Friday, September 16, 2005

Another view of Romanticism

What struck me in the passage below was a view of Romanticism that I do not remember
seeing in any account of musical Romanticism. I include the context of the reference to Romanticism here in order to give you a sense of the impression it made on me when I first read it.

Ian Buruma, “Lost in Translation: The two minds of Bernard Lewis”
(under “The Critics: Books”)
The New Yorker , June 14 & 21, 2004, p. 190:

“Thus it is not really the masses—who would presumably love to be liberated by the United States—but the fundamentalist leaders who are enraged. So, of course, are some of the Christian fundamentalists waiting for Armageddon on our own television screens. In fact, the war on modernity, often associated with the Jews, or the West, or the United States, goes back centuries. German Romanticism, which later curdled into a murderous ideology, began as a reaction to the French Enlightenment, whose ideals were promoted with armed force by Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Nineteenth-century Slavophiles in Russia resisted the modern ideas of the Westernizers and extolled the Russian soul. German Fascists in the nineteen-thirties denounced ‘Americanism.’ Japanese chauvinists in the forties embraced the idea that Japan was fighting a holy war against the wicked West.
Islamist extremists, it is plausible to conclude, have been drinking from that same poisoned well. Lewis rightly points out that their targets are the secular, corrupt, and oppressive governments in the Arab world, as well as the more enticing symbols of the West."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Berlioz's confidence & George Bernard Shaw on style

Here are two tiny excerpts from texts included in the Norton Critical edition of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (ed. Edward Cone), p. 282:

From Mendelssohn (a letter to his mothr dated March 15, 1831:
"And when you see the composer himself, that friendly, quiet, meditative person, calmly and assuredly going his way, never for a moment in doubt of his vocation, unable to listen to any outside voice, since he wishes to follow only his inner inspiration, when you see how keenly and correctly he evaluates and recognizes everything, yet is in complete darkness about himself--it is unspeakably dreadful, and I cannot express how deeply the sight of him depresses me. I have not been able to work for two days."

Aaron Copland (from "Berlioz Today," in
Copland on Music, 1960--the article 1st appeared in 1960.) The passage in question appears on p. 298 of the Norton Critical Edition:

"Berlioz was undoubtedly influenced by Beethoven's evocation of nature, but his special genius led to the introduction of what amounted to a new genre--the theatric-symphonic--and there was nothing tentative about the introduction."

Now compare a famous definition of style given by George Bernard Shaw. I have found a web reference to it but have not yet tracked down the original published source:


The nature of Handel's music is confident, deft in drama and characterization, and directly expressive. In terms of Baroque style, which focuses on establishing a single affects per movement of a work, Handel's genius is unquestioned, although by later standards his works are sometimes seem lengthy through repetitive insistence on basic musical ideas.

Although it was written in the bad old days when only a few of Handel's works were known, words by George Bernard Shaw remain one of the greatest tributes to Handel's genius and insightful penetrations of the essence of Handel's style:

It was from Handel that I learned that style consists in force of assertion. If you can say a thing with one stroke unanswerably you have style; if not, you are at best a marchand de plaisir; a decorative litterateur, or a musical confectioner, or a painter of fans with cupids and cocottes. Handel has this power. When he sets the words "Fixed in his everlasting seat," the atheist is struck dumb; God is there, fixed in his everlasting seat by Handel, even if you live in an Avenue Paul Bert and despise such superstitions. You may despise what you like, but you cannot contradict Handel. All the sermons of Bossuet could not convince Grimm that God existed. The four bars in which Handel finally affirms "the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace," would have struck Grimm into the gutter, as by a thunderbolt. When he tells you that when the Israelites went out of Egypt, "there was not one feeble person in all their tribes," it is utterly useless for you to plead that there must have been at least one case of influenza. Handel will not have it: "There was not one, not one feeble person in all their tribes," and the orchestra repeats it in curt, smashing chords that leave you speechless

heinrich schenker, miles davis, & technical knowledge

Here is a passage from Heinrich Schenker, included in the Norton Critical edition of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (ed. Elliot Forbes), p.171. (Original source is Der Tonwille, I (1921) (27-37).

"How happy the listener would be if he could share with the master his long-range hearing, and tgavel and soar with him over distant paths! If only he could! Then his fear that better hearing might encroach somewhat on his pleasure would give way to rapture."

And here is a quote from Miles Davis's Autobiography [full cite to
be added--I believe the page is 61]:

"Another thing I found strange after living and playing in New York was that a lot of black musicians didn’t know anything about music theory. Bud Powell was one of the few musicians I knew who could play, write and read all kinds of music. A lot of the old guys thought that if you went to school it would make you play like you were white. Or, if you learned something from theory, you would lose the feeling in your playing. I couldn’t believe that all them guys like Bird, Prez, Bean [Coleman Hawkins], all them cats wouldn’t go to museums or libraries and borrow those musical scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky. Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery, and I just couldn’t believe someone could be that close to freedom and not take advantage of it. I have never understood why black people didn’t take advantage of all the shit they can. It’s like a ghetto mentality telling people they aren’t supposed to do certain things, that those things are only reserved for white people.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Berlioz, "Bloksberg scene" in Goethe's Faust

This reference, which puzzled me, appears on p. 65 of Berlioz's book, "A Critical Study of Beethoven's symphonies."
Here is a site that offers an explanation:


Goethe made an intensive study of magic and witchcraft, and his classical scene of the Walpurgisnacht in Faust has done much to immortalise his 'divine comedy'. That Goethe studied the original of the Bloksberg Tryst is almost certain, as several correspondences between the old MS. and the Walpurgisnacht are apparent.

(The Walpurgisnacht scene is a famous depiction of a sexual orgy, staged to tempt Faust--the only thing I understood in a performance of Faust, Part 1, that I saw years ago in Austria. Below is a short description.)

The temptations the devil offers Faust are three: gluttony, lust, and power. The carousing with students in Auerbach's pub in Leipzig . . . a traditional Faustus motif Goethe retained . . . only bores Faust, so Mephistopheles realizes he must resort to stronger stuff: sex. Here too there are three facets. Faust is tempted first with Gretchen, who represents the epitome of pure, innocent German maidenhood, then with raw lust at its most orgiastic in the Walpurgisnacht scene, when the devil holds his annual conclave with all his witches . . . a motif Goethe borrows from German folklore . . . and lastly with Helen of Troy, the epitome of classical beauty, whose shade Faust conjures up from Hades. Faust rejects the debauch with the witches; he is not so crude as to be gotten at by such means. But with Gretchen and Helen it is a different story, and Mephisto almost succeeds. "Almost" because it is not only lust that consumes Faust.

Monday, September 12, 2005

tovey, robert louis stevenson, and beethoven

Here (at least temporarily) is an excerpt from The Ebb Tide, a work that Tovey says
made the "destiny" theme of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony especially famous. According to the following website
The Ebb Tide was a novel written in 1894 (the year Stevenson died), condemning European colonialism. Tovey's reference to this work appears in the Norton Critical Edition of Beethoven's Fifth, p. 143.

EXCERPT FOLLOWS (I almost ended it at "Providence"!):


'Have a weed,' said Davis. 'It's all in the bill.'

'What is up?' asked Herrick.

The captain fell suddenly grave. 'I'm coming to that,' said he.
'I want to speak with Herrick here. You, Hay--or Huish, or
whatever your name is--you take a weed and the other bottle,
and go and see how the wind is down by the purao. I'll call you
when you're wanted!'

'Hay? Secrets? That ain't the ticket,' said Huish.

'Look here, my son,' said the captain, 'this is business, and
don't you make any mistake about it. If you're going to make
trouble, you can have it your own way and stop right here. Only
get the thing right: if Herrick and I go, we take the beer.

'Oh, I don't want to shove my oar in,' returned Huish. 'I'll
cut right enough. Give me the swipes. You can jaw till you're
blue in the face for what I care. I don't think it's the friendly
touch: that's all.' And he shambled grumbling out of the cell
into the staring sun.

The captain watched him clear of the courtyard; then turned
to Herrick.

'What is it?' asked Herrick thickly.

'I'll tell you,' said Davis. 'I want to consult you. It's a
chance we've got. What's that?' he cried, pointing to the music
on the wall.

'What?' said the other. 'Oh, that! It's music; it's a phrase of
Beethoven's I was writing up. It means Destiny knocking at the

'Does it?' said the captain, rather low; and he went near and
studied the inscription; 'and this French?' he asked, pointing to
the Latin.

'O, it just means I should have been luckier if I had died at
horne,' returned Herrick impatiently. 'What is this business?'

'Destiny knocking at the door,' repeated the captain; and
then, looking over his shoulder. 'Well, Mr Herrick, that's about
what it comes to,' he added.

'What do you mean? Explain yourself,' said Herrick.

But the captain was again staring at the music. 'About how
long ago since you wrote up this truck?' he asked.

'What does it matter?' exclaimed Herrick. 'I dare say half an

'My God, it's strange!' cried Davis. 'There's some men would
call that accidental: not me. That--' and he drew his thick
finger under the music--'that's what I call Providence.'

'You said we had a chance,' said Herrick.

'Yes, SIR!' said the captain, wheeling suddenly face to face
with his companion. 'I did so. If you're the man I take you for,
we have a chance.'

'I don't know what you take me for,' was the reply. 'You can
scarce take me too low.'

'Shake hands, Mr Herrick,' said the captain. 'I know you.
You're a gentleman and a man of spirit. I didn't want to speak
before that bummer there; you'll see why. But to you I'll rip it
right out. I got a ship.'

'A ship?' cried Herrick. 'What ship?'

'That schooner we saw this morning off the passage.'

'The schooner with the hospital flag?'

'That's the hooker,' said Davis. 'She's the Farallone, hundred
and sixty tons register, out of 'Frisco for Sydney, in California

Sunday, September 11, 2005



A few of you have apologized privately to me for the limited state of your musical expertise, especially in the domain of reading music. These confessions have set me thinking about the role that musical literacy actually played in the writings on Western art music—a written musical tradition—that you will be reading in the coming weeks.

All of the writers in question were (or are) professional men of music. The adjacency of the two terms “professional” and “men” here is not a mere happenstance. Although music-making of a kind that required musical literacy—especially piano playing—spread rapidly and widely through middle-class Europe during the nineteenth century, and although woman played a dominating role in both the performance and the ethos connected with this movement, women music-makers during this century were overwhelmingly amateurs. Their musical domain was the home. The critics whose ideas about music found their way into print were overwhelmingly men with a professional expertise in music. Their professions required of them a highly developed ability to read scores: composers, conductors, analysts.

This ability had a practical importance to critics in the 19th century, when a score was sometimes easier to come by than a live performance, and when opportunities to rehear the music of a performance could be very scarce. If a critic could put his hands on a score, and if he could decipher that score, he had a lasting, albeit abstract, foundation on which to build and test his written observations.

On the other hand, scores could be difficult to come by, especially if the music in question was written for an orchestra. Orchestral scores were expensive to publish and had a limited public. (Orchestral players themselves, of course, performed from parts, not from scores.) Far more common were reductions of orchestral works for 2- or 4-hand piano. Many amateurs could indeed perform such reductions; it was precisely for amateurs that such reductions were printed. And the availability of such playable reductions gave critics something akin to today’s recordings: a way to re-hear previous music. But obviously such reductions could not convey more than a portion of an original orchestral experience. To use them effectively as a basis for writing criticism, a critic needed either to have listened carefully at some earlier time to a full orchestral performance of a piece; to possess an exceptional ability to imagine the full range of effects to which a piano reduction pointed; or both.

But even when a writer had everything possible that could put a given piece of music in his ears—a carefully observed performance and an adequate score—questions still arise about the relationship between the critic’s literacy in music and his effectiveness as a critic. In what ways, and to what extent, did his ability to read music serve his writing about music? And above all, to what extent did the most effective aspects of his writing depend on musical literacy?

In the weeks to come, I hope you will give some attention to specific ways in which score-reading played a role in the criticisms you read. You could start by asking yourself, for example, whether the questions that seem to interest a given writer most passionately are in fact questions that require attention to a score; and whether the ability to read a score in fact provides a given writer with a useful authority in an exploration of issues that are not related to the score. To these two questions, I suspect you will be able to add many others of your own.