Music And Memory Part 2: The Past As Aesthetic Desire

How longing for the past is an important aesthetic category in its own right.

Charles Towneley in his Sculpture Gallery by Johann Zoffany. 1782. Cropped
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

In this second of three articles on the role of memory in music, Young-Jin Hur considers how the yearning for the past is an important aesthetic category in its own right.

Given the large number of works related to personal remembrance, one cannot preclude the possibility that there is a special beauty and value arising from reverie and yearning for the past in general. If so, this would be detectable in various aesthetic domains.

Of the vicissitudes of scholarly and aesthetic fashions throughout Western history, Neoclassicism is one which is recorded in numerous occasions, and is closely associated with the idealisation and revival of imageries of the times of ancient Greece. Stylistically, there is a strong emphasis on clarity, balance and simplicity. Such a tendency, for instance, can be detected in the paintings by the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880). The fact that Feuerbach was a close contemporary with Fin de Siècle modernists such as Gustav Klimt and Claude Monet puts Feuerbach’s Neoclassical leanings into perspective.

Iphigenie II (1872) by Anselm Feuerbach

Similar stylistic and thematic tendencies of valuation of Grecian elegance can be found elsewhere in in time, such as in the paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Examples of Neoclassicism in visual arts and architecture abound, through which one can be sure of the enduring status of this movement in aesthetic history.

A Dance to the Music of Time (1634-1636)

In music, Neoclassicism has exerted an equally persuasively persevering voice. Similar to its visual counterpart, musical Neoclassicism considers themes from ancient Greece and stylistically follows ideals of poise and balance. The movement has been especially associated with a number of composers of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) being most representative. Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus pans out in emotional restraint and clarity in orchestration, and follows the mythological story of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld.

On the one hand, characterisations of musical Neoclassicism can have irregularities. Works that simply denote styles of simplicity and balance as opposed to the excessiveness of 19th century Romanticism, are often grossly categorised as Neoclassical (e.g. Sibelius, Martinů), even when imageries of ancient Greece are foreign to these works.

On the other hand, it is often observed that such stylistic tendencies rarely take place without references to styles of the past. Prokofiev’s Neoclassicism of his jovial first symphony, for instance, is Neoclassical due to its nod to times where elegance and simplicity were appreciated in music. Therefore, the patched conceptualisation of Neoclassicism in music, some way or another, signifies a reverence toward the past.

Important to the understanding of Neoclassicism is an acknowledgement of the passing of things and themes much beyond an experiential level. Unlike commemorations based on personal passing (dealt with in the previous article), Neoclassicism allows the creator to appreciate things that the creator has never personally experienced or encountered. In other words, Neoclassicism demonstrates the act of looking back and admiring things of the past, through the viewer’s stretched scope of imagination, as a category of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. This is a kind of yearning that appeals to memory in the broadest sense.

If anything, yearning for the past has not always required a concrete object of its admiration. Often it is the yearning itself that matters. This is aptly embodied in the notion of Sehnsucht, the longing for something that cannot be determined. Hence the psychological experience of yearning for the past without having experienced the object of the past, such as the admiration of things from historical cultures and civilizations, is justified.

If Neoclassicism demonstrates longing of the past through the reverie of things of ancient Greece where elements related to emotional poise, control, simplicity, elegance and clarity are seen as virtuous, a comparable tendency finds its place in the Romantic symbolism of ruins. Here, memory is evoked through irregularity, instability, and the irrational rawness associated with nature and the decay it brings through time.

Ruins are the physical manifestation of the passage of time. As one stands in front of a building that was once impeccably erect yet which from the present is ruined, one understands both the forces of time and nature. The story of the inevitable passage of time is ruggedly drawn on the walls of a building much larger and older than the viewer. One thinks, such a vast object of strength and durability, too, is a food of time. Therefore, much like Neoclassicism, ruins are likely to tell a tale of passing that is beyond the level of personal experience. Furthermore, underneath Neoclassicism and the appreciation of ruins lies a common ground of acknowledgement of what constitutes the passage of time through which memory is borne.

South Window of Tintern Abbey (1815).

There is a wealth of literature in the fascination with ruins. For instance, Lord Kames (1696-1782) in his 1762 publication The Elements of Criticism wrote that ruins evoke a sense of ‘a melancholy but not unpleasant thought.’ Such complex emotional tapestry makes ruins an ideal candidate for evoking thoughts of nostalgia. This can be seen notably in William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) The Prelude. Here, the protagonist meditates on themes of mortality and childhood. The choice of ruins as a device to illustrate these points cannot be more appropriate.

To a schoolboy’s vision, I had raised a pile
Upon the basis of the coming time,
That fell in ruins round me. Oh, what joy
To see a sanctuary for our country’s youth
Informed with such a spirit as might be
Its own protection; a primeval grove,
Where, though the shades with cheerfulness were filled,
Nor indigent of songs warbled from crowds
In under-coverts, yet the countenance
Of the whole place should bear a stamp of awe; […]

The fascination with ruins, especially of their association with memory, can be attested further back in history, such as in Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) treatise of classic architecture De re aedificatoria. Here, ruin (ruina) is linked with concepts such as age (vetustas), eternity (perennitas), dignity (dignitas), renown (gloria), distinction (decus) or praise (laus) as well as with memory (memoria). Moreover, fascination with ruins continue to this day – for instance, typing into google ‘abandoned places’ gives a large number of results – further confirming that finding a peace of mind in ruins is no mere pastime relevant only to the age of Romanticism. Ruins thus appear to be a continuing topic of fascination by evoking a sense of memory, regardless of the era. Through its mysticism, to look back in time and feel the gap that the present and the past exhibit seems a fundamental human attraction.

How are ruins represented in music? On the one hand, there are works such as Arnold Bax’s (1883-1953) Tintagel, which was directly inspired by the composer’s visit to the Tintagel castle in Cornwall, a ruin set in the background of to the vast sea.

Parallels between ruins and music can further be found in Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) World as Will and Representation, where the possibility of a musical ruin is suggested: ‘when music, in a sudden urge for independence, so to speak, seizes the occasion of a pause, in order to free itself from the control of rhythm, to launch out into the free fancy of an ornate cadenza; such a piece of music, divested of rhythm, [is] like a ruin devoid of symmetry…’ And if it is true that an ideal musical ruin can be projected by such a theory, with that sense of incoherence and ruggedness, it may be promising to expect the congruence of a visual imagery as presented in the paintings mentioned above.

Yet in my opinion the notion of ruins is best found in its musical equivalence when one considers the popularity of historic recordings of the monophonic era. From the questionable quality of sound, muddled in the omnipresence of hisses and frequent absences of extreme pitches, lies a musical performance that is palpably aged and undoubtedly mysterious. Not unlike ruins, there is a rugged imperfection that seems to imply the severity of the passage of time.

And while it is also possible to argue for one’s search for conducting styles characteristic to a certain period of time that is no longer observable in the contemporary world, such a question would return to the core enquiry: why is it that we are attracted to things that are no more in the first place? This is indeed a strange attraction, to yearn for the rugged, passed, aged, and distant. These, I believe, are qualities not too dissimilar from ones that can be felt through the admiration of a bare-boned cathedral. The following clip is a wartime recording of the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), conducting the last movement of Brahms’ 4th symphony.

The popularity of Neoclassicism and ruins weigh increasingly on the fact that there appears to be an innate beauty in admiring the passage of time, especially since both lack an immediate practicality to easily justify their popularity. In fact, one can further argue that if these sensibilities toward time are so developed, such sentiments may find usage in common aesthetic expressions. Recent studies in psychology demonstrate this point. Nostalgia – thoughts and emotions uniquely related to looking back in time – is one of the nine most commonly reported emotional reactions to music. These results imply that these emotions arise commonly and importantly in general musical experiences, and such an allure towards the passage of time may be part of a psychological instinct, just as most humans innately have an understanding of fear and joy.

As such, beyond the function of commemoration based on largely personal encounters, there are traces of evidence demonstrating that reminiscing is a powerful experience. David Hume’s (1711-1776) psychological account in explicating human’s enjoyment of things of the past is deeply revealing: ‘[…] the imagination, passing, as is usual, from the consideration of the distance to the view of the distant objects, gives us a proportionable veneration for it; and this is the reason why all the relicts of antiquity are so precious in our eyes, and appear more valuable than what is brought even from the remotest parts of the world.’ This may explain how the appreciation of the past of looking back in time never exhausted itself of interests, throughout history and through differing professions, including music.

In the final article on music and memory, Young-Jin looks into how memory can be manifest in the narrative of music, which will be followed by a short conclusion.

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).