Saturday 31 May 2014

Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Finzi - nice sounds but going nowehere, nothing to say. Artistic 'greatness' as effectiveness of assertion


I was at a concert the other day which had several pieces of late 19th/ early 20th English music by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Finzi - and the overall impression was of a musical tradition going nowhere - and (in my judgement) that is exactly where it went since I regard the European tradition of classical music as a closed canon.

The sounds were pleasing, and there were some nice effects. But the structure of the music had become a matter of pattern-making without forward dynamics - the music (at this point in history) had become a matter of small phrases (not melodies) which were passed through the sections of the orchestra, the voices or registers - up and down, through various keys - deftly done but why?

Bernard Shaw memorably said that an artists style was effectiveness of assertion and that was it. And attempting to focus on style in and for itself was trivial- yet this is a particular danger for music because it is hard of impossible to say in words what is being asserted - what is the meaning of music.

Yet the meaningfulness of music is vital to its artistic status. Of course it is good to have music that is pleasant, or exciting, of evokes a mood - but it is not enough to constitute an artistic tradition. Properly (in my opinion!) the canon of an art goes between the meaningful artists - those whose mastery is of meaning not style.

The reason Beethoven is so much greater than Brahms is not so much a matter of technical pioneering but that Beethoven had - perhaps above all others except Bach and Mozart - a great soul, so much to 'say' in his music, so much struggling for expression and being expressed.Whereas Brahms simply did not, and his music cannot escape from a core flaccidity.

From this perspective I would rank (for example) Michael Tippet far above Benjamin Britten because (in his early works, only) Tippet was saying something - whereas Britten had nothing to say - or at least nothing interesting. Britten was simply a shallow man of great musical ability. Tippet was a throwback to the late 19th century. 

This effectiveness of assertion is ultimately what gives music its forward impulsion. Lacking which a certain stagnant quality cannot be concealed. This differentiates - say - Richard Strauss from Mahler. For all his great qualities Mahler is stagnant, torpid; for all his vulgarities, Strauss was dynamic, energizing. And all who came after Strauss have either been less great musicians, or else tended towards stasis.

Indeed, I would regard the two supposed geniuses of twentieth century music - Schoenberg and Stravinsky - as knowing perfectly well that they had nothing to say, and knowing perfectly well their inability to escape the centripetal pull of stasis - but faking-it, disguising the fact, by explicit experimentalism.

This matter of 'having something to say' is the most subtle and in that sense subjective matter of judgement. And hearing a poor piece by a great composer can be deceptive - in most of what he wrote, Mozart had nothing to say, but was just making patterns of sound on autopilot - and the same applies to pretty much everybody.

One can only judge artists by their best work - and greatness of artistic status requires several great works or at least one very big great work (big to prove that it wasn't just a lucky fluke).

And, at the bottom line, if I personally cannot perceive the artist has something to say, then I cannot, will not, and should not grant them greatness - this is not something that generally ought to be taken on trust from other people.

Especially since most musicians are so shallow! - and this equally applies to critics and scholars. But what applies to music also applies to poetry, drama, novels... all arts.

And it is to be able and adept to perceive and to evaluate meaning of expression for oneself, that one explores and learns an artistic tradition.



Anonymous said...

"in most of what he wrote, Mozart had nothing to say, but was just making patterns of sound on autopilot"

That has been my impression of most of the Mozart I have heard, and yet you rank him above even Beethoven in terms of "having something to say." Could you recommend a few pieces in which Mozart is saying something? (You've mentioned the Magic Flute before. Anything else?)

Unknown said...

Since I'm American and you're English, you may know Vaughan Williams better than I do, but he's been my favorite composer since I heard Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (there's a great Marriner recording also containing the similar and excellent works Tallis Fantasia and Lark Ascending). If those seem too pastoral and English, look into some of his more dynamic works like the 6th Symphony and the Concerto for Two Pianos. One of the things I like about RVW is how he can combine violent energy and glorious peace in the same work, as in the Concerto, part of the 1st movement of the Symphony, and several other works.

Thursday said...

There is a major problem here, and it is a general problem with your writings on art. You jump to sweeping conclusions based on a highly limited sample.

For example, most of Vaughan Williams is flaccid noodling, as you say, but there are works where that is most definitely not true.

I could say much the same thing of the fiction of Henry James. Most of it is flaccid noodling. But Portrait of a Lady is the best American novel, perhaps the best piece of writing ever produced by an American.

It's something of a mystery as to why the great bulk of work by many artists who genuinely did create something great is often junk.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - In the Marriage of Figaro there is a wonderfully subtle something going-on throughout - with highlights in the Letter Duet and the Act 3 Sextet for instance.

Don Giovanni is patchy and does not cohere - but the finale is incredible in its transition from light comedy when the statue comes in, and up to the Don's descent to Hell. (This is prepared in the Overture). (Not the silly added finale after the Don dies.)

Other bits are scattered through the late instrumental music - for example the Serenade for 13 wind instruments contains some of his best and most characteristic work - as Peter Schaffer noted in Amadeus. Most of Mozart's best work is, indeed, late.

I would place Mozart at the highest level, but not above Bach or Beethoven; or Handel for that matter (perhaps my current favourite) - what Mozart has is certain particular qualities which are unique - a deftness and economy, sweetness, yearning - very youthful but with lucid inklings of profundity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - You recurrently mistake my telling it as it is for me - with me making some kind of argument that this is how it ought to be for other people.

I have been a serious listener to classical music for 40 years and have explored it widely - plus I am more musical in my appreciation than most people (including most musicians) - in the sense that I can perceive what is going-on inside it in a way that makes it clear that most people cannot; but music is not nowadays the main thing in my life as it once was, nor even an especially important thing. I don't much care what other people like or dislike - especially when I have no way of knowing whether they can hear what I can hear - or whether they approach music wanting the kind of things I want from it. Lots of English people - including Bernard Shaw - rate Elgar as great; but I just don't hear it, although I truly love the Nimrod Enigma variation. Similarly with Britten - I have spent quite a lot of time, including long expensive evenings in the Opera house, and some time singing stuff - trying to *get* Britten - but I find nothing there and don't even find it tolerable (one exception is his really wonderful piano accompaniment to the folk song Sally Gardens).

One of the things that I like best about blogging is precisely that it gets away from polemical and persuasive writing - from trying to convince everybody else that I am right and everybody else must think the same as me; and allows a Pascalian, Nietzschian, Wittgensteinian possibility of simple, lucid statement.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that you told the truth about those two "darlings" of modern classical music. Schoenberg always struck me as, like jazz, an experiment in music itself, like symbolism without meaning. Stravinsky is just schmaltz. And yet, they're popularly cited as "genius."

William Zeitler said...

Here's Shaw himself on 'effectiveness of assertion':

On Conviction and Style
by George Bernard Shaw

No doubt I must recognize, as even the Ancient Mariner did, that I must tell my story entertainingly if I am to hold the wedding guest spellbound in spite of the siren sounds of the loud bassoon. But "for art's sake" alone I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence. I know that there are men who, having nothing to say and nothing to write, are nevertheless so in love with oratory and with literature that they delight in repeating as much as they can understand of what others have said or written aforetime. I know that the leisurely tricks which their want of conviction leaves them free to play with the diluted and misapprehended message supply them with a pleasant parlor game which they call style. I can pity their dotage and even sympathize with their fancy. But a true original style is never achieved for its own sake: a man may pay from a shilling to a guinea, according to his means, to see, hear, or read another man's act of genius; but he will not pay with his whole life and soul to become a mere virtuoso in literature, exhibiting an accomplishment which will not even make money for him, like fiddle playing. Effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style. He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none: he who has something to assert will go as far in power of style as its momentousness and his conviction will carry him. Disprove his assertion after it is made, yet its style remains. Darwin has no more destroyed the style of Job nor of Handel than Martin Luther destroyed the style of Giotto. All the assertions get disproved sooner or later; and so we find the world full of a magnificent debris of artistic fossils, with the matter-of-fact credibility gone clean out of them, but the form still splendid. And that is why the old masters play the deuce with our mere susceptibles. Your Royal Academician thinks he can get the style of Giotto without Giotto's beliefs, and correct his perspective into the bargain. Your man of letters thinks he can get Bunyan's or Shakespear's style without Bunyan's conviction or Shakespear's apprehension, especially if he takes care not to split his infinitives. And so with your Doctors of Music, who, with their collections of discords duly prepared and resolved or retarded or anticipated in the manner of the great composers, think they can learn the art of Palestrina from Cherubini's treatise. All this academic art is far worse than the trade in sham antique furniture; for the man who sells me an oaken chest which he swears was made in the XIII century, though as a matter of fact he made it himself only yesterday, at least does not pretend that there are any modern ideas in it; whereas your academic copier of fossils offer them to you as the latest outpouring of the human spirit, and, worst of all, kidnaps young people as pupils and persuades them that his limitations are rules, his observances dexterities, his timidities good taste, and his emptinesses purities. And when he declares that art should not be didactic, all the people who have nothing to teach and all the people who dont want to learn agree with him emphatically.

SOURCE: Shaw, George Bernard. Man and Superman (1903), ed. Dan H. Laurence (London: Penguin Books, 1946), excerpt from the Epistle Dedicatory, To Arthur Bingham Walkley, 1903, pp. 35-36.