A few months ago, I released another album. Nico Muhly and Alice Goodman’s The Street constitutes the bulk of the two disc set, being a large scale for work for spoken word, solo harp and chant. Unsurprisingly, much of the promotion for the album has been spent talking about how that work came about, why King’s College, Cambridge commissioned it and why it’s important as both a work of sacred music and (hopefully) a new staple in the solo harp repertoire.

What remains to be discussed is what Bach’s Second Partita in C Minor (BWV 826) is doing on the first disc. Truth be told, the label at King’s College, Cambridge wanted more Bach, as the Goldberg Variations has been doing very well on streaming platforms. (Indeed, thanks to meditation, concentration and relaxation playlists, the work lives up to story of its soporific progeny and enjoyed some 4 million streams in 2022 on Spotify alone.) So… which Bach?

Fortunately, there wasn’t any question in my mind about what I wanted to play. Like the Goldbergs, it was was a work I had learned as a precocious teenaged pianist, having been borderline obsessed Martha Argerich’s live recording from the Concertgebouw. Her articulation and drive were totally infectious and fascinating to me, and for a long it was the definitive sound of Bach in my ears. (Not to mention the fact that the energy only increases throughout the rest of the program, including a hair raising performance of some Ginastera.)

Fast forward to my time at Juilliard, I took the partita up to see how I might push myself technically, but also how I might incorporate all the historical performances ticks and “-isms” I had imbibed in the historical performance program at Oberlin. I got kick out of playing with boomy resonance of my instrument to create swells of sound, desynchronizing melodies and bass lines to make the Andante and Sarabande sound like the gentle chaos that one gets in chamber music, and phrasing rhetorically, as if there individual syllables under each note, turning tunes into sentences. Inevitably, I ran into the fact that the harp, while blessed with extreme sensitivity to touch, isn’t cut out for Martha’s tempi. It just can’t reliably emulate the level of articulation or speed we expect to hear from the harpsichord, pianos and other Apollonian typewriters. This is to say: I was having fun, but not quite sure where I might find aesthetic justification for taking one of my favorite pieces to the harp.

True friends are those who you can go without seeing and pick up where you left off. I’m lucky that I’ve had a continuous messaging thread with one friend since we were teenagers. A fellow Cambridge organ scholar (who now has a successful career as an historical keyboardist in Switzerland) and fellow nerd, he has been traditionally reliable to come up with (1) amusing Guardian/Sun articles about the pets and consumption trends of Central Asian dictators and (2) fun facts about early music. In one of our Facebook messenger exchanges (I in the Juilliard harp studio, he somewhere in Stuttgart), we were discussing outrageous examples of continuo performance practices which would be deemed laughable today. These days, we tend to prefer clean and neat contrapuntal playing (which we have sources for), but every so often we see examples where keyboardists went to town and suggest students play as many as ten notes at a time while (making for a wildly muddy performance).

My friend rightly noted, “Playing like this would be a great way to never get invited to play anywhere for a second time. Next thing, I receive another photo (see below). “This is by Müthel, Bach’s last student (sort of).”

If you know what you’re looking at, you’ll know it’s a tad outrageous. Pictured above is what I was sent: an highly ornamented manuscript of the Sinfonia from 1749, the scribe’s hand being that of Johann Gottfried Müthel, a pupil of Bach’s at the very end of his life. (Below you can see the handwritten version next to the the “original” published edition in 1731. You’ll notice just how much more real estate is taken up on a page by Müthel’s handwritten edition.)

Bach’s original from 1727
Müthel’s essay in the use of appoggiatura, 1749

I had known about this source from my time at Oberlin, but at the time had been more invested in the source which precedes it in Müthel’s hand: another re-ornamentation, that of the Sarabande from Partita V in G (BWV 829).

Bach’s published edition from 1731
Müthel’s mordent party, 1749

At least with BWV 826, the ornamentation is generally regarded to fall flat on the harpsichord, which is perhaps why I wasn’t able to find a recording. (The necessity to lift fingers out of the keys causes strings to be dampened, and so all the lush harmonies which cause the the filigree scintillate get a bit lost. At the harp, it’s not too bad, as the problem of continual resonance tends to actually work in the renditions favor.) With BWV 829 however, issues of texture are not as present. We just tend to to stay away from Müthel’s version because, well, there are many who think it’s tasteless or out of the original style of the Partitas as Bach originally published them.

Müthel’s versions tend to make us uncomfortable as they are (in all likelihood) transcriptions of performance practices undertaken by his teacher. Granted, over the last few decades, there has been increasing openness to the fact that we know Bach revisited his scores later in life to show students how to ornament or extemporize.

For instance, after Bach’s death, Jakob Adlung wrote in 1758 that Bach’s works for “violini soli senza basso, 3 sonatas and 3 Partitas, are well suited for performance at the keyboard.” This perhaps echoes Johan Friedrich Agricola’s account of Bach’s violin works from 1754, reporting that Bach “often played them on the clavichord, and added as many harmonies to them as he found necessary. (This practice is at the clavichord is confirmed by Forkel, who related that Bach “considered the clavichord to be the instrument for study and for all music played.”)

We also have the numerous examples of how Bach reused his own music and sometimes the music of others. The Violin partitas and sonatas turn up as sinfonias, organ pieces and lute pieces. Cantata movements are republished as organ solos in the Schübler Chorales. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater turns up as a German setting of Psalm 51 (with an extra viola part, to boot).

But what we perhaps pay attention to less is the smaller, lesser known instances of revisitation or revision. Works appear in more than version, with both visible and and audible stylistic changes. The Pièce d’Orgue (BWV 572) has examples of copyists transcribing incredibly florid ornamentation some years after the work was written. The effect is scintillating, as each voice is able to distinguish itself by adding some more harmonic tension and rhythmic flare in a seemingly stately texture. It looks less like Bach, and more like the music of the French organ composers he kept in his library, with delicious names like DeGrigny, Nivers and Boyvin.

(Indeed, another source’s title page contains a credit to Jean Sébastien Bach. And at the bottom of all of the editions page, the organist is given the instruction “tournez” to turn the page.)

In BWV 831, we can see a French overture in C-minor with the normal three note patterns of anticipation that let us know that something important is about to happen.

BWV 831a in C minor

But in another version, these jumpy rhythms are cut in half. Where there were sixteenth notes, there are now thirty-second notes. The anticipations are more biting and incisive, and again more in line with the conventional practice of taking short rhythms and making them shorter. (One might also note that the second version appears in B-minor, a half step lower than C-minor, an ironic phenomenon as our modern historical performance conventions have us perform French music at A=392, and Bach at A=415.)

BWV 831

And some decades after jotting down some naughty hymn accompaniments with student Johann Ludwig Krebs (that once got him suspended from his job as a 21-year-old turn up in a students’ hands), they turn in the hands of Johann Gottlieb Preller, beautifully laid out as if they are solo works of creative genius, and not the scribbles of an unhappy adolescent from some 30 years prior.

The “original” as handed to Krebs by Bach

Of course, because In dulci jubilo is so famous, we don’t think twice about the fact that the “realization” or “expansion” we’re used to hearing every Christmas is a product of manuscripts largely written down in the late 18th-to mid 19th centuries.

A 19th-century “realization” we assume is Bach’s as notated by Preller, sometime in the 1740s.

I shan’t ramble much further. The examples abound of how Bach would play hopscotch with his own music, altering, revising it and even changing its stylistic swag. And yet, these revisions don’t get performed all too often. Or if they do, their altered states are conveniently forgotten or ignored, so as not to mess with some image in our mind of a “serious,” “organized” or “grounded” genius. To me this is slightly crazy, as the some of the most revealing documentation we possess about who Bach might have been and how plasticity might have been a core feature of his creative process.

I think this is what fascinates me most about music from the past, especially baroque music: when we play a work of Bach (or any other composer, for that matter), we often a snapshot in time, a window into his creative interests at one or another point in his life. More often than not, we tend to crystallize the more obvious historical moments, often coinciding with dates of publication or the dates when pen was first put to parchment by the master. Of course, these works change in our own lives: we age, we mature, we reinterpret, we grow. But what if a piece of music were the same in the life of a composer? How did they revisit their music? How did they change? Why?

(P.S. yes, the Sinfonia opens with some heavy breathing improv based on some juicy tunes by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. I have no historical justification, except that I hope it will further upset the HIP purists who send me hate-mail about playing Bach on the harp.)


I had a great time doing a little write up for Camac Harps on my collab with Marcos Balter for the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. Sometimes getting into the nitty gritty of how to approach a new work gets bogged down in a little too much specificity, so I was lucky have an outlet where I could nerd out!




Reopening. New York is returning and so is my giant gay cliché of an existence. Mozart and Debussy scores in my studio pass judgment on me as I either head out to the Eagle, some mediocre (but very well-decorated) restaurant on the Lower East Side, or a movie theater on Houston Street. At night, I head to my apartment building in Murray Hill, where the stench of week-old, fetid Blue Apron boxes (addressed to str8 residents Brock, Zane or Ward) fills the lobby en route to the elevator. On the 12th floor, my housemate paints and cooks between his conferences with Google, scooting between rooms decorated with Danish(?) furniture and contemporary art painted by his friends. Meanwhile, over in my own little cave, it looks as if I shopped for all my terrible wall tapestries at Buddhas’R’Us. Pairs of running shorts and athletic socks are strewn across my floor and overpriced books I intend to read this summer are piled up on my desk. My espresso machine sits at the ready to help me find courage upon waking up in the morning.

How incredibly boring, right?

Well, not exactly. My “eureka” moment in the pandemic was realizing that the lockdowns affected my lifestyle very little, as I spent the previous year or so keeping my nose to the grindstone, investing time in things I “ought” to be doing: reading long novels, going to bed early, saving money, cooking more, etc. While things were gradually picking up in my career, the lifestyle that went along with it was distinctly pedestrian. These days, I’m making concerted effort to reconstruct my life to look the way it did when I was at Juilliard: over-scheduled, pretentious, and eager to take in as much as possible. The last step? Getting back to the blog.


Pride month is upon us, and in celebration I’ve been down to the Film Forum to see Jacques Deray’s La piscine no fewer than three times. If you know anything about the film, it’s reasonable for you to be scratching your head. The film has no explicit gay themes and no gay actors (provided you remain wilfully ignorant of Alain Delon’s supposed former life as a sex worker/taxi boy.) And yet, I’ve been drawn to the film repeatedly to bear witness a to a rather beautiful depiction of a very important element in gay life: discretion.

The plot is a tad complicated, but in essence it’s just a tale of love and murder between four people. A failed writer (twunky Alain Delon) lives with a wealthy older woman (Romy Schneider) on her estate in the French countryside. Her incredibly wealthy ex (butch Maurice Ronet) – who is also Delon’s oldest friend from high school) – pays a visit, with his estranged teenaged daughter (model Jane Birkin) in tow.

The ex is jealous of Delon’s affair.

Delon is jealous of the ex’s success.

Delon falls for the ex’s daughter.

The ex tries drunkenly to torture Delon.

Delon drowns the ex.

Delon covers it up but makes a mistake or two.

Romy Schneider lies to the investigator.

 She lies to the dead ex’s daughter.

The secret is safe.

(The swimming pool is drained.)

With each plot twist in La piscine, resentment and anger are met with some effort to render silence over the dramatic noise, or at least deflection away from the turbulence. Indeed, because of mutual co-dependence, terrible and destructive behaviors are put up with and compensated for because all three adults are liable to face complete social isolation. 

The swimming pool is where all the action happens, as the water is some kind of distraction, but also the site of everyone’s ultimate demise. I can’t unsee the overwhelming influence of David Hockney in Deray’s film, evocative of Bigger Splash and later Pool with Two Figures, where the water in various Los Angeles swimming pools proves an unnerving source of ambiguity. After all, one can hide underwater, or have their vision impaired. One can cool off or exercise. One can draw life from the presence of water or die from drowning.

A Bigger Splash', David Hockney, 1967 | Tate

Who jumped into the water?

What was the first splash? Or a second?

Is there anyone else around?

I can’t see a body – how deep is that pool exactly?

A David Hockney painting of a person swimming in a pool while another person looks down at them from the edge of the pool.

If this is a self-portrait, which one is David Hockney?

Is it one or both?

Is he swimming?

Did he drown?

Who drowned him?

In this way, a gay life is one spent underwater, as the difference between swimming and drowning can be hard to perceive unless you’re the one kicking your legs. It’s not that we don’t deal with what straight people deal with, but rather in a different sequence and under less common circumstances. Body obsession isn’t vanity, but a defense mechanism. Alcohol isn’t an excess, but a crutch. Polyamory (for many of us) is not some revolutionary goal, but rather a naturally occurring phenomenon or silent compromise. Private spaces, be they bars, apps or Nicodemite circles are not so much novelties as social necessities.

We talk about the coming out of the closet, but in reality there are always several closets that lay beyond. Like the concept of a closet, the dual lives we lead are total clichés, making good David Bowie’s assertion that “all clichés are true.”And indeed, gay friendships and relationships are likiwise built on twin foundations of emotional codependency and solidarity. Wandering through Chinatown last week with my friend Isaiah, as expressed exasperation at the maintenance of not only veils of secrecy, but carpets of empathy for the men who cross our paths to sit on. Again and again, we encounter the same affairs, open relationships, competitive spirits, abusive closet cases, suicidal tendencies, all wrapped up in that overwhelming fear of a peculiar isolation that somehow cannot be made plain to straight friends. It’s not that our straight friends aren’t empathic, but rather that they can’t conceive of relationships where these issues are built in right from the start, rather than arriving at some climax. Or they can’t conceive of a world existence where the characters in La piscine are in fact rather ordinary, or indeed that the dynamics of romantic and professional jealousy playing out between four characters can just as easily boil up between two. And so perceptions of “toxicity” don’t arise from the patterns and behaviors themselves, but rather from the lack of a language about how to talk about them – that is, unless the other party in the conversation is also gay, living the same clichés.

The single most important thing I’ve done in the pandemic (apart from buying an espress machine) is recalibrate my friendships. Be they 22 and recent college grads, or gay couples around the age of 50, my primary pillars of support have little in common with me (or each other) save that they are all gay men. In them, I’ve frankly become more comfortable doing the things I want to do, being more comfortable in the constant search for metaphor in art, literature and film on days when my therapist pisses me off or I can’t face another fucking hour at the harp bench. They’ve seen me on my worst days and vice versa, and tensions even spill over into levels of anger that can only be understood by someone else conditioned by society to hate themselves on the basis of who they are attracted to. Conversely, varying levels of physical intimacy help with the reality that the prospects of loneliness never truly depart, paralyzing our sensibilities time and time again. Why? Because when you’re gay, a normal human response will invariably be seen as indicative of a loose screw, a lack of control or an invisible illness related to your sexuality. Hence despite pain, these bonds of mutual discretion are maintained, and the supposedly “toxic” behaviors to which we fall prey remain a secret, drowning in the various pools of experience which many of our friends can only dip their toes. For while all clichés are true, very few end up living them out.

Variation 2: Calvino

Taking a course from start to end, gives us a particular gratification, both in life and literature (the journey as a narrative structure) so we should ask ourselves why was the topic of “journey” so underestimated in visual arts where it appears only sporadically.” Italo Calvino

Of the various changes I’ve noticed in myself over the last few months, a reduced attention span will be the hardest to rectify upon the return of normalcy to our society. Whereas I could happily binge an entire Netflix series in March, I can now barely make it halfway through a film. Long Zoom chats with friends are turning into shorter, more frequent FaceTime calls. Cooking’s fascination and value are now rooted in expediency rather than novelty or complexities. Hours spent reading novels are now reduced to fifteen to twenty-minute skimming sessions, mostly essays, as I hope to extract witticisms and passing reflections to break up monotony (and to perhaps make up for the guilt of not deriving the same pleasure from reading that I once did).

Impatient with filching essays online and staring at the New Yorker app on my iPad, a few weeks ago I walked to my local bookstore (which, by the way, has perhaps the dumbest name ever given to a bookstore, ever: Books Are Magic. Ew.) I headed to the essay section and grabbed a few favorites, including volumes I’d left at exes’ apartments or misplaced in various moves. My friends reading this will recognize that I’m nothing if not infuriatingly predictable and cliché, but I scooped up volumes by Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, Lynn Freed, Rachel Cusk, Joan Didion and Zadie Smith. (I have no regrets.)

It was useful to get reacquainted with all of them, but I especially enjoyed gleaning some wisdom once again from one of Calvino’s essays in Collection of Sand, a jumble of reviews he wrote for La Repubblica in the 1980’s. In reviewing an exhibition of historical maps at the Pompidou, he focused on the presupposition of narrative that exists when creating a geographical plan or drawing a map. While Calvino marvels at a incredibly detailed French map from the reign of Louis XIV, which painstakingly plot every tree (as it was created amidst a timber shortage), or else at a globe which was so large it had remained deconstructed for two centuries and kept in 200 boxes, the most interesting part of his essay is the consideration that maps were originally conceived as representations of journeys.

For instance, in Roman Times, maps were written on long scrolls:

Roman maps were in fact scrolls of parchment paper: today we can understand how they were designed thanks to a surviving medieval copy, the “Pautinger’s plate,” which includes the imperial road system from Spain to Turkey. The overall vision of the then known world looks horizontally flattened as a result of an anamorphic transformation. Since the map focused only on the land roads, the Mediterranean Sea was reduced to a thin horizontal wavy stripe between two wider areas (Europe and Africa), so much so that Provence and North Africa look very close to each other and so Palestine and Anatolia.

And likewise in Japan, where a 19-meter scroll from 1700 describes the journey from Tokyo to Kyoto to the traveler as he will experience it in real time:

Halfway between cartography and landscape painting,…this is a very detailed landscape in which it’s possible to see where the road surpasses high grounds, goes through groves, borders villages, overcomes rivers crossing a little arched bridge, adapts its course according to the extremely variable land conformations. The outcome is a scenery which is always pleasant for the eyes, lacking in human figures although is full of signs of real life…. The Japanese scroll invites us to identify ourselves with the invisible traveler, to cover that road bend after bend, to climb up and down the little bridges and the hills.

And even more fascinatingly:

The starting point and the arrival – that is the two cities – are not in the map: their look would have certainly fought back with the harmony of the landscape.

Taking a course from start to end, gives us a particular gratification, both in life and literature (the journey as a narrative structure) so we should ask ourselves why was the topic of “journey” so underestimated in visual arts where it appears only sporadically.

I’m inclined to agree with Calvino, insofar as when we analyze large pieces of music, we tend to take the same view “from above” that modern cartography tends to take. Much like maps take parameters from the sky (equatorial lines, polar axes, meridians, parallels, etc.) and place them onto the earth, so do musicians and scholars take standards of the eye and insert them into the ear. It’s not without its uses obviously, but there is a certain pride or vanity that can emerge from treating a large object (such as land mass or an hour-long piece of music) as an internally consistent monolith. I’m reminded of a great quote by Derrida’s and Lacan’s editor François Wahl (who, yes, may have had a vested interested in enterprises of dissection and deconstruction), who offered: “We had chance to describe the Earth just because we have projected the sky over it.” 

This has been on my mind a lot lately, for in continuing to practice the Goldbergs, and coaching myself through the kinesis of performing a work not naturally suited to the harp (“play lower on the string with the left hand there, More wrist rotation in this passage, etc.”), more questions have arisen as to what it is that binds the work together physically and aurally, or what the building blocks are that stick in the human memory.

Music theory, for all its merits, isn’t wonderful at describing the transformative experiences that help build the retrospective memory of listening to a large piece like the Goldberg Variations. We have lots of exhaustive analyses by the likes of Peter Williams and Donald Tovey Tovey, etc. which like to consider each variation on its own terms in relation to the theme. And we in turn we as interpreters are somehow expected to isolate a variation and understand its place in a super-structure by paradoxically considering its autonomy from the rest. (“ [A] variation needs to sound like x and [B] variation needs to sound like y.”) It’s as if we as musicians are expected to memorize terrain and topography with a bird’s eye view, without knowing what the depth of a valley might feel like.

With any given variation, what is its purpose, feature or memorable facet along the journey? Variation 2 is an interesting case study, as shares connective tissue with both of its neighbors in the use of miniature cells to gradually construct an increasingly strict contrapuntal frame.

Variation 1 takes the incredible mordent from the first bar of the Aria, slows it down and uses it as a rhythmic motor to propel itself forward from the get-go.

In Variation 2, that same mordent is at once diminished by a factor of two, whereby the mordent returns in the right hand, while the left hand augments it (also by a factor of two) to present the jazzy, step-wise walking bass.

That same two note cell becomes the building block for the entire canon in Variation 3.

Similarly, imitation gradually becomes stricter throughout the first three variations. Variation 1 features miniature echoes between the hands, and a scheme of implied counterpoint between three voices (though it’s written only in two voices). The bass line is separated from the tenor interpolations which imitate the right-hand melody, hinting that the invention in two voices actually has three ideas.

In Variation 2, we hear three voices, the higher two of which are in close, but not strict imitation.

But in fact, Variation 3 constitutes our first the first strict canon (though Variation 2 might have given the game away, slightly).

As if ascending a hill or witnessing a gradual accumulation of features on a journey, Variation 2 signposts that the material from Variation 1 and the theme preceding it are all eventually building up the Bach’s nerdy project of trying to have nine strict canons in his 30-fold Variation scheme. For me the fantastic thing about these elements is that they are shared between the scholar, the performer and the listener, being intelligible by sight, sound and performative kinesis.

In learning more about Japanese map scrolls, I also learned more Ukiyo-e, known in English as “The Floating World,” a form of artwork which basked in some aesthetic realism. While there are lots of intricacies and details about the history of urbanization in Japan and rise of the Shogunate, one of the most striking features of much of the art is the perspective or vantage from which drama or tension in depicted. Maps like the Tōkaidō bunken ezu (the map which Calvino references) are drawn from a side angle, but many scenes from the Ukiyo-e are drawn from above, removing the ceiling from a building where a Flemish portrait might simply remove a wall.

I can’t help but ponder if in a work like the Goldbergs, whether it’s worth flipping the perspective and considering dramatic elements and narrative from above, while analyzing the tiny structural threads one my one as they can be heard in real time. We need not remove a wall or a ceiling, so much as remove our timepieces or mobile phones – that is, stricter parameters which might inhibit more intense listening and even visual investigation of the score. Especially in this our age of mass media and reproduction, we’re under no deadline to treat each hearing as if it would be our last. Like the scroll map which can be read from either left or right, so our ears can can float between prescience and memory, whereby “to” becomes “fro” and “now” becomes a temporally nebulous “then.”

Full disclosure: I’m aware that my disorganized thoughts constitute little more than a conjecture about the journey one might take with a single variation in the Goldbergs. But such is the nature of performative interpretation, as each musician ideally guides their listener through the work in a different way. Few listeners have the score photographically memorized (and ideally would have the good manners to leave the score at home when attending a performance), but there are those who know the piece by different distinctive features. For instance, when the Aria starts up on the radio, it’s not the first note nor the second note that lets us know the Goldbergs have started, but the mordent of all mordents that lets you know that you’re potentially in for a long journey. Likewise, in the Tōkaidō bunken ezu, neither Tokyo nor Kyoto is depicted at either end of map, for it’s the path taken in the meantime that lets you know where it is you are going. The Goldbergs are like any truly meaningful journey, in that value is not assessed by some knowledge that it will end, but by the level of engagement and sensation of fulfillment one gains in that mediatory void between “start” and “finish.”

Variation 1: Emerson et al.

“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson

The album comes out in just a few short weeks, and while I’ve been trying to stay active on social media, I’ve not been so attentive to the blog. But as I sit on Oberlin’s campus this week, memories flood back as to how my perspective on performing changed, not so much because of what I was playing, but because of what I was reading.

Just a year before coming to Oberlin, I was sat at Cambridge University, finishing a history degree and miring myself in a steady diet of music-crazed Teutons. I admit I latched on to Nietzsche, Hesse and Mann (to whom I still cling to an extent), all brilliant progenitors of fantastic deconstructions of the world around them, spinning existential discussions of “succumbing” and “overcoming.”

Nietzsche’s references to Beethoven Beyond Good and Evil are almost comical:

Beethoven is something that happens between an old crumbling soul which is constantly breaking up and a very young soul of the future which is constantly coming. In his music there lies that half light of eternal loss and of eternally indulgent hoping – that same light in which Europe was bathed when it dreamed with Rousseau, when it danced around the freedom tree of revolution and finally almost worshipped before Napoleon.

Hesse’s horrific opium dream in Stepphenwolf is guided by Mozart, describing Germany’s spiritual deprivation after the First World War with references to Brahms and Wagner:

Mozart aised 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.”

And who can forget Hans Castorp’s slow prolonged death to the tune of the Lindenbaum from Schubert’s Winterreise?

Oh, how ashamed we feel in our shadowy security ! We’re leaving we can’t describe this ! But was our friend hit, too? For a moment, he thought he was. A large clod of din struck his shin-it certainly hurt, but how silly, it was nothing. He gets up, he limps and stumbles forward on mud-laden feet, singing thoughtlessly:

                        And all its branches rustled // As if they called to me

And so, in the tumult, in the rain, in the dusk, he disappears from sight.

(You get the idea.)

These authors embody so much of what I had always loved about music: the ability to share in an experience with a great writer or author, plunging a mundane existence into something “larger” or temporally expansive.

Of course, Cambridge is the perfect setting to look at culture through a set of binoculars. The Ivory Tower is old and tall, looming over you as you wander cobble streets alongside Nobel Prize laureates and borrow tattered library books once handled by members of the Bloomsbury group. You can bury yourself in your studies and consume all the material in the world, keeping its fundamental implications at an arm’s length. You can learn to argue and philosophize and never form an identity or opinion. You can be smart without gaining an ounce of wisdom.

There was no more damning an indictment against my Cambridge education than my first seminars with Dr. Steven Plank at Oberlin, for it was there I had my first exposure to Ralph Waldo Emerson. In reading The American Scholar, I realized the terrifying truth that – despite being an American – I had zero concept of American liberal education or the peculiar mission still alive in the American academy to “free the mind.” Of course, “the” famous quote was discussed in class:

The scholar must needs stand wistful and admiring before nature, this great spectacle. He must settle its value in his mind.

We were assigned the task of responding to the essay from the standpoint of a musician, and I admit it was a struggle. I scrambled something together that was analytical and factual, and it backfired. I was told the essay was fine, but that it didn’t merit a grade ­– “I don’t want to read it. Read more Emerson.”

And so I did. A few readings of the famous Self-Reliance were followed by a mild obsession with the more obscure Circles. It wasn’t long before I moved on to Thoreau, reading about the author’s experiment in forging knowledge in the wilderness.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

From my seminars to my instrumental lessons, I realized that I had placed a huge wall between myself and music without realizing it. I could tell someone whatNietzsche got out of Beethoven, but not why I liked Beethoven. I could hum Der Lindenbaum and quote Thomas Mann, but I couldn’t tell you how I was impacted by the music on its own terms. I found myself simply assigning value to art which non-musicians found meaning in, thinking it proof that I was somehow getting “outside” of my headspace as a musician.

I’d be lying if I said that Thoreau and Emerson didn’t hang over me in the transcription process. Dealing with any score by Bach constitutes an experience in the wilderness, as he leaves few clues behind as to what to make of his music. This is nowhere truer than in the Goldbergs, where one lacks even the guidance of movements labeled with dance idioms to figure out tempi or affekt.

Variation 1 keeps performers up at night, as everyone knows it and can hum it but cannot agree on what’s going on. Is the cute little “Yaa-baba-pum pum pum pum” a polonaise figure? Or a mere diversion from the right scales which have picked up from where the Aria left off? Are there two voices?

Or does the left hand have an extra implied voice? If one separates out the bass line from the middle voice, it’s as if there’s a trio of voices singing rather than a duet between the hands.

What about when the hands start passing material off to one another? Is the rhythmic motor really the polonaise figure? Or is it an incredibly minute cell of two sixteenth notes which are continually echoed between the two hands?

The great thing about the harp is that it basks in sonic ambiguity, as any note naturally rings long beyond its written duration. The dichotomy between two and three voices becomes moot, as does any difference of articulation between the two hands. One resigns that level of control and in turn allows the distinct disciplines of harmony and counterpoint to be naturally conjoined.

What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web, but always circular power returning into itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

During the pandemic, I’ve returned to Nietzsche, Hesse and Mann with enjoyment, as they remind us all what it means to be changed continually by the inheritance left behind by composers. But that’s only half the story. For me, Emerson and Thoreau complement our external impetus and beckon the scholar – or musician – to withdraw into themselves to find Performers don’t have the luxury of sitting at a distance and treating a dead composer as a kindred spirit, but rather have to tussle with a mediation process and assume the audience has the capacity for reception. In this sense, the scholastic approach and musical approach are no different, so long as they are both undertaken with the premise that there is something which we might not yet know.

The Goldblogs: Aria

September 5, 2019
King’s College, Cambridge

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

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

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

*           *           *           *

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Dig, dig, dig.)

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

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

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

*           *           *           *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitchcock and Poulenc

Irrelevant Reviews
Rope (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visconti and Wagner

Irrelevant Reviews
The Damned (1969)

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Wharton, Scorsese and Gounod

Irrelevant Reviews
The Age of Innocence (1993)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

These were absent when the curtain rose.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visconti and Bruckner

Irrelevant Reviews
Senso (1954)


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

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

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

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

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

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