George Steiner Asks - But Doesn't Answer

The Southbank Centre in Spring

Philosopher George Steiner's participation was a rather unexpected contribution to the Southbank Centre's Bernstein Project, a celebration of the great, late Leonard Bernstein.

On the 20th of September, as part of the Mass Rally, we can all give voice to our admiration of the much-lamented conductor, composer, and brilliant, congenial man. Even Steiner modestly tried to give the  accolade 'genius' to Bernstein alone at the beginning of his talk, he who has been called a "late, late, late Renaissance man" by no other than novelist A.S. Byatt. (No mean compliment from that corner!)

So I ambled into the Queen Elizabeth Hall full of expectation to get some answers to some very vexing questions, such as: Why is it that some music makes me sad and other makes me happy? Why can't I get rid of stupid Abba melodies from my poor head, but can't remember that beautiful song I long to sing? (Yes, I realize there are 'hooks' in Abba, sort of memory prompters, but is that all?) And seems the famous Mozart effect on babies - allowing them to absorb learning in Mummy's womb - has even been questioned, so I was up for wise words of the wise man.

But as is the case with many great expectations, I was met with concomitant disappointment.

While Steiner still asks very elegant questions, I wanted more answers! Which shows for all, plain to see, that I am no philosopher. A brilliant example of this ineptitude: To my mind, music can't be meaningless if it has been given so many meanings. Steiner demonstrated how easily a piece like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has been used by communists, fascists, and anyone really who cared to interpret it their way. Or that Rienzi, a once-famous Wagner opera, had astounding effects on both Theodor Herzl (the founder of Zionism) and a certain Mr. Hitler. A thing of beauty is a joy to many, they say, but strangely Steiner failed to mention reception aesthetics - what the listener brings to the performance influences greatly what he hears.

Similarly, interpretation makes enormous difference in performances. But that does not make music meaningless in my opinion, uneducated as it may be, unless for a true philosopher many meanings, a multiplicity, are so unacceptable as to make it meaningless? Tough all that, but very good for the stimulation of the brain cells.

Fascinating, though, was his comment that 70% of people prefer tonal music. Well, I am glad I am in a good crowd. But does that also explain why 'modern', atonal music has such small audiences? Steiner did not suggest that, but there seems to be some logic here - or am I just not up to the philosophical steps again?

Regardless, the packed Elizabeth Hall warmly applauded. How nice it must be to be a philosopher!


- The Southbank Gourmande