The well-known architect Leon Krier, the great inspirator and theorist of a new, humane architecture and urban planning, based upon an interpretation of classical architecture, has said: ‘Classical architecture is atemporal, like mathematics’:
Further elaborations by Krier makes clear, that this transcendental quality is due not to the invention of proportions, but of their discovery. Both mathematics and classical architecture, and we can say: all classical art, demonstrates what the architect Steven Semes calls ‘the holistic nature of human perception’.
These are not wildly-groundbreaking opinions, but common sense, based upon empirical evidence and experience. In our time, such statements have taken-on the quality of revolutionary pronouncements because these common sense insights have become extremely rare and contested by the idea, that cultural achievements are mere human constructs, i.e. products of the conscious will and for that reason, as valuable as any other human construct. So, we can reject the idea of tonality in music and construct a very different system of coherence, as we can build glass-and-steel skyscrapers and assume we will live and work as happily in them as in a Viennese or Parisian city centre appartment. These 20C misconceptions are born from the idea that nature is something we observe from a distance and should be subdued to our will, without taking into account its nature, the nature of nature, so to speak. This misconception can also be streched to the territory of ethics, psychology, sociology, sexuality, you name it. It is the idea that there is no authority above the human mind, and even reality as such is often contested as something to be taken into account.
But the reality of nature, as human nature, is the basis of all we hope to create and achieve, in any field. That some proportions in architecture we recognize as better, more pleasing, closer to our innermost being and its longing for harmony, is not a human construct but a discovery of an already existing reality, of which we are an organic part. Hence the ‘holistic nature of human perception’.
Our inbuilt perceptive capacities of recognizing order and harmony makes it possible to recognize aesthetic qualities in works from other than Western cultures, because these capacities are universal in humans. This also explains the ease with which Chinese and Japanese musicians master Western classical music, in spite of the great differences in culture and history, and the enthusiasm with which African masks were incorporated, at the beginning of the last century, into European modern art – the attraction of the ‘pure primitive’ for the jaded tastes of an eroding urban cultural elite.
Walking through a classical architectural monument, which happens in time, is comparable to listening to a classical symphony, which gradually builds-up in the subconscious mind an image of interrelated spaces, masses, proportions and ornaments; Steven Semes has written about this comparison in this essay:
Wholeheartedly recommended…. because these thoughts teach us much about how to contribute to a renaissance of classical music.
But what do we mean by the term ‘classical’? Not the restricted historical period of ca. 1770 – 1827, but any music, which is based upon ‘the holistic nature of human perception’, and which contributes its individual version of the average language which offers so many different interpretations.
In ‘Classical Architecture, the Poetics of Order’ (MIT Press 1986), Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre explore classical architecture not as a cultural history in a linear narrative, but as a mental space where numerous different designs and applications are considered from a couple of fundamental aesthetic points of departure. For music, this exploration is very instructive, since it demonstrates comparable efforts by the creative mind to invent designs where conflicts and contradictions are solved in an overarching integrated whole, which is specifically stimulating because such designs reflect the instinctive drive in humans to arrive at some balance during the often conflicting and volatile trajectory of life, and to find something of durability and continuity that may glue together the broken bits of experience as they may be met. Especially in our time of confusion and cultural erosion, such explorations have become of the greatest importance.
Man kann in eine Kultur, sei sie auch noch so lokal entstanden, hereinwachsen, absorbieren, sich mit den Kulturwerten identifizieren. Die verschiedene Europäische Kulturen, wie von den verschiedenen Nationen ‘vertreten’, sind nicht ganz abgeschlossene Bereiche, aber nur verschiedene Betonungen von irgendwelche Eigenschaften die alle zusammen Europäisch sind, in der Urzeit aus Griechisch/Römischer und Christlicher Zivilisation entstanden und die sich weiterentwickelt haben, offen nach aussen und nach der eigenen Vergangenheit, und inklusive universeller humanistischen Werten, wovon man heute überall in der Welt die Reflektionen sehen kann.
On the website of Prospect, the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has written eloquently and profoundly on Wagner’s four-night opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’:
Wagner wanted to be an opera composer, plus cultural philosopher plus political agitator plus founder of a new religion: ‘Kunstreligion’, centered around his own works which – as in Christianity – focus upon redemption. (R. Strauss: ‘I don’t understand where I should have to be redeemed from’.) In most articles and essays about the Ring, Wagner’s antisemitism is always put on the table as proof of one of W’s most serious moral flaws, and the question, whether charicatures of ‘Jews’ can be found in the operas. Scruton leaves that question alone, simply dismisses it, and concentrates on the possibilities of meaning and message.
The current mobilization of right-wing protests against immigration and acceptance of war refugees in Europe, stimulated by ignorance and distrust of politics and media, is fed by two interrelated sources which are generally left untouched by the political parties in favor of both the EU and a controlled immigration: national identity and cultural identity. Both are emotional in nature, and the reason that the traditional political parties and the gigantic organisational structure of the EU prefer to avoid to tackle these subjects, is that they (the organizations) are strongly rationalistic in nature, due to the bureaucratic challenges of the modern world which requires management skills above all else. Scale requires bureaucracy, and bureaucracy by its nature does not indulge in philosophical and cultural questions. Also the very different histories of the European nations forces collaborations to be rational, as to not tread on sensitive toes and muddle the waters with old resentments and suspicions. The tragedy of the EU is that it wants to be an overall structure unifying these different nations, and it sees – logically – rationality as the only way to transcend borders, appealing to common sense, concrete interests, intelligence and argument, instead of patriottic emotions which have created so much havoc in the continent’s past. So, a large territory of potential disruption has been left unploughed, where in these days the seeds of all those burried resentments and suspicions sprout into a fresh jungle of dangerous sentiments, where the progeny of fascism (laying dormant for decennia) are easy to detect (as can be seen in the ‘Völkisch’ appeal of movements like the German ‘Pegida’).
The year 2013, celebrating Wagner’s birth in 1813, provoked a flurry of (extra) performances, articles and books in an attempt to understand, enjoy, and make accessible the life work of one of the most controversial European cultural icons of the 19th century. Reading the reviews of the newly-published books and some of the extensive essays in the (cultural) magazines, makes clear that it is Wagner’s personality and turbulent life, together with his dubious posthumous influence – especially his antisemitism – that receives most of the attention, as do the plots of his operas and their possible interpretations. The music as music however, is hardly treated, and if at all, rather superficially and piecemeal. But what the music, in itself, is, and how it works, and especially how it is possible that the music turns so many music lovers into helpless addicts, living from shot to shot to keep their dependence intact – a sort of happy surrender to emotional experience in the form of tones that often looks like a passionate love obsession that cannot be quenched – that seems to be a ‘mystery’, difficult to rationally understand and impossible to analyse.
The works of Morton Feldman (1926 – 1987) represent one of the clearest demonstrations of mourning in terms of sound, and often beautiful sound. In 2006 the American music journalist Alex Ross dedicated an interesting article to Feldman:
Some quotes from the article:
In a way, his music seemed to protest all of European civilization, which, in one way or another, had been complicit in Hitler’s crimes.
So, all the achievements of Europe thrown, indiscriminatingly, as a whole in the dustbin of history. A good example of postwar nihilism, quite understandable for a composer who first and foremost identified with being Jewish (not American?), and with the ambition of becoming the ‘greatest Jewish composer’ (surpassing Mendelssohn, Mahler and Schoenberg?).
He was a hard-core modernist to the end, despite his sensualist tendencies, and he did not conceive of art a medium for sending messages.
And yet, his work communicates his very personal emotional life experience – a sad and empty one, in spite of living in the USA and having not suffered any war atrocity.
Three books on Mahler, one reprint of an old one and two new studies, have seen the light:
by Bruno Walter, with a biographical essay by Ernst Křenek, and an introduction by Erik Ryding
Dover, 236 pp., $14.95 (paper)
by Thomas Peattie
Cambridge University Press, 220 pp., $99.99
by Seth Monahan
Oxford University Press, 278 pp., $45.00
A review can be found at:
Mahler is often depicted as either one of the two last Germanic / symphonic composers (together with Richard Strauss) or the progenitor of atonal modernism in Schoenberg, or a combination of both, while in reality he was a category of his own, his music a combination of very diverse material from very different sources. There is much to admire in his music, as there is much to criticize, but in all respects this impressive body of work is a great wealth of musical experience and a stimulating challenge for conductors.
What education is about, the assumption was, is the attainment of culture. By culture was meant an understanding of life and what is most important in it. This understanding is obtained through experience, observation, insight, and the ability to get outside oneself to view the world from a larger than merely personal perspective. Culture at this depth comprised a compound of a sense of the past, an understanding of what morality was about, and intelligence. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa notes that “culture has always signified a combination of factors and disciplines that, according to a broad social consensus, are what define it: a recognition of a shared heritage of ideas, values, works of art, a store of historical, religious, and philosophical knowledge in constant evolution, and the exploration of new artistic and literary forms and of research in all areas of knowledge.”
Quote from an important essay in The Weekly Standard of 2nd November 2015:
The longing for spring, for beginning with a clean slate, for the opportunity to begin something unhindered by other people’s work of yesterday, is deeply ingrained in the consciousness (and subconsciousness) of Western civilization. The curious and explorative spirit of Greece has suffused so much of Western thinking, that it is sometimes difficult to imagine a world without it, which sometimes shows in the rubbing of the West with the Islamic world and the civilizations of the Far East. Also, Christianity, with its promises of forgiveness, redemption, and the renewal offered by love, partly inspired the impressive developments that has given ‘the West’ such prominence, in spite of the abberations and devastating upheavels in its path. Interestingly, before postmodernism began to undermine its confidence, the West appeared to have arrived at some universal values which could be applied everywhere on the globe where people felt the appeal of progress and the urge to be liberated from circumstances which hinder any development to a ‘better life’. (We could think of ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom from state suppression and control’, ‘social welfare’, and access to education, medical facilities and factual information.) What began as a local culture in Europe, has meanwhile developed to a global culture where the notion of ‘modernity’ keeps things moving at a seemingly unstoppable pace.
People, interested in more personal / subjective meditations, are advised to follow this link to ‘The Subterranean Review’ blogspot which may offer some entertainment and / or food for reflection:
For older postings: click on the link at the bottom of the page.