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Daily Inspiration — A Mosh Pit for Carnegie Hall

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Josh Mitteldorf       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments, In Series: Daily Inspiration

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Something was lost in the music of the 19th Century, and that something was laughter. Haydn and Beethoven composed with wit and self-conscious parody. Their audiences--royalty and proletarians--frequently laughed out loud. Some time in the mid-19th Century, the Wagners and Listzs of the world made this into a travesty. Classical music became a solemn affair, and people in concert halls had to pretend they were in church.

Then, in the 20th Century, the witty surprises of the Classical era that made listeners smile were stretched past the point where they were funny. Humor dissolved into intellectual irony, tragicomedy, and then theater of the absurd in musical guise. Audiences stopped laughing and began to wince. I would trace neoclassicism to Mahler, and by the time of the Great War, Stravinsky was no longer breaking the expected classical forms for comic relief, but was slashing and burning. If these composers hadn't been such superb musicians, they never could have done so much damage to their genre. La vie est une trage'die pour celui qui sent, et une come'die pour celui qui pense. And in the 20th Century, pense' was exactly that on which music was overdosing.

Actually, my thoughts above began with a birthday tribute to Alfred Brendel, 88 years old today. Brendel is a public intellectual, a poet (in English, his third language, or perhaps his fourth), a painter, and one of the great pianists of the 20th Century. Listen to his Cambridge lecture on humor in music.

Brendel plays long excerpts from Beethoven's Sonata #16, which I had always dismissed as pedantic, overblown writing. He opened my eyes to the obvious--that Beethoven is not so incompetent after all, and the whole sonata is a joke.

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Buddhas and Santas, by Alfred Brendel

I

In front of tourists
they contrive to keep still
practising thirty-three varieties of ecstasy
a thousand aspiring Buddhas
At night though
when no one's looking
they stretch their limbs
become restless
and pant
a latent powder-keg
ready
to burn to ashes
the wooden shrine

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Perhaps they only bicker
because they all covet the front row
craving
to be scrutinized in close-up
But in all likelihood
they are just fed up
with standing there like ornamental plants
lined-up lookalikes
rivals in the hothouse of holiness
See
how they spy on each other
clandestinely counting up the golden arms
which
as befits a true Buddha
sprout from their bodies

II

In the recent football match
between the Buddhas and the Texan Santas
the Buddhas
truly excelled themselves
With undreamt-of sprightliness
they laid siege to their opponents' half
and scored
their corpulence notwithstanding
several magnificent goals
After their defeat
the red-capped benefactors of children
can be heard singing Jingle Bells
and observed
out of remorse
to be scaling the giant Christmas trees
with which the island
exasperates
its pedestrians
at every turn
in late autumn

III

Santas
have of late occupied the temples
Singing heartily
they swarm over the balustrades
wade through the waterlilies
or
suddenly silent
play hide-and-seek
in the rockery
Astonished monks
watch them vanish
behind the boulders
There they huddle
hiding their heads
little realizing
that the tails of their red and white cloaks
shoot into the air like arrows

IV

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As I stepped on stage
the orchestra played a fanfare
Then the loudspeakers announced me to be
the one millionth Father Christmas
Roared on by the crowd
I was presented with a clone
Tearfully
we embraced
the clone and I
and sang Silent Night in unison
At home
he lives in the attic
When I travel
he deputizes for me
in the marital bed
Sometimes we talk to each other
in monologue
Just once
when a mouse ran up his leg
he turned nasty
Since then we compete in swearing
he in Hungarian
I in Croatian
though
of course
not in front of the children

More poems of Alfred Brendel


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Josh Mitteldorf, a senior editor at OpEdNews, blogs on aging at http://JoshMitteldorf.ScienceBlog.com. Read how to stay young at http://AgingAdvice.org.
Educated to be an astrophysicist, he has branched out from there to mathematical (more...)
 

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Josh Mitteldorf

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So, why don't we laugh out loud when we listen to a Haydn scherzo? I think it's because our ears have been poisoned by late 19th and 20th century music. The harmonies that sounded like comic mistakes in Brendel's first example (Haydn C Major Sonata) were repeated in late romantic music so often that the unexpected became the expected. The dissonances that were jarring and poignant in Bach, humorous in Haydn, and used to both effects in Beethoven--these dissonances became a staple of 20th Century music, until our ears became harmonically disoriented.

Submitted on Saturday, Jan 5, 2019 at 8:40:25 PM

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Josh Mitteldorf

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Looking beyond music to culture in general, I think the scientific revolution, as it appeared in 19th Century Europe, led to a hyper-rational, mechanistic view of the world that is still a powerful cultural influence today. People believe that science tells them the world is cold, disconnected, meaningless, mechanistic.

It is tragically ironic that just a few years after this paradigm took over, quantum mechanics was discovered, and with it came a natural place for spirit, enchantment, faith and magic that were previously thought to "contradict science". But somehow it was too late, and the humorless, cynical hyper-individualism that grew from the 19th Century mechanical world continued to dominate intellectual culture.

Submitted on Saturday, Jan 5, 2019 at 8:48:03 PM

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