Atheism and scientism invaded the humanities long ago, and music, one of the last hold outs, is now giving way to these reductionistic views with little alacrity. Music becomes sound in much the way Impressionism becomes layers of oil on canvass. It produces sine waves in various frequencies and rhythms which, in the right combinations, please our minds and stimulate certain parts of the brain. Our more esteemed composers unwittingly knew this and it was their "secret" to success. James May, an ex-BBC presenter most famous for Top Gear, once presented a computer's algorithm for a supposed pattern in Beethoven's music. The result sounded unlike anything the man from Bonn ever wrote, just quick trills up and down a few chords in more particular direction. May called the result "electronic drivel".
Music's main quality is its own "intentionality", that it exists for its own sake out a void where it once did not exist and where, after it stops, it will not exist any further. It possesses its own full range of purpose, emotions, arcs, stories, and impulses which the listener must hear and given himself to in order to encounter. No one listens to "background music" because no one cares about it; background music has no intentionality other than to create noise.
Romantics assigned a fluid quality to the creative process of music, as if works flow from the composer's consciousnesses like the Requiem did for Mozart in 1984's Amadeus, a fine movie removed from the historical reality. The same film, in an earlier scene, offers a moving and more accurate depiction of creativity. Salieri traces the deliberate steps and stages of unfolding music and its message. In this particular piece of chamber music, the "rusty squeezebox" sound establishes a calm rhythm and timing before the melody comes in through the treble, passed from one instrument to another to create a whimsical effect. It is deliberate and stylized because music is deliberate and stylized in what it tries to do. Spontaneous music, the doggerel teenagers write in their garage bands, rarely transforms into tangible music-writing talent, whereas those who do at least try to understand how to write a song may one day be capable of sincere music.
Music, which speaks unabated to the listener, can and should be understood objectively for its qualities and what it tries to do, as well as the more common subjective judgments that modern commentators brand "interpretation" (is not the music itself the interpretation of the theme?). A listener can judge music's harmony, its balance, its theme, and, above all, its sincere intentionality.
A piece of music has some intentionality, some purpose that is apparent to the listener, but only the listener, who is the object in this relationship just as mankind is in the Liturgy's outpouring of grace, can deduce how true it is. Some music is divinely uplifting and sends one's thoughts heavenward without much consideration of the arrangements and details of musical arrangement. Other pieces only simulate this effect by using stock methods and familiar themes from like works, but without any soul. Some pieces can brings about feelings of joy, youth, anger, rage, nerve, and distress. Others do not so much develop these emotions as much as they sentimentalize them, bring them to our minds for a passing moment without challenging us to confront them. This is insincere music.
Sincere musical intentionality can vary greatly not only within genres or composers, but within the works of the masters themselves. This writer, for one, has never cared much for Mozart's Coronation Mass, a bit of late Baroque chirping, a piece of music that very much wants to be listened to. The Gloria, several times, has the potential to continue with its current melody only to shudder with horns in dramatic pauses (et in terra pax! pax! pax HOMINIBUS!). His Requiem is much discussed, but here deservedly so. It is a rare orchestral Mass that actually works in a liturgical context, with balanced parts that successfully bring out the soul of their texts without overstepping them. The 20 minute long sequence does change frequently (Dies irae... confutatis maledictis.... Lacrimosa...) without throwing the whole thing off kilter; it is balanced and never oversteps its place in the Mass.
Talk of Mozart, Beethoven, the Mass, and a philsopher's idea of "intentionality" belong to high culture of another era and high culture now. These comments are just as unapplicable to Mick Jagger as they are to Irish drinking songs from two centuries ago or the mystery play songs that became our Christmas carols centuries before that. Yet, there is one place where "high culture" and regular people regularly cross: the Church's liturgy, where we will resume this series.