What does transcendent mean, anyway?
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.
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