Sunday, August 29, 2010


One of many books open on a shelf or table or stand is The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks by the poet Charles Simic. Wry, epigrammatic, and breezily swinging between the worlds of poetry and prose, a (slightly longer than) typical entry reads:

"My ideal is Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, a catalog of many varieties of mopiness human beings are subject to, everything from the gloom caused by the evils of the world to the kind caused by lovers' squabbles. Burton, who is one of the great stylists in the language, wrote the book to relieve his own low spirits. The result is the most cheerful book on general unhappiness we have."

We could adopt that last statement to describe many a melancholy-tinged opera: the most beautiful music ever heard--as the soundtrack to a tragedy!

Yet isn't that oxymoronic irony precisely WHY we venerate tragedy? (And isn't "oxymoronic" as fun to say as it is to write? Right? But we were writing about tragedy & art...). The beautiful AND the tragic: pain and suffering made meaningful through the transformative power of art? If that is not exactly it, then maybe it's the opportunity art affords in both vicarious experience and (as close as we can come to) objective observation. Through the tragedy given life via art I can better comprehend the political machinations that end in regicide, and more fully empathize with the all-too-human protagonist while experiencing the vicarious thrill of winning the battle/seducing my lover/defeating my adversary.

I mentioned Camus recently, and his collection of Lyrical and Critical Essays has been in the mix. He ends a notebook-like piece on travel, "The Sea Close by" with this operatic image:

"I have always felt I lived on the high seas, threatened at the heart of a royal happiness."

The opera quiz question from that quote: in which opera might Albert Camus feel most at home? I'd vote for The Flying Dutchman. Bluebeard's Castle could also apply, as we can easily leap from the pirate's "high seas" of freedom to the threat of land-locked prison.

Back in real life, the dedicatee of Arvo Pärt's 4th Symphony, Los Angeles, is a Russian political prisoner, A. Khodorkovsky. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the symphony is also concerned with guardian angels, whose presence the composer does not question. When asked what "idea" was behind the "guardian angel" subtitle, the 75 year-old composer (whose voice is mellifluous as his placid music) would have none of it. "What idea?!? There is no idea. It is reality. They are all around us. If more people could realize this..."

I heard the UK premiere at the BBC Proms (online). The quote above is from an interview with the composer, the one below is from the online program notes.

Pärt wrote of the symphony as "an expression of great respect for a man who has found moral triumph and personal tragedy. The tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and human dignity."

Now there's a great description of the role of the tragic in art. Pärt's music traces an arc through it's three-movement structure, maintaining an undercurrent of calm (characteristic of his "holy minimalist" style). This stoic foundation generates material that unfolds and unfurls before returning to the still center. It is music for the soul.

In addition to Pärt's 75th birthday, it is the 250th of the soulful (and woefully neglected) composer Luigi Cherubini (I omitted Cherubini from a recent post about 2010 celebrations). Cherubini wrote one of the great tragic operas of the period in Medea. It was one of Maria Callas' most famous portrayals, but has since fallen out of fashion. Brahms had three portraits in his studio: Bach, Beethoven, and Cherubini. Beethoven thought Cherubini was the greatest composer of his (and their) day. Cherubini is buried a few feet away from his much more famous younger friend (whose bicentennial is also 2010), Chopin.

Ah, memory. And our relationship to it and history. Chopin has no need of an anniversary to be played or appreciated, and Cherubini can't get a notice even with a milestone occasion.

Before I do my part to correct that imbalance by playing my Callas recording of Medea (with a young Renata Scotto as the Seconda donna), I will share a few lines of a favorite poem by William Meredith.

The central line of "About Opera" is one answer to the question of why we respond so enthusiastically to this unnatural, excessive, melodramatic, implausibly over-the-top art form:

"Isn't this how we've always longed to talk?"

He closes with a wonderful quatrain that is both endearingly awkward and pitch-perfect in metaphor:

"What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart's duresses, on the heart's behalf."

(from Effort At Speech: New and Selected Poems, William Meredith. Triquarterly, 1997).

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