Artist-Prophets and Oedipalism
Saturday, March 10, 2007, 5:16:48 AM

I think Brahms and many other mid 19th century composers might indeed be related to the topic we are discussing, which might be referred to as the Oedipal Artist-Prophet. The idea is a bit complicated, but perhaps there are a few interested in a more serious discussion.

To understand, we have to look at a bit of history. The rise of 19th century cultural nationalism had a profound affect on music, including cultural revivals among Slavs, Italians, and Germans. This nationalism strongly influenced the music of the day and led to a cultural conception that might be referred to as the artist-prophet, a transcendentally inspired hero-artist, who spoke as the voice of "his" nation. Composers such as Wagner, Dvorak, and Verdi, fulfilled such a role, and helped emerging European countries assert their ethnic identity and aspirations to national existence.

The artist-prophet was also seen as a revolutionary, since cultural nationalism was destroying the still reigning social structures of feudalism. The artist-prophet, with his creative genius, was to maintain a pattern of destruction and rebirth that would renew the vigor and identity of nations (and ethnic groups) through cultural innovation.

For the first time, classical music became a genre deeply conscious of its history. It became a practice to re-evalute the past masters and emulate them as manifestations of national and ethnic genius. Bach and Beethoven were rediscovered. Brahms, for example, religiously studied and emulated them. Due to the ethos of historical continuity in cultural nationalism, Brahms became the first academic composer.

The revolutionary character of the 19th century artist-prophet established the foundations of modernism. The literary historian, Anne Douglas, even suggests that by the early 20th century, the modernists created a form of “cultural matricide” devoted to disempowering and destroying the anachronistic and matriarchal values of Victorianism. This might one of several reasons the modernist artist-prophets took on an especially masculinist character.

They also represented a rather obvious Oedipal psychology. The artist-prophet was to destroy the father and replace his achievements with his own new revolutionary view that would reinvigorate the nation with his “superior seed.” It became de rigueur to polemicize against the preceding generation of composers, to destroy and replace them.

We see the manifestations of modernist Oedipalism even in this discussion, the young studs jeering at the curmudgeons. New music, which is still utterly dominated by men, often shares an ethos that, on a psychological level, is not so different than the massive subwoofers blasting in a teenager's car. “Look at me. Look at me. I am here. My seed is good. I am looking for a female. I will get you all the bananas you want, Baby.” Cutlivated people, of course, are much more subtle, but the ethos is similar.

The Oedipal masculinism of the artist-prophet also helps us understand why composition and conducting remain the most male dominated of all the arts. The m/f ratios for messages in forums like NMB and Sequenza 21 remains around 70 to 1. There are probably very basic psychological reasons why women do not want to participate in these pissing contests. For reasons that might be biological, Oedipalism seems to affect men more than women.

It may be that women will only gain equality in composition when we entirely reinvent our conception of the composers purpose and function. The Oedipal artist-prophet is already about 150 years old. That conception of the composer will eventually pass, just as those before them. In the meantime, the “young studs” will continue to rebel against “the old alpha males,” not only for basic psychological reasons, but also because that is our definition of what a composer does.

Anyway, that is at least a small part of what I hear in Brahms. And ironically, like an artist-prophet, I am looking for a new world.

William Osborne