Monday, June 14, 2010

a laugh at the expense of e.t.a hoffmann

I've got some good stuff in the works: ideas about the artist and artwork, the rise of the virtuoso, listening practices...the list goes on. And of course, a recap of the largely successful Concerto Soloists (we received a standing ovation from our 60+ audience members!).

Until then (and to get us all primed for the art-as-autonomous-object discussion), I give you a little humor, a review I wrote of Haydn's Creation as a parody of E.T.A. Hoffmann:

Upon hearing Mr. Haydn’s Creation, it is my contention that the “Representation of Chaos” emblemizes our epoch. No longer do the shackles of Classical thought bind us—indeed we have engaged in an emerging era of empiricism and experimentation. Aristotle’s grip has weakened; Scholasticism’s shadow has waned. Where our aesthetic was once based upon the logic of the ancients, their suppositions steeped in Ancient dogma, the slow transition to modernity has arrived.

While some of my less progressive colleagues (ensconced in their own propensity for cultural torpidity) might construct diatribes rife with misunderstanding and incredulity—citing the work as a grotesque parody of the sublime wherein superfluous decadence serves to create a blasphemous farce—I wish to advocate the opposite. If I may apply a yet unknown metaphor: in the war of modern and ancient, progressive and stagnant, Mr. Haydn is at the front of the army (my philosophe colleagues would, in their native tongue, say the “avant garde”), gallantly fighting for the advancement of art. Indeed, the work differs aesthetically from the prevailing style. Like Aristotle’s logic, the music of our time is balanced: syllogistic premises support their inevitable conclusions, inexorable from substance, universal classifications provide clarity. Where this popular style relies on idealized form, Haydn’s work surpasses the ideal, ascending to portray the actual. In his “Chaos,” Mr. Haydn represents nature in all its terrible sublimity: too well counterfeited with sacred text and music in gross contrast, it has created a scandal. Rather than experiencing the ideal of nature (perfect and inevitable), Mr. Haydn has recreated its extremes: the subtle, the bizarre, the transcendent thus instigating in the listener sensations ecstatic, horrific, terrific.

Haydn’s “Chaos” begins in grandeur, its initial opulence subsiding to reveal a hazy pool of harmonies both transcendent and monstrous. From this bizarre jumble, sensibility emerges: couth and pleasing harmonies, set ablaze by timpani interjections. It is an aural landscape, akin not to Fragonard or Poussin, but rather an unnamed, unknown visionary: offering impressions paradoxically fleeting and sustained, their aural audacity imprinted on the minds of many. The music meanders woefully through uncertain waters, the mind envisages the ether: seemingly bleak, empty. However within this unfettered vacancy lie innumerable possibilities ripe for development and our subsequent pleasure. In this atmospheric environment rising arpeggios titillate, anticipating the approaching sonic splendor, the expectation heightened by an unyielding pulse. Receding into ethereal gray the music subsides; the senses are saturated by cosmic nothingness. From the vacuum, a voice interrupts to shatter this once serene oblivion: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The pulsating motive introduced in the opening sinfonia becomes an instrument not of drama (as in the previous movement) but rather, representative of time itself. With the omnipresence of this metronomic impulse, the choir begins: “and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” With this text, Mr. Haydn incites expectation, marrying this text with hushed music in minor key. Extreme text painting follows—the oblivion is vivified by a transition awesome and indeed luminous: “And God said, let there be light; And there was light.”

The too oft cloying effervescence so characteristic of the present style has been tamed by contemporary ennui. Haydn’s “Chaos” is our own: where once aesthetic conventions valued idealized nature, Haydn duplicates it with virtuosic veracity: it is an expert counterfeit conceived with exacting similitude. The orchestra quivers and roars, its quavers symbolic of our own cultural melancholy: the current quest to reconcile artistic, aesthetic, philosophical and political uncertainty. At moment of illumination, the music mimics our era: with the announcement of “light” a strict style reemerges, recalling our own age: enlightened by reason while clinging still to logic.

With the completion of the eighteenth century, we have entered a new age: the age of experience, of practice, of knowing, of empiricism. Our fathers and their disciples are consumed with pursuits of the mind alone. Basing their knowledge of the world on mere theory, they are imprisoned by both logic and doctrine; like Ripa’s representation[1], they too are fools, rendered inept by their scholarly isolation. And thus our present aesthetic predicament: periodicity, balance, idealization, formal rigidity. Lacking authenticity, it is bereft of substance thus a mere verisimilitude: it possesses the compass, but performs an incongruous task.[2] And here, I must agree with Mr. Locke, in all his empirical eminence: without experiential understanding, theoretical pursuits are hollow. Brandishing merely the baton and violin, a musical bastion—that of the oratorio ensemble—emboldens Mr. Haydn’s Creation: though tempered by its intrinsic transience, the composition becomes a literal force of nature through which the terrible sublime is known experientially. In creating this aforementioned “counterfeit” Mr. Haydn has replicated and thus known nature herself, replete with resplendence both subtle and crass.

[1] Ripa, Cesare. Iconologia link to 1709 English printing: Originally produced at the close of the 16th century, Ripa’s Iconologia was an anthology of emblems. The allegorical figures—organized with meticulous exactitude—have been noted as “the key of seventeenth and eighteenth century allegory.” (Emile Male, as quoted by Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts p. 163) were widely used in visual art and were well known to the cultural elite. The collection is a clear product of its age—the urge for both taxonomy and collection central to its being. Theory, depicted as a beautiful woman misusing a compass (figure 295), exemplifies the Renaissance attitude toward scholastic methodology: without practice, theory remains hopelessly flawed.

[2] Ripa, in his description of Theory “A young woman looking upward: her hands clasp’d together; a pair of Compasses over her Head; nobly clad in Purple; seeming to descend the Stairs. The colour of her Garment shews that the Sky terminates our Sight; her Face, that the Intellect is taken up with celestial Things; the Stairs, that Things intelligible have Order, proceeding by Degrees from Things near to Things a-far off. The Compasses are the most proper instrument of Measuring, which perpetuate the Name of an Author.” It is important to note not only Theory’s misuse of the compass, but also her status as “nobly clad in Purple” indicating her position as a member of the wealthy elite and thus aligning the upper-class education (that is to say, the Classical education) with foolishness.

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