Last Friday marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Being somewhat partial to his music, it seemed appropriate to come up with something positive and Jewish about him.
One thing we share is that the Church hated both of us. Mozart was on the Vatican’s list of banned music, and remained unheard within its official walls till 1985. (The Church has since come around, and moved closer to my tastes. The present Pope has spoken out against the primitiveness of rock in a way that would get many yeshiva mashgichim to nod approvingly.) Another is our longevity. Two hundred and fifty years from now, we will still be around. Unless the Caliphate triumphs, so will Mozart, which is more than I can say for Numa Numa or even MBD.
That didn’t seem enough. Then I remembered a wonderful essay written years ago by Rabbi Natan Lopes-Cardozo, albeit about Bach, rather than Mozart. He contrasted Bach to Beethoven, showing that the latter broke all the previous rules concerning composition, while Bach (and Mozart) worked within the traditional protocols. It reminded him of the frequent charge leveled against observant Jews – living within set, defined rules must be stultifying, restrictive, and utterly damaging to creativity. Here is a choice quote from the essay:
To work within constraints and then to be utterly novel is the ultimate sign of unprecedented greatness. This is what Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) the great German poet and philosopher meant when he said:
In der Beschraenkung zeigt sich erst der Meister, Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben. (Sonnet: “Was wir bringen”)
(In limitation does the master really prove himself And it is (only) the law which can provide us with freedom)
One related point. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathe
rs) makes the point that the person who is truly free is the one who
occupies himself with Torah. The notion being that Torah learning
is the means by which a man can free himself from the clutches of the Yetzer Harah (Evil
Inclination) as the Talmud states that the Torah is the antidote
(“Tavlin”) for the Yetzer Harah. Absent involvement in Torah, one
will be subject to desires that he cannot ultimaely control. This is true
enslavement. Thus, the Torah’s strictures allow man the utmost
Beethoven evidently violated more musical conventions than Bach did, and he also evidently
worked harder to compose than Mozart did. This information may be useful in our judgment of these
the composers as people. Nevertheless, it has no influence on the effect their music has on
me as a listener today (I enjoy all three). Musical conventions may be formally sort of like
Halacha, but they are surely not Halacha! Some could even be like Chukkat Akum or the old
The general point that art (or other things of value) can emerge from a person working
under constraints is, of course, valid.
Incidentally, an article with substantially the same approach as Rabbi Lopes-Cardozo’s
was published by Norman Podhoretz in December 1999.
I would venture to say that the fine arts can learn from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s adage as well. If they would recognize that to work within the constraints of realism is where, “the master really proves himself,” there would be no need for modernism.
It seems to me that freedom is relative. Yes, if you follow the Torah you can free yourself from the yetzer hara … and become a slave to Hashem. The only question is, who is the better master?
And it’s true that any form of art (including graphic art, film, music, literature, and even culinary art) becomes meaningless without some constraints. Art itself is a constriction, a selection and ordering of things in the world. And fewer options you have to work with, the more original and careful you have to be, and thus the more valuable the creation. That’s why black and white photography is so esteemed, no? But on the other hand, the fewer constraints you have, the easier it is to make a piece of garbage. If you manage to compose a beautiful piece of music with constantly changing rhythm or no rhythm, and without any convential scale, that’s remarkable too. Personally, I don’t compose music very well, partly because I like so many types of sounds and structures and try to pull them all together. This does not make it easier or better – the result is often an unidentifiable jumble. It’s hard to succeed within limits, and hard without them.
I don’t know too much about rabbinic opposition to rock music but it seems to be mainly to things like the emphasis on the beat and the noise from electric distortion (and the loudness and abrasiveness in general). But underneath all that, there are also melody, harmony, chords, chord progressions (which many people ignore or miss when they cry “that’s not music!”). Sometimes it’s very complex, and certainly not primitive when you compare it to lots of simple but unobjectionable folk music from around the world, including our own niggunim. I wonder on what basis rabbis would accept or reject various elements of music, or the emphasis of certain elements over others. I hope it’s not just based on what they happen to be used to. Is this discussed in the gemara somewhere?
A whole modern industry has been created based on loud, trite, repetitive, imitative, dull tunes set to Jewish lyrics. Along with a proper balance of control vs. freedom, there also has to be genuine “soul and inspiration”. We know it when we hear it. I’ve also noticed that many nigunim from the 18th and 19th centuries are both moving and musically interesting (could this be related in some hidden way to the general outpouring of music then?). Why settle for less? We should pray for the day when new wedding music doesn’t make our heads hurt; rabbinical takkanot to push this process along might help, too.
motzei Shabbat 7 bShvat
Rabbi Adlerstein, you wrote something that was out of character. You are usually respectful of other traditions, so I was surprised when you had an aside which said
“Two hundred and fifty years from now, we will still be around. Unless the Caliphate triumphs, so will Mozart, which is more than I can say for Numa Numa or even MBD.”
Perhaps I misunderstood. I understood this as using the Taliban ban on music to imply something negative and cast aspersion about Islam in general.
The place of music in particular and art in general in the Orthodox world is one that concerns me a great deal. It hardly surprises me that my small children love mainstream Jewish music because musically and artistically, it’s right at their level. And am I the only one who’s observed that there is an unspoken minhag among ba’ale tefilla that one must distort one’s singing voice to painfull levels of flattness in order to sound frum and get closer to HaShem? To me, art is the visceral expression of human emotion set to artistic form. The imposition of agenda on art, however, is ruinous. Tehillim is the archetype of Jewish art, not because it conforms to religious notions, but because the emotion expressed by Dovid HaMelech is genuine. The power of his words stem from the genuine emotional/religious experience that his words convey. Imposition of religious norms onto art before it begins negates the power and creativity of the art itself. Personally, I’m more moved by the honest emotion expressed by a non-Jew through his art than I am by the shlock that is most of Jewish art today. I make no qualms about my desire to consume art because part of being human is seeking connection with others and seeking depth in emotional experience. If I can’t get it in the frum world, where so much of our emotional lives is proscribed and rigid, then I’ll get it elsewhere. A further point has to do with the personal release that great art entails. Identifying with a visceral emotional experience means, on some level, one has to “let go,” and not allow the intellect to filter the emotional/artistic experience. Indeed, the Shofar clearly elicits this experience through its end run around the intellect straight to the heart. The question for our community thenb becomes are we allowing people to “let go” and experience their emotional/artistic expressions fully.
I found this artical to be very very interesting. The essay was just more stuff I don’t know. I love your information. Thank You