Music as Nothing as Beauty

Leonard Bernstein famously begins the first of his “Young People’s Concerts” with a simple question: What does music mean? After superimposing different but equally viable narratives over the same orchestral excerpt, his answer is clear: nothing. Though such a concept may disrupt long-held fantasies of embedded musical values and narratives in celebrated pieces of music, it simultaneously positions those pieces to contend as “great art” as, in the words of Iris Murdoch, “it is separate, it is for nothing, it is for itself.” (MGM, p. 8)

Of the masterworks in the Western canon, perhaps few have demonstrated their “separateness” as amply Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, which has been co-opted by numerous, sometimes conflicting social groups and causes in the nearly two hundred since its premiere. Its orchestration—soaring at times, meditative at others—and sweeping final chorale leaves an indelible mark on listeners, if only due to the excessive numbers and volume with which it is typically executed. Critics can rarely contain the desire to characterize Beethoven’s writing with superlatives such as “majestic,” “triumphant,” and “glorious”; two centuries on, it is widely considered an awe-inspiring gem of Western artmaking.

By Plato’s estimations of artistic merit, the Ninth would fail in many respects. Its very conception and presentation is a study in excess, given the sheer number of performers required (noteworthy both in its own era and today). Though its composition is undeniably reasoned and pragmatic, the work generally eschews moderation and humility. If successful, by its completion it induces an exuberance and elation in listeners—what Plato might view as an indulgence if not a violent change in mood—and even the singing of the “Ode to Joy” at year-end parties may inspire a spirit of bacchanalia on which Plato would have frowned. The fact that anyone can justify using the Ninth as the anthem for his cause—from Nazism to the European Union—implies that the work itself is not inherently virtuous, nor does it inspire exclusively righteous actions in listeners. While Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s text describing universal brotherhood may seem an honorably moral imperative, the cynic may view even this as an impractical, fantastical suggestion. Beethoven’s brand of composition and orchestration as exemplified in the Ninth facilitated the shift from the Classical style to the Romantic era, and has since influenced the ways many film and TV composers manipulate audience perception, emotion, and anticipation. In this way, one might more accurately credit the Ninth as a facilitator of artifice and entertainment than for imparting morality. The uplifting sentiment the final movement often provokes may be viewed as subverting one’s seeking enlightenment, convincing listeners of having experienced a totality that is only counterfeit (or, from Plato’s Cave: mistaking the fire for the sun). If the educative value of a work relies on its successful imitation of “decent” values and its ability to lead others to a more truthful reality, the Ninth appears wholly immoral.

If the meaning(s) (and, potentially, fantasies) we bring to a work are our own, what determines a work’s dialectic value, beauty, or status as art at all? Murdoch may provide us a helpful pivot: “Art is informative and entertaining, it condenses and clarifies the world, directing attention upon particular things.” (MGM, p. 8) This ability to concentrate and unify as a means of producing clarity may speak to the societal necessity of art as a way to better recognize our world (an idea reminiscent of critical pedagogue Paolo Freire’s “naming” the world in order to change it). Our perception of the value inherent to the total “whole,” at whatever scale we intuit it, may most directly reflect our feelings about art’s societal worth. If learning to analyze music for its “wholeness” 1) imparts the skills necessary to perceive—as Murdoch describes—many noises as a symphony (even if only to question and deconstruct them), 2) invokes in us a response of “sustained, experienced mental synthesis,” or 3) informs our thinking through exploring its organizing principles, music study offers such development opportunities in spades. But music, like other arts, provides us no direct imperatives regarding its consumption.

What, then, is the role of music in a free society? How should it be reflected in institutions of learning, and to what end? Notably, Beethoven is often praised as one of the first Western composers to break from the single-patron model; though still a member of Viennese society that ultimately answered to the royal court, he is considered by music historians one of more independent composers of his day, and seemed to work without fear of being censored. His hasty withdrawal of the dedication of the Third Symphony (“Eroica”) to Napoleon Bonaparte out of supposed disgust for Bonaparte’s politics is a small but potent example of Beethoven using the influence of his artistic work to bear witness against a perceived tyrant. The potential uses of many musical forms to myriad ends, be they protest, entertainment, or to “make special,” reflect the power of the medium to give voice to individuality that might otherwise go unheard or ignored. It is from this angle that one might begin to justify the creation and consumption of art in society and schools.

Philosophers of music education widely advocate for the inclusion of music as a core academic subject, even as many struggle to justify its inclusion by citing its quantifiable, extra-musical merits (and as a result, taking an ironically Platonic view that school music should promote traits such as productivity, citizenship, and self-regulation). More recently, the emergence of critical theory in music education discourses has threatened the traditional importance placed on a canon of works and skills representing white, Eurocentric heternormativity and dogged by narratives of exploitation and colonialism. Favoring such musics at the expense of potentially more culturally relevant repertoire (e.g., pop, folk, urban selections) seems to echo the myopic nature of Plato’s belief that music should operate within fixed and highly policed tonal and rhythmic modes to accompany singularly virtuous odes and paeans (Republic, Book III, p. 83). This thinly utilitarian view not only ignores entire swaths of human experiences, it seeks to erase them. While Plato appears to acknowledge beauty in music, the value of a beautiful object (song or piece) appears to function primarily at the service of making one’s soul desirous of philosophical growth toward truth and knowledge (and must be managed intelligently by the one perceiving the beauty). In recognizing the potential for human weakness and failure, Plato attempts to remove any forum for their expression as part of the interpretative process.

Denying ourselves certain actions and emotions as Plato would have us, however, denies us access to experiences that would help us synthesize our lived experiences, thoughts, and surroundings more meaningfully. If the listener or performer of a musical work is responsible for bringing meaning and beauty to a work to justify its societal necessity, their (music) education should comprise the requisite skills to do so. The freedom to make and pass on these interpretive determinations evidences an open, free society. Thus, the case for music education (as it prepares students to consume music as members of society) becomes a call for fundamental changes that must take place if it is to become genuinely relevant to more than a minority of trained or committed individuals. If musicking provides opportunities to comprehend, feel, and exist in uniquely aural and temporal ways, the product of that comprehension is an aural form of one-making, of whole-making, of synthesis that is unavailable to us elsewhere. By using art (music) to recognize and intuit different unities, our ability to (re-)conceive of ourselves as wholes—differently constituted in different seasons of our lives—is deepened and enhanced.

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