Language Of The Spirit, by Jan Swafford
This book was immensely disappointing, but for reasons that are not entirely surprising. The author is a contemporary composer who wants to increase the legitimacy of his fellows in the classical music repertoire, and so this book has the exact opposite tendency that one would want–it focuses most of its attention on the less beautiful and less elevating parts of the repertoire, those which are the most contemporary, and less attention on the earlier music where a greater consensus about their worth and quality exists. The author spends a great deal of effort trying to justify the hostility of composers to the interests of audiences while they simultaneously demand respect, money, and honor for their often ugly and discordant music that actively spites the expectations and standards of audiences and tends not to find a paying audience for predictable and understandable reasons. The author seems to be unaware of the contradiction between trying to defend the pointlessness of so much contemporary music going back even into the late 19th century while pointing out how that music was directly hostile to audiences (much less to moral principles), even as the author celebrates a spirit of creativity that is definitely not a godly spirit. Sadly, I was hoping for language of a different spirit when I read this book.
This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into five parts and 36 chapters, most of them biographies of various composers. After a short introduction the book spends only two chapters dealing with music from the beginning, with one chapter for the entire history of Western music through the Middle Ages (1) and another for the entire music of the Renaissance (2). The next five chapters look at the Baroque, with one chapter discussing the period as a whole (3), others dealing with Monteverdi (4), Bach (5), and Handel (6), and then one more for everyone else in the period (7). After that four chapters discuss the music of the classical era, with one of them an overall summary of the period (8), and then chapters on Haydn (9), Mozart (10), and Beethoven (11). Twelve chapters follow on the romantic period, with a discussion of the period (12), as well as chapters on Schubert (13), Berlioz (14), Schumann (15), Chopin (16), Wagner (17), Liszt (18), Brahms (19), Tchaikovsky (20), Dvorak (21), Mahler (22), as well as any romantic composers he may have missed (23). Finally, the last thirteen chapters of the book discuss the period since 1900, with chapters on the period (24), as well as on Debussy (25), Strauss (26), Ravel (27), Stravinsky (28), Schoenberg (29), Ives (30), Bartok (31), Shostakovich (32), Britten (33), Copeland (34), Ligeti (35), and anyone he may have missed (36). The result is a clear case of chronological snobbery biased towards the most contentious and least accomplished periods of the Western concert music tradition.
Ultimately, this book demonstrates the wide gulf that exists between those who celebrate the decadent spirit of so much of modernist and post-modernist art and the audience for such art, as well as the gulf between the desire of early creative artists to celebrate creativity in imitation of God and the selfish and egotistical desires of contemporary creators to be rivals to God and rejecting the need to honor and respect He who gave them their creativity to begin with. The book is an increasingly dark look at the mental disorders and societal corruption that comes from a progressive rejection of God’s way and a celebration of demonic spirituality rather than godly spirituality. To be sure, the author does not appear himself aware of the corruption he exposes, as he tries to soften the reader’s anger at Wagner’s anti-Semitism or Strauss’ politically compromised stance or the general wickedness and folly of so many composers who thought of themselves as something special and ended up being rotten human beings as a result of their arrogance, but he still writes about such things all the same, as if we had to respect composers and give them honor and money and prestige even for being loathsome people who misuse their God-given talents so often and so lamentably.