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Art for the Sake of Art

Ars Gratia Artis. Public Domain
Ars Gratia Artis. Public Domain

My first experience with theatre was as a child with my parents and sisters at the Broadway production of Man of La Mancha. Children’s concerts led by Maestro Leonard Bernstein came next, and when Jesus Christ Superstar appeared, I excitedly followed the era’s period works like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Godspell, and Hair.

Carnegie Hall exterior, 1899

Carnegie Hall exterior, 1899

Many people are compelled to defend the arts as adjuncts to “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic”, valuing them solely for developing vocabulary, critical and abstract thinking, or simply improving math scores akin to the Mozart Effect.

While these values are genuine, they are, at best, secondary. We affirm rather that the arts possess their own profound intrinsic values that enrich the human condition with beauty, laughter, piety, joy, sadness, reflection, insight, hope, and nature’s wonders, just as they provide unique venues for sharing human expression–mysteriously providing means to share one’s thoughts and imagination through more accessible means like music, dance, literature, visual art, drama, and film—after all, while humans are intuitive and possess innate Gestalten that helps make sense of what we see and hear, we are not mind readers. It’s as a 19th-century poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire espoused, “L’art pour l’art“, or as you’ve seen in MGM’s motto, “Ars gratis artis“. Whether it’s Wolfgang A. Mozart imagining music and memorializing it in writing for musicians to perform and audiences to experience and enjoy or Andrew Lloyd Webber putting to paper his afternoon reveries about a musical production entitled Phantom of the Opera, we concur with René Magritte that “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”

Tschaikowsky between ca. 1915-1920, Bain News Service. Public Domain

Tschaikowsky between ca. 1915-1920, Bain News Service. Public Domain

As a young man, mini score in hand, I sat in the audience at Carnegie Hall crammed in the low-budget undergrad favorite top balcony seats, knees pressed awkwardly against the staircase top, eagerly awaiting the Adagio opening bassoon solo of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor (1893), to be performed by the Chicago Symphony.

What a splendid, unforgettable night of music! Superb acoustics and sold-out concert, 5/4 meter in vogue nearly a century before Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, binoculars to see who was whispering on the stage, and Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue preparing hot pastrami, onion rings, cheesecake, babka and knishes for the musicians and concert patrons who gather there after the concert. While some of the most distinctive, beautiful, and memorable musical themes drifted throughout the opening of the work, later to be brilliantly restated in the Andante come Prima, it was during the Finale, Lamentoso-Andante, that I noticed fellow audience members musically overwhelmed subjugated to weep and nod in affirmation gently. Others bowed heads, silent and motionless. My own experience, sensations, and observations of the emotive pathos and expressive depths of the music that evening transcended any initial naive expectations I possessed. It was a deeply moving, almost spiritual experience.

1891 Opening Program Booklet for Carnegie Hall. Public Domain

1891 Opening Program Booklet for Carnegie Hall. Public Domain

Adding to the work’s irony, provenance, and mystery, Tchaikovsky died just a few days after conducting its St. Petersburg premiere. At the time, 19th-century music critic and Moscow Conservatory professor Nikolay Kashkin deemed it logical “to interpret the overwhelming energy of the third movement and abysmal sorrow of the Finale in the broader light of a national or historical significance, rather than to narrow them to the expression of an individual experience. If the last movement is intended to be predictive, it is surely of things faster and issues more fatal than are contained in a mere personal apprehension of death. It speaks, rather, of a lamentation large et sufferance inconnue (broad lamentation and unknown sufferance), and seems to set a seal of the finality of all human hopes. Even if we eliminate any purely subjective appreciation, this autumnal inspiration of Tchaikovsky’s in which we hear the ground whirl of the perished leaves of hope remains the most profoundly stirring of his works.”

Back to my Carnegie Hall experience–the Chicago Symphony concert that evening was breathtaking, with superb brass and marvelous strings. Conductor Sir George Solti was in his element as he commanded the mighty orchestra. I imagined what it must have been like on Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night when Walter Damrosch led the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Oratorio Society in performing America the Beautiful, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, and the New York premiere of Berlioz’s Te Deum. 

Just a few yards from where I sat, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was here that evening, in person, in Carnegie Hall when he conducted his “Marche solennelle”, May 5, 1891.

Readers may also enjoy our articles on music appreciation and more with Polyphony in MusicPérotin and PolyphonyLargo from Dvorak’s New World SymphonyThe Orchestra Now at Symphony Space.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6, Finale, Adagio lamentoso – Andante, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio, France, Myung-Whun Chung, Salle Pleyel, Paris

Art for the Sake of Art

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