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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. 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is the alpha and omega of music.

It’s one of the few things most musicians agree on. The question is whether to pay attention to the alpha part or the omega part.

For many, he’s the beginning of 250 years of the classical-music tradition: During most of that time, his music was the earliest regularly programmed and, for composers, the model of what good music should be.janus coin

Beethoven called him “the father of us all.”

But for an increasing number of listeners, he just as importantly is the culmination — the end — of the long tradition of polyphonic music dating back to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Like the Roman god Janus, he faces both directions at once.

He is the hinge on which the history of music turns, the hinge between early music and our modern tradition.

J.S. Bach was born 325 years ago in the dead center of what now is Germany. In 1685, it was the town of Eisenach in Thuringia.

eisenach 1647

So many of his family were musicians — uncles, cousins, grandparents — that in parts of Germany at the time, Bach was a slang term for musician the way “Einstein” is sometimes used for a scientist. His father was Eisenach’s bandleader.

The young Bach was a spirited fellow — caught once with a girl in the choir loft; another time, he fought a duel in the streets; and later, for another offense, spent a week in jail.

He must have had a very passionate side, given his two wives and 20 children, even in a cold German habitat.

He joined the family business, as it were, and had a series of musical jobs for the rest of his life.thomaskirche leipzig2

His career can be divided into three distinct parts. From age 18 to 32, he was a church organist, mostly in the city of Weimar. From 32 to 38, he wrote secular music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen in Cothen. And from then until his death at 65, he was in charge of all music at St. Thomas Church in Liepzig.

At St. Thomas, he wrote a new sacred cantata every week for five years. About 250 of them survive: They make up a third of his output.

The composer didn’t get around much; few people did back then. All these places were within 50 miles of each other.

bach ms 2

The High Baroque

We call J.S. Bach a Baroque composer, but what does that mean?

Mostly, it means energy, emotion, drama and density.baroque art

From roughly 1600 to 1750, whether it is the painting by Rubens or Rembrandt, the poetry of John Milton or the counterpoint of Bach, Baroque art embraced its own artifice and reveled in florid extravagance.

You can listen to the music of Bach like any other, of course, letting it flow over you. Its tunes are memorable and its rhythms and harmonies are always interesting and pleasurable.

But Bach’s music offers special rewards that you can uncover if you try listening with your attention focused on these three things:bach canonic portrait

* Counterpoint: Much of Bach’s music is written in counterpoint, which means the playing of multiple melodies at the same time, overlapping each other. You can pick the top line and hear it as the “main tune” or you can listen to the subordinate parts and discover a tremendous richness of detail and meaning. Bach wrote many fugues, which are pieces of music in which the same melody overlaps itself in a different key, and races after itself (“fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight,” as in “tempus fugit,” “time flies”). Listening to a fugue is like juggling with your ears.

* Bass line: Bach’s music has a forward movement driven by a clear and distinct bass line. You will find the music opens up for you if, instead of listening to the main tune, you focus on the lowest notes and see where they go: They will always guide where the top melody can settle. The 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms used to cover up the upper staves of music when looking at a new piece of music, and concentrate on the bass line. “That’s how you can tell if the music is good or not,” he said. You learn new things, like the way a football play opens up if, instead of keeping your eye on the quarterback, you follow the left tackle or linebacker.

* Dissonance: Oddly, for music that’s so listener friendly, Bach is one of the most dissonant of composers. It hardly sounds that way, because the sharp conflicts of notes are always resolved into a satisfying and harmonious manner, but the great emotional depth of Bach’s music — and its tremendous sense of humanity — comes in part from his use of dissonance as a metaphor for human suffering. (In an experiment, you might play one of Bach’s chorale hymn settings, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and play only the offbeats — it will sound surprisingly like Schoenberg.)

One of the canards about Bach’s music is that it is somehow academic and mathematical; the truth is, he was all over the map.

There is a core of irrationality in Bach’s music, a Dionysian freedom: You never know where he’s going next.

When Bach was working, music for church or concerts was polyphonic; that is, written not so much as a melody with accompaniment but as multiple melodies played one on top of the other to make a single whole.

Bach had an astonishing facility for combining separate lines and overlapping melodies with themselves, sometimes at different speeds at the same time, sometimes turning a melody upside down or playing it backwards.

There are worlds within worlds, and the contradiction of seeming to be the epitome of both order and spontaneity.WTC prelude 1

His music may have wheels spinning inside wheels, but it’s always surprising, like the C-minor prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which begins with a repeated rhythmic figure, unchanging over a constantly shifting harmony, but about three-quarters of the way through, he simply gives up on the pattern and takes off on a flourish of notes like a skyrocket spinning in air, and just when you get comfortable with that, he settles into a melismatic cadence that keeps promising to come to a rest but refuses to stop.WTC prelude 2

Or that moment in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto where everyone stops for fully five minutes to let the keyboard wander off on its own for a brilliant cadenza, essentially a rhapsody on a dominant pedal, that seems to find every possible permutation of its ideas, before the orchestra re-enters to conclude the piece.

Barroca

The word “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl, and it was initially applied to the art of the period as an insult, by the calmer minds of the era that followed.

The history of art is an alternation of periods that idealized order and simplicity with a succeeding age that valued emotion and drama. The Renaissance calm gave way to a Baroque frenzy, just as the Neo-classical stability of Haydn and Mozart gave way to the Romantic yearning of Berlioz or Wagner.Greek sculptures

You can find this alternation as far back as you want: The Hellenic stasis of the Parthenon frieze in ancient Greece gave way to the wild extravagance of Hellenistic sculpture of the time of Alexander the Great, with its writhing figures and tortured faces. The dour Romanesque of the early Middle Ages gave way to the bustling aspiration of the Gothic.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche named the guiding spirits of the alternating eras Apollonian and Dionysian. They also are called Classic and Romantic.

Perhaps one of the reasons the music of Bach speaks to us again so strongly, through the newer interpretations, is that we’re currently entering another era of Baroque sensibility. The virtues of Bach’s time are re-emerging: variety and diversity rather than unity, the recycling of artistic material — Bach was not afraid to reuse material; he was one of the original samplers — and a mixing of high and low cultures. Bach used dance rhythms as the basis of much of his music, the way Duke Ellington and Chubby Checker might have.

(A modern version of the Baroque suite, with its allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, might be an orchestral suite made up of a fox-trot, a waltz, a tango and a Charleston.)

Postmodernism has become a neo-Baroque, and Bach is speaking our language once more.

brilliant bach

Bach-Werke Verzeichnis

Bach’s output was enormous: The complete works fill 155 CDs in one collection. There are more than a thousand numbered compositions, running from music for solo violin to grand vocal works for multiple choruses and orchestras. Half the music was written for church services.

Much of the music is among the best known and dearest loved in the repertoire. Even those with no interest in classical music know his Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor for organ — it’s played endlessly every Halloween — and the Prelude to his first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello can be heard in several television commercials, including one for American Express.

His music connects with a lot of different audiences.bach at organ horizontal color copy

Culture wars

The problem is, there are two primary constituencies for the music of Bach, and the difference between them might as well be between red states and blue states: It’s a culture war.bach statue 2

The older tradition plays a beautiful Bach, with long, flowing melodic lines and a profoundly emphasized bass line, with clearly delineated harmonies. It is the Bach that for many, including Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, “is the only argument proving the creation of the universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”

The composer Debussy said, “Bach is our lord of music. Every composer would do well to pray to him before commencing work.”

This is the Bach we inherited, thick with 250 years of performance tradition. It is Bach as the Alpha of our music. For this contingent, Bach is something universal, primordial, fundamental: Homer in music, or Shakespeare.

The name Bach in German means “brook” or “stream.” “He is not a brook,” Beethoven punned. “He is an ocean.”

But that’s the Bach who is the first modern composer; there’s a rising contingent that views him instead as the culmination of a century and a half of an older music tradition — The Omega. It is a Baroque style of playing completely at odds with the traditional symphonic approach.

The younger tradition mistrusts such grand religio-philosophical interpretations as pretentious piffle. And for them, as for the conductor Arturo Toscanini, “Tradition is just the last bad performance.” They want to clean the browned varnish from Bach and find the bright colors underneath.

These new historically informed performance-practice people want to dance, dance, dance, and they emphasize the rhythm and up the tempo, sometimes approximating speed metal.kimberly marshall

“Sometimes the tempi have become absurd,” says organist Kimberly Marshall. “You’d think you were playing your LP at 78 rpm, like the Energizer Bunny or something.”

The revisionists quote poet Ezra Pound, who famously averred that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance.”
And they believe they’re performing the music in a more authentic way, meaning, the way Bach would have performed it himself. Usually, on the musical instruments that Bach would have known: valveless horns and trumpets, oboes with few keys, wooden flutes and short-necked violins with light bows. They strive to recreate the sound that would have resounded in Bach’s ear.

And this is the sticking point: Like believers in competing religions, their dogmas are irreconcilable. Whose ear is more important? Bach’s ear or the contemporary listener’s ear? After all, we can never have 18th-century ears. Too much has happened since.

“The loudest sound Bach would have heard might have been a door slamming,” says conductor Benjamin Rous, who began his career leading the Boston Baroque Ensemble at Harvard University. “If you wanted to give our listeners the experience that Bach had, you’d have to create a world without the last two centuries of history.” So, pick your side and make your argument.
hamlet burton

“It’s like politics,” says cellist Blythe Tretick of the trio Paradisa. “You get into some pretty heated discussions about these things. You can’t win, because it’s a matter of taste.”

Unexamined through all this is the basic premise that music should reflect the composer’s intent. It’s taken as an axiom. But few people are asking why. We don’t insist that Shakespeare be performed outdoors, with boys playing the women’s parts and with the rhetorical delivery of its actors. We don’t blanch at Richard Burton playing Hamlet in suit and tie.

So why do we argue over whether Bach’s musicians played with a vibrato or not? Shouldn’t the music be played to mean the most to modern audiences, the way we do with Hamlet? How much is composer’s intention and how much merely the limitations and conventions of his age? And is a performance something alive, or a museum piece under a vitrine?

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Perhaps this is the underlying truth of the historical-performance people: Unacknowledged by them, they aren’t so much re-creating historical fact as reflecting contemporary taste. We have grown up with a popular music based on rhythm and energy, so we may well now prefer our Bach the same way. Perhaps our ears are attuned to the virtues of Creedence Clearwater Revival bach with electric guitarand feel more comfortable with a Bach that sounds very like it.

And, too, after a violent century, we have become a little more circumspect about claiming the great philosophical ideas and universal truths we found in Bach’s music and that too often justified war and genocide. We have been humbled into seeking a more modest music.

Yet, the emotional and spiritual profundity is there, goading us into recognizing that if the current age is modest, the universe is still infinite, and someone with the genius to write the Mass in B-minor or the St. Matthew Passion is a brilliant mirror to that something bigger than our paltry selves.

You pays your money and takes your choice

Both styles of Bach performance are generously represented on CD. Arkivmusic.com lists more than 5,700 recordings.stern st. john pair

You might compare the recording of his violin concertos by Isaac Stern (old style) with those by Lara St. John (new style). You’ll get whiplash going from the first to the second.gould copy

The older style is warmer and richer; the newer style is bouncier and more rhythmic — and a whole lot faster. Discover which performance tradition speaks best to you.

One CD everyone should own is Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.” It’s not only one of the greatest Bach performances on disc, it’s one of the greatest recordings of all times: exuberant, manic in places, and with its counterpoint always clear. It has never been out of print. It’s neither old school nor new school: It is Gould school. Sui generis.

Here are other recordings to check out.

3 traditional recordings you can’t do without

old bach trio

* “Bach: The Great Solo Works,” with Rosalyn Tureck, piano. Tureck was a Bach specialist, and here she shows just how Baroque the composer could be, in a disc of lesser-known works. A must-have.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, conductor. This is old-style Bach, including a piano instead of a harpsichord in the Fifth Concerto (played by the great Rudolf Serkin).

* “Well Tempered Clavier, Book I,” with Daniel Barenboim, piano. Barenboim uses all the possibilities of the piano — pedal, arpeggios, strong bass notes — to make a heroic performance of this iconic music.

Revisionist Bach

new bach trio

* “Six Suites for Violoncello Solo,” with Anner Bylsma, cello. The music is played on a Baroque-style cello (the Stradavarius “Servais” instrument from the Smithsonian Institution) and shows it off at its best.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Harnoncourt is one of the leaders of the “original instruments” movement, and he buffs up and shines Bach’s chestnuts with a fresh vision.

* “Bach Cantatas,” with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, Ton Koopman, conductor. This DVD includes performances of five of Bach’s church cantatas, including the famous Nos. 140 and 147 — with the chorus “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” — and his secular “Coffee Cantata,” which was essentially a singing commercial for the composer’s favorite coffeehouse.

Bottom line

The fact is, the music is so strong, so compelling, so moving — so graceful and so inevitable — that almost any performance will leave you in awe of the imagination and humanity of the grumpy little burger who wrote it.

It hardly matters if its the clever intertwining of voices in a Two-part Invention or a cantata in praise of a good cup of coffee or the cosmic agony of the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. graph

A former editor of mine created a little mind-game of an intellectual Cartesian co-ordinate system. Up and down its ordinate you map a person’s depth — how profoundly he or she can think and feel, and avoid cliche and generalization, with maybe Justin Bieber on one end and, say, Nelson Mandela near the other. And along its perpendicular abscissa you can map a person’s “width,” or how broad are his or her interests and competence.

There are people with great depth in a narrow band. They have a Ph.D. and know everything there is about the design of active site-directed irreversible enzyme inhibitors, but never heard of the infield fly rule. And there are those with a tiny dabs of knowledge in a very wide field — “Jack of all trades but master of none” — but very few, as my old boss pointed out, that score in both depth and width.

There is Shakespeare; there is Homer; there is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Alpha and Omega.

 

Apollo

Apollo

The older I get, the less reading I do, and the more re-reading. It’s a common symptom of age. There are many things that change as you leave behind the enthusiasms of youth.

I remember the complaints about conductor Arturo Toscanini that his repertoire was small and repetitive: How many times can you play the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, and why don’t you play more contemporary music?

Toscanini 2First, you have to remember that when Toscanini was young, he gave world premiere performances of many new works, including Puccini’s La Boheme and Sam Barber’s Adagio for Strings. He gave world premieres of at least 25 operas. When he was young, the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were brand new, not the concert stalwarts they later became. He gave the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. He programmed all of George Gershwin’s major pieces, even if his Italian soul never quite beat to the jazz rhythm. 

But it is true that after he came to the NBC Symphony, he concentrated on the war horses. His repertoire did narrow as he got old. The problem is that we know Toscanini mainly these days for his RCA Victor recordings, made near the end of his life, and so we have a skewed vision of his career.

That narrowing is not uncommon in artists, who generally — if they get to live long enough — develop a streamlined “late style,” which eschews much of the complexity they favored as young Turks, and gets straight to the point, as if the knew they didn’t have time for all the hoopla and somersaults. 

And so, as his hair whitened, Toscanini focused on those works he knew he could never exhaust: things like the Beethoven symphonies. They provide endless riches, endless possibilities, and endless satisfactions. 

I say I recognize this because as I’ve aged, I, too, have narrowed my focus. As a young art critic, I kept up with all the newest trends in contemporary art. I loved the buzz and fizz: Who’s up, who’s out. What’s the latest and greatest. I even went so far as to disparage much of what is found in our art museums as “relics” of the art process, and therefore not really art — real art is what is coming out of the studios today. Or even better, tomorrow.

And, as a music critic, I felt the same way. Give me something to shock my ears and lord keep me from having to hear another Beethoven’s Fifth! 

But there is a great change in one’s approach to art as one matures. Maturity isn’t just a slowing down and tightening up: It is the weight of experience. When we are young, we know so little, yet we think we know so much. We have the answers, and why don’t the fogeys understand that?

Life, however, burdens you with the accumulation of experience and what was clear as an adolescent is infinitely muddy as a grandfather. 

When we are striplings and in love with art, we tend to idolize it, and its makers. We test ourselves against our heroes, and against the art they made. Are we up to it? Can we maintain in ourselves the vibrancy and aliveness of the art we adore? Aren’t we “special,” too? Of course, we are! The world in art seems so much more brilliant and colorful, so much more emotionally intense. 

But, after a few marriages, a few divorces, a few illnesses, a few disappointments and the deaths of too many of those we loved, after seeing the politics of our time repeat themselves endlessly and stupidly, after seeing more genocides in the world, and hearing the idiocies of dogma and doctrine, the evils of ideologies and the fears of unknowing engender the hatreds of tribes and nations, after all that and the heavy weight of more, we — if we have been lucky — have earned a portion of wisdom. What we once valued from books, we know know more directly from life. And now, instead of measuring ourselves against the art we love to see if we measure up, instead we measure the art against our lives and experience to see whether the art measures up. And very often, it doesn’t. 

So, in our dotage, we fall back on a few trusted worthies, those poems, books, paintings, symphonies, choreographies that we have tested against our experience and which hold up and continue to give pleasure, consolation, understanding and — I hesitate to use the word — what we have come to regard as truth. 

It is what I find in those books and in that music that I re-read and re-listen to — that give me sustenance, that feeds my inner life and tells me that I am not alone but share something with those writers, those composers, those painters and sculptors who have gone through enough life to have developed enough emotional complexity to make art that says something real, and doesn’t just tickle my need for novelty, or — as in my youth — my self-announced grandiosity. glenn gould

So, I re-read The Iliad at least once a year, and re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. I just finished again Dante’s Commedia, and expect to take on Chaucer next. I listen to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, or to the Budapest Quartet and the late Beethovens. I weep every time I see Balanchine’s Apollo or his Prodigal Son. I cannot get all the way through Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode without sobbing quietly. 

And Toscanini doing Brahms’ Fourth. I don’t know how many times he conducted that piece, and I certainly cannot count how many times I’ve listened to that recording. I can hear it all the way through now purely in my mind; I don’t even need the score. 

These things — and many more — seem rock-solid and true. 

I expect you have or will have your own list of works that do it for you. They shouldn’t be the same ones; after all, you have lived your own life and collected your own list of wounds and sorenesses, giving you your own sense of what life must be, despite all our best efforts.