Apocalypse Discs – Stephen M. Borthwick

STEPHEN M. BORTHWICK

Catholic writer

In regards to my musical tastes, I have to agree that it is almost impossible to narrow a list to ten. For myself, though, there are constants in my musical tastes – I have a great love of the baroque, especially Bach, and likewise would not shrink from calling myself a dedicated Wagnerian. I am not above making the claim that this sort of music continues into today in the form of some of the better film soundtracks, and have been especially impressed with the work of Howard Shore and Philip Glass (on film; the latter’s other work is questionable and a little banal, rather like Hans Zimmer).

However, my tastes do not begin and end with the so-called “classical” genre: I have another equally pretentious devotion to progressive rock, especially the work of Robert Fripp and Greg Lake, though if I had to name a single artist that stood out for consistent quality, I’d pick Jethro Tull – or, better, Ian Anderson, since he’s been pretty much the only constant member from 1967 to the present, and is the chief wordsmith.

The snobbishness does not stop there, however! I also am a great fan of post-punk artists like Joy Division as well as Krautrock groups like Amon Düül, Neu!, and, of course, Kraftwerk. Some vulgarity does creep into my collection, starting with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and I do enjoy some more avant-garde forms of heavy metal, especially black metal groups like Burzum, Bathory, and Summoning. I draw the line at lo-fi and no-fi hardcore and punk, and generally disdain all forms of popular music, especially rap, hip-hop, and what might be termed the “dance” or “house’ music phenomenon. There are some popular songs and groups which I do enjoy, especially the recent “indie-rock” and “folk-rock” phenomena – bands such as Mumford and Sons and Of Monsters and Men stand out in this regard. I think this is likely rooted in my immersion in Irish folk music as a lad. In terms of broader musical taste, those things which tend towards the darker and more melancholic dominate my list – I would not say that tempo necessarily has so much to do with my choices, though, as mood. I would make an effort to order these in terms of quality, but I think that task too great for me. SMB 21st March 2013

Overture to Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (WWV 70), composed by W. Richard Wagner, 1845. As performed by Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim

What I might regard as a piece of “perfect music”, in that it has no real discordance, no departure from emotive beauty from the very beginning until the very end – it is a perfect musical expression of longing, struggle, penitence, and reconciliation.

Kyrie Eleison from the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, 1733. As performed by the Collegium Vocale, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe

The Kyrie Eleison is by and far the most powerful version of this hymn I have ever heard – it is a cry to heaven for mercy and contains in it both the fear and contrition of the penitent as well as the discordance of their sins, summoning the dies irae perfectly. It is perhaps the most perfect expression of the sentiment of that prayer that is possible.

Ночь на лысой горе (Night on the Bare Mountain), composed by Modest Mussorgsky, 1867. As performed by National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Theodore Kuchar

Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain is familiar to many of us, I would venture, because of its adaptation in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where it is set to the rise of Czernobog — not far from the original picture painted by the tone poem of a Witches’ Sabbath and the Satanic Mass. The perfectly sinister quality of this piece makes it one of the most expressive I’ve heard, ranging from a sort of rising darkness to imitations of cackles from Hell, it is a truly stirring work.

Endless Enigma Suite (“The Endless Enigma” Parts 1 & 2 & “Fugue”) from the album Trilogy, composed by Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, 1972. Performed by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, produced by Greg Lake

The Endless Enigma Suite was a difficult choice because it has to contend with “Lucky Man” from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer as well as its own title-track “Trilogy”. Nevertheless, the existential crisis of the piece and progression from a nihilistic solipsism to achievement of meaning has all of the qualities of a concept album like Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral in a much more concise (and less vulgar) package.

“Thick as a Brick” from the album Thick as a Brick, composed by Ian Anderson, 1972. Performed by Jethro Tull, produced by Ian Anderson

I appreciate “Thick as a Brick” because it is at once a perfect piece of progressive rock, and a great concept album, as well as one of the best parodies of the genre in existence. It can be at once the sort of artwork that only an elite can appreciate and also mock and deride that same sort of snobbery and pretentiousness — it is the track that represents progressive rock laughing at itself.

The Duke of Egmont, for Beethoven a symbol of resistance against oppression

Overture to “Egmont” (Op. 17), composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1787. As performed by Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman

There are few pieces of music as heroic as the overture to “Egmont“; one feels in it a real building up of a storm– it is a fitting tribute to Goethe’s work, and indeed to Goethe himself, representing as it does the perfect musical expression of German Romanticism I think possible. It has the natural theme of a building storm, the theme of the individual before the wild and ruthless nature, and the feeling of grand triumph in self-realisation – I can at once see Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea Fog as well as hear Körner’s hymn to the Coalition: “Das Volk steht auf, der Sturm bricht los!”

“The Battle of Pelennor Fields” from The Lord of the Rings, the Complete Recordings: Return of the King, composed by Howard Shore, 2007.  As performed by London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Howard Shore

The heroism of Egmont is, however, a sort of individual heroism, a truly uplifting piece. “The Battle of Pelennor Fields”  is a different kind of heroic work: it captures not triumph, but determination and desperation. If one recalls the scene in the film, the music echoes the Templar mentality of the Rohirrin who ride “for ruin, and the world’s end” – one thinks of the admiration once had for the Light Brigade. It captures perfectly the sort of virile determination of war, the reckless disregard for one’s physical life when it is in the scales against one’s spirit.

Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor “Quasi una fantasia” (Op. 27), composed by Beethoven, 1801. As performed by Wilhelm Kempff

The Moonlight Sonata, is another truly perfect musical work, and perhaps Beethoven’s most haunting and other-worldly piece. It is properly called “like a fantasy”, and mixes a sort of melancholia with a ineffable feeling of contentment. It is almost, in this regard, as much a stoic piece as it is a thoroughly romantic piece – which makes it something of a paradoxical piece to say the least.

“Twentieth Century Man” from the album Muswell Hillbillies, composed by Ray Davies, 1971. As performed by The Kinks, produced by Ray Davies
OR
“Kashmir” from the album Physical Graffiti, composed by John Bonham, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant, 1975. As performed by Led Zeppelin, produced by Jimmy Page

Given two popular songs, “Kashmir” and “Twentieth Century Man”, it is impossible to choose: Kashmir captures the barren wastes of the desert, of the great wilderness – I think of Lawrence of Arabia when I hear it. Twentieth Century Man, on the other hand, is just too perfect an expression of the Conservative dilemma to leave off the list; it is an expression of self-identity for me personally just as much as Kashmir is a sort of existential song. I could do without one or the other, I suppose, but one of the two would have to be on my list.

Prelude to Te Deum (H. 146), composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, 1688/1689. As performed by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie

Finally, Charpentier’s Prelude to Te Deum is an answer to all of what I hear and feel in Wagner and Bach above — it is the triumph of the King, the great harmony of man and God, and of human hierarchy with Divine Hierarchy that summons up those feelings of love of and pride in the traditions of our ancestors, of constancy and of continuity; as a traditionalist, it is a piece that makes my heart sing – both for the musical qualities inherent to it as well as its historical context.

 

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