When he was born, Queen Victoria had almost another decade to rule. When he died, Margaret Thatcher was nearing the end of her first term. While he lived through nine decades of remarkable change, composer Herbert Howells came of age at a time when artists were already being haunted by cultural turmoil and uncertainty. In 1913, when Howells was 21, the French poet Charles Péguy judged that "the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years." While some Promethean souls were energized by the possibilities opened up by the dynamism of creative destruction, other artists, writers, and composers were less sanguine about the brave new world being ushered in by the cold dawn of the twentieth century.
Near the end of the century's first decade, Gustav Mahler completed his Ninth Symphony, inscribing over the final note the epitaph ersterbend, "dying away," thus confirming the Ninth's sense of imminent loss. Leonard Bernstein describes this work as Mahler's "reluctant and protracted farewell to tonality," a loss of confidence that the Western musical tradition of harmony and melody could survive the cultural dislocations already evident in the nineteenth century. During a 2003 performance of Mahler's Ninth, film critic David Thomson detected in the music a "foreboding that melody itself was stricken, or dying," and perhaps—more comprehensively—"fears that humanism and knowledge and reason are themselves failing." Mahler's Ninth was hardly distinctive in its pessimism: countless works in all creative media echoed the theme of cultural breakdown.
A Reconnection with the Musical Past
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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