Dithyramb; or, how I stayed sane during a Joshua Bell tour

It was a fateful moment: the difficult, dangerous birth of an obsession.

I was perched in the airport bar, nuzzling a pale ale; to my right, heading off perpendicularly, was a row of seven businessmen: a clustered, beery loneliness. They shifted their eyes from screen to screen, from spreadsheet to departure status, from monotony to monotony; their thumbs worked at invisible Blackberries. I tore my eyes from this dolorous vision, and on my screen, next to a picture of Lang Lang, I read the following lines:

The Apollonian refers (and I paraphrase) to symmetry, invention and elegance; the Dionysian, to art more from the gut, more spontaneous.

More personal too. Dionysus had the stage when I was watching: two ambitious young people were taking part in a system that asks them to use Beethoven and Schumann as ways to sell themselves. Maybe our eminent conductor could have added another distinction to his two-sided debate: that Dionysian pianists care about Dionysian pianists, whereas Apollonian pianists care about music.

This last sentence had a truly magical effect. I looked up from my screen, belched, and with that mystical sound the seven businessmen were suddenly transformed into a panel of displeased, modernized Muses. What message, what tiding of inventory did they bring? I tipped my head up towards the arching domes of that temple of suffering known as the airport, I sniffed to savor its faint, delicious scent-intimations of jet fuel. Dude, why risk retribution? Normally I leave the Gods to take care of themselves, in the same way that I allow globs of toothpaste to congeal on my sink until Monika (my minor nymph of cleanliness) chips them away with a chisel. But clearly I had witnessed a sign. This issue of the Apollonian and the Dionysian intrigued me and I couldn’t seem to leave it, it burned in me…

I can’t explain it: I felt Dionysus needed my defense, and Apollo perhaps needed a bit of a drubbing. Not that one should offend any of the Gods.  My inner nerd was coming out of the closet.

Part I: The Quest Begins

I have long dreamed of cryogenically freezing my nasal passages for future generations to scrutinize and interpret. Therefore, on a free day in St. Paul, Minnesota, I thought I might walk to a bookstore to begin my Dionysian researches, and kill two birds with one stone …

Lone Denk, much swaddled,
Did brave breezes from the north,
And on the grandest street
Despite clasped coffee,
Was forced to flee in red-faced terror,
Nearly dropping his cell phone meanwhile.
(Apollodorus, The History of a Wandering Pianist, 1970 ff.)

Unable to walk, I availed myself of an odiferous taxicab, and arrived at Garrison Keillor’s wonderful bookstore, Common Grounds, where—like the Sphinx incarnate—I tormented the innocent staff with my queries. (Any popular biographies on Dionysus? Any exposés on Apollo?) Through the veil of their Midwestern insouciance, they did not seem to realize what an urgent, earthshaking issue this was. But I was valiantly annoying and persuasively irritating.

I learned some Crucial Godly Dirt on Apollo. Apparently (gasp) he fell in love with a boy, Hyacinthus, and then bashed the boy’s skull to bits with a discus. I would consider this a dating faux pas—but myths are chock full of these kinds of fun, lighthearted hijinks. History seems to blame the jealous West Wind for Hyacinthus’ gruesome death, but here’s my feeling: if you can’t deal with a breeze as a romantic rival, what kind of God are you anyway?

Score one for Dionysus.

Part II: The Plot Thickens, Like Delicious Custard

I left the bookstore in possession of merely one volume: Nietszche’s The Birth of Tragedy. What a pageturner! Later that evening, I consumed an ungodly large piece of banana creme pie, and took to my bed in orgiastic reclining abundance, my stomach resounding magnificently in a revelrous combination of iambs and trochees.

Gurgle and wine-dark gurgle
O, gurgle, on pillowy Olympus
Gurgle Denk gurgle.
(Callimachus, The Ionian Pie, lines 2032-2034)

(… It is difficult in translation to capture the masculine vigor, the rhythmic power of the original …)

With pie interred, and Prison Break flickering idly on the television, I settled down to digest Nietzsche’s account of the Apollo-Dionysus dualism:

The joyous necessity of the dream experience has been embodied by the Greeks in their Apollo … the deity of light is also ruler of the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy …

But we must also include in our image of Apollo that delicate boundary which the dream image must not overstep lest it have a pathological effect … We must keep in mind that measured restraint, that freedom from the wilder emotions, that calm of the sculptor god. … we might apply to Apollo the words of Schopenhauer … ‘Just as in a stormy sea that, unbounded in all directions, raises and drops mountainous waves, howling, a sailor sits in a boat and trusts in its frail bark: so in the midst of a world of torments the individual human being sits quietly, supported by and trusting in the principum individuationis.’ In fact, we might say of Apollo that in him the unshaken faith in this principium and the calm repose of the man wrapped up in it receive their most sublime expression …

In the same work Schopenhauer has depicted for us the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumbfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena because the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception. If we add to this terror the blissful ecstasy that wells up from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication…

Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man … Transform Beethoven’s ‘Hymn to Joy’ into a painting; let your imagination conceive the multitudes bowing to the dust, awestruck–then you will approach the Dionysian … each one feels himself as one with his neighbor … (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, tr. Kaufmann)

Well said, Nietzsche baby!  Maybe I had written you off as a nutbag too soon!  I love that bit: “where the principle of sufficient reason … seems to suffer an exception.” My whole life is an exception from sufficient reason.

It would seem, in Nietszche’s view, that the Dionysian surrenders, loses him or herself, becomes “self-less,” a servant of the god … Whereas the Apollonian, seeing images “outside himself as objects of contemplation,” is still very much contained within the principle of the self. This seemed a bit different from the image of the Dionysian pianist in love with him- or her- self, as proposed by the author of those fateful lines which inspired my studies …

I surrendered my self to sleep. I would avenge Dionysus; I would be the Bruce Willis of Greek myth.

Part III: I Seek Dionysian Mysteries

I had to play some silly concerts; then I got back to “work.”

It is well known that Dionysus favored raw meat …

—He is sweet upon the mountains. He drops to the earth from the running-packs.
He wears the holy fawn-skin. He hunts the wild goat and kills it.
He delights in the raw flesh.
(—Euripides, The Bacchae, lines 135-137, tr. William Arrowsmith)

I was upon no mountaintop; I was in the student union of Indiana University. The best I could do, my closest approximation, was to procure a Pizza Hut Meat Lover’s Pizza, and settle myself down on the cool, soothing linoleum of the IU Bookstore … amid the Classics Section. My fingers, I believe, are still greasy from this mystical encounter, this frenzy of Bacchic sauce and dough, which has done wonders for my legato.

Part IV: Apollo Wins a Music Competition

Thus ensconced, begreased, sated, I had ample time to consult Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. It seems that Apollo was an fierce competitor:

Marsyas stumbled upon [Athena’s] flute, which he had no sooner put to his lips than it played of itself, inspired by the memory of Athena’s music; and he went about Phrygia … delighting the ignorant peasants. They cried out that Apollo himself could not have made better music, even on his lyre, and Marsyas was foolish enough not to contradict them. This, of course, provoked the anger of Apollo, who invited him to a contest, the winner of which should inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the loser. Marsyas consented, and Apollo impaneled the Muses as a jury. The contest proved an equal one, the Muses being charmed by both instruments, until Apollo cried out to Marsyas: ‘I challenge you to do with your instrument as much as I can do with mine.’ [Note: Apollo is no stranger to double entendre!] ‘Turn it upside down, and both play and sing at the same time.’

This, with a flute, was manifestly impossible, and Marsyas failed …

Does this not seem like kind of a cheap trick to win a competition? Especially for a God. Of course you can’t sing and play the flute at the same time. But it gets worse:

… Apollo reversed his lyre, and sang such delightful hymns in honor of the Olympian gods that the Muses could not do less than give the verdict in his favor. Then, for all his pretended sweetness, Apollo took a most cruel revenge on Marsyas: flaying him alive and nailing his skin to a pine tree …

(Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, 1972, p. 77)

Apollo was among the first to propose a music competition. That alone would be the darkest imaginable mark on his record, an utterly unforgivable sin. But then, after he wins by subterfuge—like a jerk—he is not particularly gracious in victory.

Whereas: Dionysus never even gets involved in a music contest to begin with… In my opinion, Dionysus 2, Apollo 0.

Part V: The Voice of the Skeptics

I called my neighbor to assist me with this crucial research. Her response was not entirely encouraging.

Jeremy, with all the things you have to do
Why are you obsessed with Dionysus?
And at what temperature do you roast your chicken?
(Aeschylus, The Knowledgeable Woman of 91st Street, lines 212-215)

Part VI: Apollo wins ANOTHER music competition, and is not very nice, AGAIN

Apollo and Pan seem to have gotten in a little tiff … this tiff is commemorated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as a Bach Cantata (BWV 201: Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan). Yes, another music competition: it seems Apollo is one of these “competition lyrists” one hears so much about; perhaps he is (was?) not the high-minded pure musician we all suppose!

How insecure do you have to be to keep proposing competitions with every promising young artist who comes down the pike? Perhaps THIS insecure:

Only Midas—no one else—
Protested, said the verdict was unjust.
Apollo cannot suffer that affront:
He can’t allow such stupid ears to vaunt
Their human shape; and so he made them longer,
And added gray and shaggy hair …

This was the only punishment of Midas:
To wear the ears of a slow-moving ass…
(Ovid’s Metamorphoses, XI, tr. Mandelbaum)

So, let’s get this straight. Apollo wins the damn thing, and only one person disagrees with the jury’s verdict. Apollo cannot tolerate the slightest dissension, and he transforms Midas’ ears into donkey ears as punishment.

Dionysus: 3, Apollo: 0. If I could give Apollo a negative score at this point, I would.

Part VII: Who Killed Orpheus?

The attentive reader at this point might suspect, vis-a-vis my scholarly inquiries, that I am “fair and balanced” somewhat in the spirit of Fox News: paying close attention to Apollo’s faults, while downplaying all of Dionysus’. Mea culpa. I think one can say, safely, that occasionally the Dionysian follower can get a bit out of control. For instance, on a fine day, Orpheus is just minding his own business, playing a run-out concert in the sticks somewhere:

Such were the songs of Orpheus; with these
The Thracian poet charmed the woodland trees
And souls of savage beasts; even the stones
Were held in thrall by Orpheus’ tender tones.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI)

When suddenly, the gig goes terribly terribly wrong; a bevy of Bacchantes (followers of Dionysus) goes all spring break on him:

But now the Thracian women—all had cast
the hides of beasts around their frenzied breasts—
down from a high hilltop, spied Orpheus
as he attuned his lyre and his sweet voice …

… Nothing now can check the wild attack;
Fanatic Fury whips their rage. In truth,
the song of Orpheus could have subdued
all of their weapons; but his lyre is drowned
by shrieks and caterwauls, the raucous sounds
of drums and twisted Berecynthian flutes,
Baccantes pounding hands, and strident howls.
and so at last the stones were stained with blood,
the blood of one whose voice could not be heard.

(Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI, tr. Mandelbaum)

So, Dionysians killed Orpheus! What a cad! Dionysus clearly hates music! But, wait …

But Bacchus would not leave that crime unscourged.
His grief was great; and to avenge the loss
Of Orpheus, the poet who had sung
Of Bacchus’ sacred mysteries, the god
At once bound fast with twisting roots all those
Who’d shared in such a crime.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, tr. Mandelbaum)

I’m so confused. Who’s responsible? I need closure, here. The following passage from Graves did not help matters, one little bit:

In Classical Greece … Orpheus did not come in conflict with the cult of Dionysus; he was Dionysus, and he played the rude alder-pipe, not the civilized lyre … Apollodorus (i.3.2) credits him with having invented the Mysteries of Dionysus.

Nor this one …

… Orphic priests … [distinguished] Dionysus, the god of the senses, from Apollo the god of the intellect. This explains why the head of Orpheus was laid up in Dionysus’s sanctuary, but the lyre in Apollo’s. Head and lyre are both said to have drifted to Lesbos, which was the chief seat of lyric music …
(both quotes: Graves, p. 114)

So did Dionysus kill Orpheus because Orpheus was worshipping Apollo, or was Dionysus Orpheus, one and the same, and … were they all Lesbians? My head spun in frenzies and I began to regret ever beginning this scholarly quest.

Part VIII: Jeremy Talks Turkey

Suppose we admit that it is often annoying to look at people gesture wildly and make faces while they play, especially if you are not generously inclined towards them in the first place.

Now, having admitted this, let us examine the question of the perfectly still artist. My assertions may involve some sacrilege, I am sorry to say. Let us pose the example of Jascha Heifetz, a god-performer if there ever was one. He stands tremendously still while playing, gazing with laser Jascha-vision upon his own fingers at work. It is all result, no theatre (except of course for the theatre of his stillness…) He is Apollo, the living embodiment of the principium individuationis. Now, are there other people out there who feel like I do: that Heifetz, while impressing me and astounding me to the bottom of my being, does not give me the warm and fuzzies? That if I really wanted to enjoy some of the violin repertoire, in a “spiritually satisfying” way (whatever that means), I would probably not choose my Heifetz recording of X? I would never want to hear him play, for instance, the “Archduke” Trio … to choose a random example of a piece that I am attached to deeply, suffused with human, tender lyricism that I feel Heifetz would never be able to capture. Heifetz to me seems unable to accept the vulnerability of the self to something greater than the self; that is an ingredient I refuse to do without.

Wow, I’m going to get into trouble saying that. But I feel it is true. And when I see those famous videos of Heifetz teaching, I realize: yes, Heifetz is truly revealed as a god, in the sense of being cruel and arbitrary, capricious and inhumane. All his rigor of thought, his knowledge and wisdom, is saved for himself and his own playing; and it finds form towards others only in mockery. The rigor of his mockery is impressive. He seems like he would affix ass-ears on his detractors. He is in love with his own image as god, and it is sad to see. It is true, the classical music world seems to enable this god-behavior, to approve of it, despite its transparent pitfalls…

Now, I feel totally differently about Rubinstein, whose playing I adore: humane, generous. But even, sometimes, I feel his pose of stillness at the piano is just that: a pose. I have wonderful video at home of Rubinstein playing Schumann Fantasiestücke, and he gazes up at the ceiling and he lifts his arms dramatically, and it is all wonderful … not theatrical, but of a piece with the expression: pure, sincere Romanticism. His motions seem a balletic version of certain impulses within the music, a dialogue with the music which allows his arms to fall at the right moment, which allows certain upbeats to happen in certain ways, which allow different structural moments within the music to be felt as “changes of aspect”: the change in body language corresponds perfectly to the changes of harmonic motion.  There is no question of motion vs. sound.

This is my favorite sort of Rubsintein.  But sometimes don’t you feel that some of his recordings are too self-consciously Apollonian, purged of expression to the point of being statues, instead of gracefully etched motion? Maybe some of you feel, as I do, that on rare occasions the pose of the observing artist got to him?

I think we need to glorify efficiency of motion cautiously. The fetish of stillness at the piano can become its own kind of restriction, a kind of profundity-esque masking emptiness. I have seen some very well-known artists play recitals, and be perfectly still, and I have watched their stillness translate with eerie precision into what was heard, into the musical thought: i.e. nothing was said, nothing was done. It was magnificently efficient motion in cold-blooded pursuit of absence of content, absence of meaning, absence of beauty. Michelangeli leaps to mind. (Ouch, I’m going to get in trouble for that too!)

My own teacher, Sebok, was a model of stillness at the piano. I think it is safe to say I am not, despite my best and ongoing efforts. (I idolized him and his Apollonian musicianship.) And yet he almost never mentioned my faces or motions during all of my years studying with him. He was harsh on me in the contrary sense: he talked mainly about ways to increase my range of motion … of course, not theatrical motion, gazing at the ceiling, etc… but range of motion in the places it counted, arm wrist elbow finger shoulder: motion as it related to a wider repertoire of expression. And he would say:

Motion is not necessarily important, but mobility is indispensable.

Part IX: The Dionysian Artist Who Cares About Music

Paradox: Stravinsky was an Apollonian, I think we need not argue about that. But what could be more beautiful than the “Dithyramb” from the Duo Concertante?

Let us return to the sentence which began this whole thing:

… Dionysian pianists care about Dionysian pianists, whereas Apollonian pianists care about music.

King Pentheus was punished quite severely for not acknowledging the divinity of Dionysus: he was torn to pieces by his own mother. But the author of this quoted sentence is watching piano competition documentaries of his own volition. This suggests a significant capacity for enduring suffering: perhaps more than any torment the Gods could devise. Let’s be more generous than the Gods are, and admit that the author has a point, with which we often agree, and yet not always. Let us suggest that Dionysus cannot or should not be excluded from music …

Is my point, after all this, merely the same as Nietzsche’s? That art is a fusion of the Dionysian and Apollonian? I confess I have another, more dangerous inclination: let’s tell the Gods to go to hell, and make music not for their sakes, but for music, pleasure, sadness, delight, pain, and love …

Death is not part of life. Death is not lived through. If we think of eternity not as endless duration, but as timelessness, then he who lives in the moment lives eternally.

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)

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  1. Christina
    Posted February 25, 2008 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be.
    — Nietzsche, “On the Genealogy of Morals”

  2. bob
    Posted February 25, 2008 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    what an apollonian entry!

  3. Joe
    Posted February 25, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Might I recommend a very clever novel I recently read about the Olympian Gods sharing a house in London? Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips.

    I don’t care what movements a performer makes (I often close my eyes or, lately, watch the pedaling). I would pour out a libation, however, to any god who can stop pianists from humming or moaning or groaning or breathing so loudly that their nose whistle is in a different key from the tonic or dominant of the piece. Can’t some god press the human “mute” button?

  4. Posted February 26, 2008 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I had read that same article and wondered if it would serve as a springboard for your writing, and, lo and behold, your Dithyramb. Admittedly, I’m still re-reading, contemplating your latest entry, but in the meantime… Since you mentioned Rubinstein playing Schumann, do you think Florestan and Eeusebius come into play here? Or just come in to play? And just what would Meister Raro have to say about this subject?

  5. Posted February 27, 2008 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    I loved this post, Denk, best one yet. Made me laugh off a whole flu bug.

    Reminds me of a ‘Piano Festival’ that I had to suffer through recently at a local university. The faculty performers ranged from ghastly to flashy, but the attempts at Dionysian abandon were ubiquitous. When, over lunch, a student parent asked rather plaintively, “Is all of that moving around for show?” I really didn’t know what to say. 98% of it had been. Really, really embarrassing. We’re not talking Rubinstein, here. Think Frankenstein’s monster on meth. Think George Bush trying to roll off 3-syllable vocab…

    How do you explain the difference between natural follow-through and “Are you looking at ME” gesticulation? Especially when executed by a displaced engineer?

    Told the poor lady that if it made her notice the music, then it was Real McCoy (that even Apollo would approve– HAH!–consensus at last!) and that if it made her notice the pianist instead, then she probably had a weenie on her hands.

  6. msk
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful and hilarious post… having seen a number of performers of all types spanning the scale from absolute stillness and wild gesticulation, I would say both are overly theatrical. Somewhere in the middle is a natural space where I think many performers feel and play best: where they can move as the music moves them (after all, music does have rhythm).

    Non-classical example: I started playing guitar in a blues band as a teenager, and at that age, I wanted to look as cool as possible on stage. For some reason I thought that meant being still, with no expression, imagining that it conveyed that what I was doing was completely effortless. The effect, though, was more “boring” than “effortless.” The bandleader said, “You sound good. Try looking like you enjoy it, if you want the audience to enjoy it too.”

    So I began what I thought was pure theatricality: smiling, dancing a little. Soon I discovered that I was enjoying myself a lot more, it actually felt much more natural than standing still and looking imperiously bored, and it made my playing better and more inventive.

    Maybe the example doesn’t apply because it is non-classical, but having also played some classical music, and many other genres, I suspect that it does. At the very least, a little movement (dancing) helps impart the sound of rhythmic authority.

  7. Donna
    Posted February 29, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Amen, especially to your last sentence.

    And the mystery of why the scent of pepperoni and sausage is still wafting through the IU Bookstore’s first floor is now solved.

  8. A
    Posted March 2, 2008 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    “His motions seem a balletic version of certain impulses within the music…”


  9. Posted March 5, 2008 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I read said post and thought it was intellectually lazy, which you are, apparently, not.

    I immediately thought of Uchida, whom I find endless engaging, but who is, it seems, quite demonstrative.


  10. Posted March 5, 2008 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Forgive me for posting twice in a row, but:

    1. This is ghoulish http://www.jaschaheifetz.com/shopping/index.html

    2. Rubinstein master class:


  11. Anne Marie
    Posted March 7, 2008 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Well, as regards moving and grooving pianists, the most still performer I ever saw was a friend in college who was blind. He was so still it was almost distracting to watch him, as used to emotive motion as I was. But if I closed my eyes, he was one of the most expressive pianists I ever heard. So, how much of the moving around pianists do is a learned behavior from seeing other people swaying to and fro, and side to side? I don’t think my friend knew that moving was generally expected while performing. He just moved his arms very precisely to where they needed to be and played with his body completely still.

    Moving around is not required, although it’s very satisfying (for me and many others). But does the satisfaction arise from the impression we feel we’re making on the viewer of how hard we’re working, or how full of emotion we are? Or is it just satisfying to move your body to the music like a dancer? Or, again, do we just think it’s the way it should look to perform? Some clarinetists play with the bell of their instrument fixed between their knees most or all of the time. But it’s undeniably exciting when they are overcome and the clarinet leaps away from their body and starts swaying to the music. Or how about when a horn player lifts the bell off their knee to let the brassy tone ring out? Very dramatic and exciting, although you can actually make the same sound without the lift. Psychologically it’s a wild and crazy thing to do, though. Makes you play louder and wilder.

    Well, there’s my thoughts on the matter, although you’ve now got me trying to remember an essay I read about 20 years ago in an aesthetics class about Apollonian vs. Dionysian art…

  12. Posted March 12, 2008 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Lee Lewis

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