Sunday, May 14, 2006

Weekend Reading

Don't you just love these lazy Spring weekends when you can do nothing but lie around the house listening to Jazz on the radio and reading to your heart's content?

Some links and reflections:

1. Amartya Sens' Identity and Violence, my exceedingly long comments on which can be found here.

2. John McGahern's Amongst Women, a brooding, elegaic portrait of an isolated and recalcitrant farmer and his family. Amongst Women is a trifle predictable in parts, but its brilliance lies in the way McGahern manages to make its central character, Moran, a lovable monster, showing us, with painstaking realism, how a single man can both be incredibly difficult to live with, and a kind and yearning soul who it is impossible not to feel for.

3. Last week's New Yorker, featuring this hilarious take on the whole plagiarism business by Larry Doyle. A piece that, well, rocks.

4. The poems of Mahmoud Darwish:

They pass by their names
engraved on metal and stone
and didn't recognize them, for victims
don't trust their surmise.
Didn't recognize them because they were
sometimes covered with sand, sometimes with
desert plants.

Were all flags one flag
their history would have been one history.
All nations would have had but one way of thinking
and one history.
Our end would have been our beginning.
Our beginning our end.

Land, like language, is inherited.

If only two-horned Alexander had had only one horn
and the world had been bigger,
the easterner's name would have shined from its plate,
the westerner's a bit farther from home.
If only Caesar had been a philosopher instead,
his home would have been a tiny plot of land
and our history would have been still our history.
Let the Bedouin's palm tree reach the Atlantic sea
on the road from Damascus
so a cloud may quench our deadly thirst.
Their history would have been ours,
our history would have been theirs,
were it not for the dispute over the
exact date of Doomsday.
(translation by Husain Haddawi)

5. Two articles from the New York Review of Books:

First, a long, pointless ramble from Barnes about the new Flaubert biography. Barnes seems so intent on showing off his own superior knowledge of Flaubert's life, that he spends more time nit-picking details in the biography than giving us a proper review of it. Disappointing stuff, some interesting observations about Bouvard and Pecuchet notwithstanding.

Second, a lovely piece by Charles Rosen that uses a number of new Mozart books as an excuse to wax eloquent about the composer. The article is available to subscribers only, so here are a few quotes:

[after talking at length about the different views of Mozart's music over the ages]:

Each of these successive views of Mozart has its merit. He was, as so many of his contemporaries thought, a difficult composer whose music was challenging to follow. More than twenty years after Mozart's death, E.T.A. Hoffmann was still defending him against claims by other musicians that his harmony was incomprehensible. The comparison to Shakespeare and Schiller made sense, as the dramatic power of his work is still astonishing today. Kierkegaard's insistence on the erotic element in his work was certainly accurate. Mozart could write a love duet as erotic as Wagner (in Cosí fan tutte, the music of the duet for Guiglielmo and Dorabella graphically illustrates the caresses of his hands as he feels her heart beat), although he was constrained by the musical language of his time—he could not, like Wagner, make a love scene last three quarters of an hour.

Mozart as the correct composer, the Raphael of music, is equally persuasive: he was a master of all the conventional tonal procedures of his time, and the correctness of his counterpoint impressed Chopin as much as the work of Bach (when he tried to explain counterpoint to a layman like Delacroix, he was just as likely to refer to Mozart as Bach). The early twentieth century's image of a turbulent Mozart drew attention to his expressive power, and it is still to some extent the approach of those who are most passionate about his achievement. It has, however, the disadvantage of diminishing an appreciation of his technical skill. In spite of his radical experiments, Mozart could be one of the most conventional composers of his time—except that no one ever handled the basic conventions with such skill and such ease, and he must have gloried not only in his ability to shock, but also in his facility at producing the conventional with such purity and grace.

Long phrases of absolutely conventional figuration and banal motifs articulate his works at the end of short sections, and give the structure its clarity. (Beethoven imitated Mozart closely in this respect, but he had the knack—already to be found in Mozart, but with less panache—of making one think that he had invented the most conventional motif expressly for each piece.) Writing about Mozart, we are always tempted to dwell on the extraordinary purple passages without noticing that in every case they are followed or preceded by the most conventional devices. They complement and support each other.

After a century of modernism, it is hard for us to delight in the simple craftsmanship of Mozart. The advantage of the most recent approach, above all in the brilliant researches of Neal Zaslaw and Cliff Eisen, is that it restores this craftsmanship, makes us understand Mozart as artisan, not working in a void but with the everyday problems of singers, instrumental performers, impresarios, and patrons, and it has enlarged our understanding of how his art came into being, and how it worked in his world. The preoccupation of both writers with the everyday aspect of music production, however, tends to impose an image of Mozart as an accommodating fellow, always giving his patrons, singers, and public what they wanted. But there are too many cases of Mozart willfully going his own way to make this tenable. After receiving the first of three commissioned piano quartets, for example, the publisher canceled the contract: the music was too difficult.

And later, refuting the claim made by some biographers and scholars that Mozart was an accomadating composer who wrote primarily for the audience of his day:

Mozart was perhaps the most ambitious composer in the history of music. He produced at least one and generally several imposing masterpieces in almost every genre of music—concerto, song, opera (serious and comic, German and Italian), string trio, string quartet, string quintet, quintet for piano and winds, trio and quartet for piano and strings, quintet for wind instrument and strings, divertimento for wind octet, double concerto for violin and viola, symphony, piano sonata, violin sonata. Although he left no completed major work of religious music, his two fragments—the C Minor Mass and the Requiem—are monumental even in their unfinished state. In comparison, Haydn's major successes were largely restricted to the two genres of symphony and string quartet; only when he was much older than Mozart ever became did he create his most impressive piano sonatas, piano trios, and the important vocal works with the late masses and the two oratorios. And only after Mozart's Prague Symphony had surpassed in size and weight any of Haydn's orchestral works, setting an example, did he expand his symphonic style.

Mozart expanded the forms of his time by combining genres. The finale of his Piano Sonata in B-flat, K. 333, is a large concerto movement, with imitations of the contrast of orchestra and soloist, and a huge cadenza like an improvisation. He introduced operatic effects in his chamber music, and symphonic and concerto passages into his opera arias. His concertos have moments of intimate and complex chamber music. The finale of the JupiterSymphony has an unprecedented display of learned counterpoint, simultaneously combining six themes. He magnified almost every genre in which he worked.

Mozart's string quintets and string trio have a spacious gravity never before achieved in chamber music. The power and drama of his Fantasy and Sonata in C Minor were not to be found again in piano music until Beethoven appeared on the scene. The Marriage of Figaro was much longer and more serious than any comic opera before; Da Ponte apologized for the length by claiming that he and Mozart had created "something absolutely new."

Mozart was to trump that achievement two years later with Don Giovanni, in which a mythical, iconic figure of two centuries of European renown was given a tragicomic artistic form that crushed most of the previous incarnations as well as those still to come. In a spectacular effort in the first-act finale, Mozart placed three dance orchestras for the ball on the stage, each one playing entirely different and even contradictory rhythms but in perfect harmony, the greatest pyrotechnical display of contrapuntal art ever put on the stage. With The Magic Flute, he went still further, combining popular Austrian style with music of religious gravity, a double fugue for an overture, a chorale prelude on a Lutheran hymn (in Catholic Vienna!) in the style of J.S. Bach, a virtuoso display of coloratura passagework that is still dazzling, and music of the most exquisite and moving simplicity to celebrate the ideal of fidelity in marriage.

Good stuff.

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3 comments:

drifting leaf said...

Fal...these posts of yours always leave me feeling terribly inadequate...i never seem to know what you're talking about...oh gosh...so much to read and so little time...

kaha ho?

Anirudh said...

Yes we do (love the lazy weekends.)

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