The rewards of creative activity

the second paragraph of Allan Forte’s Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice (1962):

We hold the conviction that the primary aim of serious music study is to illuminate the subject, not to surround it with trivia and bury it beneath detail. At the same time one must realize that a technical approach to music, like a technical approach to any subject, involves specific tasks which are often detailed. These include the learning of a new terminology, the memorizing of certain facts, and the intelligent working out of exercises in order to achieve basic skills. Without these one cannot hope to approach the general concepts essential to the art, nor can one a ain that level of minimal ability which will enable him to enjoy the rewards of creative activity.

Neat, plausible, and wrong

Two versions of the opening of Mencken’s essay “The Divine Afflatus”:

I. As it appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Every man who writes, or paints, or composes knows by hard experience that there are days when his ideas flow freely and clearly and days when they are damned up damnably. On his good days, for some reason quite incomprehensible to him, all the processes and operations of his mind take on an amazing ease and slickness. Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

This unpleasant experience overtakes poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, painters and sculptors, and also, no doubt, philosophers and journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement writers and the rev. clergy. The characters that all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless. Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal quest, horribly bedeviled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache, eye-strain and festering conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for his crime of having ideas. The normal man, the healthy and honest man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows nothing of all that travail. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and for bidden streams.

How are we to account for it? My question, of course, is purely rhetorical. Explanations exist; they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand, and one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there are explanations less supernatural but no less fanciful—to wit, the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and not to be resolved into any orderly process—to wit, the explanation that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired—finally, to make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arc-light, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

II. As it appears in Prejudices: Second Series

The suave and oedematous Chesterton, in a late effort to earn
the honorarium of a Chicago newspaper, composed a thousand words
of labored counterblast to what is called inspiration in the arts.
The thing itself, he argued, has little if any actual existence; we
hear so much about it because its alleged coyness and fortuitousness
offer a convenient apology for third-rate work. The man taken in such
third-rate work excuses himself on the ground that he is a helpless
slave of some power that stands outside him, and is quite beyond his
control. On days when it favors him he teems with ideas and creates
masterpieces, but on days when it neglects him he is crippled and
impotent–a fiddle without a bow, an engine without steam, a tire
without air. All this, according to Chesterton, is nonsense. A man who
can really write at all, or paint at all, or compose at all should be
able to do it at almost any time, provided only “he is not drunk or
asleep.”

So far Chesterton. The formula of the argument is simple and familiars
to dispose of a problem all that is necessary is to deny that it
exists. But there are plenty of men, I believe, who find themselves
unable to resolve the difficulty in any such cavalier manner–men whose chief burden and distinction, in fact, is that they do not employ
formulae in their thinking, but are thrown constantly upon industry,
ingenuity and the favor of God. Among such men there remains a good
deal more belief in what is vaguely called inspiration. They know
by hard experience that there are days when their ideas flow freely
and clearly, and days when they are dammed up damnably. Say a man of that sort has a good day. For some reason quite incomprehensible to
him all his mental processes take on an amazing ease and slickness.
Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have
badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary
efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly
and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself
out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work
that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been
capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on
the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

I challenge any man who trades in ideas to deny that he has this
experience. The truth is that he has it constantly. It overtakes
poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, philosophers and
journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement
writers, chautauqua orators and the rev. clergy. The characters that
all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow
of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of
rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches
itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless.
Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all
his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for
dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his
lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal
quest, horribly bedevilled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache,
eye-strain and evil conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for
his crime of being intelligent. The normal man, the healthy and honest
man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows
nothing of all that travail. It is reserved especially for artists
and metaphysicians. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue
strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and
forbidden streams.

Let us, then, assume that the fact is proved: the nearest poet
is a witness to it. But what of the underlying mystery? How are
we to account for that puckish and inexplicable rise and fall of
inspiration? My questions, of course, are purely rhetorical.
Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always
a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and
wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods:
sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one
reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by
the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there
are explanations less super-natural but no less fanciful—to wit,
the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and
not to be resolved into any orderly process—-to wit, the explanation
that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist
happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired–finally, to
make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian
complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all of these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with
mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arclight, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

An orgy of pianism

from the liner notes:

Audiofon: Why Moszkowski?

Bar-Illan: Because it’s a glittering showpiece, an effective, delightful work and it’s not profound.

A: You mean you play it because it’s not profound?

B-I: That’s right. I think restricting the repertoire to great masterpieces and profound statements is needlessly limiting. Obviously, one should not expect the same kind of musical experience from the Moszkowski concerto as from the “Empreror.”

A: How would you characterize the Moszkowski experience?

B-I: It is first and foremost an orgy of pianism, an intoxication with what the instrument can do, a celebration of sound, sparkle and speed. It’s the kind of assault on the senses experienced at a fantastic fireworks display. Plus a little pulling at the heart-strings. Profound?—No. Thrilling?—Yes.

A: Why hasn’t it returned to the concert repertoire?

B-I: It may be a manifestation of snobbery, and it may simply be a lack of imagination and boldness in programming. But, most likely, it reflects a change to a more austere, sober musical taste, which started developing after WWII. Whatever the reason, programs are less varied and colorful because of it.

A: Anything we should know about Moszkowski?

B-I: He was a Polish Jew, born in Breslau in 1856, died in Paris in 1925. He was a successful performer and composer whose compositions were in the repertoire of many of his contemporaries, but today, if he is known at all it is for such “encore” pieces as Etincelles, Spanish Dances, and a few superb Etudes. He considered himself Mendelssohn’s musical heir, but his harmonies are richer, his gestures more extravagant and technique more sophisticated. If one must point to a resemblance, I would suggest Saint-Saens, another pianist-composer of the late 19th century who reveled in pianism, and was blissfully oblivious to the advent of modernism.

A: Is that why the Saint-Saens Second is on the same disc?

B-I: I can’t think of two concertos that go better together. Saint-Saens, too, is often criticzed for lacking seriousness and depth. But it is the kind of criticism leveled all too often against all French music, particularly by German critics. From the clavicinists to Francaix and Poulenc, French piano music strove for elegance, clarity, uncomplicated expression, polished technique, clever effects and sensual excitement. It shunned the imposing structures of German music—how many great French sonatas are there?—in favor of epigrammatic ideas and individual, personalized forms more often than not full of joie de vivre.

A: Aside from their French character, is there anything specific these works have in common?

B-I: Both composers obviously knew the works of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt. But the Moszkowski, not surprisingly, contains Slavic elements, while the Saint-Saens, as the late pianist Sigismond Stojowski cleverly remarked, “begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach.” Actually the “Bach” refers only to the opening, while the wit and flair of Offenbach’s music characterizes much of the rest. I believe, though, that neither Saint-Saens nor Moszkowski would have been offended had the Scherzo of the latter’s concerto been described as a direct descendent of the former’s Allegro scherzando.

A: How does the Franck fit into this company?

B-I: Like Saint-Saens, Franck was a great organist, thought not in his class as a piano virtuoso. He was born in Belgium but lived in Paris for fifty years before composing the variations in 1885, a year before Saint-Saens wrote the Second Piano Concerto. He is thoroughly French, but his music could never conjure the “boulevardier” image of the Saint-Saens work. There is a mysticism and melancholy in it that are almost completely absent in the other two concerti and, in fact, in French music in general until Messiaen. Only the jaunty lightness of the Finale, which belies both the composer’s age at the time (63) and the somber character of his earlier music, foreshadows the piano writing of Saint-Saens and Moszkowski.

The suppleness of fingers

from Rameau, “De la mécanique des doigts sur le clavessin,” in the second book of Pièces de Clavessin (1724):

L’exercice continuel où l’on est de marcher, rend à un chacun le mouvement du jarret presque ègalement libre. Le peu d’exercice que nous faisons, au contraire, du mouvement necessaire aux doigts pour toucher le Clavessin, ne permet pas que leur liberté se developpe: d’ailleurs nos habitudes particulieres font contracter aux doigts des mouvemens si contraires à celui qu’exige le Clavessin, que cette liberté en est sans cesse traversée: elle trouve même des obstacles jusques dans les talens naturels que nous pouvons avoir pour la musique; pour peu que nous soyons sensibles aux effets de cet art, nous faisons des efforts pour rendre ce que nous sentons, & ce ne peut être que par une contrainte préjudiciable à l’éxecution: toutes les mesures qu’il faudroit prendre pour l’acquerir, nous sont dérobées par l’impression qu’ont reçu nos sens: & faute d’avoir sçû concilier cette éxecution aver la promtitude de notre imagination, nous nous persuadons souvent que c’est la nature qui nous a refusé ce que nous nous sommes ravis à nous-mêmes par de mauvaises habitudes.

Translated in the Bärenreiter edition by Erwin Jacobi:

The continual exercise when walking gives everyone almost equally free movement of the knee. On the other hand, the little exercise we give to the movement of the fingers necessary for playing the harpsichord does not enable their freedom of movement to become developed: moreover, our particular habits cause the fingers to develop movements so opposed to those required for the harpsichord as to represent a constant setback to the development of this freedom: it finds obstacles even in any natural talent that we might have for music; if we are even a little sensitive towards the effects of this art, we make an effort to convey what we feel and this can be done only under a constraint which is detrimental to the performance: all the steps which ought to be taken to acquire suppleness are snatched from us by the impression received by our senses and for want of knowing how to reconcile this execution with the alertness of our imagination, we frequently persuade ourselves that it is Nature which has denied us an accomplishment of which, by our bad habits, we have deprived ourselves.

Why not be, rather, fully human?

Schönberg, preface to the first edition, Harmonielehre, 1911, translated by Roy E. Carter; on searching for the sake of searching, cf. Walker Percy:

This book I have learned from my pupils.

In my teaching I never sought merely ‘to tell the pupil what I know’. Better to tell him what he did not know. Yet that was not my chief aim either, although it was reason enough for me to devise something new for each pupil. I labored rather to show him the nature of the matter from the ground up. Hence, I never imposed those fixed rules with which a pupil’s brain is so carefully tied up in knots. Everything was formulated as instructions that were no more binding upon the pupil than upon the teacher. If the pupil can do something better without the instructions, then let him do so. But the teacher must have the courage to admit his own mistakes. He does not have to pose as infallible, as one who knows all and never errs; he must rather be tireless, constantly searching, perhaps sometimes finding. Why pose as a demigod? Why not be, rather, fully human?

I have never tried to talk my pupils into believe me infallible—only a ‘Gesangsprofessor’ (professor of singing) finds that necessary. On the contrary, I have often risked saying something that I had later to retract; I have often risked giving instructions that, when applied, proved to be wrong and so had to be corrected. Perhaps my mistakes did not benefit the pupil, but they hardly caused him much harm. Indeed, the fact that I openly acknowledged them may have set him to thinking. As for myself, since the instructions I gave were untested products of my own thought, I was compelled by my errors, which were quickly exposed, to examine my instructions anew and improve their formulation.

This, then, is the way this book came into being. From the errors made by my pupils as a result of inadequate or wrong instructions I learned how to give the right instructions. Successful completion of assignments by the pupils established the soundness of my efforts without luring me into the fallacy that I had solve the problem definitively. And I think neither the pupils nor I have fared badly that way. Had I told them merely what I know, then they would have known just that and nothing more. As it is, they know perhaps even less. But they do know what matters: the search itself!

I hope my pupils will commit themselves to searching! Because they will know that one search for the sake of searching. That finding, which is indeed the goal, can easily put an end to striving.

Our age seeks many things. What is had found, however, is above all: comfort. Comfort, with all its implications, intrudes even into the world of ideas and makes us far more content than we should ever be. We understand today better than ever how to make life pleasant. We solve problems to remove an unpleasantness. But, how do we solve them? And what presumption, even to think we have really solved them! Here we can see most distinctly what the prerequisite of comfort is: superficiality. It is thus easy to have a ‘Weltanschauung’, a ‘philosophy’, if one contemplates only what is pleasant and gives no heed to the rest. The rest—which is just what matters most. In the light of the ‘rest’ these philosophies may very well seem made to order for those who hold to them, whereas, in that light, the tenets which constitute these philosophies are are seen to spring above all from the attempt at self-vindication. For, curiously enough, people of our time who formulate new laws of morality (or, even more to their liking, overthrow old ones) cannot live with guilt! Yet comfort does not consider self-discipline; and so guilt is either repudiated or transformed into virtue. Herein, for one who sees through it all, the recognition of guilt expresses itself as guilt. The thinker, who keeps on searching, does the opposite. He shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved. As does Strindberg: ‘Life makes everything ugly.’ Or Maeterlinck: ‘Three quarters of our brothers [are] condemned to misery.’ Or Weininger and all others who have thought earnestly.

Comfort as a philosophy of life! The least possible commotion, nothing shocking. Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is not definitely something to find.

There is a mechanical puzzle that consists of three small metal tubes of different diameters sealed in a glass-covered box. The problem is to get the smaller tubes inside the larger. Now one can try to do it methodically; then it usually takes quite a long time. But it can also be done another way. One can just shake the box at random until the tubes are inside one another. Does that happen by chance? It looks that way, but I don’t think so. For an idea lurks behind this method. Namely, that movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails. Is it not the same with the learner? What does the teacher accomplish through methodology? At most, activity. If everything goes well! But things can also go badly, and then what he accomplishes is lethargy. Yet lethargy produces nothing. Only activity, movement is productive. Then why not start moving right away? But comfort!? Comfort avoids movement; it therefore does not take up the search.

Either [tentative, perhaps random] movement generates searching or else searching generates movement—one or the other way must be taken. It does not matter which. Only action, movement, produces what could truly be called education or culture (Bildung): namely, training (Ausbildung), discipline and cultivation (Durchbildung). The teacher who does not exert himself because he tells only ‘what he knows’ does not exert his pupils either. Action must start with the teacher himself; his unrest must infect the pupils. Then they will search as he does. Then he will not be disseminating education (Bildung), and that is good. For ‘education’ means today: to know something of everything without understanding anything at all. Yet, the sense of this beautiful word, Bildung, is entirely different; and, since the word now carries a derogatory connotation, it should be replaced by Ausbildung and Durchbildung.

It should be clear, then, that the teacher’s first task is to shake up the pupil thoroughly. When the resultant tumult subsides, everything will have presumably found its proper place.

Or it will never happen!

Everything is happening all the time

Wynton Marsalis on Thelonious Monk, Moving to Higher Ground, 2008:

He had a quirky personality. His son gave me a money clip Monk carried. He told me that Thelonious would keep a thousand-dollar bill in it and when anybody asked him for money, he would pull it out and say, “Can you change this thousand?” That’s how he looked at things—from the opposite side.

Somebody would ask him, “What’s happening, Monk?”

“Everything is happening all the time, man.”

Brendel’s 1962 “Les Adieux”

From “Notes on a Complete Recording of Beethoven’s Piano Works,” included in Music, Sense and Nonsense:

My work on the Beethoven sonatas took five and a half years. One of the crosses the artist has to bear is that the date of a recording is so rarely indicated on the record sleeve. He is all too easily blamed, or, almost worse, praised for interpretations that have lost some of their validity, at least as far as he himself is concerned. People expect an artist to develop, and yet they are only too ready to impale him, like an insect, on one of his renderings. The artist should have the right to identify his work with a certain phase of his development. It is only the continuous renewal of his vision—either in the form of evolution or of rediscovery—that can keep his music-making young.

The recordings of Beethoven’s variation works, with the exception of the Diabelli Variations, were made in three stages between December 1958 and July 1960. There followed, at the turn of 1960–61, the last five sonatas together with the Fantasy Op 77. In March 1962 I played the sonatas Op 31, Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 57 and Op. 90; in June and July of that year all the remaining sonatas between Op. 23 and Op. 81a. The early sonatas from Op. 2 to Op. 14 were recorded in December 1962 and January 1963 (by coincidence my work on the thirty-two sonatas was finished on my thirty-second birthday). Finally in July 1964 I played the miscellaneous  pieces and the greatest of all piano works: the Diabelli Variations.

I recall a cold winter morning in a rather dilapidated Baroque mansion in Vienna; the logs in the fireplace of the hall where we recorded crackled so loudly that we had to throw them out of the window into the snow.

Facts, coy and elusive

Mencken, “Conrad Revisited,” The Smart Set, September 1922:

I put in a blue afternoon last week re-reading Conrad’s “Youth.” A blue afternoon? What nonsense! The touch of the man is like the touch of Schubert. One approaches him in various and unhappy moods: depressed, dubious, despairing; one leaves him in the clear, yellow sunshine that Nietzsche found in Bizet’s music. But here again the phrase is inept. Sunshine suggests the imbecile, barnyard joy of the human kohlrabi—the official optimism of a steadily delighted and increasingly insane Republic. What the enigmatical Pole has to offer is something quite different. If it’s parallel is to be found in music, it is not in Schubert, but in Beethoven—perhaps even more accurately in Johann Sebastian Bach. It is the joy, not of mere satisfaction, but of understanding—the profound but surely not merry delight which goes with the comprehension of a fundamental fact—above all, of a fact that has been coy and elusive.