On Music, and Eventually, on


On Music, and Eventually, on the Sublime

Now, I will attempt to explain what I think is beautiful in the following pieces:
Debussy La Mer--Yes--Some have suggested that this piece is too onomatopoeic to be truly beautiful. But I ask, does the sea really sound anything at all like what Debussy has presented to us? Is it not that the glistening slides through tonalities and the rippling work on harp and strings have some to suggest the rise and fall of the sea? What I "hear" in this piece is actually synaesthesic--I hear the sound of the light rippling from the waves, the play of the light in the water and on the surface, sparkling and dark. I see the shallow bottom of a tropical lagoon where the ripples create interference patterns that play and divide up the sparkling sand. I do not hear the sea. But that is a personal impression. Ultimately, what makes this beautiful is that it calls me beyond myself. I can get lost in it, and becoming lost, focus my attention on higher things--on things more worthy of my attention--or rather, should I say, on Persons more worthy of my attention. Thus the sheer sound sensuality of the music coupled with tonalities that do not readily resolve and come to a stop, is suggestive of eternal things--eternal as the sea is not, but come close to being.

Schönberg Pierrot Lunaire--No--The apotheosis of nearly everything that dissuades me from the "New School" (now ancient) of atonality. The singer is at odds with the music in a very predictable, mathematically dictated way (although Schönberg was actually a slouch at this compared to his student Webern.) Nothing really invites the listener in, and while it might be fun to play with it in a sort of intellectual way, there is no satisfaction for anything other than the self. There is no invitation to leave oneself and look beyond.

Schönberg Verklarte Nacht--Yes--Included to show that Schönberg was capable of composing some extremely stirring and beautiful work. The title's piece means "Transfigured Night" and in fact, in the course of the piece the night is transfigured as is the listener. Once again, the music invites, practically builds a pathway for the listener to leave the sanctuary of self and move out into the beyond, into the Transcendence of Almighty God.

Hindemith Mathis der Mahler--Yes--As above, and perhaps even more so. Okay, I have to admit that this symphony, which is drawn from an Opera by Hindemith on the subject of Mathias Grünewald, a painter, has an appeal for me that goes far beyond the music itself. The work got Hindemith thrown out of Nazi Germany, and that in itself is a profound recommendation--although whether it would make a piece beautiful or not is speculative. But it does get at one criterion. Thus far, all of the selections have been "morally neutral." That is, there is nothing in the content that is or really could be morally offensive. In this piece, morality is brought to the forefront:

The opera Mathis der Maler, the most powerful statement of Hindemith’s political feelings, tells the story of Grünewald’s renunciation of his art in 1525. The painter joined the cause of the Seligenstadt peasants in the Peasant’s War, a short-lived revolt that followed close on the heels of the Lutheran Reformation. The opera and the symphony that is drawn from it are also closely tied to what may be Grünewald’s masterpiece, the altarpiece that he executed for St. Anthony’s church in Isenheim. Mathis’s struggles—especially his realization that, however beautiful it might be, his art does nothing to alleviate the suffering he sees around him—and his turn to social activism are a clear allegory to Hindemith’s own soul-searching.

The Symphony was completed some months before opera itself, and Furtwängler conducted the premiere in March of 1934, to a ecstatic audience—according to eyewitnesses, the ovation lasted 20 minutes. By this time, however, the Nazis had officially seized power in Germany, and the Party’s Kulturkammer was able to frustrate Hindemith’s plans to produce Mathis der Maler in Berlin during the 1934-35 opera season. The opera was banned because its subject matter (peasants rising against authority) and “ultra-modern” music were objectionable—Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and “National Enlightenment,” denounced Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker.” This censure of Hindemith and his music led directly to Furtwängler’s resignation and his open defiance of the Kulturkammer in a now-famous article in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. By 1935, conditions were no longer bearable or safe in Germany, and Hindemith left in self-imposed exile.


A resounding recommendation if ever I saw one. So in this case, in addition to lovely music that is both pleasing and a glimpse of heaven, we have at roots a good and noble cause. The cause of the truth is not sufficient unto itself to make for beauty, but beauty can not exist in the absence of concomitant truth.

Strauss Also Sprache Zarathustra--No--For precisely the opposite reasons of the above. The piece is musically stunning--at the time, probably even shocking. But it has two points that remove it from the realm of beautiful, while still enticing. The first is the fault of the composer, the second, I admit, mere guilt by association. Richard Strauss based the music on the nihilistic and atheistic founder of the übermensch philosophy--Nietzsche. Richard Strauss was also one of the highly favored composers of the Nazi regime (guilt by association through no fault, that know of, of the composer).

Holst The Planets--Yes--Again, a piece that draws the listener out of him or herself. Quite varied, and the music from either Venus or Jupiter (I forget) is used for an absolutely stunning hymn. Others can probably better inform you on all of this, as the details have completely slipped my mind.

Webern Five Pieces for Small Orchestra Bonus question: did he really encode secrets in his music?--No--Webern's entire atonal output consists of 31 pieces totaling less than four hours in length, and were one to attempt to listen to them end-to-end as it were, one would emerge either a stark raving lunatic, or a mathematical wizard. From all reports the most seriously mathematical of the atonalists, his music has a rigorously dictated structure. So much so that one can find endless speculation on the internet about whether he used his dodecacaphony to encode messages as a spy for the Nazis.

Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta--Transcendantly yes--Explained, perhaps poorly before.

Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme by Paganini--Yes--Powerful, moving, and interesting. To take a work by a person who prided himself on being one to the Progeny of the Devil and convert it into the magnificent, arresting, and ultimately satisfying work both beautiful and true to form.

Vaughn Williams The Lark Ascending--Yes--A life-long agnostic knew more of God than he gave himself credit for. Nearly every piece of music reveals the beauty of God's creation in astounding ways.

One of the themes you may have noted is that beauty cannot arise from mere pleasantness or even loveliness. Beauty must be accompanied by both goodness and truth. Now, it is possible for a work about morally neutral matters can be beautiful, but a work engaging morally repugnant sentiment can never be beautiful--simply be definition. Here I will not split the Thomistic hairs over the "amount" of goodness a thing may contain. Nazi philosophy may have contained a large amount of goodness for the economically oppressed and unjustly sanctioned German people--but whatever good it might contain is vastly outweighed in the balances by the evil incorporated into its very structure.

Thus, it would be my contention that for a work to be beautiful, it must be both pleasing to the senses and rightly informed in terms of content. A work of art has three main components--content, sensual appeal, and technical execution. Without all three of these no work can ever be considered beautiful. For example, Norman Rockwell's work is not particularly beautiful because instead of sensual appeal, it relies upon sentiment or nostalgic appeal.

Now, I also recognize that all of these statements are highly subjective, and others can produce quite good reasons why, even given my criteria, some of the works I have listed here are beautiful to them. So, there is additionally, a highly subjective element that is likely never to be agreed upon by all. This element must be transcendence. If the work lifts you out of yourself into the realm of contemplation of the glory of God, it is beautiful. (This may have been the thought behind one commenter's suggestion of the sublime.) This is the element that is likely to be different for ever person--but there are three grounds on which one can decide the beauty of a subject beyond this. For this reason, while the writing of de Sade may be technically proficient, if not excellent, its sensual appeal is more a sensuous appeal, and the content is morally repugnant. It is not possible for such a work to be considered beautiful.

Now, we can set up all manner of criteria to determine whether a work is morally repugnant, but I intend to stay with a simple "rules-based" approach. If Biblical Revelation and the Holy Tradition of the Catholic Church teach that something is a sin that something is morally repugnant, otherwise, I suppose, one could assume that it is either neutral or good. I suppose from what I gathered in the conversation on "goodness" at Disputations, if there is no reprehensible element to override anything else, the object should probably be considered good--although to consider the sea "good" is rather like deciding whether a table is masculine or feminine in gender. I don't see it, but I leave it to the philosophers and dialecticians who can better understand all of these things.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 20, 2003 3:51 PM.

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