Samuel Johnson

In what is a wonderful coincidence I just noticed, thanks to the Google homepage, that today is the anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s birth (18 September 1709). I say a wonderful coincidence because I just purchased both volumes of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson this weekend. I must have been searching for a couple of months now, never finding that almost impossible combination of affordability and good quality. So I was delighted to have spotted a lovely, if rather well-worn (especially the jackets), £3 hardback in a charity shop.

According to Boswell, Johnson ‘had a peculiar facility in seizing at one what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end’. He was irritable and impatient, rushing from one book to the next. I have read an introduction to one edition that encourages the reader to read the book by opening pages at random, examining the parts before taking in the whole, as this is how Johnson would have read it.

Nevertheless, I’m just reading it from cover to cover. Happily, the book is even more absorbing than I expected. Boswell was clearly unusually fascinated with his subject. At one-hundred or so pages in, the image I have of Johnson is extraordinary vivid — his peculiar gesticulations which so amused pupils, his ‘vile melancholy’, his odd marriage to ‘Tetty’, the widow twice his age — Boswell writes of her, ‘Mr. [David] Garrick described her to me as very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastick in her dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour. I have seen Garrick exhibit her, by his exquisite talent of mimickry, so as to excite the heartiest bursts of laughter; but he, probably, as is the case in all such representations, considerably aggravated the picture.’

Returning to this blog’s raison d’être, here are two quotations by Johnson on music:

[Oliver] GOLDSMITH. ‘The greatest musical performers have but small emoluments. Giardini, I am told, does not get above seven hundred a year.’ JOHNSON. ‘That is indeed but little for a man to get, who does best that which so many endeavour to do. There is nothing, I think, in which the power of art is shown so much as in playing on the fiddle. In all other things we can do something at first. Any man will forge a bar of iron, if you give him a hammer; not so well as a smith, but tolerably. A man will saw a piece of wood, and make a box, though a clumsy one; but give him a fiddle and a fiddle-stick, and he can do nothing.

And:

‘JOHNSON. (laughing,) ‘No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, did you ever play on any musical instrument?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. I once bought me a flagelet; but I never made out a tune.’ BOSWELL. ‘A flagelet, Sir!—so small an instrument? I should have liked to hear you play on the violoncello. THAT should have been YOUR instrument.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I might as well have played on the violoncello as another; but I should have done nothing else. No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small.

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Allan Bloom on Music

By coincidence, I happen to be reading Allan Bloom’s 1987 book criticising the state of education (though primarily higher education) while this musical literacy controversy has unfolded. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom argues against a creeping moral relativism and an education system that tries to make students not into ‘scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue — openness’. Paradoxically, it is this same ‘openness’ that has closed minds — ‘openness results in American conformism’, Bloom writes. One thinks of the classic G.K. Chesterton line, that ‘the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.’ If you never close your mind on something, you’ll be intolerant of or indifferent to anyone who argues with you — in other words anyone who has themselves sensibly closed their minds. A rejection of certainties and absolutes and truth will limit the extent to which you can meaningfully engage with and interrogate the world. And this idea is of course very popular now on the right and the ‘anti-left’, if you will. (Though I would say the only prominent contemporary public academic who is equally as articulate as Bloom on the matter is Jordan Peterson. Mostly the discourse is pretty lousy, which he kind of predicted; I’m not sure Bloom would have been impressed by the rise of ‘alternative media’, for instance.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s an entire chapter on the state of music education. In it, he argues that rock music in particular ‘ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.’ Bloom follows a long lineage of thinkers who have been suspicious of many aspects of music. With the exception of Lenin, who was only suspicious of music because it encouraged beauty and niceness, most of them were religious: certain early protestants, Islamists, Augustine in his Confessions detailing the seduction of chant, and both Orthodox and Roman Catholic suspicion of musical instruments instead of voice. Bloom goes even further back to Plato who similarly saw music as ‘the barbarous expression of the soul’. ‘Music,’ Bloom writes, ‘is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror’. (That sounds positively Burkean.)

He argues that classical music attempts to tame the soul’s raw passions by forming them into art. It is a civilising process, the application of reason and education to a wild passion. Bloom isn’t arguing that music is any way neutered by this process. Instead, music education should give people the means to extend and manipulate this joy in pursuit of a greater version of themselves. ‘Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be.’ But what are we to make of works that very skillfully exacerbate the intrinsic barbarism of music? Bloom seem to be suspicious of young people’s fondness for Ravel’s Bolero, for it has ‘the beat of sexual intercourse’. Where did he stand on a deliberately savage work like Rite of Spring? Do works like these discourage ‘cooperation of the sentiments’? Don’t these provide ‘premature ecstasy’? I am somewhat weary of exercising what seems to be a moral judgement on music itself. There are more reliable ways to argue that modern pop music is largely bad music and bad culture. Sure, music definitely needs to be formed into something good and meaningful, but why must the starting point be barbarism and not, say, innocence?

Bloom argues that the lack of talent or virtue in the music makes it it an easy and dangerous drug: ‘it artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavours’.  Those who take drugs and have gotten over it, ‘find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations’. This extends to those addicted to rock music, whose untamed ecstasy can lead the young to find normalcy — reality — grim and harsh, once they get over rock music. Okay, but considering most people have not gotten over rock music, and that their passion for it has not really subsided, this prognosis hasn’t survived the test of time. What he is right to point out is that ‘as long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its pro-longed use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf’. In that way, it is a numbing drug. And that deafness is very real, and can be difficult to crawl out of, as I can personally attest. The best analogy is sexual, as music is arguably the most sensuous of the arts. Fetish and pornography will dull one to the beauty of sex. You have this exciting, visceral, barbarous music. But without being civilised, it only starves and steals from the soul. Bloom convincingly portrays the resulting musical culture as dystopian:

Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvellous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

Ouch. Take out ‘Walkman’ and ‘MTV’ and replace them with ‘smartphone’ and ‘YouTube’, and that paragraph sounds truer today than it did in 1987.

And on that bleak note, how about some Elizabethan melancholy? John Dowland’s brilliant chromatic fantasia, Forlorn Hope Fancy:

Charles Ives: The Attacker of Beauty or Its Defender?

I’m reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, having seen it recommended too many times to count. And indeed it’s a very fun read, a real page-turner. But his section on Ives annoyed me enough to write this post. Some good stuff, but also many cliches and stereotypes. It made me then mentally run through the common stereotypes of Ives: the eccentric innovator or the serial fabricator of dates, the dogmatic stubborn visionary, the non-professional musical purist or the cranky amateur, an independent man isolated from the classical music world. All of these are at least partly wrong. Yet people keep coming back to them as they cast him in that much-desired heroic Romantic role.

However, my biggest bugbear is the portrayal of Ives as the attacker of beauty — far from it! Yes, Ives wrote for quarter tone pianos, he took polyrhythms to unheard levels, he was among the first to use tone clusters, he famously adored dissonance. But despite his oft-quoted phrases, he never rejected beauty — only the monopoly of beauty and the monopoly of tonality. His complaint was a just one considering those American composers that had preceded him, such as his teacher Horatio Parker, whose genteel ersatz European music will doubtless not be remembered. Yet he never seemed to have spoken ill of Parker, and indeed respected him. He wasn’t an iconoclast (another myth). In fact, he spoke somewhat disdainfully of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and admiringly of Brahms. But he was fed up of the stale ‘niceness’ of the music around him. Ives sums it up wonderfully:

Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.

His issue is the mis-identification of beauty, not beauty itself. I see him as fighting the corruption of beauty, how it was used as an excuse for stale thinking. One gets a sense from the quotation that he wanted to reclaim beauty from its idle captors. In fact, Ives knew there was nothing more beautiful than a hymn, so he ended his best work, the Fourth Symphony, with one. Skip to 31:40 to hear it, though to feel the full impact listen to the fourth movement in its entirety (25:20) or preferably the full symphony. The whole thing is one spectacular journey, an attempt to get, in the words of the hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee:

Few other ‘modernists’ (and I’m not sure he was a modernist, really) wrote or writes like Ives. He didn’t invent theories or schools of composition. He didn’t formalise his method; he tinkered around. He was a mischievous, playful chap, and thoroughly impassioned and excitable, someone who approached life with the utmost fury and levity in equal measure. He doesn’t belong the the dull world of the abstract modernists, so pure and detached from reality and their audience. Elliot Carter could not understand Ives’ music, for instance. He had no idea what the purpose of quoting Yankee Doodle in a piece was, and that would ruin it for him — I suspect he found it all too silly.

Ives did try to be more like his good friend and fellow composer Carl Ruggles — more wholly atonal, that is. But he admitted failure. Take the Robert Browning Overture. It’s one of his least interesting works (in a non-academic sense), and he admitted he could never realise it, though felt slightly more optimistic 20 years later (1930s), for reasons I’m not sure of (still, his judgement of the work is merely lukewarm). It certainly doesn’t hold up when I listen to it. From Ives’ Memos:

[The Robert Browning Overture] is a kind of transition piece, keeping perhaps too much (it seems to me) to the academic, classroom habits of inversion, augmentation, etc. etc., in the development of the first theme and related themes. … But it seemed (I remember when finishing it) somewhat too carefully made, technically–but looking at it now, most twenty years after, it seems natural and worth copying out.

One of the works Ives was most happy with was his setting of Psalm 90. It strikes that Ivesian balance between tonality and dissonance, and unfolds its beauty at the end, typical for Ives. He is of course drawing on his faith, which had been foremost in his life. (His wife, Harmony, was even the daughter of a pastor.) And he reaches for the celestial, that other side to Ives. He was at once the young boy from Danbury, Connecticut, relishing those memories, and the impassioned universalist eager for grand international projects and ecumenical faith. In his setting of Psalm 90 he gets perhaps the closest to the celestial, yet still grounded in his character as a ‘Yankee’ composer, though less so than than other works. This work strikes me as somewhere between the Fourth Symphony and his never-completed, insanely-ambitious Universe Symphony. But much more contained and focused than either of those works.

Ives is known, perhaps, for his love of dissonance — dissonance for its own sake. But he also loved folk melodies for their own sake. He didn’t disdain the surrounding popular culture as the Frankfurt School came to. He was fond of incorporating ragtime in his work, for example (and Alex Ross rightly points this out in his book). Look up his joyous Four Ragtime Dances to see this.

One of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in Ives’ music — and one which was apparently a great struggle to compose — comes in the form of a simple folk-like melody in ‘Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day’, the last movement of his Holidays Symphony. The section begins 7:20 until a bit after the 11 mark. Apologies for audio quality — it hardly does it justice — but it was the best I could find:

Ives would sometimes give the appearance of deferring to musical simplicity. He would make it so that his music resembled amateur bands — notes coming in late, or simply the wrong notes, for instance. Ives wrote about his friend: ‘Keyes says these notes are O.K. –he is the best critic, for he doesn’t know one note from another’. Biographer Jan Swafford suggested that ‘failing to find he approval of the sophisticated, Ives settled for that of the tone-deaf. So far, he seemed to find it funny.’ He certainly did, but as much as it was a reactionary posture in terms of the classical music world, he really did have a strong democratic sense.

What I’m trying to say, is that Ives was far from the stubborn modernist people portray him as. He didn’t resent beauty or simplicity. At one point Alex Ross described him as ‘uncompromising’, and at another time a ‘stubborn youth’ — which is total nonsense, as he was a terribly shy boy and his early works were quite conventional, with a couple of fun lighter works written mostly for his peers. Maybe what Ives really was was a Romantic with a mischievous bent. I don’t know — and it’s not as if music is one linear, easily-categorised progression. Ives was unusual though, for sure, just not in the way so many think.

I’d like to end with Feldeinsamkeit, what Jan Swafford has called ‘one of the most beautiful songs an American has created’. Ives wrote it in 1897, a sort of memorial for a Dr. Griggs, a choirmaster Ives was close to. This is my favourite recording: