Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, May 20, 2004


Some books I read fast, some books I linger over for months or even years, absorbing a few pages and then putting it down for a few weeks as I read other things. In some ways, those may be my favorite books. Moby-Dick was like that for me. Took me a couple years to read.

The other night I sorrowfully finished one of those books, "Music Ho!" by the English composer Constant Lambert, who was born in 1905, was writing ballets for Diaghellev at the age of 20, and wrote this book before he was 30. I've posted about it hereabouts before -- nearly every page stimulates with fresh insight spicily presented. Sad to finish it -- I wanted it to go on and on.

In the context of the ongoing controversies over atonal serial music, reading a book from 1934 that expresses shock that the oddball revolutionary Schoenberg had attracted a whole school of followers -- it's dislocating. Lambert predicts that atonalism will fizzle out, despite some beauties among its chief practitioners, Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Lambert isn't against atonalism, and admires Berg a great deal, but he's against any sort of dogmatism, and the atonalists had become dogmatic even by then.

Lambert helps me understand my impatience with 19th century symphonies and concertos. He talks about how what Wilfrid Mellers later called the Sonata Principle, first apotheosized by Haydn, depends on a spiritual balance, which the repeat of a movement's opening theme at the end psychologically indicates. Haydn and Mozart had that balance; Beethoven's symphonies pushed the classical balance to its limit. Lambert says that the 19th century zeitgeist of individualistic romanticism, and Beethoven's example of music-as-unfolding-drama, combine to make the theme-development-recapitulation sonata structure untenable. Hence Liszt's brilliance in creating the orchestral tone poem, which starts on its journey and doesn't force its way back to the beginning.

A standard opinion in classical music talk (I heard an eminent critic repeat it a month ago) is that George Bernard Shaw and the 20th century American composer Virgil Thomson were the greatest of classical music critics. It's been a long time since I've read Thomson, but I have read GBS recently. I learn a lot more, and laugh more, reading Lambert.

You don't have to agree with it to enjoy a sentence like this: "There is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm (this limit is obviously reached by Ravel towards the end of La Valse and towards the beginning of Bolero)."

Music ho!


My friend Emily Dietrich wrote in response to my post Sunday night on hearing a performance of Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" and the debut of two of Forrest Pierce's "Blood Concerti" ("MHC," which she mentions, is Mount Holyoke College):

This Blood Music sounds so stimulating. I'm glad, glad, exultant that your experience of music includes a physiological response, tears, shudders, etc. I feel that too, feel so full to bursting. I feel like music has direct access to something. Maybe receiving the information through the ears activates a different translator method. Or maybe music doesn't have to be TRANSLATED! Trivial, in a way, "the universal language,etc." But true true true. I think of Le Ton Beau de Marot, a cool book about translation and empathy and a wee poem by Marot and the death of the author's wife and Nabokov and Eugene Onegin by Douglas Hofstadter.

But there's this other thing. I was having a hard time on Mother's Day, missing my mother. I distracted myself by learning a prelude by Bach in B Flat I think. Any way there are these crazy runs (made me think of the cello trill you describe) and they build and build when I can get them right. That reminded me of a part of Bach's Magnificat which I sang at MHC. Our director struggled with the focus of the piece and then one day came and revealed her vision to us. The melodic lines were like ivy twining up white columns and then bursting out with the words "SUPERBOS."

If I could sing the Magnificat once or twice a week for the rest of my life with Mendelssohn's Die Erste Walpurgisnacht the other days. There's no dominant for that subordinate clause. That's all. If I could. Then what? Just if I could.

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