Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Longing in German and Italian

Music, as Schopenhauer saw, can do better than merely paint things. Most of the arts are forced to mimic the visible or at least imaginable forms of the world, but music can be free of that enslavement to boring reality: unlike watercolors, it reaches behind the world. When Handel buzzes to suggest flies, crashes rhythmically to suggest hail, and blows a trumpet to suggest a trumpet, he is doing something beneath his craft in those places. The painted forms that we see in the world, after all, have very little to do with the most deeply felt realities.

So rather than external forms, music is suited to embody feeling. It’s difficult to convey something inner and deeply felt with paint, and easy with a song. Religious faith, for instance, or confident and honest joy. But the most natural role of music is to express the deepest foundation of human feeling: unfulfilled longing. Western music, from what I’ve heard of it, is a long attempt to bring the spiritual reality of desire into earthly form. This is is at the heart of music from the simplest folksongs to the most exquisite expressions of want.

This leaves open the question of just how a musician can embody a human will in musical language. My favorite Romantic musicians, Bellini and Wagner, did it in two extremely different ways.

(These two men’s bodies of work, by the way, were the twin funeral-pyres of western music. Each composer set aflame everything that had happened already in his own tradition; each one exhausted all the possibilities of beauty still left in Italy and Germany, respectively. They burned up their birchbark with their logs, leaving just twigs for their successors to toy with.)

Wagner, for his part, shows frustrated will to us in context, representing it as as a lived, phenomenological experience. The music is grinding, constantly tense, always looking for a peace that it never arrives at. Sometimes, like in Lohengrin, we get a few lines of unencumbered melodic flight, but it’s always dragged back down into frustration.

We don’t get an open flame: we get fire trapped in the lime kilns of human bodies and human institutions. The music sounds like what it’s actually like to suffer. Take, for instance, this famous scene from Tristan und Isolde: Tristan and Isolde love each other so intensely that they both want to die, or at least sink into an unending night together. But on the brink of final union, they’re suddenly interrupted by the break of day and the entrance of the king. (The Economist called this scene an example of “violent coitus interruptus.”)

And here, Brünnhilde, incredibly frustrated by the world, finds her only relief in hurling herself onto her lover Siegfried’s burning pyre.



Wagner doesn’t depict pained desire itself: his music is filled with little accidental pains, which amount to suffocation. In his worldview, enjoyment of life depends on a continuous flow of satisfaction, and each tree-branch and boulder, though harmless by itself, mires life in a swamp of frustration. He joins Faust and a slew of other Germans, who groan:
The god who lives within my breast
can deeply stir my soul down to its roots.
But when it comes to earthly strength,
he cannot move a single outward thing!
And thus my very being is a weight;
I wish for death, and I despise my life.
The same sort of thought causes Werther to shoot himself (sorry) at the end of the book, his consuming passion for Lotte eventually defeated by a bourgeois marriage. Following in this German tradition, Wagner mimicks human will, but as an internal experience, not as an independent spiritual entity. He is a realist in that way.

Vincenzo Bellini, meanwhile, writes music that’s far ghostlier, representing desires that are not burdened by earthly trouble. The melody is longing free from the grim and muddy forms of the world: he boils will down to its purest concentration. Like this—



Or here, where Romeo begs Juliet to throw off leaden custom for the sake of love. Bellini gives us longing, not at it exists in the world, but as it takes itself to be: as an unfulfillable, sad wanting. There’s no meaningless and gritty pain involved: all of its torment flows from the fact of desire itself.

So Bellini is the successor of Petrarch, who wrote:
Et veggi’ or ben che caritate accesalega la lingua altrui, gli spirti invola:chi pò dir com’ egli arde è ’n picciol foco. 
And now I see well that a smoldering love
can bind another’s tongue, and steal his breath:
whoever can tell how he burns is in only a small fire.
which is a total surrender to the fires of will, ravaging unchecked. Now, this approach just as realist as Wagner’s, but in a different way: whereas Wagner represented worldly examples of will, which are universally frustrated, Bellini represented the eternal form of will, which is no less real; and realer, if you’re a Platonist. Now, because it shrinks from the ugliness that’s necessarily a part of ordinary life, Bellini’s art is far more aesthetically pleasing at first glance. Petrarch’s is too, as he himself attests:
Di rime armato...
con stil canuto avrei fatto parlandoromper le pietre, et pianger di dolcezza.
Armed with rhymes, and with a mature style,
I’d have broken the rocks by speaking, and made them weep for sweetness.
This explains the mission of Italian art: to yoke inner, essential feeling to form, and to end up with a song that makes even the rocks break down in sad melancholy. This project finally succeeded in Bellini’s music, and died immediately afterwards. The common accusation, after all, is that Italian Romanticism is feverish and sickly. The accusation is correct: romanticism was the death-throe of art. In Italy it died sweetly, and bitterly in Germany.

Physiognomy isn’t dead: you can deduce this entire post from these two portraits.

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