Monday, June 23, 2008

Hooray for the Internet

This wonderful list of critics' most-hated books is one of the more interesting pieces of journalistic writing I've read lately. Somehow, the vast majority of critics are ten times more interesting when they get to unleash the full force of their invective on a hated artist than when they're enthusing about a personal favourite. There are only a handful of books on the list I've even heard of, but I devoured the list with glee, whereas if it were a list of critic's favourite picks from 2007, with reasons why they loved them, my eyes would have glazed over and I'd be looking for funny videos on YouTube or something.

And, the wonders of the Internet! I would never in a million years have found that article by myself; it only came to my attention because Tim Mangan linked to it in a post about his least favourite piece of music (Carmina Burana, apparently), and because A. C. Douglas in turn wrote a post taking him to task for attacking Orff's score. (And it goes even farther back than that: Mangan linked to it from About Last Night, which linked to it from Lit Saloon.) Fifteen years ago, I'd have to read a dozen newspapers to find out about these cool articles.

For what it's worth, I only really know Orff as an educational composer; there's some terrific music in the Schulwerk, and some of his beginning piano pieces are as good as the equivalent pieces in Bartok's Mikrokosmos. So I can't claim great familiarity with Carmina Burana. I've heard it a couple of times without paying much attention, and haven't been motivated to listen again - there are too many other choral pieces that interest me more. But I think Mangan's off-base in some of his criticisms of the piece. Its "overly sentimental and tragic" worldview, for example, is part and parcel of medieval writing; you can't get through Chaucer, or Boethius's Consolation, without coming to terms with their obsession with fate and their fondness for long-winded laments. From our point of view, this just seems like maladjusted whining, but it's not Orff's fault that not all of us are medievalists.

The part that really bothers me, though, is the tossed-off comment that "the Nazis loved it, too". This sort of criticism - used against people like Orff, Strauss, Kabalevsky and, until recently, Shostakovich - turns music criticism into a popularity contest. If the Bad Guys liked it, it must be musically suspect somehow. No-one ever seems to propose the reverse, which logically should follow - that people of high moral character like Nelson Mandela are necessarily better judges of music, and that the music they like is of higher quality. (Full disclosure: I have no idea what kind of music Mr. Mandela prefers to listen to.) Totalitarian regimes like the Nazis or Stalinists tended to prefer musical works with the classic per aspera ad astra trajectory, rising from mysterious beginnings through turmoil to a triumphant conclusion - but works like these can just as well represent the hopes and aspirations of the oppressed. Think of Sibelius's works becoming the standard-bearer for Finnish nationalism, or of prisoners in the concentration camps forming orchestras to perform the same Austro-German symphonic repertoire that their captors listened to in the theatres. That's why it doesn't matter if Orff was a Nazi or not, or whether Richard Strauss cooperated with the Third Reich voluntarily or under duress, or whether Shostakovich's symphonies represent his subtle criticism of the Soviet regime or his collaboration with the government's requests. If the music succeeds, it will fit either interpretation while transcending them both.

Note that I'm not taking a position on the actual merits of Carmina, which I hardly know. It may well be a terrible piece of music, but music critics, like T. S. Eliot's Thomas Becket, ought to resist the temptation to "do the right thing for the wrong reason."

(And speaking of the miraculous serendipity of the Internet - Googling that quotation from Murder in the Cathedral yields a poll from 2006 which named St. Thomas the second-worst Briton of the past ten centuries, behind Jack the Ripper but beating out King John and Fascist leader Oswald Moseley. Frankly, I think this bizarre and inexplicable result is clear proof, if any were needed, of the out-of-control capriciousness of Internet polls.)


Anonymous said...

The Chorus did Carmina this past term -- with Kevin MacMillan as one of our soloists, actually (I believe he teaches in your fac).

I can't debate Carmina's place in the musical world, but I will tell you that it is hekka fun to sing.

Anonymous said...

Last I heard, it's going to be the major work for the biennial DWFoM uber-concert (orchestra+choirs), so you'll get a chance to sing it. From experience, I can say that it's a brutally exhausting sing, but a thrilling one all the same--especially when Kevin is the Drunken Abbot--which is where I first encountered him, in fact =P

Also, I don't know what music Mandela listens to, but I suppose he might be partial to Peter Gabriel these days (