October 2013

Arts & Letters

Musicians with a literary bent

By Anna Goldsworthy
Honourable failures

There is a persistent quote that stalks all music writers. Its provenance is disputed – Thelonius Monk? Clara Schumann? Laurie Anderson? Elvis Costello? – but it is widely held to settle everything: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, who toured with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in August, has clearly heard this quote a few too many times. He dismisses it as “ridiculous”, not least because “dancing about architecture would be a lovely and fascinating thing to do”.

Music writing can also be lovely and fascinating, though too often it is not. In his Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, the American pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen describes some of the ways it can go wrong:

I have always despised the writing about music that tries to substitute for the music a kind of pseudo-poetry or, even worse, the sort of facile philosophical speculation that leads readers to believe that they will be engaged in an exalted activity when listening to Beethoven ... Translating this transcendence into words does not, however, make it more accessible, only more commonplace.

Another pitfall is the blow-by-blow account of musical process, tediously impenetrable to the novice and tediously obvious to the practitioner. In a blog post about program notes, Denk writes that

Perhaps my least favourite sentence of all: “the goal of the first half is to establish the dominant.” Oh yes? That’s the goal of the first half? Behind this sentence hides a terrible rhetorical monster, through which so often classical works become like patients on the operating table; doctors observe their symptoms, nod sagely, do more tests, come back with answers.

Happily, there are some who have successfully charted a course between these two extremes, not least Rosen, who died in December last year. In his seminal works, The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation, he marries musicological insight to effortless prose. It is the work of musical interpretation in literature.

Rosen’s likeliest heir is the Manhattan-based Denk, who is devising an opera libretto based on The Classical Style. Denk’s blog, Think Denk, offers a witty blend of musicology and self-deprecation: Rosen meets David Sedaris, perhaps. One of his most distinctive posts is a manifesto on humour in music. To Denk, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 31 No. 1 “is not a serious piece with jokes in it, like those annoying ‘gag lines’ that people scatter into their boring speeches. Humor is structural, form-defining, essential; the whole edifice is laughing, laughing at its core.” Describing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, he offers one of the neatest encapsulations of comedy I have read:

It’s the way the music manages to capture, bring alive, make suddenly ring true for us, its comic clichés: the way it captures emotion’s simultaneous truth and folly ... Humor is a jolt, a trick of timing, a flash of the unexpected, but it’s also a fluid that carries forgiveness, empathy, generosity ... 

Over coffee in Adelaide, Denk confesses to being “burdened by digressive trains of thought”, for which the blog “provides some outlet”. Some of his posts suggest an antic mind released from its leash and careering around the studio wildly, before being tethered again to the piano stool. (Though even these betray his musician’s ear. In his most recent post, Denk rides his bicycle past geese “honking at empty stretches of grass, honking at time intervals, not periodically but at intervals. It’s not a joyous noise but it’s got something, it’s scooped out of some really pungent vat of sound.”) Denk concedes that writing the blog has furthered his career and transformed his playing, but it offers something beyond this. Much conspires against classical music today: the curtailed attention spans of the information age, a cyber-world that is too much with us. Closer to home, Mark Latham emphasises the class in classical music, seeking to embroil it in a culture war.

Some of us still consider the art form essential, but this presents a different threat. How do we save classical music from our reverence? How do we stop it from becoming entirely curatorial, trapped in a 19th-century template? In this context, Denk’s irreverence is timely, as is his embrace of the blogosphere. (Pianists, who devote their lives to a 300-year-old technology, are not always early adopters.) His innovative programming serves a similar purpose, for which the Australian Chamber Orchestra proved a natural collaborator.

In Adelaide, their concert began with Richard Tognetti’s colourful arrangements of Bach’s Canons on a Goldberg Ground for piano quintet, interspersed with Denk’s performances of four Ligeti études and the ‘Alcott’ movement from Ives’ Concord sonata. This kind of fractured programming can sometimes reveal new connections, and indeed the Ligeti and the Bach spoke to each other, glancingly, on the subject of musical puzzles. But the order felt a little random, as if generated by iPod shuffle: this was a program that had not yet found its ideal structure. Nonetheless, Denk’s Ligeti études were kaleidoscopically coloured, while the tender Ives movement came into focus amid the moto perpetuo and stood alone, vivid and surprising as a jewel.

Austria’s Alfred Brendel would likely take a dim view of such a program. In his new volume, A Pianist’s A–Z: A Piano Lover’s Reader (translated by Adelaide-based Michael Morley) he writes, under the heading of ARRANGEMENT, that “I cannot agree with an approach that views masterpieces merely as raw material for personal excursions, treating them the way some contemporary directors treat plays”. Brendel officially retired from the concert stage in 2008, after a distinguished 60-year career. His playing was characterised by great clarity and rigour, and a loftiness that could sometimes be forbidding. Unlike Denk, he was not a colourist, maintaining that a “beautiful sound should never be an end in itself”. At times there was an almost deliberate plainness to his sound: it was the connection between the notes that mattered most.

Despite his reputation for solemnity, one of Brendel’s most celebrated essays is ‘Must Classical Music Be Entirely Serious?’ from the collection Music Sounded Out. It is a theme he returns to in the present volume. Like Denk, he emphasises the centrality of humour to classical style, and indeed cites the same sonata – Beethoven’s Op. 31 No. 1 – explaining that “only the comic intent makes [it] plausible”. One of his favourite lines is that of the German novelist Jean Paul, describing humour as “the sublime in reverse”. He is also the author of several volumes of comic poems with a Dadaist slant. In one poem, Mozart is murdered by Beethoven; in another, Christo wraps the Three Tenors on the balcony of La Scala. These poems perhaps fulfil a similar purgative function to Denk’s blog. “I like fooling around,” Brendel has told an interviewer, “but not when I play.”

Inevitably, any pianist-writer sets up a competition within themselves: are they a pianist who writes, or a writer who plays? Charles Rosen was a fine pianist, but as a critic he was unsurpassed. Throughout his life he maintained – perhaps defensively – that his writing was only a “hobby”. Meanwhile Brendel, one of the most celebrated pianists of our time, insists that his writing is “not a hobby” but “a second life”. In 1995, the two great men locked horns on the pages of the New York Review of Books, debating the meaning of poi a poi di nuovo vivente in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110. It was an unedifying spectacle; a moment of great silverback pedantry. After some to-ing and fro-ing, Rosen escalated the argument to one of literary style:

Brendel has now added the additional metaphor of “musical self-immolation” which is less persuasive. It is not so much its lack of clarity that is unfortunate (who is being immolated, Beethoven, the pianist, or the sonata itself?) but the Wagnerian resonance which can be applied to Beethoven with a certain lack of tact.

In A Pianist’s A–Z, there are several other sentences that Rosen may have blanched at: “It is perfectly possible to play vigorously and forcefully without ramming the sound through the keys like a knife.” But music writing, ultimately, is doomed to approximation. Sometimes the most elegant phrase is not the most accurate; the music writer must determine their final allegiance, to the word or the sound.

A Pianist’s A–Z contains any number of truths about piano-playing. Here is Brendel on the contradictions of being a performer:

His playing is aimed at the composer as well as at the audience. He must have an overview of the whole piece, yet, at the same time, allow it to emerge from the moment. He follows a concept, yet lets himself be surprised. He controls himself and forgets himself. He plays for himself and for the remotest corner of the hall. He impresses by his presence and, at the same time, if luck is on his side, dissolves into the music. He reigns and serves. He is convinced and critical, believer and sceptic. When the right wind blows, interpretation presents the synthesis.

Writing about music is a further type of interpretation, and of synthesis. Is exact translation possible? The composer Andrew Ford, who has spent much of his career attempting it, maintains that it is not, and that “we can only, like Samuel Beckett, try to ‘fail better’ in this regard”. Perhaps he is right: even the most fascinating and lovely dancing about architecture is doomed to failure. But there is something reassuring about this. If dancing could fully do it justice, we would have no need for architecture at all.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent books are Welcome to Your New Life and The Best Australian Essays 2017 (as editor). Her most recent album is Beethoven Piano Trios.

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