More on the decline of the west…

…or, more modestly, the questions raised for classical music by the decline of European culture as the dominant force even in the western world. (See my earlier post.)

There’s a striking and important novel that appears to be about this, Richard Powers’s The Time of His Singing. I say “appears to be” because I haven’t finished it yet. But so far one of its major themes is the meaning of classical music in a non-classical world, as explored through the experience of young black classical musicians making their careers in the 1960s. How do they reconcile classical music with the history exploding all around them?

But what I’ve just written isn’t good enough. It makes the book — a blazing and also very subtle creation — seem lightyears more schematic than it really is. The characters, for one thing, are far too real and far too specific to fit into any neat schema. And nothing in the novel is cheapened, not classical music, not African-American history, not (to cite just one example) the famous Marian Anderson concert on the Washington Mall (after she was banned from singing in Constitution Hall), which Powers brings to life in an astounding and deeply touching long section of the book. The theme of the book, in fact, goes a lot deeper than what I’ve stated. It might also be the persistence of race, whether anyone ever can transcend racial culture in America, with the experience of African-Americans singing classical music as one test case to study.

But still my description seems too schematic. Let me just quote two passages. First, a description of a soprano singing Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte at the Met:

The curtain rises on the second act, plunging us back into life or death. Jonah grips the armrest throughout Lisette’s second big aria, anticipating the octave-and-a-half swoops, sure she’s going to give in and get laid by this pseudo-Albanian, her sister’s fiancé, her betrothed’s most trusted friend. Everybody does it.

Does she love this other man? Why is her fall so much, sweeter than her earlier sworn chastity? His whole body sighs with her thrilling debasement.

Lisette doesn’t always soar. Some of the highs lack support, and her rapid, dipping passages take cover. Still, she’s supernatural. She inhabits the stage, never having lived anywhere but in this story, never experiencing any time but this one renewing night. Fiordiligi has waited patiently for just such a supple body to reawaken in after long hibernation. Never has a singer taken such shameless physical pleasure in a role. Lisette is wayward, consumed, consummated by the unlikely luck of this part. By her “Per pieta,” Jonah [the singer’s student] is lost, and even I forgive her anything.

This is some of the best writing about classical music I’ve ever seen, answering — or really soaring over — the question almost always left unanswered in most of what we read: “What does it mean?” Certainly it’s better than the blather everywhere in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, probably the most famous novel in recent years that describes classical music. If you believe Patchett, classical music is just (to quote Johnny Mathis) wonderful, wonderful, with only surface differences between one piece and another. (This is something I’ll have to blog more about.)

And then this, in which one of Powers’s big themes catches fire:

Jonah was right. Will Hart [an African-American music student] lived on the school’s suspect fringe. Juilliard still dwelled in that tiny diamond between London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin.

Music meant the big Teutonic B’s, those names chiseled into the marble pediment, the old imperial dream of coherence that haunted the continent Da had fled. North American concert music — even Will’s adored Copland and Still [William Grant Still was an African-American composer, far too little remembered today]– was here little more than a European transplant. That this country had a music-spectacularly reinventing itself every three years, the bastard of chanted hymns, spirit hollers, cabin songs, field calls and coded escape plans, funeral rowdiness gathered by way of New Orleans, gutbucketed and jugged, slipped up the river in cotton crates to Memphis and St. Louis, bent into blue intervals that power would never recognize, reconvening north, to be flung out every, where along Chicago’s railhead as unstoppable rag, and overnight-the longest, darkest overnight of the soul in all improvised history — birthing jazz and its countless half-breed descendants, a whole glittering Savoy ballroom full of offspring scatting and scattering everywhere, dancing the hooves off anything whiteness ever made, American, American, for whatever that meant, a music that had taken over the world while the classical masters were looking the other way — had not yet dawned on these Europe-revering halls.

How should classical music answer that challenge? (Note, by the way, that Jonah, the book’s main character, loves the new classical music of his time, Boulez, Babbitt, Berio. So that’s not likely to be a good enough response.)

(A quick footnote: The book has two problems. The more serious one is that it’s overwritten, as the excerpts I’ve quoted ought to show. But you get used to that, and Powers’s commitment and imagination — and the force of his characters — can sweep you away.)

[The other problem? Trivial, but surprising, especially considering how deep his historical insight can be, especially into the lives of African-Americans in decades past. (Or so it seems to me, anyway. Someone should quickly correct me if I’m wrong.) But Pwers lets silly anachronisms slip by. For instance, he has High Fidelity magazine publishing a feature article in 1967 called “Ten Singers Under Thirty Who Will Change the Way You Listen to Lieder.” Well, I read High Fidelity avidly back then (for the most consistently strong music reviews I’ve ever seen in a single publication), and I can guarantee you they never ran stories like that. I don’t think any magazine did. That kind of breathless story concept — and headlining — didn’t appear till much later, maybe even the ’80s.

Besides, nobody in 1967 could have named 10 upcoming lieder singers. I doubt many High Fidelity readers could have named 10 established lieder singers, since Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau so dominated the field. I’m trying to think who I knew about, besides Fischer-Dieskau. Maybe Schwartzkopf, Hermann Prey, Hans Hotter, and Gerard Souzay (of blessed memory; do people still listen to him?).

To which I might have added Askel Schiøtz (from a previous generation, but people still listened to him) and Peter Pears (whose recording of Die schöne Müllerin with Benjamin Britten is unforgettable, though nobody’s first response to his name would have been, “Oh, he’s a lieder singer.”) I could easily be forgetting a major name, but it would have been very hard, back then, to list 10 top lieder singers, and I’m surprised that Powers didn’t know that.]

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