Below is "The Apocalyptic Symphony" composed in 1945 by Karl Weigl, an Austrian-Jewish composer who fled the Third Reich to the US. He dedicated this symphony, with what I think we can assume was totally heartfelt sincerity, to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's one big 45 minute Youtube lump so here goes...
Karl Weigl's Symphony #5, "The Apocalyptic Symphony" (1945)
I'll talk about this just a tiny bit below. However, the real meat of this diary is going to spin off into insane cosmic reaches of outer space as I envision my own end to the human race, what it would mean, what music means (or will have meant), and into a tortuous discussion of reductionism and the rules of chess and the behavior of hurricanes and how I sometimes try to piece this all together in my own feeble mind.
I begin by asking this question: Imagine that we learned that the end of the world was imminent. What then?
Imagine for a moment that the world did come to an end. Let's start out by being realistic about it for a moment. What would happen?
If the news came very suddenly, I suppose all order would break down and the end would come very violently and prematurely for many people.
When the end does come for us and for our solar system, we can be certain that Beethoven's Fifth will still exist in a physical form. We know this because we sent it out of our solar system aboard the Voyager probe on a Golden LP, shown here:
This LP which includes Beethoven's Fifth will outlast you, your children, your children's umpty-umpth children, the solar system, and the whole human race.
Now, suppose we had plenty of warning -- say, ten years, for instance -- in which to become accustomed to the idea of the inevitable end of the world and to adjust our plans accordingly. What might we do? Well for starters, there would be no point in waiting for that keg of 38 year old Scotch in a Highlands brewery to become 50 year old Scotch, would there? The economy would take a big hit at first, but life still has to go on... For another ten years, ten precious years. After the initial shock and reaction of grief, there would still be a lot of time to fill in and in which to get used to the idea and prepare.
End of the realism. And I'm not sure even that, above, is very realistic. Let's talk about how fiction has treated this idea.
In Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, in the short story, The Last Night of the World, he imagines that all the adults in the world have had the same dream that this is their last night. Yet they go about their business calmly, have dinner together, put the children to bed (please ignore the film version, which changed the ending), turn out the lights, and go to bed. Suddenly, the wife remembers that she left the water running. She runs to the kitchen, turns it off, and comes back to bed, where she giggles with her husband about what she just did. Because, hey... it's the last night of the world. All very orderly.
In Don McKellar's film, The Last Night (starring Don McKellar and Sandra Oh), the end of the world is coming, presumably because of some terrible, predictable, and unavoidable hiccup that the sun is going to have at a certain exact time. People have had time to adjust to this, though, so they are all spending their last night on Earth as they think most appropriate. Some are spending it with family, as if it's Thanskgiving. Others are frantically checking off a list of sexual fantasies, one by one. One woman (Sandra Oh) is planning to spend her last moments with her lover; at the very last moment, they will drink a toast and both will shoot each other in the head. (Just to deny the sun the satisfaction.) When her boyfriend disappears and can't make it in time, she becomes frantic to fall in love with somebody else as the clock runs down.
This idea of a peaceful and orderly ending might be absurd fantasy. Well, fine, okay. Probably it is. But it's an interesting fantasy. How would we like it to end?
Personally, I like to imagine some of us might have a big Last Night On Earth convention, to talk about humanity's greatest hits, the things we got right. We got a lot of boneheaded things wrong, of course -- oh boy, did we. But we might want to get together to have one last big rally to pat ourselves on the back as a species for just those things we were part of that were good. Things we were proud of.
There might be many rooms at a convention like that. There might be one for mathematics lovers, one for poetry lovers, one for chess lovers. One for lover lovers! And one for music lovers, too. We can probably imagine that would require many different rooms and venues.
What would really unite all those rooms would be love. I'm not going to get all hippy-dippy here. There are many types of love. These are the things we loved about our species and some of those good things it did. We are defined as a species by many things, but one way of defining what we were and are is by those things we loved. So here's our big Last Night Hurrah Convention of everything we ever loved.
What would I do at such a big convention on the last day of the human race? Where would I be? I like to think I'd be helping out with the convention. Maybe I'd be running from room to room, selling peanuts and beer. I'd want to see a little bit of all of them. I'd probably want to see the people. Grok the vibes. Love the way we were and all the fine things we discovered and appreciated and were grateful for.
This diary series is conceived as an Intro to Music Appreciation 101 type class. It's meant to be informative and educational and entertaining. I think of myself not as a teacher, though, but as a missionary. It's silly, because I realize the people that read these diaries usually know as much or more about the music we listen to than I do (although I bet few of you have heard of Weigl.) So maybe I'm not converting anybody. But I would like to communicate my love. I have this rather absurd idea that my enthusiasm and love for the subject can be infectious. I prefer that the technical education I throw in about how this piece works or that piece works shouldn't stand out as boring lecture but instead stand out as part of my love for the particular work. Just as you get to know in an intimate way the details of your lover's body, all the jiggles and wrinkles and places that make them go ooh when you touch it, so too you can get to know a piece of music. And it becomes like your lover.
Better than a lover, in fact, because it can't ever really leave you. I commented in my diary on Schubert's Ninth that I OWN Schubert's Ninth. I've listened to it so many times, I've loved it so long, know it so well, that even if everything else was taken from me and I was left naked and destitute, I would still, even then, own Schubert's Ninth. It's in me. I love it. You can't take it out of my head. At least, not without electrodes and/or surgery.
So what does music mean? Not just any one piece, but the totality of it, the human experience of it, the whole purpose of that Apocalyptic Convention room.
Remember Voyager's Golden LP floating through space and away from our solar system in relative motion. Some alien race (unlikely, but hey, let's go there) might find it some day, analyze it, come up with a theory about what all the patterns embedded in the grooves are meant to communicate, and might find it interesting but not a real turn-on. From their perspective, Beethoven's Fifth, as it is embodied on that LP, is interesting as an alien artifact but would otherwise not interesting at all. They might come to the conclusion that the human race that once existed used to entertain itself by playing patterned sounds. They might understand entertainment to be behavior that some species engage in to relieve social stresses and/or to reset biochemical processes of the body.
That's one possible reductionist view of what music and art are. Reductionism is:
Reductionism can mean either (a) an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or (b) a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents. This can be said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings.Anybody who loves science has felt the appeal of reductionism. The primary long-term goal of physics at this moment is to reduce all the behavior of our physical universe to some basic underlying rule of nature from which everything else naturally emerges. However, reductionism (editorial position here) can be a trap. Understanding how the smallest elements of a system work may give you a complete causal model of how the universe works, but -- and this could be a big debate point -- it doesn't adequately DESCRIBE the behavior of the larger phenomena that emerge. For instance, quantum theory might be good at explaining how electrons and protons zig and zag, but it doesn't provide a very USEFUL explanation of how hurricanes form and the course they will take as they head towards land. A hurricane may be made up of protons and electrons following the strict rules of quantum physics, but a hurricane is a large structure made up of many, many, many particles. New rules of behavior can emerge from those many, many particles that aren't obviously and directly relateable to quantum physics.
I'm a chess-lover as some of you know. Like physics, chess has a set of finite rules for how the pieces work. Learning only the rules might let you play a recognizable game of chess, but it won't make obvious some of the emergent rules that come out of the simpler rules. For instance, people that learn chess are told early on that rooks are worth about five pawns and knights are worth about three. The first time I heard that, my thought was, "How do you know? That's not in the rules." This relative evaluation of the pieces is ad hoc and based on a great deal of practical experience by players. In fact, there are oodles of positions in which a single itty-bitty teeny-weeny pawn is worth more than a knight or a rook... or a rook and a knight.
One knight here beats a rook and two pawns. Sometimes knights are worth more than they told you.
Since a brute force calculation of all possible games is impossible to the average player (and even computers, still, today) ad hoc rules based on experience and more than a little bit of conflicting personal opinion come into serious chess-play. And all of that based on a game with a 64 square board with 32 pieces and a very small and simple number of rules.
Reductionism tempts us to diminish the meaning of emergent phenomena like hurricane weather patterns and chess positions. The temptation is there to say, "If we could just calculate all this out to the nth degree from basic principles [like quantum mechanics or the rules of chess] we wouldn't need all these silly rules... and therefore they don't REALLY matter in the grand scheme of things."
That's where we may all part company, because deciding what REALLY matters and what doesn't is a complicated matter of philosophy. What matters is a decision made by humans.
Let's go back to our theoretical aliens analyzing the Voyager's Golden LP, and their conclusion that it contained patterns that were reproduced as sound in order to entertain the organisms called humans and to reset their organism's biochemistry through the chemical experience of pleasure. That's one reductionist way of viewing it. It's absolutely true -- I'll make no argument against that. But that can't possibly encompass what music meant to us. If music is just entertainment, then it makes no sense for us to have a going away party just to celebrate the existence of music. We might be better off celebrating endorphins and serotonin.
When I experience music, like, say, Schubert's Ninth, I have the (possibly incorrect) impression that it's important. Perhaps the chemicals that my brain releases because of all kinds of ticky-tocky mechanical operations make me experience this feeling of importance. We could, if we wanted to, insert electrodes in your brain and stimulate them in such a way that certain synapses would fire and you would think this diary is the most important thing you have ever read in your life. Putting aside the terrible violation of the DailyKos Terms of Service agreement doing this to your brain would entail, this could imply that nothing you think is personally important really is important because, after all, at the lowest level, it's just part of a electrochemical brain fart. If you could be deceived so easily into thinking this quickly slapped-together diary (it was hot today, so no Dvorak, sorry), then all your opinions are equally dubious.
Dumbo's Secret Plan to get more recs and tips. Resistance is futile.
I choose not to believe that. I choose to think that just as new rules and principles emerge out of the game of chess that the basic rule book doesn't anticipate, so too do new things emerge from the human experience that can have a different and greater meaning than just simple entertainment of human organisms to stimulate electrochemical brain farts.
The whole question of what meaning is... bleh... It's getting late, so I'm going to cut that off here.
So, quickly now, what do I have to say about the Weigl Symphony #5 that we've all been listening to?
The symphony begins in an interesting way. The first movement begins thusly (from the Youtube description):
The work opens with a striking theatrical gesture: The orchestra is instructed to enter the stage at their own leisure and begin tuning their instruments; suddenly, the conductor emerges on stage and cues the three trombonists who are situated on a raised platform behind the orchestra to begin the Evocation. Thus, order emerges from chaos.It does have that instrument tuning sound. When I first heard that, I thought, Hmmm... they are taking an awfully long time tuning. Wait, that sounds like music, those trombones there... Oh! I get it, now. It is kind of gimmicky, I suppose, but I like it.
The rest of the symphony, however, is traditional postromantic Germanic music in the style of Mahler. Some parts of it sound like they could have (but no, they weren't) cribbed from Mahler's Third Symphony, a similar type of musical vocabulary.
The second movement, subtitled The Dance Around the Golden Calf, uses Jewish thematic material, Phrygian model themes, and our old friend, the Dies Irae (remember our Berlioz diary?). You can't have a good Apocalypse without the Dies Irae making a guest appearance. The Youtube diarist comments (and it sounds right) that the Golden Calf (a reference to Exodus) is probably an allusion to the ascension of the Nazis. Remember, this was composed during the height of World War II by a Jewish refugee.
The third movement, the slow movement "Paradise Lost", is more personal. I could be wrong, but I think I hear allusions to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. That could also just be an artifact of the composer's style. When the horns come in at the climax of the movement, it is very powerful. He paces this very well.
The final movement, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," is a reference to the Christian idea from Revelations of the final battle at the end of the world. The horses, in order are The White Horse (Conquest), The Red Horse (War), The Black Horse (Famine), and the last one, The Pale Horse, which Revelations explicitly names its rider as Death. The Mahlerian sound is very pronounced in this last movement. The rhythms are herky-jerky, a bit like Berlioz's finale, to evoke a sense of the profane and horrific.
Next Week: I'll try once again to get to the Dvorak American Quartet. I didn't feel like things were coming together for me right, with the hot weather, to write the kind of long diary that it deserves. I hope this diary was entertaining. Or meaningful. Whatever!