The death of meaning

J’ai longtemps habité sous de vastes portiques…
…dont l’unique soin était d’approfondir
Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir.

(For a long time I lived under vast porticos…
…whose only purpose was to bury, so deeply,
The unhappy secret that made me suffer.)

    — Baudelaire, “La vie antérieure”

I went to a vocal recital. Doesn’t matter where, or who sang. I’ll just say that she’s an older soprano, a star in both opera and lieder, nearing the end of her career. The setting and audience were genteel. When the singer and her pianist appeared, I thought of a scene from The Graduate, the scene at the Taft Hotel. Dustin Hoffman blunders into a party, and sees older people, who look (the women especially) as if they’d stepped out of the 1930s. Which was perfectly plausible, since those people would have grown up — would have been formed — in the ’30s. But it’s far less plausible for the singer and pianist — she in a gown, he in white tie — in 2008.

Then came the concert. It was built around groups of songs, in which composers set the same poets. Rückert, Goethe, Baudelaire. Estimable, thoughtful, serious. But let’s look at the Baudelaire group. We weren’t reading the poems, or hearing a lecture on them. We were reliving them, or at least reliving them as they were set to music by French composers. Which meant that the singer and pianist were reliving them, too, and that rather than think about them, or experience them distantly, they should have hit us right in the gut.

Baudelaire.jpgDid that happen? Of course not. Which isn’t to say the performance was bad. By normal standards, it was quite good, thoughtful, nuanced, expressive. But that’s not enough. Baudelaire is far more than that. He’s uneasy, troubled, sick, sensual, seduced by evil, drenched with regret. Is that what we felt, hearing those songs? Of course not. The concert was far too genteel. If the spirit of Baudelaire had emerged — if all of us wondered what secret we hid, what secret was making us suffer — the unspoken rules of the concert would have been violated. It wouldn’t have been artistic, thoughtful, genteel. It would have made us uneasy. We would have been troubled. We would have had fantasies, of nudity, jewelry, decay. Is that what we’d come for?

The form of the concert at war with its content. The form: formal, genteel; constrained and  respectable. The content much less so. The difference never acknowledged.

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  1. says

    Perhaps the performance of a Baudelaire poem that is most unsettling would be Diamanda Galas’ version of The Litanies of Satan. Even though Galas is now pretty much out of the ‘classical’ world, she got her start doing (IIRC) Xenakis and other new music. She was part of the seminal New Music America in 1982, which introduced many of us to a whole new way of listening to (and thinking about) classical music.

    Hi, Caleb. This brings back such memories for me. I heard Diamanda do some new music by other composers — can’t remember what — early in the ’80s. I remember thinking, “There’s something about her. She’s not like other singers.”

    Then I heard her NY debut as a solo performer. One of the most striking, shocking concerts I’ve ever heard. I wrote a rave review in my column in the Village Voice, and I remember my editor reading the first paragraph, and then turning to me. “Where does she live?” he asked. “San Diego,” I said. My editor then called over to the photo editor, and said, “We have to send a photographer to San Diego right now!” My review — even the first paragraph — was that strong. She was frightening. Later we became friendly, and I remember going with her to see some big Laurie Anderson show. But that wasn’t Diamanda’s thing. She left early, saying, with a kind of grim dismissal. “I can respect craft,” she said, damning with what for her was very faint praise.

    Forgive these reminiscences. I loved Diamanda’s work, and still like it a lot, and could reminisce more, but my favorite story would convey entirely the wrong impression if I put it into print.

  2. Yvonne says

    I think this might be one of the gems on this blog. A succinct, powerful expression of the heart of the matter: presentation and conception vs content and meaning in classical concerts.

    I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by gowns-and-white-tie concert dress; it rarely distracts me. But your words about the character of the performance and the way it failed to realise the implications of the texts, really hit home.

    (Elsewhere you’ve defended the HIP movement on the basis that they’ve “tapped into something”. I think that something is what you touch on in this post: they make the effort to understand the original meaning and energy of the music and then work to find ways to communicate an experience of that to a modern audience.)

    Can I ask, though? Would you have allowed these artists their observation of customary concert dress if the performance of the Baudelaire set had been able to throw off the shackles of gentility and hit you in the gut?

    After all, what could be more disturbing than a mature artist in a glamorous gown powerfully communicating that sick, seductive sensuality and uneasy regret? It sounds like the costume wasn’t necessarily “wrong” in this instance. (Perhaps the Emile Deroy portrait of Baudelaire is needed…)

    What a terrific question, Yvonne. Entirely apt and appropriate.

    And in fact I’m still reeling from a concert by the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, where the orchestra certainly wore standard concert dress. But the music was so powerful I actually came back to see and hear the performance a second time. The attractions were Hilary Hahn playing Paganini, absolutely unbelievable, riveting, and compellingly honest. And then David Del Tredici’s “Final Alice,” with Hila Plitmann giving what has to have been the best vocal performance heard anywhere in the world this season…well, I’m going to gush about this, and about David’s piece, in a separate post.

    Though, come to think of it, Leonard Slatkin, conducting, wasn’t wearing white tie, and both Hilary and Hila Plitmann were wearing dresses that helped them make the indelible impression they made. See my wife’s review.

    In fairness, I should say that the singer at the vocal recital changed her gown at intermission, and managed to find something for the second half that did dramatize the contrast with the first half — German lieder in the first half, vs. Baudelaire and comic French and Noel Coward songs in the second. But still the strongest impression I had was of formality and restraint.

    Which I think is really the issue here, Yvonne. I won’t say there could never be a concert with gut force, where the musicians wore formal dress. I’ve been at them. But the formality of the concert hall carries its own strong message, which is about (among other things) safety and restraint. It creates the sense of a protected retreat, in which the main emotions will be contained and uplifting, and people won’t encounter anything that might disturb them. See, on this, Christopher Small’s evocation of the secret life of a classical concert hall.

  3. Yvonne says

    Wouldn’t it be great then if the concert hall could create a sense of protected retreat, a place wherein the emotions could be released and where uplifting things might be found alongside disturbing things?

    Alas all too rare, but during a truly fantastic performance I do feel that this is what the character of the concert hall, with its various conventions (some good, some deplorable, I’ll admit) allows me. I guess I’m saying that it’s in a concert hall (as opposed to a less formal venue) that I feel safe, as well as undistracted, to let the music uplift, disturb, do with me what it will. If the music “doesn’t” that isn’t necessarily the fault of the concert hall.

    And I’m not disagreeing with you on the bigger picture – I think formality and gentility has infiltrated the concert scene in ways that are completely unhelpful and have little to do with the music itself.

    One fascinating thing about concert halls is that they allow us to feel our emotions in private. We don’t know what other people are feeling, because their reactions to the music don’t show, and can’t show, according to normal concert hall etiquette. Until, that is, the piece is over, and then people applaud — though still we can’t tell what any individual is thinking. (Unless tears are running down somebody’s cheeks, which I saw once when I sat next to a prominent critic, who’d been deeply moved by a performance of — was it Kurt Weill’s “Seven Deadly Sins”?

    But this isn’t the only way to experience emotion. In some cultures, emotion is communal. Look at a gospel church service, where people move their bodies, and cry out in response to the music. Maybe one reason the protection of a concert hall seems valuable is because of a cultural predilection to experience emotion very privately.

  4. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    I completely sympathize with your frustration with this kind of thing, and I have often found myself thinking similar thoughts after a performance, but I still have a couple of questions. First, to what extent might the composer’s music, rather than anything about the performance, have contributed to the “distancing” you experienced? Is there a chance that the contrast between gentility, restraint and nuance of the performance and the content of the poems was part of the meaning of the work? In fact, it sounds to me like the performance did move you, but not in a way that you found pleasing given your expectations regarding the Baudelaire. You were moved to think about the distance between the form, restraint, and gentility of the musical performance (Apollo?) and the less containable darkness of Baudelaire (Dionysus?). Just a thought.


    Well, this would depend on the composer, wouldn’t it? But I don’t think the great composers of the past put much distance between their music and the emotions explicitly or implicitly in it. And audiences didn’t react with the kind of restraint we take for granted now. Think of people fainting — or so it’s reported — during the prayer in Rossini’s Moses opera. Or being overcome by erotiicism of a duet in Rossini’s Armida. Or Yasye throwing his shoes in the fire after hearing Tristan at Bayreuth. How, after music like that, could he do anything so mundane again? Or women in New York, when Wagner started to get popular, writing in their diaries about the forbidden emotions his music made them feel.
    I always like thinking that the Metropolitan Opera banned Salomé after its premiere. They were reacting quite appropriately to what the opera is about — not as I might like them to react, but they were reacting. Or I think of someone I knew at college, who was conservative politically, and objected to the Met producing Mahagonny. The content of the piece mattered to her.

    Anyhow, if you want to know my reactions to the performance of the Baudelaire songs, I felt very distant from the poetry. One song was Duparc’s “L’invitation au voyage,” a song (and poem) I deeply love, and as I listened, I thought the performance was missing everything that make the song and poem go so deep. The pianist, especially, was off base. He seemed to understand everything in the music that might be mistaken for salon music, without grasping anything that went any deeper. The singer had a certain dignity, and a kind of majesty of diction, that showed she understood that the song might go deep.

    But her tone was respectful, and I thought she missed all the wild waves of emotion that lie just under the song’s surface. I won’t quote the poem here, but it seems to depict something deeply pleasurable, full of “luxe, calme, et volupté.” (OK, I quoted it!) But when Gerard Souzay sang it, his voice was full of regret, because one question the poem (and song) should raise is whether the person speaking the words of the poem ever actually experienced what the poem talks about. The answer almost certainly is no. The song should unleash tremors of longing, sensuality, regret, and loss, and none of that happened.

    So I didn’t experience, during the performance of the song, anything that I get from the poem or the music, even though this song is one of my great favorites in all classical music. I felt distant, abstractly judging what went on. In a Debussy song I got excited by one passage, but not for reasons that had much to do with Baudelaire. I was struck by how much better Debussy was at setting discursive words to music, as compared with two minor composers whose songs were also in the set.

    The only connection to Baudelaire I felt during this performance was from reading the poetry in the program book. The musical performance was, if anything, a distraction from that.

  5. says

    I think you’ve really nailed one of classical music’s major problems in this potent little observation; too many concerts come across like feelings in aspic.

  6. says

    That sounds like a bad recital to me, not a good one.

    But in fact it was quite good. A critic might notice that the singer’s voice was growing frayed, but not yet seriously so. And the pianist seemed too much involved with his reputation as an accompanist, and not enough with the music. He stayed on the surface, unless there was a loud, fast passage in which he could show how emotional he was. One Mahler song made me wonder if he’d ever heard Mahler’s symphonies, a good performance of which would have showed him that his rendering of the music was completely wrong.

    I’m not, though, going to say that there couldn’t have been a far stronger performance,in which the truth of Baudelaire might have come through. But do you, Mark, think that there are going to be many performances in which the classical music audience comes away shaken? Questioning their lives?

    And here’s another question. To what extent does the machinery of classical music (by which I mean all the conventions of concert-giving), and all the ambience of the classical music world actually prevent something really deep from happening — some tremendous communal experience, in which waves of emotion sweep through everyone, changing their lives forever. Or simply leaving an audience so speechless at the end of Rigoletto, let’s say — because there’s an opera whose events ought to make us shocked with horror and dismay — that they don’t even applaud? (I did once see that after a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, but — maybe significantly — it was far off the normal classical music track, in a small community whose concert hall was a simple wooden building.)

  7. Yvonne says

    Re: the culture of emotion. I recall reading some time ago now (so my memory will be patchy) of a research study into expression/release of emotion at cinema screenings. The one aspect of it that stuck with me was that there was a certain distance from strangers at which the viewers would be willing to cry in response to a movie. Once there were strangers sitting closer than that distance the subjects cried much, much less or they didn’t cry at all.

  8. says

    Hi Greg,

    The classical audience doesn’t leave shaken very often, or questioning their lives, but neither do pop or rock audiences. That’s because most performances A) don’t aspire to or B) don’t reach that level. I can only speak for myself, but I’m often shaken by deeply moving classical concerts, whether a string quartet or an orchestra or an opera. That usually happens when the atmosphere is such that I can focus on the music without being distracted by anything else. That’s happened in jazz and rock clubs, too, when I’ve heard Donny McCaslin or Rhys Chatham. At some point, the room ceases to matter. Performers should feel comfortable to express themselves and to draw listeners to the expression in the music they believe is there. If it’s heels and a dress, then it’s heels and a dress, and I’m willing to go along with you in heels and a dress. Or jeans and a t-shirt. Just don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt if you’d rather be wearing heels and a dress, because I’ll note your fakery the moment I see you.

    Good points. I do think, though, that the classical music world is set up to provide comfort and reassurance. Hence (to cite two facts almost at random), the perception almost universal (in my experience) among non-classical music people that classical music is “calm,” and the striking percentage of orchestra-goers (in a secret League of American Orchestra study) who said they went to theater productions, but didn’t like them if the plays had an unpleasant subject.

    The best exposition of this — how the classical music world is set up to minimize unpleasantness — is probably the Christopher Small chapter I linked to here before. I think that classical music insiders, like Mark and me, are more likely to be shaken by classical music than the bulk of the mainstream audience. We don’t go to concerts for the same reasons that they do.

  9. says

    The URL is broken in your last response. I suppose classical concerts are set up to be soothing, and grant that many people think that about the music. But the default setting that we’ve adapted is essentially neutral, I’d argue. It can be soothing, angry, or anything in between. It’s easier to have one setting that is basically a blank slate than setting up strobe lights when the orchestra plays Varese after the Mozart symphony.

    Thanks for pointing out the broken URLs. I’ve fixed them, and would have taken much longer to notice if you hadn’t been on the case.

    It’s interesting that you find the current concert setting a blank slate. It would be easy to argue that it isn’t. White tie and tails? That’s such extraordinary garb that it can hardly be blank. Unless, of course, we’re used to it, which maybe is the key. Someone coming in from outside might well find the current concert setting odd and alien, forbidding even. That same person mgiht then go to a rock club, and see a band dressed in the same casual clothes they’d wear to go around the corner to the store. And that might seem like a blank slate! While a classical concertgoer might somehow wander into the same club, and find it unsettling — too informal, too disorderly, drinking going on, everything feeling like the antithesis of art.

    Maybe the lesson in this is that nothing is a blank slate. Everything carries some meaning. Every setting in which music is performed carries some message about what the music means in the larger world. But this is hard to see when it’s my music, in a setting I’ve been used to for years! Much easier to see when it’s someone else’s music, in their setting.

  10. says

    Very interesting thoughts.

    I am preparing to host my own music in a premier concert. My wife and I are constantly chatting about the atmosphere of the hall in terms of the effect we want to have on the audience in relation to the music.

    Having grown up in the rock era, there is a sense that the music should have some “power” to stir emotions at a very visceral level. The concert opens with a new quartet based in style on the music by bands like Yes, Kansas, Pink Floyd…. And I’d like nothing more than an audience that gets up on its feet at the end of one of the “solo” sections to cheer and applaud, even though the music continues. However, this is a classical music concert and a number of people in the audience will be fans of the Edinburgh Quartet – thinking it is highly rude to interrupt the concert with shouts and screams.

    I thought about putting something in the programme to say “If the music leads you to applaud, or shout or dance, please do so.” – but this is my premier into a classical world which likes to be genteel.

    Is there a solution???

    Hi, Chip. Very interesting questions!

    One of my Juilliard students tried to address this years ago, at her graduation recital. She’s a violinist, and played a completely standard classical program. But she hoped people would clap and cheer in the middle of the music — or boo or hiss — if they felt like it, as audiences did in past centuries. So she passed out a sheet of paper, urging everyone to do this, if they wanted to. Nobody did.

    At a concert I hosted with the Pittsburgh Symphony, I did get an audience to react during the music. I read a letter Mozart wrote, in which he told how the audience clapped during the music, at the premiere of one of his pieces. He loved this. I told the Pittsburgh audience that we were playing the same piece, and that they should feel free to do what Mozart’s audience had done. They participated in this with great enthusiasm, probably because they’d been given permission.

    In your case, you might try loading the dice a little — making sure there are people in your audience who will react in the ways you want. When others see them reacting like that, they might join in, too. You could also make an announcement from the stage, or put something in the program, to say that it’s entirely appropriate to react like this.

    If that doesn’t work, you might have to resign yourself to not finding a solution — and then you could try to find a way to get a more suitable audience (less genteel) for future performances!

    Good luck. Let us know how the concert goes.

  11. says

    In responding to Chip, you wrote, “If that doesn’t work, you might have to resign yourself to not finding a solution — and then you could try to find a way to get a more suitable audience (less genteel) for future performances!” The reverse elitism there is quite striking – the genteel as unsuitable!

    But seriously (because I don’t believe you mean that as uncharitably as I’m suggesting), it’s hardly surprising that the Julliard violinist didn’t get her audience responding like she wanted. Wasn’t her request at least as odd as if Mozart had suddenly told his audience to be quiet and avoid clapping between movements? I’m not saying her request was an outright bad idea (I’ve encouraged many of my students to think creatively about audience engagement, in part inspired by some of your suggestions), but speaking as a genteel type, I would have felt horribly self-conscious trying to “put on” this new expectation – especially the “hissing.” Cultural gear-shifting isn’t that easy.

    Thanks, Michael. I wondered if I might have sounded too severe in what I wrote, and maybe I did. But I certainly didn’t mean anything elitist. In the classical music world, we talk about “the audience,” as if there was only one of it. In just about any other performing endeavor, people understand that there are many audiences. That’s certainly true in pop music! Slayer, a veteran death metal band, is not about to present itself to 50- and 60-somethings who just bought tickets for James Taylor, So it’s in something like that sense that I meant my “more suitable audience” thought. If you’re doing music that sounds like rock, and you want your audience to react while the music is playing, then the mainstream classical crowd — subscribers, let’s say, to the local orchestra or chamber music series — isn’t your audience. The Bang on a Can All-Stars don’t expect those people to go to their concerts, when they tour. Their fans — and potential fans — are a completely different crowd.

    Odd and in some ways unfortunate things (to say the least) happen when the classical music world doesn’t realize all of this. The National Symphony’s audience seemed stunned by David Del Tredici’s Final Alice, but I could imagine an audience (younger, for a start) that would have responded much more eagerly. As I wrote in an earlier post, eighth blackbird’s Steve Reich/Bang on a Can program could have a attracted a much larger audience than the one that heard the concert in New York at Zankel Hall. Some years ago I was talking with the marketing and publicity directors of a major orchestra. They’d programmed a world premiere by a hardcore modernist on a program with two Beethoven piano concertos, and hadn’t thought that, just possibly, different people might be interested in the two segments of the program.

    And so on. I agree that it’s hard to get people to shift cultural gears, but the key to success in cultural gear-shifting is — mostly — not to try. I don’t mean this at all in a defeatist way. The gear-shifting happens spontaneously. Gears shift, out there in the culture, and new groups of people emerge, wanting new things. The key to success, in this environment, is to figure out who wants what you’re offering, and then to figure out how to reach them. It’s much more trouble than it’s worth — and probably won’t succeed — to go after people who haven’t shifted their gears, and expect them to respond. Art films don’t, as a rule, play in malls, and a piece like the one Chip wrote probably isn’t for the mainstream classical audience.

  12. Suzanne Derringer says

    I attended that same concert and had the same reaction as you: aging lady singer in what she took to be suggestions of period costumes (she actually changed gowns at intermission!) and aging pianist in full tux. Anachronistic? That’s the problem with vocal recitals in general.

    More than operas, more than symphony concerts, vocal recitals are dinosaurs. The audience at that particular concert? The singer was younger than most of the audience. I know many of them personally: they (and most recital audiences in this town) are mostly retired white folks, which is fine – I’ve nothing against retired white folks per se – but it does show that, as the decades pass, recitals of songs by long-dead composers are increasingly irrelevant to the contemporary world.

    I too felt that the performance was polite, correct in its formalism – including the arch coquettishness of the singer at times; it all seemed like something out of a BBC costume series, the singer being one of those upper-class ladies of a certain age, enjoying her customary flirtations along the country-house circuit.

    A regular recital-going friend in NY – a lady psychiatrist roughly the same age as the singer – attended the same program at Zankel Hall a few days later; she loved it. For all the reasons I hated it. Some soothingly familiar sounds by Mahler and Schumann and Wolf. She wasn’t so fond of the French, and positively hates anything sung in English (alas for the Coward)- because she really doesn’t want to know what the poetry MEANS.

    I have often heard this from recital-goers: They want to be seduced by lovely sounds, especially familiar ones; they have no connection to the poetry, and don’t care about it; some say they don’t bother to read program notes either.

    This is rather crushing to my ego (such as it is) because for the past three years I have written program notes, and done hundreds of song translations, for the Austrian Cultural Forum in NY and DC. As a young soprano, I gave up the business of singing long ago, considering it hopelessly anachronistic and rather silly; pressed into service by the Austrians, I have had plenty of time to ponder the marginal role of vocal recitals in our world today. Depressing, it is.