Friday, November 18, 2011

Musings on the History of Hermeneutics: Reading Classical Music Reviews

I was a Biblical Studies major when I started my undergraduate college career at Indiana University in beautiful Bloomington. At the time I expected to continue doing Biblical Studies through my postgraduate academic career. But events do have a habit of sending one in directions you never imagined. It was thanks to an undergraduate seminar on the book of Exodus which I took with James Ackerman at IU that I developed an obsession with and an appreciation of something that continues to impact my intellectual life today, hermeneutics.

One thing that really struck me after taking Ackerman's seminar was the varying interpretations of the biblical text brought to Exodus by a range of Catholics of various stripes, Protestants of various stripes, Jews of various stripes, and even agnostics and atheists of various stripes. Listening and thinking about the various interpretations of the biblical text I and my student colleagues offered while analysising selected "pericopes" of the Book of Exodus foregrounded something for me that I had not entirely recognised up to that point and have never forgotten since: ideology and culture play and important role in how we interpret the Bible and how we "read" human life and our place in the world around us in general.

While I didn't continue my pursuit of a degree in Biblical Studies (too many languages to study and too few jobs) I have never lost this appreciation for how we humans read "texts", broadly defined, through cultural and ideological mental eyes. After leaving Biblical Studies I became more and more interested in the hermeneutics of social and cultural life and so began to study Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Semiology/Semiotics, History, Film Studies, and, most recently, Television Studies since all of these "disciplines" addressed, in some way, shape, or form, the ways we humans read the world we live in and our place in it. Roland Barthes became my guide through the intellectual corridors of the history and structure of language and the semiotics of language and culture. Max Weber, who carried on the hermeneutic work of Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert, the fathers of hermeneutics, became my guide through the mental world of ideologically grounded cultural interpretations of society and their relationship to the wider social, political, and economic worlds they inhabited.

One of my favourite excursions to take in my spare time is into the realm of the ideologies underlying classical music reviews. As J. Robert Oppenheimer was able to bring together his love of physics and the New Mexico desert in the Manhattan Project I enjoy being able to bring together my love for classical music and cultural studies in my excursions into the hemeneutics of classical music recordings and performances.

I recently finally got around to buying the well known Eugene Ormandy and Philadelphia Orchestra set of Rachmaninov Symphonies recorded in stereo in the 1950s and 1960s (Sony, SB2K63257). Ormandy knew Sergei Rachmaninov and conducted recordings of Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos 1 and 4 with the maestro giving his interpretations a special authority at least in the minds of some music critics, because of his special relationship to the master who, these critics presumably assume, passed onto Ormandy orally just how his music should be played.

So how do some music critics read Ormandy's performances of Rachmaninov's Symphonies. The well-known critics who put together the well-known Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008 (Penguin, 2007), the Brits Ivan March, Edward Greenfield, and Robert Layton, give Ormandy's readings of Rachmaninov's Symphonies (and the instrumental version of the Vocalise) four stars out of four claiming that Ormandy's interpretations of the three symphonies, including the first of Rachmaninov's symphonies to be recorded in stereo, Symphony 1, remain, "in many ways...unsurpassed". March, Greenfield, and Layton go on to describe the recent and, they claim improved, Sony transfer, as something "not to be missed" even if listeners already have more "modern versions"of Rachmaninov's symphonies" and that Ormandy's interpretations, along with those of Mikhail Pletnev, Evgeny Svetlanov, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, all Russians (essentialism?), have "special claims in this repertoire" (because they are Russians or knew Rachmaninov?). Stephen Chakwin reviewing Rachmaninov's orchestral music in Classical Music: The Listeners Companion (edited by Alexander Morin in 2002, Backbeat Books), on the other hand, writes that Ormandy's stereo Rachmaninov Symphonies set is disappointing. Ormandy's and the Philadelphia's performances, he claims, lack intensity, are perfunctory, and are inattentive to the score as compared to Ormandy's recordings of Rachmaninov's piano concertos.

So here we have several different critics with two different views of the quality of Ormandy's performances of Rachmaninov's Symphonies. And while many readers of classical music reviews would, I suspect, raise the question of which set of critics is right, the real question we analysts of hermeneutics should ask is why different individuals each, presumably, with a significant knowledge of classical music, classical music performance, and classical music recordings, came to different conclusions and what social and cultural forces may have helped construct these two violently different readings of Ormandy's Rachmaninov Symphonies set. This is, of course, one of the questions historians of interpretation attempt to or should attempt to answer.

Another question the study of the hermeneutics of reading should be able to answer is the question that has been at the heart of that eternal and far too abstract aesthetic question that we were all introduced to in Philosophy 101: is beauty in the eye of the beholder or is it universal? As the radically different interpretations of Ormandy's recordings of Rachmaninov's Symphonies shows, beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, the social and cultural eyes of the beholder.

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