle of human art in that it finds a balance between the Dionysian and Appolonian elements. I would propose that through its synthesis of Dionysian music and Appolonian writing, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique strives toward a similar union, but one which is ultimate unbalanced and imperfect.
If one listens to the Symphonie Fantastique without any knowledge of who wrote it or what it is about, the experience is similar to hearing a person scream in a foreign language. Something powerful and deeply emotional is happening, but the listener can only feel it and cannot in any way attach a specific meaning to it. In this way, Berlioz’s symphony is highly Dionysian. It resonates on a primal level that neither images nor narrative can penetrate. But this state of emotion is artistically unsatisfying. The average listener needs to see something, needs to identify in some way with the music, in order to appreciate it on a rational level. Here is where the program tries to insert some Appolonian aid. Berlioz throws his program to the audience like a sailor throwing a life raft into dark, impenetrable waters. Unfortunately, his life raft doesn’t extend far enough to rescue those who are truly “drowning” in the sea of his music, and it only infuriates the Dionysian listeners who relish swimming in his choppy emotional waters.
Berlioz’s attempt to produce a unified piece of art is admirable to be sure, but predictably fails to satisfy many listeners due to the restrictive modern conventions that relegate music to one realm and the written word to another.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Music is Visual

Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture. The air in the performance is sculpted into something.

-Frank Zappa

Perhaps some of you have come across this quote in your past musical wanderings. I recall it seemed quite life affirming at one point - now I just like it.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Brahms's First Symphony and September 11, 2001

Here is a beautiful piece of writing about a piece of music. The writer is Bernard Holland of the New York Times; the music is Brahms's First Symphony. It is as far from a blow-by-blow description as one could get. And yet it captures the quality of the temporal flow of that work; and for anyone familiar with the transition to the last movement of that symphony, Holland's analysis of its effect could not be more precise.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

September 15, 2001 Saturday
Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section B; Column 5; Arts & Ideas/Cultural Desk; Pg. 11

LENGTH: 854 words

As Brahms Goes By: It's Oddly Comforting



As television viewers surfed from one disaster coverage to the next on
Tuesday, they might have come across a performance of a Brahms symphony in
midswing. The juxtaposition was startling, the shock palpable. At one moment,
experience of the world seemed to spread exponentially: questions breeding more
questions, anxieties unresolved and trailing away into new anxieties. With three
measures of music, indeterminacy and the unknown condensed suddenly into a
small, dense, unreal ball of certainty. Brahms in the midst of exploding
buildings was gloriously irrelevant, a foreign world. One could not bear, or
afford, to dwell on it and so surfed on. Yet to know that it had been there was

Music's relation to good and evil is misunderstood, because at heart
there is no relation at all. People can write moral messages and set them to the
music. People can surround music with stage pictures and come up with deeply
ethical operas like "Fidelio." But no matter how much we want to associate our
favorite art with the best instincts of humanity, the person who helps the old
lady across the street will be no more genuinely moved by a Haydn string quartet
than the person who kicks her into the gutter and steals her purse. It's not the
kind of thing we want to hear, but this is a time for clearheadedness.

In ancient times, pop tunes shared scurrilous doggerel and the most holy of
biblical texts. SS officers wept at the beauties of the Schubert C major
Quintet. Dreadful men like Richard Wagner composed some of the most
soul-stirring music. Virtue has no lock on musical beauty.

So how do we explain the shock of this interloping fragment of Brahms? It did
not endorse good nor did it reject evil, but for a moment it fundamentally
rearranged our minds. In the turmoil around us, there had been shady beginnings
and no ends in sight. Situations changed minute to minute. Here was the process
of life itself contracted and multiplied in intensity but in the end the story
of us all. We essentially dangle through life. Our control over it is illusory.
We have little idea of where we go or what will befall us. French executioners
until recent times crept sock-footed along death row, startling the condemned in
their cells and dragging them out. How different are our own deaths from this?

Those few moments of televised Brahms dangled as well, but with a difference.
Sonata form is essentially the struggle to reconcile opposing forces, but this
particular struggle was well under way as we tuned in. We did not hear where
these several chords came from or where they would end. But in another way we
did. We knew the piece, had heard it hundreds of times, so that superimposed on
the uncertainty of the moment was also the knowledge that everything would turn
out well. What so startled the listener in this moment of turmoil was to come
across something that would end in a way already known to us.

People have been asking "What is art?" for a long time, but here is a modest
proposal. Art is our small, fragile claim to control over our lives. Terrorism
offered us only uncertainty. Brahms brought the chill of uncertainty soothed by
the knowledge of an outcome. Aristotle's dictum -- that art has a beginning, a
middle and an end -- may sound simple-minded, but it is deeply profound. No
statement ever penetrated to the significance of a novel, a painting or tone
poem more efficiently.

The artist plays god, and "play" is the significant word. For the artist in
us is also the child, and the Brahms First Symphony is one of the games that is
played. Suddenly creation is in our hands. We are the authors of our own Big
Bang. We line up the experiences along the way, and it is our will that brings
things to a stop. Outside the studio (or the playpen) time drags us helplessly
along; the composer manipulates the clock at will. In the bigger view of things,
the artist's effort to give limits to what we see and hear is ephemeral. The
Brahms First is a toy we have made. Once it leaves our ears, we have no more
control over our fates than we did before it started. Art may not change the
world, but for a few minutes at least it makes us feel good.

If we use different words, music may after all have some of the moral
qualities we want so much to assign it. Change "good-evil" to "order-disorder"
and the proximity starts to narrow. Think of your body, for example, in terms of
political virtue. We remain healthy so long as our livers and kidneys function
as the orderly bureaucrats they are trained to be. Disturb their routines, and
you are in trouble. Spray paint a Braque painting, and again you have replaced a
calculated plan with chaos. Bomb a city, and the equation of evil with disorder
becomes even closer.

This is what that fragment of Brahms said to us. Heard in peaceful times, it
would have been one more reassurance that God is in his Heaven and everything
below will be all right. What surrounded Brahms on that day, I am afraid, made
its solace real but fleeting. Music is a form of protective gear against sudden
violent death. It is thin and penetrable, but it may be all we have.


GRAPHIC: Photo: Johannes Brahms (Camera Press)

LOAD-DATE: September 15, 2001

Wagner's Tannhäuser scandal in Paris

In the Norton Critical Score of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, (NY, 1985, p. 32), Robert Bailey mentions the scandalous three performances of the revised version of Wagner's Tannhäuser that appeared in Paris, 1861. Below are two versions of what happened. The first, very short one, is the way in which that scandal is usually described today. (Surprisingly, this particular version was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber as background information related to his Phantom of the Opera.) The second, longer one, is part of a still longer account given by a man who actually attended the Paris premiere in his youth.

"The Show / The Paris Opera House"

By Andrew Lloyd Webber, September 1986
Key also to Paris formula was the ballet. This was usually at the start of Act III. The gentlemen could dine before arriving at the theater in time to see their various young ladies in the corps de ballet. Wagner's Tannhauser caused uproar with the Jockey Club because its ballet was placed too early in the production for their members' convenience.

Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris, 1861
By Edward H. House

New England Magazine
Volume 4 Issue 4
Pages 411-427
Published in 1891

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

I was early in my seat on the fated night, and watched attentively the gathering of the audience. It did not appear to differ in character from those I had seen at the rehearsals, though it was slower in arriving, and when the opening bars of the overture sounded, the house was only two-thirds filled. But the adverse element was undoubtedly in force from the beginning. The box habitually retained by the young furies of the Jockey Club, close upon the stage, at the left of the spectators, was crowded. In earlier years it had been known as "la loge infernale," and on this evening it proudly sustained the ancient character. The overture was passed by in silence, or at least with so few manifestations of disfavor as to cause no interruption. Before it was finished, the vacant spaces were all occupied, and the assemblage was ready for its work. The curtain rose, and, almost simultaneously with the first notes that followed, the assault began. Before the introductory scene was half through, the uproar had reached such a height that the actors upon the stage and the orchestra in front were alike inaudible except to those who sat nearest the proscenium. There was not even a pretence of waiting to form an opinion. The order of battle was laid out on a more destructive scale. "Tannhäuser" was not to be deliberately condemned; it was simply not to be endured. What qualities it possessed, lofty or degraded, noble [426] or vicious, the Parisians were not to learn. If any, by chance, desired to acquire that knowledge, it was the will of the majority that they should not do so. And thus the performance proceeded, or was supposed to proceed, revealing nothing but a succession of fine scenery and a mass of picturesque costume. While these passed in unintelligible show before the public eye, the public ear received only a continuous cacophony of shrieks, howls, shouts, and groans, diversified by imitations of wild beasts which would have blushed at the brutality of those who mimicked their cries, and stimulated incessantly by aristocratic ruffians in the conspicuous boxes, whose favorite instruments of offence were huge keys, by means of which they filled the air with hissing shrillness, like so many whistling devils. It was a pitiable business,—infinitely more disgraceful to those who actively participated than to any who suffered by it. Further details would serve no good purpose. The chief incidents are recorded in French lyrical annals, but I imagine that those who once gloried in them would now be very willing to sink them in oblivion.

An interesting inquiry into the causes of the "scandal" appeared, soon after Wagner's death, in a leading American magazine, in the course of which it was intimated that the opera was so badly performed as to justify in some degree the angry violence of the audience. I do not think this charge can be seriously sustained, nor do I see, indeed, how any evidence in support of it could possibly be produced. I doubt if any individual ever was in a position to say whether "Tannhäuser" was well or ill interpreted, because not a bar of it could be heard. No living soul knew anything about it. At the rehearsals—at least those which I heard, and which were practically, though not nominally, public performances,—there was certainly no ground of complaint. And if the amateurs of the French metropolis attended in an honestly critical spirit, prepared to pronounce judgment with integrity, the question arises,—why did they carry with them those remarkably constructed door-keys, which, at that or any other period, constituted no portion of the personal adornment of the fashionable gandin? The truth is, that the work was foredoomed,—condemned to ignominy and outrage, because the composer was hated. The rancor was so pronounced that I believe the victim would have suffered bodily injury, as well as vicarious insult, if the wildest of the mob could have laid hands on him. I hardly ventured to look toward the box where I fancied he might be; though when I did turn in that direction, his face was not to be seen. Exactly where he passed that evening of torment I do not know, but it was my fortune to meet him once again, for the briefest moment and for the last time. After the curtain had finally fallen, I went out slowly with the crowd, and turned homeward, taking a course which led me by the large courtyard upon which the back of the theatre opened. As I waited, with a companion, to look at the brilliant toilettes of those privileged dames who were permitted to make a speedy and easy exit by this private way, I beheld the composer hastily crossing the area, toward the gate by which I stood. He opened the door of a vehicle in which a lady was already seated, but before entering, turned sharp around and held out his hand, which I took without speaking a word. Deeply agitated by indignation and compassion, I knew that my voice would fail me. He also was silent, but to my surprise, his countenance betrayed no strong emotion, nor was his expression perceptibly different from that which he had worn on the other occasions of our meeting. As well as I could observe, there was the same patient, engaging smile, with the air of partial abstraction which always conveyed the impression that his imagination was straying beyond or above the realities of the immediate hour. That was my farewell to Richard Wagner. In another moment he entered his carriage, and was driven rapidly away. How little I pretend to know of the man himself, those who have followed me in this reminiscence will understand; but as I recall his unchanging aspect and demeanor in the several interviews, the quiet graciousness and the serene composure which [427] governed his speech and action, even to the trying end, it would require stronger evidence than I have yet discovered, to persuade me that these, rather than a petulant irritability and a vainglorious intolerance, were not the most trustworthy and genuine manifestations of his real nature.