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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 10 July 2008

Summer Reading & Listening

July 1, 2008

An Open Letter to Stephen Harper

From Life of Pi author Yann Martel’s blog, What Is Stephen Harper Reading?

Book Number Thirty:
The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy


To Stephen Harper,

Prime Minister of Canada,

Music, both beautiful and discordant,

From a Canadian writer,

With best wishes,

Yann Martel

May 26, 2008

Dear Mr. Harper,

Tolstoy again. Sixty weeks back I sent you The Death of Ivan Ilych, if you remember. This week it’s The Kreutzer Sonata, published three years later, in 1889. It’s a very different book. As much as Ilych is an artistic gem, the realism seemingly effortless, the characters fully incarnate yet universal, the emotions finely expressed, the lyricism simple and profound, the portrayal of life and its fleetingness dead on, so to speak—in sum, as much as Ilych is perfect, The Kreutzer Sonata is imperfect. For example, the setting—a long train ride in which two passengers converse—comes off poorly because nearly the entire novella is taken up by the endless discourse of the main character, Pozdnyshev. Our nameless narrator just sits there, stunned into listening and memorizing the 75-page tirade directed at him. It’s as clunky a device as one of Plato’s dialogues—without the wisdom, for the most part. The Kreutzer Sonata is a long rant about love, sex and marriage, with side swipes at doctors and children, leading up to a vivid portrayal of insane jealousy, all of it told by an unconvicted murderer. Imagine that, a man telling you on a train, “I killed my wife. Let me tell you about it, since we’ve got all night.” I guess I wouldn’t interrupt him, either.

Imperfect art, then. So why the interest? Because it’s still Tolstoy. Simple people lead simple lives. Complex people lead complex lives. The difference between the two has to do with one’s openness to life. Whether determined by misfortune—a congenital deficiency, a stunting upbringing, a lack of opportunity, a timid disposition—or determined by will— by the use and abuse of religion or ideology, for example—there are many ways in which life, one’s portion of it, can be regulated and made acceptably simple. Tolstoy was unregulated. He lived in a manner unbridled and unblinkered. He took it all in. He was supremely complex. And so there was much of life in his long life, life good and bad, wise and unwise, happy and unhappy. Thus the interest of his writings, because of their extraordinary existential breadth. If the earth could gather itself up, could bring together everything upon it, all men, women and children, every plant and animal, every mountain and valley, every plain and ocean, and twist itself into a fine point, and at that fine point grasp a pen, and with that pen begin to write, it would write like Tolstoy. Tolstoy, like Shakespeare, like Dante, like all great artists, is life itself speaking.

But whereas Ilych elicits consonance in the reader, The Kreutzer Sonata elicits dissonance. In it, love between men and women does not really exist but is merely a euphemism for lust. Marriage is covenanted prostitution, a cage in which lust unhappily fulfills itself. Men are depraved, women hate sex, children are a burden, doctors are a fraud. The only solution is complete sexual abstinence, and if that means the end of the human species, all the better. Because otherwise men and women will always be unhappy with each other, and some men may be driven to killing their wives. It’s a bleak, excessively scouring view of the relations between the sexes, a reflection of Tolstoy’s frustration at the social constrictions of his times, no doubt, but nonetheless going too far, wrong-headed, objectionable. And so its effect, the scandal upon its publication, and the reaction it has to this day. Tolstoy does indeed go too far in The Kreutzer Sonata, but in it are nonetheless expressed all the elements—the hypocrisy and the outrage, the guilt and the anger—that were at the core of that greatest revolution of the 20th century: feminism.

As an aside, this second book by Tolstoy was a last minute choice. There’s such a world of books out there to share with you that I thought one book per author as introduction was enough. After that, if you were interested, you could look up for yourself any given author’s other books.

Only I wanted a book this week that touched on music. (I’ve forgotten to explain the title of Tolstoy’s novella. Pozdnyshev’s wife is an amateur pianist. The couple meets an accomplished amateur violinist by the name of Trukhashevsky, a man. The wife and he become, in all innocence, friends because of their mutual fondness for music. They decide to play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, for piano and violin, together. In the wings, her husband grows angrier.) Why a book on music? Because serious music, at least as represented by new and classical music, is fast disappearing from our Canadian lives. I have belatedly learned of the latest proof of this: the CBC Radio Orchestra is to be disbanded. Already our public radio’s fare of music has become more paltry. There was once, Mr. Harper, a show called Two New Hours on CBC, hosted by Larry Lake. It played Canadian new music. It’s last slot, surely the least desirable for any show, was on Sundays between 10 pm and midnight, too late for the early birds, too early for the night owls. Airing at that time, no surprise that few people managed to listen to it. When I did, though, I was grateful. New music is a strange offering. It is, as far as I can tell, music that has broken free. Free of rules, forms, traditions, and expectations. Frontier music. New world music. Anarchy as music. Which might explain the screechy violins, the pianos gone crazy, and the weird electronic stuff.

I have intense memories of listening to Two New Hours and doing nothing but that. Because really, it’s impossible to read while your radio is sounding like two tractors mating. I suppose I’m more jaded when it comes to writing—jaded, jealous, bored, whatever. But I listened to Two New Hours out of pure curiosity. And I was surprised, moved and proud that there were creators out there responding to our world in such fresh and serious ways. Because it was clear to me: this was serious stuff, strange as it sounded. This was music that, under whatever guise, was the voice of a single person trying to communicate with me. And I listened, thrilled at the newness of it. That is, I listened until the show was cancelled.

And now the CBC Radio Orchestra, the last radio orchestra in North America, is to be similarly cancelled. No more, “That was _____, played by the CBC Radio Orchestra, conducted by Mario Bernardi,” as I heard for years. Who will play us our Bach and Mozart now, besides our R. Murray Schaffer and Christos Hatzis?

It amazes me that at a time when Canada is riding the commodities wave to unprecedented wealth, with most levels of government experiencing budgetary surpluses, that we are riding ourselves of a piddley piddling little orchestra. If this is how we are when in fortune, how will we be when in misfortune? How much culture exactly can we do without before we have become lifeless, corporate drones?

I believe that both in good and bad times we need beautiful music.

Yours truly,

Yann Martel

encl: one inscribed paperback

Every two weeks, Yann Martel sends Stephen Harper a different book to read, along with an open letter, published on his blog at www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca. To date, he has sent thirty-one books.

April 16, 2007: The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

April 30, 2007: Animal Farm, by George Orwell

May 14, 2007: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie

May 28, 2007: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept,
by Elizabeth Smart

June 11, 2007: The Bhagavad Gita

June 25, 2007: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan

July 9, 2007: Candide, by Voltaire

July 23, 2007: Short and Sweet: 101 very short poems, edited by
Simon Armitage

August 6, 2007: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez

August 20, 2007: Miss Julia, by August Strindberg

September 3, 2007: The Watsons, by Jane Austen

September 17, 2007: Maus, by Art Spiegelman

October 1, 2007: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

October 15, 2007: Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

October 29, 2007: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

November 12, 2007: Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

November 26, 2007: The Island Means Minago, by Milton Acorn

December 10, 2007: Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

December 24, 2007: The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren; Imagine A Day, by Sarah L. Thomson and Rob Gonsalves; and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg

January 7, 2008: The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye

January 21, 2008: The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

February 4, 2008: Meditations, by Marcus Aurellius

February 18, 2008: Artists and Models, by Anaïs Nin

March 3, 2008: Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

March 17, 2008: The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, by Larry Tremblay

March 31, 2008: Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes

April 14, 2008: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

April 28, 2008: Read All About It!, by Laura Bush and Jenna Bush

May 12, 2008: Drown, by Junot Díaz

May 26, 2008: The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy

June 9, 2008: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

The Rest is Noise

Alex Ross

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

624 pages

As you’ve no doubt heard, classical music is dead. A hundred years ago, when everyone listened to Strauss and Mahler, composers decided to write music that alienated their devotees, while today an increasingly fickle and lowbrow public has been abandoning high culture for the pleasures of Stephen King novels and Britney Spears CDs. It’s the standard narrative of music and culture in the 20th Century. But as Alex Ross, the classical music critic for the New Yorker, proves in his new book, The Rest is Noise, the composers had it coming.

The Rest is Noise – a cagey rejoinder to Hamlet’s last pun – is not just a catalogue of twentieth century composers, but a complex narrative weaving together the intellectual, political, and social currents in Europe and North America through the Cold War, two world wars, the Weimar Republic, Stalin’s Russia, the Clinton years, and everything in between.

Ross argues that throughout the century artists, believing they were infallible and that imagination made its own laws, tried to move away from a mass audience. This mentality made the extremes of modern art possible. But, he adds, “Only in a prosperous, liberal, art-infatuated society could such a determinedly antisocial class of artists survive, or find an audience.” The early atonalists were just such a group, and their leader, Arnold Schoenberg, was determined to be rejected by the public at large. After the wildly successful premiere of his Gurre-Lieder, the audience, cheering and weeping, chanted, “Schoenberg! Schoenberg!” The composer responded by marching onstage and taking a bow – to the orchestra, turning his back on the cheering throng.

But as Ross points out, the truth is more nuanced. Schoenberg’s student, Alban Berg, enjoyed great success as a composer within his own lifetime, while conductors who programmed modern music, such as Leopold Stokowski, found their contracts were allowed to expire without being renewed. “The failure to support the new led inexorably to the decline of classical music as a popular pastime,” Ross says. “A venerable art form was set to become one more passing fad in consumer culture.”

Artists and critics who defended the avant-garde didn’t fight this trend, either. In the postwar period, they practiced the politics of style to a degree that marginalized anyone who didn’t conform to their view. Theodor Adorno, a student of Berg, whose ideas shaped much of the debate over aesthetics and culture in the latter half of the century, set out to destroy any composer with even a hint of popular appeal. Stravinsky, by preserving tonality in the modern era, had a “Fascist personality,” Paul Hindemith’s utilitarianism made him a Nazi. And of course every Stalinist intellectual loved Aaron Copland.

It’s unlikely that classical music will ever regain the place it had in turn-of-the-century Europe or even postwar America, but given that their role in the culture ultimately led them to reject it, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Ross’s book is a welcome shot in the arm for the appreciation of modern music. In the age of the iPod, where any music is available at any time, one is grateful for the opportunity to have an explanation for music as complex as this. Not only does Ross’s book give a remarkable picture of the last hundred years of music, he has written a very rare book – a musicological page-turner. David Podgorski

LSM Summer Listening

Many record labels are issuing back catalogue into attractively price box sets. Take advantage of the lazy-hazy days of summer to sit back and listen.

Bach Edition: Complete Works

Brilliant Classics BRLCD93102 (155CD BOX SET) - $99.99

Glenn Gould: The Complete Original Jacket Collection

Sony Classical 88697130942 (80CD BOX SET) - $352.99

Jacqueline Du Pré: The Complete EMI Recordings

EMI Classics 5099950416721 (17CD BOX SET) - $71.99

KARAJAN: The Complete EMI Recordings 1946-1984, Vol. 1: Orchestral

EMI Classics 5099951203825 (88CD BOX SET) - $183.99

KARAJAN: The Complete EMI Recordings 1946-1984, Vol. 2: Opera & Vocal

EMI Classics 5099951197322 (72CD BOX SET) - $160.99

Les 50 plus grands operas du monde

Decca 4800094 (100CD BOX SET) - $129.99

Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/ James Levine, Deutsch Grammophon 4769803 (14CD BOX SET) - $29.99

(c) La Scena Musicale