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On Playing Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto

July 21, 1977, Venice. Astrology, whose influence began to decline with Copernicus, lost every vestige of intellectual respectability with Newton, was derided in the nineteenth century as a medieval superstition, is now taught in universities, packaged and sold to the masses, held in the highest esteem by avantgarde artists. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sirius, for example, employs a musical system correlated to the zodiac, and his statements about this have attracted world attention, partly through his numerous disciples—who seem younger each year, no doubt because they replace disaffected older ones. In an interview (Le Monde, July 21), he explains the “new panthematicism” that he has evolved, “resulting from all the parameters of sound,” and compares this to the limited thematic treatment of

Schoenberg [who] returned to monothematic serial music, and Webern [who] reduced this to two or three intervals in a series of twelve pitches, the others being reversals, inversions, cancrizans. In my series, I always meant to use all of the intervals possible, with their vast riches, and to develop the series in expansion. For contrast I employ microtonal intervals, and instead of limiting myself to fifths, minor-thirds, and so on, enter into the realm of the microscopic, acoustically speaking. This has become a possibility only with the advent of synthesizers.

Thus far no argument. Then Stockhausen explains his goal:

Above all, I think that fantastic discoveries in perspective are ahead, and I dream of the apparatus which will finally give us the possibility of making sounds travel. Think of a sound crossing your nose, of a sound that stops in front of you, that circles your body, that passes back and forth in front of you at varying speeds…. Music, when it becomes truly mobile, will give us new experiences.

But who wants a sound to traverse his nose, or to stop in front of him? And would this really be music, or an experiment in physics? Perhaps some future technological genius will master Stockhausen’s “unlimited resources” and give birth to a new aural art. But Stockhausen’s estimate concerning his own career—“it would take ten lifetimes to accomplish my objectives”—is not promising, and when he claims that it would require “fifty musicologists, each one working for a year, to analyze the labyrinth of polyphonic relations in Sirius,” are we not justified in asking whether the result is worth the effort?

July 24, the Fenice. A matinee concert, with Mozart’s second symphony, K. 19, conducted by Aldo Ceccato. What impresses in this creation of an eight-year-old is the command of form. Moreover, the piece is perfect in itself, in the sense that we do not listen to it for anticipations and foreshadowings, as the case would be with the earliest works of other composers. One wonders if the thought occurred to Leopold Mozart that his position was the opposite of that of J.S. Bach, i.e., as if one of Bach’s sons were to beget Johann Sebastian?

July 27, Glyndebourne. The production of The Rake’s Progress is dominated, stunningly, by David Hockney’s sets and costumes, a rare instance of an opera’s decorative dimensions determining the perspectives of the audience, here conditioned the moment it enters the theater. Hockney has replaced the curtain with a drop that suggests an illustration in a book of nursery rhymes; a man stands in an upright position as well as in eight successive, clockwise, falling ones, ending upside down. This picture also serves as a program, giving the names of Hogarth, Stravinsky, Auden and Kallman, John Cox (the director), Bernard Haitink (the conductor), and Hockney, while the remaining space is filled with doodles, squares, numbers, a tic-tac-toe board, engravers’ lines, a misspelled word corrected. Clearly Hockney enjoyed himself with his ruler, and his amusement is infectious.

But the drop is also a frame for the individual scenes, being lowered between them, and this interrupts the developing mood. In fact these unwritten intermissions become the performance’s most serious fault, for the theater quickly fills with the chatter of the Sussex squirearchy, and beautiful transitions such as the one from string chords to woodwind trio are completely covered. At the end of scene one, after Shadow’s line, “The Progress of a Rake begins,” nothing does for several minutes, during which latecomers are seated.

The chief difference between the Glyndebourne Rake and that of Ingmar Bergman (1961) derives from the Swedish director’s distinction that

between an artistic moralist, Hogarth, and a religious moralist, Stravinsky, there is a heaven’s distance.1

Accordingly, Bergman emphasized the supernatural and diabolical, and his Nick Shadow was present even at times when the libretto neither required nor warranted him to be. Bergman’s Auctioneer resembled a pastor, too, the crowd his congregation, and, not surprisingly, the graveyard scene, with three looming shapes gradually emerging as church spires, proved to be the most powerful in the production. The same scene at Glyndebourne is comparatively weak, or, at any rate, not the climax that it should be, and this is only partly attributable to the very limited histrionic abilities of the singers. The underlying reason why Shadow’s descent into Hell fails to strike terror here is that he is not the real Devil but only a storybook one.

The Glyndebourne stage is shallow, the scale small, the performance intimate. Stravinsky would have liked these proportions, as well as the clear, pure singing of the Anne, and the even tone, distinct articulation, and absence of heroics in the Rakewell, especially in his final scene. For Bergman, at the other extreme, even the large stage of Stockholm’s Royal Opera was too small, for which reason he opened up the wings and the back, extended the apron over the orchestra pit, and placed the offstage singers in a loge. The effects obtained by this increased depth were both cinematographic and skiagraphic, as when the actors were momentarily frozen in silhouette before dissolving into darkness.

The Glyndebourne performance follows Bergman’s two-act division, which was also Stravinsky’s, immediately after the world premiere (letter to Chester Kallman, January 31, 1952); the dramatic line is stronger and the apportioning of the music more balanced when the first half of the opera concludes with the unveiling of Baba, the bearded lady. (Didn’t Auden know that this is a man‘s name?) At Glyndebourne, moreover, Shadow holds up the broadsheet of Baba for the audience as well as Rakewell to see, after which the picture hangs on the wall. Auden would have objected to this, insisting that the revelation be saved until just before the curtain, and Stravinsky would have conceded, even though he feared an ambiguous emotional response if the audience were not already in on the secret.

Once or twice the horizontality of Hockney’s continuing motif of black and white engraving lines threatens to disorient the viewer, but the idea is always wittily introduced—in striped stockings, for example—and colors are enhanced. Thus the Auctioneer’s green suit is all the more vivid because the bidders wear black and their faces are whitened, eerily, with greasepaint. No less memorable is Mother Goose’s scarlet wig, but the whole of the brothel scene is superbly staged, and, perhaps for the first time, Mother Goose, a brief part vocally but an important role, receives deserved prominence. She is alone with Rakewell and Shadow during the catechism, the whores and their clients having been retired to cubicles, which helps the audience to focus on the opera’s formal philosophy. Furthermore, she claims Rakewell for her “prize” while enthroned on a vast, center-stage bed, where he is undressed at her feet by attendant “roaring boys,” and where the unholy rites are consummated in full view, so to speak.

The production is also notable for the control of moods between Rakewell’s death and the Epilogue, achieved by the simple expedient of not allowing him to complete his dying. As he approaches his pallet and final moment, the drop starts to descend; when it reaches his height, he turns to the audience, walks to the footlights, and is joined by the others in the Epilogue ensemble, the drop coming down behind them. The pause between the Death March and the fast tempo, moral-drawing quintet is perfectly timed, the audience is not jolted, nor is the music mixed with tentative applause. In addition, the Epilogue is acted, turned into a playlet, the singers bowing to each other as well as to the spectators, and a finale that sometimes seems too long is exactly right.

The Bedlam scene at Glyndebourne lacks movement, the Minuet demanding dance, the “Tread softly round his bier” a procession, the Lullaby a change in the position of the chorus at each verse. But Hockney has provided brilliant compensations, masking the madmen-like fantasy creatures in Bosch and isolating each inmate in a witness box, or cell, for,

having been betrayed by love as Rakewell has, he can only find it again, and unfulfilled, in madness…. And madness, unlike love, cannot be shared.2

September 18, New York. I spend the evening with George Balanchine listening to Vivaldi concerti, four or five of which are being considered for a dance suite. Mr. B. seldom approves the tempi of the recorded performances, complaining, for instance, that the beat in a three-meter finale is too fast, and insisting that the movement is a minuet. He chooses the “Santo Sepolcro” Sinfonia for the centerpiece of the projected ballet, but what truly excites him is a concerto for piccolo:

Both the music and the instrument, which simply whistles, are so clean and unsentimental that they make you hate the greasy flute of Debussy.

I tell him that at Diaghilev’s tomb this summer a toe shoe had been placed beneath the cupola, like an offering on an altar, but that this slipper had become waterlogged and moldy, seeming to symbolize the death rather than the life of the dance. I also say that a newly discovered telegram from Stravinsky in Nice to Diaghilev in Monte Carlo, January 21, 1928, invites the impresario to “come with Balanchine tomorrow at four,” and ask if he has any recollections of the composer playing the just completed Apollo at that time. Mr. B. remembers the occasion clearly and some others as well:

Stravinsky read the score at the piano, repeating the tempi over and over for me. Diaghilev later changed them, but he never understood the music…. And, though nobody will believe me, Diaghilev did not know anything about dancing. His real interest in ballet was sexual. He could not bear the sight of Danilova and would say to me, “Her tits make me want to vomit.” Once when I was standing next to him at a rehearsal for Apollo, he said “How beautiful.” I agreed, thinking that he was referring to the music, but he quickly corrected me: “No, no. I mean Lifar’s ass: it is like a rose.”

October 15. Balanchine’s superior staging of Eugene Onegin in Hamburg constantly comes to mind during tonight’s revival by the Metropolitan of its twenty-year-old production of the opera, a spiritless performance, on the whole, in which the only evidence of progress is that in 1957 the opera was sung in bad English, in 1977 in reasonably good Russian, indicating that the language is now acceptable to American opera and concert audiences.

  1. 1

    Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden; Südwest Rundfunk Orchestra, Michael Gielen (Turnabout, TV 4051/TV 34051). The new recording will be released next year by Philips.

  2. 2

    See Walter B. Bailey: “Oscar Levant and the Program for Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto,” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1982), pp. 56–79. Above all, I am deeply indebted to Leonard Stein who, over many years, has been an invaluable, and generous, source of enlightenment.

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