The Minor Fall, The Major Lift, darksome scourge of culture journalists everywhere, claims to be calling it quits. Now we can write lazy sentences with impunity. Yet a sadness grows.
The Minor Fall, The Major Lift, darksome scourge of culture journalists everywhere, claims to be calling it quits. Now we can write lazy sentences with impunity. Yet a sadness grows.
September 20, 2004 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, September 27, 2004
The breathtaking profanity of Mozart’s letters — “Whoever doesn’t believe me may lick me, world without end,” and so on — has led one British researcher to conclude recently that the composer had Tourette’s syndrome. What’s interesting about this theory, which has become the goofball classical-music news item of the season, is that anyone would actually need a far-fetched medical explanation for the fact that a young male with healthy appetites swore a lot and liked to talk about sex. Mozart, like Shakespeare, moved with equal ease through the most refined and most raucous circles of his world. Only if classical music is confined to the fleshless end of the spectrum does Mozart’s exaltation of the body become a psychological anomaly crying out for interpretation.
René Jacobs’s recording of “The Marriage of Figaro” (Harmonia Mundi), the most startling and perhaps the best classical recording released so far this year, reconciles man and music, sacred and profane. The first bars of the overture serve notice that the “divine Mozart” is coming lustily to earth. land like sucker punches, legatos become greasy slurs. The four-minute overture is an event in itself: you sense the creation of a new political and cultural stage on which independent actors can seize the spotlight. Many great “Figaro” recordings of the past — Erich Kleiber’s, Karl Böhm’s, Carlo Maria Giulini’s — have surveyed the scene from Olympian heights, as if to take the aristocracy’s side in the central contest between the decadent Count Almaviva and his ascendant servant Figaro. This is “Figaro” told from Figaro’s point of view.
Jacobs, a countertenor turned conductor, is a dizzyingly prolific musician who has also just released a strong recording of Haydn’s “The Seasons.” You’d think the quality of his work would suffer, but Jacobs seems to find new energy whenever he enters the studio. At every turn, the players of the Concerto Köln throw in some visceral accent, airy ornament, or arresting noise. This is the only “Figaro” I know where the recitative is as engaging as the arias: the fortepiano chimes in like some Hapsburg honky-tonk, cellos indulge in meditative Bachian solos, winds and brass mimic dance combos or military bands. Those who prefer their Mozart to purr along like one of Karajan’s Porsches may not enjoy Jacobs’s rugged style, yet there is no sacrifice of musical values. The climactic ensemble of forgiveness, in which the voices become buttresses of a weightless cathedral, is all the more stupendous for having risen up from such gritty ground.
Basses singing Figaro tend to indulge in a lot of gruff-voiced mugging. The vital young singer Lorenzo Regazzo takes a more serious approach to the title role. When Figaro declares that the Count will dance to his appointed tune, Regazzo deploys some unusually strong stentorian tones, as if to hint at the social revolution that this opera is said to have prophesied. Simon Keenlyside, as the Count, also declines to play the buffoon, instead using his considerable virtuosity to create a manic, almost frightening character. Patrizia Ciofi and Angelika Kirchschlager, as Susanna and Cherubino, both sing with a delightfully wide range of inflections, which create a kind of stage action for the ears. Véronique Gens, as the Countess, stays closer to the usual refinement, but she stops short of high-end warbling. Many “name” singers have glided through “Figaro” as if leading a museum tour; these performers, however, aren’t afraid to show some skin, vocally speaking, and in so doing they get closer to the flesh-and-blood Mozart than any other cast on record.
The gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who recently released a recital disk entitled “Sempre Libera,” on Deutsche Grammophon, is in the process of entering that rarefied élite known as the Yo-Yo Club. Yo-Yos are classical musicians who have escaped from the relative anonymity that even such august talents as Gidon Kremer and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson inhabit; they have touched true-blue American celebrity, appearing on network TV, in glossy magazines, even in the movies. Netrebko, who is thirty-three, first reached international audiences as part of Valery Gergiev’s stable of Russian singers, then moved on to the deluxe circuit of the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera, where she captivated audiences in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” in 2002. This year, she went so far as to appear in the movie “Princess Diaries 2,” singing “Sempre Libera” from “La Traviata."
Whenever a performer joins the Yo-Yo Club, a certain brand of connoisseur automatically questions the seriousness of his or her artistry. The move from excited murmuring to skeptical muttering has happened amazingly fast in Netrebko’s case: critics have already accused her of subjugating her talent to D.G.’s marketing strategies, which, by modern big-media standards, are meek in the extreme. Do a few come-hither poses or would-be MTV videos really diminish a singer’s artistry? Or do they diminish a critic’s ability to judge her on vocal merits alone? To my ears, Netrebko has lost none of the radiance that she displayed in her first appearances. If anything, her voice is more lustrous and more substantial than before—the lower range darker and richer, the high notes brilliant if not totally secure, the legato phrases luxuriously long.
The repertory on the new D.G. disk is ambitious. Netrebko rides deep into the heart of Callas territory, singing the Act I scena from “Traviata,” the mad scenes from “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “I Puritani,” and the climactic sleepwalking scene from “La Sonnambula.” She also sings the Willow Song and the Ave Maria from “Otello” and “O mio babbino caro,” from “Gianni Schicchi,” which are Renée Fleming signature pieces—a shot across the bow of the reigning “beautiful voice.” Netrebko creates no psychological drama of the Callas variety, nor does she plot her way intelligently through each phrase, as Fleming lately has done. Instead, she sails through the music without apparent effort, navigating these arias as if they were a calm Aegean bay. What depths there are come from Claudio Abbado, conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra; few recitals have an accompaniment so voluptuously nuanced. Until Netrebko becomes a recurring character on “CSI: Salzburg,” I’d say that she deserves the hype she has received.
René Jacobs, in his recording of “Figaro,” takes command of a familiar masterwork by reinvigorating every phrase. Netrebko invests famous Italian arias with the eternal novelty of a fresh voice. The young Austrian pianist Till Fellner does something stealthier but no less impressive in a new recording of another well-worn classic: Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book I, on the ECM label. The initial impression is of an unusually serene, even placid reading of Bach’s twenty-four preludes and fugues. After the high-tension drama of Glenn Gould’s recording of this cycle, or the philosophical journeys of Edwin Fischer or Rosalyn Tureck, Fellner may seem too dispassionate in his approach. Yet his unerring musicality is almost monumental in itself. This may not be the most intellectually imposing “Well-Tempered Clavier” ever recorded, but it is possibly the most sensuous and seductive. If Fellner can sustain such unbroken concentration in live performance — he will appear at Zankel Hall on December 1st — he will become a major artist.
The pianist is a protégé of Alfred Brendel, but he is quite unlike Brendel in his desire to maintain at all times a natural musical flow. He has an almost compulsive attachment to clean, rounded piano tone; a virtuoso of the soft and sustaining pedals, he uses them to put a kind of lacquer finish on Bach’s sometimes rough and dissonant harmony. (He is helped by the inimitable “halo” effect of ECM’s sound engineering.) Before you can bliss out completely to the beauty of the playing, however, carefully shaded crescendos and clipped attacks create a sense of mounting drama. The central minor-key fugues — especially the C-sharp minor, the F minor, the B-flat minor, and the twelve-tone-ish B minor — acquire an ominous density before they make their final turns into the major. In the faster-paced pieces, Fellner executes runs of stroboscopic evenness and clarity. The weight dissolves and the architecture dances.
September 20, 2004 | Permalink
I was talking yesterday with a scholar / friend who pointed out another problem with the City Opera's "revisionist" production of Daphne — that the opera is insufficiently well known to be revised. "You have to have seen the Mona Lisa before you can paint a moustache on it," he said.
September 19, 2004 | Permalink
I recently spent a lot of time online gathering information about the fall musical season. I was struck at the huge, Reger-sized variations in quality among various ensembles' websites, from the dazzling to the deadening, the very cool to the very lame. The topic may seem rather trivial, but you can get a good sense of how organizations think — and how they limit their vision — from looking at their websites.
Drew McManus, proprietor of the hugely informative Adaptistration blog, has done a meticulous ranking of orchestra sites, giving pride of place to the Chicago Symphony. I agree that Chicago's is probably the best of its kind, but McManus' criteria often differed from mine. He declares himself uninterested in aesthetics; instead, he prizes lucid concert information, efficient ticket-buying procedures, and plentiful information about the musicians. That's all good, but I think aesthetics are absolutely vital. And few orchestras are using the Internet to appeal to the fast-surfing interloper who's in search of something new. Websites shouldn't simply provide hitch-free functionality to long-term subscribers (many of whom don't depend on the Internet anyway); they should also sell the music on offer. Chicago, for example, has an excellent page entitled "Discover Classical Music", introducing basic terms and asking questions like "Was Bela Bartók the original hip-hop artist?" (No, but it's one way to get the conversation started.) Such bonus features may well explain why the orchestra now does $2.5 million of its ticket sales online. The National Symphony site, by contrast (McManus #2), is official and bland. "Please allow extra time driving to the Kennedy Center," proclaims the front page. We're told that "The Music of Barbra Streisand" is coming up on the Pops series, though Babs herself is not involved. All told, if I were a DC-based Culturally Aware Non-Attender, I'd look at this, roll my eyes, and go back to Wonkette.
I've commented before that many sites actively conceal whatever novelties the orchestra might have deliberately or accidentally perpetrated. Premieres, like deformed Victorian children, are hidden behind a screen. Consider the Indianapolis Symphony, for example, ranked by McManus at #9. Here is their 2004-5 season overview:
Many great works that have figured prominently in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's history will be performed in 2004-05 ... Copland's Appalachian Spring ... the fiery Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz ... Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and the Bruch Violin Concerto ....Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony ... The 2004-05 season will also boast Rachmaninoff's lush Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the beloved Grieg Piano Concerto, the brilliant Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms, Beethoven's "Pastorale" and "Choral" Symphonies, Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony, Nielsen's "Inextinguishable" Symphony, Respighi's majestic Pines of Rome, and the romantic Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Many familiar faces will take part in the Orchestra's 75th anniversary celebration ... André Watts ... Joshua Bell ... Stephen Hough and Louis Lortie ... the dazzling young violinist Leila Josefowicz, and the stunning Eroica Trio....
How prescient of Nielsen to supply his own adjective, removing the need for a "brilliant" or "fiery." (My own First Symphony will be called "The Familiar.") Only by scrolling through the calendar and clicking on each concert headline was I able to discover that the Indianapolis Symphony is in fact presenting four premieres this season, plus several other new or new-ish works. On Oct. 15, for example ("Venzago conducts Bruckner"), the orchestra is playing Brian Current's this isn't silence. Who he? A search for "Current" retrieves the information that "Maestro Venzago currently resides both in Heidelberg and Indianapolis with his wife Marianne, Principal Viola with the Heidelberg Symphony, and their two sons, Mario and Gabriel. He loves to cook Italian-style and enjoys visiting art museums." But nothing about Brian Current. It turns out he's a young Canadian composer whose work For The Time Being is definitely worth hearing (and you can hear it on his site). All told, I'd deduct points for Indianapolis' new-music coverup. Why not explain your new-music programming, perhaps even use it to attract new audiences, instead of dumping it like cold water on unsuspecting subscribers? Chicago, by contrast, takes pride in its premieres and advertises them under a "Music Now" series. The Pittsburgh Symphony supplies pithy descriptions and sound samples for the likes of Berio and Christopher Rouse.
McManus is also an invaluable inside source on the contract negotiations that are now roiling the orchestra world. The biggest stink is in Philadelphia, where players and board members have accused each other of greed, sloth, pride, and all the other deadly sins. To the outside observer, the entire argument seems unbelievably petty, since all involved, including the lowest-ranking orchestra players, have nothing to complain about in terms of salary, benefits, and everything else. Concertmaster David Kim makes $253,000 a year; Philadelphia Orchestra Association President Joe Kluger makes $285,000 a year. Who's dying here? Where's the tragedy? "A squabble between the rich and super-rich," Peter Dobrin of the Inquirer has called it. What I want to know is whether anyone has any strong ideas for saving the orchestra from accelerating cultural obsolescence. From what I know, orchestra unions are too stubbornly attached to the old model — practice, rehearse, play a concert, go home — to accept the kind of flexible, multidimensional approach that the orchestra of the future will demand. Yet chairmen and board members are often too full of themselves to make an effective case for systemic change. Each side blames the other for problems that go much deeper, that are profoundly cultural. Alas, it may take a catastrophic failure or two for people to get their priorities straight.
September 19, 2004 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 1, 1998
Peter Sellers once impersonated Alec Guinness giving a cryptic interview to the BBC. The topic was a new play -- titled “Smith” -- about a nonexistent medieval mystic named Fazhab Al-Barashadan Hashid. “Hashid was probably one of most influential men in the Persian Gulf during the early part of the thirteenth century,” Sellers explained, in Guinness’s halting purr. “It’s a fascinating study of a man -- a man who died -- as he lived -- in the early part of the thirteenth century.” After several minutes of this verbal perambulation, the interviewer impatiently broke in: “What kind of a man was Fazhab El-Barashadan Hashid?” “Well, he was a mystic,” Sellers said. “That is one of the reasons he called himself Smith. What sort of a mystic he was ... remains a mystery.”
There are many mysterious mystics to be found in the art of the late middle ages and early Renaissance. However immediate their ideas, images, or sounds, their history is often little more than a tangle of weird names. In no field is the lack of information quite so infuriating as in music of the fifteenth century. As we listen, we sense that a tremendous phenomenon is underway: music is being taken over by a tight cadre of composers from the Low Countries, particularly the Flemish regions of France and Belgium. The sound -- described collectively as the Franco-Flemish style -- is rich, deep, strange, complex. The technique is polyphonic, which means that many voices are twining together, mimicking each other in precise sequences or in fantastic variations. But the composers are mostly ciphers. Histories of the period resemble a secret meeting of the Knights of the Templar: let us now convene Ockeghem, Obrecht, Desprez, Isaac, Brumel, Manchicourt, Gombert, and Clemens Non Papa. Such names lurk everywhere in record stores these days. As recordings of mainstream classical repertory have tapered off, those of medieval and Renaissance music have strangely multiplied.
On the face of it, the popularity of Renaissance polyphony looks like an epiphenomenon of the well-documented fad for Gregorian chant. But polyphony is a little too dense, a little too busy, to produce the spiritual trance that chant is said to induce in young listeners. After spending some time with this music, you begin to notice myriad idiosyncrasies: you come in contact with distinct, flesh-and-blood personalites, who are inching their way out of the anonymity of medieval tradition. Granted, the idea of a compositional voice had not yet been fully formed in the fifteenth century; even experts have trouble telling these composers apart. Still, the recordings -- and itinerant performances by groups such as the Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen, and Chanticleer -- give glimpses of an extraordinary musical community: composers competing against each other, learning from each other, picking up fashions and dropping them, sharpening their sense of self, ascending to maturity and sublime old age.
Musical history often has us wondering why concentrated talent comes from a constricted place. Think of Austria in the late eighteenth century, or, for that matter, the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth. In the case of Flanders, it makes sense to follow the money. The Dukes of Burgundy, who had capitalized on the chaos of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War to build a wealthy new empire in the Low Countries, lavished money on local musicians. Great patrons of the next century -- Louis XI in France, Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, the Dukes of Ferrara -- bought up the same talent. Scattered documents dispel any idea of the Franco-Flemish composers as a band of fleshless musical priests. In one letter, a kind of scout for the Duke of Ferrara rates Josquin Desprez against Heinrich Isaac: “It’s true Josquin is the better composer, but he composes when he wants to, not when one wants him to, and he is asking for 200 ducats while Isaac will come for 120.” The Duke -- an ancestor of the terrifying lord in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” -- chose Josquin.
The dukes had ears, and they heard new things. The dominant fourteenth-century style was ars nova, a bright, nervous affair of spiky rhythms and florid ornaments. But a new sound arrived from England -- one concentrated on triad-based harmonies and staggered counterpoint. John Dunstable and Leonel Power wrote masses in which a “cantus firmus” -- a pre-existing chant that the audience already knew -- wound its way through the voices of the chorus. This they used to unify disparate movements of the Mass. The earliest Flemish masters, Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem, borrowed the English innovations and wrote masses that took on the splendor and solidity of Gothic cathedrals. The cantus firmus was a buttress for a big structure: it could be worked over, subdivided, sped up, slowed down, put in reverse. The listener could follow its progress and become involved in a composition of a half-hour’s length. Also, the motion of the melody through upper and lower voices gave a sense of height and depth, of nearness and echoing distance. To make another analogy, the spatial effects of Flemish Renaissance music seem to parallel the meticulous landscapes that appeared in the background of portraits by Van Eyck and Memling.
Ockeghem died in 1497, which means that early-music ensembles have been marking the five-hundredth anniversary of his birth. A dozen or so recordings -- variously by the Tallis Scholars (on Gimell), the Clerks’ Group (on ASV), the Oxford Camerata (on Naxos), the Orlando Consort (on DG), and Schola Discantus (on Lyrichord) -- have appeared in the last few years. You are advised to listen first and read the liner notes later. The liner notes will involve you in the issue of Ockeghem’s “complexity,” his double canons, his imitations, his “diminutions of mensuration,” and so forth. Even those writers who de-emphasize the complexity somehow make the lack of complexity seem complicated. Ockeghem used to be vaguely name-dropped in musical histories as a mathematical genius who created insoluble puzzles of counterpoint. When scholars later found that he seldom obeyed any regular system, commentators backpedaled into descriptions of his -- of course -- mysticism. The musicologist Leo Treitler writes acidly of this kind of interpretation: “Puzzlement over Ockeghem’s music [was] transformed into one of its leading characteristics.”
Ockeghem did indulge in games, but he was not cerebral. He was one of the first great sonic sensualists. He unleashed continuous, cascading sound. Where Dufay before him -- and Josquin after him -- gave elegant shape their phrases and cadences, Ockeghem blurred the line between the end of one phrase and the beginning of another. Everything overlapped; the fabric became seamless. Ockeghem also pressed the music downward in register. His “Missa Fors Seulement,” based on a doleful, nearly Wagnerian chanson about the longing for death, is anchored deep in the bass. The low, dark tone of this music is, again, something new. Ockeghem was an emotionalist, probably a pessimist, perhaps the first composer in Western history who sent listeners into the comforting bourgeois province of melancholy. This quality is heard best in the spontaneous-sounding, richly voiced recording by Schola Discantus. Almost as good is the disc by the Clerks’ Group, on which the Mass sits beside its parent chanson and two later elaborations by Pierre De La Rue and Antoine Brumel; at the end comes Ockeghem’s Requiem, the earliest extant piece of its kind.
According to his adoring obituaries, Ockeghem was a kindly, unassuming man. Who knows? Maybe he was a mean son of a bitch. Certainly he earned deep respect from his younger contemporaries. Even the arrogant Josquin wrote a memorial to him. The interesting thing is that while Ockeghem’s methods were widely copied, the overall sound of his music didn’t take hold. Josquin made polyphony more crisp, more songful. Composers like Pierre De La Rue and Antoine Brumel echoed Ockeghem’s sonic blur but also simplified their textures when the assignment required it. Then, composers in the next generation, those born around 1500, seemed to take a second look at the old master. The Franco-Flemish style had begun to fade in comparison with brilliant new developments in Italy; still, the conservative cast of Ockeghem’s style attracted new acolytes. Indeed, old-school polyphony would never die out: composers from Beethoven to Stravinsky and on to contemporaries like Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke have borrowed its intellectual allure.
One Ockeghemite who has resurfaced impressively on recordings is Nicolas Gombert, who worked on and off in the court of Charles V. His career was interrupted when he was found to have violated one of his choirboys and was exiled to the high seas on a trireme galley. The physician-philosopher Hieronymus Cardanus recorded the case, saying it illustrated the virtues of corporeal punishment: “Gombert composed, with his feet in chains, those swan songs with which he earned not only his pardon by the emperor but also a priest’s benefice, so that he spent the rest of his life in tranquility.” Tranquility is not the quality one attaches to Gombert. He writes polyphony of unsettling force; he is so intent on keeping his voices in uninterrupted motion that he overlooks (or perhaps seeks out) searing dissonances along the way. Certain of his pieces are marked by bass-heavy textures that outweigh even Ockeghem’s “Fors Seulement.” On a spellbinding, deep-toned disc by the Huelgas Ensemble, on Sony Classical, there is a chanson called “Je prens congie” -- “I think of the loves I must leave behind” -- that rotates eerily for five minutes through the same minor chord. Two discs on Hyperion, with a fine English group called Henry’s Eight, give a broad view of Gombert’s peculiarly intense sacred music.
There are other gems from the later days of the Franco-Flemish school. The impeccable Tallis Scholars have recorded “Missa Maria Zart” by Jacob Obrecht, who outdid Ockeghem in subdivisions and recombinations of the cantus firmus. Anyone who thinks that either serial complexity or extreme duration is a twentieth-century creation has not heard this beautiful monster of a piece. The same group has an older recording of Brumel’s “Earthquake” Mass -- so named for its derivation from the Easter plainsong, “And the earth shook” -- in which twelve voices spill over one another in mesmerizing waves. Those who grow exhausted by the outer eccentricities of Franco-Flemish school can always return to Josquin, who stands out for his lyric grace, unerring sense of balance, and operatic way with words. Indeed, the single best introduction to the era may be the Hilliard Ensemble’s survey of Josquin motets on Virgin Classics. The last work on the disc is the “Déploration” for the death of Ockeghem, in which Josquin generously interwines his own name with the names of his rivals: “Josquin, Brumel, Pierchon, Compère / Weep great tears from your eyes.” You have to listen hard to hear Ockeghem’s name, a little earlier: his syllables melt into notes, and the notes are like shafts of light in a dark room.
Back to Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise.
September 18, 2004 | Permalink
"In Music, Though, There Were No Victories"
by Alex Ross
The New York Times, Aug. 20, 1995
When Thomas Mann set about writing the novel that would encompass the limitless catastrophe of World War II, he made a curious decision. “Doktor Faustus,” his apocalyptic narrative of Germany's spiritual collapse, would have as its central character no demagogue or commandant. Instead, the protagonist would be a composer, a rather obscure composer of esoteric inclinations, a radical experimenter at the edges of musical possibility, a man outside the crowd. When Hitler takes power, the fictional music of Adrian Leverkühn is banned and forgotten; the composer dies insane as the war begins.
It is, however, this isolated artist who signs his soul to an ambiguous devil and comes to represent, in Mann's crushingly heavy allegory, the damnation of the German soul. The argument is simplistic but impressive: German music, which had sought sublimity, transcendence, disengagement from the ordinary world, must bear responsibility for what happened down below as it roamed through higher realms. Mann hinted further that this very “musicality of soul” was the key to Germany's fall; the aesthetic had triumphed over the merely human. In Nazi Germany, music became either a weapon of hate or an opiate of indifference.
In the war that ended fifty years ago, music lost on all sides. Classical composers, who had achieved a considerable degree of social influence at the turn of the century, failed miserably to have any effect or even make a plausible comment on the terrors accumulating around them. Protests fell short; triumph sounded hollow. Greatly gifted Jewish composers died in Nazi concentration camps; German composers fled to exile, fell silent or compromised themselves; and many of the victors and survivors retreated en masse into intellectual obscurity, attempting with mixed success to confront the war's cultural, social and spiritual aftermath.
This summer, war dominated the programming of many European festivals: an “Apocalypse” theme in Dresden, “Art and Resistance” at the Holland Festival, “Misunderstood Music” in Lucerne, musical victims of the Holocaust in Prague and Berlin. Record labels have released dozens of disks commemorating those persecuted by the Nazi regime. The fashionableness of the theme should not distract from the seriousness of the issue. While the opera houses of Dresden and other cities have risen from the rubble, music is still deeply haunted by the war, and it will never be as it was.
DURING THE WAR
Dresden, the great German cultural center destroyed as retribution for German crimes, confronted the war most intensely at its festival in May. An introductory essay by Michael Hampe, the festival director, quoted the final sentences of “Doktor Faustus”: “Clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, Germany flings down from despair to despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of utmost hopelessness — a miracle beyond the power of belief — will the light of hope dawn?” There is one more sentence, although Hampe omitted it: “A lonely man folds his hands and speaks: ‘God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend and Fatherland!’”
Today there is a widespread feeling in Germany that the country need no longer cry for mercy; the “light of hope” burns bright. Many believe that Germany's moral debts have been paid off, that the country can again show its face as a world power — as Mann said it never could. Although Adolf Hitler received vast public adoration and thirty-seven percent of the vote, Germany's unconditional surrender in 1945 is now generally referred to as the “Befreiung,” or Liberation, as if from occupying forces.
The pressing question on the musical side is whether German composers who did not go into exile can now be seen as error-prone human actors rather than as demons in league with the devil. Two figures, Richard Strauss and Carl Orff, invariably spring up in this context. In the Orff centenary year, “Carmina Burana” was heard in Dresden and then played no less than four times in one week in Orff's home city of Munich. Strauss's “Friedenstag” — Day of Peace — appeared in Dresden and Vienna.
Strauss and Orff both collaborated with the Nazis, at least early on. Strauss received an appointment as head of the Reich Music Chamber; he was asked to resign three years later after failing to cut ties with his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig. The ageing, melancholy Strauss never wrote anything of real use to Hitler, although “Friedenstag,” a one-act opera dramatizing the final day of the Thirty Year's War, has been interpreted as an argument for Austria's peaceful acquiescence in the greater German good. The completely unscrupulous Orff accepted a commission to write a replacement score for Mendelssohn's verboten “Midsummer Night's Dream”—one of the shabbiest acts in musical history.
These strangely congruent works of Strauss and Orff — ”Friedenstag” is Strauss's worst composition, “Carmina Burana” is Orff's best — provoked a certain amount of historical-minded discussion this past summer in Dresden and elsewhere. More often they were cast in an innocent contemporary light. In one press report, the bland, dutiful anthem of peace at the end of “Friedenstag” was found to resonate humanely not only with the tragedy of the Holocaust but also with atrocities in Bosnia. “Carmina Burana,” heard in open-air arenas across Germany, proved as adept as ever at rousing primitive, unreflective enthusiasm.
But it is unwise to look for too much sinister meaning here. Strauss and Orff were assiduously cultivated by the Nazi regime not because they had exceptional sympathies with the Nazi movement, but because they had a self-evident power to affect broad audiences. Their surrender to Nazi overtures is an ineradicable stain on the biography of each; but the music itself commits no sins simply by being and remaining popular. That “Carmina Burana” has appeared in hundreds of films and television commercials is proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever.
What is the measuring-stick for righteousness in this time? Who acted justly? Witness a work written on the other side, the right side: Shostakovich's “Leningrad” Symphony, which traveled by plane to Toscanini for its American premiere and came to symbolize to an enormous Western audience the entire Allied struggle against Nazi military might. The composer appeared on the cover of Time magazine wearing a firefighter's helmet; Wendell Wilkie returned from a Russian visit and summed up the Soviet half of the struggle with the words, “Shostakovich is a great composer.”
The ironies are thunderous. Shostakovich was himself in thrall to a genocidal dictator who demanded musical triumphalism as a matter of course. When Shostakovich declined to deliver more bombast after the war — his much-anticipated Ninth Symphony was a suite of satiric sketches — he fell once again into official eclipse. In recent years the “Leningrad” has actually been interpreted not as a defiance of Hitler but as a secret protest against Stalin. Nothing illustrates more clearly the malleability of musical meaning. Beethoven, it might be mentioned, served a wartime propaganda tool to Hitler, Stalin and Churchill all at once.
The most agonizing example of music's helplessness was the fate of the artistic community in Theresienstadt, a Gestapo prison in Czechoslovakia that was enlarged to form a Jewish ghetto in 1941. It is a terrifying place, the more terrifying if one studies the painstaking history of SS operations assembled in the town's Jewish Museum. (The state-run museum at the prison makes little mention of the Jews.) Reinhard Heydrich, one of the devisers of the Final Solution, conceived of Theresienstadt as a “transit ghetto” for Jews on their way to the death camps. He also had the idea of assembling artists in the ghetto and employing them as a propaganda tool to convince Red Cross delegations that Jews were being treated well.
Some of the most talented younger Czech composers arrived in Theresienstadt and were allowed to continue their work. A film was made, “Hitler Presents the Jews with a City,” in which the ghetto residents appear to engage in happy labor. (In a documentary shown at the Holland Festival, survivors commented on that film, pointing out traces of the suffering that had been artfully concealed.) The film shows Karel Ancerl conducting Pavel Haas's “Study for Strings.” The music's forceful fugal motion speaks of a defiant spirit. But this astounding vigor is diabolically twisted around for propaganda purposes: the music communicates an illusion of Jewish safety. Haas died one month later in Auschwitz.
Music is adept at the larger, vaguer emotions, such as joy and despair. Joy or despair at what, the listener decides; anything more particular, such as political protest, usually falls outside the composer's reach. Perhaps the most moving musical document of the war is Strauss's 1945 elegy “Metamorphosen,” which glides down from despair to despair and ends with a quotation from Beethoven's “Eroica,” the Funeral March. It was inspired more by the destruction of opera houses than the destruction of human beings. But its message of deepest sorrow cannot be misheard.
AFTER THE WAR
“Composing has become too difficult, devilishly difficult,” the Devil tells Leverkühn in “Doktor Faustus.” It was partly in reaction to the easy triumphalism of the victory years that composers turned against any hint of a public, affirmative, tonally based style. The rapidity with which twelve-tone and serialist modes of composition took hold in the late 1940's has a great deal to do with a deepening sense of horror at the larger consequences of the war, particularly the Holocaust. No single tyrant had been conquered, as Schoenberg weakly implied in his “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte”; sensations of universal guilt and existential despair helped push music toward an esthetic of purposeful difficulty.
One of the musical sages of the postwar era was the philosopher and critic Theodor W. Adorno, who, as it happens, had advised Mann on musical aspects of “Doktor Faustus” and helped shape the portrait of anguished compositional complexity contained in that book. It was Adorno who most notably articulated the idea that music must isolate itself completely from a culture capable of mass destruction. Bourgeois mass culture, he notoriously argued, had become a mirror image of the Nazi engine of mass destruction. This was a far-fetched notion, but it caught the fancy of many European composers of the time, particularly in Germany.
So it was that Bernd Alois Zimmermann, one of the very few major voices to emerge in German music after the war, ironically juxtaposed Beethoven's “Ode to Joy,” the Beatles's “Hey Jude” and a speech by Josef Goebbels at the climax of his overpowering orchestral, choral and electronic-tape epic “Requiem for a Young Poet.” Twenty-five years after his death, Zimmermann's works have gained considerable currency: the “Requiem” is to be heard at the festivals of Salzburg and Edinburgh, while Willy Decker's new production of the anti-war opera “Die Soldaten” palpably stunned its audience in Dresden.
Zimmermann's vision of a world ringed round by disaster is impressively realized in musical terms. He unleashes a tumult of genres, styles and historical quotations, superimposing the whole chaos on a rigorous atonal twelve-tone framework. But his esthetic of total catastrophe, of all-pervading apocalypse, is ultimately unsatisfying as a response to the singular crime of Nazism. It does not make distinctions: the Holocaust cannot be lumped together with Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, 1968 student protests and other political talking points of the day. The “Requiem” has an air of fashionable leftist paranoia about it, although Zimmermann's anguished suicide six months after the premiere showed he was in deadly earnest.
A less talented exponent of multi-textured disaster music was Krzysztof Penderecki, who released a “Dies Irae” subtitled “Auschwitz Oratorio” after making a name for himself with the “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” There is an unfortunate tendency for composers seeking ultimate gravity to adorn their work with the inexpressible. Penderecki's vocabulary of air-raid sirens, eerie choral chanting and aleatoric orchestral free-for-alls fulfilled its destiny as a cliché of horror film scores almost overnight.
When Benjamin Britten set about composing his own war memorial in 1961, he had the advantage of unimpeachable personal involvement in his subject; the focus of his “War Requiem,” a synthesis of Latin texts and anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, was to be the urgency of peace, and his lifelong commitment to pacifism put him in good stead. Britten's approachable style defied prevailing fashion; he summoned the gnashing destructive forces of his “Dies Irae” in tones strongly reminiscent of Verdi, raising them to a high pitch of intensity through a characteristic distortion of simple tonality.
The “War Requiem” culminates in a scene of intimate reconciliation between an English and a German soldier after death; it has therefore inevitably proved popular in the summer of war commemorations, particularly in German cities. It is at this point that something rings false. A work so steeped in the philosophy of pacifism is sadly inappropriate to the circumstances of World War II, in which Adolf Hitler nearly conquered Europe by playing virtuosically on the passive temperament of Western democracies. The closing words, “Let us sleep now,” are an empty reassurance, whether in 1962 or 1995.
Britten delivered a more private and powerful message immediately after the war's end. He wrote “Holy Sonnets of John Donne” after he saw Dachau; the last song in the cycle, “Death Be Not Proud,” ends with a furious plain cadence in B major and a long-drawn-out cry of “Death, thou shalt die.” It is a greater protest than the whole public and correct statement of the “War Requiem.” As Hannah Arendt wrote in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” the only truthful reply to the ultimate horrors of Nazism is unforgiving rage.
“I find that it is not to be,” says Adrian Leverkühn to his friend and biographer Zeitblom. “The good and the noble, what we call the human, although it is good, and noble. What human beings have fought for and stormed citadels, what the ecstatics exultantly announced — that is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back.” The composer's friend asks: “I don't quite understand, dear man. What will you take back?” “The Ninth Symphony,” he answers.
Ostensibly, the composer in “Doktor Faustus” represents Germany's moral collapse; but he is also a perversely moralistic figure, one who finds sincere expression for his hopeless predicament. His works are not Orff-like celebrations of collective vigor, nor are they purely cerebral constructions. They combine the rigor of twelve-tone music with the open expressivity of Romantic tradition. The underside of this marvelous versatility is unremitting pessimism, bordering on nihilism.
In one of the stranger phenomena of musical history, Leverkühn has himself become a figure of importance in postwar composition. Zimmermann seems to echo his methodology in “Requiem for a Young Poet” with his pluralistic approach and his travesty of Beethoven's Ninth. Britten, whom Mann later named as a model for his composer's style, echoed Leverkühn's poetic taste in his “Serenade” and “Nocturne.” Gyorgy Ligeti and Peter Maxwell Davies also seem to have drawn inspiration from the nonexistent composer.
And then there is Alfred Schnittke, the Russian of German descent who identifies with Leverkühn to an uncanny extent. At the Hamburg State Opera in June, Schnittke's masterwork, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten,” had its long-awaited world premiere. The text is the medieval Faust tale of 1587, the same text that Leverkühn employs in his final work. Other resemblances are manifold: a recourse to medieval elements, particularly Monteverdi's madrigal style; a ballet scene of satiric intent; the use of amplification and loudspeakers; the construction of musical motifs out of cryptic alphabetic codes; even details of orchestration such as a prominent use of harpsichord and celesta.
More than this, Schnittke duplicates the whole tone of Leverkühn's work: its exterior playfulness, its off-kilter Romanticism, its savage sarcasm, its underlying tone of monastic seriousness. Faust's descent to hell is cast in the form of a tango; yet the beat of this tango is announced at the beginning of Act III as a nightmarish percussive tremor. The virtue of having an unheard novelistic predecessor is that no one can accuse Schnittke of plagiarism; the musical material of this tremendous opera is drawn from the composer's long-established personal vocabulary, and its central tango melody sticks insidiously in the mind.
This “Faust” differs from its fictional model in one important respect, and that is the ending. Leverkühn's last work is described as having a faintly affirmative conclusion: a Mahlerian or Bergian adagio in which one instrument after another disappears until only a high tone on the cello remains, what Mann calls a “light at the end of the night.” Schnittke's “Faust” ends with a ghastly percussive ticking. It is similar to the death-rattle heard at the end of Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony, except it is, if possible, even more skeletonically bleak.
“Historia von D. Johann Fausten” nowhere touches on World War II, yet it is thoroughly haunted by the memory. Its medieval, strictly theological conception of evil, unadorned by subtleties of modern or postmodern theory, bears in mind the essence of what transpired in Germany half a century ago. “Be sober and watchful!” chants the chorus: what other lesson can be drawn? There is no “light of hope” in the opera whatsoever; yet the very act of its composition is perhaps an exorcizing of demons.
Music cannot heal the world; the most it can do is heal itself. Time passes, and composers try to make of their own time something durable. During World War II, there was a concerted attempt to destroy music; the only response can be to make more music, make new music. The rest, in Hamlet's words, is silence.
I'm revising the Sibelius chapter of my book, and feeling awe again for the incidental music to The Tempest, which Sibelius wrote just before the end of his composing career. A few years ago, Osmo Vänskä made a remarkable recording of the complete score for BIS; it shows us a composer working at the very limits of his art, looking into beautifully depopulated musical spaces ("The Storm," "Miranda Lulled To Slumber," "Full Fathom Five") that no one else had ever seen. There is a shadow opera here, perhaps the greatest Shakespeare opera never written. The cue entitled "Ariel Brings the Foes to Prospero" is a precise counterpart to the magician's great speech of renunciation, "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves..."; the fearsome dissonances of the opening section suggest the dimming of the noontide sun, while the resigned final section shows Prospero drowning his book and abjuring his magic.
My scores of the Tempest suites once belonged to the English composer Howard Ferguson, who died in 1999. I looked him up in Grove and found this summary of his achievement: "Modest though his output was, it involved very few miscalculations and no outright failures." May we all be so lucky.
On-line guide to the papers of Morton Kondracke in the Dartmouth College Library.
A few weeks ago I mentioned the lurid record jackets that American record companies deployed to promote standard repertory back in the sixties and seventies. Steve Swartz has scanned for me a startling example from the old Soviet label Melodiya. It really speaks for itself, doesn't it? Mr. Swartz, by the way is known to music critics as the ace promotion man at Boosey & Hawkes. He studied composition with none other than Morton Feldman. He is also, I was surprised to find, the expressive lead singer of a jazz-folk fusion band called Songs from a Random House, which combines soprano and baritone ukeleles with viola, string bass, and drums. Their new record is called gListen, and it's a bright, quirky, tuneful work.
In other e-mail news, Nico Muhly has made a striking theoretical breakthrough in the understanding of a significant contemporary work. At the risk of boring readers with musicological arcana, I will reprint his essay in its entirety:
MILKSHAKE by Kelis
Finger Cymbal Scheme
1. The 4-bar phrases exist in two formats, here called A and B.
2. The 4-bar phrases alternate between A and B regardless of how they fall on the scheme of verse/chorus.
3. There is a 1 bar introduction.
PHRASE A: Finger Cymbal hit on 4th beat of 2nd bar.
PHRASE B: Finger Cymbal hit on 4th beat of 3rd bar.
We look forward to an expanded version of this analysis in the pages of Perspectives of New Music.
September 15, 2004 | Permalink
Robert Gable, aka aworks, has put John Cage's 4'33" on his iPod, so that the ambient sounds of his environment periodically interrupt the mad rush of music on Shuffle. It's a delightful idea. Apropos of little, in college I helped to organize a radio broadcast of 4'33" — a performance on Baroque instruments, or so we claimed. It lasted only one minute, because tempos were much faster in the Baroque period, har har.
September 15, 2004 | Permalink
I had intended to start the fall season by reviewing the New York City Opera production of Richard Strauss' Daphne. Instead, I ended up doing a quick round-up of recent CDs, to appear on Monday. The Daphne left me feeling totally dispirited — it was miles away from what I'd hoped for. Maybe there is really no way of representing Daphne's transformation onstage: the miraculously beautiful final scene is not simply the mythological rebirth of a nymph as a tree but the composer's own mysterious rebirth in the Germany of the late thirties. (Go here to see Strauss playing this music on the piano a few months before his death; click on "Videos," then "Composer and Conductor.") But we deserved something more than the bizarrely depressing spectacle that City Opera put on stage — the worthy Elizabeth Futral standing forlornly at the top of a column, rain falling on her head. In the wake of Bayreuth's "rotting rabbit" Parsifal, I just didn't feel like bemoaning another harebrained production of a German Romantic masterpiece, one that purports to address historical issues that are better dealt with in history books. (Yes, there were Brownshirts galore.) I hope to write up City Opera on a happier day; I advise curious listeners to skip the performance and pick up Karl Böhm's glorious live recording on DG.
September 14, 2004 | Permalink
A reminder that tickets for the New Yorker annual chatfest are on sale, although a random check suggests that, here, too, many events are sold out. Culture is hott!
September 13, 2004 | Permalink
September 11, 2004 | Permalink
Christopher Miller's deft satirical novel Sudden Noises (see below) sent me back to the grand original, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution. Here is an immortal paragraph in which Jarrell describes the music of Gottfried Rosenbaum, a would-be lion of Vienna who ends up teaching music at an American women's college:
He loved hitherto-unthought-of, thereafter unthinkable combinations of instruments. When some extraordinary array of players filed half-proudly, half-sheepishly on to the stage, looking like the Bremen Town Musicians — if those were, as I think they were, a rooster, a cat, a dog, and a donkey — you could guess beforehand that it was to be one of Gottfried's compositions. His Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bach had a tone-row composed of the notes B, A, C, and H (in the German notation), of these inverted, and of these transposed; and there were four movements, the first played on instruments beginning with the letter b, the second on instruments beginning with the letter a, and so on. After the magnificent group that ushered in the piece (bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, bagpipe, baritone, and a violinist with only his bow) it was sad to see an Alp horn and an accordion come in to play the second movement. Gottfried himself said about the first group: "Vot a bunch!" When I asked him how he thought of it, he said placidly: "De devil soldt me his soul."
The words "half-proudly, half-sheepishly" pop into my head at almost every contemporary music concert I attend. One day, perhaps, a composer will see fit to realize Rosenbaum's grand conception: if composers from Peter Maxwell Davies to Alfred Schnittke can take inspiration from the fictional music in Mann's Doctor Faustus (the target of that last dig) there might as well be a school of Rosenbaum. I'll always be grateful to Prof. John Plotz for introducing me to the joy of Jarrell.
September 10, 2004 | Permalink
On my vacation I finally got around to reading Christopher Miller's hilarious, razor-sharp, strangely haunting novel Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects. It was originally published two years ago under the title Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano. It purports to be a set of liner notes for a box set devoted to Silber, an A-1 nutjob of a pianist-composer who combines aspects of Glenn Gould (he wears earmuffs when he plays), Kaikhosru Sorabji (he bans performances of his own music), and Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn (his hatred of vulgar humanity tilts toward madness and violence). The narrator is a stuck-up literary wannabe who hates his subject and aspires to be an aphorist-philosopher: “Some people shudder to think, and some think in order to shudder.” Miller himself has a gift for writing gemlike, cutting sentences, and the first few pages alone contain a half-dozen quotable lines: “He didn’t even want to be whistled”; “Simon Silber was a complicated person, a perverse chameleon forever changing colors the better to clash with his surroundings”; “’Believe it or not, I used to be even smarter’”; “He was the most — maybe the only — musical person I have ever known”; “The news of his demise was neither unexpected, when it reached me, nor entirely unwelcome”; “Never to have hated Silber would mean never to have known him.”
Miller isn’t a trained musician, but he knows his territory far better than most writers who try to fashion novels on musical themes. Consider the following eerily plausible portrait of the composers’ collective to which Silber cantankerously belongs:
The NCA wasn’t a ‘movement’ or a ‘school’; so far as I could tell, in fact, the only thing that our composer had in common with his fellow members was a lack of interest in all music but his own, including that of fellow members. Otherwise they were a motley bunch: Altschul, who had just finished the thirty-year task of composing a different suite of miniatures for every interjection in Webster’s (twenty-four Aahs, twenty-four Ahs, twenty-four Ahas, twenty-four Ahems, twenty-four Ahoys, twenty-four Alacks, twenty-four Alases, twenty-four Amens…); Battcock, whose instrumental works incorporated laugh tracks every time the music did something ‘humorous’ (though I, for one, have always been skeptical about claims of humor in instrumental music, like claims of flavor in cigarette ads); Cowlick, who for years had confined himself to the note of middle C — not just the key but the note, varying only the volume, duration, and instrumentation; Dunsmore, each of whose eight mammoth symphonies existed, according to their composer, merely to set up a single overwhelming moment (Silber compared them to flowering trees planted for the sake of the week or two each year when they blossom); Earleywine, who kept developing new instruments with names like the trombonium, the pseudobassoon, and the acoustic synthesizer, in order to be the first composer to write music for them; … and Webb — like Silber, better known as a performer, though unlike Silber he was still performing (and, presumably, like any serious musician, practicing several hours a day, every day, on his chosen instrument, the gong).
These composers compete among themselves in the genre of "megaworks," or works that last a very long time. Silber writes a day-long piano sonata, entitled Day. A man named Goodenough responds with a computerized symphony that goes on a year — "music by and for computers," he calls it. Silber then plans a piece called Century, which, alas, never comes to fruition.
Not always kind reviews have compared Sudden Noises to Pale Fire. Yes, there’s an obvious relationship to Nabokov's tale of a biography gone awry. But I was reminded much more often — and in my personal pantheon this is a higher compliment — of Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, which also has a fabulously daffy composer as a central character. What’s missing, perhaps, is the tone of compassion that underpins Jarrell’s savage satire of intellectual loserdom. Miller, by contrast, is a little too remorseless in his pursuit. Still, I’ll buy his next book the day it’s published.
Excellent post by Tim Johnson, aka The Rambler, denouncing Tuesday's federal appeals court decision against musical sampling. The ruling would force hip-hop artists and other sample-happy musicians to pay for even the tiniest snippet of pre-recorded music. Johnson notes how much art of the past and present — György Kurtág's compositions, Shakespeare's Hamlet — could be judged plagiaristic by such a strict standard. I don't know the legal or economic realities of the situation, but it seems to me that this harsh judgment might have disastrous results, especially for low-paid experimenters who play with samples for a living. Ironically, the decision was made in favor of George Clinton's record label, which was trying to seek profits from a Fundakedelic sample in the 1990 NWA track "100 Miles and Runnin." As All Hip Hop notes, Clinton himself was not against sampling, though he did try to seek compensation on a graded scale: "If they sell records, they pay, if they don't they can try again." What are the chances of such a reasonable, pragmatic approach becoming the norm? Slim. Then again, I wonder whether it might not be a good thing for music to be forced away from the collage aesthetic for a while. Perhaps voices and instruments are due for a second coming.
Listening to recordings of Daphne (Erich Kleiber, Haitink, Karl Böhm) in preparation for tonight's City Opera performance of Richard Strauss' arboreal masterpiece — the first time this work has ever been staged in New York. Let's hope it creates Grand Opera Buzz and not a Trainwreck. I use terms derived from Dr. Repertoire's hilarious Opera Queen Dictionary, featured on Parterre Box. Link courtesy of The Standing Room, a San Francisco-based, opera-centered blogue.
There's something inherently improbable in the idea of a forgotten semi-great composer named Popov. The very name may give American college graduates a queasy feeling, reminding them of Popov Vodka, that stomach-scouring serum in a plastic bottle. But Gavriil Popov, a contemporary of Shostakovich (born 1904, died 1972), was the real deal — a major talent cut down by the furies of his time. I encountered Popov's music at Bard College's Shostakovich Festival, which I wrote up in the New Yorker last week. I'd had a couple of Popov recordings in my library for a while, but, as so often, hearing the music live showed me something that the CDs had not.
Popov studied alongside Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory. His breakout work was the Chamber Symphony of 1927, heard at Bard in a fine performance under the direction of Fernando Raucci. The instrumentation, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass, recalls Histoire du Soldat, and you also hear echoes of the Hindemith of the Kammermusik series. There are trace elements of jazz, but only in the distant Soviet understanding of the word — fox-trots and other café styles. Popov had a real gift for melody, even as he constantly undercut his lyric flights with murmurs of disaster. There is an open-hearted sweetness that you seldom find in Shostakovich's music. The Trio theme in the second movement is almost like Copland — a plainspoken song in the flute over static accompaniment. The Largo is absolutely magical: midway through comes a high, sad, slow, bewitching violin theme over a funky bass vamp. The fast passages are full of rhythmic surprises, unusual tonal combinations, nasty little dances that start and stop. Overall, the work has more personality and invention than anything by Shostakovich from the same period, even the First Symphony. What it lacks is Shostakovich's rock-solid sense of form, his Beethovenian aura of inevitability.
In the late twenties, Popov moved away from brittle, satirical neoclassicism. As David Fanning recounts in an American Symphony program note, he wrote in his diary of a new kind of "theatrical-musical (symphonic) form," based on a study of Mahler. He seems to have sincerely believed that this monumental, dramatic approach to symphonic writing would match up with Soviet cultural policy. (The critic Ivan Sollertinsky, one of Shostakovich's closest friends and advisers, was writing along similar lines.) His manifesto work was the First Symphony, a work of astounding expressive power and emotional complexity. Very much like Shostakovich's later Fourth Symphony, it stumbles for long periods across an unearthly landscape that resembles partially bombed-out Mahler. The final movement is particularly remarkable: it begins with a Soviet industrial ostinato along the lines of Mossolov's Iron Foundry and Prokofiev's Pas d'acier, but then a human form seems to rise up from the innards of the machine, singing in alternately ecstatic and demonic tones. The symphony closes with an awesome sequence of ringing figures and trilling chords, based on the magic bells of Wagner's Monsalvat and Rimsky's Kitezh — except that some terrible shadow hangs over this shining city on a hill. I thought of Poe: "While from a proud tower in the town / Death looks gigantically down."
Shostakovich plainly paid attention to Popov's idea of theatricalized symphonic form: his own death-drunk Fourth not only resembles Popov's First in design but seems at times to quote its music. There might also be a citation of Popov in the Fifth Symphony, whose great opening utterance resembles a figure that surfaces in Popov's opening movement. Whether Shostakovich was sending a clandestine message with these near-quotations is anyone's guess, but he might have wanted to show solidarity with Popov, who had been briefly purged from the Conservatory back in the twenties and suffered censure again after the First's premiere in March of 1935. (The work was said to show "the ideology of classes hostile to us.") The denunciation of Shostakovich in 1936 was more public and ferocious, but it was accompanied, we now know, by private assurances that the composer would thrive again if he followed a correct path. Popov apparently received no such encouragement. His masterpiece was never heard again during his lifetime.
The two composers together make an interesting case study in the difference between raw talent and genius. Shostakovich showed the world a helpless, vulnerable facade, but he had an inner tenacity that carried him through the Stalinist crisis. He also had a certain canniness, a knack for plotting the twists and turns of his career, which we never like to acknowledge as an ingredient of genius. Popov, exploding with talent but lacking that eerie detachment from his creative self, collapsed under the outward pressure. He felt obligated to produce programmatic Socialist-Realistic pieces on a regular basis (Komsomol Is The Chief of Electrification). He became a raging alcoholic. (Per Skans in an Olympia liner note: "The Soviet Composers Union was never a teetotal organization, but Popov was certainly thirstier than average.") For extended periods after the war he produced little of consequence. His last major statement, the Sixth Symphony, subtitled Holiday, makes for an upsettingly strange experience: you're never sure whether you're listening to some craven attempt at Communist bombast, some fabulously ironic satire on same, or drunken babbling. At its best, it matches the First Symphony's attitude of regal delirium: this Soviet holiday party culminates in obvious echoes of Mussorgsky's Coronation Scene, the crowning of the murderer Tsar, and ends with a noise that you could hear either as a whoop of joy or an onrush of vomit.
For the moment, there's no way of hearing the works I describe here except on used LPs and CDs. The Olympia label, which released recordings of the Popov symphonies some years ago, has ceased to exist. How's that for frustration? Fortunately, Leon Bostein, who presided over the Shostakovich Festival at Bard, has made a very persuasive recording of the First Symphony with the London Symphony, which Telarc will release in the fall. I've listened to my preview copy at least twenty times in the last few weeks: it has the ever-changing, life-enhancing personality of a masterpiece. Popov was a man destroyed by history, and he deserves some restitution after death.
The author late in the twentieth century.
Winter / Spring 2008
Jan. 10: Appearance at Strand Book Store in NYC, interview by Jeff Spurgeon of WQXR, 7PM.
Jan. 25: Pre- and post-concert talks as part of the Seattle Chamber Players' Icebreaker IV Festival, On the Boards, Seattle, Washington.
Oct. 7: Multimedia tour of twentieth-century music, New Yorker Festival, Ailey Citigroup Theatre, Joan Weill Center for Dance, 405 West 55th Street, 4PM, $25. Book signing 1-2PM at the New Yorker Festival Headquarters, Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street.
Oct. 14: "Modern Music: The Bold and the Beautiful," lecture at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Rose Studio, 3PM (part of the Chamber Music Essentials subscription series).
Oct. 16: Books available in stores.
Oct. 17: Discussion with John Rockwell and Linda Ronstadt at City Arts in San Francisco, Herbst Theatre, 8PM.
Oct. 21: Book Passage, Corte Madera CA, 7PM.
Oct. 22: Powell's Books, Portland OR, 7:30PM.
Oct. 23: University Bookstore, Seattle WA.
Oct. 25: Multimedia tour of twentieth-century music, Los Angeles Public Library, 7PM.
Oct. 26: Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, USC, 1PM.
Oct. 29: The Blue Notebooks interview series, Columbia University, Morningside Campus, Schermerhorn 501, 8PM.
Oct. 30: An Evening of Spooky Modern Music, with Ethan Iverson, pianist of The Bad Plus, Paris Bar, National Arts Club, 10PM.
Nov. 2: Pre-concert talk at Da Camera of Houston, Houston TX.
Nov. 3: Panel at Texas Book Festival, Austin TX. Capital Extension Room E2.010, 3PM.
Nov. 5: Talk at Fulton Recital in Goodspeed Hall at the University of Chicago (co-sponsored by the Seminary Co-op Bookstore and the Music Department of the university), 4:30PM, free and open the public.
Nov. 6: Conversation with Andrew Patner at the Art Institute of Chicago, 12 noon (free, but museum admission is required).
Nov. 7: Minnesota Public Radio event, with the Turtle Island String Quartet and Fred Child, host of Performance Today, 7:30PM, Fitzgerald Theater.
Nov. 10: Miami Book Fair (details TBA)
Nov. 11: Sound Fix, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 6PM.
Nov. 19: Harvard Book Store, Cambridge MA.
Nov. 20: Politics and Prose bookstore, Washington DC.
Nov. 27: "The Art of Fear," lecture on mid-century music and politics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 8PM.
Nov. 30: The iPod lecture at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Recital Hall, 6:30PM.
Dec. 3: The iPod lecture at Hilbert Circle Theatre, Indianapolis, 7PM. Free and open to the public. Presented by WFYI; with performances of works by Becky Archibald.
Dec. 4: Appearance at Evolution Contemporary Music Series, An Die Musik Live, 409 N. Charles Street, Baltimore MD, 8PM.
Dec. 5: Reading at 192 Books, New York.
Feb. 20: Conversation with New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella about her new essay collection Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, Housing Works Used Book Café, 7PM.
March 24: Panel on the Toscanini Legacy, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 3PM.
March 24: Panel with young composers at the MATA Festival in Brooklyn, 6:45PM.
April 1: Lecture on Debussy and Schoenberg's reactions to poetry, 92nd Street Y, 11AM.
March 19: "Weaponizing Music: Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony in Wartime and After": lecture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as part of the Shostakovich Centennial Festival.
March 22: Interview with Mark Morris at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
April 20: "Stalin and Hitler as 'Music-Lovers'," lecture at Peabody Institute, Baltimore, Cohen-Davison Theatre.
April 28: "My Twentieth Century," an iPod-driven tour of twentieth-century music, at On the Boards, Seattle.
April 29: "Black Beethoven: The African-American Classical Composer," talk at the EMP Pop Conference, Seattle.
May 5: "Music Criticism: History and Current Practice," lecture at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
June 17: Convocation Address at the Northwestern University School of Music.
Aug. 30: Bob Dylan Night, discussion with David Remnick, Robert Polito, Mary Lee Kortes, Bob Levinson, and Ben Hedin. KGB Bar, 85 East 4th St., 7-9 PM.
Sept. 19: Critics and the Arts, panel with Greil Marcus, Joan Acocella, Mark Stevens, and Wendy Lesser. Lang Recital Hall, Hunter College, 7PM.
Oct. 7: Composers on the Edge: Music and conversation with Mason Bates, Corey Dargel, Nico Muhly, and Joanna Newsom. New Yorker Festival, Oct. 7, 10PM, $35.
Oct. 15: Keynote speech at the conference Music Reception: Actions, Reactions, Interactions, Harvard Graduate Forum.
Oct. 19: Panel discussion with New Yorker critics Sasha Frere-Jones and Nancy Franklin at the University of Iowa, part of the magazine's College Tour.
Dec. 17: Bob Dylan reading with Ben Hedin, David Gates, Mitch Blank, and Robert Polito at KGB Bar.
March 19: WNYC Special, The Ring and I: The Passion, The Myth, The Mania.
March 30: "...'Schubert Leaving Me': Morton Feldman as Modernist and Minimalist," lecture at Columbia University Music Department.
May 13: "Jews in Musical Vienna," panel discussion hosted by the New York Institute for the Humanities at the Jewish Museum.
Oct. 6: Reading with Rick Moody, Gary Giddins, Robert Christgau, and Sean Wilentz, in connection with the new book Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader, edited by Benjamin Hedin. Barnes and Noble, 82nd and Broadway, NYC.
Oct. 17: "The Critic of the Future," discussion with Justin Davidson, as part of a three-day symposium sponsored by the Music Critics Association of North America and the National Arts Journalism Program.
Oct. 28: "Reorientation: The US Army's Role in the Reshaping of German Music, 1945-1949," lecture at Harvard University, Humanities Center.
Nov. 20: A Conversation with Sonic Youth, New Yorker College Tour, Washington DC.
Sept. 20: A Conversation with Renée Fleming, New Yorker Festival.
Oct. 16: "Theodor Adorno and the Politics of Music," discussion with Lydia Goehr, Goethe Institute, Boston.
Sept. 28: A Conversation with John Adams, New Yorker Festival.
Oct. 8: "Rationality and Spirituality: Olivier Messiaen's Musical Thinking," discussion with Kent Nagano at the American Academy in Berlin.
Nov. 7: "Tonal oder Atonal: Modernist Politics and the Broken Friendship of Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg," lecture at the American Academy in Berlin.
Oct. 24: “Alluringly Alien: Schoenberg Exposed," discussion with Esa-Pekka Salonen, LACMA, Los Angeles.
Nov. 20: “What Was Schoenberg Thinking?," lecture at Harvard University, Center for the Humanities, Music and Its Public series.
September 08, 2004 | Permalink