Monday, September 27, 2010

Classical Mangling

Heather Mac Donald has a good (but at times fussy) article about how classical music has never had it better—she makes the very good and relevant points that it’s never been easier to hear great performances, whether live or recorded in mp3 or YouTube form. True enough, and something that can be said about basically any form of culture these days. News? Never a better time to get yourself informed about what’s going on. Books? Never a better time to build a library. And so on for practically every form of high or low culture extant. So there’s that, but Mac Donald’s article contains a little more that’s worth thinking about, specifically the fussiness. The fussiness in the article can be perhaps partially explained by the forum it’s published in--City Journal, the fussy conservative’s cultural organ of choice. There are a few snits she picks that are a little silly (e.g. gratuitous shots at multiculturalism) and one snit that’s more interesting than silly.

She praises the present for its respect of the original intent of the composer—of performing the composer’s piece as written, without distraction, interruption or embellishment—in contrast to the past’s tendency to do whatever with the greats:
Performers and publishers unapologetically revised works that we now regard as transcendent, seeking to correct their perceived deficiencies and bring them up to newer standards of orchestration and harmony. After describing a particularly brutal mauling of The Magic Flute for its 1801 Paris premiere and a dumbing-down of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, Berlioz erupts: “Thus, dressed as apes, got up grotesquely in cheap finery, one eye gouged out, an arm withered, a leg broken, two men of genius were introduced to the French public! . . . No, no, no, a million times no! You musicians, you poets, prose-writers, actors, pianists, conductors, whether of third or second or even first rank, you do not have the right to meddle with a Shakespeare or a Beethoven, in order to bestow on them the blessings of your knowledge and taste.”

Conservative pedagogues altered scores as well—on the ground that they were too modern. Berlioz headed off at the last minute what he called “emasculations” to Beethoven’s avant-garde harmonies that the influential music critic and teacher François-Joseph Fétis had surreptitiously introduced into a forthcoming edition of Beethoven’s symphonies.

I quoted a fairly large chunk there but the entire essay is rich with other historical stories of the same sort—of public performances of symphonies in which jester-virtuosos would perform the violin standing on their head interstitially, to take another example—and the initial reaction is to side with Berlioz against the philistines, but I think a deeper consideration should complicate what we think about it.

Consider that you’ve probably never heard a complete and unabridged Shakespeare performed live. (And regardless of what Shakespeare you’ve heard, you’ve never seen a Shakespeare performed entirely faithfully to what Shakespeare intended for the simple reason that Shakespeare’s company never left detailed stage directions, meaning that any stage directions that you see actors doing during the course of a Shakespeare play are mostly inferred. This is part of the reason actors love doing Shakespeare—the other part is the incredible words you get to speak. You get tons of latitude to interpret some of the greatest words ever put to paper—what’s not to love? The “latitude” idea, I think, turns out to be very interesting.) Or consider one of Mac Donald’s favorite examples: Franz Liszt, a piano virtuoso who improvised portions to add on to Beethoven’s work. I’ll admit to not being a classical music buff, but from what I can gather, Liszt is pretty well regarded.

Surely, then, this would suggest some weaknesses to a part of Mac Donald’s piece, which is that the greats are sacred. This is a conservative way of viewing things, and it’s a way of looking at things that must be quite pleased with the state of copyright law these days: the mangling that they denounce would never be possible had the classical greats published today. (In fact, judging by the plays cartel, they might try to restrict the number of performances of their work in the interest of making more work. Have you heard about the plays cartel? They basically decide on the number of performances of, say, Guys and Dolls that can be performed in a given area in a given duration of time.) This is sad, I think, because no one’s that sacred: surely with all of the people doing all that performing, many someones hit on a good idea or two. It’s a mistake as an artist to have too much fealty to those who preceded you because, well, they’re the past. We need new things as well as old. So I admire the impudence of those who would try to edit Beethoven—why not experiment? Fortunately this is an attitude that’s not exactly in deficit today, what with remix culture, but if anything’s true about history, it’s how the same ideas and conflicts keep on popping up in slightly different masks.

(For another take, the Urbanophile has some good thoughts.)

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