Monday, May 26, 2014

Dancing the Gavotte

George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were all born in the same year, 1685. That may be one of the great coincidences.  

  George Frideric Handel [1685-1759]

We often think of the great artists and writers and thinkers as having lived and produced their works in a kind of static epoch--a time that they helped define, which has come to be associated with them. But these individuals defined their time as much as or more than it defined them. Through their genius and innovations, they brought about change, or gave crucial voice or form to the underlying tendencies of the age.

"The age demanded," goes a line in an early poem by Ezra Pound. We think today of the spirit of a culture, or a society, as being a consequence of forces which struggle to prevail, and the writings or music or works of art either as expressions of that spirit, or as contrary challenges to a predominant power.

Handel lived in a time before the great surges of independence which have defined the West in the succeeding two and a half centuries--in an epoch dominated by royalty and the upper classes, which could afford the leisure and expense of underwriting an art and music which suited their station in the world.

The music of Handel will therefore, in retrospect, always be associated with the privilege and elegance of the rich classes of England, for whom he composed his works. His music may in this respect be seen as the embodiment of a corruption of the dignity of man, justified by the divine right of nobility (and the combined power of the state and church) to oppress and subdue the great mass of humankind. There is a buoyancy in Handel's music which is born aloft by the presumption of this privilege.

That is of course the democratic or socialist interpretation of the Art of Baroque in Europe, and there is little point is disputing the essential validity of that critique. But music has often been described as the most abstract of the arts, especially when it aspires to a higher calling than the accompaniment to movement or lyric.

We are sophisticated enough to understand that the relationship between a piece of music, and the initial pretext for its creation, are separable and may be appreciated discretely. The emotion that inspired the writing of a piece of music may increase its intensity or ingenuity, but the idea that notes--the panoply of sounds organized into a sequence of tones gathered into masses and intervals--could have only a single or specific function, is one we know is only an expedient notion.

People today enjoy listening to Handel's Messiah oratorio, no doubt to some degree because of its religious content. It's a celebration and dramatization of Christian dogma, featuring the annunciation, passion and death, followed by the judgment and resurrection of Christ, a structure upon which Handel presents a series of musical panels. It's unlikely that anyone not knowing the details of this program would be able to deduce the meaning or significance of what is being celebrated or explained by the oratorio alone. You have to understand beforehand, what the whole work is intended to be, in order to appreciate its programmatic content, if (indeed) that were the whole point of listening to it.

And yet, it's possible to comprehend the inspiration Handel felt through the music alone. This comprehension, or inspiration, may be too generalized to have a specific religious purpose. But the quasi-religious "feeling" we associate with so much religiously inspired music is one that has been associated with religions of all kinds for as far back as we have records or evidence.

As a boy, I was made to attend the local Presbyterian church with family friends. My parents were not particularly religious, and disliked the whole church-going routine. But the justification was that I was supposed to form "my own opinion" of religion through direct exposure, then choose for myself, whether it was something I felt I needed in my life as an adult. Between you and me and the fly on the wall, the real purpose of this little subterfuge was to enable my parents to have uninterrupted bedroom time on Sunday mornings.

What I did take away from my four involuntary years of Sunday school and general congregation experience was the pleasure of hearing and singing hymns. There is something soothing and even contemplative about experiencing uplifting music in the morning. There is a clear moral purpose to doing this, and there is no confusion about the basic intent of hymn-singing. It's supposed to make you feel devout and to encourage virtuous thinking, a spur to religious feeling, to give the sinners an excuse to come together and feel close.

Even in those days, I understood I was being manipulated, but I also understood that the music itself was not intrinsically religious--it was just a tool. I understood that rock & roll, or jazz, or swing, or folk, or military, or secular classical music, were just other kinds of music, though the purpose and spirit of these other styles of music was not spiritual. It was possible to distinguish kinds of music into the various occasions with which they were associated or for which they were composed. But those associations might not always seem as strong as they were assumed to be.

In any case, as I grew to hear and know more music, I could listen to religious music both inside and outside the context of its initial occasion. Over time, once I understood the circumstances under which a piece had been composed, I was free to accept or reject the context as I chose.

Today, listening to a Handel orchestral piece, or any one of a number of his various concerti, I can "hear" them more as pure music, than as mere window-dressing or furniture in an historical costume-drama illustrating the cultural clich├ęs of a particular time. Robert Creeley once derided writers of "old-fshioned" or traditionally styled poetry by saying that we no longer "dance the Gavotte" so we should not be writing sonnets and nursery rhymes as if we still did. There is some truth to that claim, enough to give it bite. But in fact we are no less able to appreciate an elegantly composed piece of music for the gavotte, or a sonnet by Shakespeare, than we are to appreciate a free-verse lyric written by William Carlos Williams.

It is a very superficial prejudice that limits our apprehension of a work of art to the precise original spirit or pretext for which it was made. And often critics will ignore that limitation in constructing an argument for or against a particular work or artist. It is clear that Handel practiced his art under the prevailing conditions of official and privileged patronage, and that the spirit of his work fits comfortably within the terms of its occasion--as an enhancement of the niceties of polite society, elegantly decorative and effete. As a consequence of our sense of the context of his work, we are likely to see it as inextricably interwoven into the bewigged and primping pomposities of velvet and silk and powder and fans and kerchiefs and buckled shoes. It's music that belongs in such settings.

And yet there is so much more to it than that. Any music which is directed towards the ennobling or exalting of life, or humanity, is not automatically hypocritical or beholden to class or franchise. If it is merely decorative, or merely polite, it may well be nothing more than the frill on a curtain. But if it also carries weight, or is intrinsically powerful and convincing, it can transcend this initial contingency. It is one of the crucial measures of the value of any work of art, that it transcend the limitations of its time and context. We certainly think of Bach in this sense, that his compositions rise above the styles and conveniences of their time to speak to later generations and epochs of the truth and beauty.

Bach and Handel may have thought that the aspirations towards truth and beauty in their music were evidence of the glory of god. If god was the highest perfection they could imagine, that became their inspiration. We now think of inspiration as a mental or emotional quality quite apart from the context within which it may be thought to belong. I can distinctly recall how stuffy and even repugnant the bust of Handel seemed to me, resting atop my childhood music teacher's upright piano. It suggested pedagogical sternness, dull pretense, and a dignity which I felt both unable to emulate, and uninterested in understanding. In short, I lived in innocent ignorance. It's okay to be innocent--and even ignorance (especially of what the future may hold) may be preferable to complete knowledge.

Take off Handel's wig, his velvet waist-coat, his white stockings, and cotton undergarments, and we have the same man, the same physical proportions as our own. Take away the polite society sitting in baroque chairs, take the musicians out of the castle hall, put them into a high school auditorium. Is the music still an encrustation upon a decadent, dying hierarchy of oppression and self-perpetuating greed?

How shall posterity view the work of Elvis Presley? Michael Jackson? Will it be able to splice out the core musical content from the mass of cultural paraphernalia within which it once flowered? What is the distillate, the alembic? Can we hear it through the fog of presumption and prejudice and myriad preconceptions and distractions? Is to have done so an act of surgical violence, designed to eviscerate its original meaning and purpose?

Then what is the point of Handel's dignified and deliberately sophisticated, polite and ordered musical language? Whenever I hear an orchestral piece by Handel, I am uplifted. Is this the same order of exhilaration that I was supposed to experience in the church of my childhood, or is it a purer, more generalized, or more specific, quality than the various occasions for which it was once intended?

Whenever I take a cross-continental jet flight, during cloudy weather, I am astonished at the extraordinary feeling I experience as the fuselage glides over and through great white masses of clouds. Doubtless, there are prior associations I have in my memory bank of all the scenes and visions of skies and landscapes that are mixed together inside the nimbus of my conception of "cloud". All I can say is that these visions of passing through white cumulus formations at thousands of feet above ground, are invariably united in my mind with the flights of musical sublimation I associate with the works of Handel. 

This association is enriched for me by the sense of an impending mortality. In Handel's time, the experience of passing over or through clouds in an airplane was completely unknown. Religious notions of heaven have traditionally been constructed out of billowy clouds, as if after death, we would ascend into a heaven of cloudy weightlessness and deathless purity, symbolized by the diaphanous insubstantiality of floating water vapor. Clouds, in this sense, are symbols of death, or of immortality (if you believe in a life after death). Clouds, of course, may signify danger, or change, or even infernal forces. W.A. Auden once said that the rumor of death was like the sound of thunder at a picnic.  

Of all the music I know, the work of Bach and Handel seems most apt to inspire me to a sense of my own potentiality in life. The music seems to be saying to me "existence is a noble opportunity, don't waste it, give thanks for the beauty and power of your feelings and knowledge, for what you've been given to know and see." The music enacts a triumph over adversity which lifts up the heart. Ordinarily, I'm not an inspired-seeming person. I think most people would describe me as cynical and rather suspicious. Inside the awareness of life's fragility and temporality is the potential for hope. I can't speak for others, but only for myself. 

I think that dancing the gavotte might actually be fun. 

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