Monday, 18 April 2011

Leon Kirchner and 'a Boo for the Boos of Boulez'

Known throughout his career for his controversial stances and outspoken polemics, in 1952 Pierre Boulez aroused considerable ire with his essay “Schoenberg is Dead”, which denigrated the aging composer for being too conservative in comparison to Webern.

In 1963 Leon Kirchner was in his second year of teaching at Harvard. Despite his discomfort with Boulez’ attack on Schoenberg, he was prepared to offer camaraderie to the Frenchman during his own sojourn in Cambridge. During the following years Boulez became increasingly active and successful as an orchestral conductor and remained in contact with Kicrhner. Robert Riggs takes up the story in his recently published biography,
Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher:

In January 1969 Boulez’ appointment as music director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London was announced, and in the spring of that year he came to the United States again, this time as a guest conductor with the orchestras in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, and New York. Boulez agreed to be interviewed in Boston by Joan Peyser for a feature article to be published in the New York Times. During the interview over a long lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Boulez became quite expansive, providing Peyser with numerous quotable but also controversial remarks for her article, which appeared in the Arts and Leisure Section on Sunday, March 9, 1969. The headline, “A Fighter From Way Back” (supplied by the Times editors), already gives a premonition of the article’s thrust: an attack by Boulez on various aspects of American musical life.

According to Boulez, composers who publish in Perspectives of New Music “think they are great scientists. They are not. I know great scientists and they possess invention and imagination. Composers who publish in this journal never discuss important questions of choice and decision. They write only about putting different things together. This is not an esthetic point of view. It’s what I call a ‘cashier’s point of view.’’’ Addressing the perceived rivalry between European and American composers, Boulez asserted: “The Americans do operate under a severe handicap, of course; they have no strong personalities in the field. If they were strong enough to establish their personality on the world, they would see that no national favoritism exists. . . . They have no one in America as good as Hans Werner Henze, and that is not setting your sights very high. A composer the stature of Stockhausen they have not.” Boulez also offered a diagnosis of what caused this alleged impoverished state of music in America:

European music in not connected with the university. There is no ivory castle for us. But here, the university people and practical musicians ignore each other. It’s a very unhealthy state of affairs. I do not like this pedantic approach. I do not like scholars who bring only Death to music. The university situation is incestuous. It is one big marriage in which the progeny deteriorates, like the progeny of old and noble families. The university musician is in a self-made ghetto, and what is worse, he likes it there.

The night before “A Fighter From Way Back” appeared in the New York Times, Boulez was a guest at the home of Leon and Gertrude Kirchner in Cambridge. Although Boulez obviously knew that the interview/article would be coming out soon, if not the very next day, he was, according to Kirchner, urbane, charming, and completely relaxed that evening. After the very pleasant dinner party on Saturday, the Sunday paper brought Kirchner a rude and totally unexpected shock. Boulez’s inflammatory and judgmental remarks, the sting of which was augmented by his deceptively collegial demeanor the previous evening, disturbed Kirchner. In response, three weeks later he sent a lengthy letter to the editor of the Times.

Peyser had begun her article by recounting how Boulez, as a twenty-year-old, had booed a performance of Stravinsky’s music in Paris. Boulez explained that his action had been directed not at Stravinsky, but rather at those in the music establishment who considered him a God and an idol. Thus, Boulez had booed Stravinsky in order to draw attention to Schoenberg, and eventually he was successful in doing so. Then, a few years later, after Schoenberg’s serial techniques had attracted a wide following, Boulez attacked him in order to promote Webern.

Kirchner prefaced his letter with an extract from Peyser’s article that recounted this story of Boulez’s boos. Then, in the manner of Robert Schumann—who divided his persona between two fictitious interlocutors in order to debate musical issues in his journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik—Kirchner launched a satiric dialogue between “Leon” and “Kirchner” who discussed their reactions to the Boulez interview:

LEON: What did you think of “A Fighter from Way Back?”

KIRCHNER: Boulez lost his “cool.” He led with his right. Perhaps he should confine himself to leading Booing Groups.

L: Have you ever led a Booing Group?

K: Well, to be perfectly frank, I’ve booed Boulez’s Boos, not that I was attacking him. I have the greatest respect for him. I was only attacking the establishment which considers Boos “the God, the Idol, the Only Truth.” I’ll be honest with you. I did it to draw attention to Babbitt’s Boos. However, I soon realized I would have to defl ower Babbitt’s Boos with a dwindling supply of my own. Not that I didn’t respect him but I thought it was time to draw some attention to Carter. But really, I don’t want to be drawn into this, it can only lead to Boo dropping. I’d have to mention so many.

The Times decided to use “A Boo for the Boos of Boulez” as the headline for Kirchner’s letter.

After addressing several points in this manner, Kirchner discontinued his humorous repartee in favor of a traditional and serious examination of one the most troubling issues raised by Boulez: the role of universities in American musical life. Having been uncomfortable for many years with the increasing emphasis on positivistic approaches in the cultivation of music within academia, Kirchner proposed that the root of the problem was to be found not with the universities but with the individuals who reside there.

As an example of a rare scholar who recognized this condition, he cited German musicologist Friedrich Blume, who, in a recent guest lecture at Harvard, had given “a vigorous polemic ‘against the encroachment of philological methods’ which ‘pushed aside concern with interpretation, meaning and technique’ to the point where ‘scholars forget that they have to do with music at all.’” In agreement with Boulez’s low assessment of much academic writing about music, Kirchner maintained that “composers can, apparently, demonstrate brilliantly that they are subject to the same restrictive and essentially trivial involvements as some of their colleagues in musicology.”

Broadening the discussion beyond music, Kirchner touched on aspects of the relationship between the arts and the sciences that had concerned him in “Notes on Understanding.” He maintained,

What affects the sciences affects the arts: the inability to distinguish between the operation of a calculus and the operation of human language forms. The enormous success of technology in the solution of a variety of soluble problems has made this inability to distinguish operations more difficult, and the result is that profoundly important areas of activity are suppressed and vanish in favour of a monolithic approach to what appears to be all there is. We are caught in a struggle of methodologies; control and prediction of human behavior vs. the demonstration of human competence and creativity.

Buttressing his position from an unlikely source, and at the same time tying it in to current political issues, Kirchner noted with irony that

we must turn to Vice-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (the New York Times, June 9, 1967) to be told that “war is not quantifiable,” that human life is not a factor in mathematical cost-effectiveness equations that are fed into computers because there is no way to assign intrinsic value and fi nite proportions to it . . . that “our society is threatened by any man who knows method but not meaning, technique but not principle . . . any man who depreciates wisdom, experience and intuition.”

In response to Boulez’s charge that many American composers, in their fixation on systems and analysis, devalue or even ignore the parameters of imagination, choice, and aesthetics, Kirchner admitted,

In our recent craze and almost exclusive involvement with the “substantive,” we tend to fossilize our art and repudiate its function. One of the wonderful things about Schoenberg—whom Boulez not long ago likened to an unfortunate Moses who never got to the promised 12-tone land—is the contest between abstract rule (from time immemorial a catalyst) and sheer musical urge. The resultant modifications, or “mutants” if you like, are exciting, a result which would be statistically unlikely without the two. At all points, there is a choice to be made and it is the memory bank operating in the continuing present and all that the memory stores of experience and of contemplation that guides the choice.

We talk a great deal about systems analysis, determination of rules and so forth, but in the process we forget the act of total involvement, of physical and spiritual play. Rules are valuable and with a proper understanding we can construct models from which invaluable information may be inferred. But the adequacy of a rule is entirely dependent upon highly refined and sensitive observation and, given an adequate rule, we must also understand that the variables (a most productive area) are difficult to “cover.” When we grasp a fact by describing it, there is no reason to assume that we have understood the total phenomenon.

Leon Kirchner
is available from all good booksellers, both virtual and real, or in case of difficulty, direct from our website.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Hans, Milein and Igor

In March Toccata Press launched their new edition of Hans Keller’s writings on - and Milein Cosman’s drawings of - Stravinsky with a reception at the Austrian Cultural Forum in London. Stravinsky the Music Maker is the third incarnation of this book and the most complete yet, with all of Keller’s known writings on the composer, greatly enhanced by Cosman’s lively line drawings. Christopher Wintle, one of the trustees of the Cosman Keller Art & Music Trust and a publisher in his own right, gave the following address on the night, which we are pleased to post here in full:

The Time: Spring 1967. The Place: Oxford. The Occasion: I am cycling into College for dinner. As I come down the Woodstock Road, I see my tutor waiting at a bus stop. He is Dr. Egon Wellesz, one-time student of Arnold Schoenberg and classmate of Berg and Webern. I stop. “Good evening,” he says sweetly, “And what did you do today?” “I listened to Stravinsky!” I beam in reply. His smile becomes rictal: he is clearly agitated. “Stravinsky,” he cries, “was a FRAUD!” Whereupon he raises his arms as if dancing The Rite of Spring and emits a few primeval grunts. I bid him a pleasant evening and continue to College. Naturally, I spread the bad tidings among friends. No-one is delighted – but then, no-one is surprised: even in the 1960s, Igor is still ‘hot potato’.

In the preface to this combatively-titled book – for Hans believed that Stravinsky, unlike others, genuinely made music – Martin Anderson claims I supplied the articles that got the project started. Well, as far as it goes that’s true– but I can go further still. What happened was this. First, I breathed heavily down his neck to ensure he included all Hans’s writings on Stravinsky; and then I was forced to draw in my breath as he and Mark Doran added in extra pieces I’d either forgotten or knew nothing about. The result of their expert sleuthing is not just a gratifyingly tidy piece of archival house-keeping, but also a generically richer collection than I’d expected.

The writings are arranged chronologically over a period of 35 years from 1948 to ‘83; they are drawn from music magazines, learned journals, book reviews, newspapers, concert previews and programme notes; and they come to an imposing head in ‘Stravinsky Heard’, a reprint of Hans’s contribution to Stravinsky Seen and Heard from 1982. Yet taken together, they evince the refracted unity of a modernist collage. After a few introductory scraps, the main theme emerges in 1954 as Hans sets out to defend Stravinsky, not so much against Schoenberg, but rather against ‘the Schoenbergians’ – in other words, against the Welleszes and all those who couldn’t recognize genius when they heard it. Pre-eminently he targeted Theodor Adorno. It was, of course, an extraordinary mission: for if he didn’t count himself among the Schoenbergians, Hans was still deeply imbued with the thought of Schoenberg and the traditions behind him. Not for him was the Russian Stravinsky, the ‘neo-classical’ French Stravinsky or the time-travelling American Stravinsky; his Stravinsky could only be a co-opted Viennese. And it is no surprise that, during those 35 years, Hans had to wrestle with some demons of his own.

Let me sift the evidence. At first sight, Hans’s attitude to Stravinsky seems ambivalent. True in 1956, he berates Adorno for not being ‘inspired by that great respect for a great genius without which the truest observation on him lacks perspective’ [:45]; true too he deplores how Adorno tears ‘Stravinsky to shreds with the intellectual power of … a philosopher and the subterranean passion of a fanatic’ [:53]: after all, Adorno likens Stravinsky’s repetitions – the celebrated ostinati – to ‘the mask-like ceremonial politeness of certain schizophrenics’ [:54]. And even when he and Adorno both recognize ‘a sado-masochistic trait’ pervading the music, Keller again springs to the defence: ‘I should never have dreamt of evaluating a creative character trait as such, negatively or positively’ [:59], he writes: for Stravinsky’s ‘anti-expressiveness does not, as Adorno thinks, result in emptiness, but in fullness fully opposed’, yielding a ‘statically intense tension [by] opposing the flow of rhythm [with] rhythm itself’ [:60]. And so on.

But what happens when Hans himself takes the stage? His earliest views are so disrespectful that they’re not worth the debate. In 1951 he refers to The Rake’s Progress as a ‘sham creation’, ‘a pale and defective copy’ of Così fan tutte [:59]; and in 1954, in an essay that compares Schoenberg’s ‘Dance round the Golden Calf’ (which he sees as a rite) with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (which he sees as a dance) he derides the Rite as ‘a musical failure’:

I cannot see that it has any chance of survival, except as a museum piece [:40].

He listens uneasily to Stravinsky rehearsing Agon and failing to correct the ‘distonations’ in the string unisons: ‘his zest nevertheless carried off the passages in question,’ he remarks diplomatically, ‘but any lesser musician will have to be more pedantic at these points …’ [:71]. In a review of Robert Craft’s Conversations with Igor Stravinsky he reveals severe logical contradictions in Stravinsky’s pronouncements on music theory, resolves them in his own terms and saves up a stinging riposte to the end:

’Critics’, says Stravinsky, ‘misinform the public and delay comprehension. Because of critics many valuable things come too late.’ All the more so when artists themselves turn into critics and proceed to misinform themselves.’ [:81]

Hans berates Stravinsky (not unfairly) for ‘deceiving himself in his usual manner’ over the working of contrast in a later piece, Movements [:83]; and he notes how

the master was not beyond descending to the level of uncomprehending gutter journalism when pronouncing upon the music of such dangerous rivals as Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg or, most savagely, Britten [:110]

– especially when there was doubt as to how much of Schoenberg’s music Stravinsky actually knew [:142]. Finally in 1983, Hans considers it a positive ‘duty’ to reassure the reader that Stravinsky the man was not worth knowing about

unless one is childish enough to enjoy the coincidence, within one and the same mind, of supernormal art and moral sub-normality. I only met Stravinsky once – and had never met such a small-minded great mind before. [:167]

Of course, none of this is to suggest that Hans would happily have taken tea in Oxford with Wellesz: the positives far outweigh the negatives. But when we take these strictures, along with those on Colin Mason, Peter Stadlen, Robert Craft, Joseph Kerman, Paul Griffiths and others, we understand that his appetite for publicly criticizing the critics, already whetted in the Music Survey by 1950, never diminished one iota.

More importantly, though, Hans set out to enrich ‘history of music’ and ‘textual criticism’ with ‘the application of psychoanalysis’ [:39]. It was a vital, lifelong initiative, though still not one much heeded by our relentlessly positivistic culture. As the book Music and Psychology shows, Hans was a classical Freudian enriched by the British psychoanalysis and sociology of the 1940s; and, as a hilarious chapter in his book 1975 shows, he could also play the unpious ‘psychological observer’. So it comes as no surprise to find him talking, in Stravinsky the Music Maker, of sadomasochistic masterpieces (such as the Mass or the Symphony of Psalms), or of self-castigating aggression, identification, object-love, creative mourning and melancholia, the return of the repressed, the capacity in art for pathology to yield health, and so forth. What is fascinating, though, is to see how the psychoanalysis, once allied to aesthetics, interacts with and reshapes Adorno’s critical stance. This happens in three ways.

First, Hans revalues the opposition between the respective followers of Schoenberg and Stravinsky into a positive dialectical field, and even considers a mutual influence between the two masters (though there is more to be said on how the mature Schoenberg not only reclaimed classical forms but also did a bit of neo-classicizing of his own). That is to say, Hans celebrates the tension between release and restraint, development and anti-development. Stravinsky, he concludes, is more a ‘counterpoint’ to Schoenberg than a ‘counterpole’ [:41]. Second, he relates this revalued dialectical field to Freud’s dual-instinct theory of 1920, with the Austro-Germans promoting Eros (love) and Stravinsky Thanatos (death). But that being so, he argues that the dialectic should not be between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, but rather between Wagner and Stravinsky – Wagner being the counterpole that Schoenberg wasn’t. He writes:

Clinically, it is of the greatest significance … that the most passionate Stravinsky-lovers … are, at the same time, the most conscientious – invariably moralizing – objectors to Wagner’s music. [:164]

And third, he comes to recognize that it was not just Schoenberg’s death in 1951 that released the creative mourning behind Stravinsky’s late move into atonality and serialism, but rather Anton Webern’s in 1945. For Webern, ‘the ultimate expressionist’ [:112], was also, in Hans’s words, a fellow ‘sado-masochist’ whose ‘sparse, ultra-transparent textures [were] cleaner … than anything our entire musical history had had to offer until then.’ Indeed, they were textures whose brevity Stravinsky would emulate repeatedly, notably in the poignant setting of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle …’ analysed with some attention in the book.

All this is immensely stimulating. Today, for instance, we could extend the argument by aligning Hans’s work on small groups in the 1940s with modern sibling-theory. Juliet Mitchell argues that our deepest influences are not necessarily the father-figures of the past, but rather our professional brothers and sisters of the present. So not only did Stravinsky honour the ghosts of Schoenberg and Webern, but he also set out to prove himself with the post-war avant-garde – a Boulezian peer-group that, as we know, took for its pace-setter the pupil and not the master, Webern not Schoenberg. Add to that Keller’s observation that Stravinsky displayed ‘hostile identification’ towards Benjamin Britten by plundering the younger man’s texts and music [:100] and we conjure up yet another Stravinsky: the castrating father, the annihilating older sibling and – since Britten almost alone knew how to plunder Stravinsky to effect – a jealous cannibal gorging on his own, reclaimed flesh.

This is not the occasion to assess the book’s technical aspect. On the one hand the analyses restrict themselves (now unfashionably) to theme and motif, but on the other integrate their findings with psychology and aesthetics. Suffice it to note that the terms in which Hans analyses Stravinsky are those in which he also analyses Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – as is clear from the Essays on Music. In general he postulates a tension between a composer’s ‘background’ – his sources – and his ‘foreground’ – his invention. In Stravinsky’s case, though, he inverts the duality, with the sources now to the fore; out of this he reveals a new creative type, the anaclitic artist, one who can only operate by revealing his emotional dependence on others. And Hans also shows how style can arise from the exaggeration of some features at the expense of others. Although his contrast between Wagner’s surging ‘upbeats’ and Stravinsky’s restraining ‘downbeats’ may be a rhetorical exaggeration, he nevertheless illuminates counter-poles that were once united. Bach’s St. John Passion, for instance, begins with down-beating cries of ‘Herr, Herr, Herr’ and ends with up-beating injunctions of ‘Ruht wohl … Ruht wohl’.

In these and other respects, Hans’s contribution to Stravinsky the Music Maker may open up territory for others to invade, develop or dispute as they see fit. But it is still a momentous pioneering effort, and one that repays our closest attention.