July 1, 2019
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
Our Cultural Inheritance – A New Essay on Music and Our Culture
As readers of these columns will know, the MY CORNER series is almost entirely dedicated to political and historical issues, some installments more practical, others far broader in scope. On various occasions, inevitably, religious and more cultural subjects have been examined. Indeed, I don’t think it is possible to avoid discussing “politics” or “history” without eventually focusing on a religious and cultural subtext.
Both the nineteenth century essayist Cardinal John Henry Newman in England and the great traditionalist Spanish orator and writer, Juan Donoso Cortes in Spain, made a similar observation: at the very base of all political issues there is a religious question. In other words, it is virtually impossible to separate political considerations from a religious ground in which those considerations, either directly or indirectly, arise. And it is equally impossible to understand a political position without comprehending the culture and heritage that serve as both background and incubator for that position.
Even those ideological movements most violently opposed to historic Western Christian tradition and to the culture created by it cannot escape their debt to it. Communism, cultural Marxism, classical liberalism, fascism, capitalism, democratism, secularism: They all, in one way or another, react to that heritage, either by rejecting some or all of its vision or perhaps, shaping or subverting that vision to suit their purposes. But, like Joel Chandler Harris’ famous tale, “The Tar-Baby,” in their efforts to overturn or recast our heritage, they become entangled in and by it and, thus, they implicitly acknowledge their debt—willing or not—to it.
And perhaps the reason for that has to do with the fact that Christianity itself is not just some cult based on Divine Revelation and the Coming of a God-Man prophet in some far off Middle Eastern satrapy of the Roman Empire, but that it closely fits and mirrors the laws of nature. Undoubtedly, it was due to the great Greek and Roman Fathers of the Church, and then to incredible figures such as St. Augustine of Hippo, and most significantly, St. Thomas Aquinas—the Angelic Doctor—who were able to offer explanations of the Christian faith that encompassed both the supernatural and the rational, which demonstrated that the orthodox Christian religion not only did not distort or deny the natural world, but that it was the logical, consistent and right fulfillment and completion of it.
It is true that nearly every revolutionary movement in history—wishing to somehow create a “new world”—has attempted in some way to overthrow this heritage, but each time they have run up on the shoals of the ironclad laws of nature which are fully integrated into Christian tradition, and in so many ways cannot be separated from it.
We are, wrote the 12th century philosopher Bernard of Chartres, like “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” Our knowledge and culture are cumulative and inherited; and in a very real sense, if we respect that inheritance, it will be for us an overflowing and extremely fecund source of wisdom, and the surest rampart against the enticements of revolutionary lunacy.
But that defense also requires of us that we continually refresh ourselves in that culture and reinforce our understanding of what has gone before, of that still very rich heritage which offers incredible sustenance to us…and to our children and their children. It is how we not only inoculate ourselves against the latest ideological virus or contagion, but how we also comprehend the lessons that heritage will teach us, as well as experience the grandeur and beauty of our culture.
Over the past few years I have authored several essays focusing on our Western musical tradition, as well as about film and other cultural topics. For I believe strongly that the arts, in particular, music, film, literature, painting, and architecture, not only have a critical effect on our cultural environment, but they also indicate in their creation what our society values and esteems.
It is no accident that the Taliban in Afghanistan have taken it upon themselves to destroy ancient architectural artifacts that predate them by thousands of years (some perhaps dating to the times of Alexander the Great or the Persian Empire). And it is no accident, indeed, that today’s “social justice warriors” seek to topple and destroy monuments to Confederate veterans, and also to the Founders of the American nation, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or even Christopher Columbus.
Erasing the past is a major step in the futile attempt to overturn twenty centuries of civilization and “remake men into gods.”
In the end such attempts are, if I may say so, diabolical, and destined to fail. But over the past 100 years those failures have been uniquely devastating and unlike anything previous. We need only cite the attempted worldwide Communist Revolution and its apparent triumph in much of the world after the incredible devastation of World War II, in which so much of our inheritance, so much of beauty and wonder, was destroyed, sacrificed and incinerated by the forces of Revolution.
All the more reason to cling to and rediscover the richness of our heritage and our culture, and the civilization that produced that inheritance.
Just recently I published a major essay on the German nineteenth century composer and musician Max Bruch (1838-1920). The piece appears in The New English Review and is available online in the July issue of that fine journal.
Who, most will ask, was Max Bruch? And why did I choose to write about him?
In the past I’ve written pieces on the German composer Richard Strauss, Russian opera (for The Salisbury Review in England), the German orchestra conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, composer Anton Bruckner—but also on country music legend Roy Clark and television’s “Hee Haw” program. For me they ALL form a part of our cultural heritage, and we are far richer for experiencing and coming to appreciate them and their contributions to our civilization.
Bruch is a prime example of European and German Romanticism. He was both a musical and social conservative (he despised what he called “social democracy” both in music and in politics). He was a faithful continuer of the traditions of composers George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, and Robert Schumann, and a fierce opponent of new trends in music which he felt undermined the classical tradition. He lived, ironically, to see the triumph of those new trends and the defeat of the old imperial Germany in which he had thrived and which he loved. It was a cultured and assured country, rich in literature, music, art, and poetry; and when Bruch passed away in late 1920, at the age of 82, the disaster of the First World War had fatally weakened it and endangered much of that culture.
Today Max Bruch is mostly known for his First Violin Concerto, his Scottish Fantasy (for violin and orchestra), and his setting of the Kol Nidrei (he was not Jewish but was attracted to this ancient Jewish prayer). In his day he was lauded as a master of music for the violin, and for his choral and vocal works (including works based on folk legends and songs), and his fame spread to both England and the United States, where he sojourned for periods of time.
Interestingly, my grandmother as a young lady attended a performance of a Bruch oratorio prior to World War I—I recall the program that she had saved. But, after World War I, and even a decade or so before, Bruch’s music had fallen into disfavor…not to be “rediscovered,” at least to some degree, until very recently. The times had changed, and, as the aged composer himself had declared with melancholy two years prior to his death, “the tastes of the present generation have passed me by.”
So today I offer my essay, “Max Bruch, Die Loreley, and the German Romantic Tradition.” The point of departure is the release for the first time ever of Bruch’s early opera, Die Loreley, on compact disc, and the discovery of a mine of enchantment and superb melody, based on the German poet Heinrich Heine’s poem “The Lorelei” (1824), about a maiden who sits upon a rock over the Rhine River and through her incredible beauty (and song) attracts mariners to their rocky deaths.
There are two Youtube additions included in the essay which allow you to actually hear some of the haunting music of the work. I hope you’ll investigate…
I realize it’s far from my normal defense of Confederate heritage or criticism of the Deep State. But it is part of our heritage, something that makes us richer and more resilient in the face of the demonic revolution that seeks to do us all in and turn us into silenced eunuchs, without heritage, without culture, and without God.
Here is the link to the article—please take a look: