“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson
The album comes out in just a few short weeks, and while I’ve been trying to stay active on social media, I’ve not been so attentive to the blog. But as I sit on Oberlin’s campus this week, memories flood back as to how my perspective on performing changed, not so much because of what I was playing, but because of what I was reading.
Just a year before coming to Oberlin, I was sat at Cambridge University, finishing a history degree and miring myself in a steady diet of music-crazed Teutons. I admit I latched on to Nietzsche, Hesse and Mann (to whom I still cling to an extent), all brilliant progenitors of fantastic deconstructions of the world around them, spinning existential discussions of “succumbing” and “overcoming.”
Nietzsche’s references to Beethoven Beyond Good and Evil are almost comical:
Beethoven is something that happens between an old crumbling soul which is constantly breaking up and a very young soul of the future which is constantly coming. In his music there lies that half light of eternal loss and of eternally indulgent hoping – that same light in which Europe was bathed when it dreamed with Rousseau, when it danced around the freedom tree of revolution and finally almost worshipped before Napoleon.
Hesse’s horrific opium dream in Stepphenwolf is guided by Mozart, describing Germany’s spiritual deprivation after the First World War with references to Brahms and Wagner:
Mozart aised 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.”
“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.”
And who can forget Hans Castorp’s slow prolonged death to the tune of the Lindenbaum from Schubert’s Winterreise?
Oh, how ashamed we feel in our shadowy security ! We’re leaving we can’t describe this ! But was our friend hit, too? For a moment, he thought he was. A large clod of din struck his shin-it certainly hurt, but how silly, it was nothing. He gets up, he limps and stumbles forward on mud-laden feet, singing thoughtlessly:
And all its branches rustled // As if they called to me
And so, in the tumult, in the rain, in the dusk, he disappears from sight.
(You get the idea.)
These authors embody so much of what I had always loved about music: the ability to share in an experience with a great writer or author, plunging a mundane existence into something “larger” or temporally expansive.
Of course, Cambridge is the perfect setting to look at culture through a set of binoculars. The Ivory Tower is old and tall, looming over you as you wander cobble streets alongside Nobel Prize laureates and borrow tattered library books once handled by members of the Bloomsbury group. You can bury yourself in your studies and consume all the material in the world, keeping its fundamental implications at an arm’s length. You can learn to argue and philosophize and never form an identity or opinion. You can be smart without gaining an ounce of wisdom.
There was no more damning an indictment against my Cambridge education than my first seminars with Dr. Steven Plank at Oberlin, for it was there I had my first exposure to Ralph Waldo Emerson. In reading The American Scholar, I realized the terrifying truth that – despite being an American – I had zero concept of American liberal education or the peculiar mission still alive in the American academy to “free the mind.” Of course, “the” famous quote was discussed in class:
The scholar must needs stand wistful and admiring before nature, this great spectacle. He must settle its value in his mind.
We were assigned the task of responding to the essay from the standpoint of a musician, and I admit it was a struggle. I scrambled something together that was analytical and factual, and it backfired. I was told the essay was fine, but that it didn’t merit a grade – “I don’t want to read it. Read more Emerson.”
And so I did. A few readings of the famous Self-Reliance were followed by a mild obsession with the more obscure Circles. It wasn’t long before I moved on to Thoreau, reading about the author’s experiment in forging knowledge in the wilderness.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau
From my seminars to my instrumental lessons, I realized that I had placed a huge wall between myself and music without realizing it. I could tell someone whatNietzsche got out of Beethoven, but not why I liked Beethoven. I could hum Der Lindenbaum and quote Thomas Mann, but I couldn’t tell you how I was impacted by the music on its own terms. I found myself simply assigning value to art which non-musicians found meaning in, thinking it proof that I was somehow getting “outside” of my headspace as a musician.
I’d be lying if I said that Thoreau and Emerson didn’t hang over me in the transcription process. Dealing with any score by Bach constitutes an experience in the wilderness, as he leaves few clues behind as to what to make of his music. This is nowhere truer than in the Goldbergs, where one lacks even the guidance of movements labeled with dance idioms to figure out tempi or affekt.
Variation 1 keeps performers up at night, as everyone knows it and can hum it but cannot agree on what’s going on. Is the cute little “Yaa-baba-pum pum pum pum” a polonaise figure? Or a mere diversion from the right scales which have picked up from where the Aria left off? Are there two voices?
Or does the left hand have an extra implied voice? If one separates out the bass line from the middle voice, it’s as if there’s a trio of voices singing rather than a duet between the hands.
What about when the hands start passing material off to one another? Is the rhythmic motor really the polonaise figure? Or is it an incredibly minute cell of two sixteenth notes which are continually echoed between the two hands?
The great thing about the harp is that it basks in sonic ambiguity, as any note naturally rings long beyond its written duration. The dichotomy between two and three voices becomes moot, as does any difference of articulation between the two hands. One resigns that level of control and in turn allows the distinct disciplines of harmony and counterpoint to be naturally conjoined.
What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web, but always circular power returning into itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar
During the pandemic, I’ve returned to Nietzsche, Hesse and Mann with enjoyment, as they remind us all what it means to be changed continually by the inheritance left behind by composers. But that’s only half the story. For me, Emerson and Thoreau complement our external impetus and beckon the scholar – or musician – to withdraw into themselves to find Performers don’t have the luxury of sitting at a distance and treating a dead composer as a kindred spirit, but rather have to tussle with a mediation process and assume the audience has the capacity for reception. In this sense, the scholastic approach and musical approach are no different, so long as they are both undertaken with the premise that there is something which we might not yet know.