Monday, May 23, 2016

out for a walk -- be back changed

Two composers went for a walk.

This isn't a joke. It just sounds like the setup for a joke. Let me tell it to you first.

The composers names were Johannes Brahms and Gustave Mahler. Mahler was a strapping youth full of energy and the standard cocktail of arrogance and assurance that comes with not having had your abilities tested sufficiently in the real world. Brahms was near the end of his life. He had accomplished much but he was naturally skeptical about the direction music was taking now that he had had his own battles and won many of them. He had his ideas about music and had naturally disagreed with most of this contemporaries, most of whose music he didn't like, but now that the next generation was exploring innovations he had fresh reason to be unhappy about it. After all, in his day, music had been good. Everything had been better. Now he was old, and dying, and ready to complain about it.

They crossed a bridge, and Mahler pointed excitedly to the stream flowing by. He told the old master that it was the future of music, flowing past; time to catch it before it went by. He seemed to imply that it was headed for a glorious future on its way to an ocean of possibility.

Brahms acidly replied that nobody knew that it might simply flow into a bog.

 Most of us of us take walks for exercise. Few of us, I imagine, think of anything as serious as the future of our professions, or of the direction of human society, at least in any deep way. It depends on whether we ponder issues like this in general, of course, in which case a walk is a great way to do it, but besides the creative activity of our inner lives, it helps to have a walking partner who can engage one in a stimulating conversation or two.

The walk of these two composers illustrates more than just the battle between the new and the old, or that everyone has something to worry about. It should be a reminder to us of how uncritically we often swallow music. That is, if we swallow it at all. Most of our species doesn't listen to much music that is called "classical" to start with. The term is mostly there, it seems, to be a wall to safely hide the contents behind, out of the way of the folks who aren't ready for the challenge.

But if you go to the museum, the concert hall, the gallery, switch on the radio or television, pop in a recording, you experience something of that vast stream of human thought that has been going on in musical form for centuries. A plethora of traditions, ideas, philosophies, many of which fought bitterly against each other as contemporaries, vying for supremacy, others that rebelled against the traditions of the previous generations, or struggled valiantly to uphold them in the face of changing tides of fashion, or tried to synthesize what they found valuable in each. National styles fought battles by proxy, or envious rulers imported foreign influences and allowed themselves to be conquered in music by foes whose adjacent borders they would defend to the last breath militarily. It is a long, constantly inviting, constantly evolving, ever surprising story.

And yet, if you go to an art museum and don't read the plaques on the wall, or to a concert hall, and don't notice the program notes, or learn something about the persons and societies behind the production of the music, you miss all that. You miss the argument, and from a distance, it can all look peaceful, which might be how you'd like it to be. But you won't really know.

In this short series, we've gone out for a few walks. We've sampled a bit of the late Medieval, the German Baroque on piano and organ, and even a bit from a 20th century impressionist. And all because we went for a walk. And noticed a few things along the way.

If you missed the first four installments in the "Walking tour", here they are: