From Heavenly Harmony
by Ken Myers
Douglas Adams, best known as the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once offered a brief catalog of the possible range of musical expression. "Mozart tells us what it's like to be human," explained Adams. "Beethoven tells us what it's like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it's like to be the universe." Like all caricatures, Adams's summary contains a valuable insight into something that happened in music history, and in Western culture more generally, between the early eighteenth century and the early nineteenth.
Bach (who died in 1750) still represented the view that human experience could best be comprehended in the context of a divinely sustained cosmic order. In Beethoven (1770–1827), we hear a personality more in synch with the ideals of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on freedom and subjectivity. Hence Adams's contrast (with Mozart somewhere in the middle) between musical expression that portrays all of reality (in a joyous dance) and the later, more modern uttering of the inner uniqueness of the individual. These characterizations are matters of emphasis, not stark black-and-white contrasts, but they are helpful in describing and understanding the genealogy of our own time, in which the self has eclipsed the world almost entirely.
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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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