Believe it or not, Bach was once the music breaking all the rules; but by Beethoven his music had become the rule that was meant to be broken, first in order to capture the 19th century’s sense of Romanticism, then in order to portray the early to mid 20th century’s sense of chaos and alienation.
When order was restored to the so-called “classical” music world – ironically, a process that began during the social upheaval of the 1960s – much of it had a decidedly retro feel: everything “neo” was not neo at heart (hence the hyphens neo-classicism, neo-romanticism, neo-baroque). At the same time, many young musicians’ striving for period authentic performance were even more revivalist in their quest for forgotten treasures among history’s minor composers: “new” works that were surprising primarily due to their uncanny ability to feel familiar on first hearing.
The contemporary composers those revivalists set aside in favor of past masters often – again ironically – sought originality in post-modern and ethnically influenced pastiche. The one movement that did have something of a fresh smell – minimalism – although still vibrant as a now accepted part of the canon, also feels somewhat stale for the same reason. It is comforting to us. Too comforting: over the past fifty years we’ve become accustomed to hearing minimalism in soundtracks, in ad campaigns and even campaign ads, its style co-opted by myriad commercial opportunities. Its power is no longer disruptive. Its composers even make me think a little of that scene in the 1996 movie Basquiat in which the then still unknown painter is being advised by his hoop shooting buddy on how to become – and stay – famous (upshot: keep doing the same thing over and over again).
Little of this music – neo, revivalist, pastiche, or minimalist – found its way into liturgy; even less was actually composed with church, temple or mosque in mind.
And hence we’re back to Bach.
Christmas and Easter cantatas may provide liturgical lift and antidote to more quotidian fare, but can the professional and amateur Bach holiday performances that proliferate in our major cities be properly called a Rebel Yell? This was the music that established all the rules. It is the canon of our culture. How can it simultaneously be a counter-cultural call in the way that religion requests – nay, demands – of us? Namely, that we seek an order that turns the order of this world on its head: the first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the earth, turn the other cheek, the only way to save your life is to give it up, even to love your enemies.
Hmm, perhaps the problem is not the music, but us. As I look at that list of counter-culture calls, how familiar they feel, even to the point of being forgotten. Yup, got it, is my response; I can almost hear the ho-hum at the end of the list. Once striking statements have been downgraded to platitudes due to their being constantly co-opted by a deceptively and only superficially similar “I’m ok, you’re ok” modern secular sentiment. Like the music of the minimalists I previously criticized, I am complacent to their power. Been there, done that. Like Bach, been around for centuries – heard it all before.
Yeah, right – like I really love my enemies.
I cannot claim to have mastered any of those messages, and with that confession, perhaps I am also willing to admit that the rebel is to be found at least as much in the listener as in the one who yells.
So are classic refrains excused from not calling us forward if they instead call us back to an equally disquieting present – to something we tend to forget outside the sanctuary?
In other words, does whether so-called classical music constitute a Rebel Yell depend in part on the context?
In this blog’s first post we found that Beatle George Harrison’s dulcet-toned My Sweet Lord and Give Me Love were more Rebel Yells than his eagerly iconoclastic band mate John’s anthems, precisely because they brought an uncomfortable recognition of the sacred into the secular setting of popular music. In the second post, we found that faith-filled punk is possible when the power of each infuses the other: earnest punk disrupting genuine faith and faith’s earnestness disrupting everything that makes punk genuine. Punk becomes Abrahamic – not Jewish and punk, Christian and punk, Muslim and punk, but truly Jewish, Christian and Muslim punk – when each is allowed to fully be the context for the other.
In both cases – George and Faithful Punk – the music is anything but “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Carrying that lesson forward as our minimum criteria, let’s now listen to something “classical”.
First, catch just the initial prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – this book of compositions heralded a revolution in tuning in its time, but was also an ordered pedagogical tool that set out all the “rules of music” for centuries of subsequent students. You can almost here the sense of laying out, of mapping, in this opening prelude: a challenge is being set and a curriculum introduced.
Now listen to the realization of both of those possibilities – that of simultaneous revolt and instruction, key complements characteristic of the devout Bach’s many religious works – in Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s further realization of that prelude and its theme.
In one of those wonderful mash-ups made possible by the Internet and amateur curating, if you also watch the video that accompanies this particular YouTube link for Pärt’s piece – unrelated to any intention of the composer or even this recording’s specific performance – you will witness a slow revelation of the totemic 2012 sculpture by South African artist Marco Gianfranelli on the very spot where Nelson Mandela had been arrested fifty years earlier.
It is obvious why the person who posted this music juxtaposed these two pieces – the two complement each other so well, if you didn’t read the liner notes you might even be convinced this was music performed, perhaps even composed, for that sculpture’s unveiling. But obviously that is not the case, the two art works separated by nearly forty-five years, even the recorded performance done a decade before the sculpture’s commission. The question then is why do these two un-related works – Pärt’s music and Gianfranelli's sculpture of Mandela – create such powerful synergy?
Mandela is the “criminal” cum hero, a narrative of resurrection: a man whose very existence is message. We see in that statue the incongruities that are Bach’s complementarities – instruction and revolution – and we hear those themes expanded upon and perhaps even more fully realized in Pärt’s composition.
And why is that? What was Pärt’s original context?
Author Paul Elie, in his 2012 book Reinventing Bach, informs us that Pärt’s 1968 composition “made the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier into a protest and a profession of faith at once. Pärt, born in 1935, had come of age under communism, composing twelve-tone works. Now he overlaid the chords of Bach’s first prelude with a chorus of many dozens, who sang the Credo from the Latin Mass (‘I believe in Jesus Christ…’) as a prelude to cacophony. The music came apart serially, in slashing orchestral strokes; then it came back together around the piano, drawn together by the prelude’s familiar C major arpeggios. Credo was defiant of the Soviet authorities, official atheists all. It was performed only once, with the conductor withholding the text from the censors. Pärt’s government commissions were withdrawn, and he went silent. But for Credo once was enough.”
A creed: by definition, nothing could be more about conforming, about rules.
And yet in this context it is a revolt.
Pärt’s gesture was as faith-filled as Bach, the church bound musician before him, and yet still it somehow presages punk.
Listen to Pärt’s Credo again, and imagine yourself there at its first performance, a member of the Soviet authorities, perhaps an official atheist, perhaps an atheist only in your official capacity and really a Christian at heart – an Orthodox Christian in hiding. The words, the sounds: in that context, I actually feel accused. I feel anger. Even terror. Disruption.
Listen again and watch the video, the unfolding of Mandela’s statue, and imagine yourself a supporter of apartheid during that era when Mandela was still in prison, witnessing by some magical process the unfolding of future history. The same feelings of being accused, of anger, even terror. Disruption. Now imagine yourself at the end of that history, the same person who supported apartheid, but at the conclusion of the life that was Mandela’s, back in the flow of time, and when you hear the music “come back together around the piano, drawn together by the prelude’s familiar C arpeggios”, what is it that you feel?
Is it forgiveness?
And can’t even forgiveness be an act of rebellion?
Across the decades and in different circumstances the music still maintains its charge, and even appears able to alter the form of its energy in response to its context, as if in accord with some sort of artistic equivalent to the first law of thermodynamics; analogous to the Heisenberg principle, it is as if Pärt’s composition itself is somehow able to be receptive to – and thereby respond to its reception by – its listener.
Hardly the same thing over and over again, that is by definition classic, something in which we find value – even new, previously unnoticed value – with repeated listening.
It changes us, and changes with us, depending on our context.
And it is therefore not classical music, but what makes music classic, that also makes it a Rebel Yell, able to objectively instigate a revolution in spirit.
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