The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Letter to Robert Sherman

Music Tells What the World Is Like

Dear Robert Sherman*:

Music for a long time has been telling what the world is really like. What music has to say now, in a manner that has both logic and emotion in it, is that the world has a structure persons could like; be stronger by. At this time, when there is less belief in the good sense of the world than perhaps at any time before—even when war was in the world—it is well to show that the permanent structure of the world is beautiful and the most sensible thing possible.

We are aware that this last statement is strong and seemingly excessive; yet if the world is the oneness of opposites—and music says it is—the world is given an everlastingly sensible basis; for what could be more sensible than to be calm and forceful at once, reposeful and intense at once? 

Unfortunately, as you may know, what Aesthetic Realism has to say about the world, a person, and the arts—including, surely, music—has not been listened to by critics, by persons in charge of information about and interpretation of the various concerns of life. We hope that you will be more welcoming; for one object in this letter is to say enough to show that Aesthetic Realism is sensible about music, even while it is astonishingly comprehensive and bold. 

And a second object of this letter is for you to talk with the musical persons who have found, through questions and answers, that the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing music added something to their previous and more orthodox musical education.  We shall mention some names as we go on, names of persons who study music, perform it, teach it, and write about it; and who have come to see that what Aesthetic Realism has to say about music is verifiable and needed. 

The general meaning of the present letter is that music (like the other arts) is this continuous statement: the makeup, the structure of the world, while being cosmology or science, is also the structure of beauty itself; and of past art and contemporary art. The structure of the world is both Orlando di Lasso and Stravinsky; is both Guillaume de Machaut and Duke Ellington. A person who has thought of the structure of the world might have expected the joining of Orlando di Lasso and Duke Ellington. 

We shall now, Robert Sherman, say something of the structure of the world, and show how it is that of music itself. 

1. This Was Said about Music

There is a rather famous sentence of Goethe in his Sprüche in Prosa which says that the music of the flute is both separation and continuity. It is well to be impressive, so we shall quote the German of Goethe's monition about the playing of the flute: ''Blasen ist nicht flöten, ihr müsst die Finger bewegen." Goethe is saying here that in order to play the flute, you can't just blow-and blowing is a continuous thing-you must also use your fingers, with separation clearly present. Literally, the Goethe statement translated reads: "To blow is not to play the flute, you must have your fingers in motion."

Whenever Aesthetic Realism gets close to some technical thing of the arts and then says a principle of the makeup of the world is now with us, there is a tendency to be uncomfortable. However, it must be said that the world itself has always been continuity and separation; and if that is the playing of the flute as Goethe hints, why not let it be so?  

How big a thing continuity and separation are, or junction and separation, cannot be told. These two, junction and separation, are in our bodies; they are with the stars; they are in a forest; they are safely in the first Shakespeare Folio, 1623. 

Aesthetic Realism, commenting on Goethe's statement and affirming it, says that there is no music without the simultaneous presence of separation and junction. If, then, music is at heart and deeply the oneness of separation and continuity, and if existence is at heart also separation and continuity, does this speak well of the world, and does it also say that music, every instance of it, illustrates the beginning of the world? What music does, as the arts do generally, is to say that existence is aesthetics. And that is how the term Aesthetic Realism came to be.

We could illustrate the presence and meaning of separation and junction in ever so many ways. It is well, though, to follow a rather noted thought of Goethe with something of a more pedagogical or customary nature. We quote Anne Shaw Faulkner in her book, What We Hear in Music. Our quotation is from page 207 of the Faulkner work, edition of 1928; the immediate topic is the orchestra:

The wood-wind choir is chiefly used for color or tonal contrast with the strings, or in unison with the strings to intensify the tone. 

We have in this sentence from What We Hear in Music two universal matters, both speaking accurately and well for the world and music. The first is separation and junction as we find them in the Goethe illustration. It is clear that a wood wind is more continuous than a stringed instrument, particularly one that is plucked. Wood winds go on with beautiful noninterruption; strings go on or persist with beautiful punctuating interruption. That is how the world is. 

The other matter of universal import we find in this work of musical information is difference and sameness. Mrs. Faulkner says that the wood winds can, in an orchestra, be used in unison with the strings, and can also be used in contrast. Repetition and contrast are forms of sameness and difference; and sameness and difference, like junction and separation, have been the everlasting beginnings of the world ever since anyone can remember or not remember. 

Aesthetic Realism says that the structure of the world, so far instanced by separation and junction and difference and sameness, is not just a philosophic, abstract, factual matter; but this structure is what an individual like Monteverdi or Mozart or Prokofiev employs to come to the music we know. All music is the everlasting structure of the world as honored and employed by an individual.

This may be tall assertion to some music critics, yet Carrie Wilson, who sang in the musical Promenade, has found it to make good sense. For Miss Wilson is a student of Aesthetic Realism; and it appears only those who listen with some care and steadiness realize the validity and usefulness of Aesthetic Realism. And Veronica Abel and Paul Abel, both of whom teach music, have likewise seen the accuracy and justice of the Aesthetic Realism approach to music. And we should like, Mr. Sherman, for Carrie Wilson and Veronica and Paul Abel to tell, on your Listening Room, why they have come to see Aesthetic Realism on music as true.

Another person we should like to have heard on your program is Martha Baird, a critic of music who has written and conducted classes on the art. If there is any person who wishes more than Martha Baird to be scrupulous about music in all its forms, to be exact about any possibility of music, we have not yet met such a person. Martha Baird sees a chord as both science and immortal life; she sees a musical scale as both immediate and unknown.

And, as we said, we shall mention other persons; for surely, if anyone given to music feels that a way of seeing it is clearly true, that person should be heard by the public at large.  

2. The Import of the Opposites in Music

Thomas De Quincey, in his essay on Style in 1840, said something that was great and compact about what music does. The world is separation and junction, difference and sameness; but it is also time and space, the past and future, the moment and a century; and the world is also that which is busy causing hope and fear. Music has to do with the great things we have mentioned; and this is to be felt in the following words of De Quincey. De Quincey is writing fairly early on how some work of Mozart proceeds:

The preparation pregnant with the future; the remote correspondence; the questions, as it were, which to a deep musical sense are asked in one passage and answered in another; the iteration and ingemination of a given effect, moving through subtle variations that sometimes disguise the theme, sometimes fitfully reveal it, sometimes throw it out tumultuously to the blaze of daylight.

De Quincey is here saying that music can make a one of past and present, and present and future. Music shows what is and hints importantly of what is to be. It shows a relation between the near and distant or, as De Quincey phrases it, "remote correspondence." Question and answer become one. There is a question in the answer that has just been given. There are repetitions and twinships (the De Quincey word is "ingeminations"), even as variation goes on. All this is a luxurious victory of sameness and difference.

And hiddenness and revelation are one in music. Murk and sunlight blend amiably. And, certainly, there are tumult and repose at once. We think what we have just said is to be ascertained in the phrases of De Quincey. 

Anyway, in the history of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel has commented much on passages about music such as the De Quincey passage now with us. Furthermore, the activity of any instrument has been commented on, from bagpipe to virginals, from drum to flute, from piano to tuba. The continuity and surprise of the world can be found in both the De Quincey quotation and in all the instruments that have been played in all the continents. 

The commentary on music presented by Eli Siegel as descriptive of the welcome and praiseworthy structure of the world, has been heard for a long while by Karen Van Outryve. She has seen this commentary or explanation as true. If Miss Van Outryve were heard, along with the other persons we have mentioned, the public would have a greater sense of music. And furthermore, though how this is so cannot be sufficiently shown here, this public would know better what to do with a current world of pain, inflation, and injustice.

Edward Green, composer and teacher of music, has heard the Aesthetic Realism commentary on sound as great meaning, and has seen it as true. Mr. Green also would be deeply useful—indeed, astoundingly useful—to the musical public and to the public in general if he were heard telling why what Eli Siegel said about music was true. Sincerity here is ever so valuable.  

There is Joan Davis, who teaches piano and has also studied voice intensively. She has surprising and valid things to say. Barbara Allen plays the flute and has seen that Aesthetic Realism is just to the horizontal auditory capabilities of this old, old light instrument. Anne Fielding teaches at the HB Studio and her subject is close to the reality that music fortunately is. Miss Fielding, while of theatre, teaches piano and has sung Elizabethan songs with effect. 

3. Exhortation to Robert Sherman

We hope, Robert Sherman, that you will not listen to this glibly, with a complacency deeply false to music, art, and humanity. We simply have to try to have persons acquainted with Aesthetic Realism first hand and steadily, tell what they have seen and why they think others should see it. 

A short while ago, in a letter to H.L. Mencken, we quoted Mr. Mencken's famous passage about the raucousness and sweetness in the beginning of Beethoven's Eroica. The harsh and mellifluous, the rough and balmy, the sharp and soft, are made one in music. This has a great meaning for the lives of everyone today. It had a great meaning for a life of any time. 

We shall close, Robert Sherman, quoting a flamboyant yet true passage from George du Maurier's Trilby (1894). How flossy the passage is! Yet it can be shown to be essentially true, as other flossy passages about music are centrally true likewise. Such words to begin 1975 with; yes, yes. 

He had never heard such music as this, never dreamt such music was possible. He was conscious, while it lasted, that he saw deeper into the beauty, the sadness of things, the very heart of them, and their pathetic evanescence, as with a new inner eye—even into eternity itself, beyond the veil. 

How much is true in these words, Beethoven would have liked to know. Had Mozart seen more factuality in dazzlingly torrential expression like that of du Maurier, he'd have had more of a happy, strong footing in Vienna and Salzburg. 

However this may be, Aesthetic Realism says all music is a description and evaluation of the world. Deeply understood, this evaluation by music of the world is strengthening. The logic of our statement needs to be known. We hope, Robert Sherman, you will assist in having this logic become known. At that time, hope and exactitude will be one thing. And good endeavor should be everlasting.

Renascently, TRO


*At the time Eli Siegel wrote this issue of TRO, January 1975, Robert Sherman was Program Director for the classical music station WQXR and conducted weekly interviews on his show The Listening Room.