Wharton, Scorsese and Gounod

Irrelevant Reviews
The Age of Innocence (1993)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

These were absent when the curtain rose.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all have spare time right now.

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



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

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