Saturday, September 5, 2009

Notes on Notes on Classical Style

I should have noted, when it came out, this uncommonly intelligent review in the New York Times (via the Straussmonster). James Oestreich demolishes the Mostly Mozart Festival's fawning guide to the music of its namesake:

“Make of it what you will,” Mr. Vigeland writes, ending his discussion of the “great” G minor Symphony, No. 40, “there had until its composition never been anything like this symphony in the history of music.” “They had to rewrite the textbooks again after the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony,” he continues, as if textbooks had flooded out in the 16 days of 1788 between the premieres of the 40th and the 41st. “Stupendous,” he adds of the “Jupiter.” “Unbelievable. Beyond superlatives. Maybe simply: miraculous. This perfect piece,” and so on. I have no wish to denigrate the “Jupiter” Symphony. I would almost grant Mr. Vigeland “stupendous” if he hadn’t used the word so often elsewhere. But the rest of it raised the old hackles again. Now I was trapped. Feeling the need to sound a caveat, I thought it would be unfair to do so without reading the whole book.
Oestreich recognizes the Mostly Mozart book as one example of a larger problem, people who love Mozart so much that it results in spells of temporary stupidity. O Mozart, you're so fine, you're so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mozart. In case we had any doubts that this is a serious illness, here's Russell Platt in the New Yorker, suffering from a severe case of the Mozart Effect:
Why are Mozart’s symphonies more popular than Haydn’s? In a sense, the answer is simple: Mozart’s more accurately imitate the full range of human emotions; they can swerve from laughter to tears in the space of a single phrase.
Uh, are Mozart's symphonies more popular than Haydn's? I work at a record store, and nobody ever seems to ask for any Mozart symphonies before #38. On the other hand, I have ordered for more than one customer a complete set of Haydn's hundred. People want the London Symphonies, the Paris Symphonies; they want the Farewell Symphony, and all that jazz. God knows nobody's asking for Haydn's operas, and Mozart's Haydn Quartets are more in demand than Haydn's actual Haydn quartets, but I'm pretty sure symphonies is the one place he's got Mozart beat. Platt has just taken some conventional wisdom about Mozart and Haydn, plugged in the word "symphony," and then phrased his conclusion in the form of a question. The answer to his question is, of course, more received wisdom, but rarely is the genealogy of such wisdom so readily traceable. If Platt reads his own magazine, he probably ran across this nugget
Nicholas Kenyon, in his excellent new “Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart,” writes, “Other great composers have expressed the extremes of life: affirmation, despair, sensual pleasure, bleak emptiness, but only in Mozart can all these emotions co-exist in the space of a short phrase.”
—absently dropped it in his pocket, and forgot where it came from. Platt adds, as if it meant something, "It was Beethoven, who studied with Haydn, who brought the legacy of these composers into the Romantic age"; I'm not sure that I'm willing to accept such a lazy analysis even in a capsule review. Has any New Yorker reader who ever heard of the "Romantic age" in Western concert-music know it as anything other than the age that followed Beethoven? I guess I am willing to accept lazy Beethoven-worship when it comes from non–music critics, e.g. novelist James Ellroy in the OC Register. He totally gets a signed permission slip from me, even when he plays his new girlfriend
the Adagio of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata on the stereo and tells her, "This is how I feel about you." And means it. "Why does anyone pretend that this (Adagio) is about anything other than transcendent emotion and the seeking of the divine?," he says.
I'm forgiving this sentiment mostly because I'm pretty sure that the words "this (Adagio)" were probably "this fuckin' shit" in the unexpurgated interview, but also because I saw James Ellroy on Conan one time years ago and he (Ellroy) did this indescribable gesture that means to have a penis like a forearm, which gesture I still use in conversation today. He's hilarious, is what I'm saying, and he's mastered the art of saying just a little too much in interviews, being just a little too vulgar, without actually getting arrested. In fact, I love this interview so much, I'm going to forgive the usually reliable Tim Mangan his regrettable foray into silly "noir" prose in the lede and just thank him for bringing us something so awesome. Finally, while we're on the subject of Beethoven and the novel, you have to read this Matthew Guerrieri piece about various appearances of the Beethoven's Fifth ringtone in fiction. It is the OPPOSITE of lazy, digging up citations in books that you and I might never have thought of reading:
My favorite Beethovenian cell-phone adopter is Moxy Maxwell, the stubborn 10-year-old heroine of Peggy Gifford’s series of children’s books. From Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-You Notes: Moxy was so quick on the draw when she picked up her cell phone that Ajax often remarked that she would have made a first-rate gunslinger in the Old West. And this time was no exception. After the second but before the third note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Moxy was saying “Yes” into the phone. “Yes” was what Moxy said instead of “Hello,” unless it was someone she didn’t know. If Beethoven’s Fifth stops after the first two notes, is it still Beethoven’s Fifth? Moxy does not have time for your trumped-up pop koans. But the joke only works if the tune is something everybody knows, once again both reinforcing and perpetuating the ubiquity of the Fifth symphony’s iconic opening.
Hooray! Well-written, well-researched, well-thought-out. More like this, please.


Franz Joseph Haydn said...

Russell Who? Never heard of him.

Anonymous said...

Has he reviewed the book for the Basically Babbitt Festival?