Vidal in Venice, the book of the television script, is part pocket-history, part waiting-room art, part tourist guyed. But the best parts are those in which Vidal compares Venetian and American political systems and arrangements. Good, too, is the chapter on Thomas Coryate, the early seventeenth-century “Innocent Abroad,” England’s first of the breed. And special mention should be made of the photographs, excellent in themselves, well-positioned as illustrations of the text, and successful in avoiding the over-familiar subjects and angles of postcard veduti.
Both republics, the Venetian and American, were equipped with “checks and balances” to prevent usurpation by doges and presidents. Each one “made sure that it would never become a monarchy—or a democracy,” Vidal writes, adding that the heads of the two states were balanced and constrained by a senate, as well as, in Venice, by a Great Council and a Council of Ten, and, in the United States, by a House of Representatives and a Supreme Court. These parallels are no more watertight, of course, than Venetian ground floors, and Vidal is soon referring to the US “Acting President” as the “Emperor of the West,” and to his Venetian counterpart of the past as a figurehead without “personal power” who was “not allowed to govern in Venice.” But the similarity between the divisions of government does hold water, and so do the further characterizations of both states as essentially mercantile—and not religious or ideological—and as having “accepted as perfectly natural human greed.” The Venetian desire for “a state in which it was possible for those of good family to do well at business” would also apply to America, if people of bad family were included.
In view of the relative sizes of the two republics, the physical separation on the American side of the various branches and agencies is understandably at an opposite extreme from the Venetian, where the Doge’s Palace, “a single, unfortified building,” combined “White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA.” Radically different, too, are levels of performance. As “directors of intelligence and counter-intelligence,” the Venetians were incomparably more clever and economical than their American successors, and the book’s comparison between the efficiency of Venice’s Three Inquisitors, its spies and secret codes, its agents and assassins, and the bungling CIA, with its mammoth apparatus, is vintage Vidal. He does not say that Venetian plots to remove political and other enemies were not always top secret, as when the Senate in open session voted to sponsor a scheme to poison the Duke of Milan (see Millard Meiss’s Mantegna as Illuminator).
For a skipped heartbeat, in the chapter “The Turning of the Tide,” the reader fears that America’s most “mordant” moralist is about to become a merely conventional one: Vidal follows his discussion of Venetian courtesans, and of a scandal involving the relative of a Doge in a fight over one of them, with the observation: “Moral fiber was plainly weakening in the early 1500s.” Happily, the reference is to bribery, scams, the sale of noble titles and privileges, and the increase in corruption in both Church and State. Prostitutes were transformed into courtesans sometimes after the closing of the zoned Castelletto, when, too, thanks to growing international notoriety, the ranks of the profession multiplied. Vidal’s own visit to the Courtesans in the Museo Correr is sheathed in prophylactic wit:
A study of utter boredom…. The young boy [is] their bell-hop…. [The] elevated clogs are being aired prior to a promotional stroll through the Piazza.
If the weakest chapter is the one on the arts, it nevertheless diverts on the subject of correspondences between Renaissance painting and the movies:
When a major painter revealed his latest work, it was like a film premiere. Carpaccio was one of the most splendid of proto movie-makers…. [His] St. George is played by the Robert Redford of his day, while the dragon is handled by Steven Spielberg’s special effects department…
If Carpaccio was, let us say, the William Wyler of Venetian painting, Tintoretto was the Cecil B. DeMille. Tintoretto, like DeMille, was at his best with crowd scenes and fires. In his portrayal of St. Mark, the saint, in the guise of whom else but the marvelous Charlton Heston, swoops down from heaven…
Veronese, the Federico Fellini of his day,…was asked to paint the Last Supper. But the Inquisition complained about the result. [The title was changed to] The Feast in the House of Levi. That is how the picture was finally released.
To say that the Colleoni monument is “considered to be the finest [equestrian statue] since antiquity,” however, is to ignore the equally large claque for the Gattamelata. (Vidal tells us that Colleoni himself was said to have been over-endowed in genitalia, having as many testes as the balls on a pawnbroker’s sign.) It is certainly true that “Venice produced very little literature,” and it may also be true that Pasinetti (a UCLA professor when I knew him) is the city’s only major novelist. But literature in Venice did flourish in the theater, and Gozzi, Goldoni, and Lorenzo da Ponte merit at least a few words. (A related omission is that of Venice as one-time world capital of printing.)
Finally, Vidal writes that “an age of religious music had begun, with Gabrieli [which one?] and Monteverdi”; but Monteverdi’s importance in Venice is as a composer of operas. The art of Venetian mosaicists is barely mentioned, and perhaps should have been left out entirely: “As depicted in the mosaics of St. Mark’s Church, the body of St. Mark was smuggled into Venice from Alexandria in 829.” Yet “829” cannot be “depicted” and the furtiveness of the smugglers in the illustration suggests that the scene is the escape from Egypt, not the arrival in Italy.
In the acknowledgments to this volume commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Cocteau’s death, Peters describes him as “the first true multi-media artist.” The emphasis therefore is still on the diversity of Cocteau’s talents—Jean of all trades—rather than on his poetry.
The book includes handy, though overlapping, reference articles on Cocteau’s films, theater, and relationship to music by, respectively, Stephen Harvey, Neal Oxenhandler, and Ned Rorem. Dore Ashton’s more ambitious essay, “Intellectual Backdrop,” unintentionally reduces Cocteau to a peripheral figure simply by giving pride of priority to the Buñuel-Dali films,1 to Artaud’s theater, and to Surrealist painters. But one contribution deserves attention, Kenneth Silver’s “Jean Cocteau and the Image d’Epinal,” a study of the visual origins and references in Parade, the Satie-Cocteau-Picasso ballet, particularly since the work is receiving more exposure at present than ever before and was given this season by the Metropolitan Opera for a third year.
Mr. Silver sees Parade as a “parable of the travails of the avant-garde” vis-à-vis a disinterested public. His discussion of the piece is concerned not with its Cubist aspects, but with its example of popular culture rooted in childhood memories. The 1914 war provoked a revival of the three-centuries-old Epinal (Lorraine) prints. In contrast to the “documentary images” of photography, the brightly colored folkloric ones of Epinal proclaim moral and allegorical truths, and are stereotypical rather than specific—the mother-in-law, the cook, the policeman, the young married couple, and so on. Probably the best known of the series is the “Cris de Paris,” which Mr. Silver characterizes as the street vendor’s “visual lexicon.” Visually speaking, Parade is a transformed page from the “Cris de Paris,” as Mr. Silver demonstrates by tracing Picasso’s costume for the “Chinese Conjuror” to its Epinal origin—confirming, in the process, that the conception of the work was purely Cocteau’s.
A similar essay is overdue on the apparently unknown subject of Cocteau’s grand mastership in the Prieuré de Sion, a secret society resembling the Rosicrucians in its claims to ancient Egyptian origins. Cocteau’s predecessor in the order was Claude Debussy, whose biographers have concealed his connection with the brotherhood as successfully as have Cocteau’s. Mr. Peters, the editor of the book, refers to Cocteau’s drawings for murals in the Church of Notre Dame de France, Leicester Square, London, but does not say anything about the weird presentation of Prieuré de Sion symbols that resulted: the black sun with black rays, the Horus on a Roman shield, the huge rose beneath the crucified figure’s legs and feet—all that is visible of the body, though in any case the Christ is much less prominent than the portrait of Cocteau as donor. Mr. Peters says: “It was at Villefranche, in the chapel of St. Peter dedicated to simple fishermen, that Cocteau first began to decorate chapels.” In actuality Cocteau was embellishing churches near Lyon and in St. Mandrier twenty years earlier, in the summer of 1936.
Dore Ashton believes that Cocteau “came perilously close to becoming a Catholic doctrinaire.” Surely not doctrinaire, even in Catholicism. All the same, what did he mean by the line in Oedipus Rex, “L’autre côté de la mort“?
Recent books on Eliot continue to concentrate on the life rather than on the work, with the difference that “censorship” appears to have been relaxed, the scandal over Tom and Viv to have died down. Excerpts from unpublished letters and lectures are freely quoted here, and the dissenting views, including those of Harold Bloom’s psychoanalytics, are more than tokenly represented.
Among the thirty-odd contributions are substantial pieces of criticism, the most valuable of them Eliot’s own unpublished Dublin lecture of 1936, “Tradition and the Practice of Poetry,” with its focus on rhythm: “The great revolutions in poetry are revolutions in the sense of rhythm…. Wordsworth and Coleridge initiated a new age—not because their ideas were original, but because their rhythms were a departure from tradition.” In the writings of Eliot’s interpreters, a general increase of references to Mallarmé is conspicuous, along with an anachronistic tendency to connect him to the poems of the Prufrock period, when Eliot was protesting “the labored opacity of Mallarmé” as compared to “the prose of Rimbaud.” (Mallarmé, of course, would not have agreed that Rimbaud wrote prose: “Toutes les fois qu’il y a effort au style, il y a versification“; but no matter.)
In the first detailed account of Eliot’s unpublished thirty-eight-line dramatic monologue “The Love Song of Saint Sebastian” (1914), now in the Conrad Aiken Collection of the Huntington Library, Harvey Gross finds the poem revealing of Eliot’s sexuality. Gross describes the monologue as consisting of two stanzas, the first a masochistic (self-flagellating) episode, the second a complementary sadistic (strangling) one. Though the voice of the poem is presumably St. Sebastian’s, the fantasies of violence are those of the poet, and, Gross argues, they qualify more as case history than as art. The Sebastian that had most impressed Eliot was Mantegna’s in the Ca’ d’Oro, with, in Gross’s words, its “mixture of cruelty and erotic feeling” and “ecstasy of pain.” Both phrases provoke comment. First, the ecstasy is more certainly the experience of the susceptible voyeur than of Sebastian himself. Second, though eroticism is palpable in Mantegna’s depiction of flesh and loin drapery, surely the cruelty is negated by overkill—Sebastian as pincushion—and by the distractingly perfect aesthetic placement of the arrows.
Another essay, by Jewel Spears Brooker, refers to Eliot’s struggle “with the problem of celibacy” in the mid-1920s, but without noting that he actually took the Church vow (letter to Stead, Osborne Collection, Yale). That Eliot was only thirty-nine might suggest that he was making a virtue of necessity, but however that may be, the vow would have constituted a diriment impediment. Yet his marriage to Vivienne continued in name for five more years.
The one disappointment of the issue is that the “King Bolo” stanzas described by Aiken2 are not mentioned in any of the essays, though the healthy sexuality of these “rippling rimes,” as Eliot called them, would have provided the right contemporary contrast to the Saint Sebastian story. They should be copyrighted and collected with Eliot’s other verse, and not only for their rhythmic skill and inventive orthography: Bolo’s spouse had positive virtues. His
Kween (That prac
tickle Bacchante) Was always tidy fore and aft
Although her clo’es were scanty And when the
monarch & his men Went out to throw
the discuss The Kween sat by to rince her
Kwunt And Comb her Bellywhiskus
The most interesting of the reminiscences in the issue is Brand Blanshard’s account of his Christmas holiday with Eliot and a third Oxford companion, Karl Culpin, in 1914. Unfortunately Blanshard does not say that later, after Culpin was killed in the war, Eliot transferred his friendship to the deceased’s younger brother, John, an official in the Royal Treasury. In 1932, John’s wife, Regina (“Rexi”), submitted a novel, The Dead Image, to Faber, which Eliot turned down, and was still turning down in June 1959. Regine was close to him and to Vivienne Eliot, however, and their correspondence puts Eliot in a more favorable light concerning his termination of the marriage. Before going to America in September 1932, he apparently did not tell Vivienne of his decision to leave her permanently, but had his solicitors deliver a letter to her while he was in the United States. She seems not to have received this until almost a year later, during which time she expected his return. On October 14, 1932, Eliot wrote to “Rexi” from Cambridge, Massachusetts, expressing the wish “that you may see Vivienne sometimes.” Obviously Vivienne was seldom out of his thoughts. She was certainly in them exactly a year later, October 14, 1933, when he corrected the proofs for a new edition of the great poem ending—
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
—a poem that at the time still bore the dedication “To My Wife.”
The book one has always hoped for about the ballets one loves most, matches the highest expectations. Wiley presents the results of detailed historical research with utmost clarity. He has made the original scenarios and Petipa’s notes available for the first time in English; fully described the original productions (including both the Moscow and the St. Petersburg stagings of Swan Lake); and translated into readable English the relevant documents, including excerpts from Russian newspapers and periodicals of the time, and critical commentaries by Russian scholars of Tchaikovsky’s time and ours. The results amount to a virtually complete history of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and the Nutcracker. Wiley also provides the first adequate musical analyses of all three, fills crucial gaps in Tchaikovsky’s biography (the close-ups of the composer on pages 158, 160, 188), and conveys to the reader an enthusiasm that recharges his own.
The introductory essays on late nineteenth-century Russian social, as well as cultural, history; on the ballet audience; on the subordinate relationship of composer to choreographer; and on the growth of ballet from operatic models—Aurora’s solo as choreographic coloratura, mime as translated recitative—are of sufficient general interest to be published separately. In quotations from newspaper articles, memoirs, and letters, Wiley portrays the ballet public in the two Russian cities as fanatically partisan and rich in eccentrics. His vignettes of theater people, directors, bureaucrats and officials, choreographers and dancers, costume designers, composers, conductors and critics are as vivid as if these people had stepped from the world of Ostrovsky.
Wiley performs a dissection of the Petipa-Minkus La Bayadère as a representative ballet at the time of Tchaikovsky’s debut in this category of theater. Performed four weeks before the Swan Lake premiere, the musically trivial Petipa-Minkus was immeasurably more successful than the Reisiger-Tchaikovsky. But the reaction is understandable when we learn that Swan Lake was poorly prepared. The triumph of the ballet was to come later, in St. Petersburg, after theatrical reforms both managerial and artistic had been instituted on every level. All of this is expertly described by Wiley.
In the discussion of Swan Lake, he reveals the extent of the composer’s subservience to the choreographer. The composer’s success was measured “first in the opera house, second in the concert hall, and not at all in the ballet theater.” The ballet master ordered not only the form, character, meter, tempo, and length of each musical number, but even the features of instrumentation. And if the product he received did not meet with his approval, another composer would be asked to substitute new pieces. This nearly happened to Tchaikovsky, when a ballerina proposed to introduce a pas de deux by Minkus in Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky answered: “Whether my ballet is good or bad, I alone would like to take responsibility for its music,” and in order to avoid humiliation and mutilation, he wrote new music that agreed bar for bar with Minkus’s.
“Tchaikovsky never surpassed Sleeping Beauty,” Wiley writes. For this reviewer, Nutcracker surpasses it, even though, as Wiley argues, Nutcracker “remains a simple children’s tale, without significance as an allegory or a parable.” Sleeping Beauty sprawls and is repetitious, the hunting music in Act II and the dances that follow for the duchesses, baronesses, countesses, marquises, are protracted and dull. Not even the best of the character dances in Sleeping Beauty can compare to the Arabian, Chinese, Spanish, and Russian ones in Nutcracker, whose instrumentation, also, is more original and more transparent.
The chief obstacle in Wiley’s book is that while readers drawn to it because of Tchaikovsky can skip the chapters on staging, ballet buffs cannot ignore the musical discussions and indeed must have the scores at hand: every gesture and movement in Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker are located by measure numbers. Moreover, the most valuable parts of the book, Wiley’s perceptions on the interlocking of drama and music, can only be understood with a knowledge of musical terms, and it must be admitted that some of these are confusing. Referring to a chart of tonality relationships, Wiley says that the “Keys opposite one another are the most distant,” meaning, in this instance, a tritone apart. Later he writes that “E flat major lies between Siegfried’s D and Odette’s E, practically opposite both in the circle of fifths.” But what he means here is not opposite but equidistant. Nor are all the music examples free of errors (see the cacophonies on pp. 123 and 251).
All the same, the book never slows the reader with grammatical perplexities, and such oddities as occur in the translations could be faithful renderings of the originals (“Odette tells how she could be saved in F#”). Otherwise Wiley’s only fault stems from a virtue: his tendency to lapse into a form of the pathetic fallacy only indicates the admirable predominance of the musician in him over the critic: “One cannot imagine what could better convey the image and sense of atmosphere…of a group of swans coming to rest on a lake in the forest at nightfall than Tchaikovsky’s famous oboe solo.” But the oboe solo conveys this specific image only by association and hindsight.
The letters comprise less than a third of this volume and about a third of the forty-five or so from Kandinsky’s side were written by his pupil and partner Gabriele Munter. The seventeen Schoenberg letters are apparently all that survive, though Kandinsky’s replies indicate that more were received. The book is filled out with related writings by both artists; with photographs, including color reproductions of Schoenberg’s paintings, as well as Kandinsky’s; and with essays by the editor and translator, some of which compound verbal and interpretative problems in the letters. But the best of the exchanges are indispensable for anyone concerned with the arts in the years immediately preceding World War I.
Kandinsky initiated the correspondence. He had heard Schoenberg’s Second String Quarter and Three Pieces for Piano in a Munich concert in January 1911, had felt artistic “empathy” in the music, and was sufficiently moved to communicate with the composer. Schoenberg did not concur with the notions that Kandinsky set forth in this letter, that in both paintings and music “today’s dissonances are tomorrow’s consonances,” and that “construction is what has been so woefully lacking in the painting of recent times.” In reply, the composer said that he had been seeking “complete freedom from all forms” since 1909, and he quoted the now classic definition from his Harmonielehre: “dissonances are only different from consonances in degree; they are nothing more than remoter consonances.” He also challenged “construction” as “a word of yours with which I do not agree.” No reason is given for the objection, but Schoenberg undoubtedly had beliefs similar to Chesterton’s “A thing constructed, can only be loved after it is constructed, while a thing created is loved before it exists.”
By the end of the year, Schoenberg is categorically denying the usefulness of theory:
I do not agree when you write…that you would have preferred to present an exact theory…. We search on and on (as you yourself say) with our feelings. Let us endeavor never to lose these feelings to a theory
(letter of December 14, 1911)
A month earlier he had told Kandinsky that “In a few days I will have begun a series of 8-10 lectures on ‘Aesthetics and the Theory of Composition’…. As you can well imagine, the object is to overturn both” (November 11, 1911).
On the question of “points of contact” between the arts, Schoenberg accepted Kandinsky’s observations concerning “color in comparison to musical timbre,” but, apparently deciding that Kandinsky would not be able to grasp the implications of atonality, avoided the subject and turned to generalities. On style, for instance, Schoenberg wrote:
Although I have certainly developed very much…. I have not improved, but my style has simply got better, so that I can penetrate more profoundly into what I had already had to say earlier and am nevertheless capable of saying it more concisely and more fully.
Regrettably, his elaborations on this distinction weaken it by introducing the false opposition of “not what I say but how I say it,” as if a poem could be “said” in some other way (prose).
Kandinsky invited Schoenberg to contribute music, graphic work, and critical articles to Der blaue Reiter, and the two men were soon exchanging photographs of their paintings. Compliments followed, Schoenberg expressing his appreciation of the work of Emil Nolde and pleasure in the “salutary simplicity” of Miss Munter’s paintings, in which “goodness and love are hidden,” Kandinsky contributing an article on Schoenberg’s pictures for a 1912 Festschrift about the composer. Schoenberg acknowledged this with a memorable remark: “You are such a full man that the least vibration always causes you to overflow.”3
Kandinsky resumed the correspondence after World War I, explaining that he had been living in Russia for seven years, totally isolated from the West. Schoenberg answered that during the same period of a hand-to-mouth existence in Vienna, religion was his “one and only support.” The name “Schoenberg,” he added, may now be less well known because of his music than because of the feats of his football-playing son Georg. Now, too, Schoenberg complains about his disciples: “These atonalists! Damn it all, I did my composing without any ‘ism’ in mind.”
In 1923, Kandinsky invited Schoenberg to become director of a reorganized Bauhaus music school. The response could hardly have been more surprising: Schoenberg would like to teach, but cannot accept, having learned the lesson that “I am a Jew.” He charges Kandinsky with anti-Semitism, of having been aware “of what really happened” during Schoenberg’s summer’s stay in Mattsee, where Germans had made him feel unwelcome, an experience that deprived him of “the peace of mind to work at all.” (AlbanBerg wrote to his wife that anti-Semitic restrictions imposed by the town council had forced Schoenberg to leave Mattsee.) Though the underlying provocation seems not to have been the Mattsee incident, and though Schoenberg seems to have been mistaken about Kandinsky’s role, his answer is not satisfactory. Neither he nor Schoenberg can have anything to do with “lumping together,” and the question is one of individual human beings, not “nationalities,” even though “particular characteristics, negative and positive,” are found in individuals and in nations. Among his friends, moreover, Kandinsky counts more Jews than Russians or Germans. (This old, irrelevant story was the basis of the 1984 Bayreuth Exhibition, “Wagner and the Jews.”) A “Jewish problem” exists, Kandinsky goes on, and he regrets not having had the benefit of Schoenberg’s views about it, since it must be examined by human beings “who are free.”
Schoenberg’s reply is both psychologically revealing and profoundly moving:
When I walk along the street and each person looks at me to see whether I’m a Jew or a Christian, I can’t very well tell each of them that I’m the one that Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, although of course that man Hitler [this was written in 1923!] is not of their opinion.
Happily the two men became trusted friends again later in the 1920s. In 1936 they resumed their correspondence. By this time both of them were refugees, Schoenberg in Los Angeles, Kandinsky in Paris.
February 13, 1986
Le Chien andalou and L’Age d’or. ↩
“King Bolo and Others” in T.S. Eliot (London: Editions Poetry, 1948). ↩
The imagery in Schoenberg’s letters of the same period to Ferrucio Busoni is on the same high level of imagination. In his “arrangement” of the second of Schoenberg’s 1909 piano pieces, where Busoni begins with an octave effect that in the original had been subtly anticipated, Schoenberg observed to him that “a hero who will shoot himself in the third act should be portrayed in the first act in such a way that an intuitive person can have a presentiment of his fate.” In the same “arrangement,” Schoenberg says that where the entry of a chord is for him “as if someone has pressed away a tear,” in Busoni’s version, “the person blows his nose as well.” ↩