2015-06-21 - Portland Press Herald - Classical Beat: In the Garden of Good and Evil

By Christopher Hyde
Original Review

Is music moral?

Maybe it was the Oratorio Chorale singing Dominick Argento’s settings of poems by Catullus, or the Portland Chamber Music Festival playing Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata, or Robert Moody’s selection of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for the Portland Symphony’s 90th Anniversary gala, but I started thinking once again about the connection, or lack thereof, between music and morality.

All of the selections mentioned above, at one time or another, have been considered immoral, or contributing to immoral or lascivious behavior. Catullus is an X-rated poet, portions of whose works used to be printed in the original Latin so they could be read only by the cognoscenti.

Tolstoy’s novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” describes the licentious power of music and inspired the 1901 painting of the same name by René François Xavier Prinet. Tolstoy is also famous, in musical circles, for asking Rachmaninoff, after the composer had played for a St. Petersburg soiree, “But what good is it?”

Nietzsche’s idea of the übermensch, or superman, was decidedly unpopular, like Wagner and sauerkraut, during our wars with Germany.

Another possible motivation in my thinking: I just finished a new novel, “That Iron String” by Jack Kohl, which details the career of a pianist driven to megalomania and homicide by the pressure of competitions. The protagonist (or his doppelgänger) conceives the notion that music, or at least the traditional Romantic idea of virtuoso performance as perpetuated by competitions, is the enemy and must be overcome for man to be free.

Because of its unsurpassed power to sway emotions, music has been regarded with suspicion by moralists from Plato on down. And not only moralists. Think of the French aristocratic dame who stated firmly that the waltz should not be danced in public. “Where, then, Madame?” she was asked, to which she responded, “Why, in bed, of course.”

Churches have severely limited the types of music that can be played during services. Some, such as the Puritans, forbade it entirely. Fundamentalist religions of almost every variety have condemned music as leading its listeners away from right thinking.

Dictatorial regimes, such as the Communist Party under Stalin, have tried to limit music, without much success, to acceptable forms. I rather like that notion, since it indicates that the authorities at least realize the vital importance of the arts to the welfare of the state.

Nietzsche loved music. Other philosophers have granted it grudging praise. Schopenhauer saw it as a temporary abrogation of the will to power. Aldous Huxley thought of it as a harmless distraction that prevented its practitioners from doing something worse, like going into politics.

What all of these ideas have in common is a recognition of music’s power.

Music can certainly be bad in itself (take violent, misogynistic lyrics, for example) or can lead to bad things (see military marches, national anthems or the drum roll before a beheading.)

Even good music can be used for nefarious purposes. Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C-Major, from Book One of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” has been used to death in advertising, and there is a reason for that. A recent psychological study, done in Israel, showed that students could be significantly influenced to make bad choices, such as buying term papers online, when Mozart was played as background to a sales pitch for the illegal service.

Anthony Burgess, in “A Clockwork Orange,” showed that listening to good music, such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, does not necessarily promote good behavior.

I don’t have any answer to Tolstoy’s question except that music, at least temporarily, can put one into harmony with the universe, transcending daily life. Like a mystical experience, what effect that may have subsequently depends entirely upon the hearer. The art has done what it can, by indicating a possibility. Rachmaninoff should have answered: “What good is a newborn baby?”

As for the tyranny of musical tradition, I tend to agree with the pianist in “That Iron String.” After a while, all virtuoso performances sound the same, and 12 hours of daily practice seems a horrendous waste of time. With a wary hopefulness, I think we may be getting away from the pianist-as-hero story. Kohl seems to see musicians like his protagonist as resurrectionists, breathing life into corpses.

And the world, full of musical scores waiting to be born again, needs such characters.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: classbeat@netscape.net

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