November 5, 2014

Einstein said that "the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious". Then why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus apparently depriving it of its mystery?
-- Leonard Bernstein, 1976
In the mid-twentieth century, the word of Einstein -- a genius who explained our universe, was against bad things, and played the violin -- was something you could take to the bank. But Leonard Bernstein didn't need any special authority for this insight, which is not his alone -- I myself had the same reflection back when I was the King of Ur, and again, some centuries later, when I was Czar of All the Russias. (It's an odd title, know, but "Czar of All the Mexicos" didn't sound right either.)

About "genius." I have meant, for long and long, to write something about Schumann. Among Schumann's most remarkable qualities was the ability to discern genius at long range and without a scope. And he never bothered himself with beating around the bush.

One diary entry -- the one that mentions the first visit to him of a young musician named Brahms -- reads simply:
"Brahms to see me (a genius)."
His review of the first works of Chopin to come to his attention begins: "Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!"

In you or me this kind of judgement would be called "hasty." It is only redeemed by the fact of its being correct. Schumann, it seems, perceived genius the way other people perceive the newness of your haircut. Shoot, something's different about you ... did you get your hair cut? Did you write the Raindrop Prelude?

Of course, I've never read Schumann's personal papers just smack through; I suppose it's possible that he was greeting the milkman, the postman, the corner prostitute, with the same cry of delighted discovery. But so far as I know his record is good.

Returning to Leonard Bernstein. If I recommend his series of Harvard lectures The Unanswered Question, and I do, it is really because one thing from it sticks in my mind. That is his "explication" of a Chopin mazurka. Bernstein characterizes the mazurka's various feints in the direction of establishing, or retreating from, some kind of tonal base. The mazurka itself is the music's protagonist, yearning for various tonalities, and variously trying them out and rudely refusing them.

What is interesting about this explication is that it is totally vulgar; that it carries no conviction; and that it nevertheless has proved to be, for me, "the way into" that piece of music.

The true critic of any art will quite rightly be troubled by the question Bernstein poses above: of whether his business is demystification or re-mystification.

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