Tommasini’s Sore Spot hits my Sore Spot

I understand why Tommasini is upset. A notorious philistine expressing pride in an art-form you know and love is certainly cringe-inducing. But in my opinion this critic has gone about trying to “rescue” it’s reputation in entirely the wrong way.

He’s moved to reassure his readers that The Symphony is not really a big deal, so Donald Trump was wrong to feel proud of it.

Of course, it was inept of Trump to brandish The Symphony* as a symbol of Western culture’s global superiority. Firstly, because I doubt he understands what the word symphony means, and secondly, because it’s not a competition in the first place. This particular art-form, like all art-forms, stems from a specific socio-cultural epoch, and cannot be representative of an entire hemisphere’s cultural value, let alone rated alongside other art-forms from other cultures.

Tommasini could have simply argued on these grounds, but instead, he’s tied himself in knots trying to talk down the symphony’s complexity; tip-toeing around the issue of its elite design. And his discomfort is obvious. When breathlessly arguing that Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is “just as profound” as Eleanor Rigby, he admits that the former is “a whole lot longer” and that appreciating it’s “large-scale structures” is “an acquired skill”. Further, he concedes that “master composers” strove for “large-scale quality”, [and a] “sheer dimension of expression”; that it’s “ambitious and demanding”, and that “it asks for your time and attention”. He then confesses: “Even a 20-minute Haydn string quartet requires you to focus in order to grasp the structure, content and character.” And then a whimpering suggestion: “the pay-off can be exhilarating”, but only if you’re “inclined to go with it” of course.

Tommasini’s thesis is that these qualities just make the symphony “different”, and moreover, contains “no inherent artistic superiority”. Like apples are different but not superior to oranges.

But we’re not comparing apples and oranges.

I don’t think I need to include a detailed analysis of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony to prove its sophistication. You can easily look it up on Wikipedia and see for yourself how extraordinarily complex it is, not to mention listen to the work via numerous platforms. But to get a sense of its profundity, have a look at the sheer ecstasy on Leonard Bernstein’s face as he conducts the symphony’s extended climax:

And there’s a great compilation of different conductor’s reactions to this moment of almost unendurable bliss in this blog article by Brian Lauritzen (Simon Rattle’s is terrific).

Mahler himself described what is happening in this final movement as follows, and it’s worth quoting it in full to get an idea of the true scope of his project:

Once more we must confront terrifying questions, and the atmosphere is the same as at the end of the third movement. The voice of the Caller is heard. The end of every living thing has come, the last judgment is at hand and the horror of the day of days has come upon us. The earth trembles, the graves burst open, the dead arise and march forth in endless procession. The great and the small of this earth, the kings and the beggars, the just and the godless all press forward. The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. Our senses desert us, all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches. The last trump sounds; the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out. In the eerie silence that follows, we can just barely make out a distant nightingale, a last tremulous echo of earthly life. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard: “Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt!” Then God in all His glory comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Lo and behold: there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence.”

Mahler’s inspiration is nothing less than life, death and eternity, and he embodies these lofty themes in a musical work that rattles your bones, throws your soul around like a rag doll and leaves you utterly exhausted.

Compare that to Eleanor Rigby, which briefly describes an old lady and a vicar in a church, and asks where lonely people come from. To support the text, a harmonic structure described as “quite spare, with a very small number of chords actually used” is employed. Now, I am a fan of The Beetles and I do admire their craft as songwriters, but I would never pretend that their music is “as profound” as Mahler’s symphonic output. That just doesn’t make any sense.

So. Seriously, what purpose does understating the symphony’s merits serve? Does it help a fan of the Beetles to suggest that Mahler’s symphonic works are ‘pretty-much the same thing’ only longer? Will that ring true for them when they experience it? I doubt it. Would you equate an episode of How I Met Your Mother with the entirety of Citizen Kane? No. You wouldn’t.

What about celebrating the fact that the symphonic repertoire is EPIC; that in fact it represents a creative high-water mark in Western culture. That pop music is great, but if you want to experience what music is really capable of, at the extreme end of humanity’s creative potential, you should have a listen to this. You’ll be amazed.

That would draw new, curious audiences.

Professionals in the classical music industry (musicians, ensembles, promoters, broadcasters, journalists), are faced with a choice when trying to attract new fans: either they downplay and dilute the repertoire, or they celebrate the value of the repertoire as it is. To me, the former isn’t really an option, because it ceases to be about classical music and becomes something else. And in doing so, don’t we end up reinforcing the same wilful ignorance, the same anti-intellectualism, that Trump represents?

I doubt Tommasini would want that. I know I don’t.

RC


*let’s assume his idea of “the symphony” was a vague conception of mid-late 19th century symphonic repertoire, like late Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius etc. As opposed to the entire symphonic tradition, from the 18th century ‘Sinfonia’ onwards…