Last week, on Twitter, Alex Ross—amidst some wrangling with T. S. Eliot’s epochal 1922 poem The Waste Land—shared, as an aside, a link to the sheet music to “That Shakespearian Rag,” the 1912 number by composer Dave Stamper and lyricists Gene Buck and Herman Ruby that Eliot quotes in the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess.” It has become one of the work’s most well-known collisions of high and low: the background noise of commodification and materialism, perhaps, against which diminished spirits struggle to find meaning.
Novelty ragtime is like catnip to me, but, despite knowing about Eliot’s use of the piece (and despite long-standing affection for Salvatore Martirano’s avant-garde allusion), I had never actually seen the music. Interestingly, Eliot misquotes the lyrics. Compare the original—
That Shakespearian rag,
Most intelligent, very elegant,
—and the poem’s version—
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
Eliot’s changes—an extra syllable, some jumbled lines, the extra four O‘s lifted from Hamlet’s death scene in the First Folio—aren’t major surgery, but they suggest that he probably wasn’t looking at the sheet music, and was remembering the song from some other source. And I began to wonder what that source might be. (Higher-quality procrastination than my usual, at the very least.)
It turns out that Eliot’s Shakespearian Rag is a provocative little problem.
For one thing, almost all the extant scholarly mention and discussion of the quote is mildly inaccurate, and that’s because it’s almost all based on the same source: B. R. McElderry, Jr.’s short examination of “Eliot’s ‘Shakespeherian Rag'” in the Summer 1957 issue of the journal American Quarterly. Here’s the crux of McElderry’s excavations:
…”That Shakespearian Rag” was also a genuine hit, and thus a proper symbol of public taste at the period when Eliot was a graduate student at Harvard. The publishers of the song listed it fourth among ten titles in a Variety advertisement for July 19, 1912 (p. 25), adding this comment: “If you want a song that can be acted as well as sung send for this big surprise hit.” The song was featured again in advertisements of September 6 (p. 34), October 25 (p. 27), November 22 (p. 27) and December 20 (p. 80), twice as the first in the publisher’s list; On October 25 it was billed as “Roy Samuels’ big hit in Ziegfield’s Follies of 1912.”
McElderry’s citations are correct, with the exception of, in what are either transcription or editorial errors, misspelling the names of both Florenz Ziegfeld and his chosen plucked-from-the-chorus-line prospective star for 1912, Ray Samuels, in the last ad. (The original is on the right, via the Internet Archive.) Those who, in turn, have cited McElderry have usually characterized “That Shakespearian Rag” as just what the article implies: a song premiered as part of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1912 that became a hit. From Ronald Schuchard’s study Eliot’s Dark Angel: “B. R. McElderry, Jr., first identified Eliot’s lines as being adapted from the 1912 hit song… written… for performance at the Ziegfeld Follies”; from Michael Coyle’s chapter “Doing tradition in different voices: Pastiche in The Waste Land” in The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land: “a popular song from Ziegfeld’s follies of 1912”; as footnoted in the recent Faber edition of Eliot’s complete poems: “chorus of That Shakespearian Rag (1912), which became a hit in Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies“; and so on.
But McElderry may have been too credulous in taking that Variety ad at face value. “That Shakespearian Rag” almost certainly was not written for Ziegfeld’s 1912 Follies, it almost certainly was not performed as part of the show, and it almost certainly was not a hit. The performer pictured on the cover of the sheet music, Carrie Reynolds, was never part of the Follies. Reviews of the show in both The New York Times and Variety mentioned other songs performed by Samuels, but not “That Shakespearian Rag”; the advertisements McElderry cited (which, incidentally, ceased abruptly after December 1912) represent nearly the entire published reference to the song prior to Eliot. If she ever did sing it, the song did not make a star of Ray Samuels: the 1912 edition was to prove her only Follies headlining credit, after which she disappeared into regional vaudeville. I wondered if Eliot knew the song from a recording; but, as far as I can tell, it was not recorded until at least the 1950s.
“That Shakespearian Rag” appears rather to have been an unsuccessful orphan, a song for which Buck, Ruby, and Stamper kept trying to find a home. Why and in what context Carrie Reynolds might have been intended to sing it is lost. The songwriters, who did contribute songs to Ziegfeld’s various Follies, tried to place it in the 1912 show, only to have it cut before opening night. Finding the right vehicle for Samuels was a problem for the show, it seems: while she garnered some critical praise for her performance of “I Should Worry and Get a Wrinkle,” by Vincent Bryan and Raymond Hubbell, her other two songs were less successful, and there is some evidence of her trying out new substitutions—none of them “Shakespearian”—throughout the show’s run. (Fun coincidence: Vincent Bryan was also co-author of “The Cubanola Glide,” which featured in early drafts of The Waste Land.) If “That Shakespearian Rag” became a hit by other means, it left remarkably little trace in the entertainment media of the time.
(It did, at least, get ripped off. Composer Leo Edwards had, in collaboration with lyricist Blanche Merrill, landed his own song in the 1912 Follies, a light bit of women’s-suffrage topicality called “In a Pretty Little White House of Our Own.” Edwards later joined lyricist Harold Atteridge to score The Passing Show of 1915—the Passing Shows being the Shubert organization’s imitation of Ziegfeld’s Follies—which featured a song listed in the playbill as “The Shakespearean Rag” (judiciously retitled “Billy Shakespeare” for publication). A vehicle for the popular brother act of Willie and Eugene Howard, Edwards’ rag received decidedly less-than-enthusiastic marks from critics—”Certainly the Shakespeare number might well be omitted,” sniffed the New York Sun—but the fact that none of the reviews noticed the song’s blatant debt to “That Shakespearian Rag” is further circumstantial testimony against the latter’s having been a hit.)
To be sure, this is all just housekeeping, honing a small measure of accuracy in a small corner of scholarship. And none of it need effect how the song functions in Eliot’s poem, of course. All of the sources I cited above—and many others—that take McElderry’s description as gospel make otherwise insightful and judicious interpretations of the “Rag”‘s appearance and significance.
But it does still leave the question: how did Eliot know the song? Fair warning: at this point (as often happens at some point when I write) we veer from archival minutiae to wild speculation. But let’s go there anyway, because we can, because it’s fun—and because one hypothetical vector for bringing “That Shakespearian Rag” to Eliot’s attention, as it turns out, involves a most interesting name.
Assuming (as I do) that the song never actually graced the 1912 Follies, “That Shakespearian Rag” finally saw footlight on January 5, 1913, on a bill at the Columbia Theater, performed by a vaudeville veteran named Felix Adler. Adler made a specialty of dialects, songs and routines utilizing exaggerated Yiddish, Irish, or Italian accents—and, given the song, some florid Elizabethan English, perhaps. (He later became an early director in the film industry, before going on to a long and fruitful career writing scripts for The Three Stooges.)
Adler scored a success, according to Variety, but, apparently, in spite of “That Shakespearian Rag” rather than because of it:
In the early part Felix Adler walked off with the hit. His “Shakespearean Rag” is too close to “The Dramatic Rag” to get him anything around, but the remainder of the material, with a few changes, won out hugely for him.
(“That Dramatic Rag,” by Nathaniel Ayer and Paul West, had been part of Let George Do It, a musical that had enjoyed a brief Broadway run the previous spring, although the song seems to have had some vaudeville traction as well.)
Here the conjecture begins. I have no idea if Eliot saw Adler at the Columbia in early 1913—but he certainly could have. I have no idea if Adler took his act on the road—he often toured, but I couldn’t find a mention of him performing in Boston during Eliot’s grad-school Harvard days—but he certainly might have. Adler was even known to have made appearances in London in the time after Eliot settled there, but whether Adler revived “That Shakespearian Rag” for any of those occasions is, to my knowledge, unrecorded—but what better novelty to trot out for an English audience?
But what really sticks out to me is the name: Felix Adler. Because there was another Felix Adler around at the time, a much more well-known Felix Adler, the German-born New Yorker who, after giving up rabbinical ambitions and becoming a professor at Cornell, founded the Society for Ethical Culture, the pioneering and especially famous version of humanism, an attempt to promote a system of religious morality that nevertheless existed outside of any religious creed or ritual.
The young Eliot’s connection to Ethical Culture, if any, are unknown, but one can make another circumstantial case for his awareness of it. St. Louis, where he grew up, was home to one of the first Ethical Culture societies outside of New York. (Percy Boynton, a popular English teacher at Smith Academy—the setting of one of the more formative stretches of Eliot’s schoolings—also frequently lectured at the Ethical Society of St. Louis.) Eliot arrived at Harvard for his undergraduate years in time to overlap with the early, short-lived Harvard Ethical Society. Even putting those contacts aside, the advance of secular humanism, and Adler’s Ethical Culture, would have been a topic hard to avoid in academic or intellectual circles. And certainly England, where Eliot permanently settled in 1914, had already birthed a number of homegrown humanist societies, and thus was fertile ground for Ethical Culture, to the point that (for a time, anyway) the movement became big enough to generate those inescapable symptoms of sectarian success, power struggles and rivalries.
In the years after the writing of The Waste Land, Eliot wrote a pair of essays—”The Humanism of Irving Babbitt” (1928) and “Second Thoughts on Humanism” (1929), both later collected—that criticized humanism with characteristic harsh diffidence. To Eliot, the idea of a religion without religion was not only absurd, but dangerous, shunting aside the certainty of tradition in favor of whatever fungible sophistry mankind would elevate in the place of dogma: literature, philosophy, what have you. “There was once an organization called the Ethical Culture Society, which held Sunday morning services,” Eliot writes, with head-shaking disbelief, the group epitomizing “the kind of liberal religion” that Eliot could not abide. “If you remove from the word ‘human’ all that the belief in the supernatural has given to man,” he warns, “you can view him finally as no more than an extremely clever, adaptable, and mischievous little animal.”
By the time of those essays, Eliot, born and raised Unitarian, had converted to the Anglican Church, and some of that zeal peeks around the edges of his criticisms of humanism. But Eliot had been eager to hold fast to moral tradition for some time. Which is why the case of the two Felixes is so intriguing. Go back to Eliot’s “Shakespearian Rag” in context:
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”
The song intrudes like an oblique memory on an existential crisis. And the response is a plea for guidance: What shall I do? Which, of course, was the key question behind the entire Ethical Culture movement. Is that why Eliot remembered it at that point? Felix Adler, the vaudevillian, making a cheap burlesque of Hamlet’s death; Felix Adler, the humanist, making (in Eliot’s estimation) a cheap burlesque, in essence, of Christ’s—humanism’s elegant intelligence leading not to a viable tradition, but rather to something as shallow and ephemeral as a popular song.
Probably not, right? The argument, the chain of evidence, is too far-fetched, too sketchy. But that’s in the spirit of the poem, too. Threadbare connections are part of Eliot’s game in The Waste Land. It’s all hints and suggestions, references and clues, practically begging for exegesis—but no amount of poetic discipline or analytical ingenuity can ever pull it all together. Even the poem itself is implicated as one of the fleeting oracles it archives: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” Everything, it seems to say, is like “That Shakespearian Rag”: travesties of the tradition Eliot mourned, sung into the whirlwind, fixed only in faithless advertisements and passing mentions.
Score: The Brockes-Passions and Baroque anti-Semitism.
Boston Globe, March 3, 2017.
Score: Mendelssohn’s op. 12 and (professional and personal) passions.
Boston Globe, February 24, 2017.
Score: On Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin.
Boston Globe, February 17, 2017.
The insistent, uncompromising, incomparable Nadia Boulanger.
Red Bull Music Academy Daily, February 15, 2017.
In today’s mail: a copy of Mìngyùn de kòu mén (The Knock of Fate), Xu Kangrong’s (simplified-character) Chinese translation of The First Four Notes. Wànsuì! You can buy a copy here.
No Score column this week, as the Globe is filled with year-in-review summations (including David Weininger’s envy-inducingly efficient classical-music précis). But, had there been one, I would have highlighted an intriguing anniversary, that of the final broadcast of ITV’s pop-music program Ready Steady Go!, transmitted on December 23, 1966. The show only ran for three years, but has maintained an outsized aura, both within the nostalgia-industrial complex (RSG! has always been a far more common marker of “the 1960s” in Britain than, say, Top of the Pops, which debuted a few months after RSG!, but stayed on the air for decades), and (more interestingly to me) in the general way that popular culture is packaged and consumed. At the very least, the way the show cultivated an air of unpolished fandom—making a star out of its then-inexperienced presenter, Cathy McGowan; giving ample, unrehearsed interview time to its performers—seeded a certain idea of pop-music authenticity that remains in play. That an (often-illusory) projection of rawness and unsophistication still reads as more “real” than the opposite is, at least partly, a legacy of RSG!.
The show’s other great innovation was ditching mimed performances in favor of live ones, something that must have seemed positively revolutionary at the time. Witness one of the show’s finest hours, this episode, featuring a Fujita-scale performance by Otis Redding (in his UK television debut):
That’s also one of the few examples of RSG! available for viewing, legally or not: the rights to the show are currently owned by Dave Clark (of Dave Clark Five fame), and re-broadcasts of the surviving tapes have been few and far in between. Maybe most episodes weren’t as good as people remember, but even still, I would guess that a complete experience of the unfiltered, week-to-week ephemeral enthusiasm of RSG! would be a fascinating time capsule.
In the summer of 2015, I had the privilege of giving a lecture to the young musicians of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, who were, at the time, getting ready to give a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the work’s premiere. The following is a transcript of that talk, lightly edited for readability, but with all of its digressions, speculations, demurrals, and far-fetched arguments otherwise intact.
Among the roundabouts were some tentative and personal conclusions to a lot of the questions that have formed the backbone of much post-election artistic stock-taking. What do interesting times, as the phrase goes, demand from musical performance? Should music be a refuge or a mirror? Should style be a balm or a challenge? Sparring with this one particular piece, it turned out, offered ample opportunity to consider such issues. So I’ll put it here as, at the very least, a small reminder that such questions are never really academic, just easier to ignore at some times than others.
Start with a quote:
“A work of art does not answer questions: it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between their contradictory answers.”
Leonard Bernstein wrote that, in an article he published in 1965, at the end of a year-long sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic—the sabbatical during which he wrote Chichester Psalms. You’ve had some time with Chichester Psalms by now. You’ve learned it, you’ve been rehearsing it, the performance is a week away. So here’s what I’m going to ask you: what is the question you want this performance of Chichester Psalms to provoke?
I’m going to talk about my idea of a question Chichester Psalms should provoke. And I’m going to trace the rather perambulatory way that I arrived at that idea. Partially that’s for entertainment value, because the way I arrive at ideas tends to be pleasantly insane. So we’re going to talk about Victorian English socialists, the Surrealist movement, and French radicals of the 1960s. And I’ll emphasize: this is very much my path to an idea about Chichester Psalms, not Bernstein’s.
But I’m going to trace that path anyway, because it has to do with a larger concern which is, I think, crucial to the performing arts, and music in particular. And that’s what to do about history. Because if you think about every piece of music you’ll play or hear this summer, they all have one thing in common: the time in which they were created and the time in which they’re experienced is divergent—sometimes only by a few months, but sometimes by decades and even centuries. Music is something that is necessarily re-created. Chichester Psalms, the piece of music, is fifty years old; but when you perform it, or hear it, it’s not fifty years old, it’s something that’s happening right then and there, in the present. So we’re going to look at some of the history around the piece—direct and indirect—for clues as to how the piece changes as history does.
One thing about Chichester Psalms to keep in mind as we talk about it is that, because of when it was written, its vocabulary is unusually important. Chichester Psalms is a triadically tonal piece of music. Part of this had to do with the commissioning of the piece. It was commissioned by Walter Hussey, the dean of Chichester Cathedral, who was someone who loved contemporary art and wanted to bring as much of it into his church as he could. But it’s clear that Hussey wanted something in a popular vein. “I think many of us would be delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music,” he wrote. And Bernstein, as we shall see, certainly obliged on that count. But, for Bernstein himself, the fact that Chichester Psalms was a tonal, Broadway-ish piece of music actually became much of the piece’s reason for being. And that was because the time it was written—in 1965—was, in many ways, the height of the modernist era. Which meant that Bernstein was being deliberately unfashionable.
At the end of his sabbatical, The New York Times asked Bernstein to write about his year off. Bernstein was a big enough celebrity that when he gave them two articles, they both were published, on the same page. The quote we started with is from the first one. In the second one (which is in verse, because, well, Leonard Bernstein, right?) we get Bernstein’s origin story for the Chichester Psalms. He writes about how he dove head-first into every avant-garde style of music that was going around in the 1960s—atonal, aleatoric, you name it—and, instead, wrote Chichester Psalms:
But there it stands—the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering—
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.
I think the tone of that is at least a little disingenuous. Certainly, in some of Bernstein’s interviews and letters, you can get the sense that Chichester Psalms was sort of a placeholder for the more serious and substantial kind of music that he was eager to write. But in other places, you get the sense that Chichester Psalms was the statement, that this was the gauntlet Bernstein wanted to throw down. So I think it’s worth considering what question Bernstein was trying to provoke, and what question we might ask today in once again sending Bernstein’s notes and rhythms into the world.
To begin with, let’s talk about a pretty common way of thinking about Chichester Psalms. I’m going to take a roundabout way to get to it, one, because that’s more fun, but two, also because it’s a good example of how important ideas almost never, ever turn up in only one place, and how that lets you make connections that aren’t immediately apparent. And the place we’re going to start is an appropriate place, and that’s Chichester Cathedral.
One odd thing about Chichester Cathedral is that the building itself has had a long and distinguished history of falling down. Because of the local geology around Chichester, England, parts of the cathedral have repeatedly collapsed. Both of the cathedral’s towers and its spire have had to be rebuilt over the centuries. The northwest tower partially collapsed in the 1630s, but wasn’t until the late Victorian era, the late 1800s, that they got around to thinking of fixing it. Along the way, the tower became a focal point for the fight against modernism. This was because of a man named William Morris. Morris was a poet and an artist. He is most famous for kickstarting the Arts and Crafts movement, which grew out of his fascination with medieval hand-made decorative arts. He also founded a group called the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. This was in response to the Victorian habit of “restoring” (and make those scare-quotes as scary as you can imagine) old churches by rebuilding them to conform to a kind of specious stylistic consistency.
The way Morris saw it, the Victorians were taking these wonderful, ramshackle churches, the products of years of renovations and additions which formed their own, rich historical record, and replacing them with, basically, theme-park versions of Gothic architecture for no other purpose than to make Victorian architects wealthy. And so he went after this plan to demolish Chichester’s northwest tower in order to rebuild it. It was actually his last such crusade, coming just before he died.
Now, like Bernstein, William Morris was, politically speaking, a radical progressive. Morris was a socialist, and a famous one in his time. That and the Arts and Crafts movement have everything to do with each other. And, in that way, Morris’s crusade is actually an unexpected mirror of this commonplace about Chichester Psalms, which is that the comparatively conservative musical language of the piece was a deliberate and paradoxically radical response to the political atmosphere of the time. With Morris, the old-fashioned quality of his aesthetics were completely bound up in his politics, in this sense that the post-Industrial Revolution modern world had gone completely wrong. With Bernstein, in Chichester Psalms, there’s this idea that the bedrock of triadic tonality could symbolize, and even bring back, this sense of common ground that seemed to have been lost.
That’s how I’ve always thought about Chichester Psalms. But the more I think about it, the more I think that there’s another prism that this music can be refracted through, and it’s one that is equally concerned with the past, and the future, and, in a way, with breaking things down in order to rebuild them. And that’s Surrealism. Now, I should say that I don’t think that Chichester Psalms is a surrealist work of art; and I certainly don’t think Bernstein would ever identify as a surrealist, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. But I do think that considering the piece through a surrealist lens does reveal something particular about it.
Surrealism was primarily a literary movement, and primarily French, although some visual artists and non-French people got involved with it as well. It hit its stride just after World War I, and was based on two things: the sense (a sense inculcated by the war) that society was, fundamentally, cruelly absurd, and the advent of Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the unconscious. Like its artistic predecessor, the Dada movement, Surrealism cultivated shock and scandal, but where Dada was almost anarchically iconoclastic, Surrealism, at least in theory, aimed to be more of a constructive movement. I think most of us have an idea of Surrealism, even if just from the kind of sell-out surrealism-lite of Salvador Dalí (somebody the surrealist writers came to hate). There’s the combination of dream logic and absurdist humor, the provocation for provocation’s sake, and so forth. Here’s how André Breton, who had probably the best case for being the movement’s founder, defined it in his First Manifesto of Surrealism, which he published in 1924:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
It’s that last clause, the one about expression being exempt from aesthetic or moral concern, that keeps Bernstein out of the surrealist camp. Everything Leonard Bernstein did had aesthetic and moral concern. But, on the other hand, Bernstein was forever attracted to projects that had at least a bit of surrealism running through them. And there’s one that has particular importance to Chichester Psalms.
One of the things Bernstein absolutely wanted to do while on his sabbatical in 1964 and 1965 was to write another Broadway show. The project was a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth. It had been a Broadway hit in 1942, and had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play is about the Antrobus family, a normal American family that has lived in New Jersey for thousands of years. It is strongly suggested that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are, in fact, Adam and Eve, and their son, Henry, is actually the biblical Cain, who murdered his brother; indeed, Henry spends most of the play beaning other people in the head with rocks.
In the first act, the Antrobus family is waiting for Mr. Antrobus to return home from the office, where he has been busy inventing the wheel, while outside, the coming ice age is rapidly freezing everything in its path. In the second act, Mr. Antrobus has been elected president of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Human, and is celebrating on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, but a giant flood is coming, and the Antrobuses (along with two of every animal) have to make their way down to the pier to escape by way of ark. In the third act, we jump forward in history again: the family—and remember, this play opened in 1942—the family emerges from the cellar of their house after a devastating seven-year war, in which, we learn, Henry Antrobus was the leader of the fascist enemy. The play ends by reprising its own opening: civilization will get rebuilt.
Throughout the play, Wilder, quite extravagantly, breaks the fourth wall, having characters talk directly to the audience, or otherwise acknowledge that the play is a play. In The Skin of Our Teeth, Sabina, the housemaid, is constantly talking to the audience, constantly telling the audience how ridiculous the play is, and how confused she is by the lines she’s supposed to be saying, and how the audience really shouldn’t take any of this seriously. At the very beginning, it’s written into the play that one of the actors misses their cue line, and the stage manager tells the actress playing Sabina to improvise, and she says:
I can’t invent any words for this play, and I’m glad I can’t. I hate this play and every word in it. As for me, I don’t understand a single word of it, anyway,—all about the troubles the human race has gone through, there’s a subject for you. Besides, the author hasn’t made up his silly mind as to whether we’re all living back in caves or in New Jersey today, and that’s the way it is all the way through.
In the second act, Sabina is supposed to seduce Mr. Antrobus, but she refuses to play the scene, telling the stage manager, “[T]here are some lines in that scene that would hurt some people’s feelings and I don’t think the theatre is a place where people’s feelings ought to be hurt.”
By the third act, this sort of blurring of the line between theatrical and actual reality gets quite extensive: the stage manager comes out to announce that some of the actors have come down with food poisoning, and that some of the crew are going to take their place, &c., &c. In other words, The Skin of Our Teeth was probably the closest mainstream American theatre had ever gotten to Surrealism at the time.
So this is the play that Bernstein took a year off in order to turn into a musical. And he failed. The project fell apart. He told a colleague that it was “a dreadful experience.” Only a couple of songs ended up getting written. Here’s one of them:
So at least he got some use for it. And there’s music in the first movement and the third movement of Chichester Psalms that was originally for Skin of Our Teeth as well. Now, Bernstein, like a lot of composers, was an inveterate recycler. Still, the fact that the music for The Skin of Our Teeth changed so easily (and quickly) into the music for Chichester Psalms raises the question of whether a bit of surrealist spirit came along for the ride.
It’s worth noting, for instance, that the original surrealists gradually came around to being more politically engaged—and that, as they did, the parameters of the movement were nudged at least a little bit closer to what Bernstein was doing. Breton published a Second Manifesto of Surrealism [contained here], five years after the first one, and after the surrealists had begun to explicitly align themselves with communists and other leftist radicals. Here’s a passage from that Second Manifesto that’s worth quoting at length:
In spite of the various efforts peculiar to each of those who used to claim kinship with Surrealism, or who still do, one must ultimately admit that, more than anything else, Surrealism attempted to provoke, from the intellectual and moral point of view, an attack of conscience, of the most general and serious kind, and that the extent to which this was or was not accomplished alone can determine its historical success or failure.
From the intellectual point of view, it was then, and still is today, a question of testing by any and all means, and of demonstrating at any price, the meretricious nature of the old antinomies hypocritically intended to prevent any unusual ferment on the part of man, were it only by giving him a vague idea of the means at his disposal, by challenging him to escape to some meaningful degree from the universal fetters.
So again, that’s Breton in 1929. I would argue that’s also Bernstein in 1965, writing Chichester Psalms. “The meretricious nature of the old antimonies”—that’s exactly what Bernstein was eager to cast aside. The era surrounding Chichester Psalms was full of dichotomies: East/West, communist/capitalist, dove/hawk—not to mention tonal/atonal, avant-garde/traditional, up-to-date/old-fashioned.
Chichester Psalms, the piece that preceded it, Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3, subtitled “Kaddish,” and the piece that followed it, Bernstein’s Mass, all, in various ways, translate the kinds of attacks of conscience Breton mentions into musical performance. And, in Chichester Psalms, the place where that attack of conscience happens is the place we’ve been talking about, the second movement, which Bernstein described as a contest between “fear and faith.” And Bernstein’s way of cutting across those dichotomies was to cast his musical lot decisively with tonality, both because of its archetypal aura and because it was the vocabulary that was, for him, the most intuitive and psychologically direct—qualities that the surrealists would have recognized and appreciated. (As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that the second movement is also a contest between successful Bernstein and unsuccessful Bernstein: the music recycled from The Skin of Our Teeth gives way, in the middle section, to music that was originally written for West Side Story. The surrealists would probably also have appreciated the Freudian subtext of that.)
Now, so far, we’ve been dealing with what is really at least somewhat ancient history, for you and even for me. William Morris is long gone. The surrealists had their heyday before World War II. And Chichester Psalms is 50 years old. But there was something else going on fifty years ago that maybe gives us a hint as to how and why we perform Chichester Psalms today—how we decide what question the piece should provoke.
So I want to introduce one more person into this drama, and that’s a Belgian-born thinker named Raoul Vaneigem. Vaneigem became well-known in the 1960s, right around the time of Chichester Psalms, when, along with a man named Guy Debord, he was one of the intellectual forces behind a movement called the Situationist International. The SI was a radical group, but most of their critique and activity was in some way based around performance. Debord put it this way:
The situationist movement can be seen as an artistic avant-garde, as an experimental investigation of possible ways for freely constructing everyday life, and as a contribution to the theoretical and practical development of a new revolutionary contestation.
Their main idea was that the control that those in power maintained over those without power was, basically, something that was itself performed. They called it the “spectacle”—an advanced, up-to-date version of the bread and circuses of ancient Rome. Entertainment, mass media, advertising—all of it, according to the Situationists, is part of the spectacle, and it conditions us and frames our relationship with society in such a way that we are distracted and prevented from changing the framework of that society in any meaningful way.
One of their favorite ways of critiquing the spectacle was what they called détournement, literally “rerouting,” in which they would hijack mass media artifacts and alter them: add the soundtrack of one film to the images of another, or add different text to the visual component of an advertisement, and so forth. It was a way of re-enacting the rituals of the spectacle, but in a satirical way that brought to the fore the spectacle’s artificiality and mendacity.
The Situationist International reached its apex of influence and notoriety with the demonstrations and rebellion that swept through Paris in 1968. After that, the group kind of faded away, although many of its thinkers and a lot of its ideas continue to have an effect. It is fair to say that the SI would have regarded Chichester Psalms as bourgeois, sentimental claptrap. But, from fifty years away, you can at least see the ideas and personalities glance off of each other, ricocheting through the same zeitgeist.
This is Vaneigem writing about the effect of the spectacle, in an article called “Basic Banalities” that was published in the SI’s “central bulletin” in 1963:
There is a place where you create yourself and a time in which you play yourself. The space of everyday life, of our true realization, is encircled by every form of conditioning. The narrow space of our true realization defines us, yet we define ourselves in the time of the spectacle. To put it another way: our consciousness is no longer consciousness of myth and of particular-being-within-myth, but rather consciousness of the spectacle and of particular-role-within-the-spectacle.
That’s a little hard to parse, but think about it for a while and you realize that it’s as good a description as any of Bernstein’s artistic struggle in the 1960s: authentically being versus elaborate role-playing. And one could make a case that there’s at least a whiff of détournement in Chichester Psalms and its repurposing of Broadway pop music into something sung by choirboys in an English cathedral. That’s actually a pretty efficient way of undermining the dividing lines between high and low, and classical and pop, and sacred and secular—just the sort of categorizations that had critically plagued Bernstein for his entire career.
Here’s something on a deeper level. Remember that Bernstein had explicitly described Chichester Psalms in terms that set it against the serial, twelve-tone styles of composition that were ascendent in the avant-garde at the time. Well, Chichester Psalms might be tonal, but there’s some interesting stuff going on under the hood. Take that Skin of Our Teeth number that’s now the setting of Psalm 23. Bernstein keeps introducing all these new chromatic pitches:
By the time the second movement gets to the downbeat of measure 11, we’ve heard 11 of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. You’re left waiting for the 12th pitch, the F-natural, to complete the aggregate. And it doesn’t show up. Not at first, anyway. But when the movement shifts over to Psalm 2, with the nations raging so furiously together, the tonality shifts to A-minor—and that F-natural shows up almost immediately:
Now, of course, what happens next is that those two different musics then overlap with each other—which means that the F-natural is suddenly there, to complete the aggregate, to bring all twelve tones together. And (as long as we’re reading into things) what’s the line that it happens on?
Ta’aroch l’fanai shulchan
Thou preparest a table before me
In the presence of mine enemies
But back up again: this is awfully speculative. Making Chichester Psalms into some sort of Situationist subversion is fun (and I do think it tells us something about the piece), but it’s a stretch. And that’s why I wanted to talk about Raoul Vaneigem: because, interestingly, Raoul Vaneigem himself told us exactly why it’s a stretch—and, by extension, what that might mean for a performance of Chichester Psalms now, as opposed to 1965.
In 1970, just as he left the Situationist International, Vaneigem was commissioned by a publisher to write a book on Surrealism suitable for high school students; so, in the space of two weeks, he dashed off the book, which he called A Cavalier History of Surrealism. It is a marvelous little book, a perfect example of how useful it can be to have something described to you by a smart person who doesn’t like it.
Because Vaneigem was, ultimately, profoundly disappointed in the surrealists, for their sometime political callowness, for the way they used aesthetics as a substitute for direct action, for the way in which their movement was, in the end, co-opted and tamed by the market. But it’s one particular criticism of the way Surrealism looked back into history that is particularly pertinent to Chichester Psalms, and what sort of question it should provoke. This is Vaneigem writing:
After Dada’s failure, Surrealism for its part renewed ties with the older tradition [Romanticism]. It did so, however, just as though Dada had never existed, just as though Dada’s dynamiting of culture had never occurred. It prolonged the yearning for transcendence, as nurtured from de Sade to Jarry, without ever realizing that the transcendence in question had now become possible. It curated and popularized the great human aspirations without ever discovering that the prerequisites for their fulfillment were already present. In doing do, Surrealism ended up reinvigorating the spectacle, whose function was to conceal from the last class in history, the proletariat, bearer of total freedom, the history that was yet to be made.
In other words, the problem was that the surrealists were wasting their energy envisioning a better world when everybody already knew what a better world looked like. Two world wars and a worldwide economic depression had made it pretty clear what needed to be fixed. To go back and re-fight the battles of the 19th century wasn’t a solution, it was a distraction.
Here’s the thing: I think you can make a very similar critique of Chichester Psalms. And I think Bernstein, in a way, knew it. A few years after Chichester Psalms, also in 1970, Bernstein stood up not very far from here and addressed the incoming class of the Tanglewood Music Center. [Bernstein later published the address in his book Findings.] And he talked about his own class—the first TMC class, in 1940—and he described it this way:
We who were sitting there in 1940 were a generation of hopers…. We kids who had spent our college days marching with strikers, giving one benefit after another for one cause or another—we kids were committed to the future. We had hope.
And then Bernstein talks about the hopelessness that he sees in the kids of 1970. He even compares it to the shift in musical styles: how in 1940 they still had the tradition of the symphony as a statement of musical nobility, but how, thirty years later, there’s no single tradition anymore, and none of the avant-garde music being made is noble. That’s the term he uses, “noble.” And then he says:
I have nothing brilliant or immortal to say to any of you who feels despair. Of course, I can reach back to Serge Koussevitzky and retrieve his sense of commitment, his dedication and patience, and pass them on to you. I can do that, and I do do that; and I wish that were enough—now, thirty years later. But it isn’t enough, we know that; something has changed.
And one of the things that changed, and continues to change, is the questions that need to be asked. Which, in a strange way, is why we are compelled to keep performing Chichester Psalms—or any other piece. Because there are always new questions that need to be provoked. There are new questions that the piece can and ought to provoke.
When you think about it, Bernstein, in 1965, writing Chichester Psalms, was asking the same question that William Morris was asking, that the surrealists were asking, that the TMC class of 1940 was asking: what would a better world, a more just and equal world, look like, and how might we get there? But, fifty years later, I think the question that Chichester Psalms should provoke is something closer to what Raoul Vaneigem was asking.
Because, fifty years later, we know what stands in the way of a better world. We burn through our resources, we hang on to our privileges, we indulge our fears and prejudices, and we deny others their humanity. We know what we have to change. And the question that I think a performance of Chichester Psalms—what any musical performance, really—ought to provoke now, today, is the harder question, the more acute question, the more critical question: if we know what to do, why haven’t we done it yet?