While Classical music supposedly faces a crisis of relevance and popular consumption in the United States, there are cases where a few pieces make it off concert hall stages and into films, TV shows and the general public consciousness (Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, etc.). It’s probably a surprise to nobody that the popularity or recognizability of these works doesn’t necessarily derive from their construction, so much as their emotional utility. That’s not to demean these works – they are after all, staples of the canon. But their use and reuse render instantly recognized emotional connotations, such as ecstasy or sadness, or even just mere contemplation or detachment.
Sometimes there’s a downside, in that only fragments of these pieces get used – usually the beginnings of the pieces (so as to set the tone as fast as possible). It’s rare that you might even hear a full movement from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, even though it’s likely to be less than 2 minutes long. That said, there are notable exceptions. I found one a few weeks ago when I went to go and see Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Already worn down by a traumatic past and a series of ongoing family woes, the working class protagonist from coastal Massachusetts learns that his brother has died, he is now his nephew’s guardian and that he will have to return to former life in the town of Manchester by the Sea, a life he has been avoiding for years. To say that the characters in the film are laden with unimaginable grief is really only the beginning – there are also issues of addiction, unsteady employment, financial instability and a seeming stasis that arises as a result of personal tragedy and the seemingly inescapable circumstances which working class Americans face.
Most of the important points in Manchester’s tragedy unfold during a complete performance of Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio for Organ and Strings. The piece has all the elements of a morbidly sad work: the bass line moves downwards, note by note, not only giving that sense of feeling low, but being stuck. There have been two other composers in history who mastered the use of this idea, one being Beethoven the Moonlight Sonata, but the better one being Don Felder in Hotel California. But there are also moments of pause that feel more like moments of arrest than respite. The bass line stops, but as a result the violin takes off uncontrollably, losing any real sense of rhythm, spinning in its own grief. Overall, the film’s extended sequence is powerful, if totally depressing. But it drives home the plight of the film’s hero as intractable and profoundly distressing.
There’s been no shortage of outpouring of similar sentiments by my friends and colleagues over the last week. Despite the ecstasy of last Saturday’s marches, I’m probably not alone in feeling that we’re rapidly swirling the drain, rather than draining the swamp. Any instinct of empathy is being pushed to the limits, and more and more soul searching about why anyone voted for Trump goes on. Once Monday arrived and the executive orders started being signed, I went to bookstore at the Nashville Airport and picked up a copy of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It’s been heralded left, right and center, as the key to understanding “white backlash,” “white supremacy,” “rural America,” “Trump supporters,” on and on it goes. However, coming from a town of 2,000 people in rural Tennessee, the lessons that many of us have taken away from Vance’s book and depictions of life in Manchester by the Sea not only feel hollow but truly misplaced.
OK, confession time: I suppose I’m naturally distrusting of Vance because of his regular contributions to National Review, which often state the necessity for Americans to boot themselves up rather than look towards any institutionalized or systemic problems of inequality. Unsurprisingly, views such as these are regularly put forward in his book by turning the tired, age-old “welfare queen” narrative into one about the “white working class,” turning every experience of grief and hardship in life into an explanation of why rural America is the way it is. “Toxic masculinity,” “inability to save money,” and “emotional religion” are supposedly cultural traits that just are, and should be understood. He makes it clear that there’s no way for the government to help, and that any help would just be squandered by these poor folks anyway. People will drop out of school anyway. People will take drugs anyway.
Everything in his book comes down to issues of “self-inflicted poverty” and economic anxiety. Poverty makes you lazy, makes you simple, makes you ignorant, and nobody but you can get yourself out of it. What I find distressing is that my good Democrat friends have increasingly fallen for the narrative in the book on the basis that (a) the man who wrote it came from poor rural America and (b) he went to an Ivy League, so he must be educated enough to be appropriately circumspect.
We know that our welfare system is far too limited at this point to really aid in a true escape from poverty. Decreasing people’s welfare doesn’t decrease the price of goods and the proportion of money people spend to make themselves comfortable. (Of course, when a poor person spends beyond their means, they’re white trash, but when middle American accumulates debt, he’s (yes he) been “duped” by the system.) We know other things as well: we know that counties that Bernie won in the Democratic primary went to Trump. We know we need better schools. We know we need more schools. We know we need more rehab facilities. Most of all, we also know that there are millions of non-white poor around the United States, who didn’t vote for Trump and didn’t even think about it, who don’t do drugs, beat their wives and squander the goodwill of an elected government. On and on and on it goes – we have plenty of evidence that the nexus of poverty and culture in America is way more complex than we’ve made it out to be. So why have we fallen prey to the idea that self-made individual prosperity is key to getting white Americans back into the fold of the Democratic Party? Why abandon the idea that the government can work with these people? Surely, if we believe Vance, then we are no better than our accusers that we think many of Trump’s supporters deserve poverty. Nobody deserves poverty, and if your anger is turning you against the Trump voters and rather than the GOP and the mega-rich who voted for him and aided his rise, then we’ve lost the game, not just the election.
Albinoni’s Adagio was borne out a period immense tragedy. Some years after the bombing of Dresden by the RAF, a small fragment of a bass line of Albinoni was supppsedly discovered by his biographer Remo Giazotto. At the time, it seemed an apparent phoenix rising from Dresden’s ashes. The problem is that this bass line fragment has never actually been seen. No record of the full original document which was in the Saxon State Library has ever been found. The bass line has never existed, but was a total fabrication of Giazotto, who copyrighted the piece in 1958 and presumably collected a significant amount in royalties. That’s right. It’s a hoax.
The Adagio is beautiful yes, but its fame and overuse come from its falsely contrived narrative that out of complete destruction and despair, that something beautiful can remain, as if there’s something cyclical about beauty and tragedy over time. For me, it’s another lie that we can fall prey to all to easily, but one that perhaps was appropriate for the film Manchester by the Sea. Again, the film is beautiful, but I wonder if it had been released in a different time and place, whether it would have prompted such strong questions about whether poor white Americans are the stereotypes that the GOP would have us believe that they are. I also wonder if I would have thought the film so powerful and message so convincing if Giazotto’s hoax hadn’t been used in the film’s climactic sequence.
We’re screwed enough as it is. Don’t fall for hoaxes.