Where the Beauty Lies

Photo from Flickr, Creative Commons

By Dr. Mark English / 11.26.2017

The neurologist treating my mother’s Parkinson’s disease, an old-school physician with a heavy Afrikaans accent, first suggested using music as part of her treatment some ten years ago. We probably would have got around to it anyway, as she had had some early training in music and retained a great love for certain Romantic piano pieces and also for the popular music of her youth. Now that her cognitive powers are narrowing, music is the only art form that gets through to her, so during my evening visits, I play an eclectic mix of recordings, using her (usually very subtle) facial reactions as a guide to what is working for her. It’s an effort for her to speak and increasingly talking is reserved for polite interactions and practical concerns (about pain or discomfort, for example). Lately I have been selecting slow songs and arias of deep emotional power. Her hearing is good, but she is unable to process linguistic input quickly.

This experience has influenced the way I understand music and the brain, and it has got me thinking about my own attitudes to music and the arts more generally. I have always had a natural tendency to favor simple and straightforward forms of expression.

That early Romantic manifesto, the Preface to the collection Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, emphasizes the virtues of directness and simplicity. Recently I have been reconsidering these sorts of values and have come to be more aware of my own natural skepticism concerning intellectualism in the arts. (There are parallels here with the fideist tradition in religion to which I was once strongly attracted.)

In October, I wrote a piece in which I tried to articulate – drawing on a lecture by A.E. Housman – an emotion-centered view of art. Though I personally value art largely by virtue of its emotional content, I am not, of course,arguing that the crude manipulation of emotions associated with sentimental writing or music should be seen as art. This is where taste and critical expertise come in: precisely to distinguish between the emotion-generating works that manipulate the emotions in crude and clichéd ways, and those that don’t do this and yet still manage – no easy task – to touch us deeply.

The distinction between a sentimental song or novel or film and a non-sentimental but moving song or novel or film is a useful and meaningful one. And though there will never be perfect agreement about these sorts of things, this is one non-scientific area where you do tend to get a consensus amongst people who are well-educated in the forms in question. We want to say – and I think we can – that the sentimental stuff is inferior, artistically and aesthetically speaking.

There is something about Romantic ways of seeing things that appeals to me even though I unequivocally reject the key metaphysical and social (Rousseauian) assumptions upon which these views were originally based. Can the core insights be restated or reinterpreted in phenomenological or psychological terms?

The pianist Sviatoslav Richter had deep affinities with Romantic and late-Romantic composers such as Beethoven, Schubert and Rachmaninoff. But he was also closely associated with Bach and with 20th-century composers who were reacting against the excesses of late Romanticism (Prokofiev, for example).

Richter joked that playing Bach was for him a form of musical hygiene. But his Bach recordings – of The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example – are deeply emotional without being sentimental.

Earlier pianists (like Wilhelm Kempff, born in 1895) played Bach almost as if he were a Romantic composer. Richter, born in 1915, avoids doing this, as do most later-20th-century pianists.

As I say, my experience of listening to Bach’s keyboard music – and not least to Richter’s interpretations – is that emotions are very much involved. I don’t know if they are the same or different kinds of emotions from the ones expressed by Romantic composers (or even if it makes sense to speak of emotions in this way), but the musical language is certainly different.

In recent times I have been revisiting the Romantic repertoire through which I was first introduced to serious music. But I am hopelessly picky, and I relate strongly to the trope of the transcendent fragment.

There are very few Romantic compositions which I like in their entirety. One movement of a work I might love, but the following movement I might hate. I realize that musical compositions are supposed to be appreciated as wholes, not as bits and pieces. But due to personal idiosyncrasies or limitations – and perhaps due in part also to the prominent role that film scores have played in my musical education – the whole often seems to be less than the sum of its parts. For example, the first and second movements of Franz Schubert’s last Piano Sonata (D. 960) I find deeply moving, especially as Richter plays them. The rest of the piece doesn’t really interest me. (Bruno Monsaingeon used a section of the second movement to great effect in his wonderful documentary on Richter.)

I have a similar reaction to music from other periods: the suites of J.S. Bach, for instance, or equivalent pieces by neoclassical 20th-century composers. I prefer some movements to others.

I know how it’s supposed to work: all segments, including the apparently less appealing ones, contributing to the whole as the intellectual architecture of the work reveals itself. I have heard Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition described in these terms, but I must confess that I myself have never experienced the piece this way. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, on the other hand, or the Goldberg Variations, I can embrace in their entirety – almost. And possibly also Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But these are exceptions.

I see music as being like language when looked at in stylistic terms, and language (especially spoken language) as being like music in certain ways. For any given time and place, there is a set of musical possibilities, just as there is a set of stylistic possibilities with respect to language. The constraints that delimit these possibilities relate, with respect to language, to the actual state of the language (in terms of grammar, semantics, pragmatics, etc ); and, with respect to music, to the instruments and styles current at the time. Without going so far as to make ontological claims or appeal to some form of modal realism, I see this set of possibilities as being more important than any actual writing/speaking or composing/playing. It exists (this set of possibilities) not in itself but in the minds of those who are familiar with the conventions in question. Great and less-great writers express the spirit of the time as far as that spirit (or ‘feel’) can be expressed in language and imagined action, just as composers exploit the musical traditions and technology of their day. But the genius – as I see it – lies in the culture, not the individual. Or rather, the genius of the artist is to express (a part of) the deeper “genius” or spirit of the culture of the time. That culture – created over time by countless ordinary interactions – not only sets or determines the possibilities, it can be defined in terms of those possibilities. (The set of sets of cultural possibility?) And it is here that the deep beauty lies; individual artists and their works are valuable only to the extent to which, in expressing a subset of possibilities relating to a particular branch of cultural expression, they hint at something more.

The tradition of philosophical Idealism traces back, of course, to the likes of Plato and Pythagoras. And though Plato’s views on knowledge – which motivate his wariness or skepticism concerning art and artists and his views on education – are based on ideas that are quite alien to modern thought, the fact that there have been so many Platonist revivals over the last two thousand years suggests that he got some fundamental things right.

The most significant revival of Idealism for our culture occurred during the Romantic period, but many of these modern forms of Idealism featured an element that was lacking in classical Platonism and Neoplatonism and indeed which could be seen as inimical to the classical versions: an emphasis on human cultural diversity. The key idea here is the concept of the unique genius or spirit of a language or people. Giambattista Vico had talked about language as an artistic expression of the human spirit, but it wasn’t until the 18th century and, in particular, the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt that notions of linguistic and cultural diversity really came the fore and ethnic groups came to be seen as embodying a kind of group spirit or genius.

Idealism of this kind flourished within Romance linguistics in particular and constituted a powerful and influential tradition of thought throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries. Karl Vossler, a major figure in this movement, saw languages as expressions of national character, their lexical, syntactic and pragmatic peculiarities being indicative of the type of mind predominating in that particular linguistic community.

Though I don’t subscribe to the views of this Romantic school of language study, at least they took seriously matters which more positivist practitioners tended to downplay as peripheral and unimportant: that is, matters of style. For ordinary speakers of a language stylistic factors loom very large and play a hugely important role in communication. And artists and critics typically have a strong intuitive sense of the style of a given piece or author or period. Twentieth-century scholars have developed a number of valuable frameworks for the study of style, which I have not discussed here, and the suggestions outlined above about sets of possibilities merely represent a tentative attempt to restate the basic insight of linguistic idealism without resorting to religious or crypto-religious ways of speaking.

In Chomskyan linguistics there is a crucial distinction between competence and performance, and the key distinction I have been making has something in common with this idea. Someone’s linguistic competence relates to all they know about a particular form or variety (or forms or varieties) of language. This knowledge is mainly intuitive, though it has been learned via exposure to spoken and written language over a long period of time. Actual performance, by contrast, includes slips of the tongue and expressions which the speaker herself recognizes as infelicitous or ungrammatical (according to her idiolect – or particular understanding of the language).

In a somewhat similar way, then, what I am drawing attention to here are not actual literary works – or, by extension, musical compositions, etc. – but rather an intuited set of possibilities that lies behind actual works. It is the fact that this set of possibilities can be felt or sensed (by those who understand the culture of that time and place sufficiently well) which prevents this view from being dependent on assumptions about the existence of an independently existing Platonic realm.

These views are not completely worked out and may not be convincing – or even of any interest – to others. But they are based on strong convictions and (I believe) on some genuine insights.

As I indicated, I am trying to salvage something from the Romantic perspective which I once embraced but subsequently rejected. The view which I am putting aligns in some respects with Romantic ideas, but departs from them in certain ways.

I have talked about Platonism, but Rousseauian social ideas (evident in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s early thinking) also pose problems. Another feature of the Romantic mindset that is deeply flawed is the tendency to mythologize the artist and his or her work. It is widely recognized that this entails a kind of false reverence that is more readily explicable in terms of social psychology than in terms of aesthetics.