Saturday, September 28, 2013


I recall a conversation with a minor conductor. MC: Do you like Bach? JS: Not at all. MC: How about Mozart? JS: Ditto. MC: Beethoven? JS: Hardly. MC (exasperated): Do you like music? JS: Absolutely.

Then there is a hostile review of my book “John Simon on Music,” written by Alan Rich. We knew each other quite well without any love lost. Rich was outraged about there being in it only one mention of Mozart, and even that in a quotation from someone else.

Well, there it is: I don’t like any music before some Schubert, and not even all of his. What is all this about? Let me try to explain.

It seems to me that before the Romantics, music was constricted. I do not dispute that the two Bs and one M were important composers, but for me they were all about technique and technical innovation, but ultimately—even the tonitruous Beethoven—not truly free. Emotion, as I understand it, does not come in until the Romantics, and has been with us at least until Stockhausen and John Cage.

Now it would be nice if I were a musician and able, with illustrative examples and technical analysis, to explain the differences between, say, a passage in Mozart and one in Debussy. But, however enthusiastic, I am only a layman lacking even a college course in music, and can speak only the language of fellow laymen.

It appears to me that Bach and Mozart (Beethoven was somewhat different) wrote predictable, mathematical music, limited in scope, not unlike a caged canary’s pleasant but anodyne chirping. It was also perfectly square, by which I mean that from the first two notes of a bar you could predict the next two. Beethoven was, at any rate, impassioned, but not in a fully melodious way.

There were, of course, changes in rhythm and dynamics, and some very modest surprises. But even when the music deigned to be fast and loud, it was still wallpaper to me, which, after all, can also be loud and repeats its pattern rapidly.

Absent, for me, is what some would call sentimentality. There is no ecstasy, a sense of pathos even in the lighter colors, a stirring up of one’s feelings, beauty so intense that it almost hurts. There isn’t that mercurial quality of sudden changes from comedy to tragedy, a rhapsodic freedom to roam into supermelodiousness, into stirring harmonies and polyphony, into guarded poly- or atonality, into tunefulness that approaches the orgasmic as it fluctuates between gossamer and a kind of endearing grandiloquence. What can I say? Modulation, chromaticism, rapture.

To me, the top dozen geniuses among composers are Barber, Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Faure, Janacek, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Following them there are any number of masters, of whom I want to call attention to only a few, who, not being obvious, are easily overlooked. Among these I cite Berkeley, Dutilleux, Guarnieri, Honegger, Ibert, Martin, Martinu, Mompou, Montsalvatge, Szymanovski, A. Tcherepnin and Tansman, though for a full list of them you will have to consult “John Simon on Music,” where you will find essays on most of them.

And then there are those whom I view as opera composers, even though they may have written quite a bit of other stuff. These would be Bizet, Britten, Gounod, Mussorgsky, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, though (especially in the case of Wagner) I may consider them quite uneven.

And let me pay tribute to three popular composers who may be distinctly minor, but splendid in their way and particularly dear to me. There is, first, Nino Rota, chiefly remembered for his magnificent scores for Fellini movies. But he composed brilliantly for other filmmakers as well, and wrote classical music and operas nowise inferior to his finest film scores.

There is something about Rota’s music that can bring me very close to tears, as does much of that of Kurt Weill. He, too, was, even in his early classical compositions. close to popular music, but that, in someone like Weill or the delightful Noel Coward, is nowise diminishing, the way some of the great book illustrators are no less admirable than famous painters.

Finally, there are two composers whom I cherish for one work only, but what a work! They are Jerome Moross, whose musical “The Golden Apple,” and Ennio Morricone, whose film score for “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,” are, for me, immortal masterpieces.

Let me conclude by translating a small excerpt from an essay on music by Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773-98), an important Preromantic, who had he not died so very young would have become an even more influential German writer, though he remains notable enough as is.

Music to me is altogether an image of our life: a touchingly brief joy that arises out of nothing and dissolves into nothing. . . .  I consider music the most wondrous of inventions, because it renders human sentiments in a superhuman manner; because it reveals to us, aloft over our heads, all the stirrings of our temperament, disembodied and arrayed in golden clouds of airy harmonies. Because it speaks in a language we do not know in our routine life, one that we learned we know not where and how, and that one is inclined to regard as the tongue of angels.

Just so, dear William Henry, if may translate also your given names, you who are known as the shy and melancholy Wackenroder, happy only when listening to music. I myself can be happy in diverse ways, but my music is surely very high among them.

Monday, September 2, 2013


When my father lay dying in a Florida hospital, he asked me whether there was God and an afterlife. I was in a quandary. If I said yes, I would have betrayed my sworn conviction. (Perhaps I should have anyway.) But I certainly didn’t want to say no. I chose a middle way: I don’t know. Let the poor man have his bit of terminal hope.

Even though he is a great universal panacea, I still find it surprising how many intellectuals believe in God and his (and their) Heaven, which I view as a survival of the superstitions of medieval Christianity. Even an intellectual like Bill Buckley wrote to me that he couldn’t live on without his firm belief in being reunited with his dead wife in Heaven. I wish I could believe in that happy supraterrestrial reunion.

Belief in God among educated persons today strikes me as peculiar indeed. In the Middle Ages one could entertain such a belief, though even as early as circa 200 A.D. the Christian bishop Tertullian said “Credo quia absurdum,” I believe because it is absurd. Faith, in my estimation, is the one thing one cannot take on faith.

How can one honestly believe in a God who is different in every religion, if not every single believer? Saint Nicholas at least has been recently disenfranchised, little Virginia and her mentor notwithstanding. Alexander Pope wrote, “An honest man’s God’s noblest work of art,” which Oscar Wilde very persuasively reversed, “An honest God’s man’s noblest work of art.” I can even be touched by the humble belief of the French poet Francis Jammes in “the God of the poor, the simple God.” Yet even that was well before the Holocaust.

To be sure, there had been Torquemada and the Holy Inquisition and several varieties of genocide. But after the Six Million, how can anyone take the notion of God seriously? And even that is not all. Medieval folk could pretty much believe in a Heaven above and a Hell below. But we, with modern astronomy, space travel, geology, how can we? Is there perhaps a black hole in the universe where Paradise is hiding? Nietzsche’s God is dead; mine was stillborn.

“God” in fact has become a favorite phrase component, a self-serving battle cry for all the nations “under God.” It is what politicians invoke as part of their patriotic platform: “One nation under God,” “In God we trust,” “For God and country” are remunerative slogans on banners, coins of the realm, in demagogic sales pitches and national anthems.  It is even a word devalued by common usage in “God knows,” “Dear God,” “My God,” “God grant,” “Goddamned,” “Godawful,” “Godforsaken” and the rest. It is no wonder—although it should be—that the related Bible oath still has legal standing.

Granted even the unlikely scenario that God should become outmoded, Christians would still have their Savior, the Muslims their Prophet, and the Jews their Moses, though, to Jewish credit, the latter is invoked far less than the other two. In this respect, the ancient Greeks and Romans should be commended for having had the most entertaining myths, and the gods closest to Wilde’s honest God. A little adultery by Zeus and some mischief by Aphrodite are far more forgivable than a jihad.

All right, let’s look closer. God is credited with the creation of the universe. But surely a god who knew what he was doing would not be guilty of such disparities, such inconsistency, such favoritism. Why does one planet get several moons, while another must make do with one? Why does one planet have people, plants and animals, which no other one has? Why bother creating stars that become extinct? Why are some earthly regions too hot, others too cold?

True, there is something miraculous about the good things humanity has achieved, disregarding for the nonce the bad ones. Even something astonishing about the existence of mankind in the first place. There remains the seemingly unanswerable question: why should there be something rather than nothing? About the development from the atoms upward—or sideways—already Lucretius had creditable answers. But not even he could answer the initial, basic question that will apparently forever defy us to answer.

Deism of old and Unitarianism more recently have come up with tolerable religions—a good word be said too for the Quakers. But the fundamental question remains. My father, with whom this essay began, believed in the quasi-divinity of Nature. Very nice as such things go, but still not an answer. Saint Paul preached an Unknown God, but that was merely a proselytizing subterfuge. Up his sleeve, he had the biblical one.

None of this should discourage atheism. Strictly speaking, agnosticism would be more logical, except for its smelling of a craven compromise. Nonbelievers too must have a creed, especially in their fight against religious excesses. A banner with “We Don’t Know” on it would not stir anyone to action. We have to fight the obvious wrongs of religion: the suicide bombers, the jihads and intifadas, the seemingly ineradicable anti-Semitism. And all the wars fought in the name of religion, which is to say most of them.  But we must be against the less obvious conflicts too. There are Shiites and Sunnis of one kind or another in all of us.

Some successes there have been even without atheist support. The two Irelands seem to manage to coexist more or less peacefully, although future clashes are not inconceivable. French Canada may secede from the English one presumably without bloodshed. Look, however, at the messes in Africa and Asia. Colonialsim has gone, but wasn’t it at least marginally preferable to what has replaced it?

There are those who believe that the moral precepts and restraints of religion keep some order in the word. That without religion, wholesale anarchy and mayhem would become unbiquitous. Yet Nietzsche called Christianity the one great curse, and so it may be. Certainly some of the world’s most inviting and rousing churches are in Harlem, but how much of an Earthly Paradise have they elicited? Are the Tea Party’s born-again Christians making a better world? I doubt it.

Bernard Shaw wittily observed that the problem with Christianity was that it has never been put into practice. Are then two millennia insufficient time? I quote the final words of his Saint Joan, though perhaps in a somewhat different sense from hers: “How long, O Lord, how long?”