The best religious conservative song ever

Sting-cover … is by Sting. From his 1999 Brand New Day album.

If you like, listen to the song while reading the lyrics below (YouTube version here). Then further below are the lyrics with my thematic-dramatic-arc notes added.

“Fill Her Up”

Mobil station
Where I stand
This old gas pump
In my hand.

The boss don’t like me
A face like a weasel
All on my hands
The smell of diesel.

Here come a big shot
Here he come!
From the city
God damn!
V-8 engine
She runs so pretty.
Fill ‘er up, son
I need a full tank of gas
where I’m headed

Up in the front seat
A pretty red head,
We’re going to Vegas
We’re gonna get wed
So fill her up, son!
Don’t be starin’
Yeah, that’s a real diamond she be wearin’

I’m gonna treat my baby one day.
I’m gonna fill ‘er up and head west.
That’s it
I’m gonna find some money all right.

See orange tail lights headed west
I got no money to invest
I got no prospects
Or education
I was lucky to get the job at this gas station.

That old cash box
That old cash box
On the top shelf
On the top shelf
The boss is sleeping
The boss is sleeping
I’ll just help myself.
Let’s consider this
As just a loan
I can sort it out later on the phone.

I’m gonna pick my girl up tonight
I’m gonna fill ‘er up and head west
I’m gonna show her all the bright lights
We’re gonna say we lived ‘fore we come home.

And as I head through the woods on the way back
The evening sun is slanting through the pine trees real pretty
It’s like I walked into a glade of heaven
And there’s music playing
And this money is cold in my hand and a voice somewhere is saying:
Why would you want to take that stolen thing?
What real happiness can it bring?

Ohhh Ahhhohhhh Ohhhh
You’re gonna fill her up with sadness
You’re gonna fill her up with shame
You’re gonna fill her up with sorrow before she even takes your name
You’re gonna fill her up with badness
You’re gonna fill her up with pain
You’re gonna live with no tomorrow
You’re gonna fill her up with hate
You’re gonna fill her up darkness
You’re gonna fill her up with light

You gotta fill her up with Jesus!
You gotta fill her up with light!
You gotta fill her up with spirit
You’ve gotta fill her up with faith
You gotta fill her up with heaven
You’ve got the rest of life to face
You’ve gotta fill her up right away
You’ve gotta fill her up with faith
You’ve gotta fill her up with babies
You’ve gotta fill her up with this way
You’re gonna love that girl forever
Your gonna fill her up for life
You’re gonna be her loving husband
She gonna be your lovely wife
You’ve gotta fill her up with gladness.
You gotta fill her up with joy
You gotta fill her up with love
You gotta fill her up with love …

* * *

Here is my gloss: the lyrics on the left side and my theme-notes on the right side.




I am neither religious nor conservative, but I like this song very much, both musically and thematically.

It captures one strain of religious conservatism: the kind that wants one to live morally upright life — but for that to be integrated with a happy life filled with real value in this world — that recognizes the pull of temptations to take shortcuts — but holds that even the most common of common people can decide the proper course for themselves and successfully embark upon it.

The title is an over-statement, perhaps. Maybe it’s the best American religious conservative song. I’m thinking of the stereotype of optimistic-American-everyman-of-humble-origins who combines practical worldliness with religion. But I am open to suggestion.

Humor: Herbert von Karajan and God

An amusing jibe at the great conductor Herbert von Karajan, whose perfectionism and sometimes-authoritarian leadership style could cause enmity.

“St. Peter calls upon Freud and tells him that God is evidently in need of psychiatric help. ‘I should be glad to help, but tell me, what seem to be His symptoms?’ asked Freud. ‘God thinks he is Karajan.'”

Source: George R. Marek, Toscanini (Atheneum, 1975), p. 27.

How great artists become great — Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky

From Igor Stravinky’s Autobiography:

“For me, as a creative musician, composition is a daily function that I feel compelled to discharge. I compose because I am made for that and cannot do otherwise.Stravinsky,I Just as any organ atrophies unless kept in a state of constant activity, so the faculty of composition becomes enfeebled and dulled unless kept up by effort and practice. The uninitiated imagine that one must await inspiration in order to create. That is a mistake. I am far from saying that there is no such thing as inspiration; quite the opposite. It is found as a driving force in every kind of human activity, and is in no wise peculiar to artists. But that force is only brought into action by an effort, and that effort is work.”

Stravinsky quotes Tchaikovsky from one of his letters: “Since I begantchaikovsky-kuznetsov-200x261 to compose I have made it my object to be, in my craft, what the most illustrious masters were in theirs; that is to say, I wanted to be, like them, an artisan, just as a shoemaker is …. [They] composed their immortal works exactly as a shoemaker makes shoes; that is to say, day in, day out, and for the most part to order.”

How great artists become great (Michelangelo, Beethoven).
More on how great artists become great (Liszt).
Yet more on how great artists become great (Rodin).

Creative geniuses as selfish — Beethoven version

How did Beethoven become Beethoven?

“The ‘personality’ of such a man as Beethoven is a slowly developed synthetic whole. It is formed by the gradual combination of its constituent elements into an organic unity. For the development of a personality a rich and profound inner life is necessary, and for that reason it is usually only great artists and religious teachers who impress us as being complete persons. beethoven_hornemannAmongst the elements constitutive of Beethoven’s personality we must include his lack of malleability. This quality made him almost immune from purely external influences. Thus he was impervious to criticism; his manners were atrocious; he ignored conventions; he was permanently subject to no social passions, not even sexual love. The low standard of education he achieved seems to have been as much due to his lack of plasticity as to his lack of opportunities. He was not an educable man. He accepted none of the schemes of thought or conduct current in his time; it is doubtful whether he was even fully aware of their existence. He remained utterly faithful to his own experience. It is for this reason that his affirmative utterances, as in the Credo of the Mass in D, have such unexampled weight. Such utterances spring solely from his own personal and tested experience.”

Source: J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), p. 44. A rough e-pub version is online here. (Parts of Sullivan’s description of Beethoven read like a description of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Sullivan’s book was published in 1927 and Rand’s in 1943.)

Creative geniuses as selfish — Rachmaninoff version.
Creative geniuses as selfish — Richard Wagner version.
Creative geniuses as selfish — Maria Callas version.
How great artists became great (Beethoven and Michelangelo).

Beethoven on the metaphysics of music

A fascinating passage, reported by a young woman named Elizabeth Brentano,[1] who was a friend of Goethe and who met Beethoven in 1810. Here are Beethoven’s own words, according to Brentano:

“When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. beethoven-ludwigWhen they are again become sober they have drawn from the sea all that they brought with them, all that they can bring with them to dry land. I have not a single friend, I must live alone. But well I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with Him without fear; I have always recognized and understood Him and have no fear for my music — it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves.”
“Music, verily, is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life.
“Speak to Goethe about me. Tell him to hear my symphonies and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”

That’s from J. W. N. Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development.[2] Sullivan reports that Brentano was intelligent and artistically sensitive but not known for her strict truthfulness, so how close the passage is to Beethoven’s actual views is unknown.

But it’s an important passage, Sullivan argues, because it “is almost the only evidence we have as to Beethoven’s conception of the function of music.”[3]

Sullivan’s own thesis about Beethoven is that “the development and transformation of Beethoven’s attitude towards life, the result of certain root experiences can, I believe, be traced in his music.” That is, Beethoven became a particular person as a result of his life experiences, experiences that “do not happen once for all” but “have a life of their own” and “continue to modify the man’s whole attitude towards life.” beethoven-bustBecoming the particular person that Ludwig van Beethoven was as a man was then integral to Beethoven the composer: “in his greatest music Beethoven was primarily concerned to express his personal vision of life.”[4]

The Beethoven passage seems to suggest that Beethoven sees himself as a sort of prophet revealing higher truths — that is, Beethoven’s music is a statement of truths drawn from a religious dimension, perhaps from God himself. Sullivan’s passage, by contrast, seems to suggest that Beethoven communicates Beethoven’s own philosophy — that is, his music is an expression of Beethoven’s view of life as he experienced it.

It’s the difference between (a) Beethoven’s being a reporter who gives creative expression to truths revealed to him by another source, and (b) Beethoven’s being a creator who expresses his own beliefs about what’s true.

An issue of emphasis, perhaps, and the passage from Beethoven is open to interpretation; but it takes us into the deep questions about music.

[1] Some have speculated that Elizabeth was Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, e.g., Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (Schirmer Books, 1977), Chapter 15.
[2] J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), pp. 3-4. A rough e-pub version is online here.
[3] Sullivan, p. 5.
[4] Sullivan, pp. vii-viii.

Related: “Beethoven’s romantic fatalism” and my other music-related posts.

Beethoven’s romantic fatalism

To start — three sensitive commentators on the meaning of Beethoven’s music.

* Hermann Hesse, the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, in Steppenwolf, contrasting Mozart to Beethoven (and to Kleist, who committed suicide at age 34):
“You have lent a deaf ear to those that plumbed the depths and suppressed the voices that told the truth of despair, and not in yourself only but also in Kleist and Beethoven. … [Mozart’s] The Magic Flutehermann-hesse-75px presents life to us as a wondrous song. It honours our feelings, transient, as they are, as something eternal and divine. It agrees neither with Herr von Kleist nor with Herr Beethoven. It preaches optimism and faith.”[1]

* J. W. N. Sullivan, the art critic and mathematician, in his classic study, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development:
“To Beethoven the character of life as suffering became a fundamental part of his life outlook.”
“To compare the ninth symphony with the fifth is to realize how greatly this man had grown in stature. That early, almost boyish idea of fate has become a much profounder conception in this first movement. Fate is no longer personified sullivanjwn-75pxas some sort of powerful enemy that sufficient courage can defy, even if hopelessly. It is now a truly universal destiny, too complete to evoke any thought of resistance. The brooding mystery from which the theme emerges is, like the primeval darkness that preceded creation, something that conditions the human world, but which is not part of it. And this extra-human power, as presented to us here, has nothing benevolent about it, necessary as it may be for the moulding of the human soul. As the answer to this fate theme Beethoven gives us no more than submission and resignation.”[2]

* Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher, responding to a question, What do you think of the work of Beethoven?:
ayn-rand_dollar-pin-75px“He is a great composer, but I can’t stand him. Music expresses a sense of life — an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man’s heroic fight against destiny, and man’s defeat.”[3]

I am not a music professional, but I can report that I always find Beethoven’s music to be both very powerful and very saddening. At the same time, his music has surging and uplifting elements with great energy, and I respond positively to those elements. So, like many others, I wonder how that fits with the experts’ claim that his music is negative and pessimistic.

My only contribution is a philosophical hypothesis in two parts. One is that Beethoven’s music engages with the great themes, and when we listen we too engage with those themes, which elevates us as humans. We respond positively to any profound statement or experience of the human condition, even if we do not agree with it fully intellectually or emotionally.

The other part is that philosophical art involves two interrelated elements: a deep theme (a metaphysics) and an evaluative response to that theme (a value judgment). Beethoven’s major music combines two elements: an expression about the truth about the universe and an expression of his human response to that truth.

beethoven-drawingSuppose that Beethoven’s music tells us that the universe crushes everything, as our sensitive critics above suggest.[4] That’s negative metaphysics. But how does one respond to that negative truth? That’s a value choice. Does one give in quietly — or moan and groan and bitch about it — or divert oneself with other activities — or take on the universe in glorious battle?

Interestingly, while our critics agree that Beethoven’s musical universe is malevolent, they differ over his value response: Hesse speaks of despair, while Rand speaks of a doomed, heroic fight against destiny, while Sullivan speaks of suffering, hopeless defiance, or resignation depending on which period of Beethoven’s music one is considering.

Compositionally, the longer pieces develop the elements separately (e.g., movements about Fate manifesting itself, other movements focused on gathering one’s strength and resolve), and then bring them together (e.g., movements in which the battle is joined). So it makes sense that one would respond positively to the positive elements when experienced in isolation. We respond humanly to the approach of great challenges, inner strength’s waxing and waning, the give-and-take of an all-consuming battle. All of those are powerfully expressed in Beethoven’s music, and any vital human will respond affirmatively and even thrillingly to them. masque_de_beethoven-75pxWhat Beethoven adds, though, is an ultimate resolution of defeat, and that is the broadest framing context for his major music.

My label for music like Beethoven’s is romantic fatalism. One is condemned to a tragic fate, but one accepts it and asserts oneself against it, all the while knowing that one will be crushed. Dying while fighting a hopeless cause is the greatest value, and life is the most hopeless cause of all. But one simultaneously asserts one’s life and embraces its dissolution.[5]

[1] Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (Modern Library, 1963), pp. 106, 107.
[2] J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), pp. 43, 143. A e-version is online here.
[3] Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 226.
[4] A clear example is the opening of the Fifth, which Beethoven referred to as “Fate knocking at the door.” This excerpt works with a graphic representation of each instrument group.
[5] Nietzsche’s amor fati strikes me as a philosophical expression of the same theme as Beethoven’s music.

Related: Other music-related posts.

Music and sense of life: Shostakovich version

The philosophical nature of art, as illustrated by Dmitri Shostakovich’s comments on the purpose of his music, from his autobiographical Testimony. Shostakovich’s words in quotation marks are followed by my gloss in brackets.

shostakovich-dmitri-1“For some reason, people think that music must tell us only about the pinnacles of the human spirit, or at least about highly romantic villains. But there are very few heroes or villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They’re gray. A dirty shade of gray.”
[An artist’s subject should be: how most people are. Morally, most people are a mixture of good and bad with the bad dominant.]

“And it’s in that vague middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place.”
[History is made by the average.]

“It’s a huge ant hill in which we all crawl. In the majority of cases, our destinies are bad. We are treated harshly and cruelly. And as soon as someone crawls a little higher, he’s ready to torture and humiliate others.”shostakovich-2
[Humans are insignificant creatures like ants. Life usually ends badly. Our social relations are predatory win/lose. (See Genghis Khan and Sigmund Freud.)]

“You must write about the majority of people and for the majority. And you must write the truth — then it can be called realistic art. … . To the extent of my ability I tried to write about these people, about their completely average, commonplace dreams and hopes, and about their suspicious tendency toward murder.”
[Realism is defined as art for the majority about the majority. I put all of my artistic talent and energy in the service of portraying the grubby ordinary.]

By implication, aesthetic Romanticism’s emphasis on life as an adventure, on real heroes and villains, and its sense that good should win over bad — is simply wrong metaphysically.

Source: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 94.