A different sort of renewal

 

1. Renewal is not rupture

 

My pictorial work is conceived as a renewal through its continuity with European and world culture, and is therefore in clear contrast to the “adolescent progressivism” of recent history, with its aims of discontinuity and rupture, not only in art, but in religion, morality and customs, under the false banner of an undefined and irreversible progress, according to which all that is most recent is an improvement over what came before —justifying any sort of change or novelty—, and its most destructive consequence: the rejection of permanent, timeless values for the very foolish reason that they “are not modern”.

The texts included at www.jrtrigo.es examine in greater depth, although in a simple and accessible manner, these questions which are so crucial to the age we live in.

Johann Sebastian Bach demonstrated that it is possible to create Art —with a capital A—, with only the slightest change in the musical forms themselves. His music, so traditional in some aspects —indeed, it constitutes an artistic summa of several centuries of European culture—, seems astonishingly modern even in the 21st century. Quite the contrary to the craze for apparent novelty which has characterized the 20th century and our own, which proclaims the rupture with tradition —or rather, the negation of our own cultural soil— with the “euphoria” of the leaf that falls from the tree and as it flutters to the ground cries: “Now I’m free!”

We know from experience that true progress ordinarily requires the summation and convergence of individual contributions and efforts more than it does their negation and rejection. Trends founded on the latter —like the leaf “liberated” from its branch— are often very short-lived indeed. We can thus witness how quickly concluded have been some “rupturist” and “negationist” careers dedicated to the art of apparent novelty; they have in a very short time arrived at the frontiers of that which is not art: boisterous extravagances, artistically superfluous provocations, an amateurism more proper to untrained beginners, the consideration of more or less decorative objects as examples of great art, the nihilism of works that negate more than affirm…

Continuing the botanical simile, the development of a tree is proportional to the depth of its roots… with this depth understood as being not only the preservation of a precious cultural legacy, the product of centuries, but a penetration into the mystery of an ineffable reality, known by humanity in its forms of truth, goodness and beauty. These are the discoveries of that natural order, held within the cosmos from time immemorial, which propels all manifestations of culture forward, in science and technology as well as philosophy and art.

 

2. Apparent novelty and profound novelty

 

History teaches us lessons that should be learned. The music of J. S. Bach (who, as I have said, refused in many cases to change the appearance of musical forms) will perhaps be judged by the proponents of all that is “new” (i.e. those who limit their perception of the new to mere appearance) as lacking this quality; and so, by this criteria, Bach was not an agent of renewal.

I’ve compiled below, however, a number of relevant quotations on this topic (http://www.muscaria.com/bach.htm). Make your own judgment.

In his time, Bach was an acclaimed and prestigious organist, both for his skill at the keyboard and for his virtuosity in improvisation; as a composer, he was perhaps less known, as his works were forgotten soon after his death (in 1750).

It should be noted that a change in musical trends was occurring around that time: away from a compositional style based on counterpoint, or rather, vocal/instrumental polyphony (whose prime exponent was in fact J. S. Bach) and towards one of melody with chordal accompaniment (which decades later would result, for example, in the great orchestral works of symphonic music).

It was J. S. Bach’s second oldest son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who would have the patience, understanding and passion to copy out, edit and save from oblivion a great number of his father’s works which had been excised from the standard repertory of the period for being considered old-fashioned and lacking creativity.

Such an opinion may be contrasted to that of Mozart, who on a trip to Leipzig was able to hear one of Bach’s motets and, kneeling to examine the scores spread out in front of him, became enraptured and did not rise until he had gone through each and every measure of the composition, finally exclaiming: “At last I’ve found something new and interesting that I can learn from!”

“When listening to the music of Bach, I have the sensation that the eternal harmony is in dialogue with itself, as must have happened in the mind of God just before the creation of the world” (Johann Wolfgang Goethe).

“Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe”(Douglas Adams).

“Three times this week I’ve listened to The Passion According to St Matthew by the divine Bach, and each time with the same feeling of boundless admiration. Even someone who —like myself— has completely rejected Christianity cannot but hear it as if it were one of the gospels” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

“Bach is the father, we are his childen; if any of us know anything, we learned it from him” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart).

“He is not a ‘stream’, but an ocean!” [Bach is the German word for ‘stream’] (Ludwig van Beethoven)

“The immortal god of harmony” (Ludwig van Beethoven).

“There is only one musician from whom the rest of us can learn something new: Johann Sebastian Bach” (Robert Schumann).

“Music owes as much [to Bach] as does religion to its founder” (Robert Schumann).

“Compared to him [Bach], we are all amateurs” (Robert Schumann).

“Practice diligently the fugues of the great masters! The well-tempered clavier must become your daily bread” (Robert Schumann).

“Study Bach: there you will find everything” (Johannes Brahms).

“The chaconne BMV 1004 is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and mysterious works in the history of music. Adapting his technique to one small instrument, a man describes an entire world with the most profound thoughts and the most powerful emotions. If I were to imagine myself writing, or even conceiving, such a work, I am sure that the intense excitement and emotional tension of it would drive me mad” (Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann).

“The most stupendous miracle in all music” (Richard Wagner).

“O you happy sons of the North who have been reared at the bosom of Bach, how I envy you” (Giuseppe Verdi).

“He is the beloved God of music, to whom all composers should pray before      sitting down to work” (Claude Debussy).

“The beginning and end of all music” (Max Reger).

“What Newton was as a scientist, Bach was as a musician” (C. F. Daniel Schubart, 18th century).

 “If Bach is not in Heaven, I am not going!” (William F. Buckley).

“To strip human nature until its divine attributes are made clear, to inform ordinary activities with spiritual fervor, to give wings of eternity to that which is most ephemeral; to make divine things human and human things divine; such is Bach, the greatest and purest moment in music of all time” (Pablo Casals).

3. Surprise at what is shocking is not the same as understanding an artistic work

 

In the texts found here at www.jrtrigo.es, I have often taken Johann Sebastian Bach as an artistic model that can serve to orient us at our present historical crossroads. And so, in the text My Painting, we read: “When writing The Art of the Fugue, J. S. Bach did not seek to astonish by an appearance that was shocking, novel or ‘modern’ —indeed, he employed musical structures that were already well-established, counterpoint that even then was nearly archaic—, but the result is a discovery which is at the same time profound (and in such revelations lies what is genuinely ‘new’, more so than the merely epidermal‘novelty’) and marvellous (that which truly astonishes)…” […] “To anyone who has a single, or simply a superficial, encounter with one of his works, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach may seem merely an art anchored in a specific era, circumscribed, as it were, to the late Baroque, and nothing more. It is only through a broad knowledge of his works that their deeper dimension is revealed, that timeless transcendence which reaches down to our own time.

Analogously, I can state that, individually, my paintings are not conceived to appear scandalous, groundbreaking or iconoclastic; indeed, it is necessary to consider them together to understand their deeper novelty; only in this way can their singularity, their exceptionality in relation to present-day trends, be perceived.

“It happens at times, in relation to artistic works like these, that it is the viewer, the reader, the listener, who, for lack of familiarity, must pass through a process of conversion before he can access the joy that comes from contemplating their mystery.”

 

4. An epidermal perception is not enough for understanding art

 

Viewed superficially, the literary work Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, might be considered only one of the many books on the theme of chivalry. If those works belong to the genre of adventures and entertainment, Quixote ―from such an epidermal perspective– “continues in the same light-hearted vein, corroborated by the burlesque tone of the narrative”… But how one’s comprehension of this work changes when it is examined at a deeper level! The appearance of lightness is transformed into multi-levelled wisdom; the joking air is not cruel and ruthless mockery, but a most enjoyable lesson, untainted by tedium or leaden seriousness; it is a joyous reading experience that can be savoured on two levels, the immediate or anecdotal and another more challenging that requires the reader’s reflection, judgment, discernment…; in place of the broad, fantastic outlines of other heroes, conceived as supermen and perhaps a trifle silly and arrogant, we have a more human protagonist, Don Quixote, whose undeniable limitations may render him awkward to the point of absurdity, but who nevertheless possesses greatness in his ideals and love of truth, and who is ever willing to assume the noble office of knight, with no thought for himself and no other purpose but to spread goodness wherever he can.

This is how ―if understood in this way― the wonder which is Don Quixote shines forth, as one of the greatest achievements of world literature, forerunner of the “modern novel” and the “polyphonic novel” and an enormous influence on all later European narrative.

An assessment of artistic works which is limited to the reader’s or viewer’s first impression, to the apparent change he perceives in relation to other works of the same genre ―the habit of those who in our own time let themselves be dragged along by the craze for apparent novelty― makes it impossible to properly understand both Don Quixote and true art in general. The beauty of the ordinary is in fact multi-levelled; those who content themselves with impressions that are pleasant but superficial overlook the substance of such masterworks and are unable to discover in them the permanent novelty that resists the passing of the centuries.

 

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