'Anything helps': Of panhandlers and program notes, Beethoven, bombast and the banishment of anxiety

Bombastic? Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" setting (last movement, Symphony No. 9 in D minor) is bombastic?!

Elias Quartet: Program notes for its concert here contained a shocker.
The word leaped from the page of Nicholas Johnson's program notes for the Elias Quartet concert of Ensemble Music Society. Before the string quartet entered the Indiana History Center stage Nov. 11, I read the Butler University musicologist's notes with great interest, as I usually do, since I admire their clarity and evident knowledge of the subject.

The tone is usually calm; there's obviously a person behind them, but normally they don't tear down, even obliquely. And this seemed an oblique swipe (if that's what it was): The "Ode to Joy" reference occurs in an introduction to a note on the String Quartet in F major, op. 18, no. 1.

It's useful to separate opinion from description when we read about music, but it isn't always easy to do. That the word "bombast" conveys a negative opinion about whatever it's applied to can't be denied. The concise definition in my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary nails it: "pretentious inflated speech or writing." By extension, music can be bombastic as well.

"Bombast" comes from a Middle English word for cotton padding. I hope it's unnecessary to point out that despite the word's sound, it has nothing to do with bombs or the noise they make. I'm confident that Nicholas Johnson is not among those who share this common misunderstanding of the word. While there are loud moments in the last movement of Beethoven 9, that's quite beside the point if "bombastic" fairly describes the composition.

So I'll try to explain what descriptive value the word "bombastic" might have as applied to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, specifically the finale. Attempting to think almost tactilely, I search with difficulty for the feel of cotton padding in the "Ode to Joy" — musical stuffing, suggesting that what Beethoven has to communicate is padded, in the manner of a long-winded speech or a child's doll.

This moves us quickly into the trailblazing glory of the Ninth in the history of the symphonic form: its words. The layout implies that the form, barely 70 years old when Beethoven composed his valediction to the genre, has been superseded. The Schreckensfanfare  — a twofold dissonant interruption — signals impatience to go beyond the abstract drama of the conventional structures of its four movements to express something extraordinary, using words.

Those words are an expression of the hope for an eventual feeling of human community focused on the word "Freude" (joy), as if this achievement would put the human race on a lofty new plateau, a utopia in which human solidarity would go along with renewed faith in God. In his biography "Beethoven," Maynard Solomon prefaces his discussion of the Ninth with a couple of apt quotes: Lamartine's "utopias are often only premature truths," and Hugo's definition of utopia as "the truth of tomorrow." Is an attempt to enunciate such truth necessarily inflated and pretentious, to use the dictionary's key words about bombast?

Modern composers have had fun with the insistent rhetoric of middle to late Beethoven by driving it to extremes, padding it. Mauricio Kagel did so in his 1970 film "Ludwig van," which includes a grotesque performance of the "Waldstein" Sonata's first movement by a withered crone who overemphasizes its rhythms, with an out-of-tune wind band joining the piano on the second theme. Her unruly white hair grows (through quick cuts) as the movement proceeds, then turns around over her hands and into the piano itself. It's the hairy equivalent of cotton padding.

Bombast, the elephant in the room
More recently, John Adams, in his "Absolute Jest" (2012) for string quartet and orchestra, subjects the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony to obsessive patterning (and padding) in a one-movement work that also alludes to other  Beethoven music. "Scherzo," of course, means "jest," and one can only conclude from Adams' winking title that he means to convert the Ninth's second movement to total bombast. The original has even been described as "a satiric dance," and satire stands at the opposite pole from bombast. Padded satire falls flat. So Adams' title also suggests that making any joke absolute ensures that bombast will result. Successful jokes let the air of the outside world in; an absolute jest has to be hermetically sealed.

Beetnoven's bombast? The Ninth Symphony may illustrate it, but not because of noise or length.
With today's bursts of violence, the "truth of tomorrow" that Beethoven's Ninth holds out to those who hear it recedes ever further, it seems. But that makes it forever apt for such occasions as its happening to be on the Vienna Philharmonic schedule the night after the Paris terrorist attacks, so that Sir Simon Rattle could dedicate the performance to the memory of the victims.

Despite the scenes of joy that Beethoven employed in his setting, the utopia embodied in the finale of the Ninth is vague. What these dancing, marching millions are doing to celebrate "Joy the Daughter of Elysium" is reassuringly inexact. This, then, is just the kind of cotton padding we seem to need when we think of the best possible destiny of our troubled race. Its opposite, where we live, is the abiding truth of anxiety — including the anxiety that Beethoven himself endured in the long gestation of the "Ode to Joy" setting. For more than 20 years, he pondered how to use Schiller's poem. For nearly that long, he tinkered with the melody. He came up with a pristine utopia only when he celebrated joy in the vague, idealistic terms that Schiller had left him. Only with that could he put both creative and ethical anxiety behind him.

Here's the contrast: "Black utopia," wrote the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, "anxiety alone affords us exact details about the future." I'm beginning to see the way "bombastic" describes the finale of the Ninth Symphony. Neither noise nor excessive length is the key. What is wanted if the bombast can apply to both masterpieces and kitsch is vagueness. The music of the Ninth doesn't qualify as bombast, but the ethical content does. To think the best about anything, especially the future, we need to keep our vision vague and lofty. Our vision is pretentious because we pretend to see eventual answers to our anxiety. Those answers are inflated by our wishful thinking.

Bombast is usually associated with excessive length, but it doesn't have to be. Some expressions inflate as rapidly as a  bicycle tire; pretentiousness can flower in an instant. While I can't imagine there could ever be a bombastic haiku — the 17 syllables and requirement of a single natural image work against it — there are plenty of bombastic sonnets, for example.

Recently I saw on the median of a local street a panhandler holding the conventional cardboard sign of his trade..The message?  "ANYTHING HELPS."  Perfect bombast, in two words! Avoiding the usual specific requests and concise tales of woe (appealingly satirized by the beggar illustrated here), the fellow I spotted found two words
Aggressive frankness lies at the opposite pole from bombast.
that allowed his openness to a good outcome to say everything. He was pretending that charity floats around the world, waiting for a place to settle. And maybe it would drift down to honor with a contribution his inflated message of all-embracing acceptance.

Maybe bombast — whether in the grandest terms conceivable or in a scrawled appeal on wrinkled cardboard — says what we so often want to hear. Keep your dreams vague and hopeful, and banish your anxiety about the future by padding it with just a few details: a shout in the street, a raucous procession, trust in a benevolent Heavenly Father.

Last season, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra sent everyone off to summer with the bombast of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The piece splendidly suits such a conclusive position. So does Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which will bring the 2015-16 ISO season to a close next June.

The composer's original program for the finale states: "If you truly find no joy within yourself, look for it in others." More perfect bombast, like the panhandler's "ANYTHING HELPS."  The Tchaikovsky Fourth will do the work of bombast at its highest artistic level. It will pretend to find joy as sure as anything in "Ode to Joy," and it will inflate itself unmistakably, sealing that effect with a finale that, in Michael Steinberg's words, "beats all records for the number of cymbal crashes per minute."

I don't know if I have entirely come to terms with Johnson's sticking the  "bombastic" label on Beethoven's crowning symphonic statement. I have tried to leach out the word's negative connotations in suggesting that cotton padding may be something we need to soften the harshness of detail the human condition confronts us with. In today's world, after all, anything helps.



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