Amazon has been recommending books to me after I purchased a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I caved. A Kindle subscription has helped stave off some boredom, as my e-shelf is now flush with Death in Venice and other testaments to forms of melancholy and depression, peculiar to the Teutonic sensibilities. Hesse, Broch, Roth, Döblin, all authors obsessed with music’s metaphors for existence now help me pass the time as I avoid repetitive-strain injury from practicing six hours a day for non-existent recitals.
Musicians are stuck inside, facing the grim inessentiality of their industry and perhaps the realization that while things are hard now, they’ve been tough for a quite a while. I commend my colleagues for creating mounds of internet content that I cannot bring myself to make. I can’t help but feel as if we as musicians are somehow keeping vigil for an industry model that will not return, miring ourselves in a time warp to try to extend a present which has realistically passed. Furthermore, litanies of the musician’s woes seem to perpetuate the notion of the virus as an injustice, rather than a reality. Our line of work is artistic and enriching, but it is entertainment nonetheless, a glorified and erudite form of social masturbation.
Perhaps I should have called this blogpost “things will change, and that’s ok,” for that is what I’m trying to get at. If you’re a freelance musician in your twenties and disagree, then I’d challenge you check your bank statements and ask if you really want to turn back the clock to (1) the hours of networking and emails which ate into your practice time, (2) the shockingly low pay, and (3) the fear of losing it all in an emergency. Offset your income against your (4) tax burden, (5) student loans, and (6) cost of living, and keep thinking. It’s completely absurd to assert that the virus is an equalizer, as those most susceptible are suffering more, both physically and economically. The health emergency, however, is an illuminator, shedding light on the fact that times were not as great in the bull economy as we had led ourselves to believe.
And so, instead of furious emails and appeals to save my career, I wait out the transition period with reading. I’ve found particular comfort in Hermman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which undertakes the task of asking how it is that humans can upend their own mental entrenchment. It’s touchy territory, to an extent, as Hesse’s works were permitted to remain in circulation under the Third Reich, and were even promoted by the SS and younger members of the National Socialist apparatus. Upon republication of Steppenwolf in 1961, Hesse composed a forward asserting that those (without naming names) who loved his novel most also possessed the greatest misconceptions as to its message. It’s not surprising, as on the surface level protagonist Henry Haller shows himself to be an isolated prisoner to the culture in which he is forced to live and operate. Sex, drugs, and murder along with apparitions of Mozart, Brahms, and Wagner take Harry further into his own mind to find a path out. The dressing up and repackaging of Nietzsche’s early to middle writings (especially Human, All too Human (1878) and Daybreak (1881)) is thus apparent, as they are often seen as works of cultural criticism preceding his descent into philosophical considerations of the meaning of modernity itself, as seen in The Genealogy of Morality (1887) and subsequent writings.
Nietzsche, of course, was passionate about music and musicians (hence his brief, ill-fated friendship with Richard Wagner, on whose behalf he sometimes used to buy women’s lingerie for the composer to wear), and used them as examples in his writings. But having once believed that modern music, and particularly that of Wagner, was the key to overcoming the staleness of culture, Nietzsche showed a change of heart. No, it was not just in the later bitchy tomes from 1888 such as Twilight of the Idols, or The Case of Wagner, or Nietzsche contra Wagner, written during the course of Nietzsche’s increasing struggles with syphilis. In chapter 245 odlf Beyond Good and Evil (1886) Nietzsche proclaims that Germany had forgotten the important perspectives of the past altogether, in particular those of musicians. Praising Mozart’s gaiety and the transcendent qualities of operatic composers like Weber and Marschner, and expressing the fear that Beethoven as a transitory figure would be forgotten, he writes,
The “good old” time is past, it sang itself out in Mozart—how happy are WE that his ROCOCO still speaks to us, that his “good company,” his tender enthusiasm, his childish delight, his courtesy of heart, his longing for the elegant, the amorous, the tripping, the tearful, and his belief in the South, can still appeal to SOMETHING LEFT in us! Ah, some time or other it will be over with it!—but who can doubt that it will be over still sooner with the intelligence and taste for Beethoven! For he was only the last echo of a break and transition in style, and NOT, like Mozart, the last echo of a great European taste which had existed for centuries. Beethoven is the intermediate event between an old mellow soul that is constantly breaking down, and a future over-young soul that is always COMING; there is spread over his music the twilight of eternal loss and eternal extravagant hope—the same light in which Europe was bathed when it dreamed with Rousseau, when it danced round the Tree of Liberty of the French Revolution.
“Ta-da!” Nietzsche’s cultural critique embroiled itself in the great War of the Romantics, a largely philosophical debate in which opposing inheritors of the Beethovenian legacy were pitted against each other in discussions about Europe’s future. Such modes of philosophical discussion seem antiquated or odd but, once upon a time, classical music’s place among the cognoscenti was such that one’s aesthetic tastes were indicative of one’s politics and understandings of history. Brahms and his friends the Schumanns were associated with political conservatism, seeking to crystallize Napoleonic reforms while holding on to the original structures which the French Emperor had once sought to destroy. Wagner and Liszt represented the forward march of nationalism, and the attempts to make manifest the destiny of liberal thought through ethnocracies. And at the fountainhead sits Beethoven, the original form of the musician from the aristocratic clutch, whose dual focus on expanding melody and motive drove a wedge into the aesthetic hegemony of the 18th century.
For Nietzsche and Hesse, whose writings were separated by forty years or more, the musician’s obsession with expansion of past inheritance was not simply a useful metaphor for the sickness of societies, but a genuine prism through which cultures and attitudes were understood in the German speaking territories of Europe. Of course, the Anglo-American philosophical tradition likes to segregate music from understandings of democracy and, as such, passages such as these feel intensely foreign. And yet thinking about the implications of the fate of music are key for understanding not only Nietzsche, but those who came after. To an extent, in Steppenwolf, Hesse picked up where Nietzsche had left off, incorporating classical music into his orientalist fantasy of dissociative drugs and meditation.
As Henry Haller descends into his psyche, it is none other Mozart who guides him through the final chapter of his journey. The composers laughs incessantly and jokes, adhering to the traditional view of Mozart, as seen in films like Amadeus, of a childlike genius isolated from the world by his own intellect and ignorance.
He takes Haller into the final scene of Don Giovanni, where Mozart brags of his own achievement. Haller plays along, massaging Mozart’s ego:
“Oh, yes, Beethoven—he is wonderful too. But all that— beautiful as it may be—has something rhapsodical about it, something of disintegration. A work of such plentitude and power as Don Giovanni has never since arisen among men.”
But as hell opens up to swallow them, Haller finds neither Giovanni nor Leporello, but two other twinned figures:
Mozart raised his hands as though he were conducting, and a moon, or some pale constellation, rose somewhere. I looked over the edge of the box into immeasurable depths of space. Mist and clouds floated there. Mountains and seashores glimmered, and beneath us extended world-wide a desert plain. On this plain we saw an old gentleman of a worthy aspect, with a long beard, who drearily led a large following of some ten thousand men in black. He had a melancholy and hopeless air; and Mozart said:
“Look, there’s Brahms. He is striving for redemption, but it will take him all his time.”
I realized that the thousands of men in black were the players of all those notes and parts in his scores which, according to divine judgment, were superfluous.
“Too thickly orchestrated, too much material wasted,” Mozart said with a nod. And thereupon we saw Richard Wagner marching at the head of a host just as vast, and felt the pressure of those thousands as they clung and closed upon him. Him, too, we watched as he dragged himself along with slow and sad step.
“In my young days,” I remarked sadly, “these two musicians passed as the most extreme contrasts conceivable.”
Mozart laughed. “Yes, that is always the way. Such contrasts, seen from a little distance, always tend to show their increasing similarity. Thick orchestration was in any case neither Wagner’s nor Brahms’ personal failing. It was a fault of their time.”
“A fault of their time” could have been another title, for classical music like any commodity is subject to conditions of time and space. The slavish attempts by Wagner and Brahms to augment the scope and scale of musical forms is not the reason for the ridicule so much as the allowance for society to place political eggs in musical baskets and vice versa. More simply, Wagner and Brahms lived in an era in which people placed significant cultural value into music, not just as a means of entertainment but as a way of thinking about the world.
So, where was Classical Music in America before the pandemic? The more I think about it, the more I fear that the doom and gloom in the news and on social media about the fate of classical music has very little to do with the virus, but with the demoted stature of our industry in American society. Our schools do not teach classical music, or even encourage students to listen to it. Conversely, our conservatories and music schools don’t encourage literary consumption or intellectual pursuits beyond the practice rooms. Just as Mozart isn’t required listening in the liberal arts degree, Hesse is not required reading in our music history seminars. We have clung to our recital and concert halls, dispensed with radio and television as means of educating the populace, and forsook consulting our greatest advocates to understand why classical music means something to them, and not just to ourselves. Music criticism in newspapers has been maintained only in a handful of select publications, kept alive through philanthropy rather genuine interest or demand, and very few musicians themselves have taken up the blog or social media platform to write extensively about the richness of classical music’s manifestations throughout history.
The classical music industry in America risks a death from the virus, because other illnesses and diseases had gotten to it first. Comorbidities are not confined to the tragic victims of COVID-19, but are also present in industries which have streamlined their priorities and forsaken other resources. Classical music survived previous global economic crises, wars, and pandemics, as there was an audience and consumer base waiting at the other end which placed social value in what we do. But our current audiences and resources have been drying up for so long in this country that basic classical music literacy has to be reintroduced into our schools and media before we can hope of prioritizing it ever again. Until such time, I see little use in making hours of footage for my musical colleagues to pat me on the back about. For such content will mean no more to audiences today than it did before the pandemic. For the question is not how we get people to listen again, but how we get people to want to start listening for the first time. How can we use this time to show Mozart and Beethoven to be as important as Nietzsche and Hesse?
We all have spare time right now.
To my musician friends: please start reading, and consider supporting, our classical music writers. I highly recommend subscribing to the following two blogs:
To my non-musician friends: take those great books and find what the authors listened to, or look up the works discussed by characters. Read the Sunday Arts section and, if you’re feeling brave, subscribe to one of the blog listed above.
To all voters: call your school board members, your local representatives, your congress members, and demand the reintegration of sincere and rigorous arts education in our public schools.