October 06, 2009

Of Art, Judgment, Callas, and Ecstasy

An opportunity presents itself for the exploration of some subjects that I find of special interest, subjects that are not primarily political in the first instance. But the central methodological question arises from fundamental concerns, and a common related error has comprehensive implications, including in the political realm. I'll address the political effects after discussing the immediate particulars.

The conclusion of these remarks by IOZ disposes me toward charity and forgiveness, a happy coincidence since the subject of his commentary is Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). If you're familiar with the opera, you will know the wonderful moment in the last act when the wayward Count asks his wife for forgiveness. IOZ references one of my favorite passages in all of opera, and in all of music: it's the moment he identifies that occurs at 2:46 and is repeated at 3:02 in the Youtube excerpt he includes. I wish he had also mentioned the first appearance of that theme (at approximately 1:59), when it is presented without the sustained bass note. In certain respects, it's the initial appearance (still very beautiful) that makes the latter versions (with the bass note) so exquisite. "You thought it was wonderful the first time? Listen to this! And let me do that again, so you appreciate just how exquisite I've made it."

Over the years, I've often played that passage for friends as one of the musical moments I most adore. I still remember an evening in the late 1970s, when I had a dinner party for a group of friends. After I had played this excerpt (from the wonderful Giulini recording, with a uniformly wonderful cast; Giulini brings out that bass note as few other conductors do, and it takes my breath away), one of my friends said: "As beautiful as that is, Arthur, it's even better to watch your face as you listen to it." My expression was one of pure bliss. It always is when I listen to it. How does a person imagine such a moment, and make it real? We can only be grateful that Mozart did.

However. Most of IOZ's remarks about Mozart and Figaro are meaningless and amount to nothing more than mere silliness. For example: Mozart "was the finest composer for the human voice, and his Figaro is the greatest staged work ever written, the most perfect opera..."; or that the particular musical passage "also contains what may be the most beautiful note in all music." Compared to what exactly? Every musical composition ever written? Utilizing what standards precisely? And complex standards of various kinds are involved: dramaturgical, musical, concerning orchestration, standards involving a specific conception of the human voice and what it can do, etc., unto infinity. If we are to take such comments seriously (and I suspect we aren't, about which more below), all such declarations amount to only a pretense at authority that doesn't belong to IOZ. It doesn't belong to him, because it doesn't belong to anyone.

Leaving aside the questions I've indicated (and many more), I'm not aware that a comprehensive theory of musical aesthetics even exists. As far as I know, it doesn't. How do we begin to assert that one composition is better than another? We can say that one composition relies on a more complex and varied tonal palette than another, or that the musical forms employed in one opera (or symphony, or piano concerto) are greater in number than those found in another, and perhaps more intricate (to mention only a few examples out of a huge number of possible ones). But better? Unless you have at your disposal a theory of musical aesthetics that is subject to proof, I would suggest you refrain from such judgments. (Of course, if you have such a theory, please share it! And pray do so immediately.)

Then, of course, there is the matter of personal taste and preference, an issue which arises from and depends on an enormous number of complicated variables. Some people passionately love hip hop (you're forgiven), some people immerse themselves in Mahler for hours on end (me me me!). Are the lovers of hip hop deficient in some quality of soul? Others might make such a claim; I never would. To the contrary, if someone offers an explanation of hip hop that is provocative and meaningful, I would listen with care. I'm always willing to learn. (If you know of one, please direct me. I have encountered a few over the years. I'm always intrigued, but I remain very far from converted.) I'm fairly certain I'll never like hip hop myself, but who knows. Some of my favorites have remained unchanged over time (such as the Figaro passage), while others have faded for me. And I now enjoy a lot of music that I once thought entirely dreary.

Let's stay with this particular example for a moment. IOZ appears to rely on the never-explained assumption that comedy is "better" or more demanding than other dramatic genres, in that it is less susceptible to "perfection" or some damned thing or other: "so much the better and more incredible that Le Nozze di Figaro is a comedy." But okay, let's stick with comedy. I give you Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff. It has a marvelous libretto, based on two Shakespeare plays. Shakespeare! We're well on our way to perfection.

Falstaff was Verdi's final opera, written when he was 80, a very old man near the end of his life. That's the first miracle: it's a work of youth, of boundless energy, of a joyous spirit that delights in every moment. It's a miracle of condensation and brevity, and it flies by at warp speed. The melodies are endlessly inventive, but they pass in a moment. Many times, you want to linger with one melody or another, but Verdi won't let you for the most part. One exception is Nanetta's aria in the final scene set in Windsor Park, an aria so beautiful it hurts; but the wondrous exchange in the first act between the young lovers, Nanetta and Fenton, passes in just about a minute -- but, like Mozart in Figaro, Verdi repeats it, so you can appreciate how exquisite it is. It's there, and then it's gone -- much, one might imagine the very old Verdi saying, like life itself.

And the final fugue! If ever there was a miracle of theatrical and musical conception, that's it. I would have thought the text was right up IOZ's alley: "All the world's a jest ... he who laughs last laughs best." But as I said, to each his own. An autobiographical note: I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City a lot during the 1960s; as I've mentioned before, I practically lived there for a couple of years. In 1964, the Met (this was the Old Met where Caruso and Flagstad trod the boards, before the move to Lincoln Center) offered a new production of Falstaff for the first time in decades. It was An Event: the premiere was the Met debut of a still-young Leonard Bernstein, as well as the house debut of a young Franco Zeffirelli. And, which still thrills me, I attended the premiere, perched way, way up in the uppermost reaches of the Met.

This was before Zeffirelli repaired to ever more gargantuan productions that entirely dwarfed the opera's human component. The sets were plenty gasp-inducing, but they didn't (yet) overwhelm the drama. The production was stunning in every respect and brilliantly directed. And God, was it funny, and sometimes touching (as accurately channeled from Shakespeare himself). I vividly remember the staging of that final fugue. This was before the device became hackneyed: the entire, very large cast assembled at the very front of the stage and sang the fugue directly to the audience, as the house lights came up halfway. I have to tell you: tears come to my eyes right now as I write this, and my arms are covered with goosebumps: it was that thrilling. The very best touch came after the curtain fell and the last note of music had faded away: the curtain came back up, and the whole cast came to the front of the stage again, laughing and pointing at the audience. "The joke's on you!" It was absolutely unforgettable. The audience went mad with delight.

Bernstein's conducting was glorious. And not only his conducting. In those days, the Met audience could be quite ill-mannered, especially at the beginning of a new act or scene, rustling their programs and fidgeting about after the music had begun. Bernstein was having none of that. At the beginning of each scene (there are two scenes in each of the three acts), he would raise his arms ready to give the downbeat. And he would wait ... and wait ... and wait, until the audience was close to completely quiet. Finally, when we were enveloped in almost total silence, he began. I had already been to the Met a lot, and I had never seen anything like it, and I've rarely seen it occur as dramatically as it did at the first performance of the new Falstaff. As I say: An. Event.

As for Falstaff itself: if one wishes to speak of Figaro as "the greatest staged work ever written, the most perfect opera, against which all others should be measured and none measures up," I will simply respond: Pffft. I'll put Falstaff up against Figaro any time, line for line, measure for measure, melody for melody. Other people will have other candidates. In fact, and if we broaden eligible works beyond comedy, I'll offer another of my personal favorites: Verdi's next-to-last opera, Otello (also from Shakespeare! and quite astonishingly and powerfully so). Otello equals Falstaff in inspiration and vividness for my money. And speaking of sustained bass notes: listen to the Karajan recording of Otello (this one, not his markedly inferior later one). The opera opens with a storm scene, and the orchestration includes a long, long bass note sustained without interruption for minutes on end. The note isn't released until the violent storm finally subsides; when that bass note vanishes and calm ensues, the effect is overwhelming. (The brilliant John Culshaw, deservedly famous for producing the first studio stereo recording of Wagner's Ring, also produced the Otello recording I recommend, and he captures that bass note and its effect better than any other version I've ever heard, and I've heard lots of them.)

All of Otello astonishes. Music and drama are marvelously wed; both are variously exquisite beyond description (the Act I love duet, Desdemona's Ave Maria in the last act), powerful (Otello's monologues, the monumental concertato that concludes Act III), and terrifying (the Otello-Iago vengeance duet that ends the second act). You want "perfection," you got it.

Now that I've explained some of the reasons for my own perspective, I will tell you that I find passages in Figaro very wonderful (especially the one mentioned above that IOZ references). Overall, I think Figaro is extremely dull. I realize that, for some, I thus confess to a hole where a crucial part of my soul should be, indeed, perhaps the crucial part. I've listened to many recordings and seen Figaro more times than I care to remember. My reaction is always the same: a lot of it is just plain dull. I have an extensive musical background and even studied full-time to be a concert pianist for several years. I love much of Mozart's piano music, and I enjoyed studying and playing it very much indeed. But with the exception of Don Giovanni, I find most of his operas dull, dull, dull. I recently watched a comparatively new video of Cosi Fan Tutte. The farewell trio is exquisite; I like a few of the arias a lot (the tenor aria in the first act especially). As for much of the rest of it: dull. You can tell me I suffer from some critical deficiency all you want; I'm not buying it. Sell it somewhere else.

In my view, comparative and superlative judgments of the kind offered by IOZ are odious in the extreme. I say that not only because I find them devoid of meaningful content on their own terms, but because of the assumptions upon which they rely and because this approach is unusually damaging. I discussed this issue in the first part of this essay. I will be as brief as possible in what follows, which isn't very; the subject is dauntingly complicated. If the issues interest you, I hope you will read the longer earlier discussion.

The problem arises because of a particular world view and philosophic foundation. Relying on Jamake Highwater's discussion in Myth and Sexuality, I wrote:
One of Highwater's themes, and one which frequently carries great irony in the context of events of the last seven years, is that despite what many propagandists for endless "civilizational" war would have us believe, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all spring from the same cultural and historic roots. Those roots and the more specific beliefs to which they gave rise resulted in a series of dualities. More than that, and more to the terrible point in light of world events, they resulted in a series of warring dualities. In many respects, the current and likely future military conflicts are only the latest manifestations of this ancient set of conflicts. It might be more effective to express this idea in another form: if it is true that we often remake the world in the form of the ideas we hold and believe to be correct (whether they are in fact correct or not), most wars and other conflicts are only the physical manifestation of conflicts that first found expression in the way we analyze and organize the world in our thought.
Further on, in teasing out the implications of the "cosmic dualism" that Highwater discusses, I said, and this goes to the issues discussed above:
More to our point here, "cosmic dualism" has set the terms for our discussion of any and all subjects. When we seek the answer to almost any question, we are most comfortable with an either-or structure. Either an individual's motives were good, or they were bad. Either someone is loyal, or he isn't. Either we are the "good guys," or we are not. These remarks are hardly novel, and they probably come as news to none of you. Nonetheless, we should observe how difficult it is for us to navigate the alternatives. Pause for a moment to notice what may have happened in your thinking right there. You may have thought there was only one alternative to the cosmic dualism perspective. Why would you think that? Because we are all trained to think in dualities all the time, from our earliest years. If cosmic dualism may be insufficient or unsatisfactory, what is the alternative approach? But why is there only one alternative approach? There might be a multiplicity of approaches. Or perhaps we have formulated the question in a way that fails to address the real problem.

The dualities that form the foundation of our thinking find expression in an endless variety of ways. One of the results is a particularly Western obsession, one that reaches heights of absurdity in our popular culture. We are absolutely manic on the subject of ranking: we constantly search to identify the "best," the "worst," the "greatest," the "worst blunder." Without exception -- for I can think of no exception which I would view as meaningful -- I view all such judgments as worthless, and even destructive. The "best" or "worst" -- compared to what exactly? Precisely what standards for judgment are being employed? What period of time is used for inclusion of the persons or works being so judged? There are many such questions. By the time you've answered all the questions that underlie such judgments of rank and hierarchy, you may actually have said something substantive -- and you will have arrived at the point where you might more effectively have begun. And notice the influence of the dualistic approach: there is the "best" actor -- and all the others. This writer is the "greatest" novelist -- and then there are all the others. There is the "winner" -- and then there are all the "losers." We invariably see every aspect of the world in pairs, one member of which is favored and approved while the other is disfavored and disapproved.
The earlier article has more on this, but even that is only the merest of beginnings. Much, much more on these questions remains to be said, and I hope to get to some of it one of these years.

I said that I suspect IOZ didn't intend his superlatives to be taken entirely seriously. I think that not only because IOZ enjoys provoking his readers and commenters (and he does), but because I think he read my earlier essay when it first appeared. Before I wrote that piece, IOZ often referred to the "best" this or that, or the "greatest" novelist or whatever. After I published my essay, he stopped that for a while; he began referencing "one of my favorite writers" and the like. Perhaps my article had nothing to do with it; I have no way of knowing. Whatever the explanation, his previous approach seems to have returned; my disapproval of the methodology involved is unchanged.

Judgments of the kind offered by IOZ in the Figaro post are close to entirely meaningless in my view; they represent evaluations shorn of specific content, and it is only such content that provides genuine illumination. Such judgments, especially when accompanied by nothing more, are a lazy, extraordinarily imprecise and pretentious approach to writing. (At this point, some will be heard to say: "Hey, dummy, it's just a blog post." It would appear that The Great Rulemaker has decreed that substantive writing is prohibited to bloggers, almost without exception. And who came up with that rule? Besides, no one is enforcing it, except perhaps those who seek leave to write lazily and with an unearned authority. And it's easy enough to offer one's judgments in very different, entirely valid terms, even very briefly.) Beyond these factors, such an approach is damaging for the reasons I previously identified (and for other reasons as well, but the ones I mentioned are a start). And surely, if we hope for a world that is someday more conducive to peace and deep compassion, we would be advised to avoid employing a perspective (and its terminology) that arises from and advances a conception of the world that necessarily requires endless conflict, whether between warring dualities or of any other kind.

To stress my commitment to my own approach, I here offer a last example, one especially dear to my heart. I've written in detail about Maria Callas's great artistry, in "For Maria Callas, Now and Always," and "Flecks of Light, Points of Understanding, and the Gift of Sight." Those are two of my favorite essays among the many hundreds I have written; I hope you might read them, whenever you have the time and interest.

In those essays, I set forth a number of very specific examples of Callas's unique gifts, and of her endless dedication to realizing a particular conception of artistic embodiment and communication. (I especially like the example in the second article concerning one of Callas's Juilliard master classes that I attended.) On the basis of that evidence -- and of innumerable other examples I could provide, if only I had time -- I am often tempted to declare: "Maria Callas was, without question, the greatest interpretative artist of the twentieth century." One could make a very strong case for that position. But, following my own observations, I would regard that as silly, much as it pains me to include the word "silly" anywhere in the vicinity of a consideration of Callas's art. But the judgment itself would be silly. As a counterexample with which I also have some firsthand knowledge, I would offer Laurence Olivier. I saw Olivier onstage several times in the 1960s, including a performance in London of his now-legendary Othello. (The Desdemona in that stunning production was none other than a young Maggie Smith. Yes, dear reader, we were all young once. And soon enough, you too will be old, certainly older.)

Olivier was magnificent. The intermission occurred after the vengeance scene between Othello and Iago. Olivier was overwhelming in that scene: he unleashed more and more power, physically and vocally, as Othello became increasingly uncontrolled as unreasoning jealousy overcame him. I was sitting in the eighth row of the stalls (the orchestra, to you Yanks). I felt as if I was slowly and inexorably being battered against the back wall of the theater. Among other things, it was an incommunicably frightening experience. And, in one mark of a master performer, no matter how powerful Olivier became, you had the sense that a huge reservoir remained untapped. His power never approached its full potential; if he let all of it go, it might kill you. I was trembling for four or five minutes into the intermission.

And yet, I have always had a certain reservation about Olivier, not only in that Othello, but in other live performances of his I saw and in watching his many screen appearances. I forget it when under the spell of an Olivier performance, so great is his artistry, always during the live performances I saw, and also during many of his film and television performances. But the reservation always nags at me afterwards. There is a certain emotional connection that Olivier never makes, at least for me. Some people say, "you can see the wheels turning," which captures part of my own reaction. You sense a part of Olivier's mind, a very small part but still there, that is standing apart, watching and planning. Callas's Tosca (in the video that you can watch, mentioned in "Flecks of Light") didn't have that quality at all, nor do any of her performances. And as the "Flecks of Light" article mentions, I saw Callas's Tosca in person, and she never revealed that quality even for a second, although she planned her performances down almost to the millimeter.

Was Olivier the greatest interpretive performer of the twentieth century, or at least the greatest actor? Not for me, but he is for many others. I won't argue the point. For all the reasons I've discussed, I find such judgments and arguments pointless, largely meaningless, and ultimately futile. I also view them as very damaging, at least by implication.

There are many achievements and individuals in all fields to be enjoyed, praised, admired and even deeply loved, as I passionately love Maria Callas's art. Let us acknowledge them all, and love where we will. None of it need be a battle or a contest. Rather, make it a celebration.

Live ecstatically.