The Folly of Trying to Outdo Wagner

January 2002By Mike Dodaro

Mike Dodaro is a musician and a computer programmer in the Seattle area.

All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics.  By Carson Holloway. Spence. 184 pages. $27.95.



Does music have any influence on character development? Rock music culture is corrosive to ideals most people wish to instill in their children, but perhaps the music can be extracted from the decadent and sexually evocative context in which it languishes. Would the music itself be harmless if divorced from lyrics that celebrate casual sex and freakish lifestyles?

Carson Holloway’s book attempts to gain some perspective on present controversies by surveying the philosophical treatment of music from Plato on. One of Holloway’s most significant conclusions is that both liberals and conservatives in the present dispute have focused on what, for lack of a better term, might be called middle-class morality instead of virtue. Behavior conducive to social tranquility and affluence was not the concern of the ancient philosophers who considered music and its influence on character formation. Modern critics debate the impact of pornographic lyrics, but they overlook the dimension of music that is inherent in its form. In this view, rock music says the same thing whether the text is about a nightclub encounter or reads like a gospel tract.

Historic philosophy is helpful in determining music’s intrinsic connection with the way we think. The dialogues of Plato delineate a formal order in the universe in which good music and human nobility harmonize. Understood this way, virtue is strength of character in accord with transcendent norms. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that disciplined, orderly music can engender in the young a disposition favorable to ideals that are the basis of virtue and true happiness. On the other hand, prolonged exposure to emotionally provocative music during the formative years obliterates the serenity required for rational thought and contemplation of ideals. Reason and self-control are cultivated in an atmosphere of aesthetic elegance. Preoccupation with passion or pathos leads only to emotional excitability. It requires little imagination to see how most currently popular music would fare if evaluated by Plato’s criteria.

Plato’s metaphysics is not entirely adequate to the exposition of Christian theology, but the idea of an objective moral order at the core of existence is found both in Plato and the Bible. Western civilization has, in the main, acknowledged its debt to Greek metaphysics, Stoic conceptions of natural law, and law as found in the Pentateuch. This is changing in our era with postmodernism ascendant in popular culture and in the academic establishment. Aesthetic judgments now recognize no objective criteria. Contempt among musicians for music with any trace of humanity has cleared the way for the shock troupes who have expropriated popular music. The decline of the Western musical tradition is generally attributed to disillusionment among artists after World War I. Holloway’s book demonstrates that the philosophical reasons for the detachment of music from meaning and morals go back much further.

As early as the Enlightenment period, philosophers rejected the nurture of virtue for either individual fulfillment or the good of the community. Holloway shows how they followed Machiavelli “insofar as he seeks to guide political action not on the basis of ‘imaginary republics and principles that have never been seen or known to be in fact,’ but rather on the basis of ‘effectual truth.’” In this view, the cultivation of virtue through reason and art is simply unrealistic. In Machiavelli’s analysis, reason has no higher end than to aid in acquisition. Moral and intellectual excellence and questions of whether music can aid character formulation give way to a lower assessment of human nature. Desire and passion are real, ideals only imaginary. Hobbes concurs with Machiavelli when he opines, “The thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies to range abroad and find the way to the things desired.” John Locke, similarly, makes reason the handmaiden of desire. Thus reason is self-serving, and nobility of character is not significant in and of itself. In public life, external restraints must be instituted, using self-preservation and peace as inducements to subdue the passions. In this period it was concluded that the aesthetic elegance of music cannot make virtue appealing. Rational self-control and virtue are, Holloway says, “bereft of natural attractiveness.”

The Romantic era was partly a reaction against Machiavellian notions of politics founded on material self-interest. On the question of music’s power over the soul, Rousseau affirms its importance but departs radically from the ancient Greeks. Holloway says, “His constant focus is on music’s ability to excite the passions. The virtuous or public-spirited politics Rousseau admires is based not on the cultivation of rational thinking, which according to Rousseau is actually destructive of healthy politics, but instead upon intensity of passion.” Rousseau wrote hundreds of articles on music, composed operas, and even devised a system of music notation. Holloway cites many references in which Rousseau describes music as the most primitive, and most powerful, form of communication. Not only through convention, but through universal appeal, Rousseau argues, music is able to “imitate the tones of language and the twists produced in every idiom by certain psychic acts.” His only contemptuous remarks on music are directed at Jean-Phillippe Rameau, a musical theorist and composer of immensely popular operas, who maintained that music’s power is based on harmony’s grounding in the laws of physics. This kind of consonance between art and normative order in the natural world, which Plato would have noted with interest, was, evidently, objectionable to Rousseau. Holloway concludes: “Plato and Aristotle want to calm the passions with a view to the cultivation of reason, which they believe is conducive to the well-being of both the political community and the individual, insofar as it fosters moral and philosophic virtue. Rousseau agrees that moral virtue is necessary for the well-being of society and the individual, but, for Rousseau, this virtue and this happiness are based, not on reason, but on passion.”

Holloway’s exploration of the well-known conflict between Romantics and Classicists proceeds without recourse to theological considerations. Thus his ideas can be used to stimulate public debate without using arguments based on religion. But for Christians, the doctrine of the Incarnation makes it difficult to throw in unequivocally with the Classicists. The Incarnation of God in human flesh was problematic from the earliest encounters of Christians with those educated in Greek philosophy.

In light of the Incarnation, music, always a bit suspect in church, gains respectability. Sensory stimulation through art is not just a concession to human worldliness if God has come into the world in human flesh. Aristotle’s definition of art as a coincidence of the universal and the particular seems useful, but we can’t be too quick to dismiss some of Rousseau’s claims that virtue can be inspired through communication based on emotional inflection. Toward the end of his book, Holloway says, “The ancients could prescribe a cure for our pathologies of soul: the serious attempt, including the educational use of the right kind of music, to encourage our pursuit of the highest goods attainable by man, reason’s enjoyment of moral nobility and theoretical truth.” He is surely correct that good music can aid in the development of the mind, but for Christians, the Incarnation entails more than contemplation of theoretical truth.

Excessive preoccupation with feeling, as became the norm during the Romantic era, is timid stuff in comparison to what was to come. In the 19th century the music of Richard Wagner was revolutionary. The ideology of this revolution was articulated by Wagner’s disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, who explicitly acknowledged Wagner’s influence in radically opposing the account of music and politics found in Plato and Aristotle. The opposition is stated, in Holloway’s consistently revealing analysis, as follows: “Plato and Aristotle recommend an orderly music that calms the passions and awakens and strengthens reason in the soul. Nietzsche, in contrast, recommends music that inflames the passions, and he seeks to use such music with a view to overwhelming or silencing reason.” To give coherence to human life and its struggles, Nietzsche substitutes myth for reason. It is myth, particularly when embodied in Wagnerian music-drama, which Nietzsche says is “to be experienced vividly as a unique example of universality and truth that gaze into the infinite.” In this view “music gives rise to myth through its role in tragedy, which is a hybrid form of art combining a Dionysian element, the music, and an Apollonian element, the drama or story.”

Nietzsche exudes contempt for Platonic philosophy: “Socratism…,” he says, “is bent on the destruction of myth.” In contrast, Dionysian art and music unite us with “primordial being itself,” or “with the inmost ground of the world.” “In its intoxication,” music can mirror desire. It is “an immediate copy of the will itself.” The tragic music of Wagner engenders a “metaphysical comfort,” which Holloway elucidates as “a sense that, in spite of the sorrowful end to which particular beings must come, ‘life is at the bottom of things, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable.’ This it does by uniting the listener to ‘primordial being itself,’ the passionate will at the foundation of all things, making him feel its ‘raging desire for existence and joy in existence.’” In the final analysis “for Nietzsche, the cosmos is, in fact, not a cosmos but a chaos. It is not as for Socrates, orderly and intelligible but contradictory and mysterious. Thus Nietzsche claims that the ‘faith’ originated by Socrates, the belief that ‘thought can penetrate the deepest abysses of being,’ is an illusion…. The lyric musician conceives of all nature, and himself in it, as willing, as desiring, as eternal longing.” Life is made worth living only by art that conceals the “will-shattering truth.”

There is much more to this argument in Nietzsche. Holloway’s work is an excellent introduction to it. From our perspective a hundred fifty years later, beyond Hitler’s recapitulation of Nietzsche’s superman to themes from Wagner, beyond the shock troupes of Woodstock, one can only marvel that there was a time in musical history when the chromaticism of the overture to Tristan und Isolde was considered shocking and erotic. Present-day veterans of the sexual revolution fall asleep by the second act. The music is sensual, but most of us have been inured to its outrages by the artillery rhythms of electrically amplified hard rock. There is little explicit sex in Tristan und Isolde. The lovers die in ecstatic longing. Nonetheless, Wagner’s musical revolution largely succeeded — and then some. A music professor, in his later years at the University of Washington, used to say in all his survey classes, “Since the overture to Tristan, every composer has had to contend with Wagner. Every movie score is trying to outWagner Wagner.”

Ideas propounded by Nietzsche and Wagner have become part of popular culture and pursued beyond excess. Nothing is too execrable in art anymore. Doctoral dissertations are written on music that is, in fact, pornographic. It’s hard to take all this seriously. But Holloway manfully dismantles arguments in defense of music gone berserk. In the final analysis, he concludes that liberation in denial of transcendent ideals turns to self-loathing, which is often projected on women. Desire is monstrously transformed into sadism. In another of his quotable phrases, Holloway impales the savagery of contemporary rock and rap: “Pop music’s turn to spiritedness as itself a source of satisfaction appears clearly in the fact that its rage is now directed not against those who seek to take sexual pleasure away — they no longer exist — but against the partner who willingly provides it.” Misogyny is among the stranger components of the music now being sold to children. Its perverse partner, implacable self-assertion, takes the defenders of this music into regions beyond the lunatic fringe. We can perhaps demonstrate conclusively that two generations of enculturation in raunchy cacophonous music have marred our souls beyond recognition.

Plato’s arguments may not be conclusive that music either fosters contemplation of nobility or abets emotional excess, but they do make one stop and consider how our culture no longer equips us to comprehend any transcendent order. It seems to have been a mistake, though, to make emotion the principle foe of truth, especially with regard to music. The music of J.S. Bach is often considered rationalistic, even contrived through devices like retrograde inversion, that is, a melody played backwards and upside down, but there is feeling in his music. Bach was no timid soul. The emotions are there, but his skill as a musician and his faith in God deepen and transform anger, sorrow, perplexity, and joy. Like a Platonic dialogue, the counterpoint in Bach’s compositions holds listeners’ interest. And unlike the monody of contemporary praise choruses, counterpoint objectifies a variety of voices.

Appreciation of disciplined, sonorous music does seem to be in decline. Shocking, bizarre musical entertainment is big business. To argue that this has little influence on adolescent character development is absurd. Contemporary rock music is the equivalent of nuclear war against moral and rational thinking. Nietzsche, the fervent enemy of Christian theological premises in Western culture, did not listen to Handel and Mozart to get his juices flowing. His preoccupation with Wagner is an articulate and mature analysis of where certain kinds of music can take us. Beethoven and Verdi are emotionally exciting without being nihilistic. Rock music now takes moral anarchy as an undisputed premise. Modern feminists rage against Beethoven, claiming that listening to his music is like being raped by a man. Other critics, like Theodor Adorno, argue that the Western musical tradition perpetuates class oppression. This contempt for good music is being taken seriously, it seems. For those of us who have any comprehension of what is at risk, Holloway’s book is an incentive to begin a new theme in counterpoint to the one we’ve been hearing.



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