Sunday 7 November 2021

Evil in classical music

Independent of its musical quality; there is a fair bit of classical music since the later 19th century that communicates to me an atmosphere of evil. 

Before this era, it seems either that music lacked the ability to communicate evil (due to its much greater formality and lesser subjectivity), or perhaps composers were not evil at the times when their music was actually being composed (because genius itself to some significant entails an alignment with divine creation). 

Evil in classical music is an aspect of the phenomenon of 'the evil genius' which Ed Dutton and I discuss in our book The Genius Famine, and which Ed has gone-on to elaborate in his subsequent work. 

Since classical music does not operate in the same way as prose, the way that evil comes-through is various - but I will list three of the best composers whose work I regard as evil in this musical way: Mahler, Stravinsky, Carl Orff. 

As I say, this is substantially a different matter from aesthetic appreciation. With Mahler, however, I find the taint of rottenness too strong to allow me fully to enjoy anything of his. But I can appreciate Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; and Orff's Carmina Burana is one of my favourite 20th century pieces - to which I have listed scores of times. 

But I was listening this morning to Orff's 'follow-up' cantatas - Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite (which I have both known for over 40 years); and in them (despite thrilling musical moments) I rapidly become overwhelmed by the evil, to a Mahlerian degree. In the end they make me feel so dysphoric, that I cannot really enjoy them. 

Evil 'in' music (not just 'verbally', in terms of the subject matter - as with Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier; nor in terms of the music's non-musical associations, eg. with youth cults or wicked regimes) is an interesting phenomenon that I have not seen discussed - probably because most people cannot recognize evil, and would not acknowledge it if they did). 

I wonder whether readers have experienced anything similar?


Luke said...

Not in classical music. Modern pop, rap, and some vibe/synthwave music gives me a sense of being blotted out, as if the music is pushing my self down. And maybe the score of blade runner 2049, I recall trying to listen to it and turning it off because it felt wrong.

Michael Dyer said...

I think I know what you mean. Classical music seems an “unlikely” vehicle for evil but why not, while it is the most highly skilled and thoughtful of forms of music it is possible for these tools to communicate something evil or wrong.

Ron Tomlinson said...

I recently experienced an unexpected sense of *goodness* in music. It was while listening to a Herb Alpert cover of a Beatles song in his trumpety jazz style.

Normally I avoid jazz. But there was something joyous behind this particular performance which transmuted it into something wholesome.

Of course if it really was good then this implies evil in music (or performance) must be possible in the first place, in support of the post's thesis.

Incidentally I recall that E Michael Jones blames Schoenberg for public acceptance of jazz since anything was preferable than listening to Schoenberg's music.

Poppop said...

Well _somebody_ has just made me spin up the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. I hope you are pleased with yourself. ;-)

I am intrigued by your idea of "evil" conveyed in art music. I wish you would elaborate a bit more.

As for Mahler and Stravinsky, could a rule of thumb could be that the harder Lenny Bernstein shilled for a specific composer back in the day, the more intrinsic evil? That checks the boxes.

Stravinsky openly acknowledged his debt to classicism on numerous occasions such as Le baiser de fee and Pulchinella among others. I will say I have to be in the mood for his music but viewed through the lens of the portion of my life I lived in 20th century, I "get" him. I don't see him as an iconoclast seeking to tear down all Western civilization by any means.

Mahler is indeed suspect via familial/marital ties on a biographic level to be a foot soldier of "the work" on the other hand. Yet to my ears he is most guilty of over the top sentimentality. Poisoned by Romanticism and overly zealous to be accepted in polite company of the Greats.

Orff is just fast food in sonic form, which is why Madison Avenue is enamored of appropriating Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi and so forth. I understand why Previn's EMI/Angel recording from the 70's has playing cards on its cover -- Karl is playing us all. Or throwing out the wheat and keeping the chaff by celebrating the vulgar, marginal scribbles from a monastic library.

Compared to the majority of the dreck turned out by the true "moderns" / post 1960's all three of your guys are pretty tame IMHO.

William Wildblood said...

I know what you mean about the rottenness in Mahler. There is sense of decay and self-pity in his music which is spiritually corrosive. Evil certainly comes through in a lot of pop music as Luke says. I personally find it in jazz as well or if not outright evil then certainly decadence. But that decadence is in much 20th century classical music too. I don't find the serial music of Schoenberg et al evil as such but it's not good either.

Bruce Charlton said...

wrt Schoenberg - I think Verklarte Nacht (written before he took up the twelve Tone system), which I like quite a lot; shows that he was a decent man.

I find the dodecaphonic stuff completely unenjoyable and impossible even to recognize as music. I accept that it really is music, but only secondhand, from the discernment of Glenn Gould whom I trust.

Therefore, in his *effect* I regard Sch. as an evil type of genius. Not because he was a bad man or that his music communicates evil - but because of the decisions he made; which contributed to the rapid death of the Classical musical tradition (which I regard as having died pretty much with Richard Strauss).

a_probst said...

To me Mahler registered, acknowledged, portrayed the evil he saw rather than being himself malign in intent even at an unconscious level.

Only Bruckner managed to convey humility with the use of Wagnerian forces.

Aurini said...

Listening to Mahler makes me think that somebody or something forewarned him of the horrors that lay ahead in the 20th century, and he was composing about them.

Kristor said...

I've sung a fair bit of Bruckner and had always gathered from those experiences the impression that he was a profoundly good man. A mystic, in fact.

You can tell a lot about a composer by his settings of liturgical music.

Doktor Jeep said...

That time of year is coming to play the very music that grates on the nerves of dark spirits.
The simplicity yet meaning of these tunes is astounding. As if anybody with a simple instrument is capable. You can practically route a demon with a tin whistle.
Just tune out Jingle Bell Rock and any garbage on that tier.

Stephen Macdonald said...

Some of the most achingly beautiful moments in classical music elicit an exquisite wistfulness -- a sort of nostalgic spiritual melancholy. This response seems so intimately a part of our apperception of Beauty, it leads me to ponder whether such states of mind will be part of our Heavenly experience. I feel they must.

Herzog said...

Bernstein strongly advocated for Mahler. Given your assessment of the latter (about whose music I have no well-founded judgment; I just never found any access to it --- not that I tried much), that would seem to be no triviality wrt the former.

James Higham said...

Certanly food for thought, shall explore ... and think I'm the thirteenth comment.

Alexeiprofi said...

Sergey Mavrin has definitely pro-truth, pro-beaty music. Especially his last album "White Sun"

Ben Pratt said...

I was in a very skilled community orchestra that played Mahler's 2nd Symphony in about 2009, and I found it very powerful at the time. Some years later, around 2016, I had listened to and enjoyed our recording from 2009, so I found a YouTube video that contained all of Mahler's symphonies in order and listened to it over a day or two while working. The result of that on my spirit was so dark that I shut it off and have not wanted to hear a single note of Mahler since.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ben - When I was 20 I bought the Szell recording of Mahler's Tenth Symphony (completed by Deryck Cooke) which initially I liked a lot. Then I fell asleep listening to it one evening, and woke in a state of angst, having had a very sinister and disturbing dream; after which I never wanted to listen again.