Friday, October 26, 2007

Music for an Era?

Sometimes a piece of music becomes representative of a particular era. Beethoven's ninth symphony probably acquired an iconic status during the nineteenth century, due less to Beethoven's (many) merits than to the raising of public consciousness of Beethoven by Franz Liszt (with some assistance from Richard Wagner) within the context of what Isaiah Berlin called "the apotheosis of the Romantic Will." To some extent Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" is assuming a similar role for the twentieth century, having drawn upon the harrowing texts of Wilfred Owen, written from the trenches of the First World War and invoked to rededicate cathedrals destroyed in both England and Germany during the Second World War. We have not yet completed the first decade if the twenty-first century; and I find myself wondering whether or not Appomattox will play a similar role in representing its Zeitgeist. Ultimately, the opera is less about the conclusion of the Civil War than it is about the problem of discrimination that has yet to be resolved in relations between the races in the United States and looms with equal significance in just about every other part of the world. It is also interesting to note that while Beethoven's symphony stood as a celebration of the best of humanity, particularly as seen through the post-Enlightenment lenses of Romanticism, Philip Glass has followed Benjamin Britten's selection of the requiem structure as a framing of the time that Berlin would later call "the most terrible century in Western history." Through its flash-forwards Appomattox reminds us that we should mourn not only the blood shed during the Civil War but also the extent to which, in spite of Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, that blood was shed in vain and will continue to be shed, both literally in continuing acts of racial violence and figuratively in the growth of more insidious discriminatory practices.

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