“The primary function of great art, that is classical art, is to convey the feelings, the deeper feelings of one person to another. This kind of communication is sacred, an old-fashioned word; it signifies the reverence of one human life for another. If one can say ‘yes, I have felt that too!’ one has the key to mutual respect, to the sacred nature of every single life,” said Raymond Beegle, an accompanist for classical vocalists. In this profound communication, we offer a kind of reconciliation, “a kind of peace treaty, the only chance for peace in the world.”
Any of the classical forms of art offer this hope, said Beegle, who currently teaches vocal accompanying at the Manhattan School of Music and writes for top classical music publications.
In thinking about how humans might be reconciled to one another through art, Beegle began his phone interview on April 28 by taking out his copy of “The Penguin Companion to Classical Music” and looking up the term” popular music,” which he sees as an antithesis to classical music.
“Popular music is defined as being smaller in dramatic and emotional scope than classical music, and its intention is to make a profit,” he quoted.
Today music is often seen with that end in mind, he said, pointing out a quote by Philip Glass: “My father ran a record store, so the first thing I learned about music is that it’s a business,” and contrasted it with a quote from a letter by Franz Schubert to his brother: “What God has given me, I give to the world, and that is an end of it.”
Or, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, he continued: “The opposite of poetry is not crime … it’s business.”
Beegle sees popular music as a business enterprise pandering to our baser nature. We are in a terrible morass of greed, violence, and an excessive focus on sexuality, he said. Popular music caters to these, fosters these.
Beegle’s conviction that the classical arts offer hope for mankind comes from the idea that they present higher ideals, viewpoints, and aspirations and that these are capable of lifting us above baser instincts and desires. They inspire us to our higher and nobler selves.
Now in his 70s, Beegle has had many years to come to this understanding. Professionally, he has performed under Igor Stravinsky’s baton, and collaborated with singers like Licia Albanese, Martial Singher, and Theresa Zyllis-Gara. He also formed the award-winning vocal chamber group New York Vocal Arts Ensemble, which won the Geneva International Music Competition, toured the world, and recorded for 35 years.
He served as a member of the music faculty at universities on both coasts and currently teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. He has written for the Opera Quarterly, Fanfare Magazine, the New York Observer, and Classical Voice, among others.
Personally, Beegle has known some famous artists quite well—artists like Licia Albanese and Zinka Milanov. Although these artists made a living with their talents, their intention was not to make money. It was all about the truth, the human heart, and sharing a deep vision.
Beethoven’s Benedictus from the ‘Missa solemnis’
Beethoven, an artist with a deep vision, is known to have said, “I love the truth more than anything.” His Benedictus from “Missa solemnis” exemplifies a deeply human truth, for although it is part of the Catholic liturgy, Beegle believes that, in a Jungian sense, the words spoken at Christ’s entry into Jerusalem carry a meaning beyond the event itself. They surmount any particular belief system.
“Stories, myths, dreams, these messages from the unconscious, often have a more profound logic and tell us more than philosophy and science can begin to tell,” Beegle said. They resonate with human truths and are often alive with consummate beauty.
“The Benedictus captures the few minutes when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and is hailed by the multitude that cried, and perhaps whispered, ‘Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord,'” he explained.
The music begins with low strings and is a “brooding, warm, sympathetic” musical portrait of Christ’s heart, knowing, as he does, that he is soon to be killed.
Suddenly a magnificent violin solo begins, which is like the Holy Spirit descending, and marks the presence of the divine in man.
And then the whole orchestra joins in muted chords “as if to say ‘Yes, this is God’s son.'” The words are sung alternately by chorus and soloists, ending with “Hosanna in the highest.”
“Underlying all of this is a steady, undulating rhythm, which represents the movement of the beast that carries Christ through this triumphant reception, past it, and into the future that awaits him.”
For Beegle, the piece shows us the ideal of mankind—its hope and love and desire for peace. It “celebrates the idea of divine possibility in humankind.”
He can only listen to this or other sublime pieces two or three times a year. “For musicians or those whose souls are susceptible, music allows rare, brief moments of ecstasy,” he said, “and then we descend again to the world.”
“But these should not be discounted.” At these times, the “tear ducts start. You feel transparent as if you were a liquid. You feel so full of gratitude for the beauty of things.”
Beegle seems to be saying that at our highest level of understanding, beauty and truth are one, and the result is a feeling of serenity and compassion.
On Beethoven’s manuscript of the “Missa solemnis” score, the composer wrote, “From my heart to the heart of the listener.”
The Effect of Great Music
The finest classical music presents “a moral obligation to its listeners. It makes you want to be a good person, to tell the truth, and do the work in front of you as best as you can,” Beegle said.
He believes these are the things that make one happy: “In my 20s, I did things to find happiness. It didn’t work. Happiness is not a goal; it is an effect.” It is a consequence of morality.
Beegle attended a concert by opera star, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who was returning to the stage after receiving treatment for a brain tumor. The singer looked “diminished but sang gloriously,” he said.
Hvorostovsky’s work, said Beegle, has always been about truth: the struggle between right and wrong, between truth and lies, between despair and hope.
After the concert the audience seemed gentler, seemed to be better people than when they entered the auditorium. “Everyone was so kind to one another; graciously moving out of one another’s way, smiling, and sharing a sense of community, peace, and connection.”
This is the effect of classical music, and this is our hope, he said.
In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see ept.ms/LookingAtClassics