Reality Check
Do No Harm

The importance of context, part 1

One the ideas I visit often is the challenge of understanding a work of art in its own context; that is, to try and imagine, for instance, what an impressionist canvas by Monet would have looked like to a viewer contemporary with its creation. How would it have been perceived by eyes accustomed to realism in visual art? How striking and daring would the colors and textures have seemed? Or to imagine--beyond what they literally sounded like, as with the period instrument movement--just how unexpected Beethoven's symphonies were to his audiences' perceptual worlds. How would the motivic play, the technicolor orchestration and suicidal speed, have thrilled listeners whose cutting edge was Mozart? Or how about the truly wild Symphonie Fantastique from Hector Berlioz only a scant six years after Beethoven's revolutionary Ninth?

It can also be important to understand that some works, when considered this way, stripped of the affectionate, context-free veneer of history's storytelling, may have a very different character than is currently popularly ascribed.

For a good thought experiment of what I'm talking about here, just imagine what it was like to see Star Wars for the first time (assuming one is old enough to have seen it within a decade of its release)--those thrilling, unbelievable special effects! What a visual delight! Except that now, several years into the first maturity of CGI, they look kind of lame. Even 1983's Return of the Jedi, whose spectacular speeder bike chase through the forests of Endor completely blew my 11-year old mind, seems sort of slow and boring today. I've just gotten used to more, better. Consider an 11-year old today, seeing Star Wars for the first time. How different is his experience of it from my own, when I was his age? Where might it differ?

This sensation of imagining the experience of a work of art in its own context, and what different kinds of meaning it would have had to a then-contemporary audience, is critical if one seeks real understanding of creative works. It is particularly important when a work might have significant, intentional social or political meaning that has been lost several generations later.

Consider the well-loved, nauseatingly-often played oratorio Messiah, by G. F. Handel. A lovely bit of Christmas celebration, right? Actually, no: turns out it's a work of religious propaganda, and not a particularly nice one. From today's New York Times:

So “Messiah” lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the “Hallelujah” chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel’s day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.
The whole article is fascinating. Read it here, it's surprising and thought-provoking, and will make you reconsider one of the ubiquitous masterworks of the classical canon.

More on the importance of context soon.

-SS

Comments

The consideration of context definitely seems to add another dimension to the experience of a work of art. Along with finding letters and articles produced by artists contemporary to the period, how would you advise that curious, art-appreciate commonfolk seek reliable information (with limited resources, of course) to achieve a better understanding relating to this aspect of art? Are there cheap, reliabe resources available for students' research that you could recommend?

Are there cheap, reliabe resources available for students' research that you could recommend?

A great question. I recommend starting with some of the excellent work from the field of musicology, much of it fairly recent: Jan Swafford's bios of either Brahms or Ives; Richard Crawford's stunning America's Musical Life: A History; works by Joseph Horowitz or Charles Rosen; Nyman's Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond; etc. I find that understanding the time and place(s) in which a composer lived, as well as gaining a sense of them as real people, are tremendously helpful in attempting to understand context in this sense.

Also, I find another great approach is to ask 'what is new?' or 'what is unique?' about a particular piece or composer. What was it, exactly, about Beethoven's music that differentiated it so from that of Mozart or Haydn? Indeed, why--specifically--is he considered 'revolutionary'? (Charles Rosen's The Classical Style would be a great place to start with these, or even better would be the Beethoven Symphony cycle recorded by John Eliot Gardiner, which includes a disc with him talking about exactly these questions for 25 minutes or so...)

Answering those kinds of questions will help you better understand a work's context, I think--really, for me, it's about knowing the composer's work (and non-musicians can easily understand the important major elements of any composer's work, even the "hard" ones), gaining a sense of the composer as a person, and understanding the specific time and place in which he/she lived (France in 1910 was very different from Germany in 1936, which was very different from New York in 1924, for instance). It's an ongoing voyage of discovery, even for a specialist--one of the reasons I love the art form of music so dearly.

For two brief posts on context by Josh Kosman, SF music critic, click here and here

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