Saturday, April 9, 2022


Inferring the Artist from the Art

I am troubled that I and my boomer comrades are facing true historical oblivion.

That sort of oblivion can be circumvented via artistic achievement, if the art is art that abides.  If you knew nothing about the man who crafted the statue of Lincoln at his Washington memorial -- Daniel Chester French -- other than the statue itself, you could at least say with confidence that this was a serious man, and one who did not simply wake up one day with a sculptor's artistry at his fingertips; there is no doubt that he had to work at it for a long time.

Music is more ephemeral.  And yet in a way it is more difficult to eradicate from our common history than things made of paint or bronze.  As long as the notes exist on the page somewhere, and the notation itself is not lost to memory, the music will abide.  And likewise, if we know nothing of Bach other than one of his fugues, we do know as well that he had an orderly, even a mathematical, mind.

In the context of immortality of this sort, I can think of two men of the first half of the 20th century, both of whom created a piece of music less than a minute long, but one that is encoded in a million memories, via repetition in happy circumstances.  Yet nothing else is known of the men.

The first piece begins with a snare drum "roll off," indeed, with a roll off so classic that it has come to be heard by some of us drummers as a parody of a roll off.  Then come in the French horns and trumpets, obsessing over a single note.  And  finally, the well-crafted resolution, and all in just eight bars:

When we hear this fanfare even now, like Pavlov's dogs, we sit down and reach for the popcorn, for the movie is about to begin!

The second piece marks not a beginning but an end, the end of a narrative in which, just as in our lives, "the curtain has come down in the middle of the play," with Bugs or Daffy in media res but more or less triumphant --

(That's All, Folks!)

And so these two composers, known at least subliminally through their music by two entire generations, have achieved a certain immortality.   What can we say further about them?

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