Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Calling all music police: round up the Bernstein-Beethoven recordings

About five years ago, I got home one evening from somewhere, and turned on WRR, the Dallas classical radio station.

I immediately recognized the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I shortly thereafter recognized that this was probably the worst interpretation I ever heard.

Like watching a train wreck, mesmerized, I had to listen to the end to see who was conducting.

I found out it was Leonard Bernstein, specifically his fall of the Berlin Wall epic performance, if I may use the word “epic” loosely. (I had never heard it before.)

He had everything wrong, in my opinion — tempos, phrasings, nuances of dynamics, you name it.

Since that time, I have occasionally heard other Beethoven recordings of his on the radio, and I am convinced of one thing.

Lenny was clueless about Beethoven. Period.

So, I suggest we deputize some music police, confiscate every Bernstein recording of Beethoven, and destroy them all.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hey, is there anybody in there?

Who am I? Am I somebody? Am I an illusion? A collection of sub-somebodies? And, to borrow language from economics, how fungible is the sense of self after brain injury?

Science News tackles the latest in these issues here.

Mahler: the anti-Beethoven

How’s that?

Mahler’s first symphony clearly exhibits signs of being written as a deliberate aheroic, or even antiheroic, counterpoint to Beethoven’s Eroica.

How’s that?

First, the title of Mahler’s First: “Titan.” Selected by Mahler itself, and not at all modest for the title of a composer’s first symphony, it deliberately plays off Beethoven’s Eroica. Yet, unlike that work, it contains no dedication to a particular person nor was it ever written with that end in mind.

But the real anti-Beethoven, aheroic strains come out in the funeral march.

Those familiar with the symphony know that the theme of the march is the popular nursery rhyme “Frere Jacques,” suitable retarded, and put in the minor key. A nursery rhyme is anything but march-like. And the daily routine of a 4- or 5-year-old child is anything but heroic, let alone martial. The child in his mundane, everyday world, slowed down in sadness — the sadness that anticipates the Kindertotenlieder — is the Titan of Mahler’s symphonic world.

There are no heroes, and certainly not in a romantic sense, for Mahler’s musical canvas. And he is telling us that.

The theme continues, in my opinion. The resurrection of the Resurrection Symphony is not heroic in the sense of, say, Handel’s Messiah. And for Mahler, a converted Jew who had little formal religious connection, such heroism was not to be found there anyway. Resurrection was a wistful possibility for him, not a concrete certainty.

And the bombast of the Third, no matter how loudly or longly played, cannot force heroism. Nor does the tenderness of the Romantic, the Fourth, have a heroic edge to it.

Returning to the purely instrumental, the Fifth seems to hit a note of quiet resignation. The Sixth is known as the Tragic and its antiheroism speaks for itself through that moniker.

The Seventh? If I were to be naming Mahler symphonies, the would be the Pensive. Certainly not heroic.

The Eighth? Does the Veni, Creator Spiritus triumph over the Faust first movement? If so, the triumph is not a human one — it is purely spiritual and purely abstract.

That takes us to the Ninth, completed as Mahler’s life ebbed away, mired in the pain of knowing he had an unfaithful wife. The answer of this symphony is not a heroic rage against either physical restriction and decay on one hand, or lovlessness and faithlessness on the other. Rather, it is a degree of resignation greater, broader, deeper and more worn-out at end than the Fifth.

And finally, the Tenth, begun and unfinished as Mahler approached his deathbed. The death-knocks of the bass drum speak for themselves; stated firmly, if anything is heroic in this symphony, it is death itself.

Existential thoughts on Camus

I’m rereading Camus – currently on "The Stranger." As I was out for a walk tonight in what is really “normal” temperature but felt briskly chilly compared to what we’ve been having this year, I remembered, nearly verbatim, his lines in Mersault’s mouth on the last pages:

“For the first time, in that night alive with signs and starts, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” The world cares not whether I am alive or dead and has no world-soul to care, anyway. That thought can be either depressing or gladdening, I realized, depending one what mindset I bring to that thought in advance, what feelings and beliefs I am seeking to be confirmed or denied, and so forth. I felt vaguely but reassuringly comforted by that fact.

And how had Camus reached this point?

“As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope,” he says just before the words above. Raw emotion, when undenied, can get us to bedrock within ourselves. I take Camus as saying he has been rid of the hope of false delusions, such as the delusion that the world really gives a damn about Mersault.
And so we go on.

“Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and was happy again.” Mersault is one with himself after getting stripped of his self-delusions. And so, in a nonmetaphysical way, he can experience a certain degree of oneness with the world at large, as a relative of some sort.

And that leads us to Mersault’s final lines, where Camus lets us know that the homo existentialis always remains in at least partial control of his own emotional fate, if not his physical fate.

“For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I only had to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

Monday, February 06, 2006

Youth, violence and video games — a personal angle

One of my coworkers was talking in a joking way this morning about how her husband has been playing Grand Theft Auto with their 2-year-old son. She was laughing at describing how he’s learning to “kill hookers.”

I don’t think it’s funny, given that enough evidence exists connecting video game violence and childhood development that she and her husband are setting the child up for later-life aggressive tendencies. But I don’t know what, if anything, to say.