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Nov. 02 2011

What does transcendent mean, anyway?

By Reed Hessler | Posted in Host Blogs | 4 Comments

Thinking about my first blog on our new WBJC web site, I noticed in a New York Times article that the theme of this year’s White Light Festival, now in progress at Lincoln Center, is musical transcendence. I found this ironic, since I had been considering writing about the word before seeing the article. The theme of the festival is an attempt to unify seemingly disparate music under one expression of amazement. Works from Bach’s Chaconne in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin, the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2, and Carl Dreyer’s lacerating (oops, another adjective!) silent film masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with a new live musical score are all identified by the word transcendent.

Anyone who has listened to my broadcasts with any frequency may have noticed my penchant for adjectives: not only transcendent, but also edgy, serene, majestic, and even frivolous are words I have used to preface a musical work I am sending out over the airwaves. Sometimes I secretly worry I will run out of adjectives and be caught using the same ones ad nauseum. My rule: only one “transcendent” a day; try “visionary” instead, if you must.

But can you actually say, without feeling foolish, “Beethoven’s late string quartets are pretty good,” or “Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a real fine piece”? I know that for some people, any expression of higher feelings is a lapse of objectivity. Some would even argue that, whatever Bach or Beethoven believed they were expressing in their music, or for that matter Shakespeare in his plays, or Van Gogh in his paintings, that works of art are merely formal creations that are to be appreciated for their craft and imagination and nothing more. Emotion is a vulgarity that we must…mmm…transcend.

But if art is to imitate life, isn’t it only honest for it to evoke the same feelings that human beings have always experienced in the reality of their existence? Love, hate, laughter, fear, confusion, contentment, boredom, and…yes…transcendence. I don’t know about you, but there are moments in my life when I honestly feel transcendent, and among them are when I listen to Beethoven’s late string quartets or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It is a privilege to speak on the radio in the company of such glorious works, and would be dishonest of me and insulting to these fabulous artists to express anything but the utmost reverence for them.


Reed Hessler


Reed is WBJC's evening host. His full bio can be read here.

4 Responses to What does transcendent mean, anyway?

  • Diana Ross says:

    My favorite adjective on this afternoon’s broadcast was “schmaltzy”!

  • Joseph Hutchins
    Reed Hessler says:

    I often wonder whether anyone much younger than me knows what I mean when I use a word like “schmaltzy”. (at least you can spell it!) It was popular when I was growing up, and probably came from Yiddish popular culture a century ago, referring to over the top sentimentality in a performance or work of art. Although the implication is that something schmaltzy is bad, low brow, vulgar, whatever…I use the word with affection to refer to an overdone style of long gone times, which I love.

  • Hampton DeJarnette says:

    ‘Schmaltzy’ got to have a derogatory aspect because we have enough to eat today. Schmaltz is rendered fat. Issac Singer, in his stories of Jewish settlements in eastern Europe in the late 1800s & early 1900s, several times mentions a jar of chicken fat being a gift. I thought this was strange until it dawned on me that his characters led hard and precarious lives. Food was not plentiful, and fat was scarce. So a jar of schmaltz for cooking was a boon. Today, excessive fat is bad. Excess in music? Well, exuberance is a kind of excess, no? Schmaltzy music is great…once in a while. Oh, if I could limit myself to schmaltzy meals only once in a while.

    • Reed Hessler says:

      I am a big fan of movies of the 1930’s, including musicals, and I also own many recordings of American popular songs from the aughts and the teens (literally the first commercial recordings ever made). These performances are often in a hammy, sentimental, even silly style that became passe around the end of World War II. When you hear a song by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, or Cole Porter performed since the 1950’s, it is usually in a more suave and sophisticated style quite different from the original. For that matter, if you listen to Leopold Stokowski conducting a Strauss waltz decades ago, it is a heart on sleeve performance with excessive vibrato, rubato, the works. Little by little in the past few decades, some performers have begun to return to this “schmaltz”, and I say good for them.

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