Plato seemed to have little sympathy for the merely personal. We become more worthy the more we bend our minds to the impersonal. We become better as we take in the universe, thinking more about the largeness that it is and less about the smallness that is us. Plato often betrays a horror of human nature, seeing it as more beastly than godlike. Human nature is an ethical and political problem to be solved, and only the universe is adequate to the enormous task. [Prologue, p. 11]I strongly recommend reading the whole book as it has a lot of fascinating insights into Plato. It is a new book and was just reviewed very positively in the Wall Street Journal. The reasons for the views Plato held are fairly complex. One of the reasons he mistrusted human nature was because of the trial of Socrates, condemned to death by a jury of Athenian citizens. He believed in the reality and importance of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Indeed, he thought they were a kind of transcendent braid. But in order to perceive and understand them you have to get past the merely personal. One of the funniest bits in the book is when Plato visits the Googleplex and is astonished to learn that Google, perhaps the greatest accumulator of knowledge in the history of humanity, is motivated solely by greed. For Plato all knowledge, true knowledge, is not only True, but Good. And, as is often remarked, in the case of mathematics, the True and the Good are also the Beautiful. I'll leave you to explore the book and Plato. I just want to use it as a take-off point.
Getting out of your narcissistic pettiness so you can appreciate the Good, the True and most importantly, the Beautiful is pretty much the first step towards really appreciating good, true and beautiful music.
So the aesthetic problem for me with some music is that instead of taking you out of yourself, aesthetic exstasis or ecstasy, it leads you to wallow in yourself. These two things are actually diametrical opposites. The maudlin melodrama of some music, while it seems nice and full of expression, is the kind of thing that leads you to sit there wallowing in poor you and how magnificent, but tragic, your life is. It is like those self-help books that encourage you to empower yourself by thinking of yourself as being like the archetype of some god or goddess. Sorry, but that's just pathetic.
The aesthetic that is about the Good, the True and the Beautiful is one that takes you out of yourself. Instead of wallowing in yourself, you forget yourself, lose yourself in the music. This is one of the extraordinary things about instrumental music: different pieces can use the same notes, rhythms and harmonies, but achieve completely opposite results.
To give some very clear examples, this is maudlin melodrama:
And this is transcendent musical beauty:
Now for some less obvious examples. This is, in my opinion, of course, maudlin:
And this is not maudlin, but expressive musical beauty:
You know, you can almost deduce what the music will be like just by looking at those photos of the composers. Mahler is too noble for words, while Shostakovich looks almost tortured by his own inadequacy. I suspect that any composer, like Mahler or Wagner, who starts thinking of himself as a Great Man, is pretty much a lost cause.
But I need to say something more about the nature of aesthetic judgement. In order that it be judgement with some basis in reality and not just my or your personal whim, it needs to be both based on elements in the artwork itself and be falsifiable. In other words what I, or anyone, cannot get away with saying is "this music is just sublimely great and you have to accept that!". Yes, but what do you mean by "sublimely great" and what in the music supports this? By "falsifiable" I mean that any judgement I or anyone makes has to be capable of being proven wrong. This is a criterion for scientific theories put forward by Karl Popper. In other words, if there is no possible route to disproving the theory, it is not even a theory. As another scientist said, "it's not even wrong." Suppose that I say something about Prokofiev and someone presents me with a number of reasons why I may be mistaken. If I am actually dealing in genuine aesthetic judgement and not just personal taste, then I have to be prepared to modify my view. In fact, exactly this happened on this blog last year between myself and composer Nathan Shirley. If you search for "Prokofiev" you will undoubtedly find the posts.
Music, some music at least, is complex and so are composers. Two composers I often criticize are Mahler and Brahms--for different reasons! But yesterday I was listening to Hilary Hahn's recording of the Brahms violin concerto and she had me really enjoying it. We have to always talk about the details. There are some pieces by Brahms that are really lovely. Others I find constipated and ponderous. But the way the music is performed is also a factor. Just to note a little detail: I tend to enjoy the orchestral music of Sibelius more than Brahms for many reasons, but one in particular is the handling of the low register. Brahms tends to always have a lot of weight in the low end of the orchestra. But Sibelius is much more varied in this. For example, in the ending of the Symphony No. 6 that I posted on yesterday, Sibelius completely drops the low instruments for the ending. Brahms would not have seen that as an option, I suspect.
...and now, finally, a composer that just sends me to sleep. Yes, it is true, I have never listened to a performance of The Messiah by G. F. Handel without falling asleep. Never. Well, except once when I was singing in a choir doing the Hallelujah chorus. I managed to stay awake right to the end of the three minute chorus.
Of course, most Handel is not nearly as exciting as the Hallelujah chorus:
Even the rest of The Messiah:
I'm sure you have all heard the old joke: one hoary old orchestral musician says to the other "you know, last night I dreamt I was playing Handel's Messiah and I woke up and, by God, I was!"