Ed's talk: Jul 26, 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008

music and "spirituality"

I am not commenting again on "music and religion" since most people distinguish between "spirituality" and religion. I have found it difficult or even impossible to get a reasonable definition of "spirituality" and my experience at Huffington Post suggests that different people have different opinions on the subject.

Be that as it may, let us take the example of Beethoven. In my teens I read the book by J.W.N. Sullivan with the title "Beethoven: His Spiritual Development" and later, in a Beethoven course at City College we had to read that and also Marion M. Scott's book on the composer. Though I was fascinated by Sullivan's book at first, I later felt there was no reality about such a book. If, for example, the book claimed Beethoven was expressing the "mystic vision" (whatever that is!) in the opening fugue of the Quartet in C# minor, op. 131 I still don't recognize it in that piece and I think that description is beside the point.

As for Miss Scott's book, I and my fellow students made fun of it, particularly the sentence to the effect that Beethoven's view of God was wonderful but "could you imagine how God's view of Beethoven would have been marvelous beyond words"! To my knowledge, that book was never assigned again at New York City College!

I recall, maybe erroneously, that few of us were religious and that included the teacher, the composer Mark Brunswick. But he was big on "content" in music and the joke was that he might assign us to do a "bar-by-bar spiritual analysis" of one of LVB's masterworks. He'd adopted the expression "spiritual quality" from Sullivan I think.

Once, he remarked that "Late Beethoven is so free!" with his characteristic partly open urgent hand gesture then pointed to me and calling me by his pet name exclaimed: "You! Take this home and see if you can find any form to it." (It was a movement of the Bb Quartet, op. 130 I think.)

When I came back, I said it was in sonata form. He argued with me repeately, then said he'd look at it. He came back next time and said "I hate to admit it, but Ed Gold is essentially right." End of subject.

Someone recently commented that he disliked formal analyses but I think it's important for a music student to perceive musical structure as one of the elements of the art. That doesn't mean you can't also respond to the emotional content when listening casually.

If the structure of a piece of music is reasonably good, and the relationship of notes are sufficiently interesting, then I don't see why one can't have a satisfactory reaction to it.

When I compose something, I am not normally imposing notes on a formal frame but if something is not right, it will tell me. And, yes, I am writing music, not "spirituality". If the listener perceives "spiritual quality", so much the better.