I think I mentioned elsewhere that I’ve started growing tired of “best-of-the-year” lists. Not that I don’t appreciate taking stock of a certain period — I’m actually kind of obsessive about that — but I’ve lately been finding those lists too arbitrary in the way they try to shoe-horn a whole year of experiences into some sort of hierarchy. Anyway, I always end up discovering that excellent things get left out, while trend-think makes undeserving ones crop up to annoy me.
So I won’t give in to this tiresome ritual, with all its problematic meritocracy.* And as the year ends and a new one approaches with its illusion of offering a blank slate, I prefer to focus not on perfection achieved but on the tortuous route toward it. Here are a couple of inspiring examples of the fight against settling for something that’s good but not good enough. Instead of pristine blank slates, let’s consider the crabbed, crossed-out traces of an inner battle to wrest a chaos of ideas into something that will work. It’s the principle of starting with something that’s maybe even unremarkable and then pressing on against the odds to squeeze some sort of beauty or meaning from it. Over and over, facing constant confusion and frustration.
I suppose Beethoven is the most-obvious example of what I’m referring to. To me what’s especially encouraging about the stories of his compulsion to get things right, working them over and over, is that we can see Beethoven sometimes starting out with some really mundane stuff.
In his study of the Missa solemnis (a current preoccupation), Roger Fiske quotes from Beethoven’s first attempts to work out the theme of the Credo: “No one need be surprised that Beethoven’s sketches for the start of the Credo verge on the inept; his preliminary sketches often do. He seems to have needed to write down something which (to us) looks totally unpromising before he could find what he wanted.”
Leonard Bernstein even used the convoluted sketches for the Fifth Symphony to dramatize his point about Beethoven’s aesthetic struggle to write music that somehow seems “inevitable”:
Beethoven’s manuscript [in contrast to the gorgeous, flowing chirography of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements] looks kike a bloody record of a tremendous inner battle. Before he began to write this wild-looking score, he had for three years been filling notebooks with sketches….And so he tried a third ending, and this one worked…[H]e had to struggle and agonize before he realized so apparently simple a thing: that the trouble with his first ending was not that it was too short, but that it was not short enough. Thus he arrived at the third ending, which is as right as rain….
Imagine a whole lifetime of this struggle, movement after movement, symphony after symphony, sonata after quartet after concerto. Always probing and rejecting in his dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability….
[I]t leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.
And there’s the example of William Butler Yeats, as Curtis Bradford (Yeats at Work) shows in his intriguing study of the poet toiling over drafts in his bound notebooks. The final version of “Sailing to Byzantium” encompasses a very small percentage of the lines Yeats wrote down in his first draft. The amazing (in every sense) opening line of “Leda and the Swan” — “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still” — started as “Now can the swooping Godhead have his will” or “The swooping godhead is half hovering still” (Yeats initially wanted to title it “Annunciation”).
“The Choice” (1932)
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
–William Butler Yeats
Thanks to all for visiting my blog. I wish you all a happy and productive new year and hope you’ll continue to visit and share your thoughts.
*OK, now I’m going to go ahead and cheat and slip in a reference to these as absolutely unforgettable experiences I was privileged to enjoy in 2013: the Adams/Sellars Gospel According to the Other Mary in LA; Lucerne Festival AND Seattle Opera Rings; Morlot conducting Messiaen’s Turangalîla; Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the National Gallery; Mark Rylance and the RSC’s Richard III and Twelfth Night; the Richard Diebenkorn retrospective at the de Young Museum; SF Symphony concert of Tom Adès, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, with Pablo Heras-Casado; Azeotrope Theatre’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (Seattle); Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist; the Met’s Dialogues, Giulio Cesare, The Nose, and Frau; and The Good Person of Szechuan at the Public.