Month: October 2008

¡Abajo cadenas!

I’ve written about Venezuela before in this space, specifically to defend the Venezuelan music-education program popularly known as El Sistema for their marriage of convenience with the administration of Hugo Chávez. But, like I said then, this lefty has always cringed at Chávez’s tendency to sully his populism with heavy-handed demagoguery and repression. So I direct your eye to this report in the latest New York Review of Books, detailing Venezuelan expulsion of a pair of representatives from Human Rights Watch. One hopes this is just another example of Chávez’s penchant for embodying both sides of the good cop/bad cop divide in one person, rather than what it truly seems to be: a revealing move towards further authoritarian consolidation. But either way, it’s a reminder that, regardless of how you judge Dudamel et al., the Venezuelan government remains a worthy target of critical attention.

80s movie pitch of the day

The king [Francis I] successfully retained the services of the best musicians left by his predecessors…. Choirboys were much in demand for they alone could hit the high notes. While some were taken from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, others were kidnapped from cathedrals elsewhere in France. Two, for example, were snatched at night from Beauvais. The fate of such choirboys was considered enviable, since their upkeep was paid for by the king. They were dressed like pages with black breeches, a doublet and a flet hat trimmed with black velvet.

—Robert J. Knecht, The French Renaissance Court
(emphasis added)

With John Rhys-Davies as Francis I. And Molly Ringwald as Anne de Pisseleu.

Coffee in a Cardboard Cup

So now that the banks are actually getting their hands on some of that $700 billion in government bailout money, we’ll see if it’s going to alleviate the financial crisis (CRISIS! That’s kind of fun—maybe I should make this a tabloid) that’s been the big story this year. (So far: maybe, maybe not.) Voices on all sides have been screaming that the bailout plan is neither fair nor equitable, and I wholeheartedly agree, but my hopelessly fiscally pragmatic brain does keep injecting the caveats that a) the alternative is another depression, which, according to my grandparents, pretty much sucked, and b) truly fair and equitable depression prevention would require the use of a time machine, which probably—let’s face it—would be manufactured in China. So I’m inclined to see this a chance for skill development, in particular a skill that Americans have historically lacked: learn something for the next time around.

One initial takeaway should be a better intuitive sense of what it’s like to live in a consumer-driven as opposed to a production-driven economy. In spite of the fact that the American economy has been driven by consumption for well over a century now, my sense is that most people still retain production-based assumptions about the way the economy works. But note that the current difficulties are not the result of people not producing enough stuff—that question hasn’t even been on the table. It’s that they’re not spending enough—the baseline amount of moving money required to keep the economy going is now so high that, if banks stop lending money out for people to spend, there isn’t enough money in the system left to move.

Here’s an example. In between the U.S. House of Representatives rejecting the bailout and then, a few days later, approving it, one of the data points I heard illustrating the deepening crisis was that McDonald’s franchisees were finding it near-impossible to secure small-business loans in order to upgrade their restaurants to include Starbucks-like McCafés. To me, that’s the American economy in a nutshell—maintaining a free enough flow of money that people can easily buy and sell stuff they don’t really need. I’m not trying to make a moral judgment here. (I love me my small vices and creature comforts, after all.) I am trying to point out that, in a consumer-driven economy, the movement of money is more important than its destination.

Given that this is a classical music blog, I should probably try and connect this with classical music, right? And it’s easy. The economic categorization of music is always iffy, but if you look at music as a product rather than a service, it’s awfully close to pure consumption. People pay, people get paid, and all for a product that’s so intangible it disappears as soon as it’s created. (Compare to the main culprit in the current mess, the housing market, in which there are large, physical objects that have depreciated below the paper value of the debt connected with them.) A typical symphonic concert throws producers, consumers, philanthropists, and government funding onto the dance floor with a minimum of financial friction. One of the supposed economic drawbacks of live music has always been that you don’t get anything concrete for your money; but given the current molasses-in-January state of the economy, isn’t that a simplifying advantage? I smell a marketing opportunity.

Every night, they say, he sings the herd to sleep

Is there any musical style as enamored of its own demise as late Romantic tonality? I’m not talking about styles that persist well past their sell-by date, or even styles that gravitate towards morbid subject matter—I mean a style that consciously uses itself to comment, implicitly or explicitly, on its own impending obsolescence. And I propose that late Romantic music indulges in this sort of preemptive nostalgia to an unprecedented and unrivaled degree.

I think you can even pinpoint its origin: January 26, 1911, the premiere of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the most epic wistful au revoir in the repertory (predating, not incidentally, both Stravinsky’s Rite and Schoenberg’s Pierrot). In stylistic retreat from the dissonant expressionism of Salome and Elektra, Strauss let his Marschallin bid adieu to her Octavian, her youth, aristocratic Vienna, what have you, with a trio so languorous Strauss would have let it run on into 1912 if he thought he could get away with it. Late Romanticism had already produced its share of goodbyes—Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with its own so-long farewell “Der Abschied,” was also premiered in 1911—but I think it was Rosenkavalier that made lush, chromatic tonality a signal of nostalgic intent. Ravel had it stand in for lost pre-WWI Europe in La Valse, Rachmaninoff made a cottage industry lacing his own rich potions with “Dies irae” reminders, Strauss himself followed up Rosenkavalier with another epic trio of send-offs in the 1940s—Capriccio, Metamorphosen, and the Four Last Songs. (The style would breed a second round of nostalgia in the 1970s and 80s via film scores, as John Williams and the like resurrected the late-Romantic, Golden-Age Hollywood style of Korngold, Steiner, &c.)

Nostalgia was largely a creation of Romanticism in the first place, with music playing a crucial role. It was the ranz des vaches (literally, the call to the cows), the song of the Alpine herdsman, that originally gave rise to the whole notion of nostalgia, often referred to as the mal du Suisse in the early days—according to Rousseau, the ranz des vaches

was so generally beloved among the Swiss, that it was forbidden to be play’d in their troops under pain of death, because it made them burst into tears, desert, or die, whoever heard it; so great a desire did it excite in them of returning to their country.

The increasing 19th-century awareness of history as a historical force—most fully articulated in Marx’s historiography or Nietzsche’s post-French-Revolution “sixth sense”—would transfer that homesickness to eras, timesickness as it were. So it makes sense that late Romantic music would adopt nostalgia as its own, being the first style to run its course with nostalgia imprinted on our collective consciousness.

But I always find it interesting that it’s late Romanticism that got the nod. That semiotically nostalgic cast had become more potent with the rise of atonality—when George Rochberg looked to rewind atonal modernism, for example, he opted for Mahlerian tonality—but, of course, the seeds of atonality can be found in the adventurous chromaticism of late Romanticism. And, oddly enough, it proved an effective survival strategy. Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, and the like are regarded as far more effective box-office draws in classical music than their immediate, direct atonal descendants, and those contemporary composers with the most mainstream cultural traction (I’m looking at you, John Adams) are those whose vocabularies most extensively borrow from the twilight of the Romantics. To paraphrase another grandiose cultural artifact, audiences apparently hate to see tonality go, but they love to watch it leave.

La scena a Boston e ne’dintorni.

It’s Columbus Day here in the United States, which nominally honors Christopher Columbus for his “discovery” of America, to which I append scare quotes not only because there were, in fact, people already living here, but because that summing-up of Columbus’s career, I think, has obscured the actual, wildly crazy history of his voyages, which is worth perusing. Besides, when I was a kid, Columbus Day was really just a pretext for any American with Italian heritage to be obnoxiously proud about it. (As, indeed, I am.)

So here’s some Italian-American culture, in the form of the great (and, reportedly, sometimes obnoxious) American baritone Leonard Warren singing “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera, the censor-mandated locale-transplant of which marks the closest Verdi ever came to visiting America.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana

Alles Vergängliche
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Das Unzulängliche,
Hier wird’s Ereignis;
Das Unbeschreibliche,
Hier ist’s getan;
Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan.
All that passes away
Is nothing but symbol;
That which is beyond us
Here becomes actual;
The undescribable
here is accomplished;
The Eternal-Feminine
Draws us on.

—Goethe, Faust, Part II

The Deed, though it was at the beginning, essentially issues from something prior and debouches into something ulterior: it must, then, have issued from other deed and led to more deeds in the future. The Incomprehensible is no doubt the existence of this movement and perhaps also the connection between its phases: although here again there would be intellectual arrogance in complaining that reality should be incomprehensible, when it moves so fruitfully without our leave.

Why should it be without our leave, and why should we complain when we are ourselves an integral part of that universal incomprehensibility and inadequacy? No: we do not complain: the Eternal Feminine allures us, and we are ready to be drawn onwards for ever from deed to deed, from event to event; and the notion that all this is only an image of something else, because it is transitory, would seem needless and even perverse; unless indeed we only meant that while the single events are transitory, the chain of them is perpetual, and each moment is but a happy note in an endless symphony. To this I see no possible objection, except that it is not true.

George Santayana, “Note on Goethe’s Chorus Mysticus in Faust”
(in The Birth of Reason and Other Essays, ed. Daniel Cory)