Classical music and humanism

Classical music is often considered as an art form which embodies humanistic and ethic ideals, and is supposed to inspire moral awareness in its listeners. This aspirational vision of serious music is one of the results of the Enlightenment as it developed at the end of the 18th century, when in aesthetic theory ‘the artist’ became an ‘independent entity’ and no longer a mere craftsman in the service of church, court and nobility. This vision formed an important strand in 19th culture, where it had to struggle with the reactions the Enlightenment’s  sometimes dry rationalism provoked, inadvertedly stimulating romanticism with its vague but profound  emotional urges, so strongly disqualified by Goethe.

In music, it was Beethoven’s works, especially the symphonies, which embodied the new ethical and spiritual ideals of 18C Enlightenment in a strong and expressive way. He was an avert reader, even delving in Kant and struggling with the concept of das Ding an sich, next to his readings of Aristotle and Indian wisdom. Although he had difficulties with arithmetics – struggling with the management of money and the counting of coffee beans for his breakfast – he was intelligent and intellectually aware of his times, and had a presentiment of developments to come. After his death in 1827, his works became the basis of the central performance culture, and set standards of composing and performing, on which our current concert life with its performance culture, including music education and musicology, still rests. The remarkable thing in all of this is, that Beethoven could not really have known the immense influence his music would have, but something of its inspirational force and mission he must have deeply felt. Here are some reflections upon an article by Alex Ross about Beethoven in the New Yorker:

The humanistic values of classical music are often suggested to only begin with Beethoven, also because he explicitly expressed his intentions on the point. But are the works by Mozart and Haydn, or J.S. Bach, less ethically-infused? Or the Renaissance polyphonists? The humanistic element in European art music is not an invention by Beethoven, but an inherent part of the art form which Beethoven’s music only brought-out in stronger relief. Whether part of a court culture, or in the service of religion, or in the ‘free market’ concert life of bourgeois society, serious music has always been trying to express the highest spiritual and aesthetic aspirations of our civilisation. But which are they, these aspirations? And, what do we define as ‘humanism’? The ideals of Renaissance humanism as described by people like Erasmus, were not democratic or egalitarian as our modern society would understand ‘humane society’, and both Goethe and Schiller were quite sceptic about the political ideas of the French revolution and, when blood began to flow abundantly in name of these ideas, overtly denouncing. Of course, the situations of those periods have to be taken into account in assessing those movements leading-up to the modern world where human rights in the form of freedom, and freedom of speech, equality before the law, and protection of life represent a highly-developed sense of the values of civilised society that can be called ‘humanistic’ in a broad sense.

How does classical music, as a genre within the cultural field of today, embody humanistic values? How do we define ‘classical music’? and ‘humanistic values’? and why would music have to add to something that is so much better put into words? We know that Beethoven could easily be appropriated by the nazis, as his music could as easily be used as a mighty symbolism at the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Leonard Bernstein led an internationally-assembled orchestra in a solemn performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, changing ‘Freude’ by ‘Freedom’ in the text of the finale. The whole idea of humanistic values as a natural part, so to speak, of classical music, is rather problematic, because where lie the boundaries of classical music? Is Stravinsky’s Sacre part of classical music as a genre? Definitely so, but its subject is the opposite of humanism. And what to do with music which seems to leave the human territory altogether, like Debussy’s La Mer which is all ‘about’ a natural phenomenon, with no humans involved, and that is thus entirely amoral? And what are the moral, ethical, humanistic values as expressed in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, undoubtely one of music’s musical peaks? So, when we focus on concrete examples and measure them against the aspirational idealism of classical music’s embodiment of humanistic values, there is quite some work to do to be entirely convincing.

An attempt may be the consideration, that such values are not explicitly and conceptually part of the musical work, they transpire in the vague but intense connection between the work and the listener. We get here into the territories of aesthetics and psychology: values in music that is abstract – for example, the symphonies of Beethoven which form the best testing ground of the problem – are expressed, or communicated in some way, on the emotional level, not on the intellectual / rational level. For instance, we can be rationally aware and understanding of the concept of truthful authenticity, like honesty that is real and not fake, but how would such quality feel? The miracle of music is, that it can make the listener feel the emotional quality of honesty, or nobility, or authenticity, which are – probably – rational concepts in the first place, or: they become so when the feeling of these properties becomes conscious. With emotional experience music has a lighter job: it can convey emotional states like longing, joy, anxiety, struggle, conflict, serenity etc. etc. and since they are used in music without a rational concept, they can be used in different contexts – hence the vulnerability to misuse and manipulation.

So, humanistic ideals can be made felt through certain ways the music is unfolding in a narrative, like the above-mentioned emotional qualities can. For instance, the notion of freedom can be sensed in the way musical logic deviates from ordered patterns and returns to it, thereby demonstrating freedom in relation to order, as all kinds of emotional experiences can be similarly metaphorically expressed in the structure of the musical textures. It seems to me that only if the concept of ‘humanistic values’ is understood as the best qualities of man’s inner life, including both his intellectual and emotional faculties, this aspect of classical music can make sense. For instance, the often difficult relationship we have with ‘the other’, can be seen reflected in works which try to combine very different elements under some overarching unity, which thus includes contrast. And subjects as experienced in the Sacre (human sacrifice as part of man’s existential anxiety) can then be seen as forceful challenges to our opinion about ourselves, when we are stirred by primordal impulses, as La Mer can be understood not as a direct depiction of a natural phenomenon, but as an invitation to become aware of our emotional relationship to the beauties of nature, the forces of which also live in our own inner world: Debussy wanted us to feel what ‘the sea’ is as an impressive entity, so that we can feel ourselves to be nature, or the other way around: to feel how ‘human’ nature is herself. After all, we are part of nature, and we evolved according to its creative unfolding. In this sense, the best of man’s inner capacities is related to the forces of creation, which appear humanized in the form of the work of art. It seems to me that in this relationship lies the comforting and humanizing quality of the best of classical music.

The conductor Daniel Barenboim has said some things that form part of this exploration of humanism and music that are helpful to focus our thoughts about the subject:

What is, ultimately, perhaps the most difficult lesson for the human being – learning to live with discipline yet with passion, with freedom yet with order – is evident in any single phrase of music.

The same forces that form our existence, on the intellectual as wel as on the emotional level, can be found in classical music, where they are made conscious in an aesthetic whole.

Music is an art that touches the depth of human existence; an art of sounds that crosses all borders.

The drives that define our life, operate under the surface of consciousness, but they bubble-up regularly, either in a supporting or in a disruptive way, according to what happens on the surface. In this sense, music acts as a mirror of self-reflection, which is at the core of humanistic philosophies. And since self-reflection is a universal human capacity, we find it in every culture, and this is the point where different cultures can relate to each other. Especially today, an important consideration.

I maintain music is not here to make us forget about life. It’s also here to teach us about life: the fact that everything starts and ends, the fact that every sound is in danger of disappearing, the fact that everything is connected – the fact that we live and we die.

Seen thus, music is as fragile as our existence, and as important as our consciousness, and thoroughly related to everything we feel and do. But it is not explicit: it is subliminal, and only becomes conscious after the fact. Of course, all this only becomes clear after a trajectory of education, of Bildung, and not every individual is endowed with the capacities to understand and to relate to classical music. Nonetheless, it should be clear that classical music as a genre is not a chique niche interest of the happy few, but at the core of what our civilization means in terms of humanism and sophistication, and as such it is universal.

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