The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Two Americas, But Not the Two You Think

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Before his marital infidelity discredited him, John Edwards spoke eloquently about “two Americas.” He talked of differences between the health care, financial stability, education and housing available to these two different parts of our society.

But there is another American divide that has created two other Americas: on one side the fighting men and women in our armed services (along with their families) and the rest of us on the other.

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, look no further than the differences that have been institutionalized by the volunteer army. However much good was achieved by the decision to eliminate the military draft, surely the absence of shared sacrifice has contributed to the ease with which we take opposing positions to our fellow-citizens on matters that have to do with national security.

No longer does the USA pull together for the long haul in the way that was possible during World War II. In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing that their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because the people of this country (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods and the sheer terror of having their loved ones abroad and in harm’s way.

If a war is worth fighting, it should not have merit only because the children of other people are fighting it, even if they do so voluntarily.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. This book is about the officers who inform families that they have lost a loved one, and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

The book takes no sides on the question of the War in Iraq. Yes, you will hear occasional comments in support or opposition, but you will not think as much about these policy questions as about the human beings you meet along the way. Several families will become your acquaintances as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will also get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine tasked to inform the families of their loss, the man who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed that they shall leave no comrade behind. And, consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on their door that changes everything, that creates a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. But I can say that it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not work to make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured that you will think about war, any war, differently after reading or listening to Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one that fights the wars and sends its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within that group, then there is nothing contained in this book that you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

If you have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your loved ones. It is thanks to the willingness of the few to serve on behalf of the many that the rest of us are safe.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, too detached from something of desperate importance: the work done far from home in our name by the children of other people. And too removed and distant from how these “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

We need to remember that, for these families, the human cost never fully goes away.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk by them unaware every day…

Kafka said that “a book is like an ax, to break the frozen sea within us.”

This is such a book.

The maps above are the work of Allstrak, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.