Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Decline and Fall of Classical Music

As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, classical music started in monasteries with devotional song. They were religious songs, no mistaking that. As they became increasingly instrumental, the religious themes were not as obvious, but still in the Baroque composers like Bach they felt plenty religious with their order and discipline. As R' Avigdor Miller reminded us often, Torah life is a life of self-discipline. Thus, disciplined music can help a religious life. With Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven, if they were not religious, the religious base was still there and the effect could be the same if you took them that way.

I'm not saying that everything we do has to be overtly religious. Science is not religious, but it becomes a religious experience when we recognize, as textbooks rarely do, that the ultimate author is Hashem.

With Classical period music one can do that as the material is still decent even if the themes are just about life and not specifically religious life.

By the Romantic period it was all over. This is the music when song constituted love song. Consider those of Robert and Clare Schumann for example. Or Berlioz who was arguably was sacrilegious. You couldn't make that music religious if you tried. There was nature song, but to me that is not religious. Nature on its own is frogs and frostbite. We must connect it God.

And the impressionists were similar. The music of Debussy of France is original and relaxing. But if you ask me it borders on the decadent as it takes the mind to strange places with all its exoticism.

Now the musical periods overlap and that of Tchaikovsky could still inspire the mind. He did write in the German style with its themes, counterpoint, strong melody and beat, and conclusons.

And then you have Aaron Copland and George Gershwin (yidden) who gave us some terrific modern period music. It might be significant that they were American and perhaps influenced by the Germanic culture of America.

I don't want to get overly rigid here on a topic I don't know that well anyway. But I think it's fair in general to track the rise and fall of classical music as one that begin with religion and then fell away from it. Today, it has nothing to do with religion and even the players when playing the old masters appear in a way that contradicts the musical themes.

So with classical music as with literature, one might consider sticking with the 19th century and earlier, with earlier being preferable.

A key point to consider is that the composers turned away from religion far earlier than the public did. So once upon a time, a composer like Bach could uplift the people. But came a time when composers, like many philosophers and writers, tore the public down and led the way to sin. We see why many rabbanim came to oppose secular anything because by the 19th century the intelligentsia, as tied into the decadent affluent class, were one of the primary causes of the turn from God.

Seems to me the Germans are the safest bet. They were more wholesome than the Italians or French. I think you see this in the German influence on America and its religious orientation - once upon a time. And yes I realize that the Germans became the lowest of the low. It is possible that the good in that culture give the bad materials to be very bad.

Still, the best of classical music was inspired by Xianity. And the worst is traife. So we must proceed with caution.

All of this is material for thought for the TIDE person. How do we navigate culture to find its best elements? We do have to proceed in an educated fashion.


  1. I'm in the middle of having this discussion now with my wife's grandfather. Similar to myself, he is a highly educated member of the Chasidic community. He pointed out that we no longer live in 19th Century Germany, and that today's established academia, broader culture, and the arts do not generally reflect anything that is worthy of being emulated or engaged with. While the culture of Rav Hirsch's time was encased in an air of discipline and decorum that were beneficial to a ben Torah, that is not so today.

    Regarding the best way to navigate culture, I am reminded of Hayek's description of how pre-historic societies advanced technologically. Each small settlement had tradesmen, who would travel about engaging in commerce on behalf of his local villagers. When he would return, he would bring not only the items he'd found, but the know-how as well. Because the tradesman had started engaging in the process slowly, he was capable of being immersed in the outside culture without being taken over by it. His knowledge of his local village and people enabled him to return with wares and practices specifically attuned to local need and ability.

    I would think that the same could be true for the frum community, at least for those interested in being a part of any system that aspires to the Torah im Derech Eretz hashkafah. Those who have the ability and know-how to maneuver the outside world and all of its horrors, but retain a clear strength and dedication to live by Torah values, such as geirim and baalei tshuva or those who have otherwise long been part of the outside world, could be tasked with navigating the broader culture in order to bring back the worthy elements and impart them in a Torah-true way.

  2. You make good points. I can't think of a simple solution. I could say that the person who has already been out there could tell us where to go, but sometimes the person who has been exposed needs to go furthest from the exposure.

    Maybe time limitations come to the rescue. On the matter of classical music, there is so much of it. What person today has time for even a sliver, and a frum person even less. So it shouldn't be so hard to build a listening list that is more than sufficient. Same with reading.

    I have a CD of the Beethoven symphonies. I'll likely never get through them.

    Maybe we can build a list on this site, of kosher material.

    1. At least listen to the odd-numbered ones. In my (not-so-humble) opinion, the odds are better than the evens. And don't be turned off by the choral section of the 9th - it's the Ode to Joy, a song about man's unity, not a religious thing at all.

  3. As it would obviously be more ideal within the context of a school or a kehillah that could be the arbiter of standards, I don't think that compiling a list would be a bad idea. Especially given the lack of any formalized, structured system for the dissemination of TIDE.

    My wife's grandmother teaches a literature class for frum women of more limited background in the community where my wife is from. She has a reading list of what she has found to be "kosher" novels and such. She also has some that are a bit less so, and the "warning" attached to each, such as containing slight romantic elements or whatever the case. The class is not geared toward younger people, but to married women with children, so the standards are somewhat different than what they would be for a different audience. I could send that list if it is something you'd be interested in.

  4. Sure, send it along. Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer has a list. I can't remember where I saw it.