Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A passel of links

The blogroll on the right column has been out of date for months. A few out-of-date links have now been corrected, and the following links have been added:
  • One composer: Karl Henning blogs at Henningmusick about his music and the compositional process behind it, and posts the occasional concert review.
  • Two critics: John Terauds of the Toronto Star blogs at Sound Mind about musical events in the GTA and beyond. I have often disagreed with Terauds's newspaper reviews, but his blog is one of the best online resources for the classical music scene in my hometown. Tim Mangan writes for the Orange County Register in California, a part of the continent I have never so much as visited, but his commentary on Classical Life is always an enjoyable read.
  • One anti-critic: The Detritus Review is dedicated to raising the standard of classical music journalism by savagely tearing apart bad newspaper reviews. Viewer discretion is advised.
  • One cultural review site: I still don't quite understand the meaning or purpose behind Hilobrow, but I think I'm all right with that. The writers are not concertina brows precisely, but they seem to be natural Concertina Brow allies in the ongoing war against boring middlebrow reductionism.
  • One political philosopher: Turnabout is maintained by polymath lawyer James Kalb, who comments on political issues from the perspective of traditionalist conservatism. Most political blogs are nasty and polemical and thus ultimately tedious and futile; Turnabout is consistently sober and well-reasoned, and is therefore provocative in the best sense.
  • Finally, All Manner of Thing, which as its name suggests is difficult to fit into any particular category. Craig Burrell comments insightfully on books, music, and ecclesial matters, and occasionally shares such recipes as "Charcoal Chicken Soup Base."

Finally, my article on editorial revisions in hymn texts has now gone to press; it appears in this month's Anglican Planet. I'm delighted to be associated with TAP, a fine publication whose contents I've often enjoyed in the past.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The joy of fonts

I've posted before about the ins and outs of editorial policy in musical editions. There's much more to an edition than meets the eye; the editor's views on the music will intrude upon the score even (nay, especially) if the edition is supposed to be an objective, scientific, "Urtext" publication. To get the fullest possible view of a piece of music from the distant past, one really ought to consult multiple editions, and to get to know the original sources and notation. For many performers, this sort of work is tedious drudgery; I love it. Working with different editions, you get to know their distinctive aesthetics - the bright primary colours of 1960s Breitkopf scores, the distinctive marbled texture of a Schott cover, the overpriced Alphonse Leduc scores with their unusual page sizes and advertisements for other publications on the back cover, and the particularly stern anti-photocopying warnings on Chester scores. Digital scores may well be the wave of the future, but I certainly hope not; it would be a distinct loss in humanity and personality.

Entirely apart from the editorial decisions that go into the text, I feel that the actual typography of a musical score has a greater impact on performance than has been generally supposed. This was brought home to me recently when I happened to compare scores by Stravinsky and Schoenberg side by side. The Schoenberg, published by Universal Editions, was all thick beams and florid curlicues; the Stravinsky, published by Boosey and Hawkes, was more streamlined, full right angles and hair-thin beams. Besides demonstrating two different approaches to music typesetting, this seemed to illustrate the differences in the two composers' aesthetics, with Schoenberg's nervous Expressionism and Stravinsky's no-nonsense neoclassicism. See for yourself what a difference typesetting can make to the "feel" of a piece for the performer: compare this 1842 edition of a Byrd motet (free on IMSLP):
with this modern edition by David Fraser (free on CPDL):
There are some obvious differences, of course - the older edition uses C clefs, which few singers are now comfortable reading, and Adds! Exclamation! Marks! - but the typography alone makes an enormous difference to the apparent character of the music on the page. Yet there seems to be no musicological work in this area (the psycho-typography of music?), nor could I find a good general book on the typesetting of musical scores, so I turned to a general typographical source: Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style.

Do your eyes glaze over when you contemplate reading a 352-page book about typesetting? So did mine, dear reader, but approximately half of that length consists of appendices (alphabetical lists of fonts, letterforms, great historical typographers, printing terms, and suggestions for further reading). Do you know nothing about typography and fonts, and think the subject must be deadly boring? Fear not, for I was once as you are: I was vaguely aware that Times New Roman is the Coors Light of fonts, but couldn't tell you how it differed from any other typeface, or what was so bad about it. I picked up Bringhurst's book with some trepidation, expecting to be bored out of my skull.

I shouldn't have worried. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, there are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people, and there is no reason why typography shouldn't have just as much power to fascinate as any other craft. Sure enough, the history of typography turns out to be a fascinating tale of technological, social and aesthetic change. Fonts of the Baroque period seem to capture something of that era's prolix style; the "realist" fonts of the modern era are likewise a product of their time:Bringhurst describes the evolution of letterforms, shows how the typographer's decisions can reinforce or undermine the meaning of the text, and provides some general design principles. A fascinating section describes how the physical measurements of pages can be related to the basic geometrical proportions, and how this aspect relates to the aesthetic appearance of the book, and the nature of its binding.

This seems rather technical, and it is, but Bringhurst is a good enough writer to make the book more than a dry exposition of facts. Besides being a typographer, he is a published poet and has an exhaustive knowledge of languages from ancient Greek to Tsumshian. He also has a gift for the refreshingly unlikely metaphor:
Narrow row houses flush with the street are found not only in urban slums but in the loveliest of the old Italian hill towns and Mediterranean villages. A page full of letters presents the same possibilities. It can lapse into a typographic slum, or grow into a model of architectural grace, skilled engineering and simple economy. Broad suburban lawns and wide typographical front yards can also be uninspiringly empty or welcoming and graceful. They can display real treasure, including the treasure of empty space, or they can be filled with souvenirs of wishful thinking. Neoclassical birdbaths and effigies of liveried slaves, stable boys and pink flamingos all have counterparts in the typographic world.
It is worthy of note that I found this splendid passage by opening the book to a page completely at random.

Bringhurst's book is clearly intended for use by professional typographers first and foremost. Most of his advice is useless to me; I don't want to purchase a pica stick and am not interested in spending time adjusting my word processor's kerning tables or remapping my computer keyboard to facilitate the entry of obscure Hungarian diacritics. But the book assumes no prior knowledge (all unfamiliar terms are defined in an appendix) and can be read with enjoyment by anyone prepared to enter the exciting world of typography. Returning home to read The Elements of Typographic Style became, against all odds, something to look forward to with joy at the end of a busy day. If my description sounds appealing to you, Bringhurst's book is worth your investment; if, on the other hand, you now think that I am completely insane, you might read something else instead.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week

Time and the bell have buried the day,
The black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us, tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down upon us? After the kingfisher's wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On tilting at windmills

It has become practically a commonplace of modern intellectual discourse that the so-called "Enlightenment project" of creating a rationally organized, secular society is failing. One can hardly cross the street without tripping over a critique of Enlightenment rationality, originating from a wide variety of groups that disagree with each other on all other major issues (a non-exhaustive list would include Marxists, Nietzscheans, postmodern critical theorists, neo-scholastic and Aristotleian philosophers, religious thinkers and theologians from all major strands of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, and neopaganism, not to mention a passel of historians, sociologists, and political scientists whose analysis of modernity seems free of any particular ideological preconceptions). Yet these criticisms have had no noticeable effect on the actual progress of modernization, which seems just as robust as ever. In very few cases is an anti-modern intellectual outlook combined with any clear idea of what to do about the problem. What's more, Enlightenment ideals have obviously contributed to a vast increase in our technical capabilities, and thus our basic quality of life; if we simply propose "rejecting modernity" without specifying how to proceed in doing so, the entire project seems rather bizarre. What parts of modernity are we supposed to reject - indoor plumbing?

It seems to me that the modern outlook has three essential components, which began to appear centuries before the Enlightenment:

1) Nothing has a basic character or essence that ought to be respected (nominalism)
2) Nothing can be known except by direct sense experience (empiricism)
3) A good society is one in which everyone's desires are satisfied equally (utilitarianism)

All of these premises have a certain inevitability, once you start thinking in the right direction. If the reality of universals is denied (there are no "chairs" and "triangles," just individual objects that we arbitrarily describe as "chair-like" or "triangular"), then there is no prevenient metaphysical order for our minds to apprehend. Since the universe is made up of unconnected particulars that can't be understood as part of a coherent whole, then we have no reason to take a stance on any metaphysical statements (like the existence of God) and had better stick to what we can confirm by our senses. And if there is no meaningful metaphysical order to the universe, then it's hard to see how we could justify any theory of "virtue" or "justice" - we're left with the ideal of maximized individual pleasure as the sole standard for ethical behaviour.

Besides its logical soundness, these three statements all appeal to people's direct interests. A government policy aimed to maximize the fulfillment of everyone's desires will be popular almost by definition, and a politician foolish enough to campaign on the opposite platform ("I will create policies that prevent people from fulfilling their desires!") would never reach any public office. Even #1, which seems like a bit of abstract metaphysics, is really about human freedom and self-determination. If "humans" have a set of invariable universal characteristics, then the basic model for human flourishing becomes an ecological one: we have a particular niche in the world, a particular set of goals to which we are oriented and in the pursuit of which we become most truly free. Such a model means that our ability to determine our own destiny is secondary: we are defined by our responsibilities to each other, to the rest of the world, and to the Supreme Being. If, on the other hand, there is no such thing as "humanity" but only individual humans, then we have an infinite scope to determine our own destiny and priorities.

The problems with this view of the universe are legion, and from this point the critique of modernity practically writes itself. A society built along such principles is ultimately rootless and nihilistic; when humans have infinite scope for freedom and no sense of their own limitations, they will inevitably abuse their power, at the expense of their natural environment and anyone who gets in their way. By applying an abstract calculus of "equality" to flesh-and-blood people, modernity inevitably dissolves the ties of family, national identity, and religious belief that hold us together. And because the desires of individuals and groups inevitably conflict with others (my right to set off an air-raid siren in my backyard conflicts with your right to practice the recorder next door), liberal societies have difficulty mediating between the conflicting interests of different groups in a successful way.

If you agree with this criticism, however, if you think there's something wrong with rational utilitarianism as the basis for a civil society, it's not immediately apparent what you should do about it. If you were to suddenly abandon all traces of the language of Enlightenment rationalism and spend your days loudly repudiating the entire liberal intellectual tradition since Duns Scotus, you would have no point of contact with the general culture and would soon have very few friends. Such an extremist stance insists on the total depravity of modern culture, and is thus really a form of secularized Calvinism; it ignores the real good that has been done by humans in the past five hundred years. Yes, the Third Reich would have been unimaginable in a pre-Enlightenment world, but so would Die Zauberflote. The question, then, is how we can repudiate the tendencies that gave us Hitler while retaining a connection to the culture that gave us Mozart.

This is a hard question, probably the hardest that our society currently faces. We're very far from an answer, and I suspect that at this point in history it may be impossible to find one. A real intellectual sea change, like the original Enlightenment, would likely surprise everyone and seem inevitable only in retrospect. In the meantime, antimodern ideas still have almost no place in the public square, and political debates, to the extent that they involve actual ideas as opposed to name-calling, are essentially turf wars between different forms of liberalism.

Consider, for example, the recent American health care debate. The justification for creating a nationalized health care system, from the point of view of modernity, is that access to universal health care allows individuals to pursue their own interests in a free and equal manner. This logic was opposed by the Republican party, on the grounds that the increased regulation and taxes inherent in such a system prevent individuals from pursuing their own interests in a free and equal manner. From my point of view, there is nothing to choose between the two positions, both of which assume the gratification of individuals to be the highest goal in life, and the rearrangement of society to facilitate this goal the end of political activity. No-one (that I'm aware of) made the point I wanted to see made - that it seems highly questionable whether my strep throat or your broken leg should cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and require the coordinated involvement of either corporate or government bureaucracy.

Even if the "conservative" parties were to take a wholly anti-modern and reactionary position, it's not clear that this would do any good. Suppose that our Reactionary Party was somehow able to get elected and set to work undoing all legislation that reflects Enlightenment individualism (supposing the unlikely case that they were able to agree on what "reflecting Enlightenment individualism" entails, and that there were no judicial obstacles to their project). Such a project would have no long-term success, since the basic outlook of modernity would persist, and would give rise to the same liberal political ideas as soon as the Reactionary Party lost power. The Reactionary Party's policies would also be fundamentally incoherent, as rolling back recent legislation would simply return us to an older form of liberalism - the nineteenth-century free-market individualism described so heartwarmingly in Oliver Twist - which no-one is particularly keen to see return.

Similar problems face reactionaries outside the political realm. Composer George Rochberg is celebrated in First Things for starting a "revolution" (an interesting word choice) for his abandonment of integral serialism and a return to the tonal language of the late nineteenth century - using late Beethoven, Mahler, and early Schoenberg as jumping-off points. Yet the language of chromaticism, which arguably led us into the modernist cul-de-sac in the first place, seems unlikely to lead us back out. Rochberg's late works are certainly beautiful, and they likely served a useful purpose in encouraging a more humane attitude toward composition in the academy - but we're looking for an escape from modernity, not a retreat to its more comfortable enclaves.

Our old problem - what to do as a traditionalist in an anti-traditional world - is neatly summed up by George Grant:
Life teaches one all kinds of ironies. I think irony is necessary if you're going to have your car fixed, and you can hardly live without a car in in twentieth-century North America. How can one live as a Christian in a modern university without irony? If a Christian spoke frankly in a modern university, he would have to leave. Yet is one just to give up these institutions? Therefore I don't think irony is dishonest or wrong at such points. All of you know that.
English-Speaking Justice, xix.

This is about right, I think; neither a head-on assault on modernity nor a withdrawal from civilization, but an ironic engagement with society that allows one to undermine modern ideas in a more subtle manner. In the end, after all, there is less riding on the makeup of civilization than we might think - whether our society endorses them or not, the old ideals of truth, beauty and goodness are still there. They've never gone anywhere.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On recovering modern music

I was incredibly excited to hear of Robert Reilly's book Surprised by Beauty, billing itself as a "listener's guide to the recovery of modern music." (Hat-tip to All Manner of Thing.) Reilly provides brief articles on dozens of twentieth-century composers who are frequently overlooked by standard historical texts, including some long-standing favourites of mine (Rubbra! Malipiero! Holmboe!) and even a few entirely unfamiliar names (Tveitt? Saeverud?). This, of course, is precisely the sort of thing I'm interested in; obscure twentieth-century composers are my bread and butter. What's more, Reilly's emphasis on tonal twentieth-century music is precisely in line with my own ongoing project to overturn the historiography of Unrelenting Musical Progress. Yet Reilly is also known for his polemics against atonality and the musical avant-garde, which I find rather annoying. Xenakis and Boulez are extremely rare fixtures on concert programmes these days, and panning their works simply because they're atonal accomplishes nothing other than confirming concertgoers in their instinctive dislike of music they've never heard. It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, then, that I picked up Surprised by Beauty (a used copy; the book is already out of print) and began to read.

The bottom line first: this is a very fine book. If you have any interest in tonal twentieth-century music - Shostakovich, Nielsen, or Sibelius, for example - and want to discover more music in a similar vein, this is essential reading. It will introduce you to composers you've never heard of, and describe their works so enticingly that you'll be running to the record store immediately for music by Lajtha, Vainberg, and Sallinen. (You won't find it there, of course, but it's the thought that counts.) Add to this generally superb writing and some fascinating interviews with George Rochberg, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Robert Craft, among others, and this is an essential read. Look for it in a library if you can't find a reasonably-priced copy.

That much out of the way, let's discuss what I didn't like about it. It will come as no surprise that my complaints are of two kinds: picky, pedantic corrections, and grand, sweeping philosophical disagreements. Let's get started, shall we?

First the picky details. Someone, presumably Reilly's editor, has managed to misspell the names of the following composers: Ernest Farrar, Herbert Howells, Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Honegger, and César Franck. This is not earth-shakingly important, but it's odd, given that the book is dedicated to informing people about obscure composers, who almost by definition have oddly-spelled names. I'm quite sure Reilly knows better than this, and I wish his editor had left well enough alone.

Reilly also does grave injustice to Michael Tippett, a favourite composer of mine. According to Reilly, Tippett was once a promising young composer, but then his musical talent dissolved into decadence and squalor as a result of reading too much Jung. This dubious factoid is repeated twice in the book, most infuriatingly in the article on William Mathias. (Reilly is trying to promote the non-Jung-reading Mathias at Tippett's expense. This won't work, mostly because Mathias is a mediocre epigone of Tippett.) I can understand Reilly's dislike of Tippett's later works, which I only learned to like after repeated listening, but to blame Tippett's style change on Jung gets things backwards, as Tippett's earlier works show far clearer Jungian influence than the late ones.

But there are broader issues here, issues about the nature and meaning of musical modernity. Reilly, you see, is more or less emphatically opposed to all forms of atonal or serial music. Of all the composers in the book, only Frank Martin is associated with serial writing, and his application of serialism is highly idiosyncratic and essentially tonal. Such former radicals as Rautavaara and Rochberg are fêted for abandoning serialism. The modernists Boulez, Dallapiccola and especially Schoenberg haunt the pages of Surprised by Beauty; they are Reilly's main enemies, who he blames for having forced inhuman, ugly musical creations upon the public, and for suppressing the works of worthier, tonal composers. In abandoning the tonal system, moreover, with its traditional connections to metaphysical order, they have created music that graphically depicts the death of God. The spiritual and moral rootlessness of the twentieth century is reflected in the aridity of its art music.

This, of course, is more than a matter of aesthetic preference; it's part and parcel of a longstanding intellectual critique of modernity. By dethroning God as the source of beauty, truth, and goodness, the argument runs, modernist thinkers have left no objective standard for reality other than the contingent desires of human beings. And because humans are considered to have no essential nature other than what they define for themselves, this philosophy is ultimately nihilistic: it allows no basis for human decision-making other than arbitrary acts of will. The increasing violence and decadence of Western culture are therefore merely the logical results of an essentially incoherent, nihilistic philosophy of life. One associates this line of thought primarily with Christian social critics, but the same essential point about liberal modernity has been made by such anti-religious thinkers as John Gray and Slavoj Zizek.

If the argument above is even remotely plausible, it can be applied to the arts as easily as to politics. In the absence of a metaphysical concept of beauty, there's no reason other than personal preference to use consonant intervals and key areas. Why can't dissonances be considered just as pleasant as consonances? It's no accident that Schoenberg expressed his atonal aesthetic in the language of revolutionary politics ("the emancipation of the dissonance"). If we are to reject the nihilism of modernity, Reilly might say, we should start by rejecting its musical analogue, atonality. The achievement of twentieth-century tonal composers was to step back from the brink - to realize the problem and go back to the safety of traditional harmonic and formal structures.

This argument makes sense on the surface. Unfortunately, it's too simplistic.

The problem with rejecting modernity is that it's such a comprehensive, complex thing. To find a time uncontaminated by modernist thought, you have to go at least as far back as the early 1300s (before Ockham and Scotus), if not earlier. This isn't practical; we can't eliminate all traces of the last 700 years from our minds and start again. When we read Aquinas, we do so in the light of centuries of later philosophy; when we sing plainchant, we experience it as a retreat from the noise and bustle of the everyday world. These activities may eventually seem completely natural to us, but they never fully lose their historicist character.

The problem is even greater for the composer. No creative artist can create from nothing; each composer builds on the achievements of the past. At the same time, the influences of the past are absorbed, transmuted, and reacted against; this process drives the patterns of stylistic change in music. Without influence, you have nothing to create with, but if you're nothing more than your influences, you're hardly a composer at all. What's more, every artist requires colleagues of his own generation for the exchange of ideas, occasional arguments, and petty rivalries. With a very few exceptions (Emily Dickinson comes to mind), the artist needs to be in contact with other artists.

This is where Reilly's narrative becomes problematic. The composers in his book are celebrated as daring mavericks for rejecting serialism and "returning" to tonality. But if they're mavericks, why are there so many of them? And why are they concentrated in particular geographic areas? And why do they all seem to know each other and discuss each other's work with interest? And why does their music sound different from the highly-strung chromaticism of the late nineteenth-century, which would presumably be the tonal language to which a twentieth-century composer would "return"? The answer to all of these questions is that the composers in the book are not mavericks or loners, nor are they mere reactionaries; they're part of an alternative tradition in twentieth-century music, one that offers an language different from either serialism or conventional tonal harmony. None of the composers in the book "turned back from the brink" - they just took a different fork in the path.

But the problem goes deeper than this, I'm afraid. If the problem with atonal music is metaphysical (ie: it's a manifestation of nihilistic modern hubris) rather than aesthetic (ie: it doesn't sound nice), then why do nineteenth-century composers get a free pass? Beethoven, Wagner and Debussy, in their various ways, have the same self-important attitude, the same contempt for received ideas, and the same inflated estimation of their individual creativity that we see in Schoenberg. What's the difference between them, other than that Schoenberg illustrates a later phase in the modern disease? That they built on tradition? So did Schoenberg. That their music is deeply emotional? So is Xenakis.

If we really wanted to reject all traces of modernity in our music, we would have to reject all polyphony. In literature, we would have to reject the novel; in painting, we would have to reject perspective; in politics, we would have to reject democracy. If democracy, novels, and polyphony are good things, it's because there is something good in human nature that produced them. Indeed, it's precisely because human nature rebels against nihilism that creators transmute it into art, and express something that transcends the philosophy that created it. If we were really nihilists, if we really saw no point to life other than the fulfillment of our arbitrary desires, there would be no reason to create art, or to do anything in particular. But beauty insists on springing up in the most unexpected places, and reminds us of a metaphysical reality our society denies. This is why I see no contradiction in saying that atonal works can be beautiful, and why I think Reilly's facile equation of musical dissonance with moral evil is untenable. Listen to the music for yourself and make up your own mind - you're allowed to like Schoenberg, or to dislike him, but for heaven's sake, don't let your opinion of any music be predetermined by metaphysical principles.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A final testament, or something

By a lucky coincidence, I was able to arrange my schedule so that I could attend Wednesday's premiere of the new Fifth Symphony by the late Jacques Hétu. The Toronto Symphony has played a good bit of Hétu in recent years - I think in particular of a memorable performance of his Organ Concerto in 2008, coupled with Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie. Expectations, therefore, were suitably high - the last major work of an important Canadian composer, performed by an orchestra and conductor noted for their advocacy of his music.

First, though, came The Last Round by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose music has been featured throughout the TSO's New Creations Festival, followed by La Plus Forte, a one-woman opera by Irish composer Gerald Barry.

Golijov is not normally a composer I'm wild about. His song cycle Ayre, for example, recorded by Dawn Upshaw on a disc with Berio's wonderful Folk Songs, stuck me as rather tepid and unmemorable. I admit that my knowledge of his music is superficial at best, and that my judgment is probably clouded by my instinctive mistrust of musical fashions. (I still haven't come around to Eric Whitacre, for example.) But composers can't choose their fans, and I shouldn't judge Golijov because he currently has the misfortune to be popular. The Last Round - for string orchestra, a memorial to the late Astor Piazzola - is a spectacular piece, expertly paced and impressive in its use of the instrumental forces. (The TSO performance split the orchestra in half across the stage, a double-orchestral layout familiar from any number of well-known string works; motives seemed to ricochet from one side of the stage to the other.) The first section treats the Piazzolan tango in an unconventional manner, compressing and decompressing the characteristic rhythms and motives of the style; the second is a haunting elegy, its melancholy (ironically) almost Waltonian. I am delighted to have been wrong about Golijov, and look forward to giving his previous work another try.

Gerald Barry's piece seemed to attract a certain amount of controversy. The Toronto Star review described the work as "musically dreary and repetitive," and conversations at intermission and after the performance revealed that others felt the same way. A recurring complaint was that the music simply repeated the same phrases and motives rather than representing the different moods of the text. From my perspective, this rather misses the mark; the libretto, based on a play by Strindberg, depends for its power precisely on the banality of two women's everyday conversation - during the course of which it becomes apparent that Miss Y is "the other woman" in Mrs. X's marriage. For this listener, Barry's extremely parsimonious score, with unison or two-part textures in the orchestral accompaniment, terraced dynamics, and unsentimental orchestration, created a sense of gradually mounting unease. All commenters were unanimous in commending soprano Barbara Hannigan, one of the great modern interpreters of contemporary music; she sang the role flawlessly from memory and breathed real life into a role that, in the hands of a less expert singer, would have fallen quite flat.

Jacques Hétu's new symphony was a departure from his usual style: an extended (forty-five-minute) choral-orchestral work. Its four movements depict events in French history: the first depicts the uneasy peace of the 1930s, the second the German invasion, and the third the Occupation. The fourth and longest movement is an extended choral setting of Paul Éluard's poem "Liberté," a nationalistic celebration of the joys of freedom ("And by the power of a word / I begin my life again / I was born to know you / To name you / Liberty").

For someone familiar with Hétu's previous work, this may seem odd; for me, Hétu's work has always symbolized concision, polish, and craftsmanship, but the layout of this symphony suggests monumentality, sweep, and discursiveness. A symphony with such a layout cannot help ringing all the Beethoven's Ninth alarm bells: a stage-setting opening, a rather vicious scherzo, an elegaic slow movement, and a choral-orchestral finale that resolves the tensions of the previous movements into some sort of suitably nonspecific metaphysical message. There's even a precedent for Beethoven's Ninth being turned into an Ode to Liberty - Leonard Bernstein reworked Schiller's "An die Freude" into "An die Freiheit" for a 1989 performance at the foot of the Berlin Wall. We've heard all of this before: why go through it again? And why Jacques Hétu, of all people, for the task?

There's a part of me that regards the entire Beethoven's-Ninth symphonic trajectory as inherently flawed. The symphony can be a tremendously powerful genre, and can pack a real emotional punch, but it doesn't need to be a Life-Changing Metaphysical Experience. Since Beethoven, dozens of otherwise sensible composers have struggled under the presumption that the symphony must have all-encompassing philosophical pretensions: witness Mahler's silly comment that a symphony "must contain the world" or the remark of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin that "Everything will pass, and the world will perish, but the Ninth Symphony will remain." But isn't this placing more weight on the symphony than it can bear - or than any human creation can bear? And does even Beethoven succeed at the task? Slavoj Žižek doesn't think so:

The only radical solution is to shift the whole perspective and to render problematic the very first part of the fourth movement: things do not really go wrong only at bar 331, with the entrance of the marcia Turca, they go wrong from the very start - one should accept that there is something of an insipid sham in the Ode, so that the chaos that enters after bar 331 is a kind of "return of the repressed," a symptom of what was wrong from the very beginning. . . Many of today's listeners cannot but be struck by the empty pompous character and pretentiousness of the Ode, by its somewhat ridiculous solemnity - recall what we see if we watch its performance on television: fat, self-satisfied, well-dressed singers with bulging veins, making a great effort, accompanied by ridiculous waving of hands, to get their sublime message across as loudly as possible . . . What if we displace the entire perspective and perceive the marcia as a return to everyday normality that cuts short the display of preposterous portentousness and brings us back to earth, as if it were saying "You want to celebrate the brotherhood of man? Here it is, then, real humanity. . ."?
In Defense of Lost Causes, 272-3, italics in original.

This analysis, like everything Žižek writes, is extremely controversial, but it's not difficult to see his basic point. If not in the Ninth itself, then certainly in its later followers, the capacity of the symphony to carry meaning is pushed to its breaking point and beyond. By the twentieth century, this quality is expected and becomes a formal feature in its own right: Havergal Brian's "Gothic" Symphony, the absolute summit of symphonic gigantism, is an enigmatic mass of discontinuities, its various themes so distinct from each other that they can never be meaningfully reconciled. This symphonic archetype has collapsed under its own weight, deconstructed from every possible ideological perspective and revealed for what it is: an attempt at a substitute for religious faith.

Yet even the most overdone archetype can be brought to new life by a brilliant artist with a new angle, and Hétu manages to avoid the most obvious pitfalls. In particular, the specificity of his symphonic programme saves him from destruction: he's not gesturing vaguely at the Great Ontological Something Or Other, but telling the story of a particular people at a particular historical juncture. And whatever Hétu writes will, at the very least, be well written: his musical ideas may not always be at the same high level, but he knows how to make the best of them.

The first notes of the new symphony (a horn solo, if you're wondering) were instantly recognizable as Hétu's work; a typically plangent melody accompanied in his characteristically French way. The second movement, a vicious scherzo representing the German invasion, was less characteristic. Hétu's fast movements are usually effervescent and cheerful; this was positively violent. A similar surprise awaited in the third movement: Hétu slow movements are usually pensive and emotionally intense, but this portrait of the Occupation was full of portentous timpani beats and wailing violins. One must commend the composer for expanding his emotional range so late in his career, but as the movement progressed a certain conventionality in expression revealed itself. Hétu is simply not cut out for violence or portentousness, and these movements succeeded best when the composer allowed himself to relax.

The final movement, setting a long stretch of poetry, was by necessity the most discursive. Again here the musical inspiration seemed to ebb and flow: I thought that the section nearest the end, dealing with such uplifting images as "the walls of my ennui," lost focus a bit. But the repeated refrain of the poem ("J’écris ton nom"), harmonized slightly differently each time, kept the music on track, and the final peroration seemed fully logical and inevitable.

Is this a Great Masterpiece that will edge Mahler's symphonies out of the repertoire? No. It has some formal problems, and seems to show Hétu's reach exceeding his grasp. But it's beautifully written, and its premiere was a fitting tribute to such a great composer. If he's ultimately remembered for his less ambitious earlier symphonies and concerti, the Fifth is still worth a listen; expect it to be available on the Canadian Music Centre website once the performance has been broadcast over the radio.