The write stuff
Penguin Classics on CD
by Jon Garelick
Wendy Wasserstein on Dvorák's New World Symphony! Arthur Miller
on Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh! Tobias Wolf (!!) on Beethoven's Ninth!
The possibilities offered by the Penguin Music Classics CD series are too
strong for the working music reviewer to resist. After all, how often do we
labor dutifully over descriptive analysis when what we really want to do is fly
off into anecdotes and dissolve in a puddle of our own feelings?
Classical album-liner notes have always been the worst offenders at evoking
objective criteria in discussing classical music ("The various sections
characterizing sonata form are clearly evident . . . "). So
when the Penguin Music Classics began appearing a few months ago (drawn from
the vast Decca holdings that include Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and London),
with their accompanying "literary" liner notes, I was game, ready to throw in
the towel and give in to the amateurs (hey, I've long considered myself little
more than an informed amateur who can make deadline). There was the
authoritative Penguin Classics look of those CDs: the familiar
black-and-pale-yellow-border design, anonymous 19th-century-Romantic-looking
paintings slapped on. And oh those promises crying out from a red diagonal flag
in the upper-left-hand corner: "Featuring original essay by Harold Bloom." I
knew Harold wasn't a musicologist, and probably not a musician, but he had to
know a few things about Mozart that I don't (jazz and pop, not classical, are
my specialties). And if he didn't, so what! A smart guy writing about stuff he
doesn't know about is better than a dumb guy writing about stuff he does know
about. Bring da noise, Harold!
I wasn't disappointed. The "original essays" in the Penguin Classics are
never more than 500 words or so. And yes, in parts they amount to little more
than very fancy blurb writing. Bloom reports that while poring over the proofs
of his book on Shakespeare, he refreshed himself by "listening intently to the
astonishing performances by Alfred Brendel of Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 21
and 23." His little essay touches on Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Sir Ralph
Richardson as Falstaff. He tells us nothing about Mozart, and little more about
Brendel than that "he is faithful to Mozart, yet the style of his performance
is altogether individual." How exactly he's "faithful to Mozart" or "altogether
individual," Bloom never says. See what I mean? Forget the editorial
blue-penciled scribbles of "How so?" in the margin. It's Harold Bloom, baby:
Time and again the Penguin writers are mute before the power of music.
"Beethoven's last period was ineffable . . . its effects on us
simply beyond description," writes John Fowles, adding for good measure that
the Arietta of the Opus 111 Piano Sonata "has always moved me to tears."
Concedes Wolf: "Beauty, great heartedness, endless surprise -- the words don't
get you there."
But the Penguin Music Classics do tell their stories. Arthur Miller writes of
how he calmed down over-eager actor Lee J. Cobb before the first production of
Death of a Salesman at a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
" . . . I recall being struck for the first time by the
series of near-climaxes, each reined in until the final ingathering explosion.
I leaned forward and whispered into Lee's ear, "This is the last ten
minutes.' " A lesson in aesthetics.
Wasserstein takes us back to her first listening to the Dvorák symphony
as a kind of elitist showing off to the other high-school kids. In Prague,
years later, listening again to the Dvorák on a Walkman, she makes a
connection between Dvorák's old world and his visit to the new, the old
world of her immigrant parents, the new world they found in America, her own
Garrison Keillor remembers the Handel Messiah as community musicmaking
in Minnesota. Ethan Canin recalls his embarrassment that his father was a
symphony violinist and not something more hip -- until the elder Canin gets a
job as a studio musician and shows up on movie soundtrack, something the young
Canin can brag about to his friends. Colleen McCullough remembers her first
exposure to classical music as a Catholic school girl in Sydney. Edmund White
identifies with Tchaikovsky's homosexuality.
The writers rarely talk about strictly musical matters. Sometimes they never
get around to talking about the performances at hand (Keillor is "introducing"
Georg Solti's Messiah, but among professional recordings he mentions
only Leonard Bernstein's.) In the best of the Penguins, the stories are what
get you there, worth twice their length in descriptive analysis. Wolf's is a
story about his family, but it's also about art and taste, and the importance
of having one's taste validated, even if by a child.