Rethinking Music: Ontologies of Music

Title: Rethinking Music

Editors: Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist

This book is a collection of essays on the same broad theme, written by some of the most prominent musicologists of this generation. The systematic presentation of modern music is useful to any reflective composer. There is nothing like understanding what someone else believes to clarify your own point of view. Here, rather than a review of the whole book, are analyses of three essays.

Essay 1 - The Ontologies of Music by Philip V. Bohlman

Bohlman begins with the strong affirmation that music is subjective, that we all understand it from different points of view. As each of us moulds a perspective, we have our own ontology of music. This makes any objective assessment of music's value impossible. Bohlman does not address this fact, more concerned with the ontologies themselves.

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Sacrificing Roger Scruton

Title: Death Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde"

Author: Roger Scruton

An eloquent atheist like Scruton finds that he has much in common with Richard Wagner. Not that Scruton desires to bear the usual criticisms hurled (sometimes unfairly) against Wagner. But there is something about Wagner which appeals to Scruton and he has a sympathy which cannot be disguised.

It is helpful to have such a guide as Scruton when considering Wagner's Tristan und Isolde because otherwise we might be forgiven for trying to impose a Christian worldview on this work.

This rapturous evocation of the love object translate the once living Tristan into waves, clouds, scents, sounds, and finally into the “world-breath’s billowing all” as Isolde sinks into the joyful and all-knowing unconsciousness by the Upanishads and by the Hindu doctrine of Nirvana - release from the world - as the highest state of being. (p.72)

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Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Title: Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Author: Patrick Kavanaugh

Published: Zondervan, 1996

This volume bothers me. It appears to be the most ecumenical and non-divisive book on music ever written. That makes it far more dangerous than books that take a more blatantly controversial stand.

It is not as "neutral" as it appears to be. There is something subversive in the assumption that composers are de facto "spiritual". It is an idea just plucked from no where, or rather from the tenuous evidence provided from the lives of the "great" composers. When we look at them in further detail, they are all cut from different cloth. Some were bold believers who worked for the Church. Some were secret believers who never told anyone about their "private" beliefs. Some like Haydn believed a composer can earn musical ideas by being right before God. Dvorak believed God told him what to write. Handel too is regarded as divinely inspired. Others like Schubert are seen as re-crucifying Christ through their music. The conclusions we could draw from these points in our own lives and our own compositions are pretty devastating. As long as we have our own sincere kind of spirituality, God will "pay up" and make our music great.

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Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History 

Title: Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers

Author: Patrick Kavanaugh

Published: Zondervan, 1996

This volume bothers me. It appears to be the most ecumenical and non-divisive book on music ever written. That makes it far more dangerous than books that take a more blatantly controversial stand.

It is not as "neutral" as it appears to be. There is something subversive in the assumption that composers are de facto "spiritual". It is an idea just plucked from no where, or rather from the tenuous evidence provided from the lives of the "great" composers. When we look at them in further detail, they are all cut from different cloth. Some were bold believers who worked for the Church. Some were secret believers who never told anyone about their "private" beliefs. Some like Haydn believed a composer can earn musical ideas by being right before God. Dvorak believed God told him what to write. Handel too is regarded as divinely inspired. Others like Schubert are seen as re-crucifying Christ through their music. The conclusions we could draw from these points in our own lives and our own compositions are pretty devastating. As long as we have our own sincere kind of spirituality, God will "pay up" and make our music great.

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Paul Westermeyer and "Te Deum"

Title: Te Deum - The Church and Music

Author: Paul Westermeyer

This book ought to be a useful study of the Church's changing use of music. It is not.

Paul Westermeyer nods affectionately towards humanistic qualms while showing tremendous disrespect towards those Christians with whom he disagrees. This combination of the concilliatory mediator and totalitarian makes the book difficult to read, let alone recommend. When you are being kicked very hard, it really does not matter very much if the person kicking you is smiling benignly at someone else.

Humanism at its heart

1. Westermeyer believes in man's ability to be objective. Pure Kantianism.

"The value of objectivity suggests yet another reason for the study of church music, namely, backing off for a dispassionate view. Music, worship, and theological points of view involve us all at points beyond the rational. They arouse emotions and both conscious and subconscious likes and dislikes, which is true whether we are believers, nonbelievers, pietists, fundamentalists, orthodox, agnostics, or atheists. Nonrational factors are always at work when one deals with issues of this kind....  A study of this type gives you a chance to back off, suspend emotions and coercive tactics for a period of dispassionate investigation, and give everything a hearing." (page 5)

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The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Title: The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe

Author: Jamie James

Published: Abacus, 1995

"There was a time when the universe was believed to cohere, when human life had a meaning and purpose. ... The key to the universe is no longer of use to anyone, because the exquisite edifice it once unlocked has crumbled into nothingness. Nonetheless, it does seem worth knowing that down through the vastest [sic] majority of history, our ancestors believed that the world made sense, that it was a place where they belonged. And because they were human even when they were wrong, we can belong there, too."

The Music of the Spheres by Jamie James, p.xiv-xv

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