Do you ever get that sheer buzz when a musical performer is so good, so proficient on her/his instrument that s/he just blows you away? I find myself when it happens laughing in sheer delight; even on my own listening to a record or CD. Short limited laughter; but involuntary; like a sudden mental release
Like Shelley’s Spirit of Delight it cometh rarely; and few performers are they to whom I am able to respond in such a way. I am an admirer of David Mellor and his taste and choice in music. Weekly, on a Sunday evening on Radio Station Classic FM David Mellor presents his show. He was a UK politician some years ago and held high Ministerial Office, he is a ‘widely-read’ connoisseur of music; and he is far more able than am I to sift out by sheer ear alone what is astonishing in musical performance (recorded).
Yet he has a very good ‘bedside manner’ and is not overbearing or shoving-down-the-throat with his superior listening and selection-power. He really does give an impression to his listeners, and I have no reason but to believe it a genuine one, that he is so emotionally committed to music as a serious pursuit that his aim is almost a mission to ‘spread the word’ and make converts. Converts not to Mellor-ism but to good musical habits; his own love for music and for good musicians overcomes any self-assertion he might possess otherwise as an individual.
And of course, this is how it ought to be; for any person enthralled by and in lifelong pursuit of the glories of various kinds which life is able to offer as objects of studies or pastimes. Mathew Arnold, that great Victorian; a man dogged by his loss of Christian belief ever after his early lapse from it; was of a like mind about how a person ought to pursue his/her interests in life.
Arnold came up with a phrase which I have found useful and sufficient ever since as a precise summing-up, an indicator of this selfless state into which true passion for anything outside oneself evokes. He called it; a person having a ‘disinterested interest’ in his/her pursuits.
‘Disinterested’ is a word not in use these days; unless when it is used mistakenly to mean ‘uninterested’. Arnold remained a deeply ethical and I would say a profoundly Christian man all his life; even though he consciously eschewed Christianity as a viable position intellectually.
There were in his times special historical reasons for this desperate pain he endured as a Christian thinker bearing a non-Christian despair. There was, one should keep in mind, in his days and during his formative years, an introduction into England from Germany of the New Biblical Criticism which took the Scriptures to pieces and examined them in ways never before attempted because never before possible.
The European Enlightenment had give theologians the tools to dissect Scripture minutely; and the methodologies to pursue such an activity; and with this destabilising trend for Christian believers appeared around the same time the philosophies of Utilitarianism and Scientific Empiricism; so that the things attached to the earth became predominant in the intellectual milieu of that age and the things of the Spirit became obscured for a time.
Darwin added another hammer blow to the intellectual standing of Christianity, and Matthew Arnold became overwhelmed by this deluge of what seemed to many at the time to be incontrovertible evidence against Scripture and its burden. Arnold however stuck with his quest to teach persons to aim for objectivity in their judgements; and in his book of social criticism called ‘Culture and Anarchy’ he insisted that in our judgements of affairs and ideas and systems that we ought to try to ‘see the object whole and as it really is’.
His other gift of phrase to the English language is ‘Sweetness and Light’; by which he meant to teach an appreciation in men and women of what he termed ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’.
These few phrases which I have cited as being the crucial values of Matthew Arnold tend to sum up his character as a person of integrity and culture and sensitivity.
These phrases also are alive and valid for us today; more so even perhaps than in Arnold’s day, since the loss of the word ‘disinterested’ from our current vocabulary is not an isolated accident of no significance; it is a symptom and a casualty of our present loss of grasp of objectivity, of our acknowledging there being such a thing, and of our loss of a sense that it is good to live for the sake of something other than ourselves; and the loss of the resultant ‘Sweetness and Light’ which such pursuit shines into lives; when we admit of and admire ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’.
Music comes into this category of ‘Sweetness and Light’ as one of its most illustrious prizes. David Mellor knows this; and David Mellor has helped me to know it better than I had done.
This Sunday he was introducing violinists to his audience. Among them was a little known French woman who died an early death in the years after the Second World War – and she was something else. I heard her play the first movement of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, a piece which when done well is riveting; but so often the balance between orchestra and soloist, and often too the ‘blancmange’ approach to its continuity of line, either alone or together mess the rendition of it almost to unlistenable.
This French young woman Ginette Neveu played at once like a possessed harpy but yet with a control and a passionate giving of herself which was allowed to happen by her supporting orchestra; and which was able to show to a person a Sibelius in a way I myself had not before seen. The performer was in this case able to bring to the music a living presence as if she had seen so much further into the written score and into other renditions than one (I) had thought possible. Her gift was to add, so as to, as it were, complete the music. And so give it that spirit which seemed buried within the page by Sibelius during his act of composition.
David Mellor also brought to light a Russian violinist; a contemporary of David Oistrakh; and a violinist who had been overshadowed by David Oistrakh in the visible world, but who had nonetheless carried on and led a life of concert–making, much of it within the then Soviet Union. His name was (I think I remember) Leonid Kogan, and he was playing the last two movements of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which is not a favourite with me.
Yet I listened and I was left wondering how he was able to bring into view such ‘wonderful things’ from areas of the music which I had always allowed to pass over me like a hardly-noticeable breeze. The fact was that he had, for me at least, discovered music in those very places I had up to now considered ‘connecting pieces’ going from one attractive part to another.
It is more than sheer virtuosity I am meaning; it goes beyond technique and interpretation and into areas of the performers’ souls which are ‘taken over’ and ‘possessed’ by the music; and so they present a something which is there for the moment, like a wraith-light or a déjà vu, and then gone leaving behind what might be termed ‘an experience’ for a listener.
These two violinists then had given themselves over, not just for the moment, but their lives in toto, to their passion and to their daemon; had opted for a life of ‘disinterested interest’ in their pursuits; so as to delve into and mine out that ‘sweetness and light’ they saw in the potential of their music, so as to present to their audiences and to the world ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ of music.
A coda. The drama of Christopher Marlowe’s ‘The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus’ is said by critics to be a Christian tragedy; which epithet is an oxymoron and almost a contradiction. Christianity itself has been charged with causing an obliteration of the possibility of tragedy; since the Gospels are Good News’ ‘of peace and goodwill to all men’.
In the 1950s I believe a critic named George Steiner wrote a book influential at the time and it was called ‘The Death of Tragedy’. Steiner argued in it that the case of persons of high and noble standing falling from grace in a way which appears cumulative, unstoppable, and inevitable; such cases were in the modern democratic demagogic age no longer achievable in art. They were no longer achievable as art because they were no longer present in life as current situations. Thus tragedy could no longer be written because our modern life had levelled mankind off so thoroughly that no highly placed noble souls were available to dramatise.
Matthew Arnold was perhaps one of the first casualties of this state of affairs; a man who suffered greatly and who has passed down to history as a man of pathos rather than of a tragic cast. Arnold himself was aware of this situation of his standing. In his later editions of his poetry he deliberately excluded from these collections a poem of his titled ‘Empedocles on Etna’; a poem which narrates the tale of the ancient philosopher Empedocles in a fulfilment a life of despair casting himself into the cone of the volcano Etna.
Arnold justified this omission of his poem by saying that Empedocles’ situation was one ‘in which everything was to be endured and nothing to be done’. Thus Empedocles can be seen as reflecting pretty nearly Mathew Arnold’s own situation in life.
In addition a tragic hero may be foredoomed and may be inevitably crushed by circumstance; but he or she has to be able to deny that fate in spirit and so resist that inevitability with say violent and or haughty action and thus die noble if yet defeated. Modern life, Steiner argued removed such options for a would-be tragic action in the drama; removed a possibility for high and noble defiance in action. Steiner was writing at a time when dramas like ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘The Caretaker’ were being feted on the European stages; dramas which almost celebrate this dead-end lassitude which modern life engenders.
My own contribution to this debate on tragedy and its possibility for our times is this; and it connects I hope to what I have been trying to say about Mathew Arnold and about great musicians.
There is a huge irony happening in our times concerning modern life and tragedy and the loss of Christian belief in many parts of Europe today. There is tragedy, and it is happening all around and in ‘real life’. The tragedy is to be seen in the loss of awareness of a possibility for tragedy in our lives.
Just as the word ‘disinterested’ has been diverted as a misnomer into the word ‘uninterested’ so too the word ‘tragedy’ is misplaced by us and is being used by us in regard to road traffic fatalities and with regard to untoward and unfortunate disasters. Every journalist and newsreader seems to use the word several times each week these days.
Ours is a generic and endemic tragedy; and we are all the victims of it. The Lord Jesus tells us who are happy to believe in worldly power and in paper and other worldly wealth; which are but shadows and dreams able to work us by strings; and yet we are unwilling and unable to consider or to entertain The Lord’s message any longer; a message in fact of more substance, bearing more evidence, and still more presence in our lives than either worldly riches or worldly power have; Jesus said to his people who were just like us:
To what, then, can I compare the men of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sittinginthe marketplace and calingout to one another: ‘ We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep’.
There is no way visible to us that offers escape for us from the fly-bottle; and out of the mousetrap; because we by our captivity to a lack of vision see ourselves cornered-in from one way and cornered-in from the other way; yet there is before us and in sight all the while The Way forward. As the Lord Jesus calls to us in the marketplace:
‘He who has ears to hear; let him hear!’
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