Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Good Year for Haydn: Part 3 (Muses on the Brain, Right or Left)

When writing about Haydn's “The Creation,” it seems reasonable to talk about “creativity.”

This is part of a series of posts on Haydn in preparation for the Harrisburg Symphony's performance of Haydn's great oratorio this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in Harrisburg. Stuart Malina will conduct the orchestra along with the Susquehanna Chorale, the Wheatland Chorale and the Messiah College Concert Choir with soloists, soprano Ilana Davidson, tenor Benjamin Butterworth and baritone Richard Zuch. I'll be doing a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

You can read the other posts in this series beginning here with Part 1.

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When an artist is creative and “creates” some work of art, we throw words around like “creativity” or “inspiration” as well as “imagination” or “God-given talent.” But the ancient Greeks did not have a word for “creativity.” Neither, for that matter, did the Romans.

How could you write about artists and their creations without using the word “creative”?

With the exception of poetry, the word used to describe art in Greece was “techne.” This is the word that gives the English language the root for “technique” or “technology.” Poetry was allowed its freedom but the other arts were subject to rules.

But there were the muses, the nine minor goddesses to whom poets and musicians and artists of all kinds prayed for inspiration, right?

Well, not exactly for inspiration. Originally three in number, they eventually became nine by the Golden Age of Classical Ancient Greece, daughters of Zeus and the goddess Mnemosyne (goddess of memory). Their immediate supervisor was the god Apollo.

The word “muse” also gives us the roots for such English words as museum (from “a place where muses are worshiped”), music (a fairly obvious connection), even amuse and “to muse upon” or musing.

Initially, they were a group of goddesses who worked, I guess you could say, as a Special Unit for artists. It was only later – especially during the Renaissance - that they each became associated with a specific role to play:

Calliope (epic poetry, depicted with a writing tablet),
Clio (history, reading a scroll – because history involved reciting it or writing it down, it was considered an art, perhaps better thought of as “non-fiction”) (see image, above right),
Erato (lyric poetry, playing a kithara or lyre-like instrument with which ancient poets and bards accompanied themselves when reciting or improvising poetry and tales),
Euterpe (music, playing an aulos or wind instrument comparable to a flute),
Melpomene (tragic theater, holding the mask of tragedy), Polyhymnia (choral poetry, wearing a veil),
Terpsichore (dance, playing a lyre),
Thalia (comic theater, holding the mask of comedy) (see image, left) and
Urania (astronomy, not something we'd consider an art but scientists also had their muse-driven inspiration, usually holding a compass or, one assumes after 1492, a globe).

These areas generally encompassed most of what we'd call “learning” in Ancient Greece. They were regarded as the “keys to the good life” and would, when called upon, inspire people to do their best.

Sacrifices – bowl of milk or honey, perhaps – would be placed out as libations to the muses by artists seeking their guidance. This guidance would later be called inspiration, from words meaning “breathed upon” – a kind of “Muse-breath.”

Most great poems from the Classical Age – both Greek and Roman – began with calls to the Muse to inspire their authors' stories: for instance, Homer's Odyssey begins

"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy."
(translation by Robert Fagles)

Shakespeare frequently invokes the muses in his sonnets and Milton begins “Paradise Lost” not with a biblical statement but an invocation to the Heavenly Muse to sing the song of man's first disobedience, a classic interweaving of Christian and mythological traditions.

By Roman times, given the word “ars,” visual arts and poetry were now credited with being inspired, that artists used their imagination, a change over the rules of the Greek “techne.” One could argue, since music is not included here, this attitude to the “creation” of music might explain why so little of it (a few fragments only) have survived, but most of that would be more attributable to the fact no one knew how to write it down. Poetry could be transmitted orally by bards who memorized volumes of texts that were, once written language developed, but no one kept the oral tradition of its music alive until musical notation could be invented, a process which only began around the 9th Century A.D.

But still there was no word for “creativity.”

It wasn't until Christian times that the concept of something being created was introduced, and then “creatio” meant God's Creation, the opening of the story of Genesis, the idea of something being created out of nothing, something only God could do.

Art was not a domain of “creativity.” It was in the hands of craftsmen who created something out of something else: raw materials, if you will – a sculptor created a statue out of a piece of stone; an artisan made furniture or a bowl out of wood or clay. Artists – artisans, craftsmen – used the word “facio” (I made) or “fabrio” (I crafted).

In fact, it wasn't until the 17th Century when a Polish poet, Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (writing in Latin) began applying “creativity” to what he did. Many people found his taking on this God-like role offensive. Others softened the concept by explaining being an artist was “completing nature as if a second Creator.” Still, this was very controversial.

Then, once the Enlightenment rolled around in the 18th Century and concepts of faith became more secularized, creativity and inspiration became less involved with the Divine, things that mortal men could attain. Perhaps this might explain why “normal” people regard artists so highly – at least in some respects: they were somewhere between Man and God through this connection with their “God-given gift.”

By the 19th Century, the more “Romantic” concept of the artist – where the spark of creativity was considered not far removed from a form of madness – came into play. It is still one of the primary views of the artist in society today. Creativity then became something anyone could tap into: it was finally admitted even scientists could be “creative.”

Which is very curious, considered 2009 is not only the bicentennial of the death of Haydn, it's also the bicentennial of the birth of scientist Charles Darwin. This month marks the 150th Anniversary of the publication of his “Origin of Species.” The controversy continues.

Curiously, in Asian traditions, there was no place for the idea of “creation from nothing.”

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In the 1960s, scientists began discussing the role (or rather roles) of the human brain in all this. The brain is divided into two lobes and it was discovered that the Right Brain was

random – irrational - intuitive – subjective – spontaneous – looked at the whole before understanding the parts

while the Left Brain was

logical – rational – more analytical – sequential – methodical – looked at constituent parts before understanding the whole.

Going back to two standard approaches to describing Art, we've often used terms like “Classical” and “Romantic” for specific eras. In music, “Classical Music” was the dominant approach between, roughly, 1750 and 1800; “Romantic Music,” between 1800 and 1900. But “lower case” classical and romantic traits can be found in other eras, often chronologically concurrent.

In this sense, “classical” elements are those that are based more on rules (techne), logical constructions, leaner textures, more obvious to the listener (objective), not complicated, while “romantic” elements imply greater freedom in regards to harmony and form, more emotional content (subjective), denser textures, less concern with the rules, in fact more with “rule-breaking.”

Looking back at Greek models – mythological tales often used to explain occurrences in every day life – Apollo became the guiding figure of the classical ethos, and Dionysus, the god of wine, helped artists to become uninhibited, free of the constraints of being mere craftsmen.

Haydn, as we think of him today, would be the epitome of the craftsman, writing symphonies and operas to order because, like a good craftsman, it was his job to produce for human consumption, for entertainment.

Beethoven, his pupil, is regarded as the opposite of Haydn: he became the heaven-striding heroic creative artist, writing great symphonies because he wanted to, because he had something universal to say.

Haydn may have written operas on Greek stories to entertain the prince who employed him, but Beethoven wrote an opera speaking to the human condition: at a time of political upheaval in Europe following the French Revolution and the numerous, almost constant warfare with Napoleon, Beethoven's Fidelio was a universal cry for the humanitarian concerns for the democratic principles of freedom and equality. Ironically, the first performance of Fidelio,a decidedly anti-French work, was ruined at its premiere because, wrong place and time, the just defeated city of Vienna was newly occupied by Napoleon's troops, an audience not likely to be sympathetic to Beethoven's theme.

It was during a second occupation by the French troops in 1809 that Haydn died at the age of 77, regarded as one of the greatest composers of his age, but an age that was quickly disappearing in the tide of romantic ideals, retiring with it the image of powdered wigs and composers – creative artists, now, not craftsmen – no longer forced to wear the aristocrats' livery. They were, for better or worse, subject to a free market economy.

Neither of these contrasting views is entirely accurate or even complete: the truth, as usual, would lie somewhere in between.

Haydn has never been regarded as a “great” composer on the same level as his contemporary, Mozart, or his student, Beethoven. He wrote “charming” music that “delighted” his audiences – those funny little inside jokes, the combination of rustic dances in the midst of courtly music, bringing into the prince's salon a whiff of country air, the dirt on a peasant's boot – but he is not credited with plumbing emotional depths or rising to great heights to “inspire” us. Basically, most people think Mozart did it better and Haydn prepared the groundwork to make Beethoven possible.

This is not just an orange complaining that an apple isn't as good as an orange: Haydn would never have thought it was required of him to DO any of that. Not that he wasn't capable of being spontaneous or random or more subjective on occasion: it wasn't his primary motivation. Just as Beethoven could write fugues (or tried to, but being Dionysian about it, didn't write “proper” fugues, according to the followers of Haydn), Haydn could depict chaos in some of the most astounding harmonic progressions heard in the 18th Century.
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(Veiga Jardim conducting the Macao Orchestra and the Hong Kong Oratorio Society in a 2004 performance filmed in a cathedral in Macao, China.)

Curiously, after listening to two centuries' worth of Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg and today's film scores, our reaction to this music is probably much tamer than it would have been in Vienna in 1798.

Though compare his opening of “The Creation” to Jean-Féry Rebel's depiction of chaos that begins his ballet “The Elements,” even more astounding than anything heard until well into the 20th Century, with that opening chord: what must his listeners have thought when they first heard this in 1737, written when Haydn was only 5 years old and only ten years after Bach was annoying people with his new fangled (on one hand), old-fashioned (on the other) St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig?

But then, as things come around again – whether in waves or cycles – the Baroque era would be more on the “romantic” side of the equation for all its reliance on formal structure, compared to the classical style.

This concept of Right Brain/Left Brain is not, scientifically speaking, so black/white as it would seem.

If you take a test to see which you might be, you might be dominantly “Left Brained” but you might have certain elements of “Right Brainedness” in your personality. Or vice versa.

(Perhaps this is why much of the brain is made up of “gray matter”?)

In this particular test – where very few of the questions deal with specific artistic concepts – I scored a 14 for the Right Brain and a 4 for the Left Brain.

What I found intriguing about this, I live my life in my right-brain but the music I compose is strongly rooted in the methodically rational left side of my brain, though my primary focus is trying to infuse it with subjective emotion, a synthesis of both right-brain intuition with left-brain logic.

See how you “stack up” by comparison: keep in mind this is not “scientific” but it might give you a bit of an idea how YOUR brain works and why you may feel yourself a little different from other people around you who might all have different scores across different parts of the spectrum. It may explain – again not scientifically, as the disclaimer goes – why it's so difficult being a right-brained cog in a left-brained job!

Anyway, that bit of pseudo-psychology aside, it may also explain how you react to the music you like or don't like.

I would assume it's possible that Left Brained People might appreciate Haydn more than they would Berlioz or Wagner, or why Right Brained People might find much “classical” music boring. Compare, after all, the psychological realms of most pop music today with the ideals of Apollonian classicism!

To be continued...

Dr. Dick

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