Paul Griffiths, The Substance of Things Heard – Writings about Music

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Paul Griffiths, The Substance of Things Heard – Writings about Music
Eastman Studies in Music, no. 31, University of Rochester Press, Rochester; Boydell & Brewer, Suffolk, UK, 2005, $65.00

There is nothing more transitory than music. James Levine—ironically at his press conference launching the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new recording series—made an intriguing observation which reminded me most poignantly of that. A significant impulse in the recording project arose from their amazing performance of Brahms’ German Requiem on Saturday, September 27, 2008, which, as he observed, arose from “A live excitement arising partly from the feeling everybody had had about the first one, which was good, but we knew we could make it better.” He also referred to the Daphnis and Chloé release as “a real, sophisticated souvenir of what you heard in the concert.” A souvenir… I unfortunately was not on hand for the Ravel, but I retain a living memory of the Brahms as one of the truly great performances I have heard. Mr. Levine has made it clear that pains were taken over the recording, and I’m thrilled that a recording is available at all, but I ask will it live up to my memory? For that matter, which is more potent: a memory of an aural experience or a digital recording? Years ago I heard Sr Adrian Boult conduct the BBC Symphony in a performance of Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony, and it impressed me as one of those rare pinnacles. A year or so later I managed to get hold of a well-made open-reel recording of the concert, and I could hear very little of what had thrilled me so much in the Albert Hall. Ever since listenable broadcast and recordings have been available, the music-lover has been conflicted between the evanescent revelations of the musical event and the desire to capture it for repeated listening—to possess it forever. Isn’t the sensual experience of listening to a technological artifact a more reliable form of recollection than our emotion-laden memory? Or is it simply a distraction from our human recollection?

For most of its history music criticism has been almost as fleeting as music itself. If a person, for whatever odd reason, wanted to read a review of some past concert, it would have been necessary to consult a newspaper archive in a library, hardly a Herculean task, but an effort in comparison to the instantly-available databases we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. And, now that print journalism seems to be dying out, and publications like our own Berkshire Review for the Arts maintain permanent access to all published articles (and there is a readership for some of them long after the event they record) it is easier than ever. A musicologist who is concerned with forming some idea of what an early performance of a Handel opera, or what Mozart or Beethoven were like as performers will have to rely on published or private accounts of long-past musical gatherings. Usually these offer one or two useful insights along with boring trivia and a frustrating casualness of observation. What a pity Paul Griffiths wasn’t on the scene in those days!

Some of the most prominent music critics (There aren’t really all that many of them.) have published their collected articles as books and have made it easier for us to access their impressions of the great composers and musicians of their time. Not so long ago the distinguished critic and scholar, Andrew Porter, published his music reviews in several volumes as a chronicle of musical life from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s. The readership for such publications has dwindled. Porter’s volumes are no longer in print, and Griffiths, his successor at the New Yorker, must publish his more expensively with an academic press. Fewer collections are published, and fewer critics produce work of that standard. The days when the pre-Murdochian Times hired intelligent scholars like Griffiths, Porter and Diana McVeagh to write music reviews is long past. Paul Griffiths belongs to a later phase of the same era. Although he is twenty years younger than Porter, his collected criticism, The Substance of Things Heard, is a landscape of a period only slightly later than those covered by Porter’s volumes.

Given Griffiths’ keenly focused enthusiasm for the major European composers of the second half of the twentieth century and his extraordinary perceptiveness, it is a unique document of the history of music during the century;s last quarter, and it can take the place of an historical survey of it. Alex Ross’ highly commendable The Rest is Noise fails to treat the second half of the century with the color and detail devoted to the first. Griffiths’ collection, at the very least, can function as a supplement, but, beyond that, it has all the immediacy of a journalistic report on ongoing events. This brilliant collection brings home how an astute human observer can preserve aspects of a performance that even the best recording cannot, as well as how the work of the critic, rather than attempting the task of the phonograph, celebrates the transitory nature of music. As Griffiths himself says in his preface, “What is heard is not the same as what is performed. A recording may perpetuate the latter, but only written testimony can tell us how music sounded at the time, how it felt, and how it was understood.”

I read these reviews one by one, slowly, immersing myself in Paul Griffiths’ vividly recorded experiences, and coping with flashes of envy at not having been there on the scene at the time. While he has written a sufficient number of books on twentieth century composers to establish himself as an authority—books on Bartók, Cage, Messiaen, Boulez, Maxwell Davies, surveys of twentieth-century music and the string quartet, as well as the Penguin Companion to Classical Music—he has written regular reviews for the Times and the Financial Times, as well as the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times and the New Yorker, that is, as he says, “scribbling nine hundred words in forty-five minutes.” In this way he has become a master of compression, of bringing events to life with a few salient details. Many of the reviews he has collected in this volume represent this sort of writing, while his pieces from the TLS and the New Yorker are more detailed and more tightly argued. It is in fact remarable how readily he adapts to the discursive, occasionally somewhat languid style of the latter. Even more remarkable is the astuteness and elegance of his selections and their arrangement, so that the book successfully performs its historical function with an artistic, even musical sense of form.

He begins the book with a premiere and a debut, that of Schnittke’s Viola Concerto and of Valery Gergiev at the 1987 Lichfield Festival, and ends with a farewell, that of the ailing Herbert von Karajan in his last London concert in the autumn of 1988. Griffiths wends his way from one to the other with a succession of reviews and articles grouped into chapters, which could almost function as chapters in an authoritative historical work on the music of the period. He offers meaty, flavorful chapters on Berio, Carter, Gubaidulina, Tippett, Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, Boulez, Kagel, Krenek, Kurtág, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Pärt, Xenakis, Henze, Claude Vivier, Five British Composers (Dominic Muldowney, Brian Ferneyhough, Robert Simpson, Michael Nyman, and Nicholas Maw), Lachenmann, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Reich, and Birtwistle—interlarded with groupings of reviews of performances mostly of older music, all equally revelatory examples of the taste of the times: “Paths to Montsalvat” (six performances of Parsifal between 1986 and 1992), exotic (…sorry, “world”) music, the Purcell Year (1995), “A Handful of Pianists” (Horowitz, Richter, Pollini, Perahia, Kathleen Supové, and a coda on the Van Cliburn Competition), a New York miscellany, the Mozart Year (1991), “A Decade of Don Giovannis” (1985-94), eight opera reviews from Monteverdi and Handel to Heinz Holliger and Conrad Susa, film scores, five performances of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron and Erwartung, two performances of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, “Behind the Rusting (Iron) Curtain,” four Verdi operas at the Met (including Stiffelio, which will be revived next season), “A Quintet of Singers” (van Dam, Hvorostovsky, Podles, Prey, and Berberian), “How It Was, Maybe” (on historically informed performance), and four performances of Pélléas et Mélisande, including Peter Brook’s famous “condensed” version.

From this survey it is clear that The Substance of Things Heard is a comprehensive and coherent view of music in the last two decades of the twentieth century (and a bit of the twenty-first), firmly rooted in the major modern European composers. Paul Griffiths is not susceptible to recent trends like public-friendly post-modernism, world music, and early music à la Savall, but he is open-minded, if occasionally ironically so. Touchy Americans will observe that there are only two of their countrymen in the book, but they can take some comfort in the fact that Alex Ross mentions only two of Griffiths’ British composers (Ferneyhough and Nyman). It is also interesting that Griffiths has little to say about Britten, the only British composer Ross discusses at any length. The selection for this collection does not include all of Griffith’s interests, (He writes especially warmly about Wagner’s Ring, for example but here he chooses to concentrate on Parsifal.), but this makes his artful selection all the more intriguing.

As far and as wide as as Griffith’s coverage opera and new music range, he is highly selective in other areas. He discusses chamber music mostly as part of the output of Boulez, Carter, and others. His handful of pianists stand in for the whole tribe of instrumental virtuosi. Violinists and cellists must lurk outside in the shadows. But how much he reveals through his cleverly, even wittily chosen group! He begins with a dutiful if somewhat ironic visit to a Horowitz recital in London in 1982: “Where others play piano music, he simply plays piano, and it seems almost an irrelevance that he was choosing sonatas by Scarlatti, some Chopin, some Liszt and two Rachmaninoff preludes, for what he was really playing was Horowitz.” Griffiths then breaks out of his gift for formulation and tries to capture the essence of Horowitz’s playing, his secret, which, he says, perhaps lies in how each note blooms after the attack.” He goes on about Horowitz’ command of tone color, “the layers of pearl screen and silk…or the ironies that can steal in to reveal him not only as angel but as divine clown.” In his double report on two important Richter recitals in March 1989, the first of which included Schubert’s G Major Sonata, he takes note of the pianist’s extremes of tempo and dynamics: “in his seriousness Richter lives dangerously…” Then, evoking Richter’s treatment of the last movement, Griffiths resorts, as he often does, to simile: “The finale, bright and splashy like a mountain stream, yet still oppressed, like a stream compelled to run in a circuit.” Of course this multi-layered observation applies as much to Schubert as to Richter. And then there was the precision and beauty of Richter’s ornaments. He also includes reviews of two recitals by Pollini, one in London in 1990, the other in New York in 2000, where he dodges between the impressive powers and the limitations of the pianist’s “penetrating, unillusioned view” on a program built around the Diabelli Variations and another built around Boulez’ Sonata. Murray Perahia represents a younger generation with the critic deftly noting his most characteristic traits, his soft bass line and his ability to sing out melodies at slow tempi. For his final digit, Griffiths might well have discussed Ursula Oppens, whom he mentions and who is second to none in the repertory he adores, but instead he seeks out Kathleen Supové in TriBeCa in her leopard skin mini and fishnet stockings, playing “big ostinato pieces” by Rzewski, Adams, and Curran. These snippets hardly do justice to Griffith’s condensed, metaphorical style, which enables him to sketch out a colorful, multi-faceted, and occasionally ambivalent impression of his experience in the hall, intent on music.

Through most of the book Paul Griffiths steers a bold course through the deep waters of opera, for which, through his work as a novelist and librettist (Tan Dun’s Marco Polo, Elliott Carter’s What Next?), he obviously has a powerful affinity. For him a visit to the opera is a brave and serious exploration of everything the human imagination can achieve between its nexus in everyday consciousness and in its outer reaches and can express through action, sets, costume, words, and music. Monteverdi and Purcell are as vital to him as Mozart, Wagner, Berio, or Birtwistle. It is always a challenge to review any new music. Advance preparation is a luxury which is only occasionally available. Therefore Griffiths like the rest of the audience must usually rely on his perceptions at the performance. But beyond that, he made sure to attend revivals, as when Berio’s Un rè in ascolto, premiered at Covent Garden in 1989 was revived by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1996 in the same production; or in subsequent productions of new works: his account of the premiere of Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise at the Paris Opera in 1983 is followed by reviews of the London concert performances of 1986 and 1988 and of the Salzburg staged productions of 1992 and 1998, including the recording made after the latter—interspersed with reflections on Messiaen’s beliefs and technique. (It appears that he missed the 2002 San Francisco Opera production. Gérard Mortier had hoped to give this important opera its first New York production this year, but, sadly, that is not to be.) Hence The Substance of Things Heard allows us to trace the assimilation of such works into our culture (if not the repertoire…) as well as the development of his experience with them. It is also impressive—if characteristic of our eclectic age—that he is able to approach both Messiaen’s cosmic devoutness and Berio’s existential agnosticism with the same enthusiasm and respectfulness. Berio: “It is like looking at the disturbed surface of a pool: if you try to make out what is reflected, you may miss the pattern of the ripples. The important question concerning…Un rè…is not what it is about, but rather how it goes about the business of being about anything…a marvellous liberation…a challenge not to use ambiguity as an excuse for recklessness…Un rè in ascolto is one of the great operas.” His successive accounts of Saint François, equally rooted in the composer’s world-view, amount to a definitive discussion of the work, all the more vivid for being based on experience in the theater, although fragmented over the various occasions. Griffith’s usual procedure is to move from the composer and the work to the staging and how it realizes the essentials, the on to thedetails of the musical performance. In the case of Saint François, he was able to praise Ozawa’s conducting as “sublimely incautious and thoroughly magnificent,” but at Salzburg he found himself less forgiving towards Peter Sellars’ familiar gimmicks and irrelevancies on the stage.

The reviews of a decade of Don Giovannis are equally stimulating, however uneven the productions may have been. Some of Griffith’s exordia may give you an idea: “Jonathan Miller’s production may not be the first Don Giovanni to be clothed entirely in black and white…There is a lot of death in this production…No, taking pleasure is not the same thing as having fun. It is a dark-hearted, troubled, and troubling vision of Mozart’s dramma giocoso…” Coming from Marthe Keller’s and Michael Yeargan’s gently innovative and wise production at the Met, I almost felt deprived of the string of oddities (which included TWO Jonathan Miller productions) Griffiths endured with his characterisitc wit and grace, finally landing on a great bit of wisdom, “All operas invite us to hear through the characater to the singer and through the singer to the character; the form is founded on the art of half-impersonation.”

The collection is bristling with other epiphanies. Of Soviet music (Schnittke in particular): “This ambivalence is a particularly Russian quality—Stalin’s great gift to musical history. It is not the pearly ambivalence of a Boulez or a Berio, where the meaning is in the glistening of many meanings; it is an ashen ambivalence of enforced statement (joy, progress, affirmation, as it had to be for Stalin’s composers) and dissonant subtext (i.e. Don’t you believe it.)—an ambivalence that, in the case of Shostakovich, did not need spelling out in alleged memoirs.” (p. 279) Of historically informed performance: “A movement founded on retrieving the past thus finds itself consuming, or at least memorializing, and instead of constantly enlarging the possibilities of interpretation, which so far has been the most positive outcome of the search for ‘authenticity,’ musicians may unwittingly be reinforcing the old myth of the definitive performance.” (I agree!) “Then there is Christie’s way of wafting the music into the air. The tempting connection between Rameau and his coeval Watteau lies partly in the weightlessness of their figures…As if drafting the musical line with a pencil, he (Christie) can make it precise and fine…or else he can use the flat edge of the lead, brush the voices and instruments along a little more relaxedly. The resulting slight spread in the harmony may on occasion produce a succulent sensuousness…more generally the gentle arpeggiation suggests music which we catch just as it is moving into focus, music in formation, in the present.” (pp. 285f.) Many other similarly improving delights await the reader.

Paul Griffiths is one of the few critics left who approach their discipline as a literary genre, a branch of belles lettres. (Today, in the few places where it is still to be found, music criticism appears all too often as a derivation of advertising copy or the gossip column.) One chapter at least is of as much literary interest as musical, and that is his sympathetic portrait of the unfortunate French-Canadian composer, Claude Vivier. His account is vivid without pandering to sensationalism. Like all gifted story-tellers, Griffiths has a hero, Pierre Boulez. His cluster of notices on the composer provides an artistic biography, a close-up view of individual works, as well as his activity as a teacher and conductor. In his preface, Griffiths invokes an ancient literary genre as a sort of precedent, ekphrasis, which is found in a resplendent and vital form in Homer and Virgil, before its descent into preciosity. “We cannot say what music is. Yet we are verbal creatures, and strive with words to cast a net around it, knowing most of this immaterial stuff will evade capture. Description invariably becomes commentary, invoking previous experience of works and performers as well as more general notions of style and, at the abstract horizon, ideas about music’s fundamental nature, its possibilities and purposes…The stories that follow cover a wide range of events over a period of great change. Yet the net’s aim was always the same, to catch the substance of things heard…Criticism has to work largely by analogy and metaphor. This is no limitation. It is largely through such verbal ties that music is linked to other sorts of experience, not least the natural world and the orchestra of our feelings.” This keen awareness of the subtle and complex interrelationships between musical composition, execution, reception, and the act of writing has liberated him to compile a collection of his own writings that gives us both the authority of historical comprehensiveness and the immediacy of being in the thick of things as a journalist. Mr. Griffiths’ passion for poet-war music is infectious, and if you have not appreciated it in the past, you will surely be converted. Experts should also not fail to read it; they, too, will learnthings they never imagined.

The Substance of Things Heard now joins my favorite books on music, and I’ll shelve it where I can lay hands on it easily. It merits repeated readings. I may gnash my teeth over having missed most of these performances, but what a splendid excuse to buy recordings! As an academic publication it is, unfortunately, expensive ($65.00), but, as a publication in the distinguished Eastman Studies in Music, it is meticulously produced and well worth its price twice over.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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