Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Glenn Gould on Bach.

As a Canadian summer slowly slides into fall, here is an old favorite which I watch again every few months, a 1962 CBC broadcast program featuring Toronto's own Glenn Gould musing about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (and performing the cantata "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" with countertenor Russell Oberlin and a small ensemble). Here is a bit of what Gould has to say:
Bach, you see, was music’s greatest nonconformist, and one of the supreme examples of that independence of the artistic conscience that stands quite outside the collective historical process. The age of Bach, speaking in a very general sort of way, was what we can now call the age of reason – perhaps an age of reason; there have really been quite a lot of them. It was fundamentally an age in which man struggled against fear, against predeterminancy. It was an age in which he asserted confidently the wonders of science and of human initiative. It was at times an age of hubris, of defiance for the gods.

But at its most poetic, it was still an age in which the wonderful utilities of science and the proud genius of man could coexist with the magical, mystical, fearful rites of belief – and so the art and poetry and music of the Baroque at its best is touched with this feeling of compromise, this conciliation between the will of man and the inexorable power of fate.

But even during the lifetime of (Johann) Sebastian Bach, this vibrant spiritual compromise which gave such anguish and purpose and passion to his music, became for other artists of his generation ever more difficult to achieve. And slowly but surely fact and logic, the explainable and the predictable became the basis of philosophic premise. And by the time of his death, the world was a very different place from that into which he had been born. It was a world which longed to be logical, a world for young men and for young ideas.

When Bach died, it was not he but rather his sons who were considered to be the masters of music – masters of a music so very different from that which their father had known. It was then composers like the teenager Joseph Haydn who were soon to lay the groundwork for a new musical style in which all of this scientific optimism, all of this naively logical philosophical thought of their generation would find a counterpart in an art in which the aim would be not the communication of man with God, but rather man with man, in which those traits of (Johann) Sebastian Bach which parallel in music the realization of the incredible richness and indefinable complexity of the human estate could find no place. It had become an age in which the focus of musical activity had moved from the church to the theater, in which the new art would rationally reflect a rational world, in which it would be required to deal with probabilities and not to participate in mysteries. This is not to say that the aspiration to transcend the human condition would be forever lost to art; certainly it’s the essence of Beethoven’s work, for instance, that we feel him struggling to strike beyond the realization of human potential. But the grandeur of Beethoven resides in the struggle rather than in the occasional transcendence that he achieves – and it might perhaps never again be possible for us to own more than a glimpse of that inordinate state of ecstasy which (Johann) Sebastian Bach never thought to question.
For a bit more Glenn Gould, consult this post written three years ago at the time of his eightieth birthday. You might also be pleased to learn that the Glenn Gould statue in downtown Toronto has been augmented by a new historical marker, which reminds me that I have yet to make good on plans to make a pilgrimage to the site. AMDG.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

David Warren on Sainte-Chapelle.

Of the various historical sites I visited during my recent sojourn in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle merits special note. Built at the behest of King Louis IX and consecrated in 1248, Sainte-Chapelle is widely considered to be one of the finest Gothic structures in the world; I know some people who would go even further by describing Sainte-Chapelle as the most beautiful church building ever constructed, and, though I tend to be suspicious of unqualified superlatives, in this instance I can certainly appreciate the sentiment.

There are few experiences quite like that of seeing the Upper Chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle for the first time, as one ascends the narrow, winding staircase from the Lower Chapel and suddenly finds oneself in one of the most dazzling spaces ever built by human hands. Toronto-based writer David Warren captures something of this experience in a recent entry on Sainte-Chapelle posted on his blog Essays in Idleness:
Survival is never an accident, in this world. The story of the survival of Sainte-Chapelle, to the present day, nearly eight centuries after its conception, is so tangled that I won't begin. The miracle is that it is still there, right in the centre of Paris, notwithstanding such facts as the French Revolution; that it has been preserved and repeatedly repaired. God is surely mixed up in every turn of this unlikely story.

Tourists still flock through, with the tour guides, trudging the way tourists trudge. Except, the chapel explodes before them, and in the brilliant light of midday they are stunned. Human eyes are not prepared for such beauty: it is like looking into the Sun. They could not have imagined that such a shrine could be built with human hands. They are looking at the product of a civilization almost infinitely greater than their own. It is like an encounter with the extraterrestrial.
As Warren later observes, the survival of Sainte-Chapelle is particularly significant given humankind's generally dismal record in such matters, with iconoclasts of various stripes doing their bit to completely destroy the architectural and artistic legacy of past generations in the name of ideological purity:
It is a bleak fact that most of the great works of art in the highest phases of civilization have been, over time, destroyed — either pointedly and purposefully, or as "collateral" from some larger intentional act of destruction: war usually, or riot. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, can be troublesome, too, in districts that are prone to them. But man, as a destructive force, is by far the worst enemy of great art.

"Modern man," in his tower flats and suburbs, who thanks to "progress in education" may not realize that milk comes from cows, needs to have these things explained to him. The grand minsters and shrines whose ruins may enchant him, did not dissolve like cakes in the rain. They were wrecked on purpose, and the missing stone was "privatized." They became stone quarries. For without protection, founded in love, nothing survives.
As I have noted before, iconoclasm kills; efforts to eradicate the physical evidence of the past are usually carried out in tandem with efforts to eliminate human beings whose existence is deeply inconvenient to the iconoclasts. As "extraterrestrial" as Sainte-Chapelle may seem to denizens of a contemporary, secular society, the preservation of such sacred spaces represents an act of cultural defiance, an implicit challenge to radical groups like ISIS who would seek to cleanse the world of cultural artifacts that seem to threaten their vision of the world.

Last month, I was very moved to read the story of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Assad, who spent his entire adult life working to preserve the ancient city of Palmyra and was beheaded by ISIS for his refusal to turn over priceless artifacts which the terrorists wished either to destroy or to sell on the black market to finance their activities. The world needs monuments like Sainte-Chapelle and Palmyra to call us back to an awareness of our best selves, and we also need heroes like Khaled al-Assad who are willing to sacrifice themselves in defense of things of enduring value. AMDG.