Saturday, September 06, 2008

To Live Aesthetically Or To Live Ethically

from "Why So Serious?" Alex Ross's review (TNY Sep 8, 2008) of Kenneth Hamilton's After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, and William Weber's The Great Transformation of Musical Taste" Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms:

With the aristocracy declining in the wake of the French Revolution and subsequent upheavals, the bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life, imposing a new conception of how concerts should unfold: programs favored composers of the past over those of the present, popular fare was banished, progrm notes provided orientation to the uninitiated, and the practice of milling about, talking, and applauding during the music subsided. To some extent, these changes can be explained in anthropological terms: by applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and culturel elite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder. "The bourgeoisie isn't a class, it's a position, " the Journal des Debats advised. "You acquire it, you lose it." Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum.

Yet the "great transformation," as Weber calls it, wasn't simply an exercise in making concerts as stuffy as possible. Many latter-day analysts have lamented what is often called the "sacralization" of classical music, but Weber defends, to a degree, the much maligned middle classes. He observes that the new mentality pointedly rejected aristocratic values, which relegated serious artistic strivings to the background. To program an entire Beethoven symphony was in many ways an idealistic act, even a subversive one; musicians were striking a blow on behalf of the rights of the "self-willed individual," in Weber's words, with Beethoven heroically representing all those who yearned for basic human liberties. And the music itself demanded a change. When Beethoven began his Ninth Symphony with ten bars of otherwordly pianissimo, he was defying the norms of his time, essentially imagining a new world in which the audience would await the music in an expectant hush. Soon enough, that world came into being.


from Adam Kirsch's review (TLS July 18 2008) of Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings:

"One either has to live aesthetically, or one has to live ethically", Kierkegaard insists in Either/Or . . . .

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