It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. My attempt to whiz through some Thomas Pynchon has been about as successful my brief affair with Infinite Jest. I don’t particularly want to read Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides either. Around midnight, while I was going back through scores and registration sticky notes, Netflix won out over Amazon Prime in the competition for mindless distraction. It’s got TheGodfather readily available for streaming.
I admit a certain amount of dread about my recital here in Charleston. Once again, I’ve rather stupidly programmed BWV 532, the “Little” Prelude and Fugue in D Major. Though not particularly famous among the Bach keyboard oeuvres overall, the D Major maintains a Herculean status in the organist’s canon for no other reason than that it places some incredible technical demands on its performer. From the opening bar, the work is a sink or swim test.
The Prelude starts with a quick upward scale from the pedals, followed by an intricate descending pattern in the hands. Backwards and forwards the hands and feet play around with scales and arpeggios until it all of sudden, Bach slams the brakes.
As if to oppose the preceding stratospheric virtuosity, wide angular intervals and a jagged rhythmic pattern jerk everything back down to earth. Though not as technically complex as the opening, the stark contrast of these bars poses a problem of how they should relate to the preceding material, if at all. One could make specific inquiries into matters of tempo, rhythm or articulation, but the overriding question is one of affect or exaggeration. Is the music substantively different enough to be played straight? Or does it ask the performer for something more? It’s all too easy to assume that this is a snippet of a baroque overture, or something regal. But the key of F-sharp minor doesn’t really lend itself to huge amount of dignity or determination, but rather to fear or uncertainty. It’s as if Icarus made it to the sun all too quickly, and the prospect of his doomed descent has made time stand still.
Gear shift (again). A sweeping scale spanning two octaves gives way to a subdued, lengthier polyphonic section. Marked Alla breve, the new section looks more like 16th-century consort music, stoic and stable, a far cry from the impression one might get that the opening was made up on the spot. All the tension, the excitement and angst seems to have been for nothing, but was rather just an improvisatory introduction – a prelude within the prelude.
What’s funny is that the most interesting section of the 532 is the least written about. Just as as Bach is about to tidy up the polyphonic section, it all stops again (surprise!). Everything slows down by about half, the texture expands dramatically and some whacky harmonies come out. First you think you’re going to E minor, then to A minor, then to E major… and even to E-flat major… before it settles back suddenly into D Major, the home key.
The polarization can be tricky to keep track of. Which affect is the “real” essence of the prelude? Was the polyphonic section just a ruse, leading us into a false sense of security? Or are all these crunchy harmonies just a distraction from the solemnity of the Alla breve?
Ok, you got me. The tonal scheme of the final section isn’t all that unusual for Bach. Impassioned chromaticism is considered one of his stylistic hallmarks. But these bars are still strange, emotive, stirring. If you’re a Mario Puzo fan, you’ll recognize the music from the revenge scene from The Godfather. As Michael Corleone stands to witness the baptism of his godson Michael Rizzi, bosses of the families Barzini, Tattaglia, Curneo and Stracci are executed. He stands and tells the priest he will renounce evil and serve as an example to his godson. With every vow, a different boss is shot in line with a different diminished-seventh chord from the organ. Michael’s baptism alibi keeps him safe. It’s all part of the drama in that he has commenced his life as mafioso by decisively going to the mattresses. He has become a godfather.
It’s an important scene for Michael, and possibly the most climactic point of the entire movie. Having spent nearly two and a half hours trying to deny to you the necessity of redemptive violence (a metaphor for Corleone family values), he fully ascends the family throne, killing the bosses of the four families in vengeance for his brother Sonny’s death.
Of course, it is this very internal conflict that makes The Godfather a masterwork, and not a mindless litany of violence. Without the struggle between Michael’s dual life as a mobster and an Ivy-Leaguer-army hero, there wouldn’t be a great deal of dramatic content. By the end of the film, you’re left wondering about the nature of his transformation: has Michael undergone metamorphosis or apotheosis? Is he now victor or a victim?
While Bach’s “Little” prelude ends in the same key as it started, the journey has arguably been frought. Such is the intensity of the dissonance at the piece’s closing that the D major chord can be heard more as a sigh of relief than an herald of victory. There’s no doubt that there’s a sense of finality, but knowing how to feel about it is thrown into flux by a musical device called the Picardy third. By raising the middle note of a chord to make it more joyful in a place where one might expect it to be mournful or pained, the Picardy third thrives on the ambiguity of a single note on a staff. By simply placing a sharp sign in front of it, an F is no longer just an F, but a question.
Mired in the Byzantine chaos that is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Daysits perhaps one of the best metaphorical descriptions of the effect of the Picardy third on the soul. As the protagonist Lew sits in Chicago, listening to the songs of a group of populist-era radicals, he remembers the lines:
Love never spared a sinner,
Hate never cured a saint,
Soon is the night of reckoning,
Then let no heart be faint.
“. . . moving from the minor mode it had been throughout into the major, ending with a Picardy third cadence that, if it did break Lew’s heart exactly, did leave a fine crack that in time would prove unmendable. . . Here, they were expressing the most subversive thoughts, as ordinary folks might discuss crops, or last night’s ball game. Lew understood that this business would not end with him walking out the door tonight and on to some next assignment.”
As Mario Puzo’s own protagonist comes to terms with what he has wrought, he lies to his WASP-y wife about whether or not he has murdered not only four mob bosses, but his own brother-in-law, leaving his newly baptized godchild an orphan. He lies with ease, so as to spare his family anymore pain than he has already been wrought. The ghost of Sonny Corleone’s temper and Vito Corleone’s cautiousness remain so ever-present, that clearing up the family’s collateral damage is the only option for allowing the family to move on, to mourn, to grieve.
The Picardy third in a way is a small lie, a way of tying up something cluttered with tension, ultimately giving it a false sense of finality. In writing on Joni Mitchell’s music, James Bennighof might have been the most damning about the effect of this ancient musical device: “Replacing an expected final minor chord with a major chord in this way is a centuries-old technique, first dubbed a ‘Picardy third’ in print by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1797 … to express [the idea that] hopefulness might seem unremarkable, or even clichéd.” It’s a sweep under the rug; a sudden, cheap emotional machination.
As with any story, what comes after alters the context or narrative. For Puzo, Michael’s Picardy third is prescient of the Corleone’s eventual inability to overcome their violent inheritance. Pynchon’s protagonist continually witnesses the changing 20th century through a lens of heartbreak. With Bach, however, there is hope. There is a fugue: a difficult, lengthy, yet ultimately joyous reconciliation of all of the prelude’s angst and complexity. But whatever the outcome, the Picardy third is a reminder that life’s baptisms of fire – ultimately periods of discomfort and stress – are ultimately short-lived. What comes next is what really matters.
While I have many faults, there is one which comes up every time I head to an art museum: no matter what I’m looking at, I will likely end up drawing a parallel between the artwork in front of me and a piece of music I know. Blends of colors and indeterminacy in impressionistic paintings always lead me to one or another piece of Debussy. The balance of strict proportion and high ornamentation in 18th Century portraiture will lead me to C.P.E Bach or Gluck. Medieval paintings of courtly love mingled with the divine parable of human sacrifice correspond to the motets of Guillaume de Machaut.
It’s hard to say whether it’s a filter, a means of translation or a tendency to apply some complementary historical context. More often that not, there’s little direct historical or constructive correlation between art and a piece of music I see. It’s all very vague, general. There are similarities between art and music, admittedly, but often the difference between the physical phonomena of light and sound often render the two mutually exclusive. Take ornamentation for instance. A musical ornament strikes me as spontaneous, and even superfluous to a musical performance. A musician can leave it out, lengthen it, change it. But an extra flower, a touch of gilding or any other small addition in a painting is usually seen as a product of something far more willful. Once it’s on the canvas, it’s done (though presumably the artist may have changed his mind several times in the process).
It’s often the case that performers tend to think of process of music as an action executed in real time, while a painting is often seen as a finished product of a past action, somehow immutable. Such distinctions are arguably false, as the composition of music is a process unseen (though often less glorious than painting), and the very processes of how a painting was constructed can be divined through some careful gazing. It’s really a matter of where you want to position yourself when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music. That’s why I love getting to see a piece of art or music that challenges you to sit in multiple time spaces at once.
In visiting Francisco de Zubarán’s (1598-1664) paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons at the Frick, I was struck by their sheer size. Each is not just life-size, but larger, close to seven feet tall. And yet, despite their size, none seemed unsubtle or overblown. Every detail about the sons’ clothing, posture, and possessions bore to me the significance of the blessings bestowed upon by their father in Genesis 49.
Some like Issachar are more conventional and obvious.
Issachar is a strong donkey, Lying down between the sheepfolds; He saw that a resting place was good, And that the land was pleasant; So he bowed his shoulder to the burden, And became a slave at forced labor.
Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, is dressed as a dandy. His duplicity can be seen not just in his posture, but in the occlusion of half of his face, starkly contrasted against the Carvaggio-esque green paleness of the half left in the sunlight.
Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, In the morning devouring the prey, And at the evening dividing the spoil.
Asher has more layers. Carrying a loaves of bread and sporting an emblem on his garb used in Zubarán’s Adoration of the Magi, he prefigures Christ as the final incarnation of Melchisedech.
Asher’s food shall be rich, And he shall provide Royal delicacies.
But in Naphtali, there was something different. He’s sporting a shovel. Why?
Naphtali is a doe let loose That bears lovely fawns.
His stance is also oddly commanding compared to that of his brothers. In looking at the Frick’s informational plaque, it said that this particular study was based on a depiction Naphtali’s by Jacques de Gheyn’s II (1565-1629) prints of Karel van Mander I (1548-1606). In particular the rhetorical shape of the hand is very similar. It’s open, though not relaxed. The face in van Mander’s is based on a woodblock of Christ’s apparition to Mary Magdalene by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Christ’s garb and sporting of the shovel however, are seen explicitly in Zubarán’s later painting. Dürer’s? On an engraving of Saint Bartholomew by Martin Schongauer (1445-1491).
Immediately, the music of organist and harpist Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) came to mind. In 1570, his son Hernando published a volume of what he described as “mere crumbs of his father’s achievements.” The collection included some of the larger and more popular keyboard works that Antonio had composed in his lifetime, transcribed by his son due to a near total loss of his sight. The volume contains a work entitled “Stabat Mater I” and another, “Stabat Mater II.” Containing the same harmonies but with different variations and ornaments, they stand out because the cantus firmus (that is, the fundamental melody) doesn’t align with any contemporary liturgical chant setting of the Stabat Mater.
At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to her Son to the last.
Can the human heart refrain from partaking in her pain, in that Mother’s pain untold?
Indeed, it turns out that they are both embellishments of Josquin des Prez’s (1455-1521) monumental setting of the hymn, which uses not a Gregorian chant as its basis, but a secular melody taken from composer Gilles Binchois (1400-1460). Binchois melody was originally set to a text also about the sorrows of a woman.
Like a woman most distressed, more even than all the others, with no hope of being consoled on any day of my life, weighted down by my misfortune, I desire death, day and night.
The trick in performing Cabezón’s piece however comes in deciding a tempo. There are phenomenal number of notes, indeed too many to play on a keyboard at once.
There are several possibilities (all conjecture, mind you). Perhaps that the work is intended for the harp, where the natural sustaining quality of the strings allows you pluck a note and leave it. Alternatively, maybe all the notes aren’t meant to be played – much music of this period was written down for the purpose of showing people how to improvise themselves, rather than be performed directly from the score. But supposing that decision is made, what speed to we play it at? There are roughly sixteen of Cabezón’s notes in scales for every half note beat of Josquin’s motet. Is the piece meant to go at a speed similar to which it’s supposed to be sung? Or is it “its own thing?” Indeed, in teasing out how to perform the work, you’re subconsciously determining primacies of authorship, based on pure aesthetics and gut feeling.
I look at Zubarán and I can’t help but wonder if these are really “his” paintings? We know his students’ hands are on them, and we know that the emotive symbols that make each of the characters individual are borrowed from earlier masters. While I can see Zubarán’s genius in bringing all these elements together, I can’t help but also see the beauty in the accumulation of symbols and influences across centuries. In the end, authorship or attempts to divine a scheme of construction dissipate the more you look. It’s as if the artist – or artists – fade away. These are paintings intended to showcase not the self, but the divine – that is, something untouched by time.
As is often the case after an evening concert, my partner and I stopped by our local taco shop on West 72nd Street for a quick bite before walking the dog. I love the place, even though there’s nothing remotely Mexican about it. Owned run by a Korean family, absolutely none of the ingredients are homemade (including the frozen steak they reheat) and any chili or semblance of spice comes in the form of countless bottles of Sriracha along the counters and in a cardboard box next to the refrigerator. This is so classically New York. Like your Cuban-Chinese takeout restaurants, or your Eastern European owned fried chicken shops, places like these are testament to the fallacy of authenticity. Late-night drunk food doesn’t have to be authentic, or even homemade. Why? Because it’s late night drunk food (and it tastes fucking great).
Tonight’s post-libation nutrition was necessary as I attended a Mezcal tasting cum contemporary music concert, the first of its kind in NYC. Curated by composer Felipe Perez-Santiago and distiller Alejandro Aispuro, the event was hosted Andrew Ouseley and Unison Media, a social media and publicity firm based in Long Island City. Around 5pm, I arrived at Bowery Electric on the Lower East Side, where the smell of fermented agave whacked me in the face as soon as I walked in the door. I looked to the bar, and around 100 glasses of Mezcal were lined up and ready to go for a different sort of happy hour.
As guests wandered in, I spoke with Alejandro and Felipe about what it meant to pair a spirit tasting with a concert of contemporary Mexican music. Alejandro began, “Mexico is going through an interesting period of cultural self-discovery right now. Local culture is increasingly more important, and a product of that is a revival of interest and appreciation for Mezcal.” He went on explain that Mezcal, a spirit made from agave, is the father spirit of Tequila but is much more refined. In the wake of mass alcohol production in the twentieth century, the Mexican government has inadvertently sanctioned the cheapening of the distillation process in order to increase exports to the United States. Tequila only needs to be 51% agave-based to be called “Tequila” and even then, the agave may not be cooked or treated, but simply processed raw. “It’s a fascinating time, as we have started to see a wave of immigrants return to the region of Oaxaca to take back up the family business of making Mezcal. The profits are high, and families are increasing sending their kids to business programs in universities, the fruits of which are brought home to help foster sustainable business models. It’s very exciting, as there’s something with true Mexican identity that is seeing economic growth.”
Felipe echoed Alejandro, saying “contemporary music is also booming in Mexico, especially in Mexico City where we have the most number of composers per capita on earth. Our state orchestras regularly perform new music by Mexican composers, and we have started to see the emergence of new orchestras devoted solely to contemporary Mexican music.” But in seeming contrast to the native significance of Mezcal, the success of contemporary Mexican music comes in a certain rejection of national paradigms. “The composers you will hear tonight (including) regularly get performed all over the world. In Mexico, composers are not nationalists in the way that other countries in Latin America might be. In Brazil, there’s still pressure to sound like Villa-Lobos. In Argentina, like Piazolla. We Mexican composers live and work all around the world. I myself lived in Amsterdam and Berlin for almost twenty years, but am now back in Mexico. There’s no ‘Mexican’ sound.”
Felipe and Alejandro have been friends for years, and have recently been teaming up to pair tastings with concerts. When asked why, Felipe laughed and said, “well first of all, we’re musicians. We like to drink!” But they spoke of the craft and detailed processes common between distillation and composition. “Like being guided through a tasting, learning how to listen to new music is essential for building a new audience.” When I asked why they came to New York, they said that it’s the ideal place for both Mezcal and music. Alejandro said, “with the growing affluence of a Spanish speaking population here in New York, the demand for Mezcal has only gone up and up.” Felipe was more explicit, saying “the benefits of waves of immigration to a city like New York mean that there are musicians and musical styles from all over the world. But with that, there are also several ways of listening. There are concert halls and recital venues, but this is the city of people like Terry Riley and Steve Reich who didn’t wait around for commissions. They got their friends together in bars or in their living rooms and did it themselves. In New York, nights like tonight are just as valid as a concert in Carnegie Hall.”
As the tasting proceeded, I surveyed the crowd. It was thoroughly multigenerational, international, multiethnic – that is, with the glaring exception that I didn’t manage to come across a single Mexican or Latinx guest. On the other hand, it was nice to see that there weren’t any other musicians in the room. While Felipe pointed out that musicians in New York often get their friends together, it’s very easy to go to New Music concerts in the city and see the same faces in the audience: your fellow musician colleagues. But tonight I spoke to one couple who commuted in from Princeton, NJ simply to attend an event hosted by Unison Media. “We’ve been trying to get tickets to Crypt Sessions for over a year, but haven’t been able to.” When asked if she came specifically for the music or the booze (or both), the wife said, “Neither! We really just wanted to see what the atmosphere was like.”
For the last several years, Andrew Ouseley and Unison Media have held monthly concerts, pairing music with chef-tastings in the undercroft of gothic-revival church in Upper Manhattan. These concerts have been a hit. Tickets sell out virtually instantly. Indeed, tonight’s event comes on the heels of Unison Media’s announcement that they will be starting another concert series in the catacombs of the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. As I spoke to more attendees, one elderly couple said that they came because wanted to try more Mezcal after visiting Oaxaca earlier this year. One sharply dressed millennial said she wanted to “do something classy for Cinco de Mayo.”
At around 6:45 the attendees departed Bowery Electric to head to Le Poisson Rouge (better known as LPR) on Bleecker Street. However, the commute was somewhat interrupted on Broadway by a May Day protest against immigration raids and deportations under the Trump administration (along with a handful of Anarchists, anti-Israel marchers and Black Lives Matter activists). The marchers were maybe only 200 in number, only holding up traffic for 5 minutes or so. And yet the centrality of immigration to this labor protest contrasted sharply to dressed-up, bourgeois evening devoted hearing and tasting Mexico in the comfort of two bars in Lower Manhattan.
After the guests settled in, musical curator Conrad Cummings stood and walked the audience through a new composition by a young composer named Juan Pablo Contreras. Listeners were told what open strings sounded like on a cello and how harmonics create an ethereal quality on the violin. Much like the Mezcal tasting, attendees were being guided through how to listen, like tasting with their ears. Thereafter, the concert proceeded with a live broadcast on LPR’s radio show “Relevant Tones,” hosted by Seth Boustead. While each of the pieces was immaculately played, two facets of the evening stood out very starkly. First, it was clear that there was no focus on the musicians whatsoever. Programs were printed without artist bios, and there was no discussion of the music by the performers. While some might argue that it’s irrelevant that none of the musicians on stage were Mexican, I personally found it a little difficult at first to engage with a performance where the musicians had no explicit connection with any of the composers, let alone the country of Mexico. Second, it became apparent the composers represented were interconnected in some form or fashion. Felipe Perez Santiago had not one, but two compositions performed at the beginning and end of the set. A colleague and former teacher of Felipe’s composed the second work, Tres Danzas Seculares by the name of Mario Lavista. Composer Gabriela Ortiz’s De Animos y Quebrantos was workshopped in new music scheme developed by radio host Seth, and Ana Lara, composer of Y Los Oros La Luz was apparently instrumental in getting Seth his first radio broadcast as a composer. Indeed, while being advertised as evening of contemporary music from Mexico, it was apparent that the Mexican composers were chosen not necessarily based on how representative they were of the Mexican contemporary classical music scene (which I was told was one of the largest in the world), but on their proximity to Felipe and Seth.
Anyone familiar with the new music world will know that a personal connections are often how you get your music off the ground. But what is slightly bizarre is that an evening of extremely high music making took place in which the performers were seemingly alienated from both the music and its presentation. While it was true that all the music was composed by living Mexican composers, there was nothing significant about the performances or works themselves that made them particularly Mexican. After all, Felipe was keen to stress that the composers tonight were not nationalist, but global in their outlook and appeal. I admit to having left the event slightly wondering what the point of marketing music as a national product, when the product itself apparently eschews national definitions. On one level, it’s a cognitive dissonance seen in the ongoing debates about America’s Dreamers. What makes a Dreamer any more or less American if they’ve lived their lives here, are part of our culture and fundamentally share the American dream? And if America really is an “immigrant culture,” how are we deciding which immigrants are worthy and which aren’t? Then again, on another level, I was content as the quality of compositions and playing alike were so incredibly high, that national provenance didn’t really matter. Like my not-Mexican taco, this dubiously Mexican concert was fucking great.
If you go to church, you’ll know that your organist was somewhat occupied last week. During Holy Week, the standard schedule of one or two services per week is upended entirely. There are perhaps two services on Maundy Thursday, a long service on Good Friday (lasting up to three hours or more), a service late Saturday evening, and as many as three services on Sunday morning (the earliest of which may well be at six o’clock). On top of that, there are extra rehearsals for the brass, some hand-holding sessions to teach your sopranos innumerable hymn descants, and a lot of conversations with the clergy to reassure them that nothing about this year’s music will come as a surprise to the parishioners who only attend church on Christmas and Easter. It is in this week that organists become miracle workers. They are exhausted.
Compared to other Episcopalian organists across the country, my own Holy Week was relatively light. At Christ & Saint Stephen’s, I managed to get away with only one extra rehearsal, as I only had to play and conduct one service per day from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday. Other perks: we had no brass on Easter morning (my trumpet player fell ill), nor did we have any hymn descants (as I despise them).
Most of the musical energy this week went into Good Friday, not to ramp it up, but to wind it down. In years past, it’s been customary for the full choir to provide a series of large-scale meditations to accompany the Passion story. This year, the forces were much smaller, comprising two sopranos, a viola da gamba and a baroque harp. The austerity was fitting. Just the night before, the church had been stripped of all ornaments and decorations, depriving worshippers of any visual reassurance. The ensemble performed portions of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah as set by François Couperin. Though it speaks of desolation, abandonment and misery, the music never gives in to the extreme emotionality or pain of the text. There is often a steady tempo throughout, and a sameness in affect for the duration of the work.
The harmonies tend not to wander terribly far. The voices tend to stay in consistent registers. As if suffering is a matter of fact; the lack of extreme external expression of sadness beckons listeners to fill the emotional gap themselves. It is fundamentally music designed to evoke a sense of distance from your surroundings.
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!
She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.
She is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.
Couperin’s preface to the Lamentations informs the performers that the work can be accompanied by an organ and/or a harpsichord. In using neither, I admit to openly admit to ignoring the composer’s intent. But for Good Friday, I wanted to use acoustic stringed instruments. The harpsichord, though it decays, is too loud and clunky. The organ, though soft, does not naturally decay but sustains until the finger is lifted out of the key. In short, these are not “expressive” instruments in the manner a harp or a lute might be—they don’t whisper or naturally expire in the way a human might. Neither breathes and dies.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was lutes, gambas and harps that were often used to materially compliment the story of the Crucifixion, because like the cross, they were made of wood. No example is more famous than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in which the gamba accompanies the haunting aria “Komm, süsses Kreuz.” But more than that, the tension of gut strings and the sheer stress placed on the instruments themselves more graphically mirrors the physical process of crucifixion: as the body lies on the cross, the chest muscles and rotator cuff are extended to the point of hypertension, prompting death not by exsanguination, but by asphyxiation.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part With all thy art. The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key Is best to celebrate this most high day. (George Herbert, 1633)
Baroque harps have three rows of strings, lending the player an ability to play harmonies twice over in quick colorful succession. But the sheer number of strings (92 total) allows for a long natural resonance and decay. Since getting my new baroque harp, I’ve had a bit of fun learning to improvise and get the instrument sound extravagant. But this week, allowing the instrument simply to sound and die was enough. The strings curiously don’t have to be plucked to sound. Just providing sympathetic vibrations helps the harmonies bloom, take shape and fade.
Once Easter services had ended and I’d taken a nap, Richard and I went to the movies to see The Death of Stalin, a fictionalized account of the days after Stalin’s demise, comprised of countless anecdotes from the span of the dictatorship. But, my expectations of escape were somewhat foiled by the manner in which the film is set up. The film begins with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, in which a last minute repeat performance has to be arranged so that comrade Stalin can have a recording. The situation in the film based on the true events of 1944, in which pianist Maria Yudina had to repeat a performance of the concerto and record it for Stalin.
The story is most famously recorded in Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs:
In his final years, Stalin didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio Committee, where the administration was, and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes man, a yes man to a madman.
Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina’s performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. But she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.
Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording. I think this a unique event in the history of recording—I mean changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy and sent it to Stalin. Now, that was a record record. A record in yessing.
Soon afterward, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, and I know that the story seems improbable; Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this—she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you Iosif Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”
And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come.
Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the leader and teacher was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.
By all accounts, everything about Yudina’s musicianship and performances was bound up with her faith, even to the point of fanaticism. She would perform publicly wearing large crucifixes, or read poems by banned poets such as Boris Pasternak before sitting down to play Bach, enduring numerous periods of blacklisting because of the outlandishness of her… piety? In Yudina’s recording and interpretation of the concerto, she’s cool as a cucumber. In particular, the second movement is totally devoid of emotion, empathy or sensitivity. It’s almost deadly.
If we’re to believe pianist and musicologist Robert Levin, such an interpretation arguably flies in the face of Mozart’s own intentions. Slow movements were the musical zones for musicians to take off, improvise and demonstrate their technical fluidity. Furthermore, Levin tells us that “When improvisation regains its former position at the center of classical music making, perhaps the gap between composer and performer, between old and new music, between vernacular and art music, and between classical performer and audience will narrow.”
Until last night, I would have said that I agree with Levin 100 percent. But intimacy between performer and listener is not always the choice means of communication. If one is perhaps accustomed to outlandish or “external” performances, a cool or distant performance can prompt a different sense of confidentiality: by creating as much distance as possible, the listener has to fill a gap themselves, look inside.
Yudina was atypical in her approach to the instrument. In listening, I don’t hear any of the hallmark muscularity or flat-footedness associated with mid-century Soviet pianism. In her time and place, it was relatively radical musicianship, though now it would be seen as passé or old fashioned. I’ve had Yudina’s second movement on loop for an hour or so now, and I’m admittedly mesmerized. In a month or so, when I’m in a different place, it will likely have less meaning to me. But at the very least, her recording is a testament to the ways in which any interpretation can be meaningful, regardless of its attitude towards history.
Those of us in historical performance spend a great deal of time dressing things up: we improvise, we ornament, we play with extreme tempi, etc. It’s exhilarating or moving in its own right, but I admit to having gotten tired of it as of late. There’s only so much affectation one can add before it becomes an empty convention of its own. If one isn’t careful, the best intentions to “draw out” the past in music can override the music itself. It becomes less a matter of historical performance, but rather historicism performed.
As ever, reading the news these days causes me to cringe. Empty protests over gun control walked through our streets, demanding gun control for citizens, though not for the police forces who wage violence on the nation’s most vulnerable. The gap between the political activism and the motivations behind the activism itself continues to grow, and I fear that no significant political change will result. It’s as if the act of screaming has come to override the reasons for which we raised our voices in the first place.
I’ve done my best to stick to the New York Review or Times Literary Supplement to get my news. In a recent issue of the TLS, I came across a wonderful quote applicable to our time. In a letter to Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini posited:
I wonder, dear Alberto, whether this angry anti-fascism vented in the piazzas these days, when fascism is no more, isn’t actually a weapon of distraction the ruling class uses to tie up the dissent of workers and students.
Like an over-ornamented performance of Couperin or Mozart, the delivery or packaging of our politics can detract from the matters at hand. While the Russia probe drones on, Obamacare is being dismantled, piece by piece. While we are talking about 7,000 annual gun deaths, thousands more are dying of opium overdoses. As we decry a negligible increase in interest rates, it has become clear that many Americans’ investments in the Chinese economy may have been wasted. I know I’m a grouch, but America is simply getting distracted.
Like politics, music has the potential to be derailed. It can get off track, become too eccentric and lose sight of what’s at the core. But a trademark of a highly trained classical musician is that of extreme focus, and the ability not just to concentrate on matters of execution but of what the performance will have communicated by the end.
Folks, the midterm elections are coming. Voters are not exempt from the rules that beset politicians and musicians: they too can stay focused and cut out the noise, the excess, the ornaments. They can stop yelling, and start thinking.
The Xuhui district of Shanghai is perhaps equivalent to New York’s Upper West Side. Tall luxury apartment buildings are interspersed with art deco condos separated from their sisters over in the French Concession, a juxtaposition of old and new. Down the street in one direction, there’s a Paris Baguette and a Starbucks. In the other, a Franco-Japanese coffeehouse next to a museum. Thai and Euro-fusion restaurants abound in the neighborhood, though the food of choice before about 6pm comes either from street vendors or local canteens. It really feels like West 72nd Street.
So far, Richard and I usually head out the door at 7am or so to get coffee number one at Starbucks, followed by breakfast, followed swiftly by coffee number two at Café Lumiere, the local precious Japanese coffeehouse (selling coffee in-house roasted beans at $40 a bag, not an uncommon site in bourgeois neighborhoods here). Coffee was more pertinent than it might normally be: armed with a kitchen knife and a disposable emory board, my post-breakfast routine would entail an hour of voicing a Klop Italian harpsichord. Quite a bit of the repertoire on the menu this week is Italian, but there’s enough French repertoire to merit working on the instrument. Italian harpsichords are super “plucky,” even unsubtle, while French harpsichords tend to have bloom to them. Like regional variations in wine or cuisine, there are trends, flavors and guidelines to preparation. Evoking two at the same time can be tricky territory – combining Italian and French wines in the same glass has yet to be recommended to me. (Especially, if you’ve just had three cups of coffee at $8 a piece.)
The art of harpsichord voicing is one of those fantastic and frustrating activities where any physical exactness you see with your eyes must be totally subject to the sonic result when put to the test. As harpsichord strings are plucked (rather than hammered, as on a piano), it’s necessary to make sure that the little pieces of quill or Delrin are the right shape and density. In a way, you really want a plectrum to function like a finger: strong enough to make an impact, yet supple enough to give the illusion of dynamic subtlety. If they’re too square, they pound. If they’re too narrow, they won’t properly move the string. If they’re too thin on the top, they won’t pluck properly. If they’re too hard on the bottom, they’ll slam back into the strings every time you release a note. Combined with the fact that a plectrum is maybe 1/8 of an inch wide and ¼ centimeter thick… and that the pieces of wood they’re wedged in expand and contract with humidity… and temperature… you get the idea. It’s an exercise in patience.
Between 8 and 9, as I’d be voicing and tuning the harpsichord, the other members of the Shanghai Camerata would make errands to pick up steamed buns and wonton soup and coffee to fortify the troops. If Richard wasn’t out the door to a museum already, he’d be researching where to go. Throughout the morning, a steady stream of delivery boys would come bearing fruit, vegetables and green juices for those who wished to be homebodies for the morning, avoiding the cold smog which hovers over the city like a cloud.
By about 9:30 I’d be scratching my head still trying to work out a tuning temperament that would allow for easy transitions from Italian 17th century music to more chromatic music from France of a later period. While Italian music basks in the purity of just intervals, sitting most comfortably in D minor or close by, music from France requires a more “equal-opportunities” approach with regards to key centers. Some keys can be colorful or spunky, but none need be a total red zone. Just as with voicing the instrument, coming up with a mediating zone for the music to work on the instrument takes a bit of cultivation.
Fast-forward: tonight was our final concert of the week. Though coinciding with festivities for the Chinese New Year, the hall at the Shanghai Conservatory was packed. The concert began with the Prologue from Orfeo, Western Music’s first “opera” by many definitions. First performed in 1607 during the Carnival season in Mantua, Orfeo speaks of the power of music to charm the senses and soothe the soul. In the end, it is music that is more powerful than Orpheus himself. In his voyage to save Eurydice from Hades, the one condition of her safe passage is that Orpheus does not look to see if she is following him. But not even music can defeat human folly: Orpheus hears a noise and turns around, breaking the deal. He loses Euryidice forever.
I remember visiting the French Concession in Shanghai in 2011, and still there are few places as inspiring as this other worldly miniature cosmopolis. Indeed, events in the French Concession seemingly attract a wide array of local cultural figures from around the city. Among the audience was a documentarian by the name of Shuibo Wang. Our concert was just on the heels of the release of his new feature Who is David Bloch?, an account of the survival of a Jewish artist survival in a Nazi concentration camp and his subsequent emigration to Shanghai.
With the opening of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in 2008, there has been increasing awareness of the place of émigrés in Shanghai. A synagogue has been restored, documents have been collected, and accounts of life in Shanghai have been drawn from former residents now planted in Israel and the United States. And yet the old world flavor of the French Concession carries the same uneasy feeling that one gets in Europe: that something has been erased. Following the visit of Nazi officers to Shanghai in 1942 (most notably Josef Meisinger, the “Butcher of Warsaw”), the Japanese established a ghetto in Hongkew, away from the French Concession, though admittedly not far by Shanghai’s current geographic standards. Though it applied to “stateless persons” having arrived after 1937, the implications of the new urban planning scheme were clear. Hongkew was emancipated, but the subsequent rise of Communism and expulsion of foreigners have left only traces of what’s left.
While Monteverdi’s life in Mantua is marked for its variety and creativity, the city in which Monteverdi arrived in 1591 was much changed by the time he departed in 1613. Once known as an isolated and wealthy cosmopolitan center for culture, the Gonzaga Duchy increasingly succumbed to the pressures associated with the counter-Reformation. By 1611, the Duchy was virtually bankrupt, necessitating both Claudio and his brother’s dismissal from court in 1613. Despite Mantua’s reputation as a hub for musicians, various restrictions necessitated the importation of musicians from Florence and Venice for the first performance of Orfeo in 1607. In 1600, some 70 years behind the rest of Italy, Mantua constructed a wall to form a ghetto.
Like Chinese New Year in Shanghai, Carnival was one of the main events in the calendar in Mantua. But in sixteenth century Mantua, carnival was not merely a Christian celebration of the passage from the season of Epiphany into Lent, but also often coincided with the Jewish festival of Purim, one of the most licentious celebrations in the Jewish calendar. Lavish plays for Purim were composed in Mantua and often performed before the court alongside sacred allegorical and secular humanist dramas during for the Carnival. Prominent in these productions were Jewish musicians in the court. Harpists and choreographers especially were prominent in these productions, as the genre of the pastoral drama grew throughout the sixteenth century.
Perhaps the most “Orphic” representation within Montevderdi’s Orfeo, is the appearance of a harp solo in Act III, the first harp solo of its kind to appear in a large scale vocal work. It’s a complex solo, filled with florid scales and overlapping harmonies, appearing at the crux of the work when Orpheus floats down the Styx to fetch Euridyce from Hades. No less striking was the performance in 1607 by a famous Neapolitan harpist, Lucrezia Urbana, who had served in the court regularly since 1606 at a salary of 20 ducats per annum (though other records report regular performances in Mantua as early as 1603-5). So pleased was the Duke of Mantua with her performance, that he made special mention of her skills in a letter of recommendation for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Based on reports of her Neapolitan training by Asciano Mayone and contemporary documents describing her instrument, it is apparent that Lucrezia Urbana performed on the relatively new Neapolitan arpa doppia, a peculiar instrument with two rows of diatonically tuned strings (hence the term “doppia”) and a middle row of chromatic strings.
In this light, much scholarship has traced the placement of the harp in Orfeo through Neapolitan sources, marking the ritornello in Act III as a point of maturation of the harp in Italy. This is perhaps not very surprising, as musicologists Cheryl Ann Fulton and Dinko Fabris point out that the advent of the arpa doppia also marked the advent of specific compositions for the harp outside of the Iberian Peninsula, where the Spanish arpa de dos ordenes had been composed for and discussed pedagogically in treatises since the mid-sixteenth century. Similarly, contemporary figures described the new arpadoppia in great detail, while literary sources on other forms of the harp in Italy are practically non-existent. Vincenzo Galilei informs us that a new model of harp ”represented a natural progression from the former and had three rows of strings thus offering harpists more freedom of technique than the earlier version.” Agostino Agazzari echoed Galilei’s observations, noting that “the arpa doppia is an instrument of broad texture which works well both on the high notes.” Bernardo Giobarnardi described its expressive effects as “marvelous” and Marin Mersenne declared the harp to have reached its “epitome” in the form of the arpa doppia. Highest praise came from Giovanni Battista Doni, who declared the qualities of the arpa doppia “best suited to represent Antiquity.”
While literary sources describing other harps in Italy are limited and there is no extant repertoire, the harp was not an unvalued or invisible instrument in Italy prior to the advent of the arpa doppia. Throughout the sixteenth century, the harp in fact held a special place at the court in Mantua. Though the court kept a rather small number of continuously salaried musicians, a line of harpists from the Jewish community was continuously employed. In 1522, a Jewish harpist named (curiously) Giovani Maria was employed in the service of the court to perform and to tutor the children of MarcheseFrancesco. Most famously, Abramo dell’Arpa was employed in the service of Duke Gugliemo Gonzaga in 1542, famously performing the part of Pan in a pastoral spectacle before the court in the same year. Soon after accepting an invitation to serve in the court of Ferdinand I in Vienna, Abramo was replaced by his nephew Abramino, who comforted Duke Gugliemo upon his deathbed in 1584. From the 1580s into the 1590s, one Isacchino Massarano served in the court and played a key role in the production of Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido in 1591. It was only with the passing of Isacchino Massarano in 1599, coupled with the decline of the Mantuan Jewish community under pressure from the Holy See, that harpists from outside Mantua performed regularly in the court. From 1600 onwards, female harpists and singers were imported from Naples to perform in the Mantuan court, including Lucrezia Urbana in 1603. Though these women undoubtedly influenced the forms of music heard in the court, their presence in Mantua did not represent a departure, but rather a continuation of the special place of the harp in the court of Mantua.
Other sources reveal the esteem with which Jewish court musicians were held, both within the Jewish community in Mantua and in the court. Giovanni Maria was raised to the level of royalty by Pope Leo X for his performances on the flute and harp. Abramino dell’Arpa also appears to have been a particularly prominent musician, and an important figure in the political relations between the court and the Jewish community. Multiple accounts of a case of forced conversion in 1587 (a very rare occurrence in Mantua) detail the attempts to coerce three prominent members of the Jewish community: Abramino dell’Arpa, his uncle Sansone dell’Arpa, and renowned Talmudist Rabbi Judah ben Moscato. While official court records and Jewish sources diverge as to whether or not Abramino in fact converted, his place as a symbolic figure for both the court and the Jewish community perhaps bear witness to the standing of such musicians in Mantua. Employment records in 1580 also reveal that Abramino’s salary appears to have been competitive with non-Jewish musicians (Jewish musicians were generally paid less), receiving a salary of 36 scudi per annum, nearly two-thirds of the salary of maestro di capella, Giaches de Wert. Outside of Mantua, Abramino’s skills as a harpist were compared to those of Giovanni Leonardo dell’Arpa, a prominent harpist in Naples and one of the earliest performers on the newly invented arpa doppia. In 1585, poet and painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo spoke of the skills of Giovanni Leonardo as “excelling in comparison with the Jew [Abramo] of Mantua and his grandson [Abramino].”
But apart from the figure of Abramino, the harp held a special place in the theology of Rabbi Judah ben Moscato, one of the most important figures of the Italian Renaissance. Like many of his Jewish contemporaries, Moscato believed that all the languages of culture were derived from Judaism and that it was the duty of Jews to acquire these branches of knowledge, of which they had once been masters. This was particularly true of music and the mastery of ancient instruments. The first two of his 52 sermons published under the title Nefuẓot Yehudah (Venice 1588) are entitled “Sounds for Contemplation on a Lyre” and “Song of the Ascents of David.” The first sermon, written for the first day of Simchat Torah, opens with a proclamation of God’s ordering of creation in accordance with “the ratios of music,” just as “he himself… is the master of perfect music.” The initial midrash in the sermon is a consideration of David’s kinnor, an open instrument of multiple strings which was commonly translated as the “lira” or “Cithara” by Christian hebraists, but explicitly translated as the “arpa” by Jewish philosophers and linguists in Italy. For Moscato the harp was not simply a musical instrument of praise; it was the instrument designated for the house and lineage of Levi, as a manner of fulfilling Mosaic law. In his sermon on the kinnor, Moscato explicitly praises Abramino dell’Arpa, equating his skills as a harpist with those of King David. For Moscato, the combination of study of the Torah with music of the harp represented the perfection of the manifestation of law into praise, quoting to Psalm 119: “Your [God’s] Laws became songs to me.”
With these considerations in mind, historian Don Harrán astutely remarked that “questions still surround the popularity of the harp and its practitioners in the late sixteenth century. The questions are not just of relevance to Moscato’s sermons and Jewish musicians in the Renaissance but, clearly, to the history of music at large.” But what bearing do such considerations have upon Orfeo? Though the harp may have been prominent in Mantua throughout the sixteenth century, drawing an explicit link with with the Jewish community in Mantua is still contentious. That being said, some have drawn links between the involvement of Mantua’s Jewish community and theatrical productions: In 1489, a production of the biblical story of Judith in Hebrew was presented before the Duke; Leone de’ Sommi’s prominence as a stage producer from the 1550s into well into the 1590s, including performances of Gaurini’s Il Pastor Fido in Mantua and Ferrara in 1592; the appearance of Purim plays Mantuan Carnival celebrations, such as one performed at Vincenzo Gonzaga’s second wedding in 1584. However, the construction of the ghetto in Mantua in 1601 saw a severe decline in the involvement of the Jewish artists and musicians in the theatrical life of Mantua. Indeed, the records of performers in the 1607 performance of Orfeo reveal no presence of Jewish performers at all.
However, other evidence reveals that Monteverdi had explicit ties with Jewish Italian cultural life. Records of correspondence exist between Monteverdi and Salamone Rossi, who also served as a notable composer in the ducal court. The two composers even worked together in a collaborative composition, La Maddalena in 1604. It is known also that Rossi’s sister, Europa Rossi, sang the role of Dorilla in several performances of Montverdi’s Arianna. Some scholars have even speculated that the role of La Musica in Orfeo may have even been composed with Europa in mind. Further scholarly speculation has been offered in relation to Monteverdi’s clerical training in Cremona, a notable center of Hebraic studies.
But far more interesting may be consideration of the influences of Jewish liturgical music upon portions of Orfeo. Musicologist Jonathan Angress has addressed issues of modality in the ritornello for solo harp in Act III. Unusually chromatic in comparison with other portions of the opera, Angress argues that the harp evokes Jewish prayer modes, namely the Ahava Rabba, a mode named after a portion of the Jewish morning liturgy. The unorthodox rhetorical grouping of sixteenth notes highlights the dissonance between the E-flat and the F-sharp, an intervalic conflict not seen in the rest of the opera. Monteverdi was known for being unorthodox at times with his use of dissonance, as a letter between Salamone Rossi and Guilio Cesare Monteverdi (Claudio’s brother reveals). Specifically, the letter criticizes the use of “foreign” intervals, such as the incorporation of augmented seconds and tri-tones.
What’s most interesting to me though, is that while this solo has often been known as a work for a Neapolitan harp, it’s completely possible to play it – and the whole opera, in fact – on a harp with a single row of strings, a type known to Mantua throughout the 16th Century. The harp solo bears a small, but recognizable imprint of the context in which Orfeo was wrought, not just in the creation of an opera, but in the expansion of the Pastoral tradition of Purim. Even in the shadow of erasure, one can get a glimpse of something that once was.
In walking the harpsichord from the gate through the Shanghai Conservatory campus after unloading it from the van, I could sense that I would have another hour or so of work ahead of to get the instrument in shape. Harpsichords, though large, are fragile, sensitive to the minutest changes in temperature and humidity. But I didn’t mind a great deal. The Conservatory campus alone is worth seeing, even if just for a quiet stroll. A relatively new concert hall is attached to a fantastic 1910s clubhouse, formerly the home to Jewish Club of Shanghai. Complete with palm trees and a lawn perfect for a round of croquet, there’s an incredible sense of preservation in the midst of a city and culture known for rapid and unstoppable change – an appropriate setting perhaps, for a performance of some Monteverdi by China’s first early music ensemble.
After charming the border agents at Gatwick, I headed straight to the Chinese embassy’s visa centre on Old Jewry. (For reasons too boring to list here, I had to obtain a Chinese visa during my visit to the UK. Life lesson: while the prospect of international travel and performing is glamorous, the realities without fail, are less so.) The shittiness of my latest return to the UK Might be on par with the time I sat an A-level maths exam two hours after stepping off an international flight. Upon arriving at no. 7 Old Jewry, I handed over my papers only to be informed that I had to fill out all my paperwork again. There was nothing “wrong” with my forms as such. In fact, all the information was accurate and had been typed with meticulous detail. And yet, everything had to be filled out again, and all secondary documents photocopied once more. Why? Because I had printed everything on US Letter sized paper, and not on A4. The forms I had filled out could not be photocopied on to A4 either. They won’t accept copies. Or USA-sized passport photos, for that matter. Or US debit cards. English bureaucracy: rendering headaches and endless frustration since 1066.
After three and a half years, London feels the same. At one point in my life, a trip down from Cambridge would provide a rush of adrenaline. Now, it feels dozy compared to New York. I’ve been here for 5 hours maybe, and I’ve found myself naturally drawn back to Soho and Chinatown, my usual haunt after my monthly pilgrimage to see the Arnolfini Wedding at the National Gallery. They’re loud, congested, giving wandering Londoners the feeling of anonymity more commonly associated with Manhattan. Little has changed; my favorite izakaya continues to heap chicken teriyaki, salad and a mound of rice onto my plate for £4.50. The Kowloon Cake Shop supplies red bean pastries intended for immediate consumption (their shelf life is maybe three hours). Foyles bookstore still has what I’m looking for, each and every time. I’d forgotten to grab a book on my way out the door yesterday, something snappy and digestible. Nabokov it is.
Invitation to a Beheading is an easy read, and essays on its construction and meaning are clicks away on my iPad via JSTOR and Project MUSE (note: in case anyone was wondering, using Oberlin College Library access in a London coffee shop is surreal, to say the least). As with a lot of Nabokov scholarship, interpretations range from the plausible to the farcical. Some rightly point out that English translations don’t do the Russian novels justice when uncovering plays on words that may connect French novels to Russian politics or geography or poetry, etc. The problem comes when people try and “interpret” what Nabokov might be getting at. A common view is that Invitation falls into a Russian “radical” tradition, reducing Nabokov to a disgruntled émigré who sought nothing but literary retribution against the Bolshevik regime. For me, it’s a tough sell. Nabokov didn’t write about politics in any of his other books or essays at all, save Invitation. Furthermore, he wrote it in just a few days as a side project to his Russian magnum opus, The Gift. Apart from being dystopian, it bears little or no relation to Zamatyin’s We, a futuristic sci-fi novel set in the 26th century (think 1984 meets Aelita, Queen of Mars) to which Invitation is often compared. But We deals with themes of authoritarianism, a master state, a leader, etc. and the struggle of individuals to release themselves from the control it has of their sensibilities. None of these elements are present in Invitation. Cincinnatus, the protagonist, is under no pretense that the world he lives in is just. He has no “journey” or true development of character. He’s simply a citizen jailed and sentenced to death for being different. The struggle is not one of escape, physical or mental – he only begs to know on what day he will be executed – nothing more. Those who hold him captive keep changing his execution date, conversing with him in cheery tones, and behave as if his incarceration is a humorous nuisance.
The essence of Cincinnatus’s character is that his mind is always taken elsewhere (hence his imprisonment). A typical rumination may consider his death, his wife or the beauty of a bygone era, but rarely the nature of the state which holds him prisoner. Books and magazines are Cincinnatus’s retreat:
The prison library… was a remote world, where the simplest objects sparkled with youth and an inborn insolence, proceeding from the reverence that surrounded the labour devoted to their manufacture.
Books are Cincinnatus’s passion, his retreat, but it is because of the devotion that goes into preservation of something concrete, when all around him is perpetually and viciously in flux.
Like most accounts of political trials, Nabokov’s novella offers far more about the accuser than the accused. If there are lessons to be learned from history, one might be that processes of external incrimination and judgment are often far more memorable and insightful than the relatively uncomplicated plight of innocence. For French Revolution buffs, Georges Danton’s achievements have been largely forgotten. It is only in Robespierre’s betrayal that he becomes famous, foreshadowing the Reign of Terror. Likewise Trotsky is known for his expulsion from Russia, and far less for his military prowess in the Russian Civil War. He is of course most well known for his assassination by Stalin, perhaps the most visible of the purges to those outside Russia. Even now, Steve Bannon’s fall has told us far more about the ideological flexibility of the GOP. Once heralded as alt-right/nouveau-GOP ideological mastermind, he is now cut off from Breitbart and has been ousted from the Trump inner sanctum. Leaders fashion themselves as Robespierres, but many become Dantons.
Damning as Michael Wolf’s book may have been to Trump and Bannon’s public relationship, Fire and Fury failed to reveal anything new about the POTUS. But as the Russia investigation draws on, the sincerity of our search for dirt on Trump is looking more and more like a hostage situation. In the absence of hard evidence, elected officials continue down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. In the midst of government shutdowns and restarts, tensions with foreign nations and a President with an inappropriate and often offensive big mouth, our country’s elected officials are still trying to figure out if it was maybe possible that Jared Kushner might have used executive privilege to do some creative accounting. (And somehow, this relates to the manner in which Putin used Facebook to mind control America, in the latest remake of The Manchurian Candidate.)
The integrity and political tenacity of Cincinnatus’s executioners too are seemingly measured by the extent to which they can consider Cincinnatus’s fate with total and utter insincerity. Take Pierre Delalande, Cincinnatus’s legal advisor and arguably worst culprit. After visiting Cincinnatus three times for the sole purpose of tormenting him, Pierre ends up accompanying him to the scaffold, for a performance to entertain the townsfolk in Thriller Square. As Cincinnatus makes his way to the scaffold, he sees the townsfolk gathering towards him as he converses with Pierre. At one point, Pierre grows impatient with the horse driver, reprimanding him with characteristic sarcasm. But the scene continues:
“I’m sorry I flared up like that,” M’sieur Pierre was saying gently, ‘Don’t be angry with me, duckie. You understand yourself how it hurts to see others being sloppy when you put your whole soul into your work.”
They clattered across the bridge. News of the execution had only just now begun to spread through the town. Red and blue boys ran after the carriage. A man who feigned insanity, an old fellow of Jewish origin who had for many years been fishing for non-existent fish in a waterless river, was collecting his chattels, hurrying to join the very first group of townspeople heading for Thriller Square.
“ . . . but there’s no point in dwelling on that,’ M’sieur Pierre was saying. ‘Men of my temperament are volatile but also get over it quickly.”
While Nabokov does not necessarily fit neatly into any one literary genre (he composed novels in three languages in his lifetime), Invitation bears the hallmark of Russian literature in the presence of mysticism and metaphor. Pierre and the fisherman are one and the same person: the Apostle Peter. My Episcopalian friends will know that just yesterday, the Gospel reading included the famous verse from the Book of Matthew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Both of Peter’s reincarnations are warped. One is the fisherman, doing his job as entrusted to him, though with little care or sense of purpose. The other is the defender (Peter was the first Pope, after all), playing the role of advocate but to a performative, not a judicial, end.
It’s easy to miss Peter’s apparition in Invitation. Like Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky before him, Nabokov was in the business of saturating his novels with hidden references or mysticism (perhaps in compensation to the awkwardness of his prose). By the time you’ve gotten to the end of the book, the brain overloads on the diarrhetic flow of French Revolutionary references, that one scarcely has space for much more. But there’s modern blindness as well. We’re used to thinking of Dystopian societies in “totalitarian” frameworks. Though Hannah Arendt’s sociological tropes would have us believe that social responsibility can never really be laid with the individual, Invitation was written well before society started thinking about Orwell’s Eurasia, about Eichmann’s ignorance or the questions of “thoughtlessness” (some might say mass unintelligence) that are pervasive throughout society when things go really sour.
What Invitation continually gets at is the contradictory double-think that people carry around in in their minds: (1) the things which they know to be true, and (2) the things which they know will get them ahead which run in supposed opposition to those truths. After all it was Peter who was given entrusted with leading the Church, but also thrice denied Christ at the most crucial moment. Christians often cite the human condition, arguing that Peter’s imperfection shows the extent to which Christianity works on our level and leaves room for our foibles. But in typical Nabokovian fashion, there’s a dark cynicism about the benevolence human nature and the good intentions of religion. Peter, Pierre, and Cincinnatus’s oppressors are no such imperfect humans: they are merely spineless, substituting spite and self-gratification for guilt or conscience.
I fear that the current trajectory of the Russia investigation might be far more telling about my party and my generation than about the Trump administration. The President and the GOP are fundamentally altering the manner in which the country conducts itself, and yet the Russia investigation continues for the sole purpose of maintaining a fiction of political action. We’ve now gotten to a stalemate, whereby whatever Trump says, the opposite “must” be true, whatever he does the opposite “must” be correct. I personally think Trump is a lousy President, but our refusal to genuinely engage with the political moment is to take an inheritance, an opportunity, and selfishly squander it.
So, has anyone else noticed that the Trump election/Russia story keeps going… nowhere? I’m the first to admit that Trump’s performance in office is really less than ideal. But once again the vitriol about the Presidency seems to be descending into senselessness.
For instance, the FBI, once the source of the cock-up which got Trump into office (thanks, Comey), is now supposedly the most reliable source of information that will supposedly protect our democracy. Indeed, all intelligence agencies are now apparently fountainheads of truth. Nevermind that the FBI has long been a tool for the political suppression of minority groups and labor activism, or that the CIA provided Congress and the President with lies about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Newspapers like the New York Times have been quick to latch on to the Russia trail as well, taking a speculative assessment by a select group of analysts from the intelligence community as irrefutable proof that Putin had a hand in the election. The document compiled by the 16 agencies in fact reads that their “judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation and precedents.” Really? Is this the most we have to go on? This might explain why the CIA was able to track a Chinese military hack down to a single People’s Army building, but has yet to provide concrete evidence of “where” any Russian hack may have emanated from precisely.
The double standards go on and on. We’ve rightly charged our President with nativism and insularity, while making Russia a public enemy. Up until 2008-12, détente was the general policy with regards post-Communist Russia, but now such is apparently unthinkable (though cuddling up to a regime like Iran’s is apparently OK, and distancing ourselves from it is a mistake). Putin is a monster, while other dictatorial leaders do not appear to be worthy of remark.
We seem to keep talking about things that really are besides the point. We’re still not talking about the content of DNC emails, for instance. While Russia’s involvement in the elections is up in the air, it has been pretty firmly established that the DNC colluded to keep Bernie out, and push Hillary to the top. Indeed, it’s been a year, and the Times is just now getting around to asking if “fake news” stories or social media really had that much of an impact. The same party that is screaming up and down that the US population was smart enough to grant Hillary 3 million more votes is also dumb enough to believe anything that pops up on a Facebook or Twitter feed.
The resulting atmosphere I see around me is intellectually nihilistic at best, unprincipled at worst. Standing up on a soapbox declaring our right to an election result of our choosing is taking a political matter and frankly depoliticizing it. We keep trying to take a matter of politics – that is, the points of intersection between citizens – and turning it into a legal battle over an ideological position. It’s taking that ballot and turning it into a pawn. Can we take a minute to remember that voting in national elections qualify as perhaps the most mundane form of political engagement imaginable? Yes they are important, but if we see them as our only way of rectifying the problem we have with our President, then we might as well kiss 2020 goodbye. There are local elections, there are school-boards, there are community organizations, there are non-profits – there are any number of ways for us to be involved and ensure that our own backyards are taken care of.
(I realize this has nothing to do with music, so here’s some Billy Budd to help you get depressed, etc.)
I’m indoors, pretending the outside world doesn’t exist. Facebook seems a wash of video postings from Schubert’s Winterreise, sung by any one of a myriad of talentless English tenors with vocal nodules.
If you really, really want to feel some insincere winter bleak feels, have a listen to Klaus Nomi’s intergalactic rendition of Purcell’s “Cold Song” from King Arthur.
My resolution for 2018 is “pay a bit more attention to the blog.” With any luck, I’ll be posting more frequently, and with less laborious prose.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve kind of been getting into Sciarrino. I’ve got a piece of his in the oven for an audition tape, L’addio a Trachis (1980). It’s remarkably difficult to find much out about the work itself. Even when scouring Classical sources, the city of Trachis doesn’t come up all that often. That said, Sciarrino did compose an 18-minute work for female voices based on the tragic play of Sophocles, The Trachinae. Deianeira, wife of Heracles, finds that her husband has laid siege to Oechalia for the purpose of taking another woman, Iole, as his wife. Deianeira sends Heracles a garment dipped in a potion meant to rekindle his love for her. But Deianeira has been fooled; the garb has in fact been laced with a poison which burns and tortures Heracles as he returns to Trachis. To end his suffering, he is taken to be burned alive.
Sciarrino’s solo for harp uses tremolos and harmonic effects, evocative of dying embers. While Heracles is sometimes seen as either heroic (as in the case of Sophocles) or comic (in the case of Ovid), it’s rare for the Heraclean prototype to cast a real sense of hopelessness or resignation. Heracles isn’t killed by his wife, but the by the centaur Nessus, who he killed to save Deianeira and take her as his bride. As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianeira that a mixture of his own blood with the poison of the Hydra would act as a love potion. Nessus lied, helping to fulfill the prophecy that Heracles would be killed by those who were already dead.
Heracles dies full of regrets, despite a life of achievement and glory. Ezra Pound’s adaptation captures the mood rather better than some of the more literal translations, essentially devising a scene in which Hyllos assists Heracles in his own suicide.
HER: Fine… Get me to that fire, before this pain starts again. Hey, you there, hoist me up for the last trouble. The last rest.
HYL: Nothing to stop us now. You’re the driver.
HER: Come ere the pain awake,
O stubborn mind.
[To Hyllos] And put some cement in your face,
reinforced concrete, make a cheerful finish
even if you don’t want to.
People tend to give Ezra Pound a hard time about his “translation” (I use the term loosely). The probability that he knew ancient Greek with any sense of fluency is very slight. But his adaptation of the Greek χάλυβος λιθοκόλλητον στόμιον (chalubos lithokolleton stomion—a bit of steel cast with stones) here is rather appropriate; he uses the term “reinforced concrete,” a simultaneous nod towards the age of American technological progress and the birth of a different strand of stoic masculinity. At the very least, it’s an interesting example of the ways in which updating ancient texts with modern imagery works almost perfectly.