Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Music Speaks

“Criticism so relentlessly intelligent is rarely so buoyant, so ready to charm while it challenges.” Thus did Scott Burnham (author of the widely acclaimed book Beethoven Hero) welcome Daniel Albright’s Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song upon its release by University of Rochester Press in November 2009. Albright, who holds a named chair in the English Department at Harvard University, is the author of two previous books for the Press: Berlioz’s Semi-Operas and Musicking Shakespeare: A Conflict of Theatres. The new book, Music Speaks, is indeed brilliant, and its subject matter is remarkably diverse, ranging from subtle art songs by Schubert to Brünnhilde’s full-throated war cry (in Wagner’s Ring Cycle), and from Stravinsky’s hieratic oratorio Oedipus Rex to a dreamy painting of dancer Loïe Fuller by Toulouse-Lautrec. Below we reprint Albright’s tasty preface to this important—and unceasingly delightful—book of studies on the interactions of music with literature and dance.

Music Speaks is a sort of rehearsal-piano reduction of a number of multimedia lectures I’ve given in the past few years.

I might argue that there’s a hidden unity behind its miscellaneous character by pointing to some of the features that bind these essays together. My continuing preoccupations are these:

1. How to deal with the problems of articulating the meaning or meanings of music.

2. How to deal with the larger question of how music and language interact, whether music is “like” spoken/literary language, whether it transcends language, whether our musical apperceptions are of a different sort from those we engage in regard to words or visual images.

3. How, especially in the world of Lieder, text-setting highlights certain areas of meter, or theme, or ironic undertone, and leaves others in darkness.

4. How a musical composition can behave as a critique of a previous composition: how it can be an homage, or an act of affectionate mockery, or a full-scale repudiation.

5. How music interacts with bodily gesture (and, again, how both become “legible”). Sometimes dance seems to spell out words with an alphabet of the whole body; sometimes it refuses to constitute itself as a language.

6. How one might rehabilitate certain underappreciated or much-scorned figures, such as Meyerbeer, by showing that the very terms of invective used against them can be seen, from another angle, as an indication of what is exciting in their work.

I mean to show how music history has an aesthetic of its own, and how music history interacts with intellectual history (from Rousseau and the Encyclopédistes to Paul de Man). The method of these essays is juxtapositive: by abutting music against literature and painting, and by abutting the musics of different centuries, I try to frame a particular work, to isolate what is arresting and important in it.

Some readers are likely to object to my preference for a contrapuntal rather than a linear mode of argument. Almost all of the chapters take detours, forward or back in time, sometimes a few decades, sometimes centuries. But I hope that the lack of chronological boundaries, or genre boundaries, or language-region boundaries, might be seen as natural extension of the freedom that the individual chapters allow themselves—to make one genre comment on another, to make one era comment on another, to make one artistic medium comment on another.

I might also note that this book can be understood as a tribute to mechanical reproduction—to the LP record, the compact disc, the .mp3 file, which have integrated music into our daily lives in a way once scarcely available even to kings, and which have not only gratified an appetite for music but also created one.

All these pieces (except one) were written in a span of four years (2004-8), and mostly concern the music of the last two centuries. During much of this period I was working on Jacobean and Restoration music for a project on Shakespeare, and I found it most pleasant to turn from Robert Johnson and Lanier and Purcell—delightful though they are—to the composers treated here, my oldest loves. As to the two essays on dance that conclude this volume, they were called forth by my friend Simon Morrison of Princeton University, who, on the Day of Judgment, may have to answer for them.

In a future posting, we shall provide some sprightly excerpts from various chapters of
Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Adrian Wright's Salad Days

It’s not all Mahler, Britten and Berlioz at Boydell & Brewer and the University of Rochester Press. We enjoy a hummable tune as much as the next person. It is therefore an enormous pleasure to publish Adrian Wright’s A Tanner’s Worth of Tune, his magnificent look at the post-war British musical. Here they are, the writers and composers who forged an identity that owed little to Broadway: Noel Coward, Sandy Wilson of Boy Friend fame, Julian Slade, Lionel Bart and many others. For Adrian Wright, it all began with a Marmet pram and his Aunt Beryl…

The Wrights have never been a rich family, but my childhood was – so far as the world could tell – charmed. My maternal grandmother was a dictatorial creature, a Court dressmaker (when such titles were common parlance) whose demanding standards affected my young and impoverished parents. As a child, I was apt to startle, dressed as I was from head to foot in the finest white satin. My pram, a Marmet (the Rolls Royce of such vehicles, according to my mother), had been selected, indeed commanded to be brought from a highly reputable local store, to my parents’ home: my grandmother’s choice, for which my poor mother had to pay. The pram, like me, was decked out in white satin coverlets and satin blankets and satin pillows and no doubt a little satin bonnet to finish off the effect, as it finished me. I probably had a specially commissioned crest painted on its side. It should have come as no surprise to my mother that one day, despite the fact that she had securely strapped me into position within the perambulator, she looked down and to her astonishment saw nothing. Except a pram with a space where a space shouldn’t have been. The effect of satin on satin had done its worst: I had slipped out of the Marmet, and was later discovered at a location that would doubtless have appalled Lady Bracknell. To all appearances, this was merely payback for being such an ostentatious family, and I suppose some of the blame must attach to me (I was a great wriggler), although I was innocent of being dressed in all that satin, and at the age of twenty-one struck out on my own and shed the slippery garments that were by then exciting much unwanted comment.

What, one may ask, has all this to do with having written a book about the British musical in the twentieth century? Indeed, the first book ever to be devoted to the subject. Because money matters, and appearances matter, and looking at a pram in a shop window and actually being the privileged little person taken for a blow in it are two completely different matters. A fascination with theatre of any kind is, after all, a luxurious pursuit. You need money to buy theatre tickets; nowadays, a very considerable amount of it, with which I am increasingly unwilling to part. Only recently, I happened to be in London and thought I should see the Broadway production of Hair which was playing on Shaftesbury Avenue, having missed the show the first time around (on purpose; I mean, all that group nudity and those dreary songs). Even now, in 2010, it was not that I particularly wanted to see Hair, but that I needed to see it, working as I am on a book about the American musical in London. I asked the price of a ticket. ‘That will be £65 please.’ After recovering my breath, like the reporter at the striptease club I made an excuse and left. I wanted to say ‘Don’t you know that I saw Liza of Lambeth at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1976 for £3.50? Front stalls! It was only 75p to get into the balcony! When I was a student in London I used to go every matinee to Sadler’s Wells to see the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. You could get in for a patter song! Where is all this money going anyway? What am I going to see that is worth fifty pence a minute? How are young people today ever going to be able to see decent theatre? Evelyn Laye was getting £15 a week starring in a West End musical in the mid-1960s! And they’ve all got little voices that need massive amplification! And half of them don’t know how to behave on stage! This is a joke, isn’t it? Come on, mate, you’re having a laugh!’

But, let me repeat, the Wrights were never rich. I was reminded of it again, or perhaps realised it for the first time, when my mother took me to London one day (in a year that I will not specify, although I was still in all that white shiny stuff). I think she had booked for us to see Liberace at the London Palladium. What long-term effect this experience had on any of those who saw him one can only guess, but fortunately I can recall nothing of him, not even a candlestick. I seem to remember we went to Lyons Corner House at Charing Cross, an exotic complex of restaurants now gone. I certainly remember that we walked along the Strand, nothing in itself to get excited about. Indeed, one has always wondered what was in the mind of the man who celebrated that most boring of thoroughfares in the music-hall song ‘Let’s All Go Down the Strand!’ One wanted to ask, ‘Why?’

On this day there was, as it happens, a reason. My Aunt Beryl had recently taken me to a touring version of Salad Days, a musical by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds that had somewhat unaccountably run for over five years at the Vaudeville Theatre. It had just come off, in fact, and the Vaudeville was now presenting another Slade and Reynolds musical, Follow That Girl, a slight, whimsical fantasy about a modern miss who goes back in time and becomes a Victorian miss. She jumps off the Albert Bridge and meets some mermaids in the Aquarium and then comes back into the present because Julian and Dorothy had written a number about London’s public transport ... well, I did say it was a fantasy! And, of course, the Vaudeville Theatre is in the Strand, and there we were, just before we had a date in the evening with Liberace, outside the Vaudeville Theatre.

By this time, by that moment when I stood outside the Vaudeville Theatre, I was already obsessed with the British musical, and obsessed by Julian (and Dorothy). Looking at the blown-up photographs of the cast outside the Vaudeville, I stood on that pavement enraptured. I was caught in an inexplicable world of magic, ready for those images to cast their spell over me. But I was outside. Unable to get in. Excluded. No Can Do. At that (unspecified) age I didn’t anyway have money of my own. I was an outsider, and in a way always have been, and that has brought its own rewards and disappointments. Standing there, and bringing away the memories of those hoardings, those glorious black and white blow-ups of Susan Hampshire as the girl that everyone on stage inside the Vaudeville would be following, I was a changed person. Coming home from London to Norwich (probably on the coach, a bilious end to the day) I never thought that when I was older I would become a great friend of Julian’s, sit beside him at the Vaudeville to see yet another revival of his Salad Days, become a person who has had some sort of small voice about the British musical. A passionate one, I hope; a voice from outside the theatre.

A Tanner’s Worth of Tune was described by the Stage as ‘an instant must-have’ and is available from good booksellers.