What is a Classic?

24 Aug
A flat major (As-dur) fugue from the second pa...

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A couple of days ago I blogged about John Franklin’s moment of clarity while listening to a late Beethoven sonata in 1845, less than twenty years after it was composed. The music had – according to Sten Narodny’s account in The Discovery of Slowness – an epiphanic effect on the explorer, and in the novel he is made to endure a sublime moment of self-realisation.

Then yesterday, reading J.M. Coetzee’s essays, I come across an autobiographical anecdote of how Coetzee, at fifteen years of age, heard harpsichord music drifting across the garden fence from a neighbour’s open window in his Cape Town suburb, and the effect this had on his life. The music was from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and, writes Coetzee: “As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to as music had never spoken to me before.” This despite the fact that his family home was bereft of music, that he received no instruction in music, that classical music above all was “sissy” and regarded by Coetzee in a “somewhat suspicious and hostile teenage manner”.

But somehow Bach’s music breaks through to the boy, “speaks to” him, as Coetzee puts it. And in his essay ‘What is a Classic’ the adult author wonders whether his adolescent response to the music back in 1955 was “truly a response to some inherent quality in the music rather than a symbolic election on my part of European high culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end.” Since the essay’s title marks it out as a response to T.S. Eliot, and Coetzee is concerned about the emergence of the term Bach as a touchstone, and a classic as being, in at least one sense, ‘that which survives’, we end up depending (argues Coetzee) on criticism to define and sustain notions of the classical.

Which is all true, but by resorting to an argument about the nature of the classic (and for perfectly valid reasons) Coetzee rather avoids answering the question that he originally posed, about whether Bach ‘spoke to him across the ages’ or whether he, Coetzee, was (unwittingly perhaps) choosing high European culture and the codes of that culture in order to escape his class position in white South African society, and the historical dead-end represented by his immediate environment.

But despite the excellence of Coetzee’s writing and argumentation, I remain puzzled.

Somewhere in his writings, possibly The Curtain – I am away from my library right now and cannot check – Milan Kundera speculates on the kind of reception that would be given to a work of Beethoven’s were it written by a contemporary composer and performed as though it were a new composition. Kundera asserts that such a piece of music would be subject to ridicule. No one would take the music or its composer seriously. Since all cultural artefacts are a product of their historical and cultural moment, a ‘contemporary’ writing of the opus 111 piano sonata by a modern composer would fail to have the effect on a latter-day John Franklin, or by extension, on you or me.

How does this play out in relation to Coetzee’s adolescent experience? What if The Well-Tempered Clavier was the work of a brilliant but geeky composer of the 1950s who despised the tendencies of Romanticism and Modernism and elected to write ‘like’ J.S. Bach? The sequence of sounds would be identical, but would the effect be the same? Does this mean that young Coetzee’s response to Bach’s quintessentially classical music had its profound effect– even though he did not know what he was listening to?

How can this come about? Are our responses to music entirely subject to cultural and historic provenance? Is a particular arrangement of sounds only a cipher, a means by which a listener measures him or herself as a participant-observer in cultural experience?

This raises many other questions, including obvious ones such as the way we ditch and discard some music – even find it unlistenable – over the course of years, while other music we can listen to almost any time. But for the moment, Kundera’s question and Coetzee’s musical awakening in 1955 present a paradox that I am struggling to reconcile.

Any comments welcome.

 

 

 

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3 Responses to “What is a Classic?”

  1. Mark Reid March 19, 2013 at 00:10 #

    I found this post of yours while searching for Coetzee’s essay. I am also often similarly (but enjoyably) puzzled when I read his work.

    When I read your questions (“What if The Well-Tempered Clavier was the work of a brilliant but geeky composer of the 1950s who … elected to write ‘like’ J.S. Bach? The sequence of sounds would be identical, but would the effect be the same?”) I couldn’t help but wonder if you have read Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. It grapples, quite humorously, with the same sort of ideas.

    • richardgwyn March 19, 2013 at 21:55 #

      Thank you for your comment, Mark. I have indeed read Borges’ story. It’s weird: even though I am a big admirer of Borges, and know all of his work, including his poetry and essays, and am aware that Pierre Menard is regarded by many as one of his great stories, I have never liked it as much as many of his others. Put simply, I never quite ‘got it’, even though I believe understood what it was that I was meant to get.

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  1. Mexico-born performance artist Pablo Helguera reinterprets Bach’s fugue into year-long “Well-Tempered Exposition” « in the theater of One World - September 21, 2011

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