The Death of Belief

By June 9, 2013 May 17th, 2020 This I Believe

Jim Kurtz

(This I Believe, 2013)

The minute I replied to Carol’s e-mail I wanted to take it back.  I am hardly eloquent nor am I a philosopher, and am painfully shy about speaking in public about personal feelings and ideas. “This I believe” can leave one open to so much misunderstanding and cliché.  The big issues seem obvious.  Yes, I believe in love of spouse and family.  These are particularly important as it has been a struggle to maintain them.  I can only thank Judy for being with me through so much, and for her generous and unstinting love which I hope I return in equal measure.  I believe in the importance of belonging to a Jewish community even for those of us whom the religious aspects of Judaism leave cold if not down right hostile.  This is so even though seventy years ago we would have found ourselves in the same ovens as the orthodox; perhaps even because we would have found ourselves in the same ovens as the orthodox.  But this should be obvious.  We are here, having found our Jewish community, rather late in life to be sure, with the City Congregation.

No, outside of wife, children, grandchildren and community, my attachments in life and my beliefs center about music:  mostly classical music, the music of dead white men.  Why classical music?  It is hardly a blip on the fabric of American culture.  As a profession, unless one is a star or extremely lucky, it is not very well paid.  Yet even knowing this, many young people train to go into the profession.  I can only think that it is for love.  For those of us who love classical music, either as  professional, amateur or simply as listener, it is the most transformative and transcendent experience of our lives.  And we want to repeat this experience as often as we can.

How can music transform and transcend?  When you think of it, music is the most abstract of the arts and has no discernible meaning  outside of itself.  Yes, there is sound: rhythm, line, harmony and structure.  But what does the sound mean?  In order to endow music with any external significance it cannot always be totally independent, but will be associated with such things as dance, ritual, drama, poetry, etc.  I remember when I was a young professor of music, a student asked if he could write a paper on Bob Dylan.  I agreed, thinking “This is great.  I’ll get to learn something about Dylan’s music.”  But as it turned out, the paper, though well-researched and written, dealt only with Dylan’s lyrics.  Not a word about the music.  I thought about this.  Does Blowin’ in the Wind  have enough musical interest to keep us engaged if it were presented purely instrumentally without any reference to the lyric?  Without the lyric what does it express?  Simply as a piece of music I think Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sounds of Silence stands up much better.  I hope you see my point, or better, hear my point.

So then, music has no discernible meaning in itself, let alone any moral content.  These have to be applied from the outside.  But it is this very quality that allows it to be open to a limitless variety of interpretation and evoke in us an infinite variety of emotional response.  What could be more logical than a Bach fugue, a Mozart concerto, a Chopin prelude, a Beethoven symphony?  What could be more expressive than a Bach fugue, a Mozart concerto, a Chopin prelude, a Beethoven symphony?  But what do they express?  It is the abstract expressive intensity that takes us outside of ourselves and places this music on such a high plane in the scheme of western culture.  

Music, when allied with words or a poetic idea enhances their meaning or transcends them.  Take an example from Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, with a libretto by Nahum Tate.  Dido, having been abandoned by Aeneas, is prepared to die.  The text reads:

When I am laid in earth may my wrongs create

No trouble in thy breast.

Remember me, but ah, forget my fate.

Pretty terrible!  But listen to what Purcell does with it.  The repetition of “remember me,”  the sigh on “but ah,” the dissonant harmonies lift Tate’s doggerel to a universal expression of human suffering that elicits our tears and compassion.

Or take an example from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Wagner was certainly one of the world’s most horrible of men, but music alas, is not concerned with its creator’s morality.   Wagner was able to express with a single chord the feeling of unutterable longing without any text at all, unlike the Stones who tell us they “can’t get no satisfaction.”  I suppose with a performance of a Wagner opera there ought to be a warning like those on cigarette packs that “this music may be injurious to your moral health.”  It is not played in Israel to this day— understandable —too many memories.

I grew up in a rather dysfunctional family (speaking of clichés), and was told that I sang before I could speak (another cliché).  My favorite music on the radio was anything sung by the Andrews sisters.  When I was eight years old I saw a ridiculous bio pic about the life of Chopin, A Song to Remember.  Hearing that music I became totally hooked.  Its very intensity provided an escape from those aspects of my life that I found too overwhelming or unpleasant.  I withdrew into music (fortunately my parents did gave me piano lessons), never really mastering the instrument, but dreaming at the keyboard, singing in choruses, and training in the hopes of becoming a composer.  I never did become a successful or prolific composer—some talent but no drive—but I continue to be involved with music in some way or another.  Most of my life has been spent teaching about music at Fordham University for thirty-five years and later at the Juilliard School where I still give one graduate course a semester.  During my middle years I learned to play recorders (real instruments, not toys), which has allowed me to take part in chamber music with my wife and friends.  I continue to compose, somewhat fitfully, to this day.  So I have been fortunate in being surrounded by the music I love, both in my professional life and in my social life.  

No matter what disappointments, joys, or sorrows may come to us there is always the music.  No matter what we do or don’t do with our lives, the music is always there.  This I believe.