Blogs > Jim Loewen > On Dealing with Serious Problems

Jun 30, 2017

On Dealing with Serious Problems

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

     Recently I had cause to contemplate some basic issues of human life. Exactly what spurred me to do so is idiosyncratic and does not concern me here. My point rather is to try to present to you how classical music can play a role in helping us process whatever we face. 

     Not just I have relied on classical music in this way. A favorite poet of mine, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote a sonnet, "On Hearing a Symphony by Beethoven," that captures the thought:

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease! 
Reject me not into the world again. 
With you alone is excellence and peace, 
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain 
Music my rampart, and my only one.

            Now, I must quickly note that music is not my only rampart. Nature is another, even more important. Poetry is a third. The romantic U.S. poet, William Cullen Bryant, combined these two in "Thanatopsis." Please pardon Bryant's use of "him" and "his" for the protagonist; after all he does atone by using "she" and "her" for Nature, the central force in the piece. The poem begins:

To him who in the love of Nature holds 
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks 
A various language; for his gayer hours 
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile 
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides 
Into his darker musings, with a mild 
And healing sympathy, that steals away 
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.

Those lines, combined with various spots on the surface of the earth special to me, have relieved at least the sharpest edge of my pain when I faced such past misfortunes as divorce and separation from my young children. The spots need not be all that special — I'm not talkin' Yosemite here. Just a turn in a brook will do, or a certain tree, small, misshapen, yet sturdy. 

            The title means contemplation of death. I learned that only while researching this essay, and the poem now turns to death, but we shall leave it at this point. My recent problem was not impending death or thoughts thereof, and the relief I found was not in nature or poetry but in music. 

             I turned to Anton Bruckner, composer of nine symphonies between 1863 and 1896, specifically to his massive Symphony #8, perhaps the longest purely orchestral symphony ever written. It lasts about an hour and a half, depending upon the conductor.

    My own introduction to the piece came via what we then called "LPs" — "long-playing records," now "vinyl." Each side of these twelve-inch disks usually lasts twenty to thirty minutes, so Bruckner's Eighth occupied two disks. In those days (1963!), important new recordings of classical music were not only reviewed in specialty magazines (High Fidelity, HiFi/Stereo Review, Stereophile) but also in newspapers. I asked the music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert C. Marsh, for his advice about the best recording of Bruckner's Eighth, and he wrote back to recommend the old monaural set by the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Edward Van Beinum. I bought it and still play it, but for you I shall recommend a newer CD version.

            Two or three years later I heard it live, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under visiting conductor Rafael Kubelik. That concert remains one of the most memorable I've ever attended. Let me tell you why. 

             Craig, my best friend from high school, was with me. I think we were in Chicago en route home from Harvard, where I was getting a Ph.D. in sociology and Craig was finishing his B.A. in astronomy. We had arranged to meet up with his parents. Time has obscured the details of all this. I do remember that my suggestion to hear the symphony carried the day. I also recall that Craig and I got very cheap tickets in the student balcony, nosebleed seats from which it seemed we could see down into the bassoon. Mr. and Mrs. Chester paid much more for their seats, but when it came time to go into the auditorium, theirs were just four rows ahead of us, in the same high balcony!

            I knew what to expect; they did not. The symphony was the only work on the program. The Chicago Symphony played wonderfully. It was then perhaps the best orchestra in the world, certainly the most precise. The work begins quietly but soon leads to an orchestral climax. Climaxes then alternate with hushed suspense. After a quarter hour, the movement ends quietly but with some grandeur.

            I'm sure some listeners can grow anxious along the way, because the structure is not obvious. That is, it contains no "passagework," no repeats, no traditional A-B-A form as found in symphonies from early Haydn through Beethoven. Instead, Bruckner builds it from shorter passages, often separated by pauses. It is as if he is thinking, "All right, I just told you something important. Now I'm going to tell you something else important." The more important the thought, the longer the pause. 

             Listening at home, I suggest you play the symphony all the way through without stopping, letting Bruckner make the impact he can upon you. Try not to do anything else while listening, however, such as writing this essay (sigh!).

             The second movement, scherzo, is faster. Again, it is a quarter hour long, and again, quieter passages lead to grand climaxes with kettle drums. It comes to a firm resolution, but as is the case with all symphonic movements before the final one, some unresolved tension is supposed to linger, and here we find no exception.

            The two final movements each last nearly half an hour. The slow movement begins almost statically, with a single chord, which Bruckner then repeats. He seems very assured — as if he knows he has your undivided attention and will now use it to provide you some very calm moments.[1] It has passages charged with loveliness that I find very meaningful, but it is again not clear exactly how they build. The movement has climaxes, but these are lovelier, rather than simply louder, and only the harp quite reaches their apogees. It was at these moments in Chicago that I started to hear something I have never otherwise heard at any classical music concert, and only once or twice at any venue: soft gasps from people so moved by the music that they did not know they were reacting audibly. The movement ends softly, as it began.

            The final movement begins grandly with a brass climax leading to four majestic blows on the tympani.[2] These blows can be life-changing: years ago, I read about a very successful lawyer or banker in New York City who, having heard them, determined he would conduct the symphony. After years of study and planning, he hired an orchestra, rented Carnegie Hall (I think), and did! As with the first two movements, there are repeated brass climaxes. In Chicago I looked down with amazement as the face of Adolph Herseth, the symphony's first-chair trumpeter, turned pink and then crimson, playing them. Again, immediately after some of these climaxes, soft gasps ricocheted about the hall. 

             Near the end of the movement, with the orchestra otherwise still, two soft short kettle drum rolls signal somehow to the listener that Bruckner is now going to tie everything together. Extraordinarily, he does. The finale references many of the motifs from all four movements, somehow connecting them into a climax so grand that at its end I conclude, as I do when I think about Labrador Retrievers, "Well, humankind cannot be all bad; we did produce that!"

            James Agee surely never heard much Bruckner. Long-playing record sets were still rare when he died in 1955, and American orchestral performances of Bruckner became commonplace only in the 1960s. Certainly he never mentioned Bruckner in his famous instructions on how to listen to serious classical music, found near the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written in 1936-37. However, I'm sure they apply equally to Bruckner's Eighth. 

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony (#9). But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it, and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body.[3]


On the next page, Agee goes on to write a passage that resides, for some reason, inside single quotation marks:

'Beethoven said a thing as rash and noble as the best of his work. By my memory, he said: "He who understands my music can never know unhappiness again." I believe it....'

Beethoven did write something like that, variously translated. Like Bruckner, some Beethoven can help one deal with whatever life visits upon you. Lenin even said that Beethoven's music was dangerous because it made him want to be kinder to his fellow human beings! Hitler also loved Beethoven (and Bruckner), so I make no claim that having either Beethoven or Bruckner by one's side necessarily makes one a better human being. It does me, though.

            What is the meaning of Bruckner's Eighth? It is deep classical music — indeed, the deepest. It is not program music, like, say, Scheherazade, portraying a ship in storm and other images. It's ineffable — so you cannot expect me to eff it for you. Maybe it says, "It is all right." Or, at least, "It will be all right." As the Beatles put it, "There will be an answer; let it be." (Though Bruckner does not move me — or Hitler or Lenin! — toward passivity.) 

            My program for you is that after you have played the symphony all the way through, you play just the slow movement, with its utterly calm beginning. Play it at least twice more. My friend Craig (yes, we're still friends) thinks you need to know a piece well enough that you know what is coming next, so you can sort of "hum along" mentally, before it can work its magic on you. The CD set by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim is one reasonably good recording.[4] See if it reaches you. 

Anton Bruckner identified completely with music. He was a choir boy in this monastery in St. Florian, Austria, then its organist in the 1850s, and chose to be buried under its organ.

Now, let me stop here for a word of caution: Bruckner's Eighth is not for everyone. It was not for Mrs. Chester, in Chicago. She had not heard what many of the rest of us had heard. No gasps from her. Instead, when we reunited on the street afterward, her first words were, "That was so long!"[5] Recently I played the beginning of the slow movement for one of my closest friends, an artist herself, with exquisite taste in painting and sculpture. She said, "It is as if someone were speaking to me very intensely and very sincerely but in a foreign language." 

            If you cannot get into this gargantuan work, at least not immediately, try this alternative: go to Spotify (or wherever you listen to new music) and play the "little slow movement," Adagietto, from Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony. It'll take less than ten minutes. Try it several times, paying attention. If that too makes no impact upon you, then maybe you'll want to seek solace in nature or poetry. Or maybe meditation or prayer will help in your moment of need.

            My final advice: do it now. That is, learn how to pray or meditate now. Or find your own sacred spot in nature now. Memorize the poetry most important to you now. Or perhaps, learn what pieces of music reach you deeply now. 

            Then you will have the resources when you need them. And when that time comes, know that you have my best wishes, and maybe Anton Bruckner's as well. 

    [1]Bruckner's assurance is inferable in other ways, such as the sheer length of many of his works. But he was also insecure, as various stories about him attest. He never received the audience response his works deserved and sometimes struggled just to get them played at all. 

    [2]I need to note that the Symphony exists in different editions. Many Bruckner symphonies do. Usually the last draft shows a composer's intentions best, but with Bruckner we cannot be sure. Owing to his insecurity, mentioned in the earlier note, an important conductor or critic might persuade him to make changes to which he would acquiesce, perhaps to get the work played at all, even though he might really have preferred the original. 

            The final movement of Symphony #8 then builds immediately to a second brass climax and, in its original version, to a second, very different, tympani blast. In the revised versions, the second brass climax is not followed by tympani. I prefer the original, as did von Beinem. But it's not worth getting into a snit about. 

    [3]Recall that in 1936, many "Victrola" phonographs did not even use electricity. Agee's contortions were necessary, to get adequate volume. I don't suggest that you turn a modern system to peak volume — not if you value your neighbors or your eardrums! 

    [4]At least you can hear the soft tympani strokes near the very end of the work; these are almost inaudible in some recordings. It also does contain the second tympani blast at the start of the final movement, mentioned in a previous note.

      [5] Of course, that was her first hearing of it. 

Copyright James W. Loewen

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