In praise of music’s uselessness

Let's do away with moralising about music and take pure pleasure in the work of composers of the past.
'Two Boys and a Girl making Music', 1629. Jan Miense Molenaer. Credit: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images
'Two Boys and a Girl making Music', 1629. Jan Miense Molenaer. Credit: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images
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Woe betide anyone who starts an essay by referencing Oscar Wilde, but over the past few months I have found much solace in his dictum ‘all art is quite useless.’ Since the beginning of the pandemic and the consequent collective worry about practically everything, we have been told of the supposedly redemptive powers of music. The music industry has been more or less interrupted, although it had been going through various troubles well before the pandemic, and yet 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, was designated the ‘Beethoven Year’. More than any other year (and in a sense every year is practically the Beethoven Year) much of 2020’s chatter seemed pointedly calculated to shoehorn his music into various polemics. By the second week of January, I was already exhausted. 

March came and our world was up-ended. As people waxed endless about the quarantine concerts and streaming that would save humanity it turned out that a lot of the music suggested was by Beethoven. We were told that he speaks for us, and that by repeating his symphonies and piano sonatas we were feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, even expressing our unwavering support for certain free trade blocs. On this last point I wanted to ask whether this meant that Beethoven was therefore less relevant in, say, Transnistria, but for once I judged it prudent to bite my tongue. Once this chatter became a mighty noise veering towards a forced unison, I decided simply to tune out. 

I used to entertain similarly heroic notions about Johann Sebastian Bach, the figure who more than any other has defined my life. But at some point I realised the drive to objectify art in this way leaves musicians with little defence against future coercions by, for example, totalitarian states attempting to force political or moral slants that have little to do with the music itself. History offers ample evidence of this.

For me, the very existence of the music of Bach – a relatively obscure cantor barely maintaining a reputation in his own time – is a protest against all that is and ever has been ugly. This is enough. But I must confess even my beloved Bach was, in 2020, too serious for me as I faced actual crises – amongst other worries, I lost two friends to Covid-19, and a cousin of mine is a doctor putting himself at risk on a daily basis. I had enough on my mind without another instalment of the Great Performances phenomenon. 

What I needed was to stay sane. Having wilfully deprived myself of the shouting about Beethoven and the historical moralising surrounding Bach, what did I listen to over the past several months? Instead of Brahms and Schumann I discovered the exquisite drawing-room Victorianism of piano quintets by Arthur Foote (1897) and Amy Beach (1907). For the moments when I was in the mood for a Passion from the time of Bach, I instead turned to the pastel-coloured consonances of Carl Heinrich’s Graun’s Der Tod Jesu (1755), a work whose best moments exemplify its creator’s gift for provocative timing and that essential dramatic quality of delay. After all, as with Bach’s Passions, I like my crucifixions drawn-out. I have no shame in admitting to a whole month spent with nothing but Gilbert and Sullivan operas, with annotated librettos in hand. Anyone who thinks this is the soundtrack to some Little Englander fantasy is talking out of their discursive… elbow

For the requisite diet of piano music consumed by virtually all mélomanes, I found out what a marvellous composer Bedřich Smetana was. The shame is all mine; I have lived in Prague for five years and should have known this sooner. It has been a joy to discover how little his piano music has in common with the received image of a composer principally concerned with Czech nationalism. In fact, much of Smetana’s avowedly Wagnerian, ‘modern’ music (by the standards of High Romanticism) was a revelation, particularly compared to the chore of reverentially listening to yet another performance of Má vlast every time there is a Czech national event. As I looked more into Smetana, I realised I could also do with less Dvořák, at least when the latter is thought to be speaking for the soul of an entire nation. But ultimately there is room for both, and for many more besides. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from someone who did their best to stamp out everything but his own dreary form of socially-aware, ‘revolutionary’ opera, let a thousand flowers bloom. 

But with absolutely none of these composers did I have even a moment of existential redemption. This is rather unlike my experiences with Bach, for whom I have begun (and ended) friendships, learnt new languages, and sat for hours in visa offices. And, unlike Beethoven. there will never be a year dedicated to the music of Ferdinado Päer or Saverio Mercadante, although I would rather enjoy it. But what I did realise was that music needn’t have any practical use to anyone in order to enrich our lives. It needn’t heal a disease – indeed, it cannot – but it can sweeten our existence at times when life feels like greyness without end. My experiment even changed the way I feel about my personal pantheon of greats. Even Bach, after all, admired Georg Philipp Telemann – a composer of what we too often, at our own peril, see as the producer of a few potboilers and pretty tunes – enough to name one of his sons after him. I began to see Bach’s music less for what I ascribed to it and more for what the composer was sometimes imitating and admiring in his peers whom we, in our own time have judged to be less serious. Indeed, I listen to Bach for pure pleasure as much as I do for edification and instruction. 

Lest I be lambasted for the antecedent paragraphs of irreverence, I did, in fact, celebrate Beethoven Year: I listened to his crass and noisy Wellington’s Victory – and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani is known mainly for his career as a harpsichordist in two major realms: the great works of the 17th and 18th centuries and for championing modern and living composers in halls and with orchestras on four continents. More recently he has a growing reputation as an active broadcaster and commentator with radio documentaries on a variety of musical and social topics for the BBC and articles for the The New Yorker, Guardian, and Opera. Born in Tehran, he grew up in the United States and has spent his post-university life living between Milan, Oxford, London, and more recently Prague, where he spends his time between concerts writing, collecting rare books, and studying ancient and modern languages.

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