‘In the Beginning there was the Word’: Now What?

After finishing up the usual series of summer festivals, August is a good time to practise, rehearse with colleagues, plan programmes for the upcoming season, and to read all of the things that have been sitting on one’s nightstand since about last September or so. In January of this year I had made the resolution to celebrate the centenary of Tolstoy’s death by reading all of the master’s works by the 1st of January 2011. This project did not get very far, partly because I had realised that there were other books that I had promised myself to read. Some of these books I have had for a few years and have barely opened. So I decided to finally confront my literary shame and tackle one of them: the Enneads of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus (d. 270 A.D.). I know a colleague at New College whose wife, a scholar of Classical philosophy, works on Plotinus. This person is, in my estimation, a genius. Here’s an example of a typical remark from the Enneads:

‘The true Wisdom, then (found to be identical with the Intellectual-Principle), is Real Being; and Real Being is Wisdom; it is Wisdom that gives value to Real Being; and Being is Real in virtue of its origin in wisdom. It follows that all forms of existence not possessing wisdom are, indeed, Beings in right of the wisdom which went to their forming, but, as not in themselves possessing it, are not Real Beings…

…Similarly, it seems to me, the wise of Egypt – whether in precise knowledge or by a prompting of nature – indicated the truth where, in their effort toward philosophical statement, they left aside the writing-forms that take in the detail of words and sentences – those characters that represent sounds and convey the propositions of reasoning – and drew pictures instead, engraving in the temple-descriptions a separate image for every separate item: thus they exhibited the absence of discursiveness in the Intellectual Realm.’ [V, 8]

I’ve been trying to understand Plotinus, and my guess is as good as anyone else’s (well, maybe not even that much – I can hear my philosopher friends shaking their heads right now). In this specific circumstance, I think that his basic point within a neo-Platonic context is that ‘Idea’ comes first, while the ‘Writing’ of it is secondary.

In other words, semiotics are secondary to the integrity of an idea. Obviously, in the realm of music, we can’t draw exact parallels to the portrayal of images as there are in the visual arts, so we can’t just give each listener or audience member a copy of a score, but we can recognise that it is possible to stretch the limits of an instrument to the point where it becomes a vehicle for envisioning/hearing the ‘ideal’ behind the written score, if that makes any sense.

And I think, frankly, that a lot of people miss the point about artistry being more than the re-construction of past circumstances and performances. In other words, harpsichordists (or baroque violinists, or singers, or gambists, et al.) are so intent on protecting their particular style of playing that they forget that great musical art transcends form and manner of expression. I know that a bunch of musicologists who spend their time building up then debunking theories every decade or so will have a grand day in destroying my statement, saying that it represents [insert deconstruction of whatever intellectual tradition from whatever time and place], and it matters to me not one wit! The music that has stood the test of time – take, for instance, the work of J.S. Bach – is exactly that. It transcends anything that is done with it. And it is sad that when people hear a ‘different’ mode of articulation, a ‘different’ instrument, that they can’t still love that music, and instead just batter people like Landowska and Kirkpatrick without trying to understand their intellectual construct behind their music-making.

To these people I would say: at the end, the only thing we have left from the composer is the score. And it is the score that is the great equaliser between different approaches ultimately. And the score that the composer left is really just an imperfect representation of the ideal that he heard in his mind.

Now, about music that doesn’t fit that ideal — I was reading some writings of the musical diarist Roger North (actually in trying to get a break from Plotinus), and there’s an interesting clause in one of his essays about

‘this sort of popular music…most apt for driving away thinking, and letting in dancing….’

and he warns of playing the popular music in an intellectualised artistic context. This reminds me very much of the way that in the field of ‘early music’ (whatever that is), sometimes music with a relatively specific function (compared to the abstract aims of much of Bach’s work) is elevated to the level of music worth intellectualising over.  This too often is done with a great deal of purely functional Baroque music, for example, which was essentially written to be background noise for the ruling classes; and sometimes, by elevating such music, we hurt the image of those who seek to revive the music of the past by falling into the abyss of simply praising anything – even anything bad – that is old.

A brief example of all of this is Landowska’s recording – made sometime in the early 1930s, I think – of Byrd’s ‘Wolsey’s Wild’ (I have mentioned this in my previous blog posting, ‘Musings on Wanda Landowska,’ so pardon the repetition!). I have never heard another interpretation – or rather, translation – of this work that quite approaches her understanding of the essence of virginalist music. Somehow, in this short piece, she is able to capture the English combination of the bucolic and the cerebral – and it doesn’t matter whatsoever that she plays it at a tempo that most to-day would consider plain evil! Yes, she plays this jig quite slow – and to me, this tempo and her approach creates a sort of sense of nostalgia, of a jig remembered from long ago (like Tchaikovsky does in the Pathetique Symhony – exactly that!) – as if you could climb through the gramophone horn and find yourself in Elizabethan England on the other side. Let the others play the music for what it is! – a quick jig, played and forgotten. But Landowska’s recording creates feelings within me that I can’t even express. What she does with that piece….that is what it means to go beyond musical archaelogy.

We can either play Sebastian Bach’s music in the manner his contemporaries would have played or the way his angels watching over him would have played it. I would personally opt for the latter. What would these angels have played? Not the violin or the harpsichord or the organ, but the Cetra, the ideal instrument of antiquity which could do really anything — for example, in the scene ‘Possente spiro’ of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Orpheus’ ‘cetra’ is able to produce a wide variety of sounds and colours that charm Hades into allowing him to enter, and Monteverdi creates a sound-image of the cetra by using the full range of the orchestra. In this same vein, to my mind, Bach was always writing for the ideal musician who didn’t exist in corporeal form.