In any case, George Grosz had swung himself quite out of the orbit of the great European central Paris market, which had operated with such shrewdness and assiduity in building up Picasso and the rest. It seems to me that he and Chelishchev—and please don’t spell it Tchelitchew, though he let it go that way himself: he said that he did not sign his pictures, nobody else could have painted them—Chelishchev and George Grosz, it seems to me, were always at a disadvantage in not belonging to the Paris club. Chelishchev was a brilliant painter, who began as something of an imitator of Picasso but arrived at an originality less extraverted rather morbid but extremely imaginative—with his pathetic gallery of freaks, his trees that turn into children and his anatomical paintings of desquamated human heads, all in queer iridescent harlequin colors that it seems to me no one but a Russian, with a Russian’s love of gorgeousness and lack of chastened taste, would ever have thought of combining. And there is a Russian ingenuity that goes with these rather garishly assorted colors. Those deceptive paintings of Chelishchev that seem to be trees or portraits but turn out to conceal other things have a kinship with the novels of Nabokov, who loves to perform the same kind of tricks, and to juxtapose gemmy colors, as both are very much in the tradition of the precious mechanical peacock that Catherine the Great gave Potyomkin and those very fancy Easter eggs that rich Russians used to order from Fabergé. I suppose there’s something Byzantine about it. The many-colored vestments of the old Greek Orthodox Church, with their Fabergé gold and silver, make the same sort of impression on me. It may well be that Pavel Chelishchev was actually, as he seemed to believe, the greatest Russian painter since the ikon-makers. He used to say that Peter the Great had destroyed the tradition of Russian painting by putting the ikon-makers out of business, and that he had been appointed to revive it. In any case, Chelishchev, like George Grosz, came to the United States, and neither of them has ever attained to the same international currency as the members of the organized surrealist group, all of whom it seems to me—unless Dali—were very much inferior to them. But they did not belong to a group and were never the darlings of the dealers.
The Visitor: I should imagine that you don’t care much for abstract painting.
Wilson: In the matter of the abstract painters, I have only a coarse jest: they might be useful as designers of linoleum if they were capable of the necessary discipline.
The Visitor: You were speaking of Kurt Weill. Have you similar prejudices in music?
Wilson: I’m afraid that my taste in music is influenced as much by my interest in the drama as my interest in the graphic arts is influenced by their literary content. To me, such composers as Verdi and Wagner are primarily great dramatists, and I have had a good deal of pleasure in getting complete recordings of their operas and following their libretti line by line, which since I’m not able to read the scores and since you can’t really follow them in the opera house, I’ve never been able to do before. Also, Boris Godunov. When I first saw it at the Metropolitan and tried to make sense of the Italian libretto, I couldn’t understand what it was all about. It was only when I read Pushkin’s play and got to know more about Russia that I could see how terrifically dramatic it was. Musorgsky’s libretto, which I had never seen till I got a recent Soviet recording, is one of the best ever written. Musorgsky wrote this himself. He based it on Pushkin’s tragedy—which is not one of his most successful works: an attempt to write a Russian Macbeth—and converted it into a masterpiece. He added elements from Russian folk music—like the ballad of the Siege of Kazan. The Soviet version has restored it to Musorgsky’s original arrangement. The Idiot is given his proper importance in the scene where he says to Boris: “The nasty boys took my kopek. Give orders to have their throats cut as you cut the little Tsarevich’s throat”; and then he reappears at the end. They sometimes in Western productions have it end with the death of Boris, but this is all wrong. Musorgsky had made it end with the army of the rebellion marching off and the Idiot left behind, sitting alone on the stage, as the snow begins to fall. He sings again his ominous song that he has sung after his scene with Boris:
Flow, flow, bitter tears
Weep, weep, Christian souls.
Soon the darkness will fall,
A darkness extremely dark,
Which we shall not be able to see through.
Woe, Woe, Russia.
Weep, Russian people,
—with its little twitching accompaniment—I hope you don’t mind my singing. This is one of the greatest moments in opera. (It could hardly have been done that way when Stalin was alive.) But everything in Musorgsky is dramatic. Compare the sound of the bells in Boris and in Khovanshchina—in the first, they are mocking at Boris, evidently making him uneasy, at the same time that they are celebrating his coronation; in the second, they are pounding an assertion of power. And the Songs and Dances of Death: the dialogue between Death and the mother of the dying child, with the spine-chilling voice of Death singing a lullaby while the mother grows more and more frantic, the peasant dying in the snowstorm while the voice of Death sings him the trepak.
The Visitor: How do you feel about contemporary opera?
Wilson: I very much admire Britten—though I am told by musical friends that I shouldn’t admire him so much.—He, too, has the dramatic sense to a degree that is very rare. The interludes in Peter Grimes that so intensify the drama of the action, the shadowy buildup of The Turn of the Screw, with its children’s voices and nursery jingles that are always made shadowy, too. Britten’s Turn of the Screw is altogether an original creation, quite distinct from Henry James’s story. Menotti of course, too, has the dramatic instinct highly developed; but he is sometimes more a man of the theater than a firstrate musical artist. Berg’s Wozzek and Lulu, too—though I’ve only heard the latter on records—are most effective in their creepy way. Lulu is a very strange performance. Berg sets out to turn into opera the whole of Frank Wedekind’s long play in two parts that deals with the destructive career of the simpleminded but irresistible “Erdgeist” Lulu, and through hours of grayest recitative the more or less repulsive characters discuss their sordid affairs, financial as well as artistic and amorous. The play itself is always in danger of becoming unintentionally funny—so it presents a considerable challenge—but Berg has put into it, it seems to me, more real pathos than Wedekind was capable of, and at the end the terrible shriek of the Jack the Ripper scene has been led up to with as much suspense and comes with as much horror as the murder of the wife in Wozzeck, with the ripples spreading out on the water when the murderer throws his knife into the pond. I wonder whether the monochrome of The Turn of the Screw—not particularly characteristic of Britten—doesn’t derive from the tonelessness of Wozzeck. The nursery rhymes of the children and the boy’s piano exercise are flattened and deprived of their melodic fulness like the song of the woman at the window and the military march in Wozzeck. It is all like a discolored photograph—very effective in its melancholy ghostly way, but it makes one long for something more ringing.
The Visitor: Have you heard Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron?
Wilson: Only on records, again. It is impressive, but, in spite of its leaning on Wagner, it did not seem to me very dramatic—though I’m told that the orgy of the Golden Calf, which needs a ballet, of course, is quite terrific on the stage. But what a disagreeable orgy, so full of reminders of death!—though this is, of course, just what Schoenberg intends. The Wagnerian romanticism that Schoenberg began with, as his later method developed, was reduced to more and more of a starvation diet; and I felt about Moses and Aaron that it was too moralistic and didactic—very much a lugubrious monologue of the somber and stern Jewish master, who is never to arrive in the Promised Land. Moses goes up on the mountain and is handed the laws of the twelve-tone row. It takes him some time to grasp them, and while he has been away, the people have been getting dissatisfied. They are longing to dance and to sing, and Aaron—who is somebody like Stravinsky or Bartók or Hindemith, who is weak enough to make use of melody—agrees to let them have their fun. At the end of the Golden Calf revelry, Moses comes down from the mountain and is deeply shocked by what has been going on. The Golden Calf vanishes, and the people complain that their joie de vivre has been taken from them. Moses rebukes Aaron, who has been disloyal to his leader by giving them “das Bild” and “das Wunder” instead of waiting for Moses to bring his “Gedanke,” which transcends these meretricious attractions. Aaron defends himself on the ground that ordinary people are only able to comprehend a part of the all-inclusive “Gedanke.” “Shall I debase der Gedanke?” cries Moses—that is, abandon the serial system. He smashes the Tables of the Law and begs God to relieve him of his mission. For the very queer and arrogant last scene, Schoenberg never wrote the music. His difficulties and doubts about it are shown in certain passages of his letters. It was as if he, too, had broken his tables, as if he, too, were becoming discouraged, were losing his grip on his mission. But he had written the libretto for this scene, and here Aaron-Stravinsky is brought in in chains, and Moses-Schoenberg bawls him out for stooping to please the people instead of consecrating his gifts to the Gottesgedanke. “Shall we kill him?” the soldiers ask. “No,” says Moses, “Set him free, and let him live if he can.” But Aaron is by this time so crushed by shame that when the soldiers release him, he falls down dead—which is not the case in the Bible, where he continues to co-operate with Moses and take orders directly from God.
The Visitor: What do you think of twelve-tone music in general?
Wilson: I can’t follow it, so I don’t really know. But I’ve found it reassuring to learn that accomplished musicians can’t follow it either—that is, simply to listen to it without a score. I was talking about it the other day with one of the most distinguished American conductors, and one who is particularly notable for his catholicity of taste. I asked in what way the serial system was an improvement on music that was simply atonal. He said that it had two advantages. One, that it gave to the analysts of scores and the writers of program notes more scope for their technical explaining and made their explaining more necessary; and Two, that a man like Schoenberg, so exacting and puritanical, having completely made hay of the conventional harmonies, felt constrained to impose on himself a difficult gratuitous discipline. Debussy had not felt the need of any such theoretical structure, and Webern, though he followed Schoenberg’s system, could have achieved his effects without it. But the serial system has, in any case, by this time become something of a cult. I’m told that in the schools of music, the Schoenberg technique is now so much the thing that the students have to withstand a strong pressure, and even to risk something like ostracism, if they don’t want to become twelve-toners. A friend of mine who has seen a good deal of these students tells me that it is almost like the pressure of a homosexual group—though he didn’t mean to imply that there was any connection between homosexuality and serial music. Except, of course, that they’re both culs de sac. It strikes me that—in America, at least—the composers are the most ingrown group of any in the major arts. Their audience is so limited, and it is almost as if, finding themselves doomed to this, they take pride in defying the neglect of them by making it more limited still. They feel safer in the Kafka-esque burrow of the dark and hidden twelve-tone row.
But I’m afraid that the Anglo-Saxons are no longer a musical people—though they seem to have been in the past. Shakespeare is full of music, and the poetry up through the 17th century continues to show the influence of music to a degree that you don’t find today. It may be that the Cromwellian attack on the Church and the theater and on gaiety in general blasted music so it never recovered. In any case, the Anglo-Saxon world has not for several centuries been musical. In Germany and Italy and Russia, the people were always singing and playing on some instrument or other. But I don’t think we have much music in us. Prokofiev, for example, may not have been a great composer, but he was certainly full of music. So was Richard Strauss, who was certainly not a great composer. We have no such composers as this. Of course our popular music is brilliant, and it goes all over the world. But a good deal of it has been derived from materials provided by the Negroes, with their supreme African sense of rhythm, and much of the best of it has been written by Jews. I don’t know why the Jews should be so musical. Perhaps they brought their love of music from Russia and the German-speaking countries, and they could cultivate music in the synagogue at a time when a Jew was not free to cultivate the plastic arts, and when his full self-expression in literature was still hampered by difficulties of language.
It seems to me, besides, that the problem of a market has affected non-popular music more perhaps than it has done even painting. Music is not a parasitic art, but in order really to flourish, it seems to need to be supported by some well-established institution that will enable it to reach a large audience: the theater, the Church, the dance. The symphony orchestras can keep it alive, but they cannot—even by way of recordings—make the music of the concert hall a part of the life of a people. The dramatic element is very important. Aside from church music and opera, you find that even in concert-hall music Beethoven was a one-man drama, as was Brahms in his quieter way, and Richard Strauss, when he was not doing operas, was composing his programmatic “tone-poems,” which could not be more theatrical. A Menotti can make money by writing for the stage, a Copland by writing for ballet or the movies, but a non-dramatic composer, unless he has private means, has to depend on grants from foundations or get a job in the music department of some university. How great would be Stravinsky’s reputation or how widely would his work be played, if he had not in his early career made connections with Dyagilev and been able to go on writing ballets all his life. His non-theatrical works are as delightful as everything else he writes but they are only very rarely played—you have to get them on records.
The Visitor: You do admire Stravinsky?
Wilson: Tremendously. Unlike Picasso, Stravinsky has meant a good deal to me—more than any other contemporary artist in any non-literary art. It is inspiring for any kind of craftsman to have the spectacle of such a sustained career—the artist always himself and always doing something different, but always doing everything intensely with economy, perfect craftsmanship and style—so different from Picasso’s diffuseness that sometimes seems almost mere doodling. Stravinsky has kept going through his eighties with such tireless pertinacity and vivacity that I feel he has helped me to keep going. I’m not in the least religious, but I think it’s significant and admirable that Stravinsky should begin every day with a prayer.
—Well, I guess that’s enough. When people get to talking about subjects that they don’t really know inside out, you are likely to get a combination of banalities, naivetés and what I love to have my critics call “gross blunders,” and I expect I’ve been guilty of all of them. I hope that I haven’t made Sem seem more important than Michelangelo—or given you the impression that I haven’t in the past very much admired Schoenberg.
The Visitor: Thank you very much.—Now, what doo yoo theenk of thees keend of myooseee?
A prolonged even whistle is heard.
Wilson: It doesn’t sound eeree or loopee enough for electronic myooseee.
The Visitor: Eelectroneee? Noo: Eelectrooloox—a keend of myooseee freequeentlee heerd een thee oordeenaree Amereereecan hoosehoold.
Wilson: Yes: eet soonds veeree fameeliar. Noo, tell mee, what are yoo going too call yoor magazeen?
The Visitor: The seem neem: Eelectroloox, and thee poorpose weel bee the seem.
Wilson: Woon’t yoo reeveel, pleese?
The Visitor: Eeee—eesee, eeesee does eet. Thees weel geeve yoo soom ideee of the keend of mateereeal that wee are hooping too coollect and preesent.
The sound suddenly ceases. Wilson awakes. The maid has stopped the vacuum cleaner in order to empty its contents.