A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the second of three parts.
At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”
That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto with the Phoenix Symphony when I heard him in the fall of 2008. He lingered over the larghetto, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.
Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.
It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.
That the pianist felt so expressively free comes as a surprise: His recording of the same concerto is rather dull and literal-minded. His Phoenix performance was a poetic night to his recording’s washed-out noonday glare.
Even Lang’s stage demeanor was less like the reputation that preceded him: While he certainly emoted while playing, there was less of the rocking and eye-rolling that he has engaged in in the past. His most obvious physical “dance” came during that slow-movement, when he leaned back as if he were in a recliner, with his arms stretched out straight in front of him barely reaching the keyboard, and his head aimed straight at the ceiling, where he seemed to find the notes he was playing. He found the right ones and time stopped for the duration.
That sense of time standing still is, for me, the practical definition of “transcendence,” the sense of being pulled out of conventional reality and given a glimpse of something even more real.
One goes through a lot of perfectly decent if unexceptional concerts waiting, hoping each time for such a performance — one that makes time stand still and matches the notes of the music to the interior needs of the listener — the music and the hearer become a single event and you feel to yourself, “This is me, this is the mirror of my soul.”
Of course, when you have an experience like that concert, the cause is not simply the performance or the music. The listener must be receptive. It is a two-part event: the message and the addressee. Perhaps others in the audience did not dissolve in rapture; and I’m sure there have been concerts I sat through inert during which other audience members wept. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
But not the way it is usually meant: For most, the cliche simply means de gustibus non est desputandum — all a matter of taste. But that is not it, at all. Beauty of the kind I’m writing of is not something solid and unchanging in the music or the artwork or poem — or in the green forest or towering thunderhead. Beauty is an event, not a thing. A verb, not a noun.
Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of this world. The music is capable of being felt as beautiful and we are capable of perceiving that as beauty. But the two things are one and come together in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. Unless they arrive at the same moment, there is no beauty. To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear of feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or tying your shoelaces. In such moments, the world becomes transfigured.
I can picture the north rose window at Chartres cathedral in France. There are three such windows, but the one at the north corner of the building is the one that rivets my attention each time I visit.
It is the north window that moves me, in part because it moves, itself. This is an illusion, of course, but its designer was one of the geniuses of his age, able to create that illusion with static stone and glass. Each of these roses are built of circles of circles, building from a central core, and radiating out, like choirs of angels surrounding Providence. But in the north window, the panels dance.
It may be hard to see this in a reproduction, like the one here, but there is a ring of squares and diamond-shapes that form one of the rings, and it is nearly impossible to see these alternating squares and diamonds as anything but tumbling shapes, dancing around the center.
The north rose window of Chartres cathedral is — I have said many times — the single most beautiful human-created entity I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a gob-lot of iconic art works. It brings me to tears each time I am in its presence, and I feel the need to return to it, a feeling very kin to love.
I know a lot of hoo-haw gets ascribed to art. People make great claims for art, only some of which can be supported. But I believe, from my own experience, that art can make you more sensitive to the world around you, to prompt you to see again those things you have become inured to through over-exposure and turned to the ash of everyday-ness. As I have also said, every bush is the burning bush, we just can no longer see it. Seeing it is the epiphany, the moment the world shifts and you see the periphery become the center. When you open those gates in your chest, and let the world in, it becomes intensely beautiful and makes you understand, as William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Each time I visit Chartres, I sit on the church chair in the south transept and look back at the north, for 20 minutes at a time, maybe a half-hour, staring, with tears streaming down my cheeks. This is visionary art, and you don’t have to believe in the dogma to understand the metaphor: This is the Great Mystery. The magnum misterium. You could be looking at photographs from the Hubble telescope. You could be looking at the visions of a peyote dream. You could be looking at the eye of god.
It is not only in art that these things happen. In 1974, my second unofficial wife and I took a trip to Port Jervis, N.Y., where my aunt had a trailer on the Delaware River. We vacationed and lounged. There, I had one of those epiphanies — reached a state of grace, an esthetic perfection that has never left me.
In its northern parts, the Delaware is not much of a river; it is just a broad shallow stony-bottomed stream with a sandy bluff on one shore or the other, depending which way the riverbed turns. But along the roadsides, and in every abandoned field, the bobbing orange heads of black-eyed Susans mixed with the midnight blue of ironweed. Spikes of mullein drove upward and stands of Joe Pye weed grew to four feet high.
There is something different about the fall wildflowers, something weedier, something more insistent. Their vegetable smells and sticky white sap are less immediately pretty, but they have more character: They are grownup. Perhaps, too, it is the drier air of autumn, the mixed stands of plants, blending goldenrod with Queen Anne’s lace, bull thistle and hawkweed in a Pointillist stew of color.
Anyway, that’s how it seemed as we drove by the railroad yard in Port Jervis, at the point New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all meet. The old yard, anchored by an abandoned turntable and roundhouse, was completely grown over in asters. There were millions of them in the open acres of the yard, each with its yellow disk surrounded by blue ray flowers. Intermixed were all the other fall flowers: the yarrow, boneset, coneflowers and the chicory left over from midsummer.
And in the weedy field, even the spring flowers were represented, not by their blossoms, but by their fruits: the burrs; seedpods; milkweed down; and nightshade berries. For me, it was one of those moments when clocks stopped and the impression burned into my mind as if by aqua fortis on a copper etching plate. That eternal moment has never left me. At times when the day has been roiled and I have trouble getting to sleep, I can recall that scene and let the rancor drain away.
Beauty of the third sort, of the kind I mean, is visionary. It penetrates like the angel’s arrow into Saint Teresa. It is not a matter of appreciation, as in “I like this painting,” but rather, of turning your mental innards inside-out. You see a vastness inside yourself that is the image of the vastness outside — the two become indistinguishable: the event and its image in the mirror.
It doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen to everyone. Those bound up in the bustle of the everyday, of the making of fortune, the vying for position, or those in fear of genocide or famine who cannot waste the time on such things, it is possible they are unable to open their chests up to the incoming. But even they, at times, will be dumbstruck by a bolt they didn’t expect and recognize the transcendent.
Carole Steele wrote one of my favorite poems. It is the first one in her book, Rust Sings. Called, “Winter,” it is a catalog of deeply seen and felt physical detail, presented with the verbal precision that is one of the hallmarks of her writing. But it is the final quatrain that set me thinking.
“What have you seen that was the most beautiful?” And I looked back at my own life and come up with my own list of those things, not merely that were beautiful, but “the most beautiful.” That gave me not just pleasure, but a transcendence. These were all life-changing encounters, that filled my inner life like a freshet fills a pool.
A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. It is hard to describe exactly what it is, but it makes time stand still. It isn’t something you desire, like the pretty, or admire, like the beautiful, but something that stops you in your tracks, clobbers you over the pate and reminds you that you are alive in a universe. In the first two orders, you are distinct from the object of your attention; in the third, you and it become a single thing.
The first time I encountered this, I had no clue what it was, or any way to express it. I must have been five or six years old and riding in the back seat of our 1950 Chevrolet as we drove along the top of the New Jersey edge of the Palisades. It was night and the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson was a new constellation on the horizon. A million pegs of light, like as many pinpricks poked through a black backdrop, gave something of the effect of a waning campfire, blackened by ash, through which the underlayer of flame burned, glowing coals that I now take as a metaphor for the intelligence that burns under the surface of the cranial cortex.
Since then, I have encountered that same scintillating coal sight many times, flying across country at night and looking down at the electric cities, especially as the plane on its final descent brings the city up closer and all the light, as if coming from under a blackened blanket, just burns, flickering like stars, shifting as the plane angles towards the landing.
This is a planetary emotion: the awareness that we live on a round globe suspended in a cold, black immensity. The most powerful and intense encounter with this sense came on a trip to the South Carolina shore in the mid-1970s.
Huntington Beach State Park is 2,500 acres of saltmarsh, fresh water lagoons and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. It is a haven for birds. I added 27 species to my life list in that trip. It was by far my best single day as a birdwatcher.
An old causeway, paved in concrete, runs ramrod straight from Brookgreen Gardens, on the landward side of U.S. 17, to Atalaya, the one-time beach house of industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. On one side of the roadway is the tidal saltmarsh, on the other, a pond.
The clown-faced ruddy turnstone flicked pebbles over with its beak; the oystercatcher poked its red-orange bill into the mud, looking for lunch; and the black skimmer sailed inches above the lagoon with its lower jaw slicing through the water, feeling for minnows. And there were alligators submerged like tree stumps in the murky water.
There were also herons, egrets, gulls, terns, coots and gallinules. Ibises, bitterns, phalaropes, curlews, willets and mergansers.
On a dead branch above the receding tide, an anhinga stretched its black wings out in the sun to dry. I wrote what is perhaps the earliest poem I still keep, about that anhinga.
I was with my second unofficial wife, Sharon, and we slept in the dunes and were eaten alive by sand fleas. The next morning, I went down to the beach before dawn to watch the sun come up. When it first appears, you can see it moving, slowly but distinctly.
The sliver of brilliance broke the horizon and mirrored off the tops of the ocean waves, casting the near side of each into an obsidian blackness. The effect was of turning the sea into a shifting net of burning copper laced with black lacquer.
And then, like Joshua in the Valley of Ajalon, I saw the moving sun come to a dead halt halfway out of the water. It was a disconcerting effect. And at the very moment the sun stopped moving, the vast gears and motors of the Earth started spinning and the sand under my feet began to move under my feet, yanking me — and the whole eastern seaboard — toward the motionless sun.
It was as if the whole planet had become a ferris wheel and I was just coming over the top. I momentarily lost my balance as my plane of reference shifted from the local to the sidereal.
A few seconds later, all was once more normal and terrestrial; the sanderlings ran back and forth with the breakers and it was time to wake the others and tell them what I had seen.
It was yet another of those planetary experiences, a complete and involuntary disjunction from the ordinary frame of reference to a more cosmic, perhaps truer, one.
That sort of epiphany doesn’t come often, but it does come. I was camping on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, down 45 miles of dirt road on the way to Toroweap. There was not another person for 20 miles in any direction. At 6:30 exactly, with the sun already below the planet’s edge, the first star came out, directly overhead. It was Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The rest of the sky is still a glowing cyan with an orange wedge in the west.
So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I haven’t seen so many stars since I was a child. The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius.
I sat on the car hood, leaning back with my head against the windshield and looked straight up. For two-and-a-half hours, I sat there, looking up, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look.
What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. This is beauty of the third kind, transcendent and transfigured. As I reclined on the hood, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars.
The realization hit me that, of course, I was. I was having my vision, as it were. But it is my particular stubborn sensibility that epic vision and lumpen fact turn out to be two faces on the same head. This has happened to me before. Each time I enter the visionary world, it turns out that the transforming image I am given is grounded in simple fact.
I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent.
When my joints were finally too stiff from sitting in one position for so long, I decided it was time to sleep. I crawled in the tent and dozed off in the silence.
Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I got out of the tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled.
The night went on like that: One sense input after another, so busy through the nocturnal time-sluice that I hardly got any sleep at all. At 6 in the morning, the coyotes yowled, and I decided it must be time to get up. The east was whitening, although the sun was behind the mesa.
When I drew open the tent flap, I saw the blue sky patched with gray-brown clouds, and dangling from one of them was a rainbow. It was not much more than a yellowish bright spot against the angry cloud, but I saw its familiar arc and promise.
We live two lives. In the common one, we are one in 7 billion, a single voice in a clamor of humanity, spaced 100 per square mile. We function as part of the crowd. But in that other life, we are alone. We are the one, the singular — heroes in our own life’s epic, even, and we recognize the solitary importance of ourselves to ourselves.
It is this second life — so rich and so important to our sense of meaning and purpose — that we come to meet in solitude. That is perhaps what Montaigne meant when he wrote, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”
The first life is brought to you by television, newspapers, books, radio and movies. It is a cultural existence, defined by other people. It is the madding crowd we are never far from.
The second life comes to you when you seek it, alone, in quiet. Ultimately, to yourself and your family, it is this second self that is important. It is this self that is fed by beauty, is kept alive by beauty.
I wrote, by actual word count, two-and-a-half million words during my 25-year career at The Arizona Republic. I retired in 2012 and couldn’t stop. Since then, I have written another million words for this blog. As I have said before, a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it.
There is also a collection of five years worth of monthly essays written for The Spirit of the Senses web journal, which averages out to something like another hundred thousand words. The monthly essay gives me a deadline, something I miss terribly since leaving the newspaper.
I loved my work. My editors will tell you, that even when I went on vacation, I came back with a packet of travel stories. I worked even when I wasn’t working. I don’t know if it is a blessing or a curse, but I am saddled with that stupid Protestant work ethic — even though I haven’t been a Protestant since childhood. It feels wrong, morally delinquent, if I am not producing something to justify my continued existence on this planet.
And I wasn’t just a writer. I also made photographs, artwork, and sometimes even typography for the stories I wrote. And for the continuing blog, I continue to fill it with my own images. Before I was a writer, I was a photographer: I have had gallery shows and self-published books. I remind myself of William Blake’s mythical figure of Los, whose job in the cosmos is to create a chain of links forever; he cannot help himself — indeed his very definition is his production.
In my case, it is to invent a project and then work on it. And whenever I feel I have sat on my duff too long, I work up another. And this covid “vacation” has left me too inactive, too dulled out. And so, yesterday, I set off with my camera.
It is November and the sun is lower in the sky, and that “certain slant of light” creates long shadows and teases out any textures to be had. Bark on trees becomes rougher, pebbles on gravel roads become sharper, the scribble-lines of leafless trees in the woods, cross each other like Jackson Pollock paint drips. The sunlight is less bright, but more incisive. Late afternoon becomes a drama.
And so, my project for yesterday was to drive the back roads of Buncombe County, North Carolina and see if I could capture some of that feeling. (Today’s project is to write this and post the pictures).
U.S. 70 runs east-west through the mountains east of Asheville, and a series of back roads parallel the highway, with many spurs heading back into the coves nested between the hills. I drove up each one for miles until the pavement ran out, stopping to make photographs whenever I saw something that caught my eye and I didn’t have to block traffic to snap the shutter.
The trip alone was restorative. The pandemic keeps too many of us holed up in our houses. We watch way too much Netflix. Sit too much. Eat too much. Getting out in the nippy air seemed healthier even than a workout at the gym.
Asheville sits in a broad, flat-ish valley. Mountains are all around, including the tallest in the East. U.S. 70 runs along the Swannanoa Mountains and south of the Black Mountains and the back roads snooker up into the crenelations between peaks, always coming to an end at the foot of some steep incline.
Waterfalls wash under culverts and lines of mailboxes sit by the road where a dirt drive heads up into the trees. It is late fall, not yet winter. The trees have not lost all their leaves, but many of them are bare skeletons, or have a shag of hangers-on, dry as cellophane.
I drove for about four hours, until the sun was so low, whole mountainsides were darkened on eastern side and their shadows drowned out by grayness. In all, I wound up with about 70 images, of which about half were decent enough to edit into a set. I usually think of my photographs in sets, rather than as individual images, the way a novel is not simply discreet chapters. In the past, I would print them out as “books” and show them that way.
Now I no longer have a darkroom, nor an art-grade digital printer. My publication preference is the blog. I have posted quite a few sets of photographs over these past eight years.
In this posting are a sampling of the photos I’m calling “A Certain Slant of Light,” after the poem by Emily Dickenson. I am 72 years old and nearing the end of my own day. My own shadows are bringing out the texture of my selfness. Things like the lowering sun speak to me ever more than they did when I was young and had no meaningful idea of an end.
And so, perhaps these images have more emotional import for me than for my viewers (or readers). I cannot help that. After all, I began writing this blog not for its potential readers (although I always hope what I write is worth the time it takes to read them), but for myself. I write because I have to. I make photographs because I have to. I breathe because I have to.
The landscape listens — shadows — hold their breath.
I was an English major, and how anyone can survive that is a miracle. It is only through love that I have survived: love of the language I speak and write, a love that was nearly extirpated by those who explain literature and write the prefaces to anthologies. The experts, that is.
It was nurtured, however, by many a teacher and professor, who also love the language and its productions. I don’t remember ever having an English teacher who propounded such gobbledygook as the professional explainer class regularly emits. (This, by disclaimer, is a class of which I was once a member, having made my living as a critic.)
I tried my best to write clear prose with understandable ideas, but my fellow guild members too often do the opposite. They can take something so simple and direct, so unimpeachably beautiful and clear, and turn it into a tangled knot of impenetrable theory, catching the flying sparrow in the fine mesh net of academic verbiage. I was, more particularly, an art critic, and I always said that I couldn’t read art criticism, that doing so was like eating an old mattress.
It is the same for much buncombe written about literature and poetry. Something that should be read for pleasure, understanding or solace turns into a midterm exam, the kind that you have in your recurring dreams when you discover you aren’t wearing any pants.
I am pretty sure such explainers are cases of arrested development, stuck in the sorrowful stage of the sophomore. The memory of having been once a sophomore myself gives me pause. There was a time when I, like so many other young minds, sought to “decode” a poem, finding the hidden meaning in the symbols therein. As if a poem required an enigma machine to untangle its “true”meaning, found in footnotes at the bottom of the page.
Is Billy Budd a Christ figure? A victim of patriarchy or capitalist oppression. Perhaps he is a Marxist hero. Maybe, he is just a handsome sailor, like Melville tells us. What we are meant to glean from the story’s reading is inherent in the story itself.
As Archibald McLeish put it: “A poem must not mean but be.”
Any good work of literature explains itself, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention and to stay within the work and not require a university seminar to unpack. All this comes to mind because of a short discussion recently about an eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams. And a comment by critic Dave Wolverton who wrote: “The poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story…”
Such ideas raise the hackles.
The poem in question couldn’t be simpler, more complete, more self-explanatory, but no, Mr. Wolverton tells us we need to take a secret decoder ring to it, to find out what it is “really” about.
The back story he refers to is of the poet-physician, who was attending the hospital bedside of a dying young girl and happened to look out the window to see a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. First problem: Williams was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, where it is quite unlikely to find chickens outside a hospital window. More likely a traffic jam.
Second problem is that despite the widespread retelling of this dying-girl tale, Williams himself tells us the genesis of the poem. It “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”
It was first published in 1923, and one head-scratching comment I found suggested the poem was a comment on women getting the vote. How the critic got there from the contents of the poem, I leave to you and perhaps your bong.
Another sees it as a celebration of the proletariat. This is the kind of stuff that turns high-school students away from poetry and literature and toward auto repair.
To wit: “The wheelbarrow is an enduring and universal tool, used by people for thousands of years. It is most commonly associated with farming and construction—arguably, the foundation upon which civilization is built. In the poem, the wheelbarrow and its surrounding environment could also nod specifically towards agricultural workers and rural communities. As such, the poem’s contemplation of the wheelbarrow can be read as a meditation on the link between humanity and the natural world—as well as an assertion of the importance of respecting the latter.”
Where is that assertion? Show me the line.
Elsewhere: “By extension, the wheelbarrow here might be taken to represent the value of the working class. This class — the people actually performing said manual labor, such as farmers, miners, construction workers, etc. — is often stereotyped as being unskilled and unintelligent. Physical work, in general, is often misclassified as ‘lowly’ or ‘simple,’ which ignores the complexity that goes into planting, pollinating, etc. Seeing as this work is often undervalued despite its importance to human survival, the attention given to the wheelbarrow (and, through it, the people who use wheelbarrows) could act as a subtle acknowledgement and celebration of the working class.”
Where do manual laborers spend their time “pollinating?” Et cetera.
It might be noted that none of any of that shows up in the 16 plain words that comprise the poem. What there is, is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. They are not symbols, they do not require a gloss. They are, in fact, a wheelbarrow and chickens. It is the ability to see them as just that that is the gift of the poem. They have been separated out of the rest of existence and shown to us as something worthy to be noticed.
My acquaintance was remembering a common friend who had recently died, who had introduced him to the poem.
“With my spotty poetry background, I’d never read this gemlike summing up of the power of first impressions. We were probably talking about things that seized our imaginations when we were very young.”
I always took it not as about first impressions, but about the importance of noticing, i.e., paying attention, even to the things you ignore in quotidian life. Paying attention is, for me, tantamount to being alive — I mean really alive, as opposed to merely existing. That is what so much depends on.
It is also the importance of the senses, as opposed to rationality. So much of what we think is merely done in linguistic categories. House, bird, horse. We tend to value logic and think it is what we hold in opposition to irrationality. But logic has its own pitfalls: It is also thinking in linguistic categories, and so much of what is “logical” is only so in words. Zeno’s paradox never actually prevents Achilles from overtaking the tortoise in a single step.
As Stephen Fry says over and over, the counter position to superstition and irrationality is not logic, but empiricism. Empiricism is paying attention. In that sense, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. Without it, Galileo is put under house arrest. In this sense, paying attention and sense data are a bundle, inseparable.
Paying attention to our senses — looking carefully, hearing intently, touching, tasting, smelling — is also the key factor in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this brief moment we spend on the planet (seeming briefer with each birthday). In Keat’s words: “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine.”
I am old, Father William, I am old. I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. And I’m not kidding: I am sitting at my keyboard and there are wide cuffs on my dungarees. I have shrunk. I am only minimally shorter than I was when I was young, but I have settled, like an old house. I have been crawling around on this earth for 72 years.
Two days ago, the maple tree in the front yard was a deep forest green. Today, half its leaves are yellow and orange. I don’t know if this will be my last fall, but certainly the number of them ahead is dwarfed by the number behind.
It has always been my favorite season, although I lost 25 of them by living in the desert, where fall is really just a period of about 17-and-a-half minutes between the thermometer at or above 100F and the moderating drop to about 80. In Arizona, it skulks by almost unnoticed. Winter is the great season in Arizona.
I grew up in the Northeast, where fall has a special character, with nippy, dry October days and a sun getting lower in the sky, which makes the leaf color all the more ruddy and the shadows more deeply lined. Leaves raked into piles for kids to jump into. A skim of ice on ponds in the early morning.
Now, I am in the North Carolina mountains and this time of year, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins to feel like the 101 in Los Angeles, clogged with cars, their inhabitants seeking the perfect fall-color experience.
In most of my past years, what I noticed about fall was the color. It wasn’t always as postcard-perfect as the New England autumn of The Trouble With Harry, but then, in Hitchcock’s movie, they had to paint the leaves orange (they shot the film in summer). Still, that is the mental image most of us have of the season.
But the calendar-picture image of fall is too pretty, like peonies or dahlias. I am not moved. They belong on postcards with names like “Autumn Paintbox” and “New England Rhapsody.” The very word “autumn” is too Latinate. It reeks of literature. It traces its etymological roots back to Proto-Indo-European words meaning “cold” and “dry.” In plain-spoken North America, we prefer to call the transforming season simply “fall.” It is the leaves that fall, after all.
It is much as I love weeds and dislike flower gardens. The gardens are too prissy. Perhaps they smile in bright reds and yellows, but their smiles are unearned. But weeds at the side of the road have strained and labored and live without permission. They are ungoverned and profuse: The force that through the green fuse drives — weeds.
Gardens are planted in rows, people march in columns, books are alphabetized, plants are given phylum and genus, but any idea of order in this profuse world is a fiction.
There is a rankness to the weeds that I love. If you need a demonstration of the difference between the pretty and the beautiful, it is there beside the roadways, the Joe-Pye weed, the ironweed, the asters, the thistles, goldenrod, cow-itch, cockle burrs, pokeweed, teasel. Most distinguished by their textures and scratchiness. You can feel them on your skin. “I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”
Now that I am old, with liver spots and wrinkles, it is not the color of fall so much as its texture that appeals to me. The leaves spot and crinkle, curl at the edges and almost rattle as you walk through them as they collect on the walkway. I recognize myself.
The inner world and the outer come to match. We have inner weather, and we have an interior climate as well. At the extreme it is Lear’s “cataracts and hurricanoes,” and it is my own sense of the textural maculation of my old age: Those blackened spots and browned edges are my own.
I cannot distinguish between my projection of myself on the world, and that world’s identification in me. It is all one. And the shrinking leaves are verse and chorus.
And so I look with a burning concentration at the sere and weakened leaves with an intensity brought by my own awareness of how few recurrences of the season I will get to witness. They are all the more beautiful for that.
Some friends of mine are watching the baseball playoffs. But they only watch the games (in replay) when they know their team will win. More specifically, until now, only when the Yankees lose. They were cheering for Tampa Bay, not so much because they cared about the Rays, but because they wanted New York to go crashing down in fire and fury.
I understand the animus against the Yanks. It is a longstanding prejudice in the South, for obvious reasons, but it is not just in Dixie that the Yankees are team non grata. Everyone loves to hate the pinstripes. Why this should be so is curious.
Obviously, one reason is that for so many decades the Yankees were the bullies of the American League. They have more than twice as many World Series titles as any other team. Heck, they’ve lost more series than the second place team has won. (Twenty-Seven wins for New York, 13 losses; 11 wins for second-place St. Louis). And the Yankees have not been gracious about their hegemony.
But more to the point is why people other than the players feel they have a stake in the won-loss record of a bunch of hyper-paid athletes. Yea for our team! But it is their team, not yours. You had nothing to do with their winning or losing.
I wonder all this, not because I am so above this sort of silliness, but because I share it. There are teams I root against, too. I always pull for anyone to beat the Dallas Cowboys. Why I should despise the Cowboys is hard to explain. They are just another NFL team, and indeed the players on the field this season could just as well have been on a favorite team last year. It may have something to do with reviling the team’s owner — it’s easy to do — but it’s not as if other owners are less venal, greedy, and condescending.
The reasons for rooting are irrational. Yes, you may cheer the hometown team. But most people don’t live in a major-league city. When I lived in Virginia in the 1980s, the TV station broadcast Orioles games and I followed the team. When I lived in North Carolina, Braves games were all over the TV. I followed them as a kind of substitute home team. But there are so many other reasons people follow teams. Much has to do with history and trivial grievance, like the hatred of the Yanks. My old friend, Michael Johns, from Seattle, says:
“At this writing (unless I jinx it), the Atlanta Braves are headed to a 2-0 lead in games against the Dodgers. I approve. In the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays are up 2-0 over the Houston Astros. Again, I approve.”
“Unless it’s the Mariners, my loyalties shift from year to year,” he writes. The Dodgers “are like the Yankees of the National League. While not as clean-cut as the Bronx Bombers, they come close, and they have too many guys named Cody, Corey, and Justin for my taste.” And not enough Dizzies, Pugs and Catfishes, I might add.
He’s rooting for Tampa Bay in the American League, because the Astros are “a powerhouse team that needs to be taken down a peg.” And besides, they were caught cheating.
“Having been a fan for over 60 years, I have plenty of memories to share and grievances to air,” he says.
We all have those “grievances,” although they are ultimately pointless, and they drive much of our fandom. I, too, am rooting for the Rays. I have always despised the Astros — even back to their days as the Colt .45s — and for three very substantial reasons. First, the Astrodome was truly ugly, and besides, baseball was meant to be played outdoors. Second, because Astroturf is a crime against humanity and it spread, like a virus or the designated-hitter rule, across too many stadiums. But most important to me — and silliest — because they had the stupidest uniforms in baseball — the equivalent of tie-dye and bell bottoms. For these sins, they have captured my eternal enmity. Reasonable, right?
Those uniforms were substantially mooted by the later White Sox atrocities with short pants and collars. And then the San Diego Padres kept coming up with newer and worser ideas. Always a good reason to root against a team.
I grew up watching hockey. I went to Ranger games at Madison Square Garden. There were six teams in the NHL. Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Red Wings, Bruins, Rangers, and Black Hawks. Then, the league expanded and because of my long-standing sports conservatism, none of the new teams ever seamed legitimate. I couldn’t root for any of them. To this day, I will pull for any of the originals to beat any of the newbies, even though the oldest of them has been in the league for more than half a century now. They are still interlopers and not “real” hockey teams.
I have a similar prejudice against baseball expansion teams, although not quite as strong. It began with moving teams. My father — and I, as a little boy — rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When they absconded and went to Los Angeles, it took a piece of my Dad and me with them that we never got back. Then the Giants took Willie Mays away from us. The world was suddenly not permanent. Anything could change. The Braves moved to Milwaukee; the Browns moved to Baltimore; the Athletics moved to Kansas City; the Senators moved to Minnesota. What could we count on?
My father later shifted his loyalty to the Mets, but I never could. And then, other new teams began popping up. The Angels, the Colt .45s, the Mets and a revised Senators. Then the Seattle Pilots and the Royals, the Expos and the Padres. Where would it end? The Marlins, the Rockies, the Diamondbacks, the Devil Rays. How could you take a team seriously from Florida?
Of course, none of this actually matters. It’s just sports. Yet the loyalty so many feel towards such an irrational attachment can be overwhelming. Consider the rioting that breaks out every four years during the World Cup. Soccer hooligans are not much different from Crips and Bloods.
The National Football League went from 12 teams in 1955, when I was 7 years old and first becoming sports-aware, to its current 32 teams, with many bouncing from city to city like caroming billiard balls (Las Vegas Raiders?) The league merged with the AFL in 1960, but my loyalty remains with the original teams, even when they have shifted from the National Conference to the American. History has shown the supremacy of those original teams. In 2011, I wrote a story for The Arizona Republic looking at the history of the Super Bowl and discovered that original NFL teams held a two-to-one edge in Super Bowl wins: 30 wins for the old NFL, 15 wins for the AFL and all other expansion teams. (The ratio has shrunk some since then.)
I realized that watching football on TV, I root for the team that is older — that I root for any team that was in the original NFL before it became the NFC. Even the original AFL teams, which joined the NFL in 1960 seem like interlopers to me. And expansion teams since then hardly deserve notice as teams at all. Tennessee Titans? Give me a break: Real teams are named Packers, Giants, Bears.
Is there any good reason for this. No, and I don’t pretend there is. Its just stubborn cussedness. An unwillingness to accept change.
I don’t have a team I follow. When I watch a game, football, baseball or hockey, my rooting interest is always based on which team I judge more “legitimate,” i.e., original. So, if the 49ers are playing the Ravens, I root for the San Francisco. But if the Giants are playing the Niners, I root for New York, since San Francisco didn’t enter the league until 1950. They are the junior team. If the Giants are playing the Packers, I have to root for Green Bay; they are four years older (1921) than New York (1925 joining the league).
(I pull for the Rays against the Astros only because my animus toward the Astros is so overwhelming. Those uniforms, I can never forgive.)
This may seem silly, but what other method can one choose for rooting? Hometown teams make sense, but on “any given Sunday,” as they say, for most Americans, there is no home team. You choose between Tampa Bay and Tennessee? Toss a coin.
But I bring all this up not to badmouth football or sports, but to discuss the impulse towards conservatism. It is something I discover in my own makeup that confuses me — the ineradicable desire for stability and a disdain of change.
This is, of course, the heart of genuine conservatism (as opposed to the radical loony movement that has coopted the name in the service of what is really a kind of anarchism frosted over with religious intolerance).
Political conservatism — as it was once formulated — is the belief what worked for generations of citizens before you shouldn’t be changed lightly. All that now-gone population in aggregate had a kind of multiplied wisdom, and the institutions and laws that have been in place for perhaps centuries have a kind of legitimacy in numbers: A group is wiser than an individual. If change is needed, we should be slow to believe we are smarter than our forebears en masse, and be slow to adopt the reform until it can be proven the better route. Such conservatism never forbade reform, but took a cautious approach to it.
One of the things it held onto in England was the primacy of the monarch. Kingship had served us well for so many centuries, why should we give it up? But even there, a parliamentary system eventually became the real government. The Windsors hold on out of sheer habit.
The conservatism of Bill Buckley or Barry Goldwater was more or less of this sort. Let’s not move too quickly. But even such a conservative as Everett Dirksen signed on the the Civil Rights bills because the change was truly needed.
Now, of course, to be a conservative is not so thoughtful, but rather the same sort of autonomic response we have when rooting for our favorite sports team. There is very little conservative about the Republican Party anymore. It is merely a team to root for against that other team from across town. Especially in the Trump era, even policies are not notably conservative, but radical. Rather than “Let’s keep what we have until we can prove better,” we have “Let’s uproot everything and see what happens.” Grievance is a driving force, and surprisingly like the grievance I still maintain against the Dodgers for moving to California. It has little to do with reality.
If you are what you read, then I’m confused. A lawyer’s shelves are filled with law books; a doctor’s with medical journals. Tolkien’s shelves were chock with Old- and Middle-English. I look through mine and find no common theme.
To search for myself among my books, I ventured to take a single shelf and look at its contents to see if they were in any way a mirror in which I could discover my own physiognomy. I didn’t want to pick a shelf that was organized. I have cookbooks here, poetry there, a rack or three of Latin and Greek translations over there. There is one section of all of D.H. Lawrence, another of Henry Miller. Elsewhere, there are art books and Hindu literature. There are sections of history and others of Peterson guides. But in the bedroom, beside the bed, is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that collects the odds and ends that I have been gathering and not yet classified, or not returned, after reading, to their rightful homes. I picked a single layer of that literary cake and investigated what I found there. Make of them what you will.
Starting at one end of the shelf:
—The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. VI – 1665, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, University of California Press, 1972
One of the great horndogs of all times, Samuel Pepys kept a diary, in a peculiar sort of shorthand, from 1660 to 1669 and records much of historical significance, including the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Great Plague of 1665-66.
“But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”
— Diary, Aug. 16, 1665
A few days later, on Aug. 22: “I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead bodye therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it — but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing — this disease making us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
The volume on my shelf covers only 1665, but I have collections that cover the sense of it all. And the overriding sense you get of our Mr. Pepys is a man concerned with money and business, the conduct of government, dinners with fellow bureaucrats, the love he felt for his wife, and the frequent copulations he maintained with his maid, his friends’ maids, their wives, daughters, and the fishmonger’s wives and daughters. How he had time for business and government sometimes seems a marvel. How many times does he write about seeing his maid at the scullery, bent over the dishes, and he lifts her skirts and has his way while she wipes the platters.
One day, he was surprised by his wife as he sat with the maid on his lap. He writes that his wife “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl with my hand under her coats; and indeed, I was with my hand in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also…” They had to fire the poor maid, but that didn’t stop Pepys from continuing to see her.
—The Orange Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang, Dover Publications, 1968
I used to own all of Lang’s Fairy books, in all colors. But I gave most of them away to my granddaughters when they were still wee bairns. I don’t think they ever really took to them — the books had no touchscreens. The Orange Fairy Book is the only one I can find now. I loved them more for the line-drawing illustrations than the text by such artists as Howard Pyle and H.J. Ford. I didn’t discover these fairy tales until I was in my 20s. My childhood had no such fantasy — when I was maybe 10 years old, I remember telling my parents I didn’t like fiction because “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” I wuz a idjut. But in my 20s, I came across Lang in used book stores and collected as many colors as I could. He published 12 books, with different colors. The Blue Fairy Book and the Red were my favorites, they were also the first published. They contain some of the more familiar Grimms’ tales, Arabian Nights stories and Norwegian folktales.
The Orange Fairy Book widens the scope to African tales and some from India, in addition to the European stories usually found. It was the third from the last entry into Lang’s series and was published in 1906. After it came Olive and Lilac. My original discovery of them came at a time when Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, was current — before he was found largely to be a fraud. But his central point, that fairy tales helped guide a child through the development of mind and personality, still seems accurate. I feel disadvantaged, at least a little, by not having them as a part of my childhood.
The series was published in beautifully designed paperbacks by Dover Publications, the golden treasury of lost books that became my source for so many of the books that guided my intellectual development, from Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera to Design of Active Site-Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Dover now stays in business selling upper-grade coloring books, kiddie stickers and “thrift editions” of classics in the public domain. You can still purchase Lang’s Fairy Books from Dover.
—The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Scribner Classics, 1996
Other than the short stories, which are often marvelous, The Sun Also Rises is the only Hemingway I can abide. I reread it every few years and enjoy the hell out of it. I did read Death in the Afternoon a couple of years ago and enjoyed that, too, although in a sort of ironic way, as if it were a parody of the man.
“There are only two proper ways to kill bulls with the sword and muleta… A great killer must love to kill; unless he feels it is the best thing he can do, unless he is conscious of its dignity and feels that it is its own reward, he will be incapable of the abnegation that is necessary in real killing. The truly great killer must have a sense of honor and a sense of glory far beyond that of the ordinary bullfighter.”
I learned more about bullfighting than I ever hoped to. I remember as a kid when local TV in New York used to show Mexican bullfights — they didn’t kill the bulls in Mexico. Stations were really hurting for things to broadcast in those early years. They also ran a bunch of jai-alai. And the Saturday Night Fights, with Bill Stern. But I’m getting off point. I also have a fat book of his wartime journalism, Byline: Ernest Hemingway, which is “damn good reporting,” as he might have characterized it. And even in the books I can’t get through, I still find sentences and paragraphs of tremendous power and grace. He was a great writer who wrote bad books.
But Sun Also Rises has all the fizz and punch that Hemingway is famous for, but before he became Papa — or what I call “Ham-ingway.” The Sun’s excesses feel like a document of its post-war times. Later Hemingway feels like a document of his own almost comic and self-regarding toxic masculinity (perfectly skewered in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris). I have three copies of Sun in the house. I still have the old Scribner paperback that I first read some 40 years ago; then there is the one from this shelf. But I recently bought the new Hemingway Library Edition, with early drafts and deleted chapters and with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway. These last two are both beautiful book designs and immaculately printed.
—I Kid You Not, Jack Paar with John Reddy, Little, Brown and Co., 1960
Before there was Stephen Colbert, before there was David Letterman, before Johnny Carson, there was Jack Paar. He ran The Tonight Show on NBC from 1957 to 1962. He was a squirrelly man with a labile mind, but maybe a bit touchy. In his autobiography, named for his catchphrase, I Kid You Not, his co-author describes him: “Explaining Jack Paar is not easy. He is the world’s tallest elf. He is a paradox and meeting him can be like smoking a filter-tip firecracker … a man whose tranquilizer has been spiked … a tendency to make sudden U-turns in tunnels … broods over the fact that the Indians always lose in TV Westerns … as unrehearsed as a hiccup.”
I found the book recently in a library sales shelf and picked it up for a dollar, thinking I would weave nostalgia over my childhood television past. And let’s be honest, this is no Great Gatsby — it is a fairly standard celebrity book, full of potted anecdotes and famous names. Still, fairly entertaining for all that.
“I once asked Zsa Zsa if she thought love was important. ‘Yas, I theenk luff is the most imbortant theeng in a vooman’s life,’ she said throatily. ‘A vooman should keep on marrying and marrying until she finds luff.’”
Most of the book consists of a set-up paragraph, explaining a situation, followed by a punchline, either by Paar, or more often quoted from Charley Weaver, Alexander King, Genevieve or Oscar Levant. Paar had a stable of guest-star conversationalists and unlike today’s late night, which is an endless series of stars huckstering their latest project, Paar’s guests actually engaged in conversation.
Sometimes, a book just breezes by without a thought in its head — or mine.
—Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
I heard Emily Bernard speaking on C-Span and found her mesmerizing. There are two main aspects to her book, both entirely engaging. The most obvious is her discussion of race. She grew up in the South, got her Ph.D. from Yale, married a white man from the North, adopted two babies from Ethiopia and teaches in New England, so, with all this input, there is not a single or blindered approach to her subject, but a willingness to see from all points of view. There is not a droplet of cant in her thinking or writing, but the honest thoughts of a sensitive individual.
The other is the story of her stabbing. She was attacked by a stranger, a white man, with a knife. He was a schizophrenic, acting on impulse and he attacked six other people in that coffee shop. “I was not stabbed because I was black, but I have always viewed the violence I survived as a metaphor for the violent encounter that has generally characterized American race relations. … There was no connection between us … yet we were suddenly and irreparably bound by a knife, an attachment that cost us both: him, his freedom; me, my wholeness.”
It is a book beautifully written. Its prose is both clean and evocative. I don’t believe I found a single cliche in its 223 pages.
—The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
When my wife died, three years ago, I was buried in a paralyzing grief. We had been together 35 years and, as far as either of was concerned, we were a single entity. Didion’s book was recommended to me and I dived in.
It is, of course, well written — it is Didion, after all — and it is affecting. I felt a definite kinship with her. If you have lost someone that close, it is like a soldier having been through a war and knowing only those who have shared the experience can genuinely understand. You can appreciate the sympathy of friends, but you know they are outside the event. I got letters and e-mails from one dear friend who had lost a lifetime companion, and even when she didn’t address the loss directly, there was a tacit understanding. Those letters meant more to me than any other kind words.
But, having read Didion, I had to say that my experience was different from hers. The “magical thinking” she writes about is the feeling that, even though she knows consciously that her husband is dead, there was an autonomic expectation that he might suddenly come through the door: The space of the real world, and the inner space of the mind were out of synch.
But for me, when I witnessed the life cease being generated by my wife’s ailing body, she simply was no more. The instant she stopped breathing, her skin began to cool under my touch; the flame was extinguished, and I never had even the unconscious hope that it had all been a dream, and that maybe she was still alive. No. Gone. Ewig… Ewig… Ewig.
A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Sir Denis Forman, Random House, 1994
My brother- and sister-in-law are crazy about opera. When I visit them, we often watch DVDs of them, and usually the operas few others appreciate, such as Wozzeck, The Cunning Little Vixen, or The Love for Three Oranges. I used to be an opera critic for my newspaper (I was critic for a lot of things — born a critic, not made one). And they gave me this book, which is a comic look at all the repertoire operas. This is not a book you read cover to cover, but dip into for a good laugh and a bit of insight.
“Death is extremely common [in opera] and has an almost universal characteristic unknown in our world, namely… the doomed person suffers a compulsion to sing. There are few known cases in [opera] where death has occurred without an aria, or at least a cavatina, being delivered… The period [of death] can last for up to a whole act. Not even decapitation can ensure an aria-free death, since the victim is likely to seize any opportunity to break into song on the way to the block.”
I used to own Milton Cross’s Complete Stories of the Great Operas in a beat-up and yellow-paged copy that I used for reference when I was writing. Nowadays, all those reference books that crowded my carrel at the newspaper have been replaced with Wikipedia at my fingertips. And the sodden reverence that Cross brought to the genre has been happily exchanged for Sir Denis’s leavening.
The book is 955 pages long, so I can’t claim to have finished it, or that I ever will. But I have read all of my favorite operas and Gesamptkunstwerks and had a good yuk.
—And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling Over Niagara…, Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty, Ph.D., Penguin Books, 2017
There are so many ways to die, outside of mortal illness or gunshot wounds. And this book, with a chromed edge of irony, recounts some of the more notable. If you are ever curious about what would happen if you were swallowed by a whale, shot from a cannon or go barreling over Niagara Falls, then even the title of the book should pull you in.
Each of 45 chapters begins with “What would happen if…” If you were buried alive; if you were hit by a meteorite; if your elevator cable broke; if you were sacrificed in a volcano; if you ate as many cookies as Cookie Monster. (On that last, many things might kill you. “After 60-some cookies, the gaseous side effects of digestion might push the pressure of your stomach beyond its physical capacity. It could explode violently and distribute its fatal chocolate chip cookie content throughout your innards. In other words, death by burping.”}
This is clearly a great book for bathroom reading: short, punchy chapters. Like eating potato chips, reading just one will be a problem. Also: Comes with scientific footnotes to witness for the authors’ predictions.
—Latest Reading, Clive James, Yale University Press, 2015
Clive James knew he was dying when he compiled Latest Readings. He was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010 and decided to spend his remaining time reading and rereading. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
If that sounds like a downer, then you haven’t read Clive James. A more irrepressible mind and curiosity would be hard to come by. This book came out in 2015 and he died in 2019, which means he had a good nine years of reading to pursue. Having announced his impending demise in 2010, he admitted at the time of this book an embarrassment at still being alive. He described himself as “near to death but thankful for life.” And after his Latest Readings, he still had seven more books to publish, one called Sentenced to Life.
He was a major wit (he described the muscled-up Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like a “brown condom filled with walnuts”) and could toss off the bon mot as flippantly as Oscar Levant or Dorothy Parker.
One essay is specifically “On Wit,” and discusses the ability of Abba Eban to say much with little. He quotes Eban on another politician, “He is a man of few words, but they were enough to express his range of ideas,” and “Yasser Arafat never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
In his essay on early Hemingway, he says of The Sun Also Rises, “In the book, scarcely anybody is old enough to have a past. They live in the present moment because they are young, and have to. So they pretend to be experienced.” There is a second essay, later on, called “Hemingway at the End,” which begins:
“Starting with Carlos Baker’s pioneering biography in 1969, called simply Hemingway, I have spent a good part of my adult life reading books about Ernest Hemingway and I don’t want to die among a heap of them, but they keep getting into the house.”
I miss James. He’s one of those writers who, even when I disagree with him violently, I still enjoy reading. Luckily, he’s all over YouTube.
—Selected Writing of Herman Melville: Complete Short Stories; Typee; Billy Budd, Foretopman, Herman Melville, Random House Modern Library, 1952
I have always been attracted to writers word by word and sentence by sentence. There are wonderful writers whose prose is clear as water and you never notice it flowing by with hardly a gurgle. They tell their stories and you turn the pages, delighted to find out what happens next. I remember being in a bookstore once and picking up James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. I had always avoided him, thinking he was a talented hack who pumped out books as thick as phonebooks. I thought I might read a page or two to get the flavor of his writing, but only a few moments later, I realized I was 30 pages in and had to stop because the store was closing. I was completely immersed in the story and unaware I was actually reading.
Melville is not like that. You chew on each tasty word and dine on his sentences. I fell in love with Moby Dick, but had the hardest time finishing it, not because I became bored, but because every time I picked up the book anew, I started from the beginning again. “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read “Loomings” more than a hundred times.
Before I ever finished Moby Dick, I read Israel Potter, Typee, Omoo and The Confidence Man. But what I kept coming back to, over and over, was this Modern Library edition of his selected writings: The Piazza Tales; Billy Budd and Typee. If given the chance, I will read I and My Chimney out loud at a dinner party. The Encantadas enchanted me; Benito Cereno moved me; Bartleby — Ah humanity.
Melville’s prose is thicker than Southern chicken gravy. It always had a spice of irony in it. It can be comic; it can be tragic. Often both. The sentences can be long as freight trains or short as shunting boxcars. There is always a slightly distracted sensibility behind them.
“When I removed into the country, it was to occupy an old-fashioned farm-house, which had no piazza — a deficiency the more regretted, because not only did I like piazzas, as somehow combining the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors, and it is so pleasant to inspect your thermometer there, but the country round about was such a picture that in berry time no boy climbs hill or crosses vale without coming upon easels planted in every nook, and sun-burnt painters painting there. A very paradise of painters.”
Melville breaks every one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, especially the part about avoiding “hooptedoodle.” Everything Leonard denounces is every reason I love reading. And Melville is the absolute emperor of hooptedoodle. Sometimes, we never ever get to the point.
—Classical Persian Literature, A.J. Arberry, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1967
Sometimes, you are moving through the used bookstore too fast. It is a vast buffet of things you want to grab and take home. And sometimes, you grab a title you don’t take enough time to read carefully. I was visiting brother- and sister-in-law and went to a used bookstore the size of a Safeway. I saw a book spine with “Classical Persian Literature” on it and scooped it up. It was only when I got home that I discovered there was precious little classical Persian literature in it, but was, instead, a dry history of Persian literature.
I’m sure it is a wonderful history, and will let me know the minute differences between 13th century and 14th century writings from Iran. But the prose has all the dust of scholarship about it. I have not been able to crack into it; it pushes me away. I wanted poetry and I got bricks. I’m sure, also, that Mr. Arthur John Arberry was quite knowledgable, probably one of the world leaders. But I keep this volume around purely as a non-chemical soporific.
—A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of this Choicest Writings, H.L. Mencken, Vintage Books, 1982
Henry Louis Mencken was an often detestable human being, with gender and racial views bordering on the rabid. But he wrote like a dream. I envy his style like few others, and will gobble up anything I can find that he published.
I have all six volumes of his aptly titled Prejudices, and all three of his autobiographies, to say nothing of the hefty three volumes of The American Language and I have devoured them like peanut-butter cups. When I couldn’t get enough Mencken, having finished all these, I asked Amazon for a copy of his 1949 anthology, A Mencken Chrestomathy. Unfortunately, a good deal of it is reprinted from the Prejudices and memoirs, but enough is new that the book kept me amused for a week or more. And I can dip back in for a recharge at any time. They are all eminently re-readable.
“The suicide rate, so I am told by an intelligent mortician, is going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive?”
And the next essay, he continues: “I see nothing mysterious about these suicides. The impulse to self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time of other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living. I was myself spared the intellectual humiliations of a college education, but during my late teens, with the enlightening gradually dawning within me, I more than once concluded that death was preferable to life. At that age the sense of humor is in a low state. Later on, by the mysterious working of God’s providence, it usually recovers.”
Reading Mencken is a mix of smiles and winces. A clever turn of phrase here, a rolling diatribe careening along like a freight train, a panegyric or philippic — then, you bump up against some gratuitous generalization about “the negroes” or “the Jews,” and you pull up short. These were common prejudices at the time, but they sour the tongue now.
You are forced to remember that Mencken also argued for the American acceptance of Jewish refugees in the years before WWII, and lashed out at lynchings and bigotry, apparently not noticing the beam in his own eye. In addition, he had close friendships with both African-Americans and Jews. It was only in the abstract he denigrated them, not that such makes it acceptable.
Mencken also disapproved of democracy. In this, he seems prescient. “As democracy is perfected, the office [of the presidency] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
—High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 1995
The most recent book I’ve finished is Kingsolver’s collection of essays, mixing science and autobiography and more than anything, common sense written with aromatic and redolent words. My first ex-wife found it a few months ago in a used bookstore and bought it for me, thinking I might enjoy it. She was right.
I confess I have not read any of Kingsolver’s fiction. I’m a bit slow on keeping up with contemporary novels — I’m still too often stuck on Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne — but these essays are infectiously written.
“I have been gone from Kentucky a long time. Twenty years have done to my hill accent what the washing machine does to my jeans: take out the color and starch, so gradually that I never marked the loss. Something like that has happened to my memories, too, particularly of the places and people I can’t go back and visit because they are gone. The ancient brick building that was my grade school, for example, and both my grandfathers. They’re snapshots of memory for me now, of equivocal focus, loaded with emotion, undisturbed by anyone else’s idea of the truth. The schoolhouse’s plaster ceilings are charted with craters like maps of the moon and likely to crash down without warning. The windows are watery, bubbly glass reinforced with chicken wire. The weary wooden staircases, worn shiny smooth in a path up their middles, wind up to an unknown place overhead where the heavy-footed eighth graders changing classes were called ‘the mules’ by my first-grade teacher, and believing her, I pictured their sharp hooves on the linoleum.”
Over and over Kingsolver metamorphoses physical objects into emotion — not overt, heart-on-sleeve, but recollection, affection, loss — and makes the persuasive case that emotion is more central to being human than paltry thought. Or rather, that when seen properly, thought and emotion are the very same thing.
—Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism — A Norton Critical Edition, John Milton, edited by Scott Elledge, W.W. Norton, 1975
I’m afraid people look at me funny when I tell them how much I enjoy reading Milton. They scrunch their eyes and wonder if they should step back slowly. But Milton is wonderful; he is fun. And he tells a whopping good yarn.
I have four copies of Paradise Lost. The first is a compact blue Oxford Standard Authors edition from 1925. When my girlfriend-at-the-time and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in the early 1970s, it was this Milton I tossed into my knapsack for the trip. Yes, I took Milton to the woods. Then there is the larger paperback with the famous Gustave Doré illustrations. And a two-volume complete Milton in a presentation set from 1848, bound in leather, that was a birthday present from my late espoused saint. And then, there is this Norton Critical Edition paperback that I keep near my bed. Its advantage is the explanatory footnotes at the bottom of each page. Some pages have more note than text. I am a little put off that these notes are designed for students and that those students need to be told that “cherub” is singular of “cherubim” or that “pernicious” means “destructive.”
When I read Milton, I hear in my mind’s ear the same rich and thunderous diapason I hear in J.S. Bach’s organ music. Whole rolling chords and pedal tones. Politicians often attempt rhetorical speech in order to sound more impressive and authoritative, but they always sound phony and pompous, like Foghorn Leghorn. But Milton is the real thing: Language with the weight of 2000 years of background. Yes, he treats English as a baby brother to Latin and does damage to standard grammar to contort his sentence structure. But in return, he gets a language more powerful than any poet before or since.
“Him the Almighty Power/ Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/ With hideous ruin and combustion down/ To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire,/ Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”
How can you not love such language: “Round he throws his baleful eyes.”
Perhaps it actually helps that I have no dogs in this fight. I am not a Christian. I can read the Iliad with pleasure and not believe in the Olympians; I can read the Mahabharata without thinking that Krishna or Ganesh are real. The myth of Paradise Lost is compelling, even without being dogma.
—-The Mystery of Georges Simenon: A Biography, Fenton Bresler, Stein and Day, 1985
Georges Simenon was the creator of Inspector Maigret, but the real mystery is how he managed to write so many books, while also diddling so many women. He wrote nearly 500 novels, some whipped off in as short a time as a week. He could, when deadline pressed, write 60 pages a day. The women are not accurately counted.
Seventy-five of those novels and 28 short stories feature Inspector Jules Maigret, the pipe smoking and uxorious chief of the Paris Police Judiciaire. The books have been made into many movies and TV series, including 52 episodes for French television starring Bruno Cremer and a dozen in English starring Michael Gambon. I have seen them all; I am a Maigret addict. I have also read handfuls of the books, too. They read fast and rivetingly.
They aren’t really mysteries, though. In most, the reader learns fairly early who the culprits are and the books have their raison d’etre in the finely drawn character studies of their dramatis personae. They really are novels more than your standard mysteries. No suspects are gathered in the last chapter while the detective unmasks the villain. And, indeed, Simenon has written many non-Maigret novels, also with their catchy populations.
“They do not contain much spine-chilling suspense,” writes biographer Fenton Bresler. “They are dark, taut studies of human beings pushed to the limit of their characters, explored with such deep instinctive knowledge of human nature that they have become part of the syllabus of university examinations, and post-graduate students write learned theses devoted to them.”
“Yet, for all their sombre value and consummate craftsmanship, they have nearly all been written at breakneck speed in not much more than a week — with, at the end, a compulsive need to indulge in a veritable orgy of sexual activity as ‘a necessary hygienic measure,’ It is here, with sex, that we have our first inkling that the ‘phenomenon’ is also a mystery and the story of Simenon’s own life is as dark and compelling as any of his novels — if only we can get at the truth.”
—Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, Thomas Wolfe, Random House Modern Library, 1929
Asheville, North Carolina, is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and about 10 miles to the east, the escarpment drops off to the flatlands. The way up the hill from Old Fort to Asheville is now Interstate 40, an artery which runs from Wilmington, N.C., to Barstow, Calif. In North Carolina it runs from the Atlantic Coastal Plain through the Piedmont, with Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and past Asheville to the Smoky Mountains before hitting Tennessee near Dollywood. But before the Interstate, the looping way up the hill was a gravel road that roughly parallels the old railroad line. In 1880, William Oliver Wolfe took a stage coach up the hill to Asheville to set up his stonecutting business.
His son, Thomas, fictionalized that trip in the opening chapter of his novel, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929. In the novel, Old Fort becomes Old Stockade and Asheville becomes Altamont. His fictionalized father, Oliver Gant, gets into a coach that climbs its way up the face of the Blue Ridge. “His destination was the little town of Altamont, 24 miles away beyond the rim of the great outer wall of the hills. As the horses strained slowly up the mountain road Oliver’s spirit lifted a little. It was a gray-golden day in late October, bright and windy. There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air; The range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: They were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain.
“Below him a mountain stream foamed down its rocky bed, and he could see little dots of men laying the track that would coil across the hill toward Altamont. Then the sweating team lipped the gulch of the mountain and, among soaring and lordly ranges that melted away in purple mist, they began the slow descent toward the high plateau on which the town of Altamont was built.”
I have driven that same road many times, avoiding the interstate as less interesting. The railroad that was being constructed while Oliver rode the coach, is now finished and it loops up in switchbacks mostly parallel to the gravel road. You see it peeking through the trees here and there. And I have driven it in October when the season matches that of the book. There is something uncanny about seeing fiction turned palpable, about driving through the trees as if you were driving through prose.
—Persian and Chinese Letters, Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson; and The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith, M Walter Dunne, 1901
I have always loved old books. The letterpress text is textural, embedded into the paper and you can run your finger over the words and feel the bumpiness. There is the smell of the old paper itself. And title pages often have border designs in colored ink, or engraved scrolls. In the older books, there are those long “S” figures that each looks like an “F.” The volumes are beautiful objects, well worthy beyond their content.
I own several books from before 1750 and more from the 19th century, including my trusty History of the Earth and Animated Nature, by Oliver Goldsmith (my copy is from 1825). And there is a History of Redemption on a Plan Entirely Original Exhibiting the Gradual Discovery and Accomplishment of the Divine Purposes in the Salvation of Man; Including a Comprehensive View of Church History and the Fulfilment of Scripture Prophecies by “the late reverend Jonathan Edwards” from 1793, with its stretched leather binding still intact. (They loved long titles back then; it’s part of their charm.) And there is a complete reprint of Addison and Steeles Spectator from around the time of the American Revolution (it is falling apart and missing its title page, but the latest date mentioned in it is 1776). I love them all.
Goldsmith also wrote a satire on English society and culture called The Citizen of the World, purportedly a series of letters written by a Chinese visitor, Lien Chi, who is mystified at some of the British habits and mores he found. Goldsmith’s book was inspired by a similar one by Baron de Montesquieu, called the Persian Letters, from 1721, in which two fictional Persians leave their seraglio to travel through France and send back letters describing what they found.
“Coffee is very much used in Paris; there are a great many public houses where it may be had. In some of these they meet to gossip, in others to play at chess. There is one where the coffee is prepared in such a way that it makes those who drink it witty: At least, there is not a single soul who on quitting the house does not believe himself four times wittier than when he entered it.”
My volume is a translation and reprint from 1901, and a so-called “de Luxe Edition, printed by M. Walter Dunne, Publisher, Washington & London. It isn’t the greatest reading, but it is a handsome volume.
—The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995
Some time ago, on a vacation trip, I came across a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It was all there was to read where we were staying and I admit to being somewhat embarrassed to read a book about a pedophile, and worse, from his self-justifying point of view, but I also have to admit, it was the best-written book I had come across in ages. The writing was singular; verbal fireworks. I have never come across anything like it. The simple act of reading was fun. There is no other word for it. It was a delight to move from one word to the next, each brighter and crisper and more ironically charged than the last. Lolita is a great book. Not that I want anyone to catch me reading it.
I later picked up his autobiography, Speak, Memory, and loved it, too, although it didn’t have the crashing verbal tides of Lolita. Still, it was compelling.
And so, I found this giant, thick, heavy compilation of Nabokov’s short stories. At 660 pages, it contains 65 stories, some written in English, some translated from Russian. I have admired the spine of this book on my shelf for some time, but found it daunting to pull out and open up.
“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favorable opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are years between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas — a million times the reader’s average age. In the telescopic field of one’s fancy, through the prism of one’s tears, any particularities it presents should be no more striking than those of existing planets. A rosy globe, marbled with dusky blotches, it is one of the countless objects diligently revolving in the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”
How can any scrupulous writer not admit to being in awe of a phrase like, “the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”? Or, “the telescopic field of one’s fancy” and “the prism of one’s tears.”?
Perhaps one day, I will work up the gumption to tackle the whole book. After all, I made it through Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This should be child’s play in comparison.
And so, I think over what I have excavated from this layered wooden trove and wonder anew: Who is this who drew magnetically such a heterogeneous collection of mental filings. Spiegel im Spiegel.
It is plopped down in front of you and you poke it and prod it and try to figure out what it is. If it is something very new or very different, it may take more poking than usual, and you may very well come up with the wrong answer.
This is what it is to be a critic — a real critic, I mean, not one of those Yelp scribblers, or self-certain mandarins with nothing more to offer but thumbs turned skyward or hell-ward.
I was a critic for 25 years for a major daily newspaper (The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz.), and I always thought of my job as being a first reader, or first seer, or first listener — a pioneer trying to make sense of something before any sort of consensus has been reached. It is a risky thing to do — to proffer an opinion before you have anyone watching your back.
When conductor Pierre Boulez first came out with his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1976, he played as if it were chamber music, it was such a different conception of the music that many critics first assumed it was a failed attempt to make the grand, Romantic mytho-philosophical monster it had always been taken to be. The BBC criticized the conductor’s “ruthless tempi” and “lack of expressiveness.”
Consensus has now realized it was a brilliant re-thinking of the way the music could make sense. The clarity he brought to the muck (beautiful muck), was transcendent in its own way. Later criticism decided instead that “Wagner’s music doesn’t have to be murky to be metaphysical or massive to be overwhelmingly moving and Boulez gets playing from the too-often turgid Bayreuth Festival Orchestra that makes the music crackle and blaze with musical and dramatic meaning.”
Being a first listener is always risky. You may think something a failure because it doesn’t do what it has done before, failing to hear that it is doing something new brilliantly.
When the Boulez Ring was new, the critics poked and prodded to see if it was alive. Now, we know not only that it was alive, but that it was a harbinger of a new way of playing classical music that has taken over the business. Out with the Furtwängler, in with the John Eliot Gardiner. Lean and mean drove out lush and weighty.
I am reminded of this because I have just been confronted by a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the fingers of Chinese Wunderklaviermeister Lang Lang. Critical reaction has been all over the place, from deciding it was “the greatest version since Glenn Gould” to complaining that it sounded like a talented conservatory student sight reading.
And I see what each reaction means: They parallel my own thoughts. Is this a brilliant rethinking, or is this a flaming dumpster fire?
Mr. Lang, or if I may be so familiar as to call him by his first name, Lang, has always split opinions. Sometimes it is hard to bust through his relentless self-promotion — the kind of commercial huckstering usually identified with charlatans and snake oil salesmen — and then there are his stage antics, eyes closed in thesbian rapture, rolling his head back and forth in a way to make Leonard Bernstein seem like a mechanical clock. How can you take him seriously?
And yet, there is often magic in his playing. I have heard him live several times, and his performances varied widely, from glib to dazzling to absolutely empty. Yet, at other times, it was profoundly moving. When I heard him play the Chopin E-minor concerto, the way he played the slow movement made time stand absolutely still. It is one of the most soul-satisfying performances I have heard in a half-century of concertgoing. It probably helped that I normally close my eyes when listening to music and therefore was spared his facial contortions. God, was that moment beautiful.
His recordings are equally all-over-the-place, with some dead-on and concentrated and others distracted and hollow. Lang is capable of so much, but only delivers intermittently.
So I am now confronted by a Goldberg Variations unlike any I’ve heard before. Is it brilliant or dunderheaded? Is it an aberration or is it a signal that classical music culture is shifting once again?
I’ve heard a lot of Goldbergs in my time. They were little known or played before 1955, when Glenn Gould launched them on an unsuspecting public, with a blazing performance that redefined Bach playing, clarifying the polyphonic strands and cutting down the pedal, almost mimicking the sound of a harpsichord. Since then, in the same way that no self-respecting art photographer can fail to make a photograph of a green pepper after being shown the way by Edward Weston, so no decent pianist can avoid recording a set of Goldbergs. Most of them are perfectly decent, if anonymous.
In recent years, a few with real personality have been released. Simone Dinnerstein has her set and more recently Jeremy Denk. Some may remember the brief surfacing of a recording by João Carlos Martins that was almost as idiosyncratic as Gould, although Martins’ piano never seemed to be quite in tune.
The work has also been transcribed for accordion, marimba, harp, hammer dulcimer, guitar, saxophone quartet, string trio, string orchestra, synthesizer, and brass quintet. I have a recording of parts of them on Japanese koto, and Yo-yo Ma recorded the Aria on his cello. Avant-gardist Uri Caine made his version updating each variations individually for a heterogeneous mixture of voices, instruments and recorded noises. I once put together a CD mixing many of these oddball transcriptions into something I called the “Goldberg Variorum” — each variation played by a different instrument or group.
Gould recorded the Goldbergs at least four times — with untold bootlegs out there. The initial set has been reissued so many times in different albums, that it is impossible to keep count. Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded them five times and Rosalyn Tureck did it seven times.
The earliest version I could find was on Welte piano rolls (a kind of player piano) from 1928, by Rudolf Serkin. (His son, Peter, left us three versions). Since then, there have been close to 250 recordings. About 50 of those are on harpsichord. A few are the transcriptions, but almost all are on piano.
But since Gould, most pianists have hewn to the stricture that, since they were composed for the harpsichord, they should be performed as drily as possible, and with little or — preferably — no pedal. And since the arrival of “historically informed performance practice” (fie on the miscreants, I say, fie) boatloads of pianists have done their best to erase any notion that a performer should “interpret” the score. Just the notes, ma’am.
This has led to quite able, but faceless performances by such as Angela Hewitt, András Schiff and Murray Parahia. I don’t mean to poo-poo these recordings, They are all excellent of their kind, but they are chaste.
And so, we come to Lang Lang’s two-disc set, taken at a rather leisurely pace, but with lots of spark and crackle in the details. He likes to thump hard on stray notes and he adds many ornaments, especially in the repeats — and not all the trills and mordents are stylistically appropriate. Extra passing tones and tons of rubato. Worse: Pedal. In modern terms, this is Bach done in “bad taste.”
In the old days (pre-HIPP), pianists tended to play Bach on piano as if he had written for piano. They brought out tunes and backed them with accompaniment. Now, we revel in the polyphonic strands, each brought out cleanly. If you listen to pre-World War II recordings of Bach, you will hear pianists such as Edward Fischer or Wilhelm Kempff play their Bach as if he were the godfather of Chopin.
You can hear the echoes of this Bach in the Well-Tempered Clavier of Daniel Barenboim. They are magnificently played, but purists cover their ears and bray “Nyah-nyah” to block out the sound. Yet, there is a long tradition, now largely buried, of approaching Bach’s music as a pretext for piano playing, showing off the performer’s skills and sensibilities. After all, do you go to La Boheme for the story, or to hear Pavarotti? The present orthodoxy considers this a kind of blasphemy.
Yet, the music no longer belongs to Bach; it is ours and we can express our ownership of it any way we wish (as someone once said about modernized performances of Shakespeare, set on the moon or done with an all-female cast, “It’s OK. They haven’t destroyed the text. It is still there, unharmed.”) And no matter what you may think of Lang Lang’s performance, the text is still there. It belongs to you, too. But Bach himself is no longer here; he has no say in the matter and we are presumptuous if we claim to speak for him.
So, maybe, after 40 years of increasing musical priggishness and the cult of “composer’s intentions” we are beginning to loosen up. After all, it is Postmodern doctrine that it is all just “text” to be worked on by each of us.
The audience that actually cares about classical music seems divided into two unequal groups. The larger posits a Platonic ideal performance and judges each concert by how close to this ideal it reaches. Of course, each listener has his own vote for what that ideal is. But the goal is always the “perfect” realization of the score.
But the other group seeks constantly to be surprised, to see the notes through a newer lens and have the music refreshed. “To hear it again for the first time.” They expect each concert to give them a different version even of old chestnuts. The standard issue performance bores them.
I can give a great demonstration of the difference. When Anne-Sophie Mutter first recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, she gave what must be the closest to the perfect ideal. Nothing out of place, everything beautiful and expressive. As if played by angels, not humans. It has remained in print since it was released in 1979. She recorded it again in 2002 with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, in a performance much more personalized, with very different phrasings and dynamics. No longer a Platonic ideal, but much more a here-and-now. You would never confuse it with any other performance or violinist. I love it; many fans hated it. Hate, hate, hated it.
The problem with the Platonic performance is that the ideal changes over time. Once, the perfect Beethoven was Furtwängler, then it became Szell, and after that, it became John Eliot Gardiner. Tastes change over time.
We seem to be in another shift, giving up the impersonal historically strait-jacketed version for a reintroduction of the more individuated performance. We hear it in the recordings not just of Lang Lang, but of Mikhail Pletnev, Valery Gergiev or the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt (operating under the deceitful guise as an “original instrument” guy — but really just sui generis.)
Really, the Platonic template has been in place mostly from World War II on. Before that, performance idiosyncrasy was the norm, from Vladimir de Pachman to Willem Mengelberg. Leopold Stokowski was famous for tinkering with scores and glamming up what he was conducting. Now, having gone through that, into the Post-war standardization and then the HIPP diminution, we seem to be re-entering an era of increased personal interpretation.
And that brings us back to Lang’s Goldbergs. If we are in the cusp of a change, we cannot really be sure where the gamepiece comes down. This new recording may indicate a reshaping of the way we play Bach, the way Gould reshaped it from 1955. Or maybe it’s just a garish one-off.
I poke it; I prod it. I place my bet. So many of the hundreds of recordings of the Goldberg Variations are magnificently well-played and satisfying in their own way, but how many are memorable? You could replace one with another and be equally pleased, indeed not even to notice the difference. Gould was memorable: You can spot it in a crowd of hundreds. Lang Lang’s recording is the most memorable I’ve heard since then, and I’ve heard a boxload of them. It is memorable, but is it good? Will its novelty wear thin, or become the new norm?
I am going back for a fourth dive into the new recording. Then, maybe, a fifth. Perhaps after that, I’ll have an answer.
I hadn’t baked in years. I used to do so regularly, just to have fresh-baked bread to eat with cold butter. It is the food they must eat in Paradise. Hot crusty bread with hard cold butter: There is nothing better.
Neither had I baked a cake, but then I had a slight hankering for chocolate and I didn’t want to go out in the Covid night to shop, so I decided to make my own dessert, a small chocolate cake — a sort of brownie thing, but more cakey.
I have never used a recipe for baking and I didn’t this time, either. Years ago, when I lived with friends, I wanted to bake a cake and my friend’s wife warned me that you simply had to have the measurements right for a cake to turn out. I took it as a challenge. I threw together what I thought would make a cake and slid it in the oven. The cake was delicious.
That was something like 40 years ago. And it was, I believe, the last time I baked a cake. I’m not a big cake eater.
But bread, yes. I love bread and I always thought bread making was the easiest thing in the world. I don’t know why so many people think it is a persnickety project. I see TV chefs giving conflicting instructions. One says you have to be careful to measure your flour and to slide a knife across the top of the measuring cup to get an accurate amount. Another says you can’t measure the flour; you have to weigh it on a kitchen scale (preferably, I think, in grams).
I have never measured my flour. I just dump what feels like the proper amount in a mixing bowl, add my yeast and a bit of salt and stir around the dry ingredients, then add warm water until I get a dough. You can’t know just how much, because the air humidity and barometric pressure change the needed proportions. You just do it until it feels like dough.
Of course, you can add things if you want to make a different sort of bread. You can put in an egg and substitute some milk for the water if you want to make a challah. You can mix in some rye flour if you want a rye bread.
But you do it until you get a dough that feels right. I can’t tell you what that is: It is something you learn in your fingertips. Book knowledge is no help, anymore than it is when learning to ride a bike. The same goes for the proper amount of kneading. It will feel ready when it feels ready.
Then you can either put it in bread pans, or make a boule or a baguette. Bake it in an oven with a pan of water to help make a good crust. It will be done when the kitchen smells right.
There is so much that is not verbal and cannot be put down in print. Driving a car, facial recognition, offering condolence, playing music in tune, making love, knowing why life is worth living: Words are inadequate at best, impossible to be precise and often utterly misleading. Only experience really helps, along with an openness and willingness to pay attention.
These days, many people, locked in their homes avoiding tiny spiky bugs, fill their empty time with the baking of bread. They share sourdough starter recipes and “secrets” for a good loaf. It’s a fine hobby and the eating is a great reward. But there is a difference between a non-cook poring over a cookbook, following its instructions step by slow step, biting on their lips while reading; and a seasoned veteran who has the whole process recorded in muscle memory. It provides the confidence.
So, anyway, there I was, wanting a bit of sweet, about 8 in the evening. I set the oven for 350F and got out a mixing bowl.
I dumped some flour into the bowl. I don’t know exactly how much, maybe two-thirds of a cup or so. Measurements-shmeasurements. I addedroughly three-quarters of the same amount of sugar and another hefty dose of cocoa powder, a dribble of vanilla, an egg, some butter I melted in the microwave, and used the tip end of a measuring cup handle to get some baking powder. I added about six grains of Cafe Bustelo instant coffee — barely enough to notice, and a squirt of Hershey’s syrup, and enough milk to make a batter. No measurements of anything, just the right “feel” for it. Baked it all for 25 minutes and waited for it to cool. It was yummy. I had a piece, then I had another piece, with a cold glass of milk.
So, maybe I had three pieces. Sue me. I did a little dance. Perhaps it was the caffeine from the grains of coffee. It’s about the only thing I’ve accomplished this past week of self-isolating — other than writing. Oh, and I took out the garbage and walked the dumpster down to the street so the trash delivery men could get it.
And I know what I’ll be eating for breakfast. Hah! I still got it.
There is Mahler before Bernstein, and Mahler after him. This is not to say that Lenny is the summum bonum of these nine-plus symphonies, but that before his 1960’s advocacy, Mahler was one of those niche composers that a few people knew about and appreciated, and afterwards, no right-thinking conductor could fail to offer a complete cycle — Mahler joined Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky and one of those whose works would be recorded by the yard. A Mahler program now draws a paying audience like almost no other.
But there is Mahler and there is Mahler. When everyone gets into the act, the quality level evens out — It’s hard to find a really bad recording anymore, and it is also hard to stand out with something exceptional. Yet, both ends do still exist.
I have not heard every release; no one could, not even David Hurwitz, who is as close to nuts as anyone I know of. But I have experienced a whole raft of Mahler recordings and I have my favorites, and a few excrescences that I have to keep as “party records” to share with commiserating friends.
My bona fides include more than a half-century of listening to classical music, reading scores, and being a retired classical music critic on a major daily newspaper. I have owned at least 15 complete Mahler cycles and uncounted individual CDs and LPs — going back to the 1960s. I did disgorge about two-thirds of my collection of CDs when I retired eight years ago, but even since, I have added more Mahler (among others) and currently sit with 10 full sets and two shelves of individual recordings. Am I as nuts as Hurwitz? I leave that to the jury. (It isn’t only Mahler: I once owned 25 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and 45 recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto).
Yes, I listen to a boatload of music. I cannot imagine my life without music.
And I have my Top 10 list of Mahler recordings. Really, a Top 11 — one for each of the nine completed symphonies, and add-ons for the incomplete 10th, for Das Lied von der Erde, and the song cycles, so it’s really like a Top 15 or so. And there are a few bombs I want to include, just for fun. Let’s take them in order.
Symphony No. 1 in D
The symphony begins with an ethereal A, barely audible and transforms into a cuckoo call, evincing nature, the woods and eternity, but then opens up into the fields and streams borrowed from Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld in his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.The first four Mahler symphonies all borrow from his songs. The third movement is a grotesquerie built from a minor-key version of Frere Jacques played first by a solo double bass; it is an ironic funeral march, interrupted by klezmer music and a bit of gypsy wedding. It is one of the most peculiar movement from anyone’s symphonies.
Then it all burst out in a tormented and blazing fourth movement with horns wailing out over all, and comes to an abrupt conclusion with an orchestral hiccup.
The symphony is qualitatively different from the ones that follow, but it is easier for most first-time listeners to comprehend. It is a great place to start a Mahler journey.
The greatest version I ever heard live was Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; it blew me away. There is a live recording, from the young maestro’s debut concert in LA. It is hard to get the same effect from a recording, but this is my sentimental favorite. But there are some other great ones.
The consensus (but not universal) favorite is Raphael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1968. It includes the Lieder eines fahrended Gesellen and Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau.
The version I first learned from, a billion years ago in another galaxy, and on vinyl, was Bruno Walter’s with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Walter knew Mahler and premiered his Ninth Symphony. The sonics are not always great, but there is tremendous authority in Walter’s Mahler.
Symphony No. 2 in C-minor (“Resurrection”)
Many people hold the “Resurrection Symphony” as their nearest and dearest, with its uplifting finale of rebirth and optimism. But I have always found the end a touch forced and insincere, as if Mahler really, really wanted to believe in a renewed life after death, but couldn’t, and could only mouth the words. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Yet, its music is still magnificent, especially the first movement funeral march, which comes to a climax so disturbing and dissonant, he never matched it until the orphan adagio of his 10th symphony. The inner movements are some of the most beautiful he ever wrote and the alto solo, Urlicht, is transcendental.
Everyone, it seems, has taken a crack at the “Resurrection”, including businessman Gilbert Kaplan, who learned to conduct only to lead this symphony and never conducted anything else. (OK, he did make a stab at the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth, but that hardly counts.)
My favorite is Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Klemperer always makes the music feel as important as it needs to be; he seems to believe in what it says, not merely to play the notes.
Symphony No. 3 in D-minor
There are some music you cannot listen to very often. Beethoven’s Ninth, for instance, or the Bach Matthew Passion. They are too big, too meaningful, too overwhelming, that to maintain the sense of occasion, you can only pull them out at special moments. You have to be ready to accept what they have to offer. It is almost a religious experience.
The Mahler Third last an hour and a half. It is almost an opera without words, except there are singers. It is a full evening by itself. But if you are not in the right frame of mind, it can just seem endless. The first movement alone lasts longer than any Haydn symphony.
Mahler explained his ideas for the symphony, though he later recanted. The words are not what the symphony says, but they give an approximation. The first movement is “Pan awakes; summer marches in,” and pits a relentless and ruthless nature, “red in tooth and claw,” against the riotous optimism of the season of growth, in an overwhelming march of joy and hedonism.
The second movement is “What the flowers of the meadow tell me.” The third is “What the animals of the forest tell me.” In the fourth, an alto sings “What man tells me,” in a doleful lament that “Die Welt ist tief,” “The world is deep.” Following that comes “What the angels tell me,” with a choir and bells telling of “himmlische Freude” — heavenly joy.
But all of this, for an hour, is really prolog to the final movement Adagio, “What love tells me.” It is built on a theme taken from Beethoven’s final quartet and its “Muss es sein? Es muss sein.” (“Must it be; it must be”).It is a 22-minute-long meditation, rising to ecstasy.
When the premiere was given in 1902, Swiss critic William Ritter wrote this finale was “Perhaps the greatest adagio written since Beethoven.” If you can come away without collapsing into a puddle of weeping, you’re a better person than I am.
The recording that overwhelms me more than any other, not only because of the performance, but because of its engineering and immediacy of sound quality is Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw.
A nearly equal second, in slightly less perfect sound, is Leonard Bernstein’s 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic. It is the gold standard for the finale.
Symphony No. 4 in G
On the opposite end of the emotional scale — and what a relief — comes the Fourth Symphony, with its sleigh bells and Kinderhimmel. It is, without doubt, Mahler’s happiest symphony. It is also his shortest. Coincidence?
But I’ve got a problem picking a best, because there are three performances I cannot do without, each highlighting a different aspect of the work.
First, there is Willem Mengelberg and the ConcertgebouwOrchestra, recorded in November, 1939. Mengelberg knew Mahler, and we have evidence that Mahler endorsed Mengelberg’s interpretation of the symphony, although that endorsement came for earlier performances. Mahler died in 1912 and this recording is from 27 years later. Still, it is the best evidence we have for the way Mahler probably intended his work to sound. And, compared to the way it is played nowadays, it is ripe with violent tempo changes and swooping portamentos.
Second, there is Benjamin Zander, with the Philharmonia. In the hour-long discussion disc packaged with the performance, Zander makes the case that Mahler wanted the violin soloist in the second movement to play like a country fiddler, not a trained violinist. A “Geige,” not a “Violine.” He has the violinist retune his fiddle a full tone sharp to play the Totentanz — he is to be Freund Hein, or “Friend Hank,” a nickname for the Grim Reaper. Zander is the only conductor to really take the composer at his word; most recordings, the soloist can’t bring himself to make the ugly sounds Mahler wanted, and smooths the part’s rough edges. It should sound like the Devil’s fiddle in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, with that edge.
In all his Mahler recordings, Zander is scrupulous in following the anal retentive storm of written instructions Mahler included in his scores. If this means the long-haul structure of the work is sometimes disrupted for the spotlit detail, well, that’s the nature of Romanticism over Classicism. Those details were put there for a reason; we should hear them.
The third recording is Bernstein’s first version, with the New York Philharmonic and soprano Reri Grist. Bernstein’s Mahler is always good, but sometimes, it is the best, and this is one of those times. Grist has a fresh voice that is perfect for the innocent text of the finale, which is a child’s vision of what heaven will be like (“Good apples, good pears, good grapes … St. Martha must be the cook.”)
Symphony No. 5
Wagner has his “bleeding chunks,” and Mahler has his Adagietto. Everyone knows the Adagietto, from movies and TV commercials. But the whole symphony, the first one since the First Symphony not to have voices, is a great rumbustious tussle, from its funeral march start to its manic contrapuntal finale, where he takes five melodic fragments, stated at the outset, and combines and recombines them like a Braumeister.
The Adagietto fourth movement was, per Mahler, intended as a love letter to his wife, Alma, but is so elegiac that it has become the aural metaphor for loss and grief. Considering Alma’s serial infidelities, perhaps it is only fitting that the movement has morphed in its cultural meaning. (One critic calls Mahler “a composer with a dodgy heart who married a trollop.” “Alma, tell us: All modern women are jealous. You should have a statue in bronze, for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.”)
The recording to have is Bernstein’s second recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic. It has beautiful playing from one of the world’s best orchestras, and all the energy and commitment that emanates from Lenny’s spiritual leadership.
Another legendary performance is John Barbirolli’s with the New Philharmonia. If you think Bernstein’s fever is suspect, then reach for a cold bottle of Sir John.
Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”)
Labeling any of Mahler’s symphonies as “Tragic” may seem redundant, but this is clearly his gloomiest, opening with a relentless stomp, stomp, stomp of a marche fatale and leading to the crushing hammer blows of destiny in the finale.
Nevertheless, it has what I think is an even more persuasive love letter to Alma in the slow movement, which has to be one of the most tender and lovely in all of the canon.
But Mahler never quite figured out if it should be the second or third movement, so nowadays, you find it both ways in performance, and find angry and assertive essays by critics proving once and for all it simply has to be the way they see it. Me, I like the adagio second to separate the angry first movement from the angry scherzo, which shares its rhythm with the first. Play them back to back before the adagio and it can seem like too much of the same thing. But then, that’s my opinion; you are free to have yours.
Then, in the finale, Mahler never quite resolved whether there should be three hammer blows or only two. He was a seriously superstitious man and feared that a third hammer blow might prefigure his own death, and took it out of the score. But hammer blows come in threes in life — at least in Mahler’s — and I prefer all three to be there. Nor did he ever quite specify what he meant by hammer blows; they are written into the score, but how should they be produced? Each orchestra is left to come up with its own solution. Some have used hammer and anvil, others have built large resonant wooden boxes hit with great wooden mallets. There’s a lot of room for interpretation.
Ben Zander comes to the rescue: His recording includes both the duple and triple hammer blows. You get to choose which finale you want to hear. As usual, Zander is perfect for following Mahler’s precise instructions in the score: a sforzando here, a ritardando there, a subito piano or a purposeful mix-mash of rhythms there. Now make the clarinet sound like a dying cat, now let the violins swoop with a portamento. Zander obeys where most other conductors smooth it all out to make pretty. This should not be a pretty symphony.
Symphony No. 7
Guess what? Whether two or three hammer blows, Mahler didn’t die after the Sixth Symphony, which may explain why the Seventh is so giddy. All the other symphonies are programmatic in some way, with funeral marches, or heroic deaths, but the Seventh is just music. Mahlerian music, which means fantastic orchestrations and effects. But no overt meaning.
It has five movements. The inner three are a scherzo sandwiched between two nostalgic sweetnesses he called “Nachtmusik,” or “night music.” In them, he uses rustic cowbells to symbolize — cowbells — and adds a mandolin and guitar. They couldn’t be lovelier. Between them is a vicious scherzo.
But then, there’s the finale, which really makes no sense at all. It’s a complete hodge-podge, starting with a manic tympani solo and rushing off like a Turkish Pasha into what sounds like Ottoman grandiosity. But you have to remember the advice of the Talking Heads: “Stop Making Sense.” Just enjoy the effervescent joy of it all, up to the penultimate C-augmented horn chord before the final tonic C. One of the oddest endings before Sibelius’s Fifth.
The Third and the Ninth are certainly deeper and more profoundly moving, but the Seventh is my favorite for when I just want to hear Mahler without having to weep and sob and contemplate the Weltschmerz of it all.
My go-to recording is a sleeper. Daniel Barenboim is not known as a great Mahler conductor, but his recent Mahler Seventh, with Staatskapelle Berlin on Warner Classics is brilliant and one of the best engineered recordings I’ve heard, so you get not only a perfect performance, but a recording that sounds more like an orchestra playing live in your room than any other. He hits the crazed finale with the perfect get-on-the-roller-coaster attitude.
I’ve been choosing great performances to recommend, but really bad ones can be fun, too. There is a Mahler Seven that is so unbelievably bad, you just have to hear it. Otto Klemperer is — let’s be honest — a really great Mahler conductor. Many of his recordings rank at the top of the list. But his Seventh is a real dog. What was he thinking? Barenboim comes in at 74 minutes. Klemp’s Seventh goes on for an hour and 40 minutes. Cheez Louise. It’s like Glenn Gould’s Appassionata, playing it like they were sight-reading it for the first time.
Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)
I’m afraid I have never warmed up to the Eight Symphony. Its first movement is outright hysterical — I don’t mean it’s funny, but rather the manic half of a bipolar cycle; and its second movement is an opera manque built on Goethe’s Faust that just seems to wander without getting anywhere. Maybe I just need to listen to it another 20 times or so to get it into my head. It was Mahler’s biggest popular success during his life, but it has not worn well with me.
It is a choral symphony with an alleged 1000 performers taking part, including eight solo voices, two different choruses and an organ, which blares at the beginning when it all explodes open in a “Veni creator spiritus” — “Come, Creator Spirit” — like one of those tweets typed in all caps.
It has its fans. I am happy for them. George Solti and the Chicago Symphony is a consensus recommendation and zips through it all in under 80 minutes, which is shorter than almost all other performances, and therefore qualifies it as the greatest.
Symphony No. 9
Mahler had a congenital heart defect and he put its irregular rhythm into the beginning of his Ninth Symphony, an off-kilter beat that is the first thing we hear as the orchestra begins. Over that we hear the harp and muted trumpet. Added to that comes a little shiver in the strings followed by a two-note descending theme. These layers form the basis of the entire symphony, the way dot-dot-dot-dash forms the genesis of Beethoven’s Fifth.
There follows an earthy Ländler as a second movement and a scurrilous Rondo Burlesque for the third. The final adagio is a kind of culmination of Mahler’s death music. Instead of a funeral march or a heroic death, the music dwindles to a quiet and inevitable cessation of its heartbeat. It trails off in a morendo so still and hushed that in a good performance, you can never quite tell when the orchestra stops playing. It just dies away. The effect can be overwhelming. In some famous performances, the audience refrains from applauding for as long as five whole minutes before exhaling in bravos and cheers. It is music that strikes deep.
Bernstein made a meal of this symphony and recorded it four times, not counting a few live performances caught on tape outside the Bernstein canon. In the only time he ever performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, he recorded the Mahler Ninth. It is held in reverence by many, despite a glaring lapse by the trombone section in the finale (reputedly, an audience member sitting behind the section had a heart attack and died and the trombonists were understandably distracted). Even so, it is a powerfully emotional recording. But then, all of Lenny’s Ninths carry that wallop.
If you wish to escape the Bernstein reality distortion field, there are other tremendous Ninths. Barbirolli’s with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1964, is a clear and unsentimental, but still emotional performance. Bruno Walter premiered the work in 1912, a year after Mahler’s death, with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a stereo recording with the Columbia Symphony exactly 50 years later; that recording is a benchmark for many.
It has been recorded by almost every conductor out there, up to Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw just last year.
The version I learned on was a surprisingly good version by Leopold Ludwig and the London Symphony, from 1960, on the old Everest label. I still enjoy his Ländler above most.
Symphony No. 10
Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony, but left it in tantalizing form as piano short score. He did orchestrate the opening adagio, and until recently, the adagio was performed as a stand-alone. That piano sketch has been orchestrated since, essentially by committee, and there are now many full recordings out there.
I have never been convinced by the attempted realizations of the whole, but the adagio is absolutely scarifying. It slowly builds up to a climax that is so frightening that in a good performance, your fight-or-flight hormones should get nightmares, the hair on the back of your neck should prickle and you should feel as if the gates of hell have opened and disgorged its contents. It is a scream of pain, an Edvard Munch level scream: “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (“I felt the great scream in nature.”)
Mahler had found out about Alma’s infidelity and he scribbled in his score several pained comments about it. He was devastated and the music shows it. At one point, nearly all twelve chromatic notes are played in a single harrowing dissonance, distributed across the orchestra in a way to make a musical chord rather than simply noise, and then a screaming trumpet breaks through the din to make things even more unbearable. After that moment, things go quiet and the movement continues to its distressed end.
If you want to hear all five movements, there are many good performances, including Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic. But I will cling to the adagio alone and the first version I knew — Bernstein’s first with the New York Philharmonic. Any time the emotion is more to the point than the music, Bernstein conducts the emotion. This is Mahler at his most Mahlerian, and Lenny at his most Bernsteinian.
Das Lied von der Erde
After all that, if I were forced to accept having only a single work of Gustav Mahler, it would be Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), a six-song cycle-symphony. Mahler had planned to publish it as his ninth symphony, but, superstitious about ninth symphonies (the final symphonies of so many composers), he refused to give it the title. When he then came to publish his next, he could name it the Ninth, knowing that fate would understand it was really his tenth.
But aside from that biographical titbit, Das Lied is an overwhelming and emotional work, even among an oeuvre that practically set the parameters for overwhelming and emotional.
Mahler’s output falls into three large groups. The first four symphonies are called his “Wunderhorn” symphonies, because they make use of his settings of songs from a book of poetry called Des knaben Wunderhorn (“A Boy’s Magic Horn”). The second group are his purely orchestral symphonies, numbers 4 through 7. The Eighth is sui generis and doesn’t count (see above). But the final three works, the Ninth Symphony, the trunk of the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde are profoundly inward. You get the feeling that Mahler didn’t write them so much for audiences, but as a way to question his own existence.
The songs of this symphony are taken from a book of Chinese poetry, translated into German (or invented) called “The Chinese Flute.” The texts investigate beauty, isolation, nature and death, and where all these intersect. “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.”
The sixth and final song — Der Abschied (“The Farewell”) — lasts as long as the first five and features some of the most ethereal orchestral writing Mahler ever penned, and a text that Mahler supplemented with several lines of his own.
“I seek peace for my lonely heart,” the contralto sings. And ends, “The dear Earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew./ Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon./ Forever … Forever.”
That last word — “ewig” in German — repeats and repeats ever more silent, until it completely evaporates. It is impossible to hear it without sobbing.
The symphony was premiered by Bruno Walter in 1911, six months after Mahler’s death, and Walter recorded it at least three times, in 1936, 1952 and 1960, the last in stereo. Either of the last two can be considered the one to have: Each has its champions and both are magnificent and echt Mahler.
But the one you cannot do without is by Otto Klemperer, released in 1967, with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig. It has better sound than any of the Walters and magnificent singing. This is music right in Klemp’s wheelhouse.
Warning at the outset: No single set of complete recordings is great in all of the symphonies. But having a complete set gives you a consistent vision of what the work is all about.
Bernstein recorded them all three times. The first for Columbia (now Sony), mostly with the New York Philharmonic. The second for Deutsche Grammophon, mostly with the Vienna Philharmonic. And finally, a video set, on DVD, for Unitel, mostly with the Vienna Phil. The first two are canonic, and while each cycle has its proponents, you really should have both.
Pierre Boulez is kind of the anti-Bernstein, cool and analytical, precise and controlled. For Boulez, Mahler is a 20th century composer — or at least a prefiguring, and the source of the Second Viennese School. You can hear every instrument with clarity
But is Mahler Mahler without going over the top emotionally? Klaus Tennstedt has many devotees, and falls more into the Bernsteinian camp. He recorded them with the London Philharmonic. It is a great set. I gave mine away, not because I didn’t like them, but because I gave them to my best friend; he deserved them.
A sleeper among sets is David Zinman with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. It is the best engineered set I have heard and with beautiful playing by the orchestra.
There have been sets that mixed and matched conductors and orchestras. Both DG and Warners have great sets. Another, called the “People’s Edition” had a promotional vote to choose which recordings to include. The fact that each set chooses from their proprietary recordings means that there is no agreement on what are the best recordings. Everyone, after all, has their opinion. In Mahler-World, opinions are strong.
Other conductors have less-than-complete boxes out there. Klemperer only recorded Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9 and Das Lied von der Erde. His No. 2 and Das Lied are consensus choices for best ever. The Seventh is just awful, but you should hear it anyway.
Hermann Scherchen has a box with all but the Fourth and no Das Lied. He recorded with second-rate orchestras, for the most part, and is often so wayward his interpretations have been called “Variations on Themes by Mahler.” The sound engineering is highly variable. This one is for specialists only.
In the BB list (“Before Bernstein”), you get to hear all nine symphonies with Ernest Ansermet and the Utah Symphony and hear what they sound like before the current Mahler Tradition was assembled (largely by Lenny). They are surprisingly good, and you get a different slant on the music (less peculiar than Scherchen’s).
Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia has not yet recorded the Seventh or Eighth, but the rest are among my favorites and I listen to them often. More than any other conductor, Zander follows Mahler printed directions accurately, and brings out expressive details glossed over in other recordings. There are those who disparage Zander for this detail orientation, but for me, it is the heart of a Romantic interpretation. This is the way they were played under Mahler, I am convinced. I love them all. And each comes with an hour-long lecture, explaining many of the details. He is a great speaker as well as conductor.
There are others: Chailly, Bertini, Gielen, Sinopoli, Rattle. And all have their merits.
The sets just keep coming. Everyone gets into the act. I have not been anywhere near complete.
But these are the ones I have come to love. And, of course, there are many individual recordings, not part of sets. And many of these are among the greatest.
And I have not even mentioned the other song cycles. Maybe another time.