Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of perhaps the greatest of all composers for film, Bernard Herrmann. In our estimation no composer has ever matched his astonishing ability to capture, reinforce, and enrich the emotional essence of whatever scene was playing out on-screen without the music ever calling attention to itself while doing so yet at the same time so impressing itself on one's consciousness that a mere replaying of that music is enough to recall vividly to the mind's eye the images to which it was so intimately wed. Herrmann's brilliant score for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is, of course, the most famous example of this. Here's another. Less famous, perhaps, but hardly less an example.
Pretty much everyone over the age of, say, 50 knows who Perry Mason is and who played him on the popular TV series which ran from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties (Raymond Burr). And pretty much everyone who knows that TV series also knows the title music pretty much by heart; music written by television and film composer Fred Steiner who died this past Thursday at age 88. But do they really know that music or merely its principal theme which was the title theme for the TV series? Our guess would be the latter. A shame, really. It's a damn good piece of music in its own right titled "Park Avenue Beat" and deserves a hearing in full.
But don't take our word for it. Judge for yourselves.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 1:49 PM Eastern on 27 Jun. See below.]
We watched the Web streaming of Wagner's Die Meistersinger live from Glyndebourne today (God bless the Internet!) and what a thoroughly delightful if unexceptional Meistersinger it was (we missed Act I due the stupidity of both the Guardian's and Glyndebourne's Web staff, but will catch it on Monday on the replay*), including a fine Sachs (Gerald Finley) even though he looked far too young for the part and should have been helped a bit by some expert makeup judiciously applied, and a superlative Beckmesser (Johannes-Martin Kränzle).
This was our first look at Glyndebourne and its stage appears too small by half (at least) to accommodate Wagner's staging requirements for this work (which requirements were adhered to with utmost fidelity whenever and wherever possible; not so much as a hint of Eurotrash perversity anywhere in evidence in this production either in the settings or the "concept" which remained Wagner's own) and as a result the staging of Act II was a compromise that looked just a bit ridiculous and simply didn't work. But the staging of Act III, also a compromise, was a marvel and a paragon of what can be done given a director and set designer of genuine creative imagination both of whom are devoted to remaining faithful to the creator's intentions as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions).
We would have loved to have seen and heard how this production looked and sounded in this alluringly intimate opera house; an opera house that seems more suited to the works of Mozart rather than Wagner. One of these days we'll get over there the universe permitting.
* Beginning Monday, a replay of this Webcast of Meistersinger can be seen each day for the next seven days at this Guardian site or this Glyndebourne site. The Guardian gives the starting time as "from around midday"(!). We suppose that means noon BST which translates to 7:00 AM EDT. Glyndebourne is more precise. It gives the starting time of its replay as 14:45 BST which translates to 9:45 AM EDT.
Update (1:49 PM Eastern on 27 Jun): We've just finished watching Act I of the Glyndebourne Meistersinger which act we missed yesterday on Glyndebourne's live Web streaming of the music-drama, and in its setting by designer Vicki Mortimer, and in its staging, singing, and acting, it was as well nigh spot-on an Act I as one could wish for, including a superb David as realized by singer-actor Topi Lehtipuu. Especially impressive was the acting even by the bit players who may not have had so much as a note to sing. Much of the credit for all this must go to the gifted director David McVicar who clearly understands what the work of an honest, truly conscientious opera director entails: making as vivid as possible the concept and vision of the opera's creator (which is to say, the composer) as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions).
Die Meistersinger is perhaps Wagner's most well-made and accomplished creation; a paradigm of what genuine opera is all about: not a showcase for songbirds but dramma per musica through and through and from top to bottom.
This production of Die Meistersinger puts to ignominious shame the grotesque burlesque now sullying the stage of the Bayreuther Festspiele, the work of Wagner's no-talent great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner, making a mockery of everything Wagner intended the Festspiele to be. Someone in authority should take notice and do something to put a halt to it.
The entire four-opera set of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in a package so small you can put it in your shirt pocket or dangle it from a string around your neck?
Yes indeed. Right here. (No, we do not recommend this particular set on musical grounds. Merely its method of storage and delivery.)
Sometimes it's a great world out there.
(Our thanks to the blog Superconductor for the heads-up.)
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 9:33 AM Eastern on 24 Jun. See below.]
The spanking new Amazon Kindle edition of my paperback potboiler murder mystery, A Deed of Dreadful Note, is now available in Amazon's online Kindle eBook Store. How much will a copy of this Kindle edition set you back? A whopping $2.99 (I wanted to set the retail price at a neat $1 but Amazon's new pricing schedule won't let me set the price lower than the aforementioned $2.99 [ACD 6/24 - see update below]). The really nifty thing about this Kindle edition of A Deed of Dreadful Note is that you don't have to actually own a Kindle to read it. All you need is your PC or Mac and Amazon's superb Kindle software for computers which can be downloaded for free from Amazon here (Kindle for PC) or here (Kindle for Mac).
Dirt-cheap eBook, perfect for beach reading (Happy summer solstice, everyone!), AND free software. Why, it's the bargain of the bloody century it is. Get yours now!
OK. Commercial break over. As you were. We now return you to our regular scheduled programming.
Update (9:33 AM Eastern on 24 Jun): Glorioski! I just found out what I have to do in order to sell the Kindle edition of A Deed of Dreadful Note for a list price of $1 and have done the, um, deed. The price change will be reflected on the eBook's Amazon Kindle page within the next 24 hours. My apologies to all those who forked over $2.99 for a copy. Had I the mechanism to give you all a refund for the difference I would do so willingly and with pleasure.
Our most recent entry which concerned the after-the-fact authority of the original sources consulted by Wagner vis-à-vis his Der Ring des Nibelungen has, in short order, brought to the fore a cognate matter which we here quote in extenso and verbatim:
Your various articles on Wagner and his works convince me that you have a defective understanding of Wagner's music dramas, the intentions that lie behind them and the intellectual context in which they were written. While it's true that works of art take on a life of their own once the artist has delivered them into the world, this does not mean that the art-work can be or should be detached from the ordinary and intellectual life of the artist who created them. I reject the romantic [sic] view that the artist is merely the channel of some sort of divine inspiration. Wagner's works are his works, and those works are inseparable from Wagner the ordinary man and cannot be properly understood without placing them within the context of his ordinary and intellectual life at the time of the works' creation.
The above idea concerning the output of creative artists is neither novel nor atypical and is, in fact, a bedrock assumption of perhaps the majority of arts criticism, both today and in the past. While we have no argument with that assumption when concerned with the output of creative artists of ordinary gift (which ordinary gift can indeed be substantial; Wagner's great contemporary Giuseppe Verdi springs instantly to mind), we take strong exception to it when the output concerned is the product of a creative artist of transcendent gift such as Richard Wagner. As the great T.S. Eliot put it: "[T]he more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."
In our not-so-humble opinion, the kind of thinking that proclaims that even in the case of a transcendent creative genius the created artworks cannot be separated from the ordinary man and can be understood properly only in the context of the ordinary and intellectual life of their creator serves only to lead one ineluctably into all sorts of false byways and into drawing false if authoritative-sounding conclusions concerning those artworks. Ultimately, such thinking results in producing what are essentially irrelevant intellectual maunderings regarding the artworks themselves, clever as those maunderings may be. As we've asserted here on S&F more than once, all Wagner's music-dramas are entirely self-contained works and require no scholarly biographical commentary of any sort whatsoever for one to comprehend them fully. Where genuine works of art are concerned, the facts of the ordinary and intellectual life of their creator, if he be a creator of transcendent genius, count directly for nothing in the artworks the aesthetic and affective core of each of which is always the product of mostly unconscious transformative processes which processes are as much a mystery to the creator as they are to us. Nor can those transformative processes be "reverse engineered" after the fact to better understand them and the works of art they produced — not even by the creator himself, much less ordinary folk such as us, no matter how deep or probing the scholarship or how convinced one may be that the results of such scholarship lead to a deeper understanding of the artworks in question. Such a conviction can be nothing more or other than a self-serving justification of the research time and labor expended. Which is not to say that such scholarship has no worth or value in itself. It most surely can be both worthwhile and valuable. It simply has no worth or value in gaining a deeper understanding of the artworks themselves in the case of artworks which are the product of transcendent creative genius.
We might add, if somewhat ungenerously, that the products of such scholarly researches in the case of Wagner's music-dramas are too often used by writers, especially if they're critics or academics, to make their discourse on the music-dramas seem wonderfully erudite and objectively verifiable, that last a great (if false) comfort to both the writer and his readers. While we can sympathize with that feeling of comfort, that comfort is always misplaced. As with all genuine works of art, not only ones produced by creators of transcendent genius, once one goes beyond questions of craft and process there's no objectively verifiable anything except, perhaps, place and date of creation. One might even say that's a hallmark and necessary condition of all genuine works of art and a principal source of their affective power and resonant nature.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 12:50 AM Eastern on 14 Jun. See below.]
At some point in the early 20th century (we're guessing at the dating here; we've never actually traced the history of this nonsense) there emerged the pernicious notion that in order for one to understand Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen properly one must have an at least basic knowledge of the content of Wagner's original sources for the tetralogy as Wagner expected his audiences to be in possession of such knowledge.
The notion is, of course, thoroughly preposterous, but that hasn't prevented it from taking hold in some quarters of the Wagnerian world, mostly among those of scholarly bent and also among those academics desperate for fodder for the fulfilling of the imperative of their publish-or-perish mandate. The notion would be harmless enough in itself (as opposed to its effect on potential audiences for the Ring) were it not for the tendency to treat such knowledge as the final authority on all matters pertaining to the Ring, and, worse, to use such knowledge in a misguided attempt to clarify ambiguities in Wagner's text or fill in what seem blanks or elisions in that text. Such thinking and such attempts almost always mislead at best and often produce outright misunderstanding.
To give a simple example of the latter, we recently came across an otherwise Wagner-knowledgeable individual of scholarly bent who insisted that the giants Fasolt and Fafner should never be portrayed onstage as giant-sized creatures as they more properly should be "more or less compatible in size with the gods" as, according to this individual, that's how they're portrayed in the original sources. We felt constrained to point out to this individual that — quite apart from the fact that it makes no bloody difference how the giants are portrayed in the original sources as the original sources count for nothing in the Ring after the fact and Wagner's music and text everything — Wagner clearly did NOT intend HIS giants to be "more or less compatible in size with the gods" as his stage directions specifically and unambiguously describe Fasolt and Fafner as being of "riesiger Gestalt" (gigantic or colossal form or shape). Even in the face of such irrefutable evidence, this individual would have none of it so committed was he to the notion that Wagner's original sources are the final authority on all matters pertaining to the Ring as they're, well, original sources.
That's sad enough all by itself. But sadder still is the pernicious effect such a notion regarding Wagner's sources has on potential new audiences for the Ring. "What's that?" they rightly will say. "You expect us to take a course in Norse and Germanic mythology and legend before we enter the opera house to hear the Ring?"
No one, of course, except, perhaps, misguided souls of the sort referred to above, expects or requires them to do anything of the kind, least of all Wagner himself. Nor does the work itself expect or require it of them. The fact of the matter is that Wagner, being a man of the theater to the very core, had no expectation that his audiences would have even minimal knowledge of the content of the sources he consulted in his creation of the Ring. He knew full well that through his music and text he would provide everything necessary for an audience's understanding of his cosmic, epic drama. All he and the work would require of them is that they give their close and undivided attention to the work put before them. That would be entirely sufficient and all that would be necessary, no knowledge of the content of the original sources required.
And such, of course, is the real case. As always in the matter of understanding any of Wagner's music-dramas, his original sources are his business exclusively and none of ours (plural ours).
Update (12:50 AM Eastern on 14 Jun): A reader takes exception both to our, "[Wagner's] original sources count for nothing in the Ring...," and to our guiding premise that, "in the matter of understanding any of Wagner's music-dramas, his original sources are his business exclusively and none of ours (plural ours)."
How can you say that Wagner's sources count for nothing, and that they're his business and not ours? Without those sources there would be no Ring as The Ring is just Wagner's retelling of what's written in those sources which he then set to music.
This is so common a misconception that we really ought to address it in some detail in a separate entry. We might do just that in future, but for now we'll simply remark that it's always well to remember that the epic myth/saga that's Wagner's Ring is no "retelling" of anything as it's nowhere to be found in the ancient sources that Wagner consulted in creating the tetralogy, nor anywhere else for that matter. That epic is almost wholly Wagner's original creation. What he did was consult those ancient sources both for inspiration and general tone, and mine them for incident useful to his concept (you should pardon the expression) which incident he then distilled, transformed, and recombined to suit his purpose. That's why we asserted that "[Wagner's] original sources count for nothing in the Ringafter the fact [emphasis added] and Wagner's music and text everything," for after the fact of Wagner's work on the Ring, the myth/saga created was entirely Wagner's own — story, plot, and characters — and bears relation to Wagner's sources vis-à-vis certain characters and incident only in the most diffuse of outlines and in the most general way. That's true of all Wagner's music-dramas, actually, and precisely why "in the matter of understanding any of Wagner's music-dramas, his original sources are his business exclusively and none of ours (plural ours)."
Pretty much nothing surprises us these days in the world of the visual arts, especially in the world of painting where lunatics regularly pay millions of dollars for the privilege of owning a single painting by [fill in the name of your famous painter of choice], and where galleries mount shows of new artists who happen to be au courant hot for whatever reason but who otherwise display all the talent of a chimpanzee handed a brush and a few buckets of paint and set loose on an innocent stretch of pristine canvas laid on the floor.
And so when we began reading this piece by Noah Horowitz for The New York Times with the headline "Your 4-Year-Old Can’t Do That" about a four-year-old painter who was being given a one-girl show at one of Manhattan's pricey art galleries our thought was, "So, what else is new."
And then we took a look at this four-year-old girl's work. Either she's in reality a fabulously gifted forty-year-old midget posing fraudulently as a four-year-old child, or...or...we don't know what.
Since Cablevision discovered its error of giving us access to TV channels for which we'd not paid, we've been left with what is called "Antenna Service" which gives us cable access only to TV channels mandated by the FCC for our cable area. In practice, that means access to all the national broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, and Fox) and to our cable area's local broadcast channels (in our case, the NYC and Philadelphia local broadcast channels).
Former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Newton N. Minow, in a 1961 speech delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters, famously referred to television as "a vast wasteland", and if ever that assessment were doubted it's been brought home to us full force this past week as PBS, in yet another of its seemingly perpetual pledge drives, has suspended almost all its regular adult programming for people with IQs larger than their belt size (only the NewsHour and other news-related shows such as the Charlie Rose Show seem to have escaped the suspension) and even some children's programming in favor of prole-pandering moron fare such as pop-music specials, self-help hucksters, and New Age "healthy lifestyle" pimps, abandoning folks like us entirely and leaving us to fend for ourselves in order to satisfy our daily or weekly TV habit.
No can do with cable's FCC-mandated "Antenna Service" absent PBS. There's simply nothing fresh (as opposed to syndicated) out there. Nothing at all. Nothing whatsoever. A vast wasteland indeed.
That disgrace should be a national embarrassment but clearly is not.
What else is new.
O tempora! O mores!
This closing graf of a fairly lengthy negative review in The New Criterion by writer Joseph Epstein of a new book by academic Stanley Fish ranks among the most delicious (and devastating) literary coups de grâce we've ever had the pleasure of savoring. Wrote Mr. Epstein:
I seem to have written more than three thousand words without a single kind one for How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. To remedy this, at least partially, let it be noted that, at 165 pages, index and acknowledgments and biographical note on the author included, it is a short book.
In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the "greatest living writer of English prose", was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: "I don't think so." Of Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world".
He felt that women writers were "quite different". He said: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."
Yes, well, perhaps that's all true (although we wouldn't bet on it), but we can't help thinking back to what, for the longest time, we, too, were absolutely convinced of; viz., that no female, no matter how technically adept she might be, could ever play the fiddle with the command and fire and depth of emotion of a male, and that we could tell within twenty measures or so whether the fiddle was being played by a female or not.
Then one day, some thirty or so years ago, we switched on the radio about ten measures into the Beethoven Violin Concerto and of course stopped what we were doing to listen (one never passes up a chance to hear the Beethoven). The performance was riveting. We couldn't place the fiddler as this fiddler, whoever he was (there was no question the fiddler was a male), sounded like no fiddler we'd ever heard before. We mentally flipped through every fiddler known to us and could come up with no match. Then came the announcer. The orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and the fiddler was someone named Anne-Sophie Mutter. She was 16 years old.
And that was that.
Our oft-repeated complaint regarding how debased our culture has become vis-à-vis the arts is something of an idée fixe on S&F, and our examples legion. If ever proof were required of the validity of that complaint, here it is in a nutshell. Read it and weep, taking special note of the headline.
We for the first time this past February heard via a Metropolitan Opera live audio stream a performance of John Adams's Nixon in China and noted our impressions of the work in this S&F entry. Last night, New York's PBS outlet (WNET) aired the Met production of the work on PBS's Great Performances At The Met series, and after viewing the show for some 40 minutes of its three-hour length, simply couldn't persevere and had to switch it off so intolerably tedious was it. We mean, there's just nothing there that could pass muster as genuine dramma per musica: a tiresomely minimalist score cum wincingly awkward vocal lines; a jarringly quasi-poetic libretto (Nixon & Co. poetic?!) that has all the resonance and drama of a typical high-school history textbook; and staging that's so static and populated with people that aren't necessary that one wants to scream repeatedly, "What the hell is so-and-so doing onstage?" And yet audiences seem to love this work which is considered by many critics who ought to know better to be "the most important opera of the past half-century" as the host of this telecast put it.
We're apparently missing something of significance about Nixon in China, but we'll be damned if we can figure out just what that might be.