Among the various and manifold jackasseries nailed to the page by James R. Gaines in his Bach biography Evening in the Palace of Reason is the supremely unfair but wildly popular statement that, once God left classical music, so did its ability to say anything sublime or meaningful. To be fair, he said it while comparing the deeply religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the elegant and fluffily appealing court music of Johann Joachim Quantz, but that hasn’t stopped the thought from being applied to the classical music of our own times.
The music written by modern, atheist composers, the argument runs, has an emotional spectrum running from “anxious” to “very anxious,” and that’s about it. Love, passion, and above all, sublimity, are entirely beyond these composers’ capacity to portray with their shriveled, sarcastic hearts guiding merciless, ironic pens.
There are, let’s be clear, composers for whom this is manifestly true. I mean, I love Iannis Xenakis, but I’m not going to say for a moment that I’ve ever felt an emotion beyond a sort of Vulcan creepy-cool mathematical appreciation when listening to his music. There are, however, atheist composers who have delivered unto us music of breathtaking scope and depth, and it’s time to recognize that fact, starting with the big three: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Béla Bartók (1881-1945), and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).
“Holy shit, Rimsky-Korsakov was an atheist?!”
That was my reaction too when a copy of his memoirs first found its way onto my bookshelves bearing the categorical statement, “I took rather readily to the view that ‘there is no God and it’s all just invention.’ However, this thought troubled me little… my piety, weak even before then, had completely evaporated, and I felt no spiritual hunger.” And yet, religious music and the expression of religious sentiment is everywhere in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. How did he find it in him to write this music, and write it so very well?
A clue comes in his discussion of the opera The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). “The melodies of ancient orthodox canticles, are they not of ancient pagan origin? Are not many rites and dogmas of like origin? The holidays of Easter, Trinity Sunday, etc., are not they adaptations of Christianity from the pagan sun cult?” Rimsky-Korsakov could continue to write music on Christian themes precisely because he took a larger view of what that religion was – a variation on ancient practices that were rooted in prehistoric people’s awe of the world around them. By returning to that source, he could capture the naturalistic essence of religious wonder without groveling before the trappings of Christian specificity. It was religious writing more authentic than any particular religion could encompass, because at its center was not god, but humanity’s perception of continuity and change.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s love of fantasy and magic, of peasant melodies and pagan fairy tales, his intoxication with the sound of foreign lands and instruments, all combine in his operas and orchestral works to produce moments of ageless melancholy (take a listen to the death scene in The Snow Maiden or Lyubasha’s aria in act I of The Tsar’s Bride), sumptuous eroticism (take in that violin figure in Scheherezade and just try to not think about humping, I dare you), and, yes, old-fashioned haunting sublimity (his cantata Song of Oleg the Wise is crazy-good but largely unknown.)
So, fine, Rimsky-Korsakov got away with some degree of multi-dimensionality because he was a primarily 19th century composer of particularly broad interests. But Béla Bartók? The man who wrote such aggressively uncuddly music as the fourth string quartet and the student-twisting Mikrokosmos? It seems unlikely – the man had an awful life, full of disappointment and dislocation. Unable to believe in a higher power, to find success in his home nation, or to resist the allure of women waaaaaay younger than him, he coasted dissatisfied through decades of illness-bestrewn life before emigrating to an indifferent America one step ahead of the Nazis. It would have been the most forgivable thing ever if he just ground out Difficult compositions, one after the other, with a sort of “Screw all y’all” bitterness. But he didn’t. The amazing thing about Bartók is that, even in the depths of isolation and misery, he was able to produce music of all hues, and indeed his most varied music comes from the low ebb of his fortunes, the years 1937-1945.
Starting at the end, his third piano concerto was the last piece of music he completed before passing away in a New York City hospital bed. The second movement of this piece is labelled Adagio Religioso, a reference to the musical idiom in which it was written, and is heart-rending throughout in a way that defies all popular conceptions about the rigorous inflexibility of Bartók’s music. What I love most about it is the middle section, which is given over to Bartók’s representation of the songs of various birds he heard while travelling through North Carolina. It’s an amazing moment- one of the most challenging composers of the Twentieth Century, lying on his death bed, putting this beautiful music to paper and interspersing throughout it some bits of bird song that caught his ear in days past. That sense of vulnerable whimsy is so potent that my eyes welled up in tears the first time I heard it, and it impacts me forcefully still.
I sense you’re still cynical. We’ve all watched Amadeus, we know that Writing Beautiful Things is just what composers do on their death beds. It’s in the contract. So, let’s go back a ways and see if we can catch Bartók being brazenly emotional any time other than when staring down the grim specter of death itself. It turns out that, when you start seeking out examples, they pop up all over the place. There is the madcap, almost drunken, abandon he allowed himself in the Finale of the Concerto for Orchestra, which is itself a spillover from the absurd fun he had in the third movement of his Divertimento.
Now there’s a work for you, one which starts off at a mad tear and ends in a totally soused pizzicato dance punctuated by bleary hiccups. What makes both of these pieces of unchecked revelry all the more remarkable is that they were written in 1940 and 1939, respectively, during the first years of Bartók’s exile from his homeland. A religious composer in those circumstances would easily have turned the Spiritual Escapism up to Eleven and offered the world yet another cantata on the subject of Jesus or Oedipus or some such thing. Bartók chose to laugh, to have himself a lark and take us along for the ride.
Going back to before his departure to America, we have waiting for us his 6th String Quartet, the last piece he wrote in Europe. You can choose pretty much any movement and be treated to a profound emotional experience, but the last movement is pure lyric tragedy, written just after the death of his mother, we hear in it Bartók pouring out every last ounce of his sadness and loss, and all the Ave Marias in the world can’t match the power of its raw, wounded agony.
If Bartók is the closely guarded theorist who only lets the full color of his fancy out to play on special occasions, Leoš Janáček is the perpetually angst-ridden teenager whose passions are his curse and our blessing (if you’ll pardon the use of the term). Many consider him the greatest operatic composer of the Twentieth Century, and it’s hard not to at least put him in the top three. He was a man intoxicated by love and sound. Wherever he went, he would jot down the musicality of the everyday speech around him, its rhythm and flow, its characteristic pitches and melodic turns, compiling for himself a stockpile of thousands of utterances of everyday opera which then formed the basis for his tonal worlds, lending them a grounding in human expressivity rarely surpassed.
That alone was enough to make for some great music, but it might not have come to much had it not been for the fact that Janáček was a horn dog of the first order. One of the great guilty pleasure reads you can avail yourself of are the letters he wrote during the last decades of his life to Kamila Stosslova, a married woman whose increasingly alarming rotundity only stoked the fires of Janáček’s passion further. What is both wonderful and terrible about these letters is how achingly reminiscent of high school they are – the words of a smart man who wants a girl not really that into him but who thinks that by displays of Importance and Learning he’ll somehow impress her into loving him.
Or maybe that’s just what high school was like for me….
In any case, what becomes abundantly clear is how, in his late sixties, the fire of passionate love was still burning him from the inside out, pushing him to write masterpiece after masterpiece as a substitutive act for the great love he couldn’t have. Some of his most magnificent works are stoked on the fires of this passion, representing its different shades and flavors as the relationship waxed and waned. Katya Kabanovna is a more or less direct representation of his relations with Kamila, with Katya as the married woman seeking a passionate love to settle the deep longing she feels and which her business-traveling husband, Tichon (a substitute for her real husband, David, a generally decent bloke) is unable to provide.
It’s Janáček’s most intimate fantasy given sonic flesh. The exchanges between the character standing in for him (Boris) and Katya are filled with all of the unrealized desire of a man in the full grips of romantic delusion. At the conclusion of acts II and III, Janáček lets loose the reins of his fancy as Katya and Boris fall inevitably towards each other, igniting a love so intense it can only end in tragedy.
One would think that enough of a tribute to an infatuation, but Janáček kept drawing on different aspects of Kamila’s characters for his other towering works of late life. He grasped her playfulness and sense of ease in The Cunning Little Vixen and her capacity for cold indifference in Vec Makropulos, the story of a three hundred year old woman who has fallen into complete apathy as regards love and life. There’s hardly a nook of the emotional spectrum that he wasn’t spurred to capture in sound by his overpowering love of the vaguely spherical Stosslova.
Is there modern music that rigidly denies itself any flavor of sentiment beyond anxiety-inducing orchestral noodling? Of course there is, and there are things to be said for it (some of the best of which were laid out by Milton Babbitt in his now-notorious 1958 article Who Cares If You Listen? and which are really worth a visit), however to lay all of that emotive monodimensionality at the foot of the rise of godlessness in music is a bit much. They don’t come much more godless than the three gentlemen we’ve just spent some time with, and all three of them felt equally comfortable in portraying intensely personal moments of loss as towering themes of human transcendence. You don’t lose your capacity for awe and sublimity just because you don’t believe in superpowerful rules brokers. It is a case of there being more in our philosophy than is contained in our notions of Heaven and Earth, if only we are willing to look, and listen.