MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

How Quiet Should Audiences Be?


Kate Molleson advises against uptightness in the concert hall:

The classical music community gives mixed messages. Accessibility is the industry catchword. In some respects, we’ve relaxed into being able to dress how we like and experience concerts as an everybody, everyday event. In others, we’ve come to demand sanctimonious listening environments of silence and absolute stillness. I’d be the last person to advocate stuffiness in the concert hall: there’s nothing more grim than the tut-tuts of an officious crowd. Such a response alienates those not in the know – and if our aim is to welcome new listeners to the fold, we can’t make them feel daft when they get there.

Yet I hate being distracted from great music by careless noise. At worst, it can fundamentally change the fate of a performance, like when Mitsuko Uchida played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in Edinburgh last month and was interrupted seconds before the opening chord by a loud clatter. She was visibly startled, had to reposition her hands over the keyboard, and never seemed to fully regain her focus.

Filed under: audiences

The Misinformation Age

Dame Edna Jeunehomme
Dame Edna or “Miss Jeunehomme”?

We all know about the paradox of the New Media Age: information everywhere, our memories now downloaded onto our phones, instant access to any fact, but…is this overflow of info making us less critical? Just which of those “facts” are actually true?

Nowadays it’s not just the ocean of information that’s the problem: it’s how much bad information is out there, from dangerously misguided “medical” advice to half-baked assertions and those incorrect/half-correct little memettes on which music writers rely far too much — and in the process keep in circulation.

This is where the new media ironically end up working against the diffusion of knowledge. The problem is that certain factoids that sprouted up somewhere eons ago, in a seriously outdated book or note, might have represented the best knowledge back then (or sometimes just a brazen guess), but these end up getting repeated thanks to the laziness of program annotators. Especially once they’ve become enshrined in Wikipedia, there’s an echo chamber effect. Ultimately it’s harder than before for the actual facts to emerge from the clutter.

I recently ran across an example of this while researching a relatively early Mozart piano concerto: the Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K. 271, dating from the composer’s years in Salzburg, in January 1777 (when he just turned 21). It’s still known by the nickname “Jeunehomme” (even though Mozart referred to the French woman for whom he wrote it as “die jenomy”) because the real story somehow fell through the cracks. A French biographer later decided that Mozart — that erratic, fun-and-games speller — was actually writing shorthand for “Jeunehomme,” or perhaps just trying to write the French name down impressionistically.

And that started the little meme about a “mysterious Mlle. Jeunehomme” and her allegedly unexplained trip through Salzburg in 1777. (For some reason, this woman, assumed to have been unmarried according to the scenario, remained half anonymous even while she was performing in the musical capital of the time). Surely she must have been a keyboard whiz to have impressed young Wolferl enough to inspire him to dash off a concerto that, by general consensus, marks an incredible advance in scope, self-confidence, and originality. (The whole thing is actually longer than all those piano concerto masterpieces from the final Vienna decade.)

That’s why the question of which pianist Mozart had in mind for K. 271 — perhaps he just wrote it for himself after all? — isn’t a trivial, pedantic one: this is a genuinely watershed composition. The routine story outlined above was all fine and well until about a decade ago, when the Austrian musicologist Michael Lorenz, in an amazing feat of detective work, discovered that there was a very real musician behind this: Louise-Victoire Jenamy (1749–1812), eldest child of Jean-Georges Noverre, a major figure in the history of French ballet and a very good friend of the Mozarts.

French choreographer and dancer Jean-Georges Noverre, father of the pianist Louise-Victoire Jenamy

Yet to this day it’s still easy to find this outdated explanation repeated over and over. Mozart’s pianist continues to appear in recent program notes as the “elusive Mlle. Jeunehomme” or the faceless “fine pianist” we know only as “Mlle. Jeunehomme.”

Maybe I’m making far too much of what seems to be a minuscule point that doesn’t really merit this attention. It’s not exactly the equivalent of Hitler invading Poland, true enough. But it honestly seems to me there’s more at stake here than an obscure academic footnote. What bothers me is that this is a symptom of the bad info out there that just keeps replicating. When the latest research is so easily accessible via a google search, there’s less excuse than ever not to question received ideas. Ignoring the latest discoveries seems to only underscore the reputation of classical music as mummified, out of touch with the present day.

And there really is an interesting story lurking behind Lorenz’s research. You’d think that a scenario involving a woman pianist who apparently had some kind of solo career in the 1770s would inspire more curiosity. Sure, there were plenty of women students at the time, and Mozart wrote piano sonatas and the like for them, but this is a major standout piece in his own career. I wonder whether any more evidence about Louise-Victoire Jenamy née Noverre will turn up. Seems a ripe topic for a speculative novel….

Meanwhile, enjoy one of today’s great pianists in K. 271:

Filed under: canards, program notes

How Much Does That Picture Cost?

Rothko-No. 61
Mark Rothko: No. 61 (Rust and Blood), 1951; LAMOCA

The Florida-based art historian and curator Daniel A. Siedell reflects on art’s spiritual cost in a recent interview with Meaghan Ritchey for The Curator:

Being human means dealing with limitations. I think that the overly romantic idea that somehow creativity only takes place when you’re free of restrictions keeps a lot of good art from entering the world—or, perhaps, it actually prevents a lot of bad work from entering the world…What makes the existence of art in the world so remarkable is that it comes at great cost, sometimes through enormous challenges, but almost always through the slow drip of inconveniences, frustrations, and self-doubt.

This is why I am fascinated by what happens in the studio as the artist devotes her life to making artifacts that have no apparent use in the world, artifacts that are often ignored and misunderstood, especially in the church. Artists lean into that fear that every human being has—that the work we do doesn’t matter.

I’m attracted to artists who, on a daily basis, are making the commitment to be a particular kind of artist, in spite of the challenges and the limitations of their life situation—artists who have the faith to keep doing what they’re doing. They don’t have it all worked out—doubting their sanity and the wisdom of their choices. But in faith, they go to the studio and work. In the process they’re strengthening my faith in art, offering me assurance, and serving as a means of grace to me as I struggle with the wisdom of devoting my life to looking at smelly pigments smeared on a scrap of canvas amidst all of the very difficult challenges and responsibilities in my life.

Filed under: curating, spirituality, visual art

A Fiery, Flaming Symphony

(Prokofiev c. 1918.)

My new essay on Sergei Prokofiev’s fantastic and way-underplayed Third Symphony is now up on San Francisco Symphony‘s web site for the program Michael Tilson Thomas is conducting next week. Thank you, MTT, for championing this work!

Music depicting the ravings of demonic possession, eroticized spiritualism (or spiritualized eroticism), medieval witchcraft and sorcery, and a convent of nuns whipped into mass hysteria—no, it’s not the score to a Stephen King film but a work that has a decent claim to being Sergei Prokofiev’s operatic masterpiece: The Fiery Angel (Ognenniy angel in Russian). A labor of love—and great frustration—The Fiery Angel also served as the source for his Third Symphony (even including much of its orchestration). Prokofiev wrote that he considered the latter “to be one of my best compositions.”

continue reading…

Filed under: composers, opera, program notes, symphonies

The Sea, The Sea

To prepare for a new essay, I spent some of last week immersed in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s breakthrough composition from 1910, A Sea Symphony – also known as the First Symphony (though he didn’t get around personally to numbering the first three of his nine symphonies).

While it has its weak moments, I wish this work were performed more often, but it’s never really caught on with American audiences, and the score poses a huge challenge for the chorus. By a remarkable coincidence, A Sea Symphony premiered exactly one month after Mahler’s Eighth (that incredible amalgam of medieval Church hymn and the final scene of Faust). Both works represent unclassifiable hybrids of cantata, symphony, and oratorio, taking the “model” of Beethoven’s Ninth to new extremes. And five years before that, Debussy’s La mer was first performed in Paris. (There was also a growing body of sea-oriented compositions by Vaughan Williams’s compatriots.)

For Vaughan Williams, though, the real impetus wasn’t to somehow paint the sea in orchestral-choral terms but, instead, to give shape to the oracular insights he’d gleaned from his immersive reading of Walt Whitman. He chose texts from Leaves of Grass that use the sea to figure the human soul’s yearning for “restless explorations” and the like:

O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Covered all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness,
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above,
Below, the manifold grass and waters,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee.

(Talking about our favorite VW symphonies, my friend Q said, “I think I often want Sibelius to be more pastoral, and Vaughan Williams less so, in the matter of symphonies.”)


What would a composer who was setting out today to write an ambitious work inspired by the metaphorical possibilities of the sea come up with, I wonder? Would it even be possible not to take account of the dire state of the oceans? There’s no escaping it, from the ongoing radioactive leakage at Fukushima to this recent study by Australian scientists concluding that “humans have put so much plastic into our planet’s oceans that even if everyone in the world stopped putting garbage in the ocean today, giant garbage patches would continue to grow for hundreds of years.”

Filed under: environment, nature, poetry, symphonies

“Noli Timere”: Seamus Heaney Lives On

Seamus Heaney in 1970; photo (c) Simon Garbutt

Sad news of the death of Seamus Heaney on Friday. Today his funeral was held at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook in south Dublin. Heaney’s final words to his wife, Marie — via text message from his hospital bed — were reported to have been in Latin: “Noli timere” (“Don’t be afraid”).

Heartening to see evidence of a culture where poetry still seems to matter: The Irish Times has been offering widespread coverage of Heaney’s legacy, and, according to The Guardian, at Sunday’s All Ireland Galiec football semi-final between Kerry and Dublin, “more than 80,000 spectators clapped for two minutes in appreciation of Ireland’s national poet.”

In a post for The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey recalls what he learned from Heaney, including “the un-teachable part” of writing poetry, the part related to “Lorca’s notion of duende, a mysterious dark fire of inspiration, a demonic rage, which, as I remember, Lorca associated with bullfighting and flamenco.”

“Some poems were like drawings, he used to say, gesturing with a quick downward zigzagging stroke of the pen, and some were like paintings. You were lucky if the poem came quickly, all in one piece. He would often quote Frost, from “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

The continued outpouring of tributes and memories has been remarkable. Here’s a sampling:

Robert Pinsky remembers the Irish poet

Tributes from the poetry world

Videos of Heaney reading his poems

Dan Chiasson’s appreciation

Andrew O’Hagan recalls his travels with the poet

And Maria Popova recounts Heaney’s
Nobel Prize acceptance speech and includes a clip of the poet reading the title poem from Death of a Naturalist.

Filed under: poetry

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