View From The East: Blinded by Prestige

View From The East: Blinded by Prestige

Greg Sandow

Not long ago I heard the Cleveland Orchestra play a Harrison Birtwistle piece in Carnegie Hall. This was a New York premiere, with an enticing title, The Shadow of Night, and I didn’t care for it, which maybe doesn’t matter—in searching for Birtwistle on the Web, I found some short pieces on the Boosey & Hawkes Web site, and found them much more involving. Maybe if I heard The Shadow of Night again, I’d like it more (and maybe, if I studied them more, I’d like whatever other Birtwistle works I’ve heard).

For the record, I found it melodically and harmonically undistinguished, and I suppose that by talking about melodic in a post-Boulez atonal work I’m treading on forbidden ground, because we’re not supposed to judge modernist composers by their melodies. Do I think Birtwistle is Irving Berlin or Offenbach? But even modernist music often has, at the very least, some kind of linear dimension—notes arranged in, God help us, the kind of single lines that, in simpler (or less intellectualized) music, we call melodies. And some modernist composers have wonderful melodies (or melodic lines, or linear passages, take your choice). Start with Schoenberg, whose linear stuff is very often memorable (think of the opening tune of the Piano Concerto), or almost any bar of the Fourth Quartet. Or, if you’re lucky to encounter a rare good performance, almost any bar of the Woodwind Quintet. (The best performance I’ve ever heard is by the Houston Symphony Chamber players, coached—I’m not sure this is credited on the CD, but he told me he did it—by Christoph Eschenbach. It’s on a Koch Classics CD called Music of Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg, which you can buy online, track by track, as downloadable MP3 files, from

Berg and Webern have written arresting melodies as well, and so have Boulez and Berio. Boulez and Berio, in fact, almost always grab me, far more than Birtwistle ever does—but let it go. Suppose I’m wrong about The Shadow of Night. Suppose that if I heard it seven times, as someone I know in the Cleveland Orchestra’s management told me he has, I’d like it a lot. Something else would still be true—many people would praise the piece even if it wasn’t very good. Complex atonal music still has enormous prestige, and composers like Carter and Birtwistle can, in some peoples’ eyes, do no wrong. One outspoken critic at the Carnegie performance (not someone from New York) said, with what sounded like a mix of amusement and frustration, that many of his (and my) colleagues wouldn’t dare to give a piece like this a bad review. I think that’s true. Faced with a complicated atonal piece, critics may police their personal reactions. “I’m not sure I like it,” a critic might think, “but do I have enough authority to say so? Everybody else says this piece is so important.”

This, I’ll say again, is a problem whether or not this Birtwistle piece is any good. (Or, to put it differently, whether or not I should trust my own reactions.) So let me suggest two down-home truths: a lot of sober nonsense gets written about complex atonal works, and critics often overpraise them. As evidence of my first point, I’d cite Carnegie Hall’s program notes for The Shadow of Night, which could easily intimidate people who weren’t sure they liked the piece. These notes, in fact, were a double-barreled threat: not only did we get the usual disquisition about the composer and the music, but inserted in the program book was a separate essay by a British cultural historian, tracing connections between Birtwistle and two artists the composer admires, Albrecht Dürer and John Dowland.

Another Birtwistle piece is named after a Dürer engraving, Melencolia I, and this British writer tells us—after much talk about Günter Grass, Jean-Paul Sartre, and German art historians—that “Dürer’s image is…reflected in the orchestration of [Birtwistle’s] composition: an engraving must evoke its world entirely in black and white, and Birtwistle suggests a comparably stark opposition with his use of clarinet and strings.” Which isn’t what I’d call a subtle point; almost any composer (Ned Rorem, John Williams, me) might do the same thing, without anyone bringing in big guns of culture to explain what a masterstroke it is.

Curiously, the notes misspell Günter Grass‘s name as “Günther.” But that’s nothing compared to what happens when poor old Dowland heaves into view. “Like Dowland’s melancholy songs,” our essayist writes, The Shadow of Night “is monodic: a nocturne in which variety is used primarily to sustain a progression that is itself not various.” But “monody” is not at all correct as a label for either Birtwistle or Dowland. Monodies are pieces with one predominant melodic line, especially 17th-century Italian songs for voice and very basic continuo accompaniment. Dowland’s songs, however, are contrapuntal, even if he wrote them for solo voice and lute accompaniment; the lute plays an elaborate (and fully written-out) tapestry of many voices.

Birtwistle’s music, of course, is even more complex. The Shadow of Night is full of solo woodwind melodies (some fetchingly scored for solo piccolo), but—to jump ahead and quote the main program note—these are “set against polyphonic orchestral textures of various kinds: intricate polyrhythms in the strings…an entire web of linear counter-melodies in the harps, celesta, vibraphone, and glockenspiel…”This isn’t monody. Our essayist, or so it seems, doesn’t know music well enough to use the term correctly.

The main program note falls into what I’d call the analytic fallacy—the mistake of thinking (or implying) that analytic details somehow prove a work is serious, or even profound. In this case, we have those polyphonic orchestral textures, set forth at greater length than I’d care to quote, finishing with this gem: “Yet…it is less important to try to trace the linear unfolding of the events…than it is to realize that all these events, whether successive or simultaneous, are manifestations of potentialities inherent in the musical material.” Well, that’s also true of the great old Fifties doo-wop gem “Earth Angel,” by The Penguins, where the linear unfolding of stuff is routine—the song, like most doo-wop ballads, follows the old pop standard form: first eight, second eight, bridge, last eight—but the manifestations of potentialities are pretty fabulous. The brief instrumental introduction traces a descending fourth, moving down by thirds (from A flat to F to D flat, then back up to E flat). Then the backup voices outline an upward fourth, with a melodic line whose main surface detail is thirds. Thirds and fourths collaborate in everything that happens in the song, even the lead singer’s vocal ornaments. (If I wrote like the program annotator, I’d say, about the thirds and fourths, that their potentialities repeatedly are manifested.) Does this make the Penguins as great as Birtwistle? (God, I hope so.)

There’s more, but I’ll let it go, and move on to overpraising critics. A while ago, to test my suspicions, I looked up some of Andrew Porter‘s reviews of Elliott Carter. Here’s some of what I found, from Porter’s first collection of his New Yorker pieces, Music of Three Seasons: 1974-1977:

Carter’s new Brass Quintet…is sixteen minutes of lively incident ordered into a shapely form. The score appears to spring from fruitful interaction between what brass instruments naturally do best—soft, swelling harmonies in chords long sustained, and, on the other hand, incisive fanfare patterns—and the composer’s own more “abstract” concerns with multilayered music…The Quintet is a major addition to the brass chamber literature.


Elliott Carter’s latest composition, a Duo for Violin and Piano…lasts a little under twenty minutes and is written as a single, unbroken span of music…A note played on the violin is a living thing, and dependent for each moment of its life on the muscles of the player…[b]ut the note from a piano string, once struck, can only die away into silence or by cut short by the fall of the damper…One of the things that makes Carter’s music substantial and, even at its most intricate, accessible is its foundation on…simple musical “truths,” on obvious, fundamental taken-for-granted things that he has not taken for granted but considered anew with his alert, questioning musical intelligence.


The performers were superb, the listeners attentive and appreciative, and the compositions [three Carter works] among the most cogent of our time.


When an important composer who for years has worked only with “abstract” imagery of instrumental music returns to words, the result is likely to be arresting [the work reviewed here is Carter’s song cycle for voice and instruments, A Mirror in Which to Dwell]…”Sandpiper” is the most picturesque of the songs…Carter lets the lines pass, so to speak, and builds the song on the double imagery of the quick, finical bird, intent on the observation of what lies between his toes, and the motion of the huge slow sea…Carter’s favorite care for investigating the results of two kinds of musical gait, simultaneous but not synchronous, illumines the poem…”O Breath,” the final song, is marked tranquillo…The effect is as of intense, troubled contemplation, with observant eyes and a quivering heart, of a sleeping and beloved form…The work lasts about twenty minutes, and I am eager to hear it again.


We can praise A Symphony of Three Orchestras for its visionary aspiration. We can praise it for its refined, very delicate, and subtle workmanship…On the simplest, but not least important level, we can praise the expressive quality of the melodies and of the instrumental colors… The symphony is of all Carter’s scores the richest in sound. But not aspiration, or good construction, or vivid orchestration is in itself enough to produce a composition so moving and memorable as this. All three combine.

Now, I’m not saying that Andrew is a bad critic. He loves music with all his heart, and describes it vividly; there’s something touching in his evocations of these works, especially when you read more than the comparatively blank excerpts I’ve quoted here. He’s honest, full of feeling, and sincere.

Nor am I saying that the music isn’t good. But there’s something missing in Andrew’s praise, and that’s some sense of how the works stack up against each other. Very rarely, and only for the briefest moment, he’ll make evaluations based on standards external to the piece he’s talking about. Thus, A Symphony of Three Orchestras is “of all Carter’s scores the richest in sound,” and the ending of one of the songs in A Mirror in Which to Dwell might not “fully [reflect] what happens in the poem” (by Elizabeth Bishop) that it sets to music. But these are isolated instances. My short excerpts don’t convey the charm of Andrew’s writing, but they catch its tone and content. The Symphony may have the richest sound of any Carter work, but that doesn’t make it better; the song may briefly disappoint, but the cycle as a whole is unaffected. All Carter works come off as equal masterpieces, something that—even if Carter really is the great composer Andrew passionately thinks he is—simply isn’t possible. It’s not true of Beethoven, or Stravinsky, or even Webern, who wrote so very little, taking all the time he needed with each tiny wonder he composed. Human beings have peaks and valleys. Carter is a human being. Some of his pieces surely shine above the others, as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony shines above his fourth (no matter how much we enjoy the fourth). But you’d never guess this from Andrew’s praise, a sure sign, I think, that he’s bedazzled—and that the great prestige of complex atonal scores gets in our way when we try to think about them.

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