Washington, D.C., has always seemed to me a place suffused with intellectual insecurity (especially this millenium) but it seems to have spread into its musical life this past week. First, Greg “We Must Kill Classical Music In Order To Save It” Sandow—who’s jumping the shark on pretty much a weekly basis these days—finds that Felicity Lott just isn’t pandering to him as much as he would like. (He plays coy with specifically identifying the performance, but come on, your wife covered the thing.)
But let’s look at the Baudelaire group. We weren’t reading the poems, or hearing a lecture on them. We were reliving them, or at least reliving them as they were set to music by French composers. Which meant that the singer and pianist were reliving them, too, and that rather than think about them, or experience them distantly, they should have hit us right in the gut.
Did that happen? Of course not. Which isn’t to say the performance was bad. By normal standards, it was quite good, thoughtful, nuanced, expressive. But that’s not enough. Baudelaire is far more than that. He’s uneasy, troubled, sick, sensual, seduced by evil, drenched with regret. Is that what we felt, hearing those songs? Of course not. The concert was far too genteel. If the spirit of Baudelaire had emerged — if all of us wondered what secret we hid, what secret was making us suffer — the unspoken rules of the concert would have been violated. It wouldn’t have been artistic, thoughtful, genteel. It would have made us uneasy. We would have been troubled. We would have had fantasies, of nudity, jewelry, decay. Is that what we’d come for?
My initial reaction—which I still think is true—is that if your idea of listening is to sit back in your chair and wait for something to hit you in the gut, then, yeah, the glories of Duparc and Debussy and Baudelaire are probably going to slip past you. The power of Baudelaire isn’t just in his transgression, it’s in the combination of that transgression with his formal discipline and poetic restraint. Decadence is supposed to be elegant, after all—that’s part of the whole point. It’s why Duparc’s Baudelaire settings, or, to give a more extensive example, Faure’s Verlaine settings, are so successful—the polished surface in quiet tension with the implications of the poetry. That demands an active engagement on the part of the listener/reader, and active engagement is what those composers would have expected; the unease is more profound if you find it on your own. Duparc and Debussy knew what Baudelaire was up to. Sandow doesn’t.
Sandow blames standard recital presentation—”The form of the concert at war with its content,” he writes. As usual, he implicitly proscribes something closer to popular culture—a presentation that underlines whatever the content “is.” (Felicity Lott in torn nylons and safety pins, maybe.) But the form isn’t at war with the content—even given the way that term has been cheapened through overuse along the banks of the Potomac—the form is content-neutral. The conventions of recital performance are designed to stay out of the way of as wide a variety of content as possible.
It’s that aspect of concert performance—be it vocal, chamber, or orchestral repertoire—that Sandow objects to. I don’t think it’s because the performance isn’t telling him what to think about the music, but I do think it’s because the performance isn’t reassuring him that what he might think about the music is OK. There’s nothing stopping him from approaching the songs and finding those aspects that would reveal Baudelaire to be an eloquent degenerate, but since the recital doesn’t seem to be giving him explicit permission to go there, he doesn’t. I suppose his gut would be adequately hit by a concert that goes out of its way to highlight an interpretative attitude that’s congruent with his own—but then, of course, those of us who think Baudelaire comes off as more uneasy the less you wallow in the uneasiness would be left cold. I think that’s a pretty high price to pay just to have Sandow’s own opinion validated. I have a particular bent towards vocal repertoire, and I can say that men in tails and women in organza very frequently move me to laughter, desperation, shock, and enlightenment; if you’re sitting around pouting that your gut remains unstruck, I rather think that’s more your problem. To have a performance that highlights an aspect of the music that the performers want to highlight is fine, but to call that necessary to a meaningful audience experience? That’s abdicating most of the joy of being in the audience.
What Sandow wants, I think, is closer to kitsch than art, if one uses those terms in the Greenberg/Adorno/Benjamin sense. My favorite explanation of this sort of kitsch comes from Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
A desire for the experience of kitsch is a symptom of insecurity. Sandow wants the focus not just on how the music moves him, but accompanied by a reassurance that everyone else in the audience is being moved the same way. Safety in numbers.
So it was interesting that D.C. was also graced last week by a masterpiece of kitsch in the somewhat different postmodern sense, the neo-romantic sprawl of David Del Tredici’s 1976 Final Alice. I mean that sincerely, Final Alice being an early and persistent favorite of mine—Del Tredici is one of that small group of composers (like Richard Strauss) whose music gets more compelling as it gets more self-indulgent. That said, Stephen Brookes’ preview of the piece for the Washington Post is a revisionist mess.
But in one bold stroke, Del Tredici jettisoned the strict composing system known as serialism (which dominated new American music, to the despair of most audiences) and embraced a neo-romantic style — scandalizing his colleagues and setting off an earthquake in American music whose aftershocks are still being felt.
” ‘Final Alice’ changed the face of music in this country overnight,” recalls Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra’s music director, who was in the Chicago audience that night. “It destroyed all conceptions of what ‘new music’ was supposed to be, and many composers will tell you that they were now liberated to write how they felt. It was the start of a revolution.”
Serialism dominated new American music? It changed the face of music overnight? Um, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington and George Rochberg and Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Philip Glass might have something to say about that. Brookes is, of course, reiterating the simplistic serialist-hegemony-tonal-rebellion narrative which is turning into as hoary a “fact” as Abner Doubleday’s invention of baseball. It’s all here: Forbidden tonality! Outraged avant-gardists! Brookes even joins the too-long list of lazy critics who reference Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” in such a way that reveals he never bothered to read past the title.
But reorienting that narrative around Final Alice—a variant on this past weekend’s ruminations—is interesting. Unlike that above list of composers who either kept on with their longstanding tonal preference or reworked tonality into minimalist radicalism, Del Tredici’s opus is such a conscious throwback, a deliberate re-creation of 19th-century Romantic rhetoric, that it would have been impossible to miss. The novelty of Final Alice was its time-machine aspect, not its return not to tonality—that was already in full swing—but its return to an era prior to atonality’s existence. (And even here, Rochberg got there first, just not on Del Tredici’s scale.) A reproduction of the past for an age saturated with reproduction: kitsch layered on kitsch, to exuberantly entrancing effect.
But it’s important to note that the “revolution” that Slatkin and Brookes—and, to an extent, Del Tredici—keep insisting the work ushered in is kitsch as well, an ersatz revolution, a bid to conjure the emotional high of a revolutionary act without the uncertain prospect of revolutionary consequences. It was a novel expression of a style that everyone already knew how to interpret, that everybody already knew what to think of. To celebrate the work for what it is—a grand, emotionally promiscuous entertainment—is deserved. (I would be a little suspicious of anyone who couldn’t enjoy at least part of the piece.) But to celebrate it as a revolution is a sigh of relief that it wasn’t a real revolution, something that would have required the risk of uncharted critical engagement—and to fear that is to be insecure of one’s own critical judgment. One could say that part of the genius of Final Alice is that is does make the form of an orchestra concert and the work’s content, to a certain extent, congruent; Del Tredici even acknowledges the conventions by having the piece grow out of the sounds of the orchestra tuning. But in the process, the music’s atmosphere and intent is at least partially fixed—some path of individual resonance and reinterpretation has been closed off. If you’re constantly worried whether your own reinterpretations are right or wrong, that might be a good thing. But if you’re like me, at a certain point, you’re going to chafe at any presentation that insists that music can only be one particular thing. Because it never, ever is.