The Goldblogs: Aria

September 5, 2019
King’s College, Cambridge

Upon arriving at King’s, the first person to greet me at the front gate was none other than my old director of studies, Dr. Michael Sonenscher, an eminent historian of political thought. His quiet and pleasant demeanor hadn’t changed since the afternoons of my final year at Cambridge, in which I listened with some degree of awe as he would spout prodigious and encyclopedic knowledge of Hegel, Rousseau and Voltaire in his rooms, just a stone’s throw from the Cam. It was all the more fitting that I should run into him, for on the bus from Heathrow, I had been wading through one of his final literary recommendations to me before my final exams in 2013.

When The World Spoke French (New York Review Books Classics) By Marc FumaroliI’m sure reading Marc Fumaroli’s When the World Spoke French in English translation qualifies as a cognitive dissonance, if not a minor crime against authenticity. The book is nevertheless insightful, for in its pages sits an account of the sustained primacy of the French language from the mid-seventeenth century well into the eighteenth, right up to the French Revolution. As France and Europe gradually liberalized from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) to the Wars of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), so too did the French language, shedding pretenses of mere authority and gaining status as a tool of self-expression, articulation, even linguistic freedom (don’t worry, having failed a French class myself at Oberlin, I too am skeptical of any notion of flexibility in French). In practical terms, French, having once been a language reserved for official business, soon became the choice language for conversation and socialization. Most famously, the court of Frederick the Great only operated in French, influencing tastes in music, art and philosophy thereby. But even as early as 1687, German writer Christian Thomasius noted  that “French clothes, French food, French furniture, French customs, French sins, French illnesses are generally in vogue.”

In the end, Fumaroli’s project takes readers through a series of historical vignettes to paint a picture of 18th-Cenutry European society, while simultaneously pinpointing the origins of its visage: French’s exigency of style. From the era of Greek and Latin as lingua franca to the primacy of Italian in the Republic of Letters, and even now with the primacy of technocratic English in the 21st Century, Europe has seen a series of phenomena whereby languages lay claim to universality (and often with great success, on a practical level). Where Enlightenment-era French differs from these languages was the insistence on exactitude and uniformity, despite the difference in ideas that might be espoused therewith. (After all, the French spoken by the aristocrats was spoken by Robespierre, who like his victims powdered his wig and bore an impeccable profile.)

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Elsewhere in my bag was a copy of The Illiad, another volume discussed in history seminars, though it itself does not constitute a formal work of “history.” Unlike our modern storytellers and thinkers, Homer appears absolutely and totally unconcerned with leading you along or telling you where things stand in his labyrinthine plot of interactions between mortals and the Olympian heroes.

As anyone who survived either AP literature or an A-level in Classics will tell you, there’s a great rush when you open up the first page of Homer’s magnum opus:

          Rage – Goddess, sing the Rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
          murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
          hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
          great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
          feasts for dogs and birds,
          and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
          Begin, Muse with the two first broke and clashed,
          Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

But of course it’s not long before you’re lost. Even if you’ve studied the work twice before, made it through a 61-page introduction or memorized the geography of Greece, the Peloponnese and Asia Minor, you’re still likely to be fuzzy about who Peleus is. Or what Achilles is doing there (the ankle guy, right?). Or Agamemnon (DON’T turn on Strauss). Or who the Achaeans are (OK, I may or may not have gotten distracted and watched Christina Goerke for an hour or so. Oops.)

But supposing you want to get organized, it’s necessary figure out who all these people are, and what they are doing same place at the same time, some ten years before the Trojan War’s conclusion. And yet, even with a paperback copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology in hand, a critical commentary and nine Wikipedia pages open in your browser, it’s still hard to piece together why the hell they are doing what they are doing.

As the Argives and the Achaeans are getting their asses handed to them, Achilles calls upon his mother, Thetis, to bargain with Zeus on his behalf. It’s an interesting plot twist, as Thetis is female and thus far we’ve been told that the place of women is merely as interchangeable pawns (for instance when it’s apparent that Chryseis, the object of Agamemnon’s affections, has to be removed from his custody, the stand-in is Briseis, and unrelated woman but whose name intentionally rhymes). What does Thetis possess that mortal women cannot? Or even Hera, Zeus’ sister-wife?

(Dig, dig, dig.)

Thetis is apparently not just any mere nymph but the female who freed Zeus when Hera and Minerva imprisoned him. Zeus is indebted to her, in this respect, having retained his autonomy on her watch. But she’s also apparently the only woman to reject Zeus’ sexual advances, at once angering him but also protecting him from further catastrophe. In raping the goddess Metis, he wrought Minerva, who fulfilled the first prophecy that his first child would rise up and overrule him as would his second. Hence in denying Zeus’ lust, Thetis became a protector of the Olympian status quo, preventing another uprising the likes of which she rescued Zeus from in Minerva’s rebellion.

Homer’s demands on the reader are high, as thousands of years later we have to trudge through Hesiod, Aeschylus and a handful of other sources to divine what the motives might be in the interactions between Gods and men. What we don’t like to think about is that the demands Homer made on readers and listeners were just as high in his own time, as we’ve no evidence of the total standardization of the Olympian origin myths.

Image result for marriage of cadmus and harmonyOnce again, I turn to another of Dr. Sonenscher’s recommended readings. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso points out that the Homeric account of the Olympians is “perfect” as it shows the definitive lines over and over again between where the will of man ends and the interference of the divine begins. But those things which are perfect and circular in logical form necessitate a breakthrough for some emotional impact to be divined. Indeed, the more you read, the more the mitigating zones of inquiry aren’t set up between Achilles and Thetis, or Thetis and Zeus, but rather between you and Homer, as you desperately try to figure out each and every “why” and infer elements of drama on the lives of the Olympians.

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This summer, I told myself I that I was not only going to write, but write a lot about the Goldbergs, as chasm remains open between the technical demands of Bach’s giant variations and the listener’s expectations for something more. Too often, the work can only be seen for its academic and mechanical elements, from canons and fughettas to movements laden with virtuosic chromaticism or excessive rhythmic drive. That’s all well and good, but the most obvious elements aren’t always the key to understanding “why” these pieces get under our skin, become ear-worms or beckon performers to pour over the score again and again.

Homer drops readers into the middle of the Trojan War, and Bach wastes no time in stranding the modern listener in the cosmopolis of musical style in the eighteenth century. In opening up our scores and turning to the Aria, we see a page of music that is at once coherent, and simultaneously baffling. Take the title for instance. We’re told it’s an “Aria,” but in no way does it resemble the da capo form we know and love from a baroque opera. There is no return to the opening theme, but merely has an A and a B section. And what of these A and B sections? They are different in affect, the first being melancholic, while the second impassioned and then emboldened, having passed through e-minor to make it back home to G major. And yet their journeys are the same in length, making up 16 bars in each section, though the second half invariaImage result for frescobaldi la monicably feels longer or more constitutionally dense than it’s preceding counterpart. In this sense, the length of the sections resemble more an Italian song form or chord progression, in the 17th Century manner of Frescobaldi and his contemporaries.

And yet the ornamentation speaks French, though the message is derived from Italian. Ports de voix, mordents and tremblements appear one after the other, comprising a minuet for the listener to wander through as if in an afternoon at court in Versailles. The accompaniment too, through providing a rhythmic steadiness does little more than build triads in the style brisée, as if accompanying the right hand on a lute.  Bach’s game here is subtle. Because the Goldbergs are called “Aria with Variations” and not “Variations upon an Aria,” Bach sets the scene for a Francophile smorgasbord that never manifests. (Peter Williams points out that even the first four bars can be considered a miniature joke, as they comprise the harmonic scheme necessary for a slow Chaconne, a dance which is almost always reserved for the end of a French dance suite.) As there is no direct reference to the filigree anywhere in the variations, the Aria is not in fact a theme at all, but merely a considered presentation of the work’s repetitive harmonic scheme.

So why all the detail and complexity, just to present a series of harmonies? Why does Bach appeal to us in French?

“French grammar, the French lexicon, whose relative poverty Voltaire was not afraid to mock, French versification, poetry, the memoirs of occasion, the genres in which our language excelled–all this difficult apprenticeship had the meaning of an initiation to an exceptional fashion of being free and natural with others and with oneself. It was altogether different from communicating. It was entering ‘into company.’” (Marc Fumaroli, When the World Spoke French)

But like Homer, Bach isn’t real big on telling us how the ornaments should be played, for just as Homer doesn’t hand us a theogony, Bach doesn’t hand us a French textbook. Herein lies the irony that in order to understand those things which make this Aria perfect and whole, we must deconstruct it first and break the unbreakable circle. From an earlier source, we do have Bach’s account of how his ornaments ought to be played. In his table are a smattering of French, German and Italian terms, reflecting not Bach’s status as a polyglot so much as the state of European music as being composite of a host of geographically identifiable styles.

For all the erudition and galanterie, Bach’s Aria is hummable and immediately memorable in a way that the French Suites or his other French inspired works aren’t. The aspect that makes it so incredibly catchy is the lack of nebulous or ambiguous affect in the melody. For bars and bars on end, every note is seemingly in perfect concord with the harmony or violently dissonant, yearning for a resolution. What’s more is that there are a lot of them. Just in the first four bars there are six such instances of these fleeting extreme dissonance slide into their consonant counterparts.

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The big question is of course is what to do with these clashes when we identify them. Do we iron them out immediately, or bask in each an every one of them? Do we set up organized hierarchies, or let the moment move us, accepting that our reasonable faculties are subject to forces of the ephemeral as much as they are to our long memories of performances past. Indeed, for all the ornament table tells us about the order of notes in an ornament, we know not how they are played (pace, volume, affect, etc.).

“Of all natural gifts, goût [“taste”] is the one that makes itself most felt and that is the hardest to explain. It would not be what it is if it could be defined, for it judges objects that the judgment can no longer weigh and, if I dare draw such a simile, is the reading glasses of reason. Among melodies, some songs are more agreeable than others, although all are equally well modulated. In harmony, some things impress, others do not, although all are equally correct. Weaving the pieces together is a fine art that involves using some pieces to make the others stand out, that involves something more refined than the law of contrasts. (Rousseau, Dictionary of Music, 1768)

While treatises innumerable speak of “taste” and “discretion,” or of their utility in times of “necessity,” Bach’s son Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (employed in the Court of Frederick the Great) paints ornamentation with a broader brush

 It is not likely that anybody could question the necessity of ornaments. They are found everywhere in music, and are not only useful, but indispensable. They connect the notes; they give them life. They emphasise them, and besides giving accent and meaning they render them grateful; they illustrate the sentiments, be they sad or merry, and take an important part in the general effect. They give to the player an opportunity to show off his technical skill and powers of expression. A mediocre composition can be made attractive by their aid, and the best melody without them may seem obscure and meaningless. (C.P.E. Bach, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, 1753)

 “Technical skill” and “powers of expression” stand out in this paragraph, for in the end all the details really are up to us to sort out on our own. For all the time we can spend pouring over ornament tables, French grammar books or different accounts of the Olympians’ struggles, the only truth that be derived is that which we come to individually. The Aria is not beautiful because of the ornaments, but rather because those ornaments sound different under every set of fingers and in every set of ears.


Hitchcock and Poulenc

Irrelevant Reviews
#8
Rope (1948)

At the suggestion of a friend, I returned to Hitchcock’s Rope and was shocked yet again by the outlandish flaunting of homosexuality in a film produced in 1948. The plot is not complicated: two WASPy aesthetes kill one of their old prep school classmates (David) and hide him in a trunk. A dinner party ensues, whereby one of the murderers (Philip) is racked by guilt while the other (Brandon) is hoping to get caught by another former classmate, played by James Stewart. Brandon proudly flaunts the rope used to kill David and placed candelabras and linen on the trunk where the body is hidden, while Philip (a professional musician) turns to the piano several times as a means of concealing his guilt or creating a distraction.

The murder serves as a metaphor for sexuality, as Philip and Brandon go through the pageantry of diverting attention to grant friends and neighbors the benefit of a doubt that the evening’s entertainment is just a simple dinner party: curtains are drawn to hide moments of intimacy (such as the murder itself), affairs with women are discussed (though the women are not seen), and despite the being filmed in a large Manhattan apartment, a bedroom is never in view, as the drama only ensues in the dining room, living room and foyer. There is subterfuge, but no ambiguity. Hitchcock’s self-appointed mission to make a film about “it” (i.e. homosexuality) is blatant and obvious, as Hitchcock even went so far as to make sure that both actors were gay, as to ensure a saucy dynamic on screen.

While the cat and mouse game is fun, I found the diegetic use of the piano to be utterly fascinating. Each time Philip is racked by guilt at the sight of the rope, he doesn’t sit down to play just any piece – he plays Poulenc’s Mouvement perpétuel no. 1, chosen by Hitchcock himself because of the constant rhythmic motive and strange harmonies which aptly mirror the machinations of a guilty conscience.

One performance in particular on the screen stands out, as James Stewart puts on the metronome as he interrogates the softer of the two murderers as he plays. Despite the metronome’s steadiness, he continues to rush and struggles to maintain his cool, lashing out that he can’t play along with the steady tick-tock used to expose a musician’s rhythmic flaws.

(It’s interesting to note that Francis Poulenc was also gay, and while living under Nazi rule in Paris used various codes to signify resistance to the occupation in his concerts: poems associated with the resistance were set to music, particularly those by Paul Éluard in Figure Humaine; songs such as “Vous n’aurez pas l’Alsace et la Lorraine” were hidden in works like Les Animaux modèles. He was a founder of the Front National (the musical wing, that is) which continued to maintain close ties with banned composers like Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith. Of course, while Mouvement perpétuel dates from much earlier in Poulenc’s career (being composed in 1918), it’s a fitting coincidence that his music should be used in a film bartering in themes of code, behavior and transgression.)

Overall, a great film, only 80 minutes long and an excellent visual (and musical) meditation on the stakes of concealment.


Visconti and Wagner

Irrelevant Reviews
#7
The Damned (1969)

Again and again, I return to the films of Luchino Visconti. Sure, they’re over the top and operatic, but they speak far enough from the past to prove informative. What I love about The Damned is that it is the best artistic summary of some tussles that get overlooked in mainstream Anglophone narratives of the Third Reich.

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From the get-go, the plot includes an exploration of the place of homosexuality in the early Reich. Two characters stand out, pointing to a forgotten dichotomy which arose towards the end of the German Empire and took hold during the Weimar Republic. On the one hand, we have Martin Krupp, the fictional gay son of an industrial millionaire who dresses up like Marlene Dietrich to perform cabaret numbers; and on the other, we have General Ernst Röhm, a real historical figure, famous for being the openly gay leader of the Sturmabteilung until 1934. These two figures typify two strata of thought concerning the meaning of what is was to be homosexual in the 1920s to 1930s. Magnus Hirschfeld’s work, popular among the urban upper middle classes in the 1920s, promoted the idea of a “third sex,” whereby homosexual attraction was a psycho-sexual embrace of gender androgyny or sexual inversion. But contemporary with Hirschfeld was Adolf Brand, who saw the value of homosexuality as being a form of comradery so strong that it eschewed any influence of femininity. Brand’s magazine Der Eigene fused art, poetry, nudism and pieces on sexual hygiene to promote the notion of gay men as fitting a Nietzschean paradigm of the Übermensch. Masculinity and virility were cast in social and hygienic terms, finding resonance among racialists, eugenicists and other pseudo-scientific progenitors of National Socialist thought.

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One might also view Röhm and Krupp as symbols of their respective classes. Röhm was a hero among the lower-middle class and working class brownshirts which comprised much of the SA’s membership, an organization whose leadership is now thought to have been as much 70% ex-communist and perhaps even 25% homosexual by 1933. Meanwhile Krupp’s fictional character hails from minor aristocracy who largely look down on National Socialism’s promotion of economic justice and class equity (for Germans, that is) in the aftermath of World War I and the 1929 financial crash. The SS drew most of its membership from the more affluent end of society, insisting on standards of breeding rather than behavior as the ultimate standard of Aryanism.

The struggle for power between the SA and the SS came to a violent climax, depicted in the middle of the film. Röhm and his men are purged by the SS after a night of orgiastic revelry, murdered in their beds as they hold their lovers. The Night of Long Knives was a watershed, kicked off the formal policy of intolerance of homosexuality in the Reich, despite having previously turned a blind eye. In the film, the double standard is completely apparent, as Martin Krupp is chosen by the S.S. to spearhead the production of armaments for the German military apparatus while Röhm and his lovers are slaughtered. Krupp also reveals himself to be a pedophile who abuses a seven-year old Jewish girl who eventually hangs herself, as well as a sociopath, willing to pull sexual strings with his own mother to take over the family business.

Music plays an important role in any Visconti film. While Krupp’s seediness is expressed in singing a jazzy cabaret tune on the night the Reichstag burned, one of Röhm’s men sings a karaoke rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde as his orgy winds down (simultaneously foretelling his demise the next morning). In the minds of some, this ought to be the other way around. Our kitschy Netflix and Amazon shows love to show that Cabaret culture was the property of outsiders, and that opera has been and will always be some symbol of economic elitism.

tumblr_o0aox9KOis1tmf798o1_1280-1Visconti rightly alludes to a more complicated picture. It’s true that Wagnerian culture held resonance among the upper classes for its advocation of racial purity and visions of totality, but it also had resonance with socialists and those further down the totem pole. Heroes such as Siegfried and Parsifal overcome the circumstances of their births, breaking the shackles of systems which might hold them back, and the neo-Pagan backdrop opts for a reframing of Christian values into something more modern and nativist. But homoeroticism brims beneath the surface as well. Brünnhilde’s femininity is not revealed until after Siegfried has consummated their love (technically, she’s an ungendered Valkyrie). In Parsifal, women’s voices are perpetually peripheral so as not impinge on the Nicodemite fraternity of the Grail Knights. And who can ignore the fact that when Parsifal kisses Kundry, he withdraws in shame only to scream the name of Amfortas?

Visconti has been accused by historians and critics of being “ambivalent” or “indifferent” about his sexuality, though he himself was gay. But if anything is revealed in The Damned, it is a reminder that homosexuality is (and continues) to be indifferent to values, and is mutable and variable to the cultures in which it flourishes. This if course makes us queasy today. Who among us would be proud to acknowledge that Kristallnacht was undertaken by the Sturmabteilung, an organization which aided the rise of National Socialism through the promotion of a politicized interpretation of gender and sexuality? In my mind, it’s importnat to remember that Hitler’s gay purge didn’t start in the bars or brothels, but in his own paramilitary forces. No member of the SA need be memorialized, but the tragedy of the Night of Long Knives can serve as a lesson. Visconti’s voice is one of conscience, reminding us that if we act like sheep, we leave ourselves open to the to the likelihood of being eaten by the shepherd, gay or straight.

 

 


Wharton, Scorsese and Gounod

Irrelevant Reviews
#6
The Age of Innocence (1993)

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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.

A NIGHT’S AMUSEMENTBOTH HOUSES CROWDED

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

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

Irrelevant Reviews
#5
Senso (1954)

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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)

Irrelevant Reviews
#4
Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967)

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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

Irrelevant Reviews
#3
La Religieuse (1966)
(Or Lace, Lesbians & Leçons de ténèbres: A Sequence of Unfortunate Events.)

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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)

Irrelevant Reviews
#2
The Stranger (1946)

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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

Irrelevant Reviews
#1
Sous le soleil de Satan (1987)

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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


Hesse

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:

https://www.nightafternight.com/about.html

https://oliviagiovetti.substack.com/

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.