Inner World, Outer Space


Why is Vivaldi kitsch? Because he wrote program music? What – other than Greenberg’s objections – is so passe about program music? As psychologist Anthony Storr writes, “A great deal of ‘programme’ music is simply music for which some event, story, sound has been the trigger.” Storr furthers this explanation with an example from Alan Walker’s biography of Franz Liszt: “The essential point is that these pieces are not ‘representational’ in the strict sense of being about specific things or events. For Liszt, the music is always more important than the literary or pictorial ideas behind it, and it will always unfold according to its one laws. By giving his works these titles, he is really disclosing the source of his inspiration, which we may accept or lay aside.” Storr continues with Jacques Barzun, French-American historian & critic: “Barzun claims: (1) that all music is programmatic, explicitly or implicitly, and in more than one way; (2) that keeping out all extraneous ideas or perceptions while composing, hearing, or analyzing music is impossible and unnecessary; and (3) that musical people who call literary the elements of the influence the deprecate in music do not fully understand what literature is.”


I guess your final quotation sums up what makes Vivaldi’s Four Seasons kitsch, at least to the mind of most modern critics: music is an independent art, and it should attain its end entirely from its own resources. The music which is commonly called program music, on the other hand, attempts to take its cues from external resources. It mimics, expresses and amplifies the events and moods contained in, and specific to literature. Virtually all movie soundtracks are program music, and for this reason music scholars and amateurs tend not to take soundtracks seriously. It should be noted that Clement Greenberg, though he would clearly dislike movie soundtracks, nevertheless does acknowledge the value of some program music, in particular that of Debussy. This is because Debussy’s attempts to mimic the sounds of wind and waves, though still illustrative, nevertheless allowed him for the first time to create music in terms of material sounds instead of written notes.

Now, Schopenhauer, not a materialist but rather a very unusual sort of transcendental philosopher, calls, in the passage you cite, for the emancipation of music from external imitation. And this will be achieved, as far as he is concerned, precisely by putting an end to music such as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This is because Schopenhauer believes music is the art form which provides the closest analogue to the shifting passions of the soul. Here, music, if it is following and representing any pattern at all, is not following an externally furnished one but rather an internally self-generating one. For Schopenhauer, music directly expresses the pure form of spiritual feeling, an idea which Nietzsche later adopts and treats in his famous The Birth of Tragedy In Music. There, Nietzsche argues that the dazzling (Apollonian) artistic forms we see in the visible world – Greek statues, or the dazzling events depicted in Greek tragedy – are in fact only afterimages, veils which conceal an inner (Dionysian) reality too profound to be endured directly. For Nietzsche, the visible world is constructed as a defense against the invisible one, an inner abyss which always threatens to engulf us. And the visual arts (amongst which Nietzsche includes image-centered literature) first arose, and are still employed as a defense against the intoxicating and disintegrating power of music. It’s exactly this awareness of music’s power to release us from the constraints of the ego and the analytic mind, and a willingness, like Nietzsche’s, to immerse ourselves wholly within music and explore the darkness on the other side of rational thought and consciousness, which we should should identify in the work of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.

What the Romantics referred to as movements of the soul, early 20th-century psychology called “streams of consciousness.” It is a quest to access and accurately transcribe the ongoing flow of inner experience which determines the content and form of so much high-modernist art. This endeavor is perhaps most famously exampled by the novels of Virginia Woolf. In them, Woolf attempts to produce an autonomous form of literature which would function, within the limits specific to the medium of language, as an analogue to autonomous musical composition. You can see, then, why Jacques Barzun, whom you cite with reference to Vivaldi, might not care for The Four Seasons. Barzun, who was deeply interested in psychology, would indeed value what he calls “program” music. But for Barzun “program” would mean something very different from film scores or empirical description. Barzun claims all music is program music precisely because any organized patterns of sound worthy of bearing the name music, at some point always refer back to the states of the soul, that transcendent reality which, for modern defenders of Romanticism such as Barzun, music expresses better than any other art. But, while it may be true that all music at some point refers back to the soul, it is not necessarily that case that all music refers back to the soul as immediately and purely. And I am fairly sure the Barzun would use the intensity, immediacy and purity of music’s reference to the soul as a positive criterion for determining which compositions were truly better than others.

In contrast to Barzun’s spirituality and expression, what we discover in The Four Seasons is nothing but borrowed impressions, ornaments and clever effects. Vivaldi does not use impressions from the external world, as would the German Romantics or the high modernists, as mere occasions which would prompt a sudden leap into a state inner spiritual struggle, as in Beethoven, or to drift into an ecstatic reverie, as in Debussy (see below). The Four Seasons is a thoroughly mechanical composition more evocative of the incessant sawing of wood than the movements of the soul. This is something Russian composer Alfred Schnittke heard very clearly.

Vivalidi does not strive to produce an organized pattern of sound which would provide an outer analogue of the inner world. Rather, Vivaldi is attempting to produce acoustic allusions, onomatopoeia, which would recollect specific passages in James Thomson’s highly artificial pastoral poetry. In a word, Vivaldi’s composition functions as the musical equivalent of an illustration, a drawn or painted image which does not stand on its own merits but rather exists only to supplement an external text. (The serious study of such textual allusions in visual art is called ‘iconology,’ a field pioneered by historian Erwin Panofsky.) Nor should this be entirely surprising, because Thomson’s poems most likely were composed as verbal translations of pastoral paintings, as supplements to supplements. Thomson’s poems are highly formulaic in their approach to meter and sound, not in the least innovative or conscious of their medium, and consequently scarcely capable of expressing anything akin to a mental or spiritual life. It is for this reason that these poems have been relegated almost entirely to oblivion for approximately two hundred years.


Edouard Manet
The Conservatory

One last thing I’ll mention though, is that, in addition to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, there exists at least one other piece of music based on the seasons , this by John Cage. And it should be pretty clear that, if not if love with that piece, I am at least highly intrigued by it. Why? Well, if high-modernist music of the sort Barzun champions is dedicated the the expression of the inner life of the soul, Cage, a declared Buddhist, entirely rejects the notion of the soul. For Cage, music can’t express the inner life quite simply because there is no such thing as an inner life in the first place. This is why Cage, in a very large number of his pieces, does all he can to de-spiritualize music, to make it all about noises occurring in this world and nothing else. There are no pure tones, for Cage, only noises. His most famous way of doing this is of course by writing music which is largely or wholly composed of rests, silences in which ambient noise figures in the place where music used to be. Also, Cage is famous for his pieces for the prepared piano. In them, he inserts nuts and bolts, rubber erasers and garbage into the strings of the piano precisely in order to make the instrument to sound once again like a solid physical object, and the notes from it not at all like pure disembodied tones but rather physical vibrations resulting from friction and collision. The piano, as modified by Cage, represents the very opposite of the instrument Liszt would have used to perform his Transcendental Etudes.


David Caspar Friedrich
Wander Above The Sea of Mists

Franz Liszt

Acknowledging all this, it become immediately understandable why Cage would write a piece called The Seasons – because he thought that Vivaldi had botched the job and he wanted to get it right. And the way to get The Seasons right was not by making music that was more profound than Vivaldi’s, or even Wagner’s, but rather by going in the opposite direction and making music that was even more emphatically superficial.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s