pondering Saturday’s concert


When Beethoven was composing and having his works performed, the music often struck the listeners like white hot lava. Now we hear the music in a different way, like a familiar adult bedtime story, reassuring us with it’s predictability as well as charming with its beauty. The lava is now hardened.

These are the ideas of Christopher Small in MusickingThey prompt me to ask where is the white hot lava of music today? Is there any? I think there is. Small is helpful in pointing out that Beethoven’s basic impulse of the noble individual is only one in a large array of human impulses.

I continue to think about hearing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on Saturday evening. It was such a striking example of the world Small is commenting on in his book. Symphony concerts are ritual events. So much of what humans do can be seen this way.

Small talks about narrative and symphony. This is easy enough to see in his two examples, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikowsky’s Pathetique.

I have been wondering what it means when thinking about a concert Mass setting like the Missa Solemnis. The story may be one of Christian ritual of course. But where is the arc of the narrative in the Mass? The arc which Small describes as similar to one of any story including a bedtime one. There is first an order. “Once upon a time.” Then there is a disturbance of that order in the events that follow. Then there is a resolution. “And they lived happily ever after.”

This can describe many works written in the Western language of music.

I’m not sure it describes the Mass however. The Mass appeals to a composer as a set order of progression: Kyrie – “I’m sorry, God.” Gloria – “Praise.” Credo – “Assent to belief.” Sanctus “touching holiness.” Agnus Dei “synoptic understanding of one person (Jesus) as the sacrificial lamb which brings peace.”

It’s kind of a story I guess. The context of the story and the story itself is lava so hardened as to not be perceived as ever having been molten and flowing. Now the words of the Mass can be seen as an extreme form of reassurance to social relationships that have so many current interpretations (in different Church and believer settings) as to be almost meaningless, unless a listener attach his/her own experience to it.

Small has difficulty with Mass settings because he sees them solely as expressions of the narrative of Western Christianity.

I don’t.

While attending Wayne State U in Detroit, I enjoyed the diversity of the students I rubbed shoulders with. In the large choral organizations, you would literally find many faiths and philosophies represented.  I remember the conductor, Dennis Tini, trying to draw a room of us into Bach’s B Minor Mass. He asked us to think of our own deep understandings of the meaning of life and then perceive that profundity in the wonderful music of Bach we were rehearsing.

I think that’s more accurate.

But I don’t know exactly where it leaves me with Beethoven’s work I heard Saturday night. Still pondering.


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