UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Timely Fashions II: Unstuck in Time

Timely Fashions II:
Unstuck in Time

The ebb and flow of ideas through art history does not describe a straight line; as we have noted, some artists jump ahead of their peers, while others lag behind. Indeed, the way certain artists are accepted or rejected by their own time is of tremendous significance when attempting to view, with benefit of hindsight, the general shape of art history. This week's blog will mention a few of the exceptional cases which do not jive precisely with what would have been, for them, contemporaneous thought.

One spectacular example of an artist ahead of his time is, of course, Mozart. It is so often claimed, to the point of banality, that Beethoven ushered in the Romantic period; it was Beethoven's acceptance by the public in terms of his many performances, AND, hugely significant, his PUBLICATIONS, that allowed him to exert such a powerful influence on his time. Beethoven became an example for a generation of composers, both in terms of his musical idiom, and his personal aesthetic--his philosophical values. And yet, by 1820, Beethoven had not written a note of music that was more advanced, neither technically nor emotionally, than the work Mozart was putting out in the late 1780's. I have long made the claim that is was Mozart, not Beethoven, who was the first Romantic. Mozart is such a common household item now, that people don't remember that, in his own time, he was far from occupying the pinnacle of renown which he enjoys today, and which, indeed, he enjoyed (sic) just a few years after his death. It boggles the mind to speculate upon the dramatic changes to the shape of music history Mozart might have wrought if he had lived just a few more years--long enough to make his mark on the collective consciousness of the public opera audience. It is not too far from the mark to say that Mozart's pride, his insistence of writing for the imperial opera house, rather than the newly emerging public opera house, that was his undoing.

Brahms represents a perfect example of the composer lagging behind the times. Fortunately, he was not TOO FAR behind the times, such that there was still current a large audience that, with him, rejected the innovations of the Wagnerites, leading to the Mahlerites. Still, Brahms' stubborn rejection of the formlessness of true Romanticism in favor of a kind of neo-classicism, limited his contemporaneity, while certainly not limiting his range of expression.

Bach and Schoenberg are both examples of composers who were both ahead AND behind their times:

Bach was so far behind in the form department, remaining faithful, throughout his life to the contrapuntal ideals of the High Renaissance, that his music almost ceased to exist, at a time when the tamely elegant rococo was favored over densely intellectual materials; fortunately, in the area of harmony, the torturous twists and turns of the diminished chord were in perfect harmony (ha ha) with the sound world of the Romantic. Thus, Bach's music skipped an entire period (the classical) before it found an audience whose ears could handle the emotional tension of his harmonies.

Schoenberg went so far afield in his rhythmic complexity that many average audiences cannot hear any harmonic or melodic coherence at all (although it is certainly there), while, again, like Bach, his adherence to inherited contrapuntal formulae looks (if such a thing is possible) even further back than Bach. The tragedy of the 20th century is that so many emulated the surface features of Schoenberg, while ignoring the deeply personal spiritual resonance of his work. With Schoenberg the technique of the music became more apparent to the audiences and students, than the poetry.

Gershwin presents another interesting twist on the unstuck in time theme: Gershwin was, in one sense perfectly synced with his time--near enough to mainstream thinking to create a ream of popularly successful songs, yet far enough ahead to see a vision of a fusion of popular and concert hall art; his efforts to realize that vision is one of history's most heroic tales. As Gershwin's music was maturing, the totality of this fusion was gaining such power and authority that, again, if he had not died so young, he might have single-handedly changed the course of history.

We could look back at such Renaissance mannerist composers as Gesualdo, who wrote sonorities not to be duplicated again until the 20th century, but, to my mind, the most dramatic example of a composer ahead of his time is Charles Ives. Ives anticipated nearly every 20th century stylistic ism you can think of: tone clusters, polyrhythm, polytonality, serialism (including dodecaphonicism), aleatoricism, minimalism, and on and on. Such a man comes along once in 200 years at best, and one weeps to think of the geniuses greater than Ives who come along once in a thousand years and are never discovered. Thank God for Leonard Bernstein.

How do these composers find the courage to reject the current fashion in favor of a personal vision that may spell rejection, anonymity, and poverty? Perhaps it is the same old song we have been singing through this blog--that it is the CHARACTER of genius not the technique of genius that is the distinguishing factor. It is the rage for order that drives the artist on to his unique destiny, and if he sees the world from a skewed perspective, he must glory in it because it is HIS perspective, not anyone else's. The ultimate judge of an artist's work, when all is said and done, is God not Man. C.S. Lewis observes about God:


“He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instill either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.”

Glennallen, AK
April 3, 2011

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