Friday, July 18, 2008

What Would John Do?

This wonderful piece of creative fluffery appeared on Talking Points Memo's "TPM Café Talk" today, and I cannot resist pointing readers in its direction. It is entitled "Arguments in Favor of the Election of Senator Barack Obama to the Office of the Presidency," and purports to be written by one "President John Adams."

If you know me, you know my personal affection for, nay, identification with the second President of the United States. (See here.) Far be it from me to claim that I could ever claim to possess this Founding Father's great qualities. To the contrary, I must confess to have more than my share of old John's foibles -- irascibility, overly-passionate intensity of opinion, pig-headedness, etc. etc. My admiration for him sprang originally from having portrayed him twice in the musical comedy "1776," which forced me to "inhabit" him as much as I could as an actor. As a (hopefully) good actor, I read a lot about him and his times, and learned as much as I could about what made him tick.

It was President John Adams who said "great is the guilt of an unnecessary war." Adams was speaking specifically of a potential war with France, for which members of his own party (the now long-defunct Federalist Party) were agitating with great enthusiasm. Adams considered his successful avoidance of war and negotiation of a peace treaty with France the greatest accomplishment of his Presidency. For obvious reasons, the sentiment expressed by Adams was never more powerfully appropriate than it is today, when this nation is suffering under the financial, psychological, moral, and all-too-mortal burdens of a totally unnecessary war of choice in Iraq. This is only one of several historical statements by Adams which are of peculiar relevance in the contemporary America of President George W. Bush. (Another one is this: "[A] Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.")

So I read with more than a little pleasure this post on TPM today. It purports to bring us, from beyond the grave, the endorsement by John Adams of Barack Obama for President. Obviously, it's quite tongue-in-cheek. But a great deal of it strikes me as quite astute, and historically informed. (I have no idea who actually wrote it.) The specific points he makes are that Obama: (1) is best placed to reach "past the perniciousness of faction," i.e. end as much as possible the intense polarization in our current Fox/Rove infected politics; (2) end both the endless (and phony) "War on Terror" and the maleficent so-called "Bush Doctrine" of "preemptive" war for the extension of empire; and (3) restore the Bill of Rights, the separation of constitutional powers, and the separation of Church and State. The piece concludes with an amusing reference to Abigail's wish to communicate some words of commiseration, solace and encouragement to Hillary Clinton, which Adams informs us he told Abigail to communicate to the "Inter-Net" on her own.

Please read the piece yourself -- it is amusing and yet touching. I just wish I'd had the wit to write it myself. But then, I'm not really John Adams.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Bruckner? Anton Bruckner? Why a blog post on a late-Romantic, semi-obscure, very uncool, unhip European white dead male composer? You want something hip? Hey, get your own blog.

Bruckner has been a secret passion of mine for over 41 years: ever since 1967, when I first heard a snippet of the last movement of his Eighth Symphony on the radio when I was still in high school. I remember it vividly. I was in my back yard; my mother had the radio in the kitchen turned to the classical channel. This strangely compelling music wafted outside, something that I could not recognize. I only knew what it wasn't: Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, or any of the other composers with whom I was familiar. It was majestic, awe inspiring, almost frighteningly grand -- "cosmic" in some inchoate way, and unlike anything I'd ever heard. I went into the house to see what it was. The music I'd just heard was so huge, so intense, so climactic, I was sure the piece would be over soon and the announcer would identify it. But no. Amazingly, incredibly, the music went on for at least 8 or 10 more minutes, becoming increasingly intense as it rose to a colossal, shattering climax. Finally, on came the announcer with the information I had been waiting to hear: "That was the Symphony Number 8 in c minor, by Anton Bruckner."

Bruckner. A name I had never heard before. How could there be a composer of symphonic music of whom I had never heard in my 17 years of being a hyper-classical-music-nerd? Especially, a composer of music like THIS?? Even the composer's name fascinated me by itself. It wasn't pronounced like "Brookner," as in Brooklyn, but more like "Bruuukner." It sounded deep, dark, richly hued. I was hooked. From then on, I had my eyes and ears out for this guy Bruckner. (Here, in a later performance under Carlo Maria Giulini, are the beginning, middle, and end of the fourth movement of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony which I heard that day 41 years ago.)

But Bruckner was even less well known in America back then in the summer of 1967 than he is today. It wasn't until next fall, when I went away to college at Yale, that I ever heard another note of his music. I was truly fortunate that my freshman year roommate, Joe Margolick, was every bit as much of a classical music nerd as I. He hooked me on this local New Haven radio station that played the "Top 100" Classical Music Masterpieces over and over again (sequentially, of course), enabling one to get to know that repertoire very very well. Amazingly, four of the 100 pieces played on this station were Bruckner Symphonies -- Numbers 4, 7, 8 and 9, to be precise. By the end of my first year, not only was I well acquainted with these four, I was also the proud owner of a boxed set of the complete Nine Bruckner Symphonies (Eugen JochumDGG), purchased at Sam Goody's in New York City. (Only later did I learn that there are actually two additional Bruckner symphonies that had been written earlier, numbered "0" and "00" by the composer because he lacked the self esteem to realize they were good enough to include in his numbered canon.)

By the end of my first year at Yale, I was well acquainted with all nine of the Bruckner symphonic canon, and had progressed to a full-blown love affair with all late Romantic German musical repertoire. This is the corpus represented most famously by Wagner, and by all of what is now referred to as the post-Romantics: Bruckner, Mahler, Max Reger, and Richard Strauss. Mahler quickly became an obsession -- I could still do several blog posts on him alone. But Mahler's so much better known and more popular today than Bruckner has ever become. And I retain a particular personal fondness for poor old, neglected, underestimated Anton. No one seems to really understand him.

And that is why Bruckner never gets his due; because he is fundamentally misunderstood. In discussing his music, most commentators dwell on his naiveté and simple catholic faith. They also usually mention the gigantic scale of his symphonies, all of which last about an hour or more. It is true that Bruckner's religious faith was the most salient feature of his personal life. It is also true that most of his music is not catchy or easy listening; it requires a certain degree of patience in order fully to appreciate. But if one is willing to give it some time, it well rewards the listener. It is a profound misrepresentation of Bruckner's art to call it an expression of blind religious faith. To the contrary, throughout his music is heard the profound anguish of someone not able to experience the inner fulfillment everyone longs for. It is the very universality of this human experience of unfulfilled spiritual longing, and the power and directness with which Bruckner's music conveys that experience to the attentive listener, that makes him such a great composer.

What is the special quality of great music that enables it to last, and gives it power to speak to us today? It is its ability to touch a universal longing for transcendence, to put the listener in a mental space where he or she feels an inner joy of recognition, an epiphany of ultimate truth if you will. "Beauty is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder," yes; but the fact that the experience of beauty is inherently subjective and that no two people may agree that a particular thing is "beautiful" does not mean that beauty in itself does not exist. I think Keats got it right when he said "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." At the same time, Beauty is not so much an abstract conceptual "object" as it is an experience; it is the word we use to describe the recognition of something universal, something profoundly true. Beauty is not an "object"; it is the experience of an object on a more profound level. An "object of beauty" is anything that reveals or resonates with truth or meaning on a deeply personal level. For this reason, something can be "beautiful" whether or not it is at all "pretty" or "charming" in an ordinary sense. Beauty may be harsh; it may be difficult; it may even be deadly. But if something puts one in touch with the truth (or "meaning," if you will) of one's own existence, that thing will also be beautiful, even if its beauty is very austere.

Bruckner was one of the very great composers because his music succeeds in imparting to the patient listener a direct personal experience of the truth of one's own existence; namely, the universal human longing for spiritual connection and fulfillment. Only a small handful of other composers have succeeded in conveying this experience as well and as consistently as Bruckner. You know who they are -- Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. At the moment, I really can't think of anyone else whose music gives me the same experience.

Recently I happened to see a beautiful performance of Bruckner's Symphony Number 5 on KQED by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, at the Basilica of the Abbey of St. Florian in Linz, Austria, where Bruckner was born and is buried. I was reminded once again of how the second movement (the Adagio) of the Fifth so clearly (and beautifully) conveys that feeling of intense longing for spiritual consummation, and simultaneous anguish at the inevitable human inability to achieve it in any lasting way.

On one level, of course, and as in nearly all his Symphonies, Bruckner does achieve his consummation musically in the glorious closing pages of his Finale. (Bruckner's musical expression of spiritual consummation is never more gloriously achieved than in the Finales of his Fifth and Eighth Symphonies. To hear the concluding pages of the finale of the Bruckner's 5th, listen here. Warning: please ignore the embarrassingly saccharine religious comments and illustrations placed by whoever posted this to YouTube.) It is those concluding pages which give such great satisfaction to Bruckner lovers like me; they always seem to affirm that yes, one may at least hope that spiritual fulfillment will someday be experienced.

Yet seen as a whole, Bruckner's work does not express any final certainty of ultimate fulfillment. Instead, the abiding experience in Bruckner's music is one of intensely wistful longing, even anguish, at just how out of reach spiritual fulfillment always remains. This is most clearly shown in Bruckner's final and greatest work, his Ninth Symphony, a piece which remained uncompleted at his death. The first three movements of this masterpiece very clearly express a state of the most profound spiritual anguish and fearful anxiety. Although extensive notes and sketches for a concluding, consummating Fourth Movement do exist, it is quite clear that Bruckner was never able to bring them to completion. This inability cannot simply be explained as a result of untimely death. To the contrary, the record shows that Bruckner literally spent years trying to find a way to resolve in his finale the spiritual darkness portrayed so devastatingly in the first three movements. At the end, despite his best efforts, he simply was unable to do so.

Thus, the ultimate truth conveyed by this great composer's lifetime of music was not the triumph of simple faith so much as the ultimate faltering of that faith in the face of death. I do not say failure of faith. Bruckner's music still holds out hope -- the sometimes faltering, always wistful hope that some consummation, devoutly wished, may yet be found. To that extent, Bruckner is a composer of faith -- a faith in the possibility of hope. But one need not have faith or hope (or charity, for that matter); all it requires is the time and patience to listen. For anyone with that, Bruckner's music can unlock doors to an inner experience of very great beauty.