Alex Ross Among the Germans

Mike Silverton

[October 2004.]

See http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/03/24/030324crat_atlarge, for Alex Ross’ “Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music.” It’s an interesting read.

Ross begins his essay with the not-so-novel observation that “good” music bears an unsavory association with villainy and evil. “Dr. Mengele … sometimes relaxed to the strains of ‘Tristan und Isolde’ after performing his experiments.” I recall noir flicks featuring sinister sophisticates with a taste for classical music — a staple of the genre. A sunnier formula had classical-loving fuddy-duddies or constipated schoolmaster types finally succumbing to jitterbuggery’s happy face. ’Twas a mixed picture, as Ross observes: Classical musicians were also portrayed as the “noble, fragile heroes of high-class studio productions.” Be that as it may, “Thomas Mann’s … contention that in Nazi Germany the greatest art was implicated in the greatest evil” is “not easily refuted.” No doubt, but Ross’ generalization, that “[t]he association of classical music with spiritual corruption has become so prevalent that it is now a staple of popular culture” strikes me as anachronistic. Apart from its cinematic and TV-commercial spinoffs, and there largely tangentially, the hordes that suck at the popular tit pay classical music little mind. I doubt they associate the core repertoire with anything of significance.

(A predictable moment: I used to crusade for the quality stuff — they were not Islamists — among my rock-&-pot-besotted chums. I played them LPs. One prospect, an attractive young woman with bad teeth, commented, “It sounds like movie music.” Was it Mahler? Maybe. We understand, of course, that she’d put the cart before the horse. This side of a sound education, she could never have known the error of her daze.)

Remaining with evil where LvB redounds, Ross makes a solid point. Hitler’s entirely predictable love of classical music “emerged out of a culture that had already made music a religion.” Ross rightly asks, What of it? Hitler also loved dogs. The Fuehrer’s caniphilia has not tainted caniphiles, nor has his having patted children’s crania discouraged politicians from like displays of affectless affection. To hasten my comments to where he wants to be, Ross remarks that this sensitivity to Nazism’s musical interleavings haunts present-day German art music. I suppose there’s something to that, too, but I don’t much like Ross’ emphasis. We’ll get to it soon.

Ross dwells at length on the German philosopher-aesthetician Theodor Adorno. In Adorno’s devil-take-the-hindmost advocacy of modernist art music, Ross relates Adorno’s having observed that “[t]here was no way … to bring back the old chords. It would deny history; it would be an exercise in nostalgia — or, worse, a ‘positive lie.’ Better to contemplate the possibility of music’s falling silent altogether. In his last book, ‘Aesthetic Theory,’ he wrote, ‘A latecomer among the arts, great music may well turn out to be an art form that was possible only during a limited period of human history.’”

Ross questions the position’s validity. “The claim that tonality had permanently disintegrated was arbitrary and without intellectual foundation …,” with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms as proof. Perhaps, but I’d prefer to contemplate today’s concert-hall fare, particularly here in the US, as validation of Adorno’s pessimism. Ignoring “difficult” music’s cliques, many American composers attempt to connect with larger audiences via idioms they hope will click. But leave their mark? Further the art? The output is D.O.A. The composer whose first concern is accessibility cobbles manikins — bits of familiar bluster and blather. In music, one recycles on pain of triviality.

Which is not to suggest that Second Vienna and its postwar developments yielded naught but gold. I think we all realize that at least 90 percent of just about anything above pink noise is bound to be crap. And oh, how we cast about! “Minimalism arrived decades ago; C major is back.” However, before these innovations, evasions and capitulations came the mischievous John Cage. If you listen to a performance, live or on recording, of Cage’s purely chance-based music, your mind will more than likely create articulation — a discourse, if you like. Try it. See if it doesn’t work. Cage was a bit of a charlatan and, in his disdain of Western music’s magnificence, a six-burner philistine, as these scorched-earth types so frequently are.

But he did teach us that anything goes and may indeed fly, at least in a narrow, highbrow regard. It takes time to learn to listen in the Cageian sense. You’ll know you’ve absorbed the lesson when you attend to the sounds, not their provenance.

Which brings us to Ross’ view of German modernism. We need not pry to sniff out the scorn. Stockhausen, though still plugging away, is “no longer taken very seriously…. The current ‘great man’ is … Helmut Lachenmann … [who] states, ‘My music has been concerned with rightly constructed denial, with the exclusion of what appears to me as [society’s] listening expectation.’” Ross allows, I suspect reluctantly, that there’s “no denying Lachenmann’s virtuosity … [a] key concept in the Lachenmannian Weltanschauung [being] contamination….” The sarcasm gets as thick as mayonnaise: “In case we missed the point, we also hear of ‘sonorities which had remained unused and hence uncontaminated in the past’….”

“The notion that popularity destroys the purity of art is so cherished in German-speaking lands — and it should be said, on American college campuses — that it takes on the solidity of a religious belief.” Bingo! The heart of darkness! Lachenmann’s music is merely the exercise of a Happy-Few provocateur, an elitist prig, a pedant. These critical outings of a merely motivation can be a real pain in the ass. Should we care what gets composers going? As a militant secularist, I’m not much disturbed by Roman Catholic effigies having cast their long shadows over Monteverdi’s sublime 1610 Vespers. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Without them the music would not have happened. I don’t care that Scelsi was most likely nuts, or that Gesualdo was a little too tough on his wife, or that Stravinsky thought well of Mussolini, or that Carl Orff and Richard Strauss spent WW2 on the wrong side. (If only the USA had the likes of Orff supervising music education, I suspect we’d be hearing less hip-hop and other schlock aggressions.)

I’m grateful to Ross for a bit of history. In order to give young composers something to do other than brood over their nation’s immediate past, American occupation funding seeded Germany’s broadcast-culture apparats, the arenas where, ultimately, “[t]he attempt to abolish kitsch produces kitsch of a higher absurdity — an overebullient marketplace devoid of consumers. Filling the empty seats at correctly subversive new-music concerts are the laughing ghosts of a formerly outraged bourgeoisie….” That’s good.

“German music is not entirely a waste-land of modernist conceits.” That’s not so good, particularly when Ross tosses Lachenmann onto the midden. To remain with Cage, Monteverdi, Scelsi, Gesualdo and our German friend, I don’t care whether star charts, the I Ching, morality, philosophy or good old insanity are responsible for the sounds to which I respond. The sounds are what I hear. They engage, delight, puzzle, enlighten, irritate or bore. I hear what Lachenmann does as good on its own ultimately abstract terms.

Ross singles out Lachenmann’s something-less-than-abstract opera, The Little Match Girl, where the composer’s peculiarly German sensitivities could have easily mucked up the mix. It’s true that Lachenmann’s libretto includes the words of a Baader-Meinhof fire-bomber. They integrate to my mind handsomely with words of Leonardo’s and, as the theater piece’s foundation, the Hans Christian Andersen tale: an emulsion, in another’s hands, that might easily have yielded bittersweet treacle. I suspect that an engagingly enigmatic opera will withstand the test of time. I cannot say as much for Ross’ opinion of it.