The Hesiod of Leipzig

J. S. Bach once stated that “the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

This statement is none other than the acknowledgment that music is a revelation of divinity channeled through the human instrument, instantiating itself in the world of sense perception. The ideas of theme, mathematical proportions of harmony and rhythm, and lyrical accompaniments are translated from the pure substance of Intellect into the symbols of notation, the magnetic polarities of binary digits, and vibrations of air whose dialogue with the mechanisms of the audience’s ears orients their souls toward the divinity made manifest.

Bach’s statement as regards the purpose of music is too often understood from the perspective of a modernity that circumscribes perception to what is purely logical ex post facto, what rational patterns can be observed, and repeated in a laboratory, in nature as a purely material entity. Not only “God” and “the soul,” but also “final end” (Aristotle’s final cause – telos) are metaphysical and spiritual constructs extraneous to this mechanistic universe and irrelevant to explaining its functions.

The blame for this misunderstanding is upon the English language whose development was coeval with that of the scientific worldview, a linguistic system that reduces so many complex concepts (such as Love) to single worlds in order to compensate for its inability to understand them. Love is a concept that comprises a host of manifestations: sexual love, familial love, friendship, hospitality. The Greeks had individual words for all of these (eros, storge, philia, xenia). God as a concept functions the same way, best understood as consisting of a plurality-in-unity of particular aspects of that divinity: Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus (more on the final two later).

Music, too, has its pantheon. There are nine Muses, each a different means of expression. The art of music in its classical sense, therefore, is a glorification of the Muses by submitting the self to their possession. Music understood today is merely the nonlinguistic sound of a work of art, but to the Greeks that sonic aspect was the substratum that gave form and substance, by means of meter and harmony, to the words, actions, and visual components of a holistic production, be it the inspired recitations of a Homeric bard or the production of an Attic tragedy. The Greeks felt a much closer connection between music and speech. Even the spoken-word dialogue of a play conformed to an iambic trimeter very natural to Hellenic speech. A linguistics based on quantity, i.e. the length of syllables rather than stress accents, contributed to a more mathematical understanding of language that made the metrical conventions of poetry seem much less confining than the libertarian free verse of today’s vulgarian lyricism.

I now move on to using Bach’s theology as a qualitative assessment of music. Musical is beautiful, just as anything else, to the degree that it participates in divinity. Its purpose to glorify God, as said above, is the acknowledgment of divinity as the source of inspiration, creativity, and production. But it is also an acknowledgment of the nature of that divinity. I will argue that that nature is a dialectical engine fueled by the duality of Apollo and Dionysus. True musical genius depends equally on both.

The dialectic is simple. It is the balanced harmonic tension of opposites between order and chaos, rational and irrational, convention and nature. Apollo represents the former in these dualities, that is, the conventions of music as institutionally established. To be a good composer and musician, you must learn and understand the rules (before you can break them). You must study the classics: Bach, Mozart, Wagner. You must learn scales, modes, harmonics, notation. You must acquire the forms that organize sound into rational proportions. That is the spirit of Apollo.

Yet Apollo is not enough. To rehash the forms and compositions of prior composers is to impose a layer of abstraction between yourself and the divine. It is to make a copy of a copy (for the original composition is merely the translation of an idea from Intellect into a debased medium apprehensible by the five senses). That is where Dionysus comes in, the dark, subconscious, irrational chaos that is the wellspring of life, of the erotic desire to create by means of conquest. Yet that energy, like a hammer, must be channeled into Apollonian forms and conventions so that it can be used to create rather than destroy. We are neither beasts nor gods. We are a combination of both.

Musical genius, creativity, and innovation is a dialectical process upon which the creation of art is contingent upon a knowledge of the works of Bach and Hesiod, and a similar reverence for the divinity that inspired those oracles of Apollo and Dionysus, whether on the slopes of Helicon or on the organ benches of Leipzig.

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One thought on “The Hesiod of Leipzig

  1. The “rehash of previously composed material” is a more complex concept than presented. The evolution of musical forms and styles has almost always consisted of taking some part of an existing form and expanding on it, adding new ideas, but always retaining at least a hint of the antecedent. This can be found in even wildly iconoclastic composers such as Cage et al. The typical historical scenario has been driven by pragmatics – Beethoven very closely copies the style of Haydn because it’s the only way he thinks he can make a living. Later, while always retaining that kernel, he breaks away from “copies” and defines a new genre. This was driven by the fact that audiences of music in the 1650-1850 timeframe had a approximately the same respect for “copies” as contemporary audiences have for “cover bands”. Interesting mindset that in an era without means of mechanical reproduction, people wanted to hear still less of previously performed material. The musical “warhorse” seems to be a concept of relatively recent inception – what this says about the changes in audience expectations from 1650 to now would take a blog of its own. Needless to say, the concept of “copy” and its implications is not only complex, but has been quite fluid with time.

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