Wharton, Scorsese and Gounod

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HarpingOn / Irrelevant Reviews

Irrelevant Reviews
The Age of Innocence (1993)


The lockdown has been long enough to prompt an existential crisis with regards to my televisual consumption. Yes, I’m 100% committed to finishing the entirety of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks with @amandavosburgh before we’re all allowed out again, but other than that, I feel as if I’m out of anything interesting to watch on my Netflix account. In an attempt to get the brain going a little more, I signed up for a Criterion Channel subscription, alternating edgy indie flicks with the daily Met Opera streams. Sunday was a double feature, undertaken after rereading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, beginning with a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation before watching the Met Opera’s stream of Gounod’s Faust.

I was interested to see what Scorsese would get up to, as his films about New York aren’t usually known for things like elegance, precision, or subject matter relating to high culture, faux aristocracy, etc. Indeed, the 1993 New York Times review accused the director of taking an “anthropological” vantage point towards the story’s characters, implying that Wharton was writing for her friends, a select group of wealthy and conservative (and, by and large, male) cognoscenti. The review was right that Wharton’s audience might have been select, but the assessment of Scorsese’s cinematic realization is perhaps unfair, considering the film’s immaculate level of detail. At the film’s opening, we are introduced to New York’s high society as protagonist Newland Archer spends a typical night at the opera with production of Gounod’s Faust ¾though in Italian, reflective of an antiquated operatic convention which Wharton herself implied was peculiar to New York’s snobbery.

“She sang of course, “M’ama,” and not “il m’aime,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded…” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

If you’re familiar with the story, it’s easy to see that these two sentences set the scene for the whole story. If not, a second recap: Wharton tells the story of a wealthy woman, Countess Olenska, who returns to America to seek a divorce from an abusive husband in Europe, much to the disapproval of high society. To complicate matters, her lawyer, Newland Archer, is in love with her despite being married to her cousin May. In the end, no real resolution is found, but rather a compromise to maintain appearances. The Countess returns to Europe, without a divorce. Newland and May remain married, despite the fact that his affections for the Countess were no secret. Much like the social mores by which Newland and the Countess must abide, it is not authenticity which is valued in society, but custom.

If anything, this is what’s missing from Scorsese’s adaptation. We can get an incredible visual sense of what the era was like in a way that’s much more vivid than a book. The costumes, sets, furniture, and even the china are all flawless. But the details that are sacrificed can only really be recovered in returning to the novel, to Faust, and to the history of opera in New York. We know there is a night at the opera, but we don’t know why. We can’t see or hear the alternative rendition of Gounod’s opera in French, nor can we see that it is Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson on stage.

From a certain vantage point, Wharton’s metaphor of New York’s operatic customs would be damning enough to paint a picture of a culture obsessed with imitating (and sanitizing) European customs. However, if we dig further into the details of Newland’s first night at the opera, we might find a more complex picture. There are so many details about operatic culture that perhaps Wharton is trying to ring certain bells in minds of the opera fans and haute-Manhattanites of her generation. At first, the evening’s events closely resemble the first matinée performance at the Metropolitan Opera on October 27th, 1883, which was itself a repeat performance of the opening night on October 22nd. Just as in The Age of Innocence, the role of Marguerite (the object of Faust’s desires) was sung by Christina Nilsson.

 On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

 It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupe.” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

Of course, Wharton wasn’t in New York in 1883, and according to her biography and letters, never witnessed Christina Nilsson sing Marguerite. We do know, however, that she loved Faust. One night at the Academy of Music in 1880 stands out in her letters. Her experience of mixing her own life and the subjects on the stage bears remarkable resemblance to that of Newland’s conflation of his betrothed with Marguerite. In reminiscing to her old governess about a performance in March 1880, she quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Ode to Beauty, writing:

I heard Faust sung on Friday night—at the Academy, and somehow you got mixed with the lyric rapture, and you were with me hearing it, and drinking your fill of those “Divine Ideas below / That always find us young / And always keep us so.” (March 27, 1880)

More curious is that Wharton describes an evening at the opera in which the role of Faust himself was sung by Victor Capoul, which only ever occurred once in New York. At the matinée on March 27th, 1883, the famed Italo Campanini, whose career had been built on Gounod’s Faust, had fallen ill and was replaced by Capoul.

“Faust” was repeated at the first matinée in the Metropolitan Opera-house yesterday. There was a large audience, the largest, in fact, that has assembled in the new building since the [inaugural] night. The performance of Gounod’s opera was, as might have been expected, smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation, and it was heard with much delight and many demonstrations of approval. Mme. Nilsson, being more familiar with the auditorium, sang at times with even more expression than on the previous occasion, and her impersonation of Margherita was notable for dramatic strength, as well as musical excellence. Signer Del Puente as Valentino and Signor Novara as Mephistopheles were both more satisfactory than before, while the place of Signor Campanini, who was unavoidably absent, was taken by M. Victor Capoul. (Review, New York Times, October 28, 1883)

“M’ama … non m’ama …” the prima donna sang, and “M’ama!”, with a final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless victim. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

Wharton perhaps competes for the accolade of “Opera Buff of the Century.” It’s apparent that her first chapter isn’t simply fictitious, but historical and auto-biographical at the same time. She describes her own sensations of a specific performance in history, which she never witnessed and set back in time from the 1880s into the 1870s. It’s possible that this is not a random collage, but a select montage of persons, places and events which mirror her characters.

Above all, The Age of Innocence tells the story of a woman constrained by society. The mysterious Countess Olenska also appears at the opera that night, to the dismay and disapproval of society. Recently arrived from Europe, she openly seeks to divorce her abusive husband and forge a new life in a city which she hopes would be free from the shackles of convention. Of course, as the novel progresses, she finds these conventions to be all the more rigid, noting of her American compatriots:

“But, do you know, they interest me more than the blind conformity to tradition—somebody else’s tradition—that I see among our own friends. It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 24)

But despite the icy reception from high society, the reality is that New York was not inimical to the arrival of newcomers or independent women. This was no truer than in the case of Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, a soprano whose career took many years to gain traction in New York. Though beloved in Boston, and even more-so among her Nordic fans in the Midwest, Nilsson’s stage presence was known for a certain passivity and austerity, seen as unfitting for the romantic female characters of French opera, who ought to be engrossed in their male counterparts’ passions. This was partly due to her singing style, which was known for a certain iciness, but also to a bygone manifestation of American racism which regarded Scandinavians as a largely uneducated agrarian populace.

In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of her muslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul’s impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of his designs whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated the ground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing “The darling!” thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about.” And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

But as time drew on, Nilsson soon became in demand, being invited repeatedly to perform Faust, including at the inaugural performance of new Metropolitan Opera House. Newcomers like Nilsson to the stage also mirrored the influx of a larger audience. No longer restricted to WASPS and visiting European aristocrats, the 1870s to 1880s saw an audience expansion across ethnographic lines with the maturation of the industrial revolution and the birth of a new middle class. Irish and Jewish immigrants once too poor to attend the opera (or excluded on the basis of ethnicity or religion) now had the means to do so. Such was the disdain for this operatic culture that on the opening night of the Met in 1883, it was apparent that many “typical” opera-goers (i.e. WASPs) were not present.


Many surprises were in store last evening for that portion of fashionable and unfashionable New York society which had arranged for itself to go to the Metropolitan Opera House. Perhaps the first notable one was the disagreeable shock received by those who had thought to purchase the luxury cheaply.

These were absent when the curtain rose.

Next came the surprise (to many) of finding when the doors were opened, that although there were signs of haste here and there, everything visible was practically complete.

Next was a feeling of bewildered surprise at the unaccustomed paths to be trodden to go anywhere. And last was the enormous surprise that must necessarily have been kindled in the breast of Mr. Henry E. Abbey when the audience showed itself honestly cold in its criticism.


The audience itself was a complete surprise. Not in proportions. It was certain that the house would be full. But those who were expected by the “habitués” of places of amusement in New York were not there, and those who were not expected were in full force.

“You see such a lot you don’t know, you know, and, you know, you don’t see the fellahs you know,” lisped one young man, whose attire was as faultless as his imported manner.

Yet, as no one outside of the few who had studied the matter knew exactly what to expect, the surprises were taken as a matter of course, and the praise and criticism freely uttered on all sides seemed entirely spontaneous. (Review, New York Times, October 23, 1883)

 The opera scene in The Age of Innocence does describe some Arcadian past, but it foretells the imminent changes about to beset New York.

The metaphors of the characters on stage become more apparent as the novel continues: May Wealand and Marguerite are fused, but the fate of Countess Olenska and Christina Nilsson are more closely tied, both women who managed to find their independence despite their disruption of social mores. As the novel continues, Newland Archer falls in love with the Countess Olenska as society watches silently. He thinks his affections are secret, but the dark reality is that everyone knows and refuses to say anything, preferring to manipulate the situation to remove the Countess from public view by returning her to her abusive husband in Europe. In this sense, Newland is like Capoul. The audience knows it ought to be Campanini on stage singing, and yet they abide Capoul (perhaps appearing in Campanini’s ill-fitting costume) and keep up the pretense that all is as it ought to be. Indeed on the opening night of the Met, the Times reported that Campanini and Nilsson “sang positively badly.” But five days later, despite issues with costumes, the same critic reported that Capoul and Nilsson’s performance was “smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation.”

Wharton herself was no stranger to the pretense of appearances when it came to love. Of the same period of the early 1880s from which Wharton’s operatic experiences are selected, Wharton would confide in her 1934 autobiography that:

“I inspired no romantic passions! It may be added that I felt none, & that the two or three young men who—in the natural course of things—honored me with their devotion, inspired me with no feelings but that of a friendly liking. I did not fall in love till I was twenty-one.”

This perhaps stands in contrast to the delight at having become engaged to Teddy Wharton in 1885, after a period of some emotional restlessness (after all, Wharton was careful not to name who it was she fell in love with when she was 21).

“If my present happiness had come to me at eighteen, I should probably have taken it as a matter of course, but coming to me after certain Experiences of which you know, it seems almost incredible that a man can be so devoted, so generous, so sweet-tempered & unselfish.”

What’s radical about this is not that Wharton liked opera, but that the experience of elation, transportation, and active participation as an audience member was vivid enough to inspire a novel forty years later. The Age of Innocence is an underappreciated novel in this regard, as it tells several different stories, or can at least be viewed several different ways. Like opera, the Age of Innocence contains personal, historical, and convivial elements which render a sort of universality despite dealing with highly specific subject matter. One does not have to be an opera snob to feel the emotional weight of the novel, nor does one have to know Wharton’s life story. But for those of us who do love opera, the novel is a reminder of the many benefits that a live performance can offer.

I ponder what Wharton would do with Met live streams today, having gone to great lengths to recreate a performance by Christina Nilsson that she herself never witnessed live, but only read about. Would it, like Scorsese’s adaptation, be a suitable and just compromise? For myself, I’ve certainly enjoyed the live streams, but I can’t wait for the return of live opera, where the size, emotional impact, and historical weight of a single work of art fuse into something personally meaningful for the listener. Wharton’s novel is but a glimpse into the totality of the operatic experience, reminding us that a night with Faust could prove to mean so much more down the like. When the lockdown lets up, what might a night at the opera hold in store for you, me, or any of us?

Direction: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer
Cinematography: Michael Balhaus
Music: Elmer Bernstein

Visconti and Bruckner

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HarpingOn / Irrelevant Reviews

Irrelevant Reviews
Senso (1954)


Luchino Visconti’s penchant for opulence was in the making long before the great trilogy of The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig II. Senso is a beautiful work of historical fiction, beautifully adapting Camillo Boito’s novel into a work of art.

As the Italian Wars of Unification set the scene, one can easily mistake the film as a work glorifying the forward march of democracy as expressed through nationalism and self-determination. After all, the film opens with a political demonstration at Teatro La Fenice, staged to interrupt a performance of Il Travatore at the very moment when Manrico has completed “Di quella pira” and calls his men to arms to save his mother. The occupying Austrian forces break up the performance and disperse the demonstrators, at which point a tale of forbidden love ensues between an aristocratic Venetian woman and an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army.

It is from here however that Nino Rota’s score followed a peculiar directive from Visconti. Instead of Verdi, the audience hears only excerpts from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (with the occasional folk song from an Austrian officer or two sung on screen). Of course while Bruckner’s music needs no explanation or defense these days, once his music was under-appreciated once upon a time. Furtwängler wrote that prior to 1939, his own attempts to promote Bruckner’s music were seldom greeted with warmth and that (sadly) it was the Third Reich’s project of musical imperialism that saw a large scale revival of his symphonies, primarily in countries where the Nazis were occupying.

Everything in the film contains codes about the Second World War. The turning point of the film comes when protagonist Livia learns that Garibaldi has taken the town of Saló, the same town where Hitler established a puppet republic in 1943, after Victor Emmanuel III and the Italians switched sides and attempted to depose Mussolini. The backdrop of Venice is no coincidence either, as Mussolini and Hitler both agreed that Venice ought not to belong to Italy, but enter into loose confederation directly with the Reich.

When we think of Anschluss, we think Austria, 1938. But Visconti’s film points to cultural Anschluss that befell parts of Italy, as it did with Bruckner and other vestiges of Europe’s past. The Reich was known for absorbing that which was useful in order to promote its political viability. That said, one need not think too hard when Visconti’s film. For just as there is anti-Nazi sentiment in the metaphors of Saló and the liberation gradual liberation of Italy after 1943 by Allied forces, the movie is deafeningly silent on what came before. As with The Sound of Music, it’s perhaps too easy to believe claims of victimization by the Third Reich, when the history of fascism in Europe is far more widespread. After all, the political problems surrounding Hitler, Mussolini, Venice and Saló did not really touch on the political values of fascism and the redemptive qualities of violence, but rather if those values ought to come from the Italian people or from German directives. Senso is a gentle reminder that historical fiction can easily rely on fictive histories.

Direction: Luchino Visconti
Music: Anton Bruckner from Symphony No. 7, adapted by Nino Rota
Cinematography: G.R. Aldo
Starring: Alida Valli, Farley Granger

Godard (and Mao)

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Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967)


A film wrought out of necessity as much as inspiration. Rivette’s La Religieuse, having been banned by the French government, proved a financial catastrophe for producer Georges de Beauregard. As such, Jean-Luc Godard was approached about a film which might bail Beauregard out. Godard had already begun work on “Deux ou trois choses” in early 1966, but the pace of production was increased to give Beauregard something more commercially viable to hand to the public.

Again, we can see a film as historical relic. Sure, Godard’s film constitutes a revolutionary work, openly comparing prostitutionin the new middle classes to the self-exploitation in American-style consumerism. In Brechtian fashion, the actors and actresses quote trendy philosophers and economists, carrying on with daily mundane tasks to highlight the chasm between images of deprivation from their prosperous descriptions. Yes, it’s Godard, so naturally the film is about capitalism. Scenes of women looking at pornographic magazines of the female form are interwoven with clips of the human toll wrought by Western intervention in Vietnam, commenting on the pornographic nature of photojournalism and the profligacy of televised media. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography is rather beautiful, and the slapdash informality of the film keeps one interested (no scene really lasts for more than four minutes).

But the film barters in lofty ideas with unsubtle currency. By laying out all the ambiguities of modern existence in the mind, there is no physical or emotional struggle with which to grapple. This stands in contrast to Rivette’s supposed flop, which focuses on the intricate and difficult topics of the invisibility of experience and the physicality of institutions. It’s perhaps not a surprise that Rivette’s less esoteric metaphors were all the more challenging to the De Gaulle administration, mired in its disastrous economic plans which served to entrench poverty and immobility in the new suburban banlieues.

I can’t help but sense greater authenticity in Rivette’s La Religieuse upon witnessing sheer idiocy Godard’s hyper-intellectualism. For what can suppress a struggle or conflict more than by convincing victims of their existence’s reducibility to thought and speech, rather than sight and action? Indeed, when the stakes are so low, it’s not surprising to imagine why the film enjoyed the commercial success it did.

Direction: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Catherine Vimenet, Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Starring: Marina Vlady


I ought to clarify that the film is not uninteresting, but rather trite, tastelessly Maoist and fucking sexist (think Henze’s operas in cinematic form). For those curious, a reading list for “Deux ou trois choses” is as follows:

Alleg, The Question
Aron, 18 Lessons about Industrial Society
Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues
Bradbury, A Medicine for Melancholy
Fourastié, The Great Hope of the Twentieth Century
Goldmann, Towards a Sociology of the Novel
Kardiner, Introduction to Ethnology
Kardiner & Preble, They Studied Man
Packard, The Pyramid Climbers
Simenon, Lost Moorings
Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books

Rivette and Couperin

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La Religieuse (1966)
(Or Lace, Lesbians & Leçons de ténèbres: A Sequence of Unfortunate Events.)


In a bleak adaptation of Diderot’s novel completed in 1780, a family from the petty aristocracy dooms their daughter Suzanne to a life in the church to which she openly does not consent. She’s apparently drugged before taking her vows (which she later does not remember), and her first convent is run by a sadistic Mother Superior who is bent on crushing Suzanne through starvation and psychological torture. A lawyer intervenes, and Suzanne is transferred to another (less strict) convent, only to the sexual obsession of the abbess. Another rescue attempt by a priest turns into yet another nightmare as he attempts to rape her. She escapes, but is unable to support herself except through work as a prostitute, leading her to throw herself off a balcony at the very end of the film. (This flick is no way, shape or form, an uplifting watch.)

Musically, it’s interesting to hear how conscious Rivette’s team was of historical specificity with regards to 18th Century French music (especially for a film made in 1966). One can hear the famous “Jod” sequence from Couperin’s Troisieme leçon de ténèbre as Suzanne describes Holy Week celebrations, and the passage of time in various abbess’s chambers include the playing the spinet, where we hear two nuns playing Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux.

Direction: Jacques Rivette
Music: Jean-Claude Éloy
Starring: Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver

Orson Welles (and Nazis)

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HarpingOn / Irrelevant Reviews

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The Stranger (1946)


I’m curious as to exactly how a Nazi fugitive (played by Orson Welles himself) would be able to adopt a perfect mid-Atlantic accent to rival Angela Lansbury’s in The Manchurian Candidate.

From a modern standpoint, The Stranger offers retrospective insight into how Americans viewed National Socialism and the Holocaust in the first years after the end of WWII. Though being the first Hollywood film to use footage from the camps, the script and production seemingly tiptoe around the ideology of the Final Solution, using vague terms to illustrate Germany’s intent on biological subjugation of other nations, rather than the absolute destruction of a single group of people. At the same time, the extensive denial on behalf of the villain’s wife that her husband could be an ex-SS officer rings alarm bells, pointing to the compromised conscience of United States, who confronted the reality of camps only when it was totally undeniable. In a sense, it’s quite literally a film of its time, as had it been produced even one or two years later, it might have looked very different as the Nuremberg Trials became increasingly complex and politicized (Indeed, the incessant presence of the clock tower inneed of constant maintenance seems an important metaphor for the essentiality of time.)

Perks of the film include excellent film-noiry lighting, a shit ton of clocks and really (and I mean, REALLY) cheesy music.

Direction: Orson Welles
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Music: Bronisław Kaper
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles

Depardieu and Dutilleux

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Sous le soleil de Satan (1987)


Highly recommended for those with a love for: (1) creepy mysticism, (2) Gérard Depardieu, and (3) the music of Henri Dutilleux (extracts from his First Symphony).

Films about crises of faith can be trite and easy, bartering in tropes of devout individuals who restore confidence in their own sensibilities rather than in someone upstairs. Such is not the case in Pialat’s adaptation of Bernano’s magnum opus, whereby a priest’s obsessive mysticism renders a closeness to God as well as a hypersensitivity to the wiles of evil. The film isn’t really so much about religion, but rather the uncomfortable absence of solace in any human faith, passion or belief when possessed with enough fervor. (There’s a reason it was booed at Cannes.)

Direction: Maurice Pialat
Cinematography: Willy Kurant
Music: Henri Dutilleux
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire


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Amazon has been recommending books to me after I purchased a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I caved. A Kindle subscription has helped stave off some boredom, as my e-shelf is now flush with Death in Venice and other testaments to forms of melancholy and depression, peculiar to the Teutonic sensibilities. Hesse, Broch, Roth, Döblin, all authors obsessed with music’s metaphors for existence now help me pass the time as I avoid repetitive-strain injury from practicing six hours a day for non-existent recitals.

Musicians are stuck inside, facing the grim inessentiality of their industry and perhaps the realization that while things are hard now, they’ve been tough for a quite a while. I commend my colleagues for creating mounds of internet content that I cannot bring myself to make. I can’t help but feel as if we as musicians are somehow keeping vigil for an industry model that will not return, miring ourselves in a time warp to try to extend a present which has realistically passed. Furthermore, litanies of the musician’s woes seem to perpetuate the notion of the virus as an injustice, rather than a reality. Our line of work is artistic and enriching, but it is entertainment nonetheless, a glorified and erudite form of social masturbation.

Perhaps I should have called this blogpost “things will change, and that’s ok,” for that is what I’m trying to get at. If you’re a freelance musician in your twenties and disagree, then I’d challenge you check your bank statements and ask if you really want to turn back the clock to (1) the hours of networking and emails which ate into your practice time, (2) the shockingly low pay, and (3) the fear of losing it all in an emergency. Offset your income against your (4) tax burden, (5) student loans, and (6) cost of living, and keep thinking. It’s completely absurd to assert that the virus is an equalizer, as those most susceptible are suffering more, both physically and economically. The health emergency, however, is an illuminator, shedding light on the fact that times were not as great in the bull economy as we had led ourselves to believe.

2akU-k9xIQ0C.jpgAnd so, instead of furious emails and appeals to save my career, I wait out the transition period with reading. I’ve found particular comfort in Hermman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which undertakes the task of asking how it is that humans can upend their own mental entrenchment. It’s touchy territory, to an extent, as Hesse’s works were permitted to remain in circulation under the Third Reich, and were even promoted by the SS and younger members of the National Socialist apparatus. Upon republication of Steppenwolf in 1961, Hesse composed a forward asserting that those (without naming names) who loved his novel most also possessed the greatest misconceptions as to its message. It’s not surprising, as on the surface level protagonist Henry Haller shows himself to be an isolated prisoner to the culture in which he is forced to live and operate. Sex, drugs, and murder along with apparitions of Mozart, Brahms, and Wagner take Harry further into his own mind to find a path out. The dressing up and repackaging of Nietzsche’s early to middle writings (especially Human, All too Human (1878) and Daybreak (1881)) is thus apparent, as they are often seen as works of cultural criticism preceding his descent into philosophical considerations of the meaning of modernity itself, as seen in The Genealogy of Morality (1887) and subsequent writings.

Nietzsche, of course, was passionate about music and musicians (hence his brief, ill-fated friendship with Richard Wagner, on whose behalf he sometimes used to buy women’s lingerie for the composer to wear), and used them as examples in his writings. But having once believed that modern music, and particularly that of Wagner, was the key to overcoming the staleness of culture, Nietzsche showed a change of heart. No, it was not just in the later bitchy tomes from 1888 such as Twilight of the Idols, or The Case of Wagner, or Nietzsche contra Wagner, written during the course of Nietzsche’s increasing struggles with syphilis. In chapter 245 odlf Beyond Good and Evil (1886) Nietzsche proclaims that Germany had forgotten the important perspectives of the past altogether, in particular those of musicians. Praising Mozart’s gaiety and the transcendent qualities of operatic composers like Weber and Marschner, and expressing the fear that Beethoven as a transitory figure would be forgotten, he writes,

The “good old” time is past, it sang itself out in Mozart—how happy are WE that his ROCOCO still speaks to us, that his “good company,” his tender enthusiasm, his childish delight, his courtesy of heart, his longing for the elegant, the amorous, the tripping, the tearful, and his belief in the South, can still appeal to SOMETHING LEFT in us! Ah, some time or other it will be over with it!—but who can doubt that it will be over still sooner with the intelligence and taste for Beethoven! For he was only the last echo of a break and transition in style, and NOT, like Mozart, the last echo of a great European taste which had existed for centuries. Beethoven is the intermediate event between an old mellow soul that is constantly breaking down, and a future over-young soul that is always COMING; there is spread over his music the twilight of eternal loss and eternal extravagant hope—the same light in which Europe was bathed when it dreamed with Rousseau, when it danced round the Tree of Liberty of the French Revolution.

“Ta-da!” Nietzsche’s cultural critique embroiled itself in the great War of the Romantics, a largely philosophical debate in which opposing inheritors of the Beethovenian legacy were pitted against each other in discussions about Europe’s future. Such modes of philosophical discussion seem antiquated or odd but, once upon a time, classical music’s place among the cognoscenti was such that one’s aesthetic tastes were indicative of one’s politics and understandings of history. Brahms and his friends the Schumanns were associated with political conservatism, seeking to crystallize Napoleonic reforms while holding on to the original structures which the French Emperor had once sought to destroy. Wagner and Liszt represented the forward march of nationalism, and the attempts to make manifest the destiny of liberal thought through ethnocracies. And at the fountainhead sits Beethoven, the original form of the musician from the aristocratic clutch, whose dual focus on expanding melody and motive drove a wedge into the aesthetic hegemony of the 18th century.

For Nietzsche and Hesse, whose writings were separated by forty years or more, the musician’s obsession with expansion of past inheritance was not simply a useful metaphor for the sickness of societies, but a genuine prism through which cultures and attitudes were understood in the German speaking territories of Europe. Of course, the Anglo-American philosophical tradition likes to segregate music from understandings of democracy and, as such, passages such as these feel intensely foreign. And yet thinking about the implications of the fate of music are key for understanding not only Nietzsche, but those who came after. To an extent, in Steppenwolf, Hesse picked up where Nietzsche had left off, incorporating classical music into his orientalist fantasy of dissociative drugs and meditation.

As Henry Haller descends into his psyche, it is none other Mozart who guides him through the final chapter of his journey. The composers laughs incessantly and jokes, adhering to the traditional view of Mozart, as seen in films like Amadeus, of a childlike genius isolated from the world by his own intellect and ignorance.

He takes Haller into the final scene of Don Giovanni, where Mozart brags of his own achievement. Haller plays along, massaging Mozart’s ego:

“Oh, yes, Beethoven—he is wonderful too. But all that— beautiful as it may be—has something rhapsodical about it, something of disintegration. A work of such plentitude and power as Don Giovanni has never since arisen among men.”

But as hell opens up to swallow them, Haller finds neither Giovanni nor Leporello, but two other twinned figures:

    Mozart raised his hands as though he were conducting, and a moon, or some pale constellation, rose somewhere. I looked over the edge of the box into immeasurable depths of space. Mist and clouds floated there. Mountains and seashores glimmered, and beneath us extended world-wide a desert plain. On this plain we saw an old gentleman of a worthy aspect, with a long beard, who drearily led a large following of some ten thousand men in black. He had a melancholy and hopeless air; and Mozart said:
    “Look, there’s Brahms. He is striving for redemption, but it will take him all his time.”
I realized that the thousands of men in black were the players of all those notes and parts in his scores which, according to divine judgment, were superfluous.

    “Too thickly orchestrated, too much material wasted,” Mozart said with a nod. And thereupon we saw Richard Wagner marching at the head of a host just as vast, and felt the pressure of those thousands as they clung and closed upon him. Him, too, we watched as he dragged himself along with slow and sad step.
     “In my young days,” I remarked sadly, “these two musicians passed as the most extreme contrasts conceivable.”
     Mozart laughed. “Yes, that is always the way. Such contrasts, seen from a little distance, always tend to show their increasing similarity. Thick orchestration was in any case neither Wagner’s nor Brahms’ personal failing. It was a fault of their time.”

“A fault of their time” could have been another title, for classical music like any commodity is subject to conditions of time and space. The slavish attempts by Wagner and Brahms to augment the scope and scale of musical forms is not the reason for the ridicule so much as the allowance for society to place political eggs in musical baskets and vice versa. More simply, Wagner and Brahms lived in an era in which people placed significant cultural value into music, not just as a means of entertainment but as a way of thinking about the world.

So, where was Classical Music in America before the pandemic? The more I think about it, the more I fear that the doom and gloom in the news and on social media about the fate of classical music has very little to do with the virus, but with the demoted stature of our industry in American society. Our schools do not teach classical music, or even encourage students to listen to it. Conversely, our conservatories and music schools don’t encourage literary consumption or intellectual pursuits beyond the practice rooms. Just as Mozart isn’t required listening in the liberal arts degree, Hesse is not required reading in our music history seminars. We have clung to our recital and concert halls, dispensed with radio and television as means of educating the populace, and forsook consulting our greatest advocates to understand why classical music means something to them, and not just to ourselves. Music criticism in newspapers has been maintained only in a handful of select publications, kept alive through philanthropy rather genuine interest or demand, and very few musicians themselves have taken up the blog or social media platform to write extensively about the richness of classical music’s manifestations throughout history.

The classical music industry in America risks a death from the virus, because other illnesses and diseases had gotten to it first. Comorbidities are not confined to the tragic victims of COVID-19, but are also present in industries which have streamlined their priorities and forsaken other resources. Classical music survived previous global economic crises, wars, and pandemics, as there was an audience and consumer base waiting at the other end which placed social value in what we do. But our current audiences and resources have been drying up for so long in this country that basic classical music literacy has to be reintroduced into our schools and media before we can hope of prioritizing it ever again. Until such time, I see little use in making hours of footage for my musical colleagues to pat me on the back about. For such content will mean no more to audiences today than it did before the pandemic. For the question is not how we get people to listen again, but how we get people to want to start listening for the first time. How can we use this time to show Mozart and Beethoven to be as important as Nietzsche and Hesse?

We all have spare time right now.

To my musician friends: please start reading, and consider supporting, our classical music writers. I highly recommend subscribing to the following two blogs:



To my non-musician friends: take those great books and find what the authors listened to, or look up the works discussed by characters. Read the Sunday Arts section and, if you’re feeling brave, subscribe to one of the blog listed above.

To all voters: call your school board members, your local representatives, your congress members, and demand the reintegration of sincere and rigorous arts education in our public schools.




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The sky is falling (or so I’m told).

I feel as if I’m in a chapter of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, being sequestered in Cleveland (a city relatively unknown to COVID-19 so far, save the few documented cases brought from D.C. this week) as I watch the Eastern seaboard melt down from afar, and witness doomsdayers and naysayers alike bicker on social media about what the appropriate response should be. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m taking precautions with my personal hygiene, but I’m also bearing in mind that a true victim of the panic doesn’t look like you or me, but rather like a passenger on the Grand Princess in the Bay Area, who waited an eternity to know if and when they could safely disembark, quarantine and get treated as necessary.)

In part, the lack of perspective about illness is a major theme in life and times of Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Hans Castorp. Nestled in a Swiss Alpine sanatorium, Castorp is surrounded by wealthy tuberculoids whose problems often have little to do with their supposed disease, but the manner in which they deny or exaggerate their ill health at the encouragement of Dr. Behrens, the resident medical expert and entrepreneur. As Castorp’s two-week vacation to visit an ailing cousing morphs into a seven-year incarceration, he comes to realize that the rampant illness in the Alps is not tuberculosis, but blind faith in the self-interested system of treatment which prioritizes its own existence over genuine care for patience. Obsession and hypochondria prove themselves to be games for those with an upper hand, as Castorp’s fellow patients appear to become more and more helpless, no matter how much money they have. (Of course, this is all a metaphor for the demise of all sectors of society during the First World War, who trusted that their governments would keep them safe, when in fact they were all used as canon fodder.)

While one cannot dispute the motives for the lockdown in Italy or the refusal to dock the Grand Princess in San Francisco, the jockeying of mass hysteria has proven itself to be a white-collar game. I’m continually shocked at the inability of people to realize that shutting things down is really only going to prey on those who need transparency the most. I’m not a huge fan of Mayor DeBlasio, but his decision to keep NYC public schools open is very wise. On a humanitarian level, 100,000+ children dependent on school meals will remain fed, and their parents will maintain a chance of continuing to earn wages. From the epidemiological perspective, maintenance of certain patterns of contact and communication can make the virus easier to track and study (after all, it’s easier for the CDC to gain access to a school facility than walk into a person’s home, at least in the United States). I cannot contain my fury that a school like Harvard is shutting down dorms, encouraging more population movement as students scramble to get housing (many with limited financial resources, and no guarantee as of yet of remuneration from the school) while expecting them to keep up with a high level of academic rigor.

I don’t claim any direct experience with poor health or disease, but my entrenchment in the LGBT community places me in closer proximity to narratives of communicable disease than many of my heterosexual counterparts. Anyone familiar with HIV/AIDS will know how incredibly painful it is to see normally reasonable people become incredibly selfish in their impulse to collapse rather than confront the reality of an epidemic. How much more could have been known earlier on if the City of New York had not undertaken a systematic approach to outright destroying the spaces of communication rather than carefully studying how they might be tracked? For all the freedoms Americans enjoy on an individual level, there can be no denying that we are susceptible to the forces of groupthink that would callously throw society’s vulnerable under the bus.

(For my straight friends, if you look at your Facebook feed, you will notice that older and gayer the friend, the less likely they will be to give into your self-pandering. This is not coincidental. This is a manifestation of differentials in privilege.)

Ich mußt’ auch heute wandern
vorbei in tiefer Nacht,
da hab’ ich noch im Dunkel
die Augen zugemacht.

Und seine Zweige rauschten,
als riefen sie mir zu:
Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
hier find’st du deine Ruh’!

Just now my journey took me
past it at dead of night,
and even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.

And its branches rustled
as if they were calling to me:
“Come here to me, lad,
here you will find your rest”!

I’ve been on a Twentieth Century German literature kick lately, particularly with writers from the 1920s and 1930s (Hesse, Man, Roth, Broch, Döblin, etc.). Willful blindness, while a common theme for many authors remembering the upheavals of the First World War, is peculiar in Mann’s Magic Mountain, where music symbolically upholds Hans Castorp’s clinging to his impetus to blindly protect himself. I admit to having been perplexed by the famous line uttered by Castorp’s liberal friend, Settembrini, that “there is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect.” Music, of course, like any art or media has the ability to lift the soul and embolden. But it also can have the effect of disarming the senses, prompting one to hand over not only their ears, but their sensibilities.

“Hans Castorp loved music from his heart; it worked upon him much the same way as did his breakfast porter, with deeply soothing, narcotic effect, tempting him to doze.”

Unlike Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where vague, fictitious pieces (such as the famous “Vinteuil Sonata”) prompt flurries of memory and distraction, The Magic Mountain shows a darker side of music’s powers. All around the sanatorium, great works from the German musical canon are constantly playing on phonographs, or in the bar with visiting musicians, or otherwise running through Hans Castorp’s mind. But the moments of intersection only arise at moments of significant challenge to the protagonist’s view of how the world ought to look. Through the two authors are sometimes compared because of their verbose expressions of appreciation for music, in many ways they could not be more dissimilar: where Proust would capitalize on excess, Mann expounds on raw inhibition.

Indeed, by the end of the novel, the fifth movement from Schubert’s Winterreise, once a simple tune which the patients listened to in the sanatorium becomes a point of refuge for Hans Castorp in the trenches. Singing to himself in the trenches of World War I, it is not so much that Castorp is in denial of his mortality, but that rather that he would continue to romanticize it and seek some means of self-redemption, rather than transcendence. Of course this is part of the sick charm of Schubert’s Winterreise, as a man who is love drunk would willingly sacrifice his life in the cold. The message isn’t one of romance or beauty, but of the dangers of fear, obsession and isolation. There is no modulation or smooth transition into the second verse – moving suddenly from E Major to E minor, the musical material from verse is repeated almost verbatim in the new key, only to return back to E major in the third verse. It lacks subtlety, poise and even profundity, save that of exhibiting the singer’s distraction in so willingly giving into the impetus to curl up and self-destruct. (N.B., I don’t like Winterreise personally, but serves as a perfectly fine metaphor for the dangers of sentimentality and saccharine self-wallowing in Thomas Mann’s epic novel.)


My concerns about much of society’s inability to see past the tip of its nose have been dim for a while, but the latest trends in relation to COVID-19 have made it all the bleaker. American liberalism and values of self-individuation are being clung to, even at the expense of the economic fibers which support the rights a lot of us hold dear. The disease at the end of the day will likely be manageable, but only if those of means resign modes of self-pitying and protection.

On Tuning: A Brief Playlist

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It’s a strange sensation to be in New York while technically being on tour. My pedal harp sits in Cleveland, my clothes remain in suitcases in Washington Heights (as I’ll be heading back to Ohio in 48 hours) and I think my organ shoes are in my office(?) so I can play for church on Sunday. For now, I’ve an enforced Sabbath of sorts, in which I finally have time to sit down and write, this time “from the road.”

Without being trite, the sensation of touring – that is, the necessitation of consistent performance combined with absence of routine or normative expectations – is not terribly dissimilar to the processes of getting out of one’s comfort zone with an instrument. Sure it can be tough, but you get to travel, meet musicians you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and get out the grind of the day-to-day music making at home.

I’ll cease being vague.

The last week with Apollo’s Fire has been a somewhat Sisyphean journey with tuning, a I’ve a small harp equipped with a single row of strings, no levers or pedals, and a task of playing everything from Sephardic songs to Monteverdi continuo, from Armenian love songs to Arabic longas, all in the same concert. Of course, there are occasional breaks to retune, but at certain points, the harp is required to play in g minor and e minor in the same set, back to back. On stage, lutenists Billy Simms and Brian Kay are seamlessly switching between ouds, theorbos, guitars and lutes at will, soprano Amanda Powell sings in Hebrew, Arabic and Ladinio from scores written in IPA, and Zafer Tawil seems wields a microtonal qanun, kaleidoscopically spinning song to song, flipping gears with his left hand to add other-worldly colors to the ensemble.

At improvisational junctures, recorder player Daphna Mor picks up a ney and starts discussing how she will move from point A to point B using modes in the Arabic maqam, the system which divides the octave into 24 notes, while adhering to a scheme of septatonic modality.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t feel rather sheltered and out of my depth. Surrounded by musicians with truly incredible fluency and flexibility, I realized I’d been placing my harp in a box – that is, a box of Western tuning schemes. Harmonic minor scales, duly memorized as a child for ABRSM exams, only seemed to go so far, didn’t match the level of flexibility or expression achieved by my colleagues. In listening to Zafer and Daphna sing and play, I got a rudimentary sense of the overlap between different modes, but I really needed to learn more. Asking Zafer what I should do, he told me to use my ears and go listen to some Umm Kulthum. “If you listen to one of her songs, you’ll hear all the modes you’ll need.”

Sitting at home after the first rehearsal at 11pm, I felt at my most peak hipster, putting on my headphones and turning finding an 1950s Arabic music playlist on iTunes. Pen and paper in hand, I tried charting the tetrachords used in Kulthum’s 45 minute meta-songs, seeing how they related using nothing but intuition. The next morning, sat back with the harp, tuning key in hand, I started to divide minor thirds in half, so as to give me an “inbetween” note for F and F-sharp, as well as for B and B-flat. Later, with some experimentation with tetrachords, I was able to tune one part of the rehearsal in Saba (صبا) and another in Rast (راست) so to having something consistent and plausible.

The result was not only functional, but colorful and expressive. My instrument now blended with others on stage, and no longer stuck out. Of course, I should not have been surprised. Alternate tunings are part and parcel of what many baroque musicians do, day in and day out. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas require retuning of the open strings of the violin, so as to access harmonies and voicings that would otherwise be impossible.

Of course this is nothing new or outlandish for guitarists, as seen in Joni Mitchell’s famous open tunings (of which she devised somewhere between 60 and 80!).

I’ll spare the readers an essay on the history of temperament and tuning in Western Music, as plenty of musicians have written relatively digestibly on the matter. What I will say is that again and again, in confronting baroque music and non-Western music, I realize how engrained my sensibilities are to accept a Steinway’s tuning as patient zero for the harmonic expression in Western Music. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, if one is sticking to the canon of Romantic and Twentieth Century music, but I wonder to what extent harpists are hindered by accepting their instruments for what they appear to be at first, and not what they could be with a little insight and curiosity. Especially here in the United States, hashtags like #practicalharpist seem to flood the social media profiles of my colleagues, who endlessly promote harp hacks and means of making the profession easier or more approachable for the player, rather than more meaningful for listeners or the musicians playing alongside them.

I understand the impulse, truly. No harpist needs me to remind them that the harp is an awkward and misunderstood instrument. But what if we’re thinking about practicality the wrong way, simply finding shortcuts so we can efficiently adhere to a narrow vision of the harp which fulfills some normative or conservative expectations, but which has not fundamentally progressed in 40 or 50 years. This is an aesthetic hindrance, for sure, but also an economic one: we supposedly relish our nation as one of immigrants, and yet much of the music we make and seek out fails to embrace those elements (such as tuning) which distinguish musical traditions and disciplines from each other, and which are on the rise as non-Western commercial music industries continue to grow in the USA.

Harpists across the USA continue to struggle to make ends meet as the symphonic orchestra as an institution continually faces an identity crisis, but the act of taking on popular musical genres, historical performance and non-Western music – that is, music which by necessity lacks elements of strict prescription – somehow relegate a harpist to the rank of sell-out, untalented, or “insincere.” How much more employment opportunities might there be if conservatories expanded the scope of musical skills at the harp bench, if harp dealers took affirmative stances with a wider variety of harps, and if promoters embraced the sea of change in urban centers. While changes are on the horizon, I fear a landscape in which the harp will once again be left behind, continually relegated to a role as a pretty but impractical instrument. But what could be more practical than getting our instrument to test some boundaries and expand its utility and beauty at the same time?


St. Cecilia’s Day, 2019

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I normally find outpourings of grief on social media to be self-indulgent and over the top, but today has been at once rough and joyous.

Today, I remember Stephen Cleobury very fondly and with much gratitude, for no other reason than that he took a chance on me, appointing a kid from middle Tennessee whose childhood dream it was to be an organ scholar at King’s. Working for him was at once daunting and inspiring, as he labored tirelessly to shape the institution and future careers of choir members in the process. I know I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for him and his belief in the potential of all the choristers, choral scholars and organ scholars he invited into the fold.

He deserved a retirement, so I’m holding out that his reward will be beyond what any of us can imagine. Let’s all hope the choir and organists upstairs exceed his expectations.