Dd Book Club DISCUSSION, Week 1: Vox populi, vox Dei?

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On page 10, Ross recounts one of Alma Mahler’s memories after the scandalous, yet well-received, first performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome, and it appears to contain an essential, recurring theme of the book:

“On the train back to Vienna, Mahler expressed bewilderment over his colleague’s success. He considered Salome a significant and audacious piece–‘one of the greatest masterworks of our time’ he later said–and could not understand why the public took an immediate liking to it. Genius and popularity were, he apparently thought, incompatible. Traveling in the same carriage was the Styrian poet and novelist Peter Rosegger. According to Alma, when Mahler voiced his reservations, Rosegger replied that the voice of the people is the voice of God–Vox populi, vox Dei. Mahler asked whether he meant the voice of the people at the present moment or the voice of the people over time. Nobody seemed to know the answer to that question.”

This paragraph has given me much to think about as I read on into the second chapter dealing with the Second Viennese School and Schoenberg in particular. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on these topics:

*What is your stance on Vox populi, vox Dei? Do you find it to be a valid point of departure for discussing this history of the world and music? What parallels do you find in contemporary culture? Are we still looking for the answer to this question?

*As an artist, is it enough for you for the audience to appreciate your art? Or vice-versa, can you enjoy critical success when the audience is puzzled or even outraged?

*As an audience member, are you ever outraged? Do we still have the kind of theatrical scandals described in these first two chapters?

*Strauss is described as approaching “the transcendent ideals of the Romantic era with a philosophical skepticism that he got from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche” (18). Can you hear that in his music? Was Mahler right to treat his Strauss’s “black hole of irony” with some apprehension?

*Is Strauss’s struggle for the individual against the collective relevant today? Or is there a need for a new kind of collectivism in music/art/culture? How does either struggle relate to the modern day vox populi? Could you define what the voice of the people is right now?

Schoenberg's famous Self Portrait. 1911

*As evidenced by the above self-portrait, Schoenberg’s disdain of the vox populi is quite clear. And yet, art is made to express the self, to communicate truths and emotions. Without an audience, is the communication lost? Likewise, great explorers of any art or place make their way often without the support of the community. But ultimately, aren’t they going against the grain to search for a more essential way to communicate through art?

*Likewise, young Debussy was interested in the mystery enshrouded Symbolists and even “propose[d] the foundation of a ‘Society of Musical Esotericism…’ “(44). Is this just the pretension of youth or does it speak to an ongoing gulf between artist and audience?

*Near the end of Chapter 2 one of Schoenberg’s own disciples, Alban Berg, uses the opera Wozzeck to “contradict [his] utopian notion that the new language could replace the old. Instead, Berg returns to the method of Mahler and Strauss, for whom the conflict of consonance and dissonance was the forge of the most intense expression” (76). Which do you prefer: the complete abandon of the “old language” into atonality or this forge of old and new? How much does the execution and talent of the composer/artist play into whether one or the other is more compelling? What parallels can be drawn from other art forms?

Discuss, pose questions, bring up points overlooked. There is much meat to feed on here and all viewpoints are welcome!

(And don’t forget, this week’s schedule has us reading Chapter 3. Email any questions or topics to hello@diydancer.com by Sunday if you are so inclined.)


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Showing 13 comments
  • stephanie

    I’ve read ahead a bit in the book and I’m finding that Ross often brings up the topic of making classical art forms–whether it’s music, dance, or visual art–relevant to pop culture. As we discuss this issue in the 21st century, we can forget that what we might consider as archaic and old-fashioned was at one time cutting-edge–making it all too easy to overlook the notion that our artistic predecessors dealt with these battles as well. This brings up a whole other sensitive matter in the arts–do we make art for the people or for the sake of creating? We want to be true to our artistic integrity, but we need patronage to continue our pursuits.

    I think we are still struggling to answer many of these questions. Finding a balance between engaging new audiences so that our art can continue to exist yet creating genuine representations of ourselves as artists; does it make you any less of an artist by trying to gain popularity? Ross has the gears in my head turning.

    I also find his portrait of these great composers incredibly compelling. Several times, I felt the need to pull up selections of Struass, Mahler, and Debussy, listening to their masterpieces with a new intent. His words bring new musical details to light; I feel as if I’m learning and understanding a new language. Music can speak to you, similar to how dance can, but it can get lost in translation sometimes when you don’t know what to look for; education is enriching my musical experiences.

    I don’t want to give too much away for the weeks to come, but I found the sections on Stravinsky particularly gripping.

  • candice

    The portraits are so fascinating! The excerpts were not enough for me in the audio guide so I am on the hunt for acquiring full pieces right now that I lack.

    When I apply some of these ideas to other genres I am interested in, such as dance and visual art, I wonder if we are at a moment where it is time to break away again from the old or if it is time to meld old and new more? Obviously the answer could and is both, but the current art scene at the moment seems on the edge of a cliff, trying to hang on or waiting for a gusty wind to blow it into the abyss…..the same might be said of our current political system……it seems to me that Schoenberg types can seem so self-important at the time, and in hindsight, but their commitment and ego to a singular vision of change can be necessary catalysts.

  • Ryan

    To build upon Candice’s comments, I think that throughout history composers/ theorists/reviewers, etc. have had a hard time reconciling the modern vs. traditional dichotomy. At numerous crossroads, some have prided themselves on retaining/rekindling a traditional (or pure) musical language while others feel compelled to take the language in a direction that is has never gone in before. And despite which of these characteristics that one places more value on, there remains a tremendous amount of grey area. For instance, how does one assess the work of someone like Brahms on these grounds, whose innovative Romantic language exists within the context of traditional Baroque and Classical forms?

    Schoenberg felt so strongly that his musical language was the way of the future. What history has proven is that his language is now one among many. One thing that I find fascinating when surveying the history of music theory is how so many believed that there was an absolute “right” and “wrong” way to write music. Or that the development of musical development followed some kind of “natural” or predestined trajectory. Ack! – even my use of the word “development” suggests that one music is more refined than another. It’s difficult to escape this.

    Nonetheless, I get the sense that today’s composers have less desire (or are faced with less pressure) to take a firm stand on one side of this dichotomy or the other. Rather, they feel that all of the musical innovations that have come before them are at their disposal to use freely. As American composer Ned Rorem states in his book, An Absolute Gift, “A trademark can be a speech defect. It makes no sense to disqualify a speech defect, or even a language. Criticize only what is said in the language.”

  • stephanie

    Ryan, this is so well written and insightful. Thanks for sharing.

  • candice

    Yes, I appreciate the acknowledgment of grey area and its importance….as long as it “says” something. I think Chapter 2 takes absolutes once again to new and interesting extremes: http://www.diydancer.com/2012/06/27/dd-book-club-discussion-week-2-duality-of-artifice/

    But I also wonder, if everything is at the modern composer’s disposal, if musicians no longer have these great philosophical fights, what creates the great tension that history previously found in polar opposites?

  • Paul Smith

    Candice, I agree that the excerpts in the audio guide are just enough to get one curious. My suggestion: Youtube. You’ll find most of the pieces mentioned in the book (and many more by those composers,) usually in several versions and easily searchable. For ‘classical’ music study on a budget, that’s the place to go.

    To me that’s one of the surprises of this book: how it makes you listen to all this music with new ears. Hearing the shimmering beauty of Schoenberg’s pieces for Orchestra or the irresistible liveliness of Will Marion Cook’s music (mentioned in a later chapter) – priceless!

    It makes me glad to live in the 21st Century – so much of the 20th Century in music was lost to debates about “the right way” of composing. Vox Populi or Vox Dei? Maybe to our ears it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s a sense of originality.

  • candice

    Thanks for youtube tip! I had not thought of that and it is essentially a library of music. I also agree, that originality trumps all, but I do love how Ross weaves these philosophical concepts. It gives the non-musician one more way in to a piece of music that at first might be a difficult listen. Being able to bring a context and a sense of the interpersonal battles among these key players gives an instant emotional connection to the piece. Whether that connection stays or rings true once you have really listened is a matter of taste?

  • Sofia

    having been a bit absent of the initial discussion and being around chapter 7 and also not being an artist, but rather an art admirer/avid consumer (and now end of caveats), I read all the posts with keen interest. It is fascinating to learn from your takes and comments of the thoughts the book provoques in you as artists.

    For me, a common theme (as in music) that repeats itself in different variations and tempos throughout the book is if art is a manifestation of society, its caratcteristics, idiossincrasies and challenges; an element of change or a passiv “product” more atune to be a pause in our interaction with ourselves and society.

    I would offer that art is all of it, in all its forms. The fascinating thing is that music, as painting and even dance, once created takes a life of its own and its role and interpretation is intimately linked to the inerent interaction with the listener, audience and loses its ties with the intentions of the creator or even the interpreter. A same piece, of any art form, is magic because it is different things to each, the composer, the performer or the audience and this very meaning is active, not static, and changes through time and moments.

    As such, it is a magical representation of the philosophical question of reality being an individual experience.

    Whether you read of Schoenberger view of “forget the audience” or Debussy’s view of entertainment, at the end, almost invariably, the message transmitted by an art form, and music in particular, is very different from the one initially intended by its creator. It is interesting to read in Ross’ pages the succession of tales of pieces having been received with the oposit reaction of the one the composer intended. It almost makes me think that, as in most aspects of life, you find what you are not looking for.

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