The greatness of the Swiss cultural and art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1918-97) is unquestionable. Splendid are even his lesser works, like the Weltgeschichtlische Betrachtungen, whose English translation, Reflections on History, I don’t possess. From time to time I dip into the original, as I did the other day, when his thoughts on music caught my eye. Some of this I translate herewith.
“Its [music’s] effect is (i.e., in the right instances) so great and direct that the feeling of gratitude immediately seeks out the creator and coincidentally proclaims his greatness. The great composers belong among the undisputed geniuses. More questionable is their perpetuity. It depends in the first place on the ever renewed efforts of posterity, to wit performances, which must compete with performance of all subsequent and (each time) contemporary works, while other arts can display their products once and forever; and depends in the second place on the survival of our tone system and rhythm, which is not everlasting. Mozart and Beethoven may become for a future mankind as incomprehensible as might now be to us the Greek music so highly praised by its contemporaries. They will remain great on credit, on the enthusiastic say-so of our times, like, say, the painters of antiquity, whose works have been lost.”
Which makes me wonder: am I that postulated man of the future who has no use for Mozart and Beethoven—and throw in for good measure Bach and all others before the coming of the Romantics, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz and the rest. I have a huge collection of CDs, but nothing before circa 1827. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven (yes, even the vaunted late sonatas and quartets) are anathema to me.
Now all you music lovers may ask, as did once a minor conductor of my acquaintance, “Do you then not love music?” But, of course, I do, only I start closer to home. And I proceed to many a composer, even little-known ones (see my book John Simon on Music), up to some of the more recent abominations, e.g., Pärt, Penderecki, Gorecki, Cage, Stockhausen, Glass, Reich and their likes, but not including the Messiaen of Quartet for the End of Time, a good deal of Henze, and some of Thomas Adès. And I love such slightly earlier composers as Frank Martin, Barber, Britten, Lutosławski and Dutilleux.
Who, though, are my desert island composers, my necessaries? Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and a bunch of other Frenchmen, but not Saint-Saëns and Lalo, and only some of Milhaud. Certainly Satie and Poulenc, and Bartók and Kodály, Berg and Stravinsky and early Schoenberg, the wonderful Janáček and Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and some other Slavs and Central Europeans, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, and a couple of other Brits (but Elgar only for the Cello Concerto), and yes, the delightful Nino Rota. Also Latinos like Falla, Villa Lobos, Guarnieri and the superb Montsalvatge. And still others—check out, I say again, John Simon on Music.
The late Alan Rich, who loved to disagree with me, wondered how I could publish a whole book on music and mention Mozart only once, and even that in a quotation from someone else. My answer: Easily. Here again is Burckhardt on music: “Now it is fantastic mathematics—and now again all soul [lauter Seele], infinitely distant and yet intimately close.” Well yes: I don’t like it when it is merely fantastic mathematics, or, rather, geometry, governed by the kind of rules that make a square: four equal sides. Such, for me, is Mozart: one bar pretty much replicates the next three or more. (You are free to call me anything uncomplimentary you choose.) Repetition or near-repetition is to me one of the curses of pre-1927 music. A Bard College female student of mine once admonished, “Be charitable, John, toward mathematicians. They are failed poets.”
Failed poets—that covers for me (I keep stressing, for me) those earlier composers. Whereas something like the Janáček Sinfonietta or the Third Piano Concerto of Bartók or Prokofiev—that is poetry set free. It can be achieved even by somewhat lesser composers, say, Tcherepnin, Franz Schmidt (his Fourth Symphony), or much of Dohnanyi. And certainly by Hindemith, Honegger and Hahn, to name only a few H’s. (But not, of course, Handel, Haydn—though preferable to Mozart—or that ghastly Vivaldi.)
But what about failed poetry? Are the poets of earlier eras uninteresting? Certainly not. To say nothing of Shakespeare, a genius for all ages, but also Wyatt, Skelton, Donne, Marvell, Rochester, Prior, Pope, and a lot of others, to mention only early Brits. Still, my great passions are for later poets: MacNeice, Ransom, Cummings, and especially Robert Graves; also the Jameses, Dickey and Wright. Non-Anglos? Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Valéry, Prévert, Queneau, Celan, Rilke, George, Hofmannsthal, Kastner, Lenau, Morike, Storm, Morgenstern, Cavafy, Ritsos, Montale, and those amazing Hungarians: Ady, József, Babits, Kosztolányi, Illyés, Pilinszky and Radnóti, and one Serb, Vasko Popa. See my Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry.
But back to music, and Burckhardt’s “all soul.” What exactly is soul in music? I can readily point to it in, say, the piano music and melodies of Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, to name only Frenchmen; in operas like, among others, Otello, Falstaff, Wozzeck, Lulu, Bluebeard’s Castle, The Fiery Angel, Jenufa, Vanessa, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome, Pelléas et Mélisande; in symphonic music by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Stravinsky, to name only Russians.
But define it? I defy anyone to do so. I can only say that it is what moves me, stirs up my insides, would make me sing or hum it if I knew how. What, in a Hungarian phrase, crawls (caressingly) into the ear. What makes me forget my worries, my inadequacies, my mortality. What makes me want to hear it again and again. And what reinforces my love for my wife, even though her music is very different from mine.
Finally, what are certain works at least part of which elicit a swoon of ecstasy, that could sustain me in the dire case of all other music being lost? And let us assume that I’m allowed no more than a baker’s dozen.
So here, in no particular order, are fourteen sublime works by thirteen composers: Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto and Souvenirs ballet, Ibert’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp, Mompou’s song cycle Combat del somne, Montsalvatge’s Lullaby for a Small Negro Boy, Martin’s Concerto for 7 Winds and Strings, Mahler’s Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, Debussy’s La plus que lente, Ravel’s ballet L’Enfant et les sortileges, Kodály’s Approaching Spring (Közelítő Tél) for baritone and orchestra, Bartók’s Second Suite for Orchestra, Sallinen’s opera The Red Line, Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (I cite the works that include the beloved passages). However, I do hope it will never come down to no more than that.