What Beethoven has in common with Napoleon (and Robespierre for that matter), is the high idealism, the megalomania. He also shares, with Napoleon at least, the almost superhuman talent, skill, artistry. In Beethoven’s case it was for music, in Napoleon’s, for gratuitously invading and conquering European countries. Not until Hitler would another of the “greats” occupy so much lebensraum; and Hitler had less style. Unless, of course, we count Russia as part of Europe, as Vladimir Putin has been reminding us lately. But he is only now getting on his roll.
Today’s incomprehensible Essay will continue to jumble music and politics. It is thus a continuation of my note last week when, still in Lent, I was “editing” my collection of compact discs. It was an exercise I could recommend to anyone, combining the virtues of philosophy and knitting. One emerges, it is true, with fewer CDs, but a clearer idea of one’s taste in music, and by analogy one’s attitude to many other things.
There is also the aspect of conversation with the dead. I do not refer to the innumerable dead white males who composed most of this music: one converses with them whenever the music is played. Instead, I think for instance of arguments with my father, going back to my childhood. These were happy, often gleeful arguments, I should mention; we both enjoyed a lively disputation. He loved big bands, and his collection of jazz records reflected this fact. Even then, I loved trios, quartets, quintets; nothing larger than a nonet. He gloried in Broadway. To his Gershwin I opposed the Duke. To his Sarah I opposed Ella. Against Oscar Peterson I championed Art Tatum. When he brought home an LP of Erroll Garner it came close to war. I’ll never forget the day I discovered the use of the word “sentimental”: such a wonderful half-brick to throw in an argument. (A half-brick travels better than a whole one.) Though we shared a dreadful weakness for any French chanteuse.
And that came before Bach versus Beethoven. My papa adored the cascading wetness of the Romantic Era; I the joyful dryness of the Baroque. And from the Baroque my instinct was to turn backwards, and towards the “early music revival” then gathering steam. But meanwhile I learnt to play Bach provocatively loud; the organ music especially. Helmut Walcha was my man on the august keyboard; Karl Richter through the cantatas. My poor mother came home from shopping one day to a fugue threatening the house foundations, and went to turn it down, swivelling to declare: “Why can’t you be a normal child and listen to rock music?”
Now, as Baudelaire said of Delacroix and Ingres, “Let us love them both.” Up to a point, Lord Copper. (I actually prefer Delacroix, in defiance of all my artistic principles.) Indeed, my father once quietly conceded that Ella Fitzgerald was greater even than Sarah Vaughan; he had just been trying to goad me. (I reciprocally conceded the greatness of Sarah.) Yet the moment I was appeased, he insisted on Nelson Riddle’s orchestra behind her. Oh dear, oh dear. (And then he described my interest in the instrumental balladry of John Coltrane as “sick, sick, sick.”)
There is a place for tutti strumenti, and for the forty-part Mass; for the military march, though I think it should be dancing. (Leave that sort of thing to Purcell!) For that matter, I am not always against invading a small, defenceless European country, though the thing should be done with economy of means. Still, as a general rule, I counsel the peace which passeth all understanding, over vast Napoleonic armies. To my mind the chorale of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven is unquestionably exhilarating. It is also evil, and if I had some tiny fraction of Beethoven’s talent I would rewrite his entire symphonic oeuvre as string quartets, for I long to apply the same genial wit the man himself exhibited in recasting British and Irish folk songs and anthems. (His version of “God Save the King,” for three voices, two strings, and the drawing room pianoforte, is exquisite beyond words.)
My Commentariat let me down on last week’s thread, with a couple of choice exceptions. There may not be enough music buffs among them. I was delighted as ever to watch Mrs Pepall shake her fist on behalf of her darling Ludwig, however. Another lady mentioned her meditative appreciation of Chopin and piano Brahms, and regretted that, on my instruction, she would now have to put them away and listen exclusively to chant. While I am loth to discourage obedience in a woman, I must tell her I share her regard for Chopin, especially, and though symphonic Brahms gets under my fingernails, I once fell nearly in love with a Chinese girl playing one of his fantasias in a piano shop during a lunch break in Hong Kong. She played him like Mozart. “My secret,” she explained, “is to play everything like Mozart.” Her taste was, “Mozart, and everything that is like Mozart.” Buck-toothed and knock-kneed she may have been, but how could any man withstand such charm?
The suggestion from the delightfully named Winston Orcutt, that I might throw away my Schubert, was not well received. I must have thirty discs of his lieder, and given the cash might acquire more. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has been, all my life that I can remember, my picture of a lyric baritone, and I have generally ranked operatic voices by how they perform in that repertoire. The word “perform” is rather ugly and unCatholic. I should apologize for it: for there is something in Schubert that goes back to the Middle Ages, a timeless intimate quality that recalls me to Dufay, uplifting the profane. Schubert is an angel.
I mention this by way of vindicating my editorial principles, in deciding which discs I need not listen to again. (They go out in the world, where someone else may want them.) It was not thumbs down on any particular composer, though nearly so on some. It was rather the continuation, of if you will, escalation, of a life-long rebellion against rebellion; against dissonance taken to the point of bad habit; against cleverness and smartass with insufficient humour; against the profane pursued as an end in itself; against overstatement and histrionics whenas it begins to take itself seriously. (I am, after all, a man who still loves Rossini and opera buffa.) Against the Enlightenment, and the Reformation, and all things as that. Against sublimity conceived in the “humanistic” spirit. Against every musician with a progressive agenda, from the moment he stoops to indulging it. Against great crashing sounds, and the musical equivalent of Total War.
Conversely, in this Easter Week after the purgation, how precious seems each disc that remains, as I recover the principle of preservation. What, I sometimes ask myself, if this disc contained the last trace in this world of, for example, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater? What if an angel had entrusted me to preserve it? How terrible if a composition of such beauty were lost, or even drowned out; trampled under foot of our vast contemporary Napoleonic armies of the deaf and blind.
My opposition to “democracy” must be viewed in this light: not only government, but music mired in the filth of mankind self-exalting — everywhere defeating the still small voice and “freeing” itself from God.