December 14, 2007

It's up to your knees out there

That was the awfully pretty view out my window this morning, but I think spending the night shoveling it all left too much of a brain fog for proper blogging. Nevertheless, here's some topics I was thinking about delving into. Maybe I'll get to the bottom of some of them at some point in the future. For today, I think I'll eat a whole bag of potato chips. Realistic goals, you know.

  • The New York Philharmonic goes to North Korea. It sounds kind of like the highbrow version of a "Bad News Bears" sequel, doesn't it? I always find these sorts of cultural exchanges fascinating, because you can make equally good arguments that they're almost inevitably failures because, at the end of the day, they don't really mean anything politically, or that they're almost inevitably successful, because, at the end of the day, they don't really mean anything politically. I'm curious to see just how much the view of this will hearken back to the Cold War: somebody's always keeping those Soviet-era journalistic lenses well-polished.

  • The 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees were announced this week. More and more, the lesson of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to be that the surest path to artistic immortality is to a) get in on the ground floor of b) a medium pitched towards impressionable teenagers who grow up to be nostalgic critics. I mean, I like the Dave Clark Five, but were they really that good or that important? I'm starting to get the feeling that, fifty years from now, every single act who released a record between 1955 and 1970 will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (And again, "Weird Al" Yankovic is passed over. For shame.)

  • Punkte and Circumstance. For future publication, I spent a good deal of this week studying Karlheinz Stockhausen; for future publication, I'm embarking on a study of Edward Elgar. Maybe it's just the accidental juxtaposition, but I think there's a particular connection between them that has a lot to do with how easily music can paper over awkward aesthetic impulses: namely, the fact that both composers rose to positions of public prominence at the same time the strong religious aspects of their music were publicly soft-pedaled. Elgar's Catholicism was politely discounted for pretty much his whole career; Stockhausen's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink didn't receive much mention until the late 1960s, when it became too front-and-center to ignore.

  • I'll close with a commercial: here in Framingham, I live within shouting distance of about a hundred shopping malls, and if the traffic I have to crawl through when I'm not even going to the mall is any indication, there's a lot of holiday-gift aggravation out there for the having. Why not just stay home and give everyone t-shirts? Not to be an insufferable shill or anything, but proceeds do go to a good cause. (Don't like mine? Darcy's are pretty stylish. And Matt has cornered the market on wearable puns—my favorite is "Fine and D'Indy," with its subversive anti-anti-Semitic vibe.)


    Osbert Parsley said...

    First of all, hello! I've followed this blog for some time and greatly enjoy your writing. I did want to question, however, your comparison of Elgar and Stockhausen as composers whose religiosity was publicly downplayed. I've always understood Elgar as being, at best, nominally religious; another musician once told me that at the time of his death Elgar hadn't been to church in years, and was buried in a Catholic cemetery only because the local priest managed to extract a "conversion" from the composer on his deathbed. In other words, doesn't his estrangement from the English mainstream have more to do with his provincial, working-class origins than his Catholicism?

    DJA said...

    I like the Dave Clark Five, but were they really that good or that important?


    This has been another edition of "Literal Answers to Rhetorical Questions."

    DJA said...

    I should add that I am actually very pleased to see the induction of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, who are receiving the new Ahmet Ertegun Award. Good call.

    Matthew said...

    Darcy: I was pleased by Gamble and Huff as well, not to mention Little Walter.

    Osbert: Thanks for visiting! You're right that previous Elgar biographers (in particular Jerrold Moore's massive book, which for all my quibbles I still love to read) promulgated the view that Elgar wasn't much of a Catholic. (You're also right that Elgar held the view that class, more than religion, contributed to his outsider status.) There's a whole bunch of recent scholarship, though, that questions that characterization, saying that, idiosyncratic as it may have been, Elgar's Catholicism was stronger—and more important to his music—than previously thought. ("Edward Elgar and His World," published in conjunction with the recent Bard Festival devoted to Elgar, brings together a lot of this opinion.)

    I was also thinking in terms of the curiously secular critical reaction—particularly later, after Elgar was the epitome of English music—to works like Gerontius or The Apostles or The Kingdom, which, regardless of what Elgar believed, are suffused with religion, in a lot of cases specifically Catholic ideas. It would be kind of like if, today, a leading American composer wrote a work colored by Islamic theology, and nobody saw fit to mention that aspect of it.

    It seems obvious that Elgar himself contributed to this view, portraying himself as more of a "generic" Christian—but whether in the interests of his career or because of religious doubt, we don't know.

    Osbert Parsley said...

    Many thanks for your comments; I'm far from an expert on Elgar, so I'll keep an eye open for the books you mention.

    Are you familiar with the book The English Musical Renaissance 1860-1940 by Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling? Your discussion of the critical reaction to Elgar's music reminds me of some parts of their book. Essentially, they are trying to establish that the musical Renaissance in England at the turn of the last century was in large part a social construct. For example, Frederick Delius disliked English music, lived outside Britain for most of his life and was largely disconnected from contemporary British composers, but when he turned out to be successful members of the British musical establishment went to some lengths to portray him as part of a "school" of British composers. They suggest that composers like Elgar became "the epitome of English music" because the country desperately needed someone to take the role, regardless of how well he actually filled it.

    Following this logic, it makes sense that the public would take exception to Elgar's Catholicism earlier in his career, but that these issues would magically iron themselves out as he became more successful. I can't recall the source but do remember reading that the clergy of Worcester Cathedral were reluctant to allow an oratorio based on Newman's "The Dream of Gerontius" to be performed in the sanctuary. By the time its musical merits were established, however, these concerns were conveniently forgotten.

    What all this means, I think, is that the true extent of Elgar's Catholicism is difficult to measure. One can argue that Elgar was most devout earlier in his life, and that he slipped away from the faith as he aged, but one can also argue that this is what the British press wanted us to think in order to make him more palatable to a broader public - and there's probably some truth in both propositions.

    Henry Holland said...

    They suggest that composers like Elgar became "the epitome of English music" because the country desperately needed someone to take the role, regardless of how well he actually filled it

    That attitude is still alive in the pages of Gramophone and Opera. I can't tell you how many times in the 80's and early 90's my friends and I would read rave reviews of British performers in those magazines and buy the discs or go to the opera house to hear them and be stunned at how utterly mediocre they were. La Cieca at Parterre Box has a whole series of posts about this. It's kind of like how Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times will rave about a John Adams piece: I simply don't believe him any more.


    This has been another edition of "Literal Answers to Rhetorical Questions."

    Hahaha. Who's next, Herman's Hermits?

    Elaine Fine said...

    "Fine and D'Indy" was Julius Baker's "pet" name for me when I was his student. I remember some of the other students' names too: "Mutt and Jeff," "General Patton," and, my favorite "Sandy Synogogue."

    Lane Savant said...

    The Ventures?