Month: December 2009

The Victorian Tongue

We may live without poetry, music, and art:
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
He may live without books,—what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope,—what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love,—what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?

—Owen Meredith, Lucile (1860)

Owen Meredith was the pen name of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton; as Viceroy of India, Lytton counted on his résumé the Great Indian Famine of the late 1870s as well as the Pyrrhically expensive Second Anglo-Afghan War, the latter decisively contributing to the 1880 downfall of Disraeli’s second (and final) premiership. For his efforts, Lytton was created 1st Earl of Lytton. “Genius does what it must,” Lytton/Meredith famously wrote, “talent does what it can.”

Vertical hold

Taking a stand for Messiah.
Boston Globe, December 19, 2009.

I would probably quote George Bernard Shaw in every article I wrote if I could, but his riff on standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus was cut for space: calling Handel not just a composer, not just an institution, but “a sacred institution,” Shaw mischievously judged the tradition “the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to English Protestants.”

The playing of the merry organ

My lovely wife picked up a veal kidney for me at the store, with the stipulation that I could only cook it when she wasn’t in the house. So Critic-at-Large Moe and I had our own office holiday party today.

(Rognons de veau en casserole courtesy of—who else?—Julia Child.) Why, look who else is here—it’s Franco Corelli!

That “stella d’argento” he’s giving Callas looks like it was made out of pure radium.

I get the sense he might not like it

Hey, Robert Evett, what do you think about Charles Ives? I mean, seeing as how it’s 1954 and he’s just died and all.

Ives never developed a style, indigenous, American or otherwise. He spent at least half of his creative life writing in a bastardized romantic idiom which was little more than a caricature of Schumann, Franz, Brahms and the the others…. Later, he dressed this music up with a number of singularly ugly or impractical elements, but these elements were never fused into anything consistent enough to be called a style.

[T]here is no reason to doubt that Ives meant to give music—at least his own music—its freedom. Perhaps Ives had the imagination he would have needed for bringing this about, but he didn’t have the technique…. In his effort to get free of convention, Ives was usually reduced to a kind of mindless banging around which disguised sometimes the poverty of his materials.

Charles Ives will surely merit a case history by some future musicologist as an example of the 20th Century composer whoring after novelty.

All American artists are unfortunate in that the first of us who enjoyed any particular international vogue was Mr. Whitman, and that it is his work which has become, like Betty Crocker’s recipes, a touchstone for things American…. For musicians it is worse. We had nothing to offer before Ives, and he smelled like Whitman’s armpits.

—Robert Evett, “Music Letter: A Post-Mortem for Mr. Ives,”
The Kenyon Review, vol. 16, no. 4 (Autumn 1954)

Whitman’s armpits? But that’s an aroma finer than prayer!

She’s Gotta Have it

Malibran had borne along the first two acts [of The Maid of Artois] on the first night of performance in such a flood of triumph, that she was bent, by some almost superhuman effort, to continue its glory to the final fall of the curtain. I went into her dressing-room previous to the commencement of the third act, to ask how she felt, and she replied, “Very tired, but” (and here her eye of fire suddenly lighted up) “you angry devil, if you will contrive to get me a pint of porter in the desert scene, you shall have an encore to your finale.” Had I been dealing with any other performer, I should perhaps have hesitated in complying with a request that might have been dangerous in its application at the moment; but to check her powers was to annihilate them. I therefore arranged that, behind the pile of drifted sand on which she falls in a state of exhaustion, towards the close of the desert scene, a small aperture should be made in the stage; and it is a fact that, from underneath the stage through that aperture, a pewter pint of porter was conveyed to the parched lips of this rare child of song, which so revived her, after the terrible exertion the scene led to, that she electrified the audience, and had strength to repeat the charm, with the finale to the Maid of Artois.

—Alfred Bunn, The Stage: Both Before and Behind the Curtain (1840)

Bunn, manager of the Drury Lane Theater and Covent Garden, also wrote the libretto of The Maid of Artois for Michael Balfe. A couple of months after her triumph, Malibran fell off her horse, triggering an illness that would claim her life shortly thereafter. The Countess de Merlin’s 1841 Memoirs of Madame Malibran reports that during Malibran’s final illness, her landlady ventured the opinion that the porter Malibran drank with her customary oyster breakfast might not be agreeing with her. “What can I do?” Malibran replied. “I must take something for my voice, and I find this the best thing I can take.”