Music makes us wonder “Am I going or coming?”

Yesterday, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach presented an evening of music that was sublime.  Sublime not only for the quality of its execution, but also for the expansive history of musical / artistic thought that can be looked at through eyes of faith.  We’ll consider the two principal pieces, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso #1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra.

In theology we adhere to a principle called exitus et reditus.  The concept basically means that all things exist in a rhythm of coming forth from God and eventually returning to him.  This leitmotif characterizes all the activities of our lives.  Think of the whole scheme of life, for example, generated by God at birth and returning to him after death… exitus et reditus.  On a larger scale one could argue that this process was on display at last night’s concert.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, indeed his entire career represents an massive musical exitus.  In today’s common parlance, all orchestral music is lumped into the category of “Classical” music.  Take any music 101 course, however, and you’ll discover that actually, orchestral music has many subdivisions… most commonly: ancient music (pre 1500), the Baroque (1600-approx. 1725), Classical (1725 – 1800), Romantic (1800-1900) and modern (1900-present).  “Classical” music represented the zenith of a partnership between classical rules/forms, and the technical development and expertise of composers/artists.  Paragons of the classical movement include Haydn, and Mozart.  The Romantic period, begun about the year 1800 represents the shifting of that partnership decidedly in favor of the composers/artists.  Rules were tested and often broken to tap into the deep pathos of the listeners’ psyches.  Consider, Beethoven’s 9th: it includes – to very great effect – a choir… something unthinkable before him.  The other quality of the Romantics, something we find on display in Beethoven’s 5th, an immense subjectivity.  Understanding musical principal isn’t enough you have to know the composer in order to appreciate the music as he/she intended it.  In the case of the 5th Symphony this mean’s reading up on Beethoven’s conflicting attitudes toward the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe.  Just by way of brief example: the pattern of the four famed opening notes of the symphony is considered by some to be a play on the four opening notes of the French national anthem.

This musical subjective turn, like the Cartesian philosophical turn that preceded it (“I THINK, therefore I am”) has pluses and minuses.  It pulls on the heartstrings of readers/listeners by diving into the deepest parts of the human heart… but it also arrogantly assumes that the author/composer’s point of view give an accurate, even authoritative account of reality.  Beethoven then is a musical exitus from the music that came before him, which found its beauty in an objective vision of music rather than the composer’s individual experience.  This process continued expanding through the Modern period, the twentieth century.

In Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso, one hears the influence of deconstructionist philosophy and materialism.  Tones and harmonies themselves have been broken down to atonality for examination… Music has become, in some senses a rationalistic laboratory, particularly in the atheistic Soviet Block under which Penderecki lived.  And yet…

Something in Penderecki spoke to him so that for all the exitus of the last two hundred years, something began to call him back to honor the old rules, structures and observances of classical and even Sacred Music.  As the Program Notes from last night indicate, the composer began to buck the communist system and even wrote a St. Luke Passion, that brought about his own re-conversion to Catholicism.  One hears both influences, the deconstruction and return, at work in the Concerto Grosso.

All beings have their own existence… a degree of exitus is necessary for life, for being… but balanced always and inevitably by the return to our origins (ultimately to God) having benefited and grown from the journey.  Is this where music and the arts are headed?  We’ll see.  But in our own lives, it’s a worthwhile question to ask, “How do I bring the two dynamics of going forth and returning to God into harmony in me?”

Thanks to maestro Eschenbach and the folks at the NSO for inspiring such an exploration here in DC!