Month: January 2008

Eifersucht und Stolz

A brief moment of remembrance for Margaret Truman Daniels, who died this week at the age of 83. The daughter of Harry S Truman, before becoming a bestselling author, was a classical singer who ended up on the receiving end of one of the most famous bad reviews in history. “Miss Truman is a unique American phenomenon with a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality. She is extremely attractive on stage,” wrote Washington Post critic Paul Hume in December of 1950. “Yet Miss Truman cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time—more so last night than at any time we have heard her in past years.”

Then-President Truman didn’t find that terribly illuminating, and fired off an intemperate response to Hume: “I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” &c., &c. After Truman’s letter became public, mail to the White House was reported to run 80-20 in the President’s favor.

In that other 20 percent was a letter from Mr. and Mrs. William Banning of Connecticut:

Mr. Truman,

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might just as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds. One major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.

Enclosed with the letter was a Purple Heart. Truman kept the letter and the medal in his desk drawer for many years.

On a rainy day, switching CDs, from a Handel opera to a Tippett one

Wring the Swan’s Neck

Wring the swan’s neck who with deceiving plumage
inscribes his whiteness on the azure stream;
he merely vaunts his grace and nothing feels
of nature’s voice or the soul of things.

Every form eschew and every language
whose processes with deep life’s inner rhythm
are out of harmony . . . and greatly worship
life, and let life understand your homage.

See the sapient owl who from Olympus
spreads his wings, leaving Athene’s lap,
and stays his silent flight on yonder tree.

His grace is not the swan’s, but his unquiet
pupil, boring into the gloom, interprets
the secret book of the nocturnal still.

—Enrique González Martínez (1871-1952),
trans. Samuel Beckett

Think of all you’ll derive just by being alive

I ran across this line in a review this morning:

Similarly, though Brahms was nearing the “little blue pill” stage of his life when he wrote the Fourth Symphony, [the conductor] was determined that the composer come off as at the height of his musical virility and ready to wade into the trenches in the aesthetic wars between late-19th-century progressives and conservatives (Brahms being the reigning classicist).

This displays two of our favorite qualities here at Soho the Dog HQ: it’s 1) funny, and 2) wrong, but in an interesting way. Even if Brahms intended his last symphony as a conscious summing-up of his symphonic thinking, it’s hardly a wistful farewell. (Besides, the man was only 52 at the time.) But the temptation to consider a composer’s late output as related to some sort of dying of the light is near-irresistible.

We all crave the illusion of a well-rounded life; we can’t bear the thought of dying without the opportunity to give the prospect a conscious look in the eye. So we carve out the last ten, twenty years of an artist’s life and file any and all works as “late style,” giving a satisfying three-act structure to the meandering path of individual artistic evolution. Never mind that the works themselves often prove a disorderly leave-taking. Beethoven, possessor of the most famous late style in Western musical history, refused to play by the future’s rules: those last string quartets, right up to the disorienting finale of the “Grosse Fuge,” didn’t sum up his legacy in a tidy way, but instead left his aesthetic estate in contentious probate for generations. The story of Brahms contemplating a Ragtime-influenced piece shortly before his death, as related in Robert Haven Schauffler’s The Unknown Brahms, is, like much else in that entertaining volume, historically suspect, but its musical plausibility, in light of rhythmic ideas in Brahms’ late instrumental works, at least demonstrates that even the historically-minded Brahms wasn’t completely looking backwards at the end of his life.

Nonetheless, Brahms could be an exemplar of the stereotypical “late” style as well. Here’s one of his most tender farewells, bringing down the curtain with an extraordinary empathetic depth (click to enlarge).

Those are the final two of the Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, op. 9. Brahms wrote it when he was 21. Most composers, in fact, develop the necessary technique for a sentimental deathbed scene pretty early on. Edward Elgar is a paragon of the valedictory, with his two later concerti, for violin and cello, held up as sterling examples. Elgar, though, had mastered the style by the time he was 40: both the “Enigma” Variations (age 42) and The Dream of Gerontius (age 43) have it in spades. Those works are hardly less elegiac because Elgar had the temerity to survive for another thirty years.

In the end (ha, ha), the whole perception of “late style” owes more to the imaginative needs of the audience than the creator. A couple of years ago, a series of lectures and compiled thoughts by the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said was published under the title On Late Style. Said admitted that his attraction to the subject was a personal one, having been diagnosed with leukemia in 1991. His chosen subjects were those creators, like Beethoven, whose late work was more of a challenge than a benediction. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein was miffed that Said seemed only interested in reinforcing his own intellectual biases.

But the reason we care about these works is not that they express irreconcilable contradictions or exile. Rather, each constructs an alternative universe in which something is actually being understood about our world: some things are rejected, some are accepted, some are greeted with horror, some with resignation. Beethoven’s late music, for example, embraces incongruities because — we are convinced — that is precisely what it means to see the world whole. There is accumulated knowledge here: recognition and reconciliation, not just “intransigence” or “unresolved contradiction.”

But that analysis is an expression of Rothstein’s bias: he no more knows what Beethoven was really thinking than Said, or you, or I do. It’s his own wish for a certain all-knowing equanimity in the face of death that causes him to read that equanimity into the music. Later, Rothstein takes to task Said’s analysis of Jean Genet, who, like more than a few aging artists at the end of their alotted span, was inspired to adopt the revolutionary ideals of a younger generation. Rothstein lays out a series of rhetorical questions:

But wouldn’t a “late style” have some sense of irony about this romanticization of violence? Or some notion about precisely what these light, sparkling, open figures were intending? Wouldn’t it require being more attuned to the precise character of the contradictions so warmly embraced? Doesn’t late style require some scrupulous self-reflection, some sense of how earlier perceptions might themselves require revisiting and revising? Wouldn’t something similar have even helped Said’s own late style?

Answers: not necessarily; not necessarily; not necessarily; not necessarily; but then it wouldn’t have been Said’s style. Rothstein is unwittingly painting a portrait of how he would like to be remembered: a thoughtful realist, sympathetically but firmly dismantling the folly of youth with hard-won wisdom. Said, who spent his own career delineating the ways in which scholars projected their own worldview into their supposedly dispassionate analyses, would have appreciated the irony.

The point is not that Rothstein is wrong—his characterization of late Beethoven is certainly more plausible than the AARP-centric reading of Brahms’ 4th that sparked this ramble—but that the way he hears late Beethoven has far more to do with him than with Beethoven. And much of that is due to the coincidence of chronology: Rothstein’s description of late Beethoven, for example, could just as easily describe Fidelio. But since we know that Fidelio is middle-period, not late-period, we don’t look for intimations of mortality in it.

In fact, there’s more than a few composers who did know that they were not long for the world, whether due to age or disease, and went out of their way to avoid the usual late-style trappings. Benjamin Britten, who had already produced a perfect farewell with Death in Venice, followed it up with the violent immediacy of Phaedra. Michael Tippett closed his final work, The Rose Lake, with a wink, the plop of a frog into the water. Verdi wrote Falstaff. Rossini set loose his “Sins of Old Age.” Elliott Carter, who continues to cheat the actuarial tables at the age of 99, has become a fount of energetic, bracing, quirky works that defiantly insist on being encountered on their own terms, rather than through the prism of their composer’s age. It’s those of us who think we have a fair amount of time left that are concerned with stage-managing our exit; closer to the deadline, it seems that the best revenge is often just to keep on keeping on.

Searching for Love

Cultural economics has come a long way since Baumol and Bowen first started poking around, but the fact remains that it still revolves around money—the delicate dance of legal tender among producers, sellers, and buyers. More so than other goods, there’s almost always a disconnect between the price of a work of art and its value, and traditional market economies are notoriously slow and inefficient at minding that gap; while the art market as a whole can give a reasonably predictable return on investment, the market for individual works or categories of art can be dauntingly volatile. And that’s the plastic arts, something you can take home and display. Music? Even cloudier.

So here’s a thought experiment: what if, instead of cash, one considered curiosity as the main currency of culture? Curiosity drives cultural consumption. We keep looking until we find what we like, or what we think we like—maybe we come across a style or repertoire that seems to be enough of what we like that we consider any further search too expensive, in terms of curiosity. In this scheme, art that is harder to find is more “expensive”—and consumers who are more curious spend more. (Note that what is about to follow is laughable as economics—how do you quantify curiosity? Think of it more as a metaphor on steroids.)

In terms of curiosity, popular culture is very cheap indeed—almost free, in fact. (Try to resist applying favorable or unfavorable connotations to “cheap” and “expensive” for this one.) Popular culture comes to you via the mass media. If that’s what you like, or what you decide you like, you haven’t had to spend very much curiosity at all. Whereas, if what you really like is avant-garde tape-manipulation music from early-1970s Scandanavia, but you don’t know that yet, you’re going to have to spend a considerable amount of curiosity to find it.

The interesting thing about this goofy scheme is how, under it, one would interpret the impact of the Internet. You could argue that, back in the pre-tubes dark ages, music was actually cheaper in curiosity terms, but there was a greater chance of having to settle for less than you were prepared to “pay” for. There was whatever was being pumped out over the mass media, but beyond that, you were limited to whatever record companies were willing to record and distribute, or whatever happened to be performed near where you lived. For recordings, once you stepped into a record store, the curiosity price of anything that happened to be in the store would be pretty much the same, but if it wasn’t there, you weren’t very likely to find it without a huge jump in curiosity price. Live performance would be so balkanized by geography—New York? cheap; central Nebraska? not so cheap—that comparing curiosity spending would be almost apples to oranges. (Hopping on the subway=low curiosity price; moving to New York=high curiosity price.)

With the Internet, though, all music (or at least enough information to know whether it’s what you want) is available, theoretically with near-immediacy—that is, if you know where to look, or, more probably, you have the time and curiosity to sift through the much wider array on offer. Has this made music cheaper or pricier in terms of curiosity? Back in the Reagan era, sifting through the bins at my local record store would take me, at most, a couple hours. A couple hours on the Internet, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. With greater variety comes greater investment of time, effort, judgement. (It’s the same reason I can shop for shoes exponentially faster than my lovely wife, since, at size 14, my selection is usually limited to one or two pair.) Has the increased digital availability of culture, paradoxically, raised its curiosity price across the board?

As the economist Alfred Marshall once pointed out, artistic styles don’t usually have diminishing marginal utility—once we find what we like, we can like the same thing pretty much forever. The thing is, most people, even music lovers, are going to decide they like some kind of music and stop spending their curiosity earlier than than those of us sufficiently obsessed with the stuff to blog about it. When curiosity prices were fixed and relatively low (i.e., record store), the chance of a given outlay of curiosity leading into jazz, classical, world music, showtunes—basically anything not served up free by the mass media—was not all that variable, once you walked in the door. (The downside? Opportunity costs, that is, the amount you give up by making a decision one way or another, were relatively high.) If curiosity prices have become higher with the advent of the Internet, the chance of a given outlay leading to a specific category is just that: a chance. It’s much more of a crapshoot. There’s a greater chance of stumbling on something you didn’t expect, but an equal or greater chance of missing what you really want—or giving up before you find it. It all depends on how hard you want to look.

So in terms of the curiosity expended to find it, the initial price barrier to culture has gone way down, but the average price of the wanted cultural experience has, perhaps, gone up. Inflation, in other words. Is it a valid trade-off? I think so: since the resources aren’t scarce—it’s all out there somewhere, at the click of a mouse—opportunity costs go down. For now, the increased opportunity to at least stumble on what isn’t expected seems to be raising the tide for all kinds of boats. The question is whether the way people are able to search for music on the Internet will evolve towards a more sophisticated, Pandora-like guided journey, or whether the old corporate categories will re-assert themselves, leading to more dead-end or prematurely stifled spending of curiosity.

The former, most likely. Here’s why, although I admit it’s a bit of a stretch. The previous way of buying and selling music was based on a certain assumed valuation of curiosity. If that curiosity is going through inflation? All bets are off. Inflation has the power to mutate economic systems at the genetic level. It’s why central banks throughout the Capitalist Era have never stopped worrying about it. Here’s how John Maynard Keynes put it, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace:

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency…. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.

I wonder if the Internet is really what changed things—or if a decrease in available musical variety in the years just before the Internet caused a change in the way people allocated and expended their curiosity, and the resulting, imperceptible disintegration of the traditional recording industry was already underway when the Web came along to accelerate it. Most revolutions, after all, are as much a culmination of historical trends as an instigator of them. That causality is probably a stretch, too, but how else do you explain how the record companies were caught so flat-footed? Corporate stupidity is hardly rare, but when an entire industry is still playing catch-up a dozen years on, deeper shifts become more plausible. Did the recording industry shoot themselves in the foot just before the Internet came along to stomp on it? Curious.

Deep covers

One big difference between books and sheet music: nowadays, any reasonably experienced musician can identify the publisher of a piece of sheet music from about twenty feet away. The pale-green-plus-giant-composer-name design of Peters; the yellowish-beige-sans-serif-small-caps of G. Schirmer; the flush-right-lower-case-bold-black-and-white of Universal Edition, etc., etc. Even a Dover score, with its clip-art-plus-white-text aesthetic, can usually be spotted on a podium stand from the second balcony.

Which is why I still love hunting down antique scores. As my lovely wife will confirm with a roll of her eyes, I love old stuff, and that includes sheet music. Popular sheet music, of course, is extremely collectible on account of eye-catching covers, but there was a time when classical wasn’t that far behind. Here’s five favorites I pulled from my shelves.

Monteverdi/Krenek: L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Universal Edition, 1937). Pure neo-classicism, by way of Napoleonic archeological surveys. I picked this up at a Boston Conservatory library sale; from the library of Ingrid Kahrstedt Brainard, the early dance historian, which is pretty cool.

Clementi/Tausig: Gradus ad Parnassum, ed. Gustav Damm (Steingräber-Verlag, n.d.). No date, but I’m guessing sometime before absinthe became illegal. I can imagine Alma Mahler wallpapering her bathroom with that pattern.

Joseph Marx: Marienlied (Universal Edition, 1925). The lithograph is by Alfred Keller. I don’t know what Rubenesque nudes holding up a proscenium arch in front of craggy landscape has to do with the song, and I don’t care.

Penderecki: Quartetto per archi (Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1963). A classic piece of abstract expressionism from the Polish state music publisher, who opted for these sorts of far-out covers quite a bit. Purchased at a used-book sale in Chicago many years ago—the previous owner was composer Alan Stout, which I initially thought to be an amazing coincidence, until I realized that there were probably at most a couple dozen copies of this in all of Chicago.

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Universal Edition, 1924 [reprint]). This is such a fantastic cover that it’s criminal there’s no artist credit. (And I looked—it does seem to be the same artist who did the cover for UE’s edition of Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf). It’s been years and years since I saw an album cover or movie poster that good. In some ways (not many, but some), the old days were better.