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Wagner’s Ring: Part III

Posted by acdtest on July 29, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part III: First Day — Das Rheingold (Prelude and Scene 1)

fter completing the full poem (libretto) of his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, but still lacking the key to the problem of how to transform the massive drama into music-drama, Wagner, in ill health, repaired to Italy and the sunny Mediterranean in August of 1853 to rest both mind and body. In a hotel room in Spezia in September he lay down on a couch intending to take a short nap, and lapsed into a half-waking, half-dream state.

I felt as though I were sinking in a mighty flood. The rush and roar [of the water] soon took musical shape within my brain as the chord of E-flat major, surging incessantly in broken chords. These declared themselves as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat major never changed but seemed by its steady persistence to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking. I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head.

Thus, in a quasi-hypnotic or -cataleptic state, was born the first music of the Ring — the orchestral prelude to its first music-drama, Das Rheingold — and to Wagner was finally vouchsafed the long sought for key to this new way of making opera, which key had, until this moment, persistently eluded him.

The prelude to Das Rheingold is one of opera’s most enduring wonders. It begins with an undifferentiated and sustained E-flat sounding in the deepest bass; a sound so low in pitch it’s felt as much as heard (and for sounding which the orchestra’s double basses must manually lower the pitch of their lowest string by a semitone). After continuing by itself for a seeming timeless four full measures, it’s joined by a sustained B-flat in the bassoons sounding above it. Twelve measures later the horns add their voices by sounding a rising arpeggio adding a G-natural, and thereby the triad — the tonic (or first), dominant (or fifth), and third degrees of the scale respectively; the fundamental building block of all Western music — of E-flat major is fully established. At the 49th measure the strings enter with an undulating, melodic figuration adding other degrees of the E-flat major scale, which figuration, rising and becoming progressively more rapid and fully arpeggiated, all the while gaining in volume, culminates with a repeated three-note figure (also forming a complete E-flat major triad) sounding against it in the trumpets, rising in a crescendo to double forte, whereupon, the curtain having just risen, we’re transported seamlessly into the depths of the river Rhine, and into a primal, Nature-ruled world of pristine innocence.

The effect is breathtaking, and unlike anything in all of opera. In a mere 136 measures of little more than a rising, melodically arpeggiated E-flat major triad (which is the Ring‘s first and most basic leitmotif) sounding over an undifferentiated E-flat pedal, Wagner limns no less than the coming into being, out of the emptiness of the void, the very world itself, and thereby at once establishes the cosmic time scale of the epic drama that is the Ring.

And why, you may ask, does Wagner choose, impossibly, to begin the Ring in the depths (actually at the bottom) of a river? Because water is the womb of life itself, and its first nurturer. What more symbolically and psychologically appropriate place to begin this vast, primeval, Nature-ruled and world-embracing drama?

In the predawn twilight at the bottom of the river are cavorting among the rocks three water nymphs; the Rheintöchter, or Rhinedaughters — Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde: charmingly frivolous, carefree, and childlike creatures without a serious thought in their very pretty but very empty heads. While cavorting about they chatter away among themselves to a delightful melodic line passed from one to the other (the Ring‘s second leitmotif) that bears no semblance to the closed-form song of ordinary opera, but is more akin to the dialogue of a stage play, as is true of the sung text in all the Ring as we noted in our first discussion.

Unexpectedly, there intrudes into this lovely, carefree world a discordant note in the form of the decidedly unlovely Nibelung dwarf Alberich, who enters by way of a cleft in the rocks to an appropriately unlovely and ungainly figure sounded in the lower strings. He’s come from Nibelheim, his subterranean home, he says, and he, too, wants to cavort.

The Rheintöchter are more surprised and repelled than alarmed, although one of them, Flosshilde, with more sense than we’re wont to credit any of the Rheintöchter with, immediately warns her sisters to look out for their charge, the sacrosanct, magical gold of the Rhine. But her sisters, at the moment, are far too busy trying to figure out just what this disreputable intruder is doing there; a place he has no business being. The answer, they discover in short order, is that the poor dwarf is in love, and just the idea strikes the three sisters as so preposterous as to be thoroughly risible, and Flosshilde quickly forgets her initial fear that the misshapen little fellow might be after the Rhine’s magical gold as it’s now comically clear that what he’s after is her delectable self and her equally delectable sisters.

The three Rheintöchter, in an extended episode continuously commented on by the orchestra in the role of a classical Greek chorus, then set to mercilessly and cruelly, if innocently and without malice, teasing the lovesick Alberich, driving him finally to the point of frantic and helpless frustration, at which point the sun rises, its newborn rays striking down through the waters and touching the Rhine’s fabled treasure perched high atop a rocky bed, the rapidly blossoming golden glow spreading throughout the river’s depths as the orchestra sounds in the trumpets the leitmotif of the Rhinegold.

The Rheintöchter greet the awakening of the gold with a joyous new melody based on the leitmotif of the Rhinegold. Alberich, however, is merely confused. He hasn’t so much as a clue as to what all the fuss is about. He asks, and the Rheintöchter, dismayed at his ignorance of the storied gold of the Rhine, proceed foolishly to spell out for him the gold’s inherent magic. He who could fashion a ring from the gold, they tell him (and here the orchestra sounds for the first time the leitmotif of the ring), would gain by its magic unlimited world power and riches. They tell him this without fear or concern, secure in the knowledge that only one who has first renounced love would be capable of fashioning such a ring (and here the orchestra sounds, also for the first time, the leitmotif of the renunciation of love, one of the most important leitmotifs in all the Ring), and such a one has never existed, nor will ever exist, least of all this comical, helpless, lovesick dwarf.

But the naïve and innocent creatures have neglected to take into account that by reason of their merciless taunting they’ve transformed this comical and helpless dwarf into something decidedly uncomical, and anything but helpless.

The wealth of the world
I could win for my own through the gold?
Where love is denied me,
I still could gain its pleasures through cunning?
Mock on, then!
The Nibelung approaches your toy!

Alberich declares, his words sung to a slightly melodically altered form of the leitmotif of the ring, the orchestra playing against it the leitmotif of the renunciation of love.

The Rheintöchter think Alberich merely grandstanding out of sheer desperation, and they shriek in mock horror at his intended threat, and then fall to laughing at him.

But Alberich has been pushed beyond grandstanding.

Are you still not afraid?
Then coquet in the dark, brood of the waters!
I will put out your light,
wrench the gold from its resting place,
and forge the ring of revenge!
For hear me, ye waters:
Thus I curse love forever!

with which oath (the last line sung to a slight but ominous variation of the renunciation of love leitmotif) Alberich rips the Rhinegold from its bed, and with a sinister laugh disappears with it through the cleft in the rocks back to Nibelheim as the waters grow dark, and the Rheintöchter wail the loss of the gold.

Well, all this is pretty much the stuff of typical fairytale and folklore, isn’t it.

Or is it.

Not in Wagner’s transforming hands it isn’t. In this first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner has limned, through the organic synthesis of words and music, no less than a world-encompassing secular vision of Original Sin and the consequent loss of Paradise, and all that implies.

But most of all, what Wagner has wrought with this first scene of Das Rheingold is a revolution in the world of opera. For audiences today, as for Das Rheingold‘s very first audience, we know instantly, and with absolute certainty, that we’re not in Kansas anymore. With the Prelude and first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner has taken opera as far from ordinary Italian-form opera as it’s possible to get and still be recognizable as opera, and at the same time, through the transforming magic of the gestalt created by a previously unimagined synthesis of words and music, transported us into a created world that has all the force and potency of living myth; a feat never before or since accomplished by any work of art.

But Wagner the sorcerer has not finished. As the saying goes, You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Next up: What really went on in Scene 1 of Das Rheingold?

[Note: This is the third in a series of articles on the Ring, further installments of which will appear here as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series may be read here. For access to individual installments, please consult the titles listed under the category Wagner’s Ring to be found in the Master Archives Index.]

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Bach, Harpsichord, And Piano

Posted by acdtest on July 24, 2003

Bach, The Harpsichord, And The Piano

y article on Glenn Gould’s two readings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations brought several interesting comments. Said one reader:

Bach’s compositions performed on the piano are to Bach’s compositions performed on the harpsichord what McNuggets are to chicken. The music that Bach composed for the harpsichord sounds clunky and ponderous when it is performed on the piano. Only the harpsichord has the peculiar dynamic and the rapid and even decay necessary to properly interpret Bach’s work.

As a matter of fact, I almost agree with that. But only almost. I’ve a great love for the harpsichord. I even went so far as to have one built for me a while back (by William Dowd of Boston; a double-manual concert instrument). While it’s true that when Bach’s keyboard music is performed on the piano the result is typically not a happy one, the fault does not lie with the piano, but with pianists. When properly played, the piano is just dandy for the performance of Bach’s keyboard works, and indeed for the performance of the entire Baroque keyboard repertoire.

For those who doubt my word on this, let me attempt to make my case in this way.

First, Bach’s keyboard works (including those for organ) seem to survive, even thrive, under all manner of transcription. So superb are their construction that their fundamental musical aesthetic is not diminished one iota even when subjected to transcriptions as outré as those done for Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer, and Ward Swingle’s Swingle Singers. Or when subjected to the somewhat less outré but nevertheless Romantically excessive transcriptions for piano by Ferruccio Busoni, and even the grotesquely bloated ones for full orchestra done by Leopold Stokowski. In all these, Bach emerges unsullied and triumphant — always.

As concerns the Goldberg Variations specifically, it’s one of the very few works Bach wrote explicitly for the two-manual harpsichord with its full complement of registers — two 8′, one 4′, and one lute stop — as well as, presumably, the additional and very German 16′ register (Bach’s own harpsichord was equipped with this last). What can be accomplished with relative (underline relative) ease on this two-manual instrument becomes hugely difficult on an instrument with but a single keyboard. But that difficulty notwithstanding, the Goldberg has been done, and done excellently well, on such keyboard-challenged instruments.

The harpsichord, both in its two-manual and single-manual incarnations, is a natural for realizing the multiple contrapuntal lines of a Bach keyboard work. Its method of tone production is the principal reason why. Unlike the piano, the strings of the harpsichord are plucked from beneath by a device called a plectrum (made of either quill or hard leather in the period instrument), rather than struck by a felt-covered hammer as in the piano. The strings of the harpsichord can be plucked in one way and one way only, no matter what the harpsichordist does with his fingers at the keyboard (that’s not entirely true, but true enough for our instant purpose). A string is either plucked or not plucked, a kind of binary affair, and the sound produced is the same always: very precise attack, and short decay due the instrument’s low string tension and relatively flexible sounding board. Perfect for the clear and precise delineation of multiple contrapuntal lines.

Not so the piano with its hammered strings. For starters, what the pianist does with his fingers at the piano keyboard has a profound effect on the sound made by a string when hit by the hammer. The sound produced by the struck string (actually string groups, how many strings in the group depending on the octave) varies greatly, and can range not only in loud-soft dynamic (the original precursor instrument was called a fortepiano, and the full name of the modern instrument is not piano but pianoforte — piano=soft, forte=loud, get it?), but also in its quality of tone. The attack can be soft and surpassingly delicate, or can be as if made by the wrath of Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, or anywhere in-between, and in all cases the decay, unless damped (by releasing the key), is fairly long and resonant due the instrument’s high string tension and relatively rigid sounding board, a circumstance not so perfect for the clear and precise delineation of multiple contrapuntal lines.

Well, I seem to have managed to scuttle my own argument here, haven’t I. Not so, actually (surprise!). The key (no pun intended) to understanding why not is embodied in the above sentence that reads in part,

…what the pianist does with his fingers at the piano keyboard has a profound effect on the sound made by a string when hit by the hammer.

Just so. Under control of the proper ten fingers, the hammered strings of the piano can be made to sound just as precise as the plucked strings of a harpsichord. It’s something incredibly difficult to achieve consistently (and in fact requires that the piano’s key action be carefully adjusted to the task), but not impossible, as Glenn Gould performing Bach on the piano makes manifestly and magnificently clear. Under Gould’s skilled hands Bach’s keyboard music played on the piano no longer sounds “clunky and ponderous” and blurred, but has all its multiple contrapuntal lines revealed with the same clarity and precision that would obtain naturally and without special effort on the harpsichord. And while the piano lacks completely the rich effects of the harpsichord’s multiple registers, it has their analogue in the infinite adjustment of quality of tone and loud-soft dynamic achievable by keyboard touch alone — things at which Gould was a master — a technique denied the harpsichordist no matter how great a master of the instrument he may be.

And so, as I’ve above asserted, the problem of Bach’s keyboard works performed on the piano is a problem not of the instrument, but of the performer alone.

And that, dear reader, is my case for Bach’s keyboard works performed on the piano. Not quite Q.E.D., but close enough to make no-never-mind.

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Wagner’s Ring: Part II

Posted by acdtest on July 17, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part II: First Day — Das Rheingold (Introduction)

agner, early in 1853, sent to his friend, champion, and future father-in-law Franz Liszt the just-completed poem (libretto) of his mammoth tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, along with an accompanying note. “Mark well my new poem,” wrote Wagner. “It contains the beginning of the world and its end.”

As a concise description of the dramatic course of Wagner’s vast four-part drama one could not ask for better. As a description of what this epic, radical undertaking would mean for the world of opera, one could not ask for more prophetic. A few months after he wrote those words, Wagner began the in-earnest composition of the music for the first music-drama of the great tetralogy, Das Rheingold, and when the score was completed the following year it signaled the beginning of the new world of music-drama, and the beginning of the end of the old world of classic Italian-form opera. Wagner’s great achievement would change forever the world of opera, that achievement’s subsequent influence so pervasive and so compelling that even that supremely insular genius of Italian-form opera Giuseppe Verdi — Wagner’s exact contemporary — was not left untouched, his last two operas, Otello (1877) and Falstaff (1883) — singular masterpieces in his operatic oeuvre — displaying a marked Wagnerian influence.

Das Rheingold, the First Day (or Vorabend) of the Ring, is unlike the music-dramas of the three following Days in that it has but a single act of four scenes (the following three music-dramas are all three-act dramas, the last, Götterdämmerung, having in addition a prologue of substantial length), and its approximate total performance time is on the order of only some two-and-a-half hours (the approximate performance time of the Prologue and first act alone of Götterdämmerung is almost that long).

But those differences are merely mechanical. There are differences of a more fundamental nature between Das Rheingold and the other music-dramas of the Ring, all of which differences are purposeful creative acts on Wagner’s part. One such fundamental difference is that the world of Das Rheingold is absent any human folk (presumptively true, but, as we shall later see, not altogether so), but is instead peopled by water nymphs, gods, giants, and subterranean dwarfs.

More fundamental yet is another difference.

The music of Das Rheingold has been remarked by many commentators to lack the sumptuous fluidity and harmonic and melodic richness of the music of the rest of the Ring. The explanation most commonly put forward for this perceived lack is twofold: Wagner, they say, was embarking on a revolutionary new way of making opera in Das Rheingold, and in the composition of its music was feeling his way through step by step, getting his feet wet, so to speak, and at the same time trying to adhere closely to the theoretical principles of music-drama and Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork) he’d set down in Wagnerian-length detail in two publications of two previous years: Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future) of 1849, and Oper und Drama of 1851.

The explanation sounds perfectly plausible, even perfectly on-target, but it’s almost surely perfectly in error, and betrays a basic misunderstanding of the workings of Wagner’s creative genius.

Wagner never embarked on the in-earnest composition (as opposed to fragments and piecemeal sketches) of the music for any of his music-dramas until he had a full grasp, musically and dramatically, of just what was required. If there was any step-by-step feeling his way through in the composition of any of the music for the Ring it was accomplished in the numerous musical sketches he made between 1848 and the early part of 1853; fragments mostly, as until late 1853 he had not as yet found the key to this new way of making opera. And as to the theoretic principles underlying music-drama (i.e., the synthesis of music, text, and drama), Wagner’s working his way through that thorny problem was accomplished in his writing of the two above mentioned theoretical publications. By the time he actually sat down to in earnest compose the music for Das Rheingold in November of 1853 Wagner knew precisely what had to be done, and precisely how to go about doing it, even to the point of jettisoning at least one of the theoretic principles he adduced in those publications of 1849 and 1851 (the principle of the equality of music and poetry in music-drama).

The commentators are correct, however, in their observation that the quality of the music of Das Rheingold is of a different order from the music of the rest of the Ring. It’s clearly more elemental, and lacks as well the soaring, gravity-defying quality of the music of the three following music-dramas. Where the commentators are in error is in not recognizing that the difference was a purposeful act on Wagner’s part. As Wagner knew better than anyone, before one can soar one must first have a solid earthbound foothold from which to push off, and so the music of Das Rheingold was calculatedly devised to act as solid earthbound foothold for the music of the rest of the Ring.

Like all else in Das Rheingold (and unlike the following three music-dramas), its music is archetypal in nature. Although Wagner, as we noted previously, had used the device of leitmotif in three earlier operas preceding his work on the Ring, what he now had in mind (as was also noted in our previous discussion) was the use of leitmotif on a scale never before attempted, employing a contrapuntal symphonic development never before imagined; a metamorphosing and interweaving organic development of such an affective order that “…the thing shall sound in a way that people shall hear what they cannot see,” as Wagner put it. In the music for Das Rheingold Wagner lays the foundation for, and makes high-relief first use of, this extraordinary new handling of leitmotif, thereby preparing his audience’s mind and ears for the symphonic richness and complexity of what is to come in the following three music-dramas, while at the same time trumpeting loudly and clearly the radical departure from Italian-form opera that Der Ring des Nibelungen was designed by necessity to be.

Next up: Das Rheingold — Prelude and Scene 1.

[Note: This is the second in a series of articles on the Ring, further installments of which will appear here as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series may be read here. For access to individual installments, please consult the titles listed under the category Wagner’s Ring to be found in the Master Archives Index.]

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Writing In Prose Fiction

Posted by acdtest on July 15, 2003

Writing In Prose Fiction

eblogger Michael Blowhard has some well-informed and intriguing thoughts on the importance of the writing in a work of prose fiction.

How important is the word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence writing — I always think of it as “writin'” — in a work of prose fiction?

I know all too well that the professor-and-critic-approved line is that for a work of true literature, the writin’ is everything. Sigh. Lord, am I aware of this. I dispute it, though. I don’t see — given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary — how the case can even begin to be made. There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all.

Interesting observation that last, and one thoroughly dependent on just what one means by “the writing,” or, as Michael puts it, “the writin'”. I confess I’m unable to get a secure handle on just what Michael means by his use of the term, but he seems to be saying that, in a curious way beyond my ability to comprehend, the writing can somehow be disconnected from the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction as his “There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all” appears to suggest. In fact, both those cases are something of a contradiction in terms, and quite impossible.

There are two fundamental elements that go to make a work of prose fiction, both of which are sine qua non. First, and foremost of course, is the story. No story, no work of prose fiction. Lousy story, lousy work of prose fiction. Nothing will save a work of prose fiction that’s absent a first-rate story. Second, is human characters (whether they take actual human form or not) through whom the story is played out.

At bottom, that’s pretty much the whole deal. It would seem all the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction — character development, narrative structure, pacing, plotting, “color” (i.e., excitation of sensations of time and place), and tone (e.g., lyrical, dramatic, epical, confessional, etc.) — are simply details of construction.

But then, as we all by now should know, in the details is where God and the Devil reside, and those details, all of them, are entirely dependent on, and inseparable from…the writing. If the writing, “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” is, say, notable for its genuine poetic expressiveness but in some way fails to serve at least adequately the story and the characters as well as all the details of construction above enumerated — which is to say, fails its sole raison d’être — then, its genuine poetic expressiveness notwithstanding, it’s bad prose fiction writing.

Lolita is a great and powerful novel not because Nabokov writes beautiful-sounding, evocative, even poetic prose “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence” (which indeed he does), but because he’s got a great story to tell, great human characters through whom the story is played out, and because word-to-word, and sentence-by-sentence his writing unselfconsciously serves supremely well the story, the characters, and all the details that go to make a work of prose fiction, the resulting gestalt making this particular instance a great and powerful novel as it could hardly otherwise do.

Another example of a great and powerful novel is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The story is undeniably great, and the characters undeniably intriguing, but the writing appears perfectly straightforward, almost ordinary if quietly elegant, and it seems there’s nothing special about it involved at all — until, that is, one reaches novel’s end and realizes with a jolt of amazement that in less than 200 pages Fitzgerald has managed through that writing to create a menagerie of characters and an entire created world that are so full and rich and real that it’s impossible to see how it all could have been limned in less than a four-inch-thick-War-and-Peace-length volume.

One helluva gestalt, that.

On the other hand, the writing in the novels of my acquaintance of John Updike, beautiful and beautifully crafted as it all is “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” fails in some way (different ways in different novels, if I remember correctly) to fulfill the imperative of its raison d’être, and in consequence the novels, in my not-so-humble opinion, fail as well, beautiful though the writing qua writing may be.

Truly great prose fiction writing — the sort noted above in the cases of Nabokov and Fitzgerald — is a kind of magic, and the gestalt that emerges as its consequence, though expected, ultimately a mystery. The one thing that can be stated with certainty about truly great writing in a work of prose fiction, however, is that, like a first-rate story and human characters, it’s an element sine qua non.

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What’s It All About, Alfie?

Posted by acdtest on July 14, 2003

What’s It All About, Alfie?

eblogger Aaron Haspel writes:

It is to obsessed lunatics that we owe the greater part of the world’s permanent literature. For most of history authors not only didn’t make money from their work, but often risked their lives by publishing it. Although it is impossible to assess a counterfactual, I see no evidence that this seriously impoverished literature. To take an obvious instance, Russian literature flowered under conditions so harsh as to be nearly unfathomable. Thomas Gray may believe in “mute inglorious Miltons,” but I don’t. Neither does Ludwig von Mises, who essentially exempts art, or art worth having, from economic calculation.

Quite right. In the rarefied domain of so-called literary fiction especially, the question of economics is a non-question, and pretty much a non-consideration. Oh, sure, wannabe writers of all sorts of fiction fantasize extravagantly and often about six-figure advances; glowing reviews from the literati (which reviews the wannabe is forever mentally composing); multiple appearances on big-time TV venues; and chauffeured book tours complete with plush hotels, champagne lunches, and the adoration of the masses, all of which will conspire to bring truckloads of filthy lucre to the deserving author who, like all authors of litrachure, earns his living, cardigan-clad and pipe in mouth, in the cozy comfort of his very own book-lined writing room, crackling fire going in the natural stone fireplace of his woodsy retreat high in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

In other words, a wannabe author fantasy that even in pale part will become the real-life experience of but a vanishingly-small few.

So, is that any reason to attempt to dissuade anyone from having a go at it even in the esoteric domain of trade book literary fiction? Not a bit of it. No writer of literary fiction, or writer of any sort of fiction for that matter, decides to write based on expectations of economic return and dreams of the writerly life (an exception to prove the rule follows momentarily). He writes because he’s in some way compelled to, either by his gift (very rare), his imagined gift (very common), or his simple need to just “get it down on paper” for whatever internal emotional reason(s), and whatever the it. What’s to warn against?

True, time was not too long ago that the publishing biz was, for the novice writer, a forbidding and daunting mystery. No longer. Today, a novice has at his disposal any number of reference and self-help books and periodicals, a few of them actually even worthwhile, that can give him all the skinny he needs to get a fair sense of the treacherous waters into which he’s about to plunge, as well as provide him well-proven rules and techniques for their reasonably safe if not guaranteed successful navigation.

In short, any fairly diligent wannabe writer of fiction who wants to make a go of it today pretty much knows from the get-go the dangers and vagaries of the treacherous waters that lie before him, although he won’t really understand the full implications of their perils until he actually jumps in, and starts swimming in earnest.

About that exception I above mentioned: Some years ago I sat down to write a so-called “cozy” mystery novel, and did so in cold blood, so to speak and no pun intended. I had no inner compulsion to write a work of fiction, and knew for an almost certainty I lacked any gift for it, which is why I chose to write a formula genre work. Craft alone, I thought (wrongly, as it turned out), might there be sufficient. And I made the attempt strictly in prospect of making a modest but not paltry dollar return for my labors. My reasons for making that attempt (which, pardon me, I do not mean to share as they’re neither germane to the instant purpose, nor any of your business) were actually quite practical, and at the time, and under certain then prevailing conditions, made good economic sense as attempting freelance article work or embarking on a work of non-fiction (both of which would more properly have been suitable to any small gift I might possess) would have required time and money expenditures I was unwilling to make or risk.

My case, however, is the exception, as I said, and a rare one at that. Few — very few — can manage to be as cold-blooded as was I in the face of such a typically ego-freighted matter. Most interestingly, however, cold-blooded and practical as my attempt was, I found myself not in the least immune to the wannabe fantasies above enumerated, which insinuated themselves almost against my will, and in spite of my fairly solid knowledge of just how the publishing biz works.

‘Tis surpassing strange and marvelous, the workings of the human psyche.

Indeed it is.

So, is there a moral of sorts to all this, the rare exception notwithstanding?

There is. In the matter of the writing of works of fiction, it’s about impulse, Stupid, never economics.

Prospective well-meaning Cassandras take note.

Posted in Print Publishing, Writing | Comments Off on What’s It All About, Alfie?

Wagner’s Ring: Part I

Posted by acdtest on July 13, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part I: Prelude

will write no more operas,” wrote Richard Wagner to a friend in 1851 after having completed in 1848 the first full prose sketch of his planned Nibelungen drama (in 1850 planned as two grand heroic operas called Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried) and Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), for which two operas he also completed the libretti), but before he’d written so much as a note of the music (other than brief, tentative sketches in 1850 for some music for Siegfrieds Tod which he ultimately discarded), and before he had even the vaguest conscious idea of just how such a work could be set to music. He knew only that existing musical and operatic forms could not contain it, and that such forms would have to be scrapped totally.

As always with Wagner, his flawless instincts and intuition in matters musical and dramatic never failed him, pointing him always toward the right path, but never letting him set foot upon it until he was fully prepared musically, dramatically, and emotionally to trod it securely with unfaltering and unerring step. It was not until late in 1853, after completing the finished poems (libretti) of what was now a truly mammoth four-work drama to be titled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung’s Ring), that Wagner felt himself ready to begin work on the music for the first of these, Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), and not until late 1874 that he finished the music for the last, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The vast undertaking has no parallel nor any equal in the whole history of art, and not until another possessing Wagner’s colossal, multifaceted genius makes his appearance on the world stage will we again see a work of its like.

It’s traditional to begin articles such as this with an at least brief history of the many twists, turns, and blind alleys attendant the composition of the Ring, along with an at least brief discussion of the sources upon which Wagner drew for his Nibelungen drama. We, however, will dispense with that as, first, the information is available in any number of existing volumes that the interested student may readily consult, and second, and more to the point, because such information, while of legitimate historical and biographical interest in its own right, is of no value whatsoever in understanding the finished artwork. One could even go so far as to assert that such information is of clear negative value as it often leads to distortions of understanding, or to outright misunderstanding. As with all genuinely great works of art, the finished artwork contains within itself all that’s needed for understanding, and requires only that one be sufficiently open and properly prepared to receive it.

Perhaps the very first requirement of proper preparation for understanding the Ring is that one must be willing to jettison entirely one’s ordinary opera expectations, and indeed any ideas one may have of what constitutes an opera. Wagner was not being merely rhetorical when in 1851 he said he would write no more operas (at that time he’d already written six, three of which — Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin — are still in the standard repertoire). He was true to both the letter and spirit of his word, and from that time forward wrote only what he then termed music-dramas, even though through long habit common usage persisted in referring to these later works as operas.

So, what’s the difference between opera and music-drama? In short, just about everything. As has here been previously pointed out, all the two share in common is the technical apparatus of performance: an orchestra and conductor, singer-actors, a sung text (libretto), and appropriate mise en scène. Beyond that, music-drama bears to Italian-form opera as does Italian-form opera to the Broadway musical or rock opera.

Typically (there are exceptions), Italian-form opera, for all its often convoluted melodrama and grand staging, has but one primary purpose: To act as showcase for the human voice in song (and at this juncture, I wish to explicitly except the Italian-form operas of Mozart from this discussion, as they’re a separate issue altogether). Not to put too fine a point on it, Italian-form opera is about singers. Not so music-drama. Music-drama is about the drama, and singers are merely one part of the musico-dramatic apparatus, and not the most important part, either. That role falls to the orchestra within which is contained and played out the very core of the drama itself, the sung libretto and on-stage action acting as armature for the drama in rendering matters specific and concrete which music alone is incapable of rendering. In music-drama all the elements of the technical apparatus exist to serve the drama. In Italian-form opera they exist to serve the singers.

Another difference between Italian-form opera and music-drama is the difference in how one must prepare oneself to receive the work. With the former it’s enough to have a vague idea of what the singers are saying in their stop-the-action arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc. If the singers sing beautifully enough, are halfway decent actors, and are not totally grotesque as stage presences, understanding approximately what they’re saying when they sing is enough to give one the understanding required.

Again, not so with music-drama. There one must pretty much know exactly what the singers are saying when they sing, for absent that knowledge one will become hopelessly lost because rather than action-stopping arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc., in music-drama there are, from beginning to end, but seamless melodic lines which are the approximate equivalent of the spoken dialogue of a dramatic stage play (approximate because in a stage play, unlike music-drama, the whole of the drama is contained within the dialogue itself). Miss what’s being said in music-drama’s sung dialogue, and one misses all concrete dramatic and psychological detail, as well as all that’s concrete and centering in story and plot. But most importantly of all, absent a full knowledge of the sung dialogue, what one will miss is the hallmark gestalt produced by the organic union of text and music that gives music-drama its name, and its very raison d’être.

Which brings us to the famous Wagnerian device of leitmotif; the device of using musical phrases or figures to represent (but typically not onomatopoetically) persons, places, things, abstract ideas, and even states of mind, which device although not invented by Wagner was developed by him to a previously unimaginable degree of symphonic complexity; a veritable musical tour de force unequaled by any composer before or since. Wagner’s melodic and harmonic metamorphoses, permutations, and contrapuntal symphonic development of these leitmotifs are at the heart of music-drama, the Ring most especially, and one might imagine that an intimate knowledge of all the Ring leitmotifs (with their permutations and metamorphoses they number over a hundred) would be prerequisite for one’s understanding of the tetralogy. You’ll be relieved to learn, I’m certain, that such is not the case. One’s understanding of and response to the Ring would be deepened by such intimate knowledge, of course, but some experts’ notions to the contrary, Wagner created his music-dramas to speak directly to the emotions of an audience, none of whom he counted on to be trained musicians or musicologists. The leitmotifs will speak to you and work their magic whether you’re aware of their individual presences or not, so you may put your mind at ease concerning them.

And now, that’s all quite enough for this introductory article. It doesn’t say nearly all that can be said, but says sufficient to prepare you for the next installment wherein we’ll discuss the first music-drama, or as it’s called, the First Day (or Vorabend (Fore-evening), depending on whether one views the Ring as a tetralogy or as a trilogy with an introductory music-drama, as Wagner viewed it),* of Wagner’s great tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold.

*Throughout this series, we will treat the Ring as a tetralogy, and number the Days accordingly.

[Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the Ring, further installments of which will appear here as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series may be read here. For access to individual installments, please consult the titles listed under the category Wagner’s Ring to be found in the Master Archives Index.]

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Harry Potter And The Elitist

Posted by acdtest on July 10, 2003

Harry Potter And The Literary Elitist

‘m late to the party, I know, having only in the past week taken up the Harry Potter books, compelled finally by the unprecedented publishing success of the series. I’m no fan of genre fiction generally, and near the very bottom of my list is fantasy fiction (I managed to get through The Lord of the Rings many years ago, but just barely), edged out of last place only by science fiction, a genre I most heartily loathe largely because of its hey-look-at-me use of the weird and paradoxical in physical and astronomical theory, and its risible literary pretensions.

I’ve now read Books 1-4 of the Harry Potter series (I’ll not read Book 5 until it’s available in paperback), and I’m somewhat chagrined to confess I found them all rather charming (which is, after all, only fit), even engaging (I read all four books — some 1800 pages — within the single span of some five days; for me a record of sorts). J.K. Rowling is clearly a storyteller of considerable narrative gift who immediately calls to mind no-one so much as the Conan Doyle of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales, and a writer of a not inconsiderable fantastical imagination. The Harry Potter books are, for the most part, a clever and skillful patchwork of fairytale, saga, and mythological motifs and devices intelligently and imaginatively applied, with a soupçon of Star Trek and Star Wars, and a fair bit more than a soupçon of English boarding school movies cum Nancy Drew and Andy Hardy.

And it all somehow works.

One might be tempted to level the charge that the motifs and devices, as well as the various character types that act them out in the Potter books, are cliché or stereotypical, and one would be wrong. They’re neither clichés nor stereotypes but archetypes, which is why, in the hands of someone with the requisite imaginative narrative gift and skills, they all can be employed again and again, and still remain fresh, and psychologically resonant and affective.

As charming and engaging as the books are, however, there’s about them something I find troubling. As A.S Byatt put it in her Op-Ed piece on the Potter books for the New York Times (which piece in large part, but not entirely, echoes many of my own thoughts): “Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous.” I would go further and say that magic world evidences a seeming dogged, even dogmatic, eschewal of the numinous. The reason for this eschewal is itself a mystery; one for which I’ll not even attempt to provide a solution. That the books are written for children (their surprising number of adult readers notwithstanding and beside the point) is no answer at all. Neither is it a justification or excuse for the apparent by-design avoidance of even so much as a suggestion of some deeper mystery behind the up-front magic.

The series’ central schtick — its hook — is the portrayal of the magic world of wizards and witches — in Hogwarts and environs as well as in the Muggle world — in matter-of-fact, quotidian, even utilitarian terms, and that’s a big part of the series’ charm and appeal. But in some measure, and always at work in the deep background at least, must be sensed a numinous source of the magic in that world, good and evil. Absent that necessary sense, what one ends up with is nothing more resonant than the illusionist magic of the stage magician, or the cartoon magic of a TV witch sitcom.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that the Harry Potter books ought to be something their author never intended them to be. I’m saying merely that in each of the first four volumes I’ve read, there came a point in the narrative that fairly pleaded, cried out even, for a deft suggestion of some deeper mystery behind the outward magic — the chapter “The Forbidden Forest” in The Sorcerer’s Stone; the chapter “The Heir of Slytherin” in The Chamber of Secrets; the chapter “The Servant of Lord Voldemort” in The Prisoner of Azkaban; and the chapter “Flesh, Blood, and Bone” in The Goblet of Fire — the heeding of which plea, even by something as tacky and dumb as The Force of the Star Wars movies (although an imaginatively gifted storyteller such as Rowling could certainly come up with something a great deal better), giving to the whole a resonance, depth, contextual believability, and sense of the special it could in no way otherwise achieve. But instead, in each case the plea went unacknowledged and unanswered, with the unhappy result that the books are experienced as a mere entertainment and diversion of the moment, neither different nor distinguishable in aesthetic or philosophic thrust and substance from any number of TV series targeted at the MTV crowd, or from big-screen bubblegum flicks.

That’s all rather a pity for us readers. It’s not often a gifted storyteller like Ms. Rowling comes along, and hungry little piggies that we are, when one does, we want the maximum she’s capable of providing. In the instant case, as good as the feeding was, one is left with the feeling one has somehow been cheated at the trough.

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A Lack Of Critical Mass

Posted by acdtest on July 8, 2003

A Lack Of Critical Mass

his Newsweek article by Douglas McLennan on the reasons for the present sad state of classical music in this country declares a simple but fundamental truth. In the classical music world, no media buzz, no legitimacy and no audience. While it’s true that it’s possible for meaningful buzz to be generated sans media participation, it’s a very rare occurrence indeed. The media is what generates buzz, and in the world of classical music, at the center of that media buzz generator is first, foremost, and always, the classical music critic. What McLennan is bemoaning — and he’s spot-on correct about it — is the lack of a healthy and vital mass of informed critical ferment in the classical music world today. Or as he puts it:

[T]he main reason classical music is no longer on the menu of cultural literacy is that somehow it lost the critical mass of a critical community that listens/talks/writes about music as though it matters and where there are frequent debates, multiple judgments and competing ideas to keep things energized. How can you build artistic consensus that keeps renewing itself if you lack critical voices? Without that consensus, it’s difficult to argue that classical music deserves a place at the table.

Just so.

Today what we have in the mainstream media for the most part are either critical incompetents, or critics who think as does this culture commentator who, speaking of capital A art generally, opines that

…the old freshman-in-college quarrels of “Is it art?” “Is it great art?” [are] to my mind, at least these days, Who cares? Or rather: I prefer to see [discussions] about art not get hung up on such questions. […] [There are] people who, bizarrely enough, like these discussions, and there are also people who like to come out gunning for a fight. Snooze-ola. Spare me. Puh-leeze. I’m outta here. […] [What’s of interest are] such topics as, How did you respond? What moved or touched you? What did you notice about the work, about how it’s put together, how it works, and what it reflects?

How very progressive. How very postmodern. How very today.

Such attitudes, by and large, seem to be typical of our current crop of mainstream classical music critics as well, and are reflective of the degree of effeteness to which they’ve largely degenerated. When genuine performing artists and composers argue among themselves about classical music (as opposed to the poseurs, who are legion and no better than the present-day mainstream critical crowd), they argue about things such as music and non-music, great music and trash, and meticulously detail their cases and state their claims in terms as hard-nosed and absolute as if they were so many propositions of Euclid. And, if it comes to it, as it on rare occasion does, they’re ready to defend those cases and claims with fisticuffs if need be.

The generally debased and PC-contaminated crowd which today constitutes the mainstream classical music critical fraternity relishes nothing so much as engaging in discussion of classical music in ways more appropriate to genteel luncheon and dinner parties where it’s considered the height of gauche to argue in any manner that might upset the digestion of those seated at table. Arguing in that gentle, genteel way makes members of this critical crowd feel they’ve been winning, intellectually probing, stimulating, and “with it,” when all they’ve managed to be is glib; nattering on about nothing of real substance or pertinence while at the same time keeping hands clean, hair un-mussed, and digestion undisturbed — theirs and their readers’.

Well, I’ve a bit of news for this critically well-manicured bunch: Your brother mainstream classical music critics of prior eras would have none of such gentle, genteel pap, even in proper and oh-so-civilized Victorian England. When they discussed or wrote on matters musical they were not in the least afraid of dirtying hands, mussing hair, and disturbing digestion. They carried on their dialogues red in tooth and claw if need be, as in those culturally more concerned eras we had in the mainstream media that healthy and vital mass of informed classical music critical ferment the lack of which today McLennan so bemoans; a critical fraternity made up of courageous and erudite classical music critics who felt that anything musical worth arguing about was worth perishing for.

Will we in future ever again regularly see their like in the mainstream?

Only The Shadow knows, but I have my doubts.

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