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Happy 200th, Mr. Chopin!

March 1, 2010

He was born just two long lifetimes ago, but he seems ages distant now. Polish-French Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin would have been 200 years old today, if only he had lived just 161 years longer than he did. I can’t imagine the melancholy young gentleman celebrating anything as mundane as a birthday, but I toast him all the same.

Civilized people remember Chopin, of course, but I suspect they find his music too delicate, too tubercular, too sentimental and Renoir-pretty for their hardened postmodern tastes. He’s a Dresden china figurine marooned in a gaudy video arcade, a forlorn emblem of all we’ve trashed in our libidinized, commercialized, terminally snarky millennial culture.

The 200-year-old man as he looked in 1847

Chopin’s poignant nocturnes, waltzes, ballades and preludes burn with pale ethereal fire. Yet, unlike a lot of serious music, they’re immediately accessible and even charming. The problem these days is our general indifference to (and even disdain for) beauty. Like celestial dog-whistles, Chopin’s works are simply pitched too high for ears that have been pummeled by half a century of rock, rap and all other manner of willfully degenerate cultural effluvia. 

I’m beginning to suspect that finely tuned sensibilities like Chopin’s are unsustainable in the long run. After all, we’re just a species of higher ape that managed to conquer a small blue-green planet; we’re not a race of poets and aesthetes. Perhaps it’s only natural that we find ourselves sinking back to our ancient simian roots.

Classical music still has its uses. Today, in Britain, clever cops blast it from loudspeakers to disperse unruly crowds of teens. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle. What does it say about the state of our civilization that, for the generation currently ripening to maturity, the world’s most gorgeous manmade sounds are the auditory equivalent of tear gas?

Our flight from beauty seems to be accelerating with each passing decade. It alarms me that we’re losing touch with something noble and transcendent, something that left its imprint on generation after generation of receptive hearts and minds. Now the chain is about to be broken.

The day the music died: Casts of Chopin's hand and death mask

What does all this have to do with politics, and centrist politics in particular? Simply that our uphill struggle to restore balance in society shouldn’t be restricted to affairs of state and commerce. Yes, we moderates need to monitor the ongoing hijinks of legislators, lobbyists, radicals, Wall Street honchos and corporate potentates. That much goes without saying. But our movement needs to address the soul, too.

Political activists typically deal in the currency of short-term strategic gains for their own team. For them, life is an eternal game of football: making end-runs around the defense, racking up yardage, tossing hail-Mary passes in a desperate bid for a quick score. Nobody in public life seems to be offering solutions that satisfy our deeper spiritual cravings. Nearly all of us are addicted to crass commercial fast-food culture, and we wonder why we’re starving in spite of all the calories we consume.

We can’t legislate culture, at least in a free society. (The Soviets used to legislate it, of course, and we’d rather not follow their example.) But as enlightened moderates, we  need to build a movement that speaks to people’s souls as well as their pocketbooks. We should aspire to inspire, invoking the eloquence of the past while peering bravely into the future. Lincoln and Churchill did it magnificently. So did both Roosevelts. So did John F. Kennedy. Even Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin offer their frightened followers balm for the soul, though without a trace of magnificence.

Surely we can aim higher than Beck and Palin. We wouldn’t be promoting religion or even cultural preferences. We simply need to recognize that men and women can’t live by politics alone. Out of our way, wretched lobbyists! Begone, all you partisan obstructionists! We could use less filibustering and more music, less cacophany and more Chopin.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2010 3:40 am

    Take heart Rick, everyone knows that English cops are pansies, they haven’t even got guns… ;) Also, keep in mind, if they followed our example and blasted death metal at their youth, they’d start a rave, and set things on fire.

    • March 2, 2010 10:53 am

      TK: I guess the cops are counting on the power of classical music to soothe rather than agitate. (Maybe they haven’t seen A Clockwork Orange, though.) Anyway, the trick seems to work like bug spray. The kids just can’t abide those beautiful sounds, and they scatter.

  2. March 2, 2010 9:09 pm

    Maybe because they can’t stand things they don’t understand, or require thought. I can handle phyisical laziness, but intellectual laziness or willful ignorance, ugh. :(

  3. March 2, 2010 9:11 pm

    http://onthesubjectof.co.uk/?p=18

    Speaking of British teens…

  4. March 2, 2010 9:44 pm

    Interesting, TK. I have to wonder myself who first thought up the concept of teenagers. I can’t imagine that young people back in the 1890s had a separate identity. Of course there was always youth fashion and slang, but up until around the late 1950s (with a brief blip of craziness in the 1920s) teenagers aspired to be like their parents. They actually emulated respectable citizens, which seems almost absurdly inconceivable today — but I can remember it. The culture of rock music turned all that on its head. By the ’70s you had borderline geriatric adults emulating teenagers, and that’s been the standard ever since.

  5. March 3, 2010 1:32 am

    Rick,

    As one of the newest New Yorkers, I can also express my amazement every time that I come out of the subway and enter into Penn Station that I dso so accompanied by the beautiful strains of Mozart piped in to their speaker system. When I expressed this to other New Yorkers, I was informed that this was actually a tactic to keep the riff-raff from loitering in the train station, for surely this music would drive them all mad. And so Penn Station has become a modern center of civility. All they need now is the “Journal of Civility and the Arts!”

    • March 3, 2010 5:34 pm

      Allen: Welcome to our lonely little outpost of political and cultural sanity. I really should be heartened about this business of playing classical music to ward off undesirables. If it catches on here, these guys will be confined to their own homes eventually, and classical music will gain more public exposure than ever before in its history. We’d be killing two birds with one elegant stone.

      In The Cynic’s Dictionary, I made a crack about a fictitious professor who was last seen strolling through the South Bronx while blasting Bach’s Concerto for 4 Harpsichords from his boom box. (Of course, he was never heard from again.) And I think we used to joke about what would happen if we tried it.

      Well, now the authorities are doing it for us. If classical music is the equivalent of tear gas for juvenile delinquents, it will ensure its own immortality. No need to worry about aging audiences, minuscule record sales or underfunded city orchestras. Classical music is here to stay!

  6. March 3, 2010 3:24 am

    How do they keep broke liberal arts graduate students out, country music?

    • March 3, 2010 5:39 pm

      TK: Country music or commercials featuring successful graduates of the local business school.

  7. valdobiade permalink
    March 4, 2010 9:13 pm

    As a hard of hearing person I like to listen to classical music for hours. I like the complexity of classical music, but never, ever I thought that it can be used to repel some kind of people.
    Many people may find the classical music boring, to put you to sleep, but not scary.
    Maybe there is some kind of brainwashing among young or uneducated people, that classical music is always bad, so when they hear it they don’t listen, just run away.

    • March 5, 2010 12:38 am

      Rap…
      cause u ain’t down wit duh hood if u like dat gay-ass old white shit son.

      Country…
      Or you’re one of them “liberal elitist, qeer-mo-sexual, socialist” types, that hate my freedom to force people to go to church or have guns in school.

    • March 5, 2010 11:39 am

      Valdo: I think TK summed it up (see above). The folks who are repelled by classical music can instinctively sense that it’s something alien and therefore objectionable (the same reaction I have when I hear rap “music” blasting from the speakers). Police would play rap if they wanted to disperse an angry mob of educated middle-aged white people.

  8. valdobiade permalink
    March 5, 2010 1:47 pm

    Rick wrote: Police would play rap if they wanted to disperse an angry mob of educated middle-aged white people.

    I think that I will run scared as hell if police would play rap. Even if I don’t hear very well, only the vibes from those cars that play rap, I making me dizzy and sick.
    Sometime I say:”god, if indeed you are righteous, why don’t make those rap listeners hard of hearing and give me some hearing to enjoy these andante, dolce tones just before crescendo. Sometime I think that the music has stopped just to find out that when I get the volume to maximum, it explodes in a fortissimo tone… I don’t mind to much, but my neighbors…

  9. valdobiade permalink
    March 5, 2010 1:51 pm

    oops… “is making me dizzy and sick”… not “I making me dizzy…” (should proofread sometime :)

  10. Collin permalink
    March 5, 2010 2:12 pm

    I’m one of the few 21 year olds I know that loves classic music. And I’m a big metalhead and punk rocker as well.

    If I was hanging out with some friends and the coppers played classical music I’d love it. I find it very soothing and moving to listen to if I’m studying or just want to relax.

    To get away from politics, I think classical was great because it’s pure sound and emotion. At times I feel lyrics were the death of msic, as they took away from the focus of the tempo itself. Classical is like pure emotion.

    I’m not a huge afficionado that knows about every artist and their biographies. I’m mostly into Beethoven and Mozart and that more Romanticist-era sound. Also, keep in mind in their day some classical musicians were considered the rock stars of their day; rebellious, moody, promiscuous libertines (but then again, aren’t all artists?). It wasn’t always for the bourgeoise to co-opt.

    Did you know there’s heavy metal acts out there that are influenced by and incorporate classical music? Not only do they take the musical theory of time signatures but they incorporate the actual instruments and sounds. I like looking up crazy rock bands that mix these styles. Experimental/minimalist classical music is some pretty weird stuff too.

    • March 5, 2010 9:14 pm

      Collin: I think you’re on to something with the suggestion that classical music isn’t just for the bourgeoisie. That’s precisely what’s been killing classical music: the mental association with musty old socialites who dress up for a concert and clap politely at the end of each performance (or at the end of each movement, which they’re not supposed to do). No wonder young people are staying away in droves.

      In fact, I prefer to listen to classical music in total privacy: in my living room or while driving. That way, I can experience the music as a pure state of mind, not tied to a concert hall or live musicians performing onstage. It goes directly from the composer’s head and into mine.

  11. valdobiade permalink
    March 5, 2010 3:01 pm

    I like rock, but not everything. I like Bowie, Springsteen… this genre. Heavy metal, a few songs that may make you feel that when you scream the hell out of you, you feel somehow liberated.
    Sometime I need that too :)
    I am not obsessed with classical music, I like a lot of kind of music. I think that is what make a person flexible and understanding. But I feel that rap is used to repel intelligent people. I have never read that a rapper like other music genders.
    Rock is OK unless you go way too far in an unintelligible mixture of loud instrumental and screaming noise.

  12. valdobiade permalink
    March 5, 2010 3:05 pm

    oops again: “… a rapper likes” not “a rapper like”… sorry folks, English is still on my “to do” list :)

    • March 5, 2010 9:23 pm

      I’m continually amazed (though I shouldn’t be) that rap became the universal, worldwide cultural megaforce that it did. We’re basically talking about rhymed rants, devoid of melody, tied directly to the young urban black male experience. That’s a pretty specialized niche. I wonder why nobody listens to the rants of young rural Ukrainian youths, for example. Or suburban white Jewish youths. Or anyone else, for that matter. Why do the cultural products of the black ghetto seem to wield such disproportionate influence, to the point that young people around the world feel impelled to emulate them? Upper-class WASPS used to have that kind of cultural influence. What happened between then and now?

      • March 6, 2010 1:21 am

        Crack… that’s what happened. :)

    • Collin permalink
      March 13, 2010 7:38 pm

      Not all rap is violent thug content with drugs and guns. A lot of rap can actually be prety intelligent. Just listen to Mos Def or Nas if you need evidence. It’s sad that garbage rap is taking over the mainstream, but oh well….

      Not to be all PC but is sounding slightly racist here. White people don’t always put out the best cultural capital (Guns n’Roses or plastic flamingos, anyone?). Honestly I think it’s also alot of white guilt that is allowing the enorachmnet of the urban mindframe into contemporary suburbia.

      I also always thought, even at its absolute worst, that rap is analogous to poetry. It’s just rhyming with musical accompaniment. A lot of rappers talk about the importance of flow, rhythm, cadence, and alliteration/stressing consonants, something you also obviously see in e.e. cummings or Poe. Just storytelling in the modern context, really.

      • March 13, 2010 10:18 pm

        I’ll agree, sometimes rappers have valid points, more than country “music” anyway. But much of the most popular rap is just woman hating, and violence in rythmic form.

      • March 15, 2010 9:28 am

        Collin: I confess I’m not a connoisseur of rap. Some of what I’ve heard is rhythmically intricate and compelling… much of it is simply crude, ugly and savage. (Of course, they said the same thing about rock ‘n’ roll 50 years ago, and about jazz 80 years ago — though the critics weren’t entirely off base.)

        I guess my point is that the mass audience is increasingly more receptive to willfully ugly music than to beautiful music. There seems to be an active aversion to beauty, in fact — which is why police are using classical music to disperse crowds of unruly teens. It might be that classical music just doesn’t have the testosterone factor to engage today’s adolescents. (Although try telling that to the hero of “A Clockwork Orange” — a violent street punk who was addicted to the music of Beethoven.)

        As for the racial factor… I don’t think it’s racist to wonder why black music has had such a powerful influence on Western culture; in fact, it’s an important cultural issue that nobody seems to be addressing. My theory: Western civilization had reached a pinnacle of refinement that was impossible to maintain at that level. After all, we’re just an intelligent species of ape, and excessive refinement isn’t a natural part of our makeup. Hence our receptivity to anything that brings us back down to earth.

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