Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Music in the Morning

with 5 comments

I should have a nice long time today to write a blog post, but as it turns out I’m dying under a pile of student papers, and I don’t. 

The simple truth of the matter is that the less skilled your students are, the more work it takes to correct their papers.  Their high school teachers may have engaged in “holistic grading,” but the only way I can even begin to get them to write sensible English is to engage in grading of the old fashioned kind.

A friend of mine suggested the other day that I should get myself a rubber stamp, and the odd thing is that I’d once considered it.  Back in the first year I taught remedial students, I thought I’d get two stamps.  One would say “this is not a sentence.”  The other would say, “pick a tense, any tense.”

Unfortunately, it’s almost never that simple.  Most of my kids don’t read unless something is assigned to them, and then they don’t know how to read it or what they need to do to understand it.  Many of them come from environments where no form of standard English is spoken, so that they haven’t actually heard anything like what they need to write, either. 

Lately, even television isn’t helping.  Stick to MTV and Jersey Shore, and you can watch hours of the stuff without hearing any standard English either.

It has been a particularly bad term for this, and I got up this morning thinking that I could not face another stack of papers without some kind of breather.

My favorite breather in these sorts of situations is music–mostly 18th and 19th century orchestral and chamber music. 

Over the years I have been very careful to keep music out of the sphere of Things I Think About, the one aspect of art I do not intellectualize.

I can tell you a lot about the technical aspects of reading and writing fiction and poetry.  I’m getting to that point with painting, although I’ll never get all the way there. 

But music is something I just let wash over me, and it never fails to make me feel better.

My students may write “sentences” like “if you cant relate to it then your not gonna read it”–and spell “going to” just like that.

Half an hour with Back or Mozart and I’m happy to be a human being again, because human beings can do that.

 Now, my tastes in music are what they are.  I hear things I like the sound of and listen to those.  And I pretty much stay away from the early 20th Century, because I know from experience that, at least when it comes to the Art Music forms, it’s not what I’m looking for.

I can handle some Stravinsky, but only some.  Philip Glass is entirely beyond me.

(A note–popular forms are different.  I truly and sincerely love all forms of jazz, including the stuff that’s supposed to be “progressive” an difficult to listen to. But jazz is music for the dark, and it doesn’t usually come up in the morning.)

That having been said, there is almost always another requirement for what I listen to in the morning:  it can’t have words I readily recognize as it plays.

This is because I’m almost always on my way to write in the morning, and I don’t write as well when I have somebody else’s words in my head. 

This doesn’t mean that I never listen to music with words when I first get up.  It just means that I need those words to be either overwhelmed by the instruments, or in a language I don’t readily understand.

Okay, that last part is not hard.  I can learn to read anything.  Speaking a foreign language, or understanding it when spoken, is something I have to whack away at, and mostly I don’t.

For many years now, friends of mine have been urging me to listen to a piece called Carmina Burana, written by a modern(ish) composer names Carl Orff in the 1930s.

A German composer in the 1930s?  Really?

And then there was the rest of it–being based on a set of Medieval poems was nice, but the ballet aspects were off-putting and…

In other words, it just did not sound like my kind of thing, and I resisted it.  About five years ago, a friend of mine gave me a CD of it for Christmas, apparently under the assumption that if I had the thing lying around the house, I wouldn’t be able to resist listening to it.

It stayed there, on my music stacks, in its shrink rap, until this morning.

And I’m here to say–I was wrong.

The only part of this piece that is anything at all like what I was resisting is in the emotional atmosphere of the song that opens and closes it, which is a bit too much like Wagner to make me truly comfortable.  The only performance of that kind of over-the-top German mythologizing in music that I’ve ever really cared for is…kill the wabbit…kill the wabbit…

In most ways, though, this is just lovely. 

The original Latin poems are secular.  I am always glad to find those, because although there was a lot of secular poetry in the Middle Ages, there was a lot more religious stuff, and the religious stuff tends to drown out the rest.  Most students coming to the Middle Ages for the first time tend to think that the religious stuff is all there is.

It was, in fact, a very nice morning, and I may play this thing a couple of mornings down the line, when I’ve got time again to listen to music.

I do have a couple of mornings down the line here where I’m going to have to be in at some God awful hour that won’t let me do much of anything before I get started.

But this piece has impressed me in a way that’s very unusual for me–I would like to see it performed.  With the dance.

Jazz is the only kind of music that I’ve ever sought out to hear live, and that’s because jazz pieces are often improvisational, so that what you’re doing is going to hear a specific musician play rather than a specific piece replicated.

Mostly, I think the CD is one of the most wonderful inventions ever.  It means I get to hear what I want to hear in my own house with my own tea and without having to haul out to some inconvenient place in the dark wearing uncomfortable shoes.

But I would like to see this performed.

Unfortunately, Orff’s record under the Nazis is mostly not good.  He did not belong to the Nazi Party, as far as anybody can tell, but he didn not resist it, either, and he did a few things that cannot be called anything but actively collaborationist.

It brings me back, again, to the contemplation of the curious way in which so many German high culture figures seemed to find Naziism congenial.

The attraction, in most cases, doesn’t seem to have been principled.  Orff, like Heidigger, emerged from the war declaring that he had never been a Nazi to begin with, no matter what it looked like.  He even claimed to have been one of the founding members of a resistance movement whose exposure claimed the life of one of his best friends–a man whom Orff refused to even try to help after his arrest.

Music, however, is not philosophy, and you can listen to a lot of it–especially if it doesn’t have lyrics, or takes as its lyrics something that does not express Nazi ideas–without being in danger of doing yourself moral damage.

Still, you have to wonder what it was about German artists, writers, philosophers, composers, and other high culture types that made the Nazis look so good.

Maybe it is the same something George Steiner sees in aristocratic regimes, just taken to its logical extreme.

Finally, there is the irony.  Orff was one of the composers the Nazi government called on to replace the music of Mendelssohn, because Mendelssohn had become unacceptable because he had been a Jew.

I really like this piece by Orff–but let’s face it.

Orff is no Mendelsshon.

Written by janeh

May 2nd, 2012 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Music in the Morning'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Music in the Morning'.

  1. Carmina Burana is marvellous, although, like you, I generally avoid modern ‘classical’ or ‘serious’ music. I nearly got to sing in it this spring, but real life got in the way and choir practice had to go for a while until I got some things taken care of. I went to see the actual performance, though. It was a fairly recent arrangement with a wind ensemble and some good soloists (I would have been a humble alto 1 had I managed to keep up with rehearsals.)

    I tend to think that I can enjoy art without worrying too much about the frailties or wrongdoing of the artist. Sometimes, I can’t quite manage it, and I don’t always understand why, say, knowing Orff got along with Nazis bothers me less than knowing that Anne Perry murdered someone.


    2 May 12 at 10:34 am

  2. Jane –
    I’m in the same place, grading those same papers. And you are so right – grading a good paper is a breeze – and a joy. The others take 3-4 times as long to grade and sometimes leave me feeling a little dizzy from trying to follow the logic and figure out what they are actually trying to say. After reading a stack of those papers, I seem to always want a martini instead of Mozart, which probably indicates that you’re a lot more cultured than I.

    Back in one of my first university teaching jobs, I had a colleague who did have a stamp. His said ‘Bullshit.’ And, he actually used it on student papers. Of course, today, he’d probably be fired for it.


    2 May 12 at 11:13 am

  3. Our high school chorus sang the Carmina Burana my junior year, and mostly I remember how much FUN it was to sing. So many places you can really belt it out. :) Our director didn’t mention politics at all, figuring correctly that high-schoolers wouldn’t care.

    Today I’m wrestling with something else….how many times per day I’m required to “log in” to some account somewhere online to perform the simplest activities. Order some pet food from Petco, comment on Jane’s blog, see my Facebook stuff, check my bank balance, blah etc blah. I just checked, and the database I keep for my accounts’ usernames & passwords has 125 entries, most of them active. That’s just mine. My husband has his own hundred or so.

    I think we’re going to remember this as the Age of Signing In. Getting tired of it, frankly.


    2 May 12 at 2:09 pm

  4. I thought the rubber stamp was the appropriate tool for “short ID” sections of tests. If you ask your student “Who was Mao Tse-tung?” and the answer comes back “A Japanese historian” NONSENSE! in boldface is all the grading necessary. He knew he was guessing. Now he knows you know.

    I’ve got some Orff. What I’ve heard is not great, but quite workable. As for politics, music is music. I can play the “Marsailles” without wishing to guillotine anyone, and “Wellington’s Victory” without endorsing post-Napoleonic reaction. Somewhere around here I’ve got the “Horst Wessel Lied” which isn’t really very good music. But I bought the CD for “Panzer Rollen in Afrika Vor” which is. (OK, so I’m heavy in brass and drums. Someone got a problem with that?)
    Propaganda is another matter. But, as you say, that goes with intelligible lyrics, not instrumental music.

    And there is the problem of applicability. It is, I think, possible to appreciate the courage in defense of one’s homeland at the heart of ALEXANDER NEVSKY and KOLBERG without supporting either Stalin or Hitler. A lot of art has a political purpose. If it’s good art–if the characters are credible and engaging and the story well told–it may be with us long after the political movement is not. And if dull sermons serve the Devil, bad art serves no cause well.


    2 May 12 at 5:34 pm

  5. I am quite thankful that the overwhelming pile of student writing I have is from graduate students! But the bad ones do take 5 times longer than the good ones, nonetheless.

    I need a set of rubber stamps:
    “APA style”
    “data are”
    “professional language”
    “citation needed”
    “spell out”

    I have do have a rubber stamp with Gandalf on it that says “You shall not pass!” but I probably won’t get to use it with graduate students.

    Cathy F


    2 May 12 at 8:31 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 865 access attempts in the last 7 days.