Monday, July 25, 2011

Things I Didn't Know

I learned a number of remarkable facts today from Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West:

• Stained-glass windows work admirably as expressions of the West's primary symbol -- empty space -- because they are translucent and therefore bodiless. I have thought previously that these tangible, colored, lead-lined artifacts, often depicting the bodies of humans, plants, and animals, lit as they are from behind, convey a message that the corporeal things all around us receive being, energy, and meaning from their spiritual Source. But now I know that they serve only as deliberate gaps in a wall, indicators of emptiness.

• Blue-green is a Catholic color. I might have picked cardinal red, but I would have picked incorrectly. It also seems that blue-green appears in the music of Couperin, Haydn, and Mozart.

• Brown is a Protestant color. It also is the color of the sound of stringed instruments, especially when playing the music of Beethoven. (I'm unclear as to whether Haydn's string music is brown or blue-green, but it's Catholic string music, so I'm guessing the latter.)

• Brown, as the only real color not in the rainbow, is less tangible than the others. If any color were tangible, I might have supposed that the color of dirt, tree bark, and leather were more tangible than, say, sky blue. In fact, I have never thought that the rainbow represented anything tangible, its end being famously unreachable. But again, I find myself corrected. Apparently, besides being the primary color of Protestantism and fiddles, brown is also the color of stained-glass windows (another fact new to me), and since they are bodiless (see above), so is the color brown.

• Not only counterpoint (see yesterday's post) but also all "orchestrally conceived" genres such as oratorio, cantata, and opera, represent longing for infinite extension in space. I admit that Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs seems to extend itself infinitely in time. But now I know the true purpose of Messiah and The Marriage of Figaro: all cultures begin their declines by attempting extension in space as a response to fear of death, and it's clear to me now how those two musical masterworks fit right in with the pattern.

• The color gold does not appear in nature.

• Red and yellow are colors of nearness and popularity, while blue is cold and distant. Perhaps election-night television programs should consider a change of color for the Democrats.

• The timbre of trumpets and trombones is red and yellow and consequently near, popular, and vulgar. (I actually knew that trumpets and trombones were vulgar, but now I know why.)

• Classical-era music represents cultural decline in its rigid adherence to older forms and methods. I have taught the appearance of sonata form and of the symphony and string quartet as innovations of the late eighteenth century, but I will now have to rethink my pedagogy.

• Romantic-era music falls even lower than mere stagnation and indulges in imitation of a past imitation. I don't know as of p. 133 of Spengler what past it imitates, but I'm sure that if I look hard enough, I'll find its chromatic-third relations, rich orchestration, extended forms, and predilection for programmatic music in an earlier, already moribund era of music history.

I'm happy to be able to share these finds with my readers, who will no doubt begin to feel colors and hear timbres differently from now on. . . . Hang on a minute. . . . I seem to remember now reading about some occasions on which John Lennon felt colors and saw timbres. I've always read that LSD brought on these experiences, but perhaps Lennon had just been reading Spengler.

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