Massenet’s Meditation for the Philosophically Stunted

Welcome to today’s episode of F&A’s Musical Sore Points. Sit back and get comfy, it’s a long one.

Yes, the Meditation from Thaïs is a courtesan’s moment of religious conversion.

However, that does not mean that it’s a Lifetime Movie about, “Then the slut found Jesus and was cured. The End!” This is a far more complex piece of work here. Let’s just say that it’s written by a Frenchman and hence demonstrates a more complicated attitude toward sex than the typical General-Jack-D.-Ripper attitude found in American works.

Sure, it ends with, “Then the chick dies.” Unfortunately. When a cartoon rabbit makes fun of your cliche, it’s long past time to do away with it.

However, the end of that opera is a lot more ambiguous and morally undefined than, “Then the slut found Jesus, The End.” By the end of the opera … the monk who badgered her to convert regrets what he has done and apologizes to her, telling her that he was wrong, and that she was right when she argued that love is the only real religion.

Let’s whip through the story a bit, shall we? Here you go: “Thaïs” in thirty seconds.

She’s a beautiful pagan free spirit, and a monk named Athanaël becomes obsessed with getting her to convert and give up her freewheeling ways. His boss warns him off of doing so, recognizing that Athanaël is actually simply in love/lust with her. “Don’t do it, you’ll regret it,” he says, knowing that the guy won’t listen. And Athanaël doesn’t listen, and goes to find Thaïs.

He argues with her, using all of the old cliched arguments about how sex is evil and the flesh must be renounced. She concedes that she was too careless in her life, but argues that she sinned against Love and not through Love. Athanaël disagrees and keeps arguing.

And he successfully converts her, after she takes the time for a period of reflection. This is where the “Meditation” comes from. She joins a convent. Athanaël departs, victorious but deflated because now he’ll never see her again.

However, he can’t keep his mind on his own business back at the monastery, and confesses to his boss — who guessed what was going to happen from the start and pretty much tells him, “I warned you this would happen, you jackass.”

Athanaël abandons his vows and runs off to the convent, only to find that Thaïs is — gasp of shock — dying of consumption (see Cartoon Rabbit Theater above). Before she dies, he tells her that everything he said and believed was a lie, and that she was right. Love is the only religion that matters. She is too far gone and doesn’t hear before she dies.

Not quite “Then the slut found Jesus, The End,” now is it? Who’s the Bad Guy? Is religion the answer? Is a nun better off than a free spirit? What is the moral conclusion to be drawn when a monk is revealed to be merely a man, but a courtesan becomes a saint? For the sake of a religion that was revealed as a lie?

So there’s the first part of my little diatribe — why it annoys me when people misunderstand that piece of music. Now, for the second — why it annoys me when violinists consistently misunderstand that piece of music.

Getting to the heart of all of this would require something that damned few violinists are willing to do: they’d have to actually watch the damned opera. Far better to fall back on a stunted cultural cliche than to really penetrate the complexity of the music and the story it represents.

Yes, I’ve moaned mildly about this before. Yes, it’s a sore point with me. Oh, well. Violinists can irritate me sometimes. No, not all of them — and absolutely not the best of them. But an awful lot of them are really very superficial about music. It might be due to the way that they always play the melody and so often don’t dig deeper into the structure of the music itself. They can be moderately successful merely riding the surface, but only up to a point.

I might also say that the technical challenges of the instrument itself — just getting to the point where you can get a good noise out of it — are so daunting that they can be excused for being a bit shallow in their awareness of music, but violists and cellists don’t have that excuse.

Anyway. Enough pointless complaining for the day. In other news, the C#m is at least showing a glimmer at the end of the tunnel. It was just a matter of insisting on looking for it. I think I forgot just how damned much work the Fm was, and I expected the C#m to fall together more neatly. Maybe I expected it to happen more painlessly because I’d done it a few times before, once in pretty complex fashion. I think it’s just going to be a grind all the time, though. It won’t get easier. I’ll just get better able to cope with the grind — and I have to not expect it to get any easier. Just keep grinding. Like the man below says, the music’s in there. You just have to put in the time and keep pounding.