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.
Why, then, is the stage direction so ignorant concerning Russian life in the time of Pushkin’s verse novel? This is not to say that the staging of period-piece operas must be historically accurate in every detail of setting and behavior; but in Onegin the story depends on the verisimilitude of decors and decorum. The latter is the more important and the more difficult to attain, since, for one thing, the time structure of the opera is often at loggerheads with that of the poem. Thus in Pushkin, at Tatyana’s name’s day party, Lenski departs almost immediately after the quarrel with Onegin, and Onegin himself only a little later. In the opera, however, the composer has had to expand the scene and keep the antagonists on stage long enough to give the episode musical form. The result is not only melodramatic, but it also contradicts the code of conduct for men of Lenski’s and Onegin’s social position. In the garden scene, the Metropolitan’s Onegin, oblivious of the qualities and manners of Pushkin’s impeccable Byronic dandy, places Tatyana’s letter by her side with all of the graciousness of a bill collector.
As for the tableaux—Tchaikovsky’s modest subtitle for the opera—the Larina house, though provincial, should not resemble a poor dacha, as it does here. In the opening scene, Lenski and Onegin arrive at the Larinas’, dressed for a stroll on Nevsky Prospect, though apparently having walked the verst or more from Lenski’s country estate. Needless to say, Pushkin’s descriptions of clothing—of Tatyana’s velvet beret at the Petersburg ball, for instance—are largely disregarded.
Tchaikovsky recognized that the poem “does not give scope to a full operatic treatment,” yet believed that “the richness of the poetry, the simple, human subject…will compensate for whatever it lacks in other ways.” But one of the least necessary ingredients for an opera is rich poetry, which can be an obstacle to dramatic action and is in any case transformed by the music. To cast a narrative poem in an operatic mold seems to be possible only by resorting, as Wagner did, to declamation. Onegin is especially resistant, and additionally handicapped by its own institutional status as the best-known poem in the language. Tchaikovsky, identifying with people and situations in the story, hoped to compose music that would portray Tatyana’s feelings. He managed to fashion a workable if very imperfect libretto incorporating a high proportion of Pushkin’s immortal lines. The fault is not in the language of the libretto but in the nature of the operatic medium, which cannot accommodate the psychology and the sophistication of the poem. Tatyana is altogether too inward for Tchaikovsky’s temperament and talents.
Tchaikovsky was deeply mistaken in his notion that Pushkin’s “simple, human subject” would compensate for what the poem “lacks in other ways….” In fact the opera’s insufficiencies lie in the limitations of music, not of the poem—an unusual case, since in other operas the music says so much more than the words. Vladimir Nabokov complains that
the long-drawn and dejected tone of the musical phrase Nachryom pozhaluy (“Yes, if you like, let’s start”), given to the tenor…makes a whining weakling of Pushkin’s virile Lenski….
The criticism is justified, and, in general, Nabokov’s analysis of the poem demonstrates that Pushkin’s people are beyond operatic characterization. For one other example, Lenski, before the duel, is in a trance-like, absent, psychologically complex state, but, from his aria, even though it is the high point of the opera, the audience is aware of no more than the two-way emotional pull.
Nabokov maintains that Pushkin did not really achieve his purpose of showing that Tatyana’s decision to remain with her husband was irrevocable; her ambivalence is rendered by verbal means:
Her answer to Onegin does not at all ring with sure dignified finality, as commentators have supposed it to do. Mark the intonations in XLVII, the heaving breast, the broken speech, the anguished, poignant, palpitating, almost enchanting, almost voluptuous, almost alluring enjambments (1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6, 6-7, 8-9, 10-11), a veritable orgy of run-ons, culminating in a confession of love that must have made Eugene’s experienced heart leap with joy.
What the Metropolitan offers here is a maudlin Onegin slumping to his knees and a Tatyana assuming stock firm-of-purpose poses, then departing after the standard backward look from the doorway.
But in the opera, the final scene is superfluous, having been obviated in the previous one by Tatyana’s husband’s aria (for which there is no parallel in Pushkin). This piece describes the happiness of the marriage in a way that convinces the audience and should convince Onegin that Tatyana would never abandon her spouse, who, furthermore, though he is only slightly older than Onegin, is presented at the Metropolitan as elderly, and hence more vulnerable. Tchaikovsky’s reasons for interpolating the aria are valid, since the husband had to be given some reality, but the subsequent scene is an anticlimax.
“In the opera…everything…insults Pushkin’s masterpiece,” Nabokov writes, with some exaggeration and insufficient illustration, since Tchaikovsky’s copy of the poem, with his alterations, adaptations, and comments, might well have been included among the appendices to Nabokov’s edition of it. The composer’s annotations are especially valuable as a warning of the countless hazards in attempting to adapt a work of art from one medium to another.
October 24. At a New York memorial service for Robert Lowell, two pieces by Schubert were performed, and the next day’s Times (September 27) reported that Schubert was the poet’s “favorite composer.” Mine too, almost, though he continues to provoke more bad literature than any other musician.
“Schubert is the…most misunderstood among the great composers,” Joseph Wechsberg contends in a new, lavishly illustrated biography3 that adds substantially to the incomprehension. “Schubert’s music crosses national boundaries,” Mr. Wechsberg explains, but on the perennial problem whether the “Great” Symphony in C major was written three years before the accepted date and can be identified with the legendary “Gastein,” he simply reviews the arguments of John Reed4 and others—that the exuberant dance symphony does not belong in the sequence of Schubert’s last works—and proclaims that the time of composition is unimportant. On Winterreise, Mr. Wechsberg writes that
at a time when most people, sick and depressed, retire into silence and despair, Schubert’s melodic invention was at its zenith.
But do most people, however ailing, retire into silence at the age of thirty?
No less befuddled by Schubert’s music, Mr. Wechsberg states that “some elements astonish the unrestricted theorist”—whatever that may be, but perhaps it is the biographer himself, since he alludes to a
musical scale—both in the classical sense and in the meaning of Schoenberg’s twelve semitones…
even though the twelve “tones” (none of them semi) of Schubert’s and Schoenberg’s scale are the same. Mr. Wechsberg further says that the G major Quartet was “written in ten days,” and “is almost an orchestral work, with unison passages….” But unisons are rare in orchestral music, and never characteristic, of it, and while the fair copy of the Quartet manuscript is inscribed “June 20-30, 1826,” the music was surely in gestation for longer than that. Schubert mentions it in a letter more than two years earlier, and clearly this most carefully constructed and unified of his larger creations occupied his mind for an extended period. The absence of sketches does not mean that he made none.
Mr. Wechsberg’s book is no worse, or not much worse, than countless others that, in Schubert’s case, have been substituted for criticism. Practically all of them, even those by such veteran performers as Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore,5 are written in the same lachrymose style, and all seem to share the assumption that because Schubert’s music is “spontaneous” its creation did not involve intellectual processes. Thus John Reed writes that the first movement of the G major Quartet “seems a little too cerebral to rank as quintessential Schubert”—as if the B minor Symphony and the B flat Sonata were not the products of a very high level of cerebration, no matter how “directly from the heart” the music seems to flow.
Even Donald Tovey, who was among the first to isolate and define the features of Schubert’s musical language, is sometimes mistaken about it, as when he describes the first movement of the B flat Sonata as descending
from the sublime to the picturesque, and then drifting from the picturesque through prettiness to a garrulous frivolity.
Nor does this misrepresent Tovey, for he repeatedly asserts that
Two great movements notorious for their redundancy and diffuseness are the first movements of the Quartet in G and the first movement of the Sonata in B flat…. In both of them, the whole interest converges upon the return to what is called the “first subject.”
By no means the “whole interest,” and few musicians today would call the two first movements diffuse and redundant. As for Tovey’s judgment that Schubert’s symphonies before the Great C major and the Unfinished are “written in a kind of stiff Mozartian style,” this is grotesque, especially in the case of the Fourth. Finally, the statement that “Schubert did not live to produce late [works]” exposes a false perspective, shared by many and originating in Grillparzer’s epitaph for the composer, “Music here interred a rich possession / But far fairer hopes still”—or the promise was greater than the achievement.
But what could be a “fairer hope” than the B flat Sonata, and is it not possible to compose late works and also die young? Tovey’s sentiments obviously derive from his habit of comparing Beethoven’s development with Schubert’s at the same age, and such sentences as “It is impossible to set limits to what [Schubert] might have achieved in a longer life” clearly refer to Beethoven. Yet Schubert’s last works are “late,” in the sense corresponding to “late” Beethoven, and according to such criteria as the composers’ recognition of the primary importance of musical architecture, and their increasing harmonic boldness. Furthermore, Schubert’s Quintet and last sonatas are the creations of a man who knew he was dying. If the road from Winterreise (1827) leads directly to the grave, so, in like manner, are Schubert’s other final masterpieces valedictions. The Unfinished Symphony, after all, was not the “inchoate,” and Schubert’s was a life fulfilled.
Tovey, nonetheless, was the first musician to make us aware of some of the main characteristics of Schubert’s art, as well as to show that the spontaneity of the songs, a quality that could survive three and four rewritings, was the result of hard mental labor. Tovey understood that
[Schubert] knows how far the true balance is to be obtained by plain recapitulation and how far the harmonies must be recast;
Schubert’s strange event is usually the beginning of his second subject in a quite unexpected key, remote from that in which it is to continue;
in large forms…Schubert handled with supreme mastery the return of a main theme…among the most wonderful feats of draftsmanship in all music;
if you make your first external modulation to the subdominant…you deprive your movement of all forward energy and indicate at once that your intention is lyrical and reposeful. The cheeky and voluminous finale of Schubert’s early Forellenquintet contradicts this; but it is evidence only of its own effrontery.
And Tovey is especially perspicacious on the subject of parallel harmonic maneuvers in Schubert and Beethoven, pointing out, for instance, that the theme of the finale of the younger man’s B flat Sonata “persistently starts in the supertonic,” as is the case in the last movement of Beethoven’s Quartet, Op. 130. And in a homily on “plain juxtaposition” as a means of modulation, and “the most important of all,” Tovey wisely observes that while lesser composers “are afraid of it and must interpolate explanatory chords,”
Beethoven…simply begins on the dazzling new tonic chord;…Schubert (following the example of Beethoven’s Op. 106)…does likewise.
Finally, in at least one regard, Tovey’s picture of Schubert as a composer of songs is more convincing than that of Joseph Kerman. “Was it, too,” Mr. Kerman asks,
that Schubert’s own phenomenal spontaneity as a creative artist pre-disposed him to take the work of other artists [Schubert’s poets] as absolutely natural and true?
But surely this underestimates not only. Schubert’s skepticism but also his demonstrable critical intelligence. Mr. Kerman continues:
Schubert believed poems about the early violet who wilts awaiting her bridegroom; poems about God’s trombones in the hurricane…carefree butterflies and ominous ravens…. Only this boundless capacity for belief, obviously, enabled him to write songs in such numbers and of such variety….
Schubert cannot make us believe all this poetry, but the power of his own belief is at the heart of his power as an artist.
Whether this means that Schubert’s “power as an artist” is in his belief (not shared by us) in certain poems is not clear. What Schubert did believe in, of course, was music. But is his “belief” in the poems he set really the question at issue?
“In the case of a great composer,” Tovey writes, referring to Schubert,
the ideas of poetry flash into [his] mind and translate themselves into his own forms and language…. [Schubert sought] verses into which he could read both poetry and form.
This is at least a plausible description of the beginnings of a Schubert song, more so than that of a naïve belief in a poem about the “early violet who wilts while awaiting her bridegroom.” (Actually, the violet dies because she does not await her bridegroom but appears too soon.) And is Schubert’s genius lessened if we take a more pragmatic view of him as a composer to whom a poem suggested structural ideas in his ow art, as well as melodic designs, accompaniment figurations, possibilities of contrast, a musical epiphany?
Neither Tovey nor Kerman devotes any space to such performance problems as the execution of the rhythm $$$ in predominantly triplet passages, yet Artur Rubinstein, for one, has recorded the last movement of the B flat Sonata wrongly attempting to distinguish the dotted figure from $$$, $$$. Another matter in need of study is the interchanging of male and female voices. The astonishingly Wagnerian Der Zwerg, for instance, depends for its full effect on the octaves between the voice and the bass of the accompaniment, which disappear when performed by a male singer. Mr. Kerman’s fields of expertise are more numerous than those of any other leading musicologist, and he should give performing artists, as well as scholars, the benefit of his knowledge and intelligence.
November 24, 1977
The New York Times, May 1961. ↩
The Lessons of Modernism, by Gabriel Josipovici (Rowman & Littlefield, 1977). ↩
Schubert His Life His Work His Times (Rizzoli, New York, 1977, 224 pp., $18.50). ↩
Schubert: The Final Years (London: Faber, 1972). ↩
See Joseph Kerman’s “Follow the Lieder,” The New York Review, August 4. ↩