BOOKS: by Mark FreerNews Weekly
A STUDENT'S GUIDE TO MUSIC HISTORY, by R.J. Stove
, August 16, 2008
A glorious rompA STUDENT'S GUIDE TO MUSIC HISTORY
by R.J. Stove
(Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books)
Paperback: 138 pages
Rec. price: AUD$15.00"Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun, poet, mystic and advisor to princes, achieved international musical repute in the 1980s: no mean feat, since she had died in 1179. She is, indeed, the earliest composer whose output survives in bulk (around eighty pieces bear her name) and is regularly performed. 'A feather on the breath of God,' she called herself."
So begins a glorious romp through some 10 centuries of Western music by Melbourne author and organist Robert J. Stove that is both scholarly and entertaining. Stove tells of his "pleasure and terror indissolubly combined" on being asked by the Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute - the distributor for The Chesterton Review
and Christendom College journal Faith and Reason
, among other worthy pursuits - to condense into a loosely (albeit attractively) typeset 130-odd pages the material for which Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music
needed no fewer than six volumes and 4,252 pages (and "he still had to economise")...Culture and religion
Why this commission? The answer is that Stove's work is a contribution to the comeback - particularly strong in the United States - of genuine liberal education, so desperately needed against "liberal-ism" and its bad cultural fruit of nihilistic self-hatred. Spearheaded in 1937 by the Great Books programme of St John's College, Maryland, the undergraduate rediscovery of cultural and religious identity through encountering the foundational minds of Western civilisation now flourishes in places like Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom College, as well as the recently established Campion College, Sydney.
Students read and discuss original works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, St Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Dante, Newton, et al.
Naturally, sacred Scripture is the supreme foundational document. Faith informing reason, and reason informing faith: a mutual indwelling that is ultimately the wellspring of our culture and the common language of our existence. No spurious dichotomy here between the humanities and the sciences; all is truth - objective and discoverable. The excitement about the discovery of truth is palpable in these places.Discernment
The musical corollary - which is where Stove comes in - is objective Beauty
, for whose discernment human nature is equally well equipped.
This intensely unpopular perspective - utter anathema to the Zeitgeist - implicitly informs his guide. See especially the other end of the book for deliciously caustic commentary on fraud or deliberate ugliness. You'll never hear Shostakovich (a cult figure like T.S. Eliot, whose poetic vacuity was so well described recently by Campion's Stephen McInerny in Quadrant
) referred to in any university, conservatorium, concert programme or review as follows:
"The Gulag threatened. Shostakovitch gave his next (fifth) symphony a grovelling subtitle: 'An artist's reply to just criticism'. The Gulag ceased to threaten. Subsequent effusions included his Leningrad Symphony
, perhaps the most repetitive exercise in brainless musical demagogy ever perpetrated.
"Much pseudo-scholarship arose after his death to assert that he really hated Soviet communism and furtively derided it via musical codes. Such disingenuous conjecture bespeaks ignorance. Soviet cultural commissars, though thugs, were not fools.... If they had even suspected a satirical intention by Shostakovich, he would have been shot - or suffered a fatal car 'accident' - before he could say 'dialectical materialism'."
Hooray for the truth! Nor is Stove done with his victim: in the next chapter he is portrayed "dutifully co-signing official condemnations of dissidents. He thereby attained for himself a paradoxical, spectacular, and, apparently, unshakeable reputation for anti-Soviet heroism." And poor Shostakovitch is only the beginning. Read and see.
A brilliant exposition, too, of how postwar Western "Orwellian bureaucrats, answerable to no-one, determined the nature of such new music as would gain official sanction....
For the first time in Western history... music would not be something that a private potentate or a church wanted, nor something for which customers had exhibited the faintest enthusiasm, but, rather, something that dragooned audiences would get given, good and hard." Stove has just explained why lots of people avoid concerts. (And, if you do go, consider not applauding the rubbish parts: they just might then evaporate).
Elsewhere, Stove generally deploys his wit more gently, though always irreverently (a good antidote to the composer as demi-god living in a rarefied parallel universe).Composer's personality
Quoting Carlyle - "History is the essence of innumerable biographies" - he successively captures each composer's personality in a deft and usually funny line-sketch (Debussy: "a voluptuary who never lost his champagne tastes, though he mostly lived on a beer income". Scriabin: "His religious writings may charitably be called insane, although the occasional extract - 'You are not you. I am God' - has the virtue of concision)" while placing him in the broadest historical, philosophical and musical context.
His narrative is thereby improbably but successfully carried, burbling along happily while washing up nugget after nugget. "No-one can claim to know Bach who has not sought out his sacred cantatas... and his organ works. There Bach stands (or rather kneels), working out his salvation 'in fear and trembling', as Saint Paul urged."
Every page is full of beautifully crafted and quotable sentences. R.J. Stove paraphrases Tertullian in his preface: "this volume exists because it is impossible", and he has here in some sense achieved the impossible.
Read it, and you will be inspired to go out and listen to some of that beauty.