Sunday, August 17

Learning Argentine Tango: Leonard Bernstein's "The Joy of Music"

Before immersing myself in the music of Tango, I wanted a firmer grasp on the art of music itself. I can read music. I sang in the children's choir at my hometown church and played French horn in the school band for four years, but music and its vocabulary is beyond me. Good grief, in my original post on the Rodrigo Y Gabriela concert, I mixed up melody and harmony. I absolutely lack the understanding to say much more than I like a piece of music. If I stretch myself, I might be able to say something about the poetry of the lyrics, but that is as far as I go. I was hoping Bernstein's little book, which I was told is very friendly to beginners, would be a good start in general.

Leonard Bernstein is passionate about music. That much is apparent. What is unique though is his ability to express this passion on a wide variety of topics from the unique talents of Gershwin to the necessity of the orchestra conductor to the defining traits of opera, jazz and classical music since Schoenberg clearly to the layman. The writing is simple and clear. The only disappointment is that the final seven chapters are transcripts from his Omnibus television program, and they rely heavily upon musical excerpts. Obviously more than a little was lost in the translation from screen to page, but the spirit is still there. For anyone else starting with nothing but looking to begin their own journey into music, I would most heartily suggest The Joy of Music.

But there is serious thought in this book too. It is, after all, The Joy of Music instead of A Beginner's Guide to Music. In the very first chapter, I found one of the most troubling and powerful ideas with regard to art I have ever read. In the first chapter Bernstein imagines a conversation between himself and an imaginary poet. The poet makes a poorly considered remark on the hills and Beethoven, and Bernstein tears into him. Every time the poet tries to defend Beethoven's exalted place in the pantheon of composers, Bernstein matches him. The melody of his Symphony No. 7 is static. His Fifth Symphony is nothing but the same three chords and variations on them over and over again. Yet Bernstein ultimately admits that Beethoven still deserves the highest regards. As he says, "When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to Beethoven."

Music is inscrutable. We may know through and through or, in the wise words of the Oracle, balls to bones that a composition is beautiful, transcendent, perfect, and everything else good, but when it comes to the particulars, we are completely at a loss to explain why. Every attempt to explain what makes Beethoven's or any other composer's work great has to come after listening. There are no progressions of notes or tonal scales or juxtapositions of forte and piano that guarantee a beautiful work. There are no rules, and the only standard is that the work and its performance draw something from us.

I wrote that this idea is both powerful and troubling. On the one hand, it means that music and its beauty are open to everyone. Of course one with a background in music theory and history may be better able to appreciate a truly original composition. Another who plays an instrument can discern between superior soloists. This does not mean that I, with the little formal knowledge of music I have, am any less swept up in the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth. At worst, those others appreciate it in different ways.

On the other hand, if music truly is inscrutable, if our response to it is visceral, then how can we talk about it in a meaningful way? Yes, a musical vocabulary has been developed. We can talk about melody and harmony and the like, but these are nothing more than identifiers. In and of themselves, they carry no trace of quality. We may be able to better identify and explain what part of the music we are reacting to, but we still cannot explain why.

But perhaps that is not such a terrible thing. Even if we cannot wholly express our response, by no means does it suggest that we are the only ones who ever felt that way. It is just beyond language to express. Instead, upon further reflection, I find it an invitation to celebrate our humble and majestic humanity. Music is so basic and primal that we can hardly conceive of a culture entirely bereft of it, yet total comprehension of it will never be within our grasp. No matter the analysis the great symphonies are subjected to, no one will ever be able to use these conclusions to devise a program that creates comparable music. Within ourselves, humans have a creative ability which lies beyond our imagination to impart to anything else. I find that rather exciting.

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