Category Archives: music

on tradition

Robert Craft: Do you have a special theory of, or meaning for, tradition?

Igor Stravinsky: No, I am merely very prudent of the wrod, for it now seems to imply ‘that which resembles the past’— the reason, incidentally, why no good artist is very happy when his work is described as ‘traditional’. In fact, the true tradition–making work work may not resemble the past at all, and especially not the immediate past, which is the only one most people are able to hear. Tradition is generic; it is not simply ‘handed down’, fathers to sons, but undergoes a life process: it is born, grows, matures, declines, and is reborn, perhaps. These stages of growth and regrowth are always in contradiction to the stages of another concept or interpretation: true tradition lives in the contradiction. ‘Notre héritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament’ (Our heritage was left to us by no will). [— René Char]

Memories and Commentaries [emphases added]


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In the main, however, the need for new cantatas, string quartets, symphonies, is wholly imaginary, and commissioning organizations, like the Ford and the Rockefeller Foundations, are really only buying up surplus symphonies as the government buys up surplus corn. In fact, the need for such music is so hopelessly non–actual that the commissioners are now obliged to try to buy the need for the symphony as well as the symphony.

Great, i.e., immortal, music creates its own need

— Igor Stravinsky, quoted in Memories and Commentaries (Stravinsky, with Robert Craft) [emphasis added]

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the role of the idea

This is (in part) a reply to Dr Charlton’s reply here. As the reply grew larger than the post he was responding to, I realized I needed to make it its own post.

Well, sometimes you have to go rather deeper into things in order to repair them. (I should note here that I’m not fond of Frost, but that’s a completely superficial judgment as I have read him little and have had him explained to me less; so, I cannot have an opinion for you, there!) Tolkien’s Englishing English for the sake of English–in–itself is an example here. I think there’s some sort of real call here.

I’ve developed an interest in neuroscience (well, a more intense version of a longer casual interest), and the way it positions itself towards mental phenomena (or, perhaps, the way it appears to) inspire a return of sorts; we will have to explore the philosophy of the mind for its own sake again. We also have to recover ontology; Heidegger pretended to do this, but it needs to be done for real. The areas where you see a sort of returning are primarily in second–order disciplines like mereology and the logical expression of ontology; ontology itself is more subtle, but it must underline both. So, one must engage in ontological enterprises for their own sake.

Philosophy that aims at a predetermined goal is simply anotherl form of philosophy as a weapon. Conservatives have engaged in this dark art in numerous ways, the majority of work in Neothomism falls under this category… from the Orthodox side of things, David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East & West, after a stream of good historical analysis, falls into this trap in a really jarring manner. (Wait, Palamism would have prevented the rise of Nietzsche? What?) Theological writers from practically every confession have tried to use post–modern mystification as a weapon to create some sort of vague space for belief.

In the same fashion that philosophy used to aspire to be for its own sake, I think the arts were for their own sake in context with their role in the greater drama of creation; I do not know if the Greek sculptor or tragedian thought about a goal for his art in the way we now attempt to attribute goals to artists, beyond the role of that art in festival, civic prominence, religious rite, &c. Similarly, music–as–music is responsible only to its role as music, how it is the sort of music that it is, not its ‘goals’ in the sense that we mean them. Proper liturgical music does not attempt to create passions or moods; it exists for the sake of being the sort of music that is worthy. Indeed, I suspect that the true forms of all arts are the art–as–art; this is not wholly possible, but what else could the angelic music be? The ideal form of human arts would seem to be a pure sort of creation; this seems to me to be implicit in Tolkien’s ideal of sub–creation (rather than its actuality).

[My collection of footnotes has grown ridiculously unwieldy, so I will add here that I do think there is a difference between goals and roles; any action has its natural telos— as does every being. Art–as–art will be directed towards its telos. Goals, rather, are created when the artist attempts to impose an alien telos on his art. Obviously I should be copyrighting this right now.]

• • •

I think the big ‘dogma’ of the internet reactionary set is quietism, or even a reticence to take concrete positions that may place demands of any practical sort. Yet, it’s one thing to believe in progress, it’s another to be hopeful; it’s one thing to be be a fatalist, it’s another to be a pessimist. (There is a reason—in any case—that hope is a virtue. In the Greek, it’s even a little stronger; ἐλπίς has a meaning akin to awaiting something. Our ‘hope’ is often used for a vague attitude— ἐλπίς is concrete. This is why faith functions as a ‘substance’ of things hoped for in Hebrews.*) It is very easy to show what went wrong; it is harder to see why things may go right, or even what did go right— or what candles may still have burned. This generally leads to historical romanticism, sheer cynicism, or both. (Of the first of those, I have become utterly exhausted for personal reasons.)

Foseti’s (somewhat) recent post on ‘your’ Christianity seems to me to be the atheistic obverse to your coin. You posit a Christianity that bears some resemblance to Lewis’s, with a different sort of nihilism behind it. (I am not trying to agitate you by the use of that word; I am speaking frankly, and I do not think that false diplomacy is of much use in such a discussion.) Lewis wanted to simply bracket away most of the questions of what the Church really is by painting it with a right–ish version of the broad church brush; you’ve used the idea to beg off making choices. It’s little wonder that a Foseti may doubt the Nietzschean/Moldbuggian line about Christianity as the fountainhead of modern liberalism, but cannot seem to respect Christianity— or be able to fully reject the line. (There is some truth in it, in any case.)

I found your post on sacred music to be really illustrative; I do not know any person who takes liturgical music seriously who would disagree with points 1, 4, 5, 6, or 7… but 2 & (in a more trivial manner) 3 are unusual objections. I will grant that chant in Orthodox services is often terrible; this is a common complaint among people who really care about music. To make it worse, certain persons (mostly clergy and bureaucrats) have this false idea of ‘what the people want’ and seek to enforce it at any cost. Taking abuse as normativeness is a problem— if correct practice is not followed, it still exists within the institution as an idea, if nothing else. (Indeed, if a particular church is the Church, not even rampant blasphemy within it could undo its being so— though it may, of course, be evidence to the contrary.)

I know of a choir that takes a conscientious approach to liturgical music… and its main detractors have been clergy. The lay people might not understand it on the level that is behind it, but they can understand the orientation towards worship that careful selection & performance of liturgical music results in.

I mentioned the continuing role in Slavic Orthodox Churches of 19th c. Russian romantic music during the short exchange on your blog. It is not impossible to perform such music in a reverent way (well, some of it), but it is more difficult. Similarly, I believe the modern music tradition in general is less suited for liturgical music, of which there seems to be a growing suspicion— there are new compositions in the traditional modes now in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Obviously liturgical music (well, to a degree, perhaps) is not an issue worthy of schism, but it still has a deep importance; music is divine.

Speaking of schism, I’ve always found Lewis’s idea of avoiding theological controversy to be a bit disingenuous. Obviously not just anyone is fit to discuss such matters, but Lewis’s bracketing is no less a theological position than any other position. It is implicitly a theological position even as it denies to be so, in the same way the theological rejectors of reason are making a statement that originates in reason. It’s inconsistent from the get–go. Doctrine matters, even when it creates stress. The following argument (and its relatives) is false:

1. If doctrine is important, than it is an issue of salvation.
2. Therefore, doctrine is only of minimal importance.

I wrote in an earlier post:

… a sort formal assent [to conciliar decisions was] demanded (the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the inclusion of Justinian’s ‘Only–Begotten Son’ within the Greek Liturgy, and so on), but the sort of personal, internal certainty we associate with assent was not. What Newman called the ‘illative sense’ was and remains operative in the faith of the Church, as much as an attenuated version of that sense bridges so many of our metaphors from the formal knowledge that could be attached to them.†

This is a hang–over from Protestantism’s idea that each man is a pope; if the clear meaning of Scripture can be read by each person in turn, a deep degree of doctrinal understanding is required. As it is obvious that such an understanding spread over so many is impossible, we instead simplify & simplify. Even most educated persons are never going to understand the philosophical sophistication that undergirded the Nicene Creed or the decisions of Ephesus or Chalcedon, but they don’t have to; doctrine matters—descriptions of reality have inherent worth—but the detractors of theologically–based schisms are attacking a straw man. Certainly, in the case of the Monophysite controversy which you recently brought up‡, there could have been some degree of misunderstanding, but that does not mean that the decisions of Chalcedon were wrong, it means there were ‘extenuating circumstances’ in regards to the schism.

This idea, that doctrine is not worth schism, is undeniably true with theologoumena; there area range of possible theological opinions which have not been given the weight of authority— and have not needed to.

Rarely do you hear persons say that Arianism should not have been exiled for the sake of unity, because the idea of Jesus as fully God and fully Man is so engrained in our idea of Christianity— to deny it is simply (to us) not to be Christian. But, if this is true, are not the councils of Ephesus or Chalcedon, &c. just as important as they deal with the same subject? That state of Christ as being Man & God has been the central article of Christianity; compared to it, the Trinity seems like a footnote, sometimes. The knowledgable avoidance of doctrine is, on a certain level, an avoidance of Christian faith. Doctrine does not develop— the conciliar proclamations must be primordial, or else they would not be true. How we express and understand doctrine does; and sometimes that expression must be given the weight of authority. Truth remains truth, and is important because it is truth. If you want to say, ‘Chalcedon doesn’t matter’, you’ve set yourself up a church of one.

I do not think that faith is an epistemic category as much as it is a virtue. The Fathers certainly seem to have talked about it in such ways, interweaving it with hope & love rather than otherwise. However, there is epistemic content in accord and in defense of that faith & hope. St Gregory of Nyssa says that faith & hope pass away in the eschaton, leaving only love**— but there will be knowledge in the eschaton, and love always has its object (see also the ‘new names’ as below). If faith is not an epistemic category, there is an even deeper reason to hold as suspect the idea that apprehension of doctrine is necessary for salvation; doctrine is not the object of any of those virtues.

I disagree with a number of things I wrote on the earlier blog (I figure I will disagree with a number of things here in three years…), but I still think this (with alterations) is a passable basis for what I am trying to get at:

The ‘new names’ given in Revelation are another sort of direct [epistemic] apprehension, God’s true naming of each human person. …
… [Philosophical] language does not give us the experience of Communion with God in the Eucharist. …

[Can we define theology in terms that give some idea of the scope of the craft?] … No experience of God is without impact on the language we have. … The Holy Spirit found in the Church guides the Church to reject false theology and recognize the true. Neither ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ theology ever exists totally without the other; the Fathers demonstrate both.

Yet, if [the propositions of] theology are not grounded in an encounter with the living God in the Church, it is a science of idols. Is that a grim picture of [the scope & the importance] human cooperation with Grace in the craft of theology? I think not. It says much about the insufficiency of language before God, but little against man: St Gregory of Nyssa writes that it is not blessed to know things about God, but to have Him, that we have within ourselves (for the Kingdom of God is within us) the ability to apprehend the divine things, as God made us in his image, with the likeness of his glory. We speak about God to guard the teachings of the Church (and to help lead persons to her), and that is an enormous task for human cooperation.

I am serious about the parenthetical statement in the final sentence: True philosophy is an evangelical mission of the Church. It has become common to scorn the philosophic mind and its concerns, but the Fathers of late antiquity did not hesitate to engage with it; the form became so native that later writers engaged themselves with mock pagan philosophers. A Church confident is one that does not fear philosophy (those outside it, and its own); indeed, it would be somewhat strange for a religion worshipping the enfleshment of wisdom to be opposed to the life devoted to a love of it in that particular way we call philosophic. When you write, ‘Intellectuals love to evaluate others using theological criteria: these are heretical because they believe this – we know they believe it because it is written in their versions of scripture.’, you are writing about a particular perversion of the intellectual’s role in society, and confusing the philosopher with the intellectual. (The more I think about the Strauss quote I posted earlier this month, the more I agree with it.) I also wonder what you mean by ‘their versions of scripture’, because the only ways I can think of interpreting that statement do not seem likely to be its intent.

The connection to the argument about music here may seem somewhat angular. However, I believe that aesthetics are both a proper concern for philosophy, and—indeed—a discussion of the very nature of music is, as well. The Broad Church view of Lewis or a suspicion of the majority of the Christian musical inheritance are both particularly modern affectations which can pose as premodern by being comparatively conservative: a devotion to Christianity as an institution on the one hand, the defense of the post–renaissance Western musical tradition on the other. (Those terms—‘modern’ and ’premodern’—could do with more explication by all of us who frequently use them.) It’s hard to see those trees for the forest, I suppose.

I do not suppose that this argument, either, is very coherent; I hope, however, it can help clarify what I am trying to get at.

* A quote I like on this:

For faith is the foundation of everything that comes after it, I mean hope and love, and firmly establishes what is true. Hope is the strength of the extremes, I mean faith and love, for it appears as faithful by itself and loved by both, and teaches itself through itself to make it to the end of the course. Love is the fulfillment of these, wholly embraced as the final last desire, and furnishes them rest from their movement. For love gives faith the reality of what it hopes for and the enjoyment of what is present.

— St. Maximus the Confessor, Letter 2: To John the Cubicularius

† As often happens, I am not sure I would want to state things exactly that way; I am typically sloppy when blogging, because of the mental state in which I tend to blog.

‡ I should note that there have been attempts to undo that schism in recent history, but progress is slow— if not ultimately impossible through bureaucratic means. The history, however, is far more complex than that alone, and the interactions of the opposed doctrines of the (strict) Cyrillians and the Nestorians made any sort of way that seemed ‘middle’ impossible to respect; II Constantinople managed to displease just about everyone.

** From On the Soul and the Resurrection:

…for hope acts so long as the enjoyment of what is hoped for is not present, and faith in the same way becomes a support for the uncertainty of the things hoped for. This is how he defined it when he said, ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for’. But when the thing hoped for comes, all the others grow quiet while the operation of love remains, not finding anything to take its place.

In the same work St Gregory casts doubt on the idea that reason alone can find a fundamental ontology (and that God has not revealed one), which is as good an argument as any to stand aside my earlier statement that Christianity does not have a thorough ontological doctrine. One can draw other things from that, but I will hesitate.

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order & the will to power

‘Music’s exclusive function is to structure the flow of time and keep order in it.’

— Igor Stravinsky

It is to my purpose to highlight one word here: Order.

The highlight of (post–)modernity has been the active attack and collapse on Order; no longer is it seen as a good (though, of course, liable to be twisted), rather the primary goal of art is to destroy it. There are no longer any aesthetics; there is only war. Anyone on the side of Order is—at least in some degree—on the side of Good.

Arbitrary Power, which is the highlight of totalitarianism, is not Order, but rather a mere reaction to Disorder by filling the vacuum with raw & unformed Will.

by Giovanni di Paolo

Giovanni di Paolo, ‘The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise’

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a brief note on stravinsky and the musical tradition

Some justification for my statement that Stravinsky was a reviver of the tradition probably seems in order.

The way in which Stravinsky was most obviously a reviver of the tradition was in his theory of the purpose of music. For Stravinsky, there existed two sorts of time— the subjective* & the ontological. Subjective is the time of our normal experience; it’s the time of emotion, and the time of crisis. The most common examples of subjective time are those before dangerous incidents; when I was hit by a speeding full–size pickup, everything happened in a perception of slow motion, after seeing it (a mere fifteen yards away) I had the time to judge its speed, realize it was going to hit me, dread the collision and understand that it would be serious. (I was spun around 450°.) Blissful moments can also seem both longer and shorter, and so on. Stravinsky saw the purpose of proper music to be an aid to bringing the user into the ontological time which was the time of true reality, the time of creation. An accessible (albeit fictional) example of the music of ontological time would be Tolkien’s music of the Ainu (to repeat a quote I have placed in this blog before):

“[…]the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Ainulindalë’ in The Silmarillion (boldface mine)

The idea that music would appeal to the subjective time of the composer’s (or performer[s]’) emotion was part of the fear of the entry of music into the liturgical services of the Church, and once again part of the fear of using anything other than monophonic recitation. The purpose of the liturgies of the Church are explicitly to be a foretaste of the reality of that which is about God and the future that is the new heaven & the new earth. Stravinsky understood this, and appealed against the classical and romantic tradition which we now often see as the only tradition because of it. (This is not to say—in my opinion—that pieces within that tradition cannot bring the listener into such time, and I do not believe that musics which operate on the level of entertainment—folk song, opera, musicals—are subject to this objection.) I have some feeling that the following Mozart piece manages (or can manage, depending on performance) that:

But it manages it in a very different fashion than Stravinsky or Arvo Pärt do:

Part of this may be ear & training, I do not know. But in his philosophical basis (at the very least) Stravinsky is correct and deeply in tune with the Tradition that is rare in modernity; he is not its destroyer, he is someone who was fundamentally misunderstood, with his disciples reading a political–artistic stance that was not there.

I suppose that this note was only brief by my standards.

* I do not remember if this is the precise word he used— I do not own the text.

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