Thursday, September 5, 2013

Listening to Classical Music: A Moral Imperative?

I'm still too busy to post much, but I thought this provocative essay by a composer who's also on the theology factulty at Wyoming Catholic College was worth sharing.

If one knows that Palestrina or Bach or Handel or Mozart or Beethoven wrote superior music, then choosing consistently to listen to less excellent music would be a moral fault. It could even be a mortal sin . . . for example, listening for pleasure to songs about sexual perversion or [to] Satanic heavy metal would be mortally sinful. However, since we must strive to flee even venial sins lest they prepare the way for mortal sin, it is always better to assume that today’s popular music, produced mostly by hedonists who are generally singing about sins, is a slippery slope leading to some kind of intellectual pollution and consent.

. . . . For a person attracted by the goodness inherent in art, there can be no divide between entertainment and profundity or worthiness. We should only want to listen to that which is beautiful; to settle consciously for something less is a lessening of our humanity, of our rationality. It would be like saying that only a church needs to be holy, while a home can be profane. No, the home itself must be made holy, it must be a “domestic church,” a sort of monastic enclosure for the bringing up of saints. The divide between entertainment and fine art is a form of dualism. . . we should elevate our souls to the point where what is intrinsically best or most beautiful is what gives us the greatest pleasure and restfulness. In other words, we should aim at a condition where anything we choose to do—whether for relaxation, leisure, or work—is equally noble, excellent, and praiseworthy. When I am in a serious mood, I should sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer; when I am in a light mood or in need of relaxation, I should also sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer.

While I would defend with my dying breath the superiority of anything Beethoven ever wrote to practically anything else created across genres in the history of humanity, I'm not sure I agree with Kwasniewski. He works from the assumption that the classics of the western art-music canon are morally superior to other music (or "musics," as we say in the embarrassingly-desperate-to-be-hip world of musicology), but his definition of that which is musically "intrinsically best or most beautiful" is, at best, a tautology.
In the realm of Kwasniewski's aesthetics, could John Coltrane and John Cage be elevated into the moral pantheon along with Beethoven and Bach? And what about John Prine? They would be in mine. Kwasniewski anathematizes the musics that stir up ache and longing, but what does he say to the musics that assuage them, like this?


MrsDarwin said...

This seems akin to saying there's only one way that music can be good. Sometimes you want the intricacy of Mozart, sometimes you want to sing the blues. The giveaway line is "today's popular music, produced mostly by hedonists who are generally singing about sins" -- as if all modern music is written by the same kind of person (or in the same kind of style, or about the same subjects), or that the composers of the classical and romantic era always led exemplary lives.

And not all music that stirs up ache and longing stirs it up for something bad.

Pentimento said...

Well said, Mrs. D. And, incidentally, some of the greatest music of the classical and romantic eras is about sin. The operas of Mozart come to mind.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Lots of broad generalizations there and faulty assumptions. Isn't philosophy the handmaiden of theology (and a pre-requisite) and logic the foundation of philosophy. Such sloppy thinking in a supposed theologian pains me.

Otepoti said...

"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is".

Also, great music is not for every day, I think. As Beatrice jokes, when refusing Don Pedro:
"No, my lord, unless I might have another for working
days: your Grace is too costly to wear every day."

Some music is to costly to "wear every day."

Pentimento said...

I also wonder what he means by "listening," exactly. Is he talking about background music while you're doing something else, or real close attentive listening -- attempting to enter into the ethos of the music, its style, its form, its particularities? Most people, not least in "domestic churches," lack the time for that kind of listening. But I have to argue that playing Bach while you tidy up may not be as morally edifying as he makes it seem. I wonder if the kind of listening he proposes is really for childless people who can set aside listening time.

As someone the majority of whose life has been occupied with the music he prescribes, too, I have to say that this kind of attentive listening is work, and can be exhausting.

There's a kind of essentialist-qualitative categorizing of "great" composers, too. I wonder if he'd omit Schubert for his syphilis, Schumann for his madness , Wagner for being a dick as well as batshit insane?

Sophie Miriam said...

I would like to know what kinds of classical music he's listening to that doesn't cause any aches. Or maybe I just listen to too much bluegrass so I'm just completely corrupted?

BettyDuffy said...

And the idea of turning the home into an "enclosure" raises some alerts for me as well. Is one allowed to poop or sweat in such an enclosure?

He warns against dualism, while exhibiting a dualistic mentality about earthier, lower, "profane" art forms.

The Church at its best can absorb even the pagan arts.

BettyDuffy said...

I think the thing that most troubles me about this piece, is the idea that the domestic church is set at a particular imaginary bar, and everything below it must be shut out, whereas, I think a true saintliness encompasses both the beautiful and the wretched, its arms spread wide to bear as much of the world as possible towards eternity. Doesn't mean you have to listen to music that offends you or God, but it does ask of everything, I believe, where is God in this? Can it be made Holy?

Pentimento said...

BD, you remind me of Yeats's poem "Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop":

"'. . . love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.' "

cnb said...

I agree with others that the argument is far too simplistic in the particular line it draws between worthy and unworthy music, but the larger point seems to me quite sound: the music we enjoy is both a reflection of and an influence on the order and disorder in our souls. It is true that we ought to try to become people who love beauty and excellence, and we ought not to be satisfied with mediocrity. Do we -- do I -- think about that enough?

Pentimento said...

My problem with this argument, though, is that the criteria for defining beauty and excellence are not clearly or convincingly defined. Are they subjective, in the ear of the beholder? Or are there absolutes? If so, from what do those absolutes derive?

As I said in a comment above, I firmly believe that the music of Beethoven (et al., but especially Beethoven) is superior to just about any form of artistic expression across cultures and centuries. But I was in a store the other day when Blondie's song "Dreaming" came on, and it occurred to me what a great song it is and how well-played. It probably had little or no deleterious effect on my soul to appreciate it. In fact, as I think you know, I have a doctorate in music, had a small but international career as a concert and opera singer, and am now writing a scholarly book on a musicological subject, but I found myself hoping that anything I ever do might be as good as that Blondie song. Or as the Temptations' "My Girl." or Parliament's "Flash Light," or anything in Joni Mitchell's oeuvre, etc., etc. What is good? What is beautiful?

cnb said...

Yes, that's why I think the line drawn in the essay is too simplistic. In a sense, any line will be too simplistic: the ways in which beauty and excellence can show themselves are too multifarious to be captured in a simple formulation.

I am thinking about Thomas Aquinas' image of creation manifesting the glory of God through the sheer diversity of its creatures: angels and eagles, yes, but also squirrels and slugs. No one creature on its own can capture the fullness of that glory; we see it better when it is reflected through a multitude of mirrors, each one less than perfect in itself.

In the same way, it may be that a Beethoven string quartet is objectively a great and glorious work, but still it cannot exhaust the potential of beauty and goodness. It may be that there is a certain aspect of that goodness that can be conveyed best through a pop song, with its sense of immediacy and its personal stamp.

This still doesn't change the fact, though, that we ought to treasure the good, look for it, and honour it, wherever it may be found, and that we ought to avoid those things which do not convey beauty or goodness to us. That, I think, is the sensible core of the article.

Pentimento said...

"Those things which . . . convey beauty or goodness TO US" (my emphasis) implies a subjective perception of beauty, though. I'm not sure if Kwasniewski would entertain such moral-aesthetic relativism.