Tuesday, July 12, 2011

W & L Alumni College: The Romantic Era

Last week I had the honor and privilege of being a guest professor for the Washington & Lee University Alumni College. It was W & L that brought me to the region (I was associate director of choral & vocal activities from 1996-1999). Being in Lexington offered me the opportunity to join the Opera Roanoke family in 1998 as a guest artist and member of the (then freelance) conducting staff. Some of my most cherished professional friendships are with members of the Lexington musical community, both on the W & L faculty and in one of Virginia's most beautiful and historically significant "main street" towns. So Lexington is a place I've always considered another "home."

An aesthetic and metaphysical "home" for me has always been the Romantic period. And it was this beloved and fascinating period following the birth of the Enlightenment and our nation's independence (the rebirth of democracy, as it were) that was the topic of the W & L Alumni College last week. The interdisciplinary prism was "Chopin, Liszt and the Romantic Era" and I was grateful to teach alongside long-time W & L scholars (and distinguished artists in their own rights) Tim Gaylard (piano, musicology) and Pam Simpson (art history and incidentally, the first tenured female faculty at W & L...)

The relevance of the Romantic era's signature characteristics of innovation, boldness of vision, freedom of spirit, and exceptional evocation of the artistic paradigms of "the beautiful" and "the sublime" (to cite but two such concepts) was brought home to us in Lexington by the death of the great American, ex-pat artist Cy Twombly, who died in Rome July 5. Pam has written articles about Twombly's work, and spoke eloquently about his legacy.

The swimming pool at W & L is named after Cy Twombly, the elder, a famed W & L coach. Cy Twombly, the younger is its most distinguished artistic "alum," even if he attended for only a single year. Twombly considered Lexington one of his homes and continued to return to it. The University is proud to claim him, even if many Lexingtonians still fail to appreciate his art. This ambivalence extends beyond Virginia. In regard to his mixed critical acclaim, The NY Times obit mentions the ironically-entitled article "No, Your Kid Could Not Do This, and other reflections on Cy Twombly."

I was asked to share some about my lecturing on German Romantic philosophy, painting and poetry, respectively. It was a heady pleasure for me to return to my role as a college teacher and play professor for a week! I have posted some thoughts, quotes and poetic thinking on my companion "musings" blog (linked on this site in the right column) with some images of the great German Romantic Landscape painter, Caspar David Friedrich. Another post below it features musings on Romantic poetry and philosophy, and the dynamic relationship between the artist and society across the ages.

If every artist has a bias, agenda or "plays favorites" I stand guilty as charged of being a romantic. (In a gesture of romantic irony & synchronicity, an earlier essay at said blog features a piece I wrote on Cy Twombly and the late Romantic, early-modern German poet Rilke, another long-time personal favorite "romantic" artist from a discipline outside music...)

Below is the title for my third & final lecture - recital on the poet and critic Heinrich Heine and the subject of Romantic Irony, with live performances of excerpts from Schumann's Dichterliebe. Further notes and quotes elaborating upon the topic follow.

Lovers, Poets & Madmen:
Romantic Irony in Heine & Schumann’s Dichterliebe

Scott Williamson, tenor
General & Artistic Director, Opera Roanoke
Timothy Gaylard, piano
Professor of Music, Washington & Lee University


ROMANTIC IRONY: A non-violent (confrontation?) disruption of normality

Irony – a humorous (or arresting) tension or disconnect between appearance and reality,
between expectation / result,
revelation / fact or truth;
assumption, belief / fiction…

Almost every bit of intelligence – involving wit is ironic (as opposed to farcical?)

The ironic may be farcical, and a farce may be ironic, and they may be mutually exclusive…

Hegel, et al (Eagleton's "Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic") We live forward tragically, but think back comically.

Tragic art for Hegel is supremely affirmative.

Spirit restores its own unity through negation. Via negativa in philosophy.

Looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. (Hegel)

*Looking at the dark shadowy side of myth, using Procne and Philomela as oracular guides…

Philomela / Nightingale myth
as romantic symbol illustrates, illumines & enlightens
romantic project (telos or goal)
of unity, integration; assimilation & reconciliation of dichotomy, duality, dialectic.


Thoughts on Romantic Irony / Philosophy / Poetry
With Heine and Hesse (et al...) as guides...

From the Nobel Prize winning, anti-fascist German author - is it ironic to note the prize winners usually are anti- something?!? Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (Holt, 1927, 1990).

Steppenwolf is a classic and beloved Bildungsroman (Romantic "Education" novel centered around the adventures of its heroic or "anti-hero" narrator).

The title character of Hesse's novel is a Doppelgänger or Jekyll & Hdye figure: one part bohemian, artistic, eccentric, unkempt, misfit, anti-establishment "mad-man,." And one part the Wolf's alter-ego Harry Haller, a respected bourgeois professor and professional, proper, educated, polite, an all-around upstanding citizen.

Steppenwolf differentiates Hesse's "shape-shifter" subject and literally refers to the wild and savage Siberian "wolf of the steppes."

While the specificity of Hesse's choice of title reflects a layer of meaning in interpreting Harry Haller, the archetypal nature of Hesse's creation connects to many mythological traditions.

From heroic savages like Hercules or Samson, mad poets and prophets from John the Baptist to John Clare, the rough wolf-like man is an archetypal character whose mythology has resonance for the dynamics between artist and society today. That always exciting, often volatile dialectic is at the heart of the creative flowering known as the Romantic Era. It inspired Hesse 100 years later, and it inspires us today, another 90 years on...

from Steppenwolf:

A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self. Now the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self…And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security.

…break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves…say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key…

you will have to absorb more and more of the world and at last take all of it up in your painfully expanded soul…

We Immortals do not like things to be taken seriously, we like joking. Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time [says the Goethe / Mozart character].

A veil between me and the outer world seemed to be torn aside, a barrier fallen.

Man is the narrow & perilous bridge between nature and spirit…

Look at an animal…all of them are right. They’re never an embarrassment…They always know what to do and how to behave. They don’t flatter and they don’t intrude. They don’t pretend. They are as they are, like stones or flowers or stars in the sky.

The war against death…is always a beautiful, noble and wonderful and glorious thing, and so, it follows is the war against war. But it is always helpless and quixotic too.

There are always a few such people who demand the utmost of life and yet cannot come to terms with its stupidity and crudeness!

Music does not depend on being right, on having good taste and education…[It depends] on making music as well and as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable.

You have a dimension too many…whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours…

You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time…

Let the sense of this ritardando touch you. Do you hear the basses? They stride like gods. And let this inspiration of old Handel penetrate your restless heart and give it peace. Just listen…listen without either pathos or mockery…Listen well. You have need of it [Mozart].

And whoever wants more and has got it in him – the heroic and the beautiful and the reverence for the great poets or for the saints – is a fool and a Don Quixote.


Schopenhauer’s On the Will in Nature. Ironic, mordant, trenchant wit. Unruly. Uncensored. Uncontained. Sarcasmos exemplified.

Referring to the technique & style – acquiring discipline called the work ethic, the philosopher, like every artist is using science to practice art. “In philosophy, nothing is given by revelations; and so above all a philosopher is bound to be an unbeliever.”

Like all poetry, mythology and scripture, philosophy should be taken with a grain of interpretative, contextual salt. The figurative always goes deeper than the literal. Reading between the lines, locating and situating artist and audience, subject and object, de-coding texts are all tools in the shed of romantic reading, listening and understanding.

The following statement is not intended to be taken literally, but is an example of irony, mordant, self-deprecating wit that shames his adversaries, critics &/or opponents while pulling the rug out from under their unsuspecting feet.

Now, there are two reasons why my philosophy is so hated by the gentlemen of the ‘philosophical trade.’ The first is that my works ruin the public’s taste for empty tissues of phrases, for meaningless word accumulations that are piled on top of one another. For hollow, superficial, and slowly tormenting twaddle, for Christian dogmatics appearing in the disguise of the most wearisome metaphysics, for the lowest and most systematized philistinism representing ethics…

He exposes the emperor’s clothes on the “gentlemen of the trade” in the power struggles that plague every category of human relationship.

One of the acknowledged greats in the philosophical canon stoops to describe his philistine opposites’ “numerous company whose ingenious members, coram popule, bow and scrape to each other on all sides.”

Is that rude? Spiteful? Unprofessional? Or disturbingly honest. Unsettling. Wry. Subversive. Dangerous. Artistic…

“The Spirit of the Age” as noted elsewhere, was one of unrest, upheaval and widespread change. Whether the romantic era brings to mind ‘The Lake School’ of Wordsworth & Coleridge, the Weimar of Goethe & Schiller (and later Nietzsche) the so-called ‘Satanic School’ of Byron and Shelley. The “founding classic of the feminist movement” that Mary Wollstonecraft entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman...(the wife of Shelley was also the author of that Romantic Gothic classic, Frankenstein. Also known as, The Modern Prometheus. Also always connecting to myth...)

All agreed “great spirits now on earth are sojourning” (Keats).

They “demonstrated and exemplified” (Coleridge) how “an electric life burns” (Shelley).

They were wary, suspicious and in an age of turbulent political tides, sometimes circumspect with sharing their “secrets:” “tell no one; only the wise…” (Goethe).


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