Monday, January 07, 2013

Richard Taruskin. For use here and maybe elsewhere. Annotations here and in the links.
..."The relation of the music to the action is unaccountable," he thought, unable to comprehend the reason why Shostakovich would have "the heroine and her lover strangle her husband on a large stage-sized four-poster bed to a lively dance tune." But the reason is clear enough: the dance tune is there to dehumanize the husband, and to diminish the heroine's crime to a matter of cruelty to animals at worst. What condemns him is nothing more than the fact of his being a part of Katerina's hated environment: he is the beneficiary of the social system that oppressed his wife, and that suffices to just justify his "liquidation." And all of this is conveyed to us by the music alone….

In one way only was Shostakovich faithful to Leskov: in his shockingly
naturalistic portrayal of Katerina's sexual passion. It is lust, pure and
simple, that he portrays; ignited by a rape, it turns Katerina into a love-slave, giving the lie to the claim that she is a liberated, aggressive woman in an age of feminine passivity, that her audacity is another justification for her crimes. In fact, the carnal theme is exaggerated in the opera beyond anything in Leskov. The rape music reaches its climax with an unmistakable ejaculatio praecox, followed by a leisurely detumescence. The salacious trombone glissandos that portray the behavior of Sergei's member achieved instant world fame when an American magazine dubbed them an exercise in "pornophony."...

"The music croaks and hoots and snorts and pants in order to represent the scenes as naturally as possible. And 'love' in its most vulgar form is daubed all over the opera. The merchant's double bed is the central point on the stage. On it all the 'problems' are solved…. This glorification of merchant-class lasciviousness has been described by some critics as satire. But there can be no question of satire here. The author uses all the means at his disposal and his power of musical and dramatic expression to attract the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar aims and actions of the merchant's wife, Katerina Ismailova.  Lady Macbeth is popular among bourgeois audiences abroad. Is it not because the opera is so confused and so entirely free of political bias that it is praised by bourgeois critics? Is it not perhaps because it titillates the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences with its witching clamorous, neurasthenic music?"
The third paragraph is Stalin. The quote at the top is Elliot Carter.
"The Opera and the Dictator: the peculiar martyrdom of Dmitri Shostakovich", The New Republic, March 20, 1989. The last paragraph.
In the liberal West, as we have been proudly reminded in recent weeks, we do not believe in banning works of art. If it is because we believe that they cannot threaten life and morals, then we are more vulnerable than we imaged to the dehumanizing message of this great opera. If it's because we believe that ethics has no bearing on aesthetics, then the process of dehumanization has already begun. If, for its inspired music and dramatic power, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is to hold the stage today, it should be seen and heard with an awareness of history, with open eyes and ears, and with hearts on guard.
Moralists are a confused bunch. "If it is because we believe that they cannot threaten life and morals" It isn't.  [leading here].  "Democracies have freedom of speech not because governments grant it but because the government is not granted the power to take it away." [leading here] The speech of both members of the American Nazi Party and of Sarah Silverman, on stage or on the street, is protected by the 1st amendment.

Taruskin on John Adams' Klinghoffer
"Music's Dangers And The Case For Control" NYT Dec 2001
In a fine recent essay, the literary critic and queer theorist Jonathan Dollimore writes that ''to take art seriously -- to recognize its potential -- must be to recognize that there might be reasonable grounds for wanting to control it.'' Where should control come from? Unless we are willing to trust the Taliban, it has to come from within. What is called for is self-control. That is what the Boston Symphony laudably exercised; and I hope that musicians who play to Israeli audiences will resume exercising it. There is no need to shove Wagner in the faces of Holocaust survivors in Israel and no need to torment people stunned by previously unimaginable horrors with offensive ''challenges'' like ''The Death of Klinghoffer.''

Censorship is always deplorable, but the exercise of forbearance can be noble. Not to be able to distinguish the noble from the deplorable is morally obtuse. In the wake of Sept. 11, we might want, finally, to get beyond sentimental complacency about art. Art is not blameless. Art can inflict harm. The Taliban know that. It's about time we learned.
More from, the Guardian  Interview with the librettist in 2012.   Taruskin attacked Barenboim in the same piece. Barenboim responds.  See also Nir Rosen and Joan Rivers

[if the video's gone: Sarah Silverman, The Aristocrats]

The Musical Mystique TNR, 2007
Belief in the transcendent human value of creative labor has always invested German romantic aesthetics with the trappings of a secular or humanistic religion. In the twentieth century, such a theory of art could be seen as a bulwark against totalitarianism. Adorno held it up as a counterforce also to the instrumentalizing and rationalizing tendencies of "administered" capitalist society, which turns human subjects into objects of economic exploitation. Since he was trained in music, he held up classical music in its least compromising forms (epitomized in the famously esoteric work of Arnold Schoenberg) as the chief example of "truth-bearing" art, as opposed to the dehumanizing popular music churned out by the culture industry for mass dissemination. 
Skeptics of this viewpoint, while often appreciating the loftiness of its aspirations, have pointed to the ease with which high ideals can shade into complacency, autonomy into irrelevance, and disinterestedness into indifference. My admittedly tendentious diction ("serve," "vehicle") signals my own skepticism as to the genuineness of its disinterestedness. This skepticism is not mine alone. Many have noted the relationship between this highly individualistic and self-celebrating concept of art and the social emancipation (or more accurately, the social abandonment) of artists with the demise of reliable aristocratic patronage, and suspected it of seeking a compensatory advantage. "Materialist" historians have long investigated the relationship between its high-minded claims and actual marketing strategies. 
Particularly as it pertains to music, the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy was pre-eminently a congeries of German ideas about German art that consoled and inspired the Germans at a particular point in German history. Even in the nineteenth century, it never won much credence in France or Italy or Russia (though Britain was susceptible). Now that the whole twentieth century has run its course and German music has run aground, the claim of universality is threadbare...
[" never won much credence in France" (a link to Baudelaire). "L'art pour l'art". Nietzsche, in the original, uses the French]

And then later
To ask "what does it mean?" is death for music; but to ask "what has it meant?" can be illuminating. The one imposes arbitrary limits, the other welcomes all comers to share in the pleasure of engagement and response…. 
Higher is not automatically better; but opponents of snobbish pretension would be foolish to lose sight of the reality of the high-low gamut.
From the introduction to On Russian Music
It is yet another unfortunate consequence of the "poietic fallacy" that these pieces should have been read as attacks on Prokofiev–and "personal" ones at that, since they do not always reflect my opinion of the quality of the music, but rather my reaction to the ethical issues that its performance raises. He may not be altogether spared, but the "blame", if that is what one choose to call it (or the "problem", as I would prefer), is shared by all of the participants in our contemporary art world: composer, performer, audience, critics, mediating structures and institutions. “What is under critique in these pieces is not ‘the music itself’ but the whole network of social relations that comes into play in the maintenance of the activity we call ‘classical music’
Continuing an argument made first in an op-ed in the NY Times in 1991 that's not on the web, though the letters to the editor are.

Taruskin defines the "poietic" fallacy as "the conviction (or in practice the default assumption) that composers are the only significant historical agents in music and that scholarship should be an aspect of their defense against social mediation." 

The first paragraphs of Chapter 20, "Prokofieff's Return"
In January of 1990 Kurt Masur, soon to be appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, led the San Francisco Orchestra in a program that included Sergey Prokofief's familiar cantata based on his music to Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky. The program had been set long in advance, and I was hired to write the notes for it. I did so during the summer of 1989, and was forced to confront anew the old problem of "political" art.
… Both film and music were shamelessly hyperbolic, dramaturgically blatant. They were, in short, propaganda. Could such a project possibly give rise to a first class work of art?  
"Like it or not, the answer is yes" I wrote in 1989, and went on to praise Prokofieff's music for its outstanding stylist and technical qualities, particularly the deftness, the originality, and the expressiveness of the orchestration. I felt I was making an effective answer to that complacent dictum that we tend to mouth in the West without reflecting: that art, to be authentic, must be politically or even morally "disinterested" (read: aloof). I quoted a letter that Ned Rorem had recently written to the editor of the New York Times, in which he had rehearsed his old refrain that "the more an artwork succeeds in politics the more it fails as art". Alexander Nevsky, I contended, succeeded both as politics and as art, and put the lie to what I called Mr. Rorem's smug and self-validating platitude. 
And then I went to the concert. Between the summer of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 the world had changed. Not three weeks before the performance, the contorted corpses of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu had shown up on television, the most startling evidence yet that totalitarian authority in Europe had suddenly collapsed.
The last
"Suffering and great as the ninetenth century whose complete expression he is, the mental image of Richard Wagner stands before my eyes," wrote Thomas Mann at the beginning of an immortal essay. We might not wish to claim a comparable greatness for Prokofieff. His sufferings were imposed, and his century was awful, the most atrocious and spiritually vacant in human history. But between man and times there was the same fatal congruence. As we say good riddance to the century, we may also find ourselves saying farewell, and sorry, to the man.
I'm not much interested in John Adams' music or in contemporary "classical" music. It's either academic or vulgar. And the struggle of Zionists to allow themselves to come to terms with their culpability is not something I'm able to take very seriously, at least intellectually. But art is concerned with honesty more than intellect. I love Titian's paintings for Philip II; I wouldn't expect a 17th c. European Protestant or an Amerindian to enjoy standing in front of a portrait of the leader of his torturers. That's another issue. Velazquez, in his works, has a conflicted even ironic distance from his own claimed beliefs that adds an intellectual aspect to his art, but I wouldn't use that to demand more. If I refuse to see Zero Dark 30, as I refused to see The Hurt Locker it's more from the fact that I'm too near to the events while at the same time too aware of world outside the American imagination to have the patience to watch America begin -and no more than that- to come to grips with the events of the past 10, 40 or 100 years. The US is responsible for more destruction than bin Laden was ever be capable of.  Chomsky is right: "Uncontroversially" George Bush's crimes "vastly exceed bin Laden's." But that says nothing about the films as art, only about my ability to be a disinterested observer, not objective but removed. There's an issue when a culture becomes so insular and defensive that even a disinterested viewer finds little to look at, but there's a lot to look at in American culture.

I can't help but add Charles Rosen's review of Taruskin's Oxford History, in the NYRB.
Quoting Taruskin
William, (Guillaume), seventh count of Poitiers and ninth duke of Aquitaine (1071–ca. 1127), was the first European vernacular poet whose work has come down to us. The tradition, socially speaking, thus began right at the top, with all that that implies as to “highness” of style, tone, and diction…. A troubador’s subject matter was the life he led, viewed in terms of his social relations, which were ceremonial, idealized, and ritualized to the point of virtual sacralization. In keeping with the rarefied subject matter, the genres and styles of troubadour verse were also highly formalized and ceremonious, to the point of virtuosic complexity of design and occasional, sometimes deliberate, obscurity of meaning.
while adding this
I shall make a poem out of [about] nothing at all:
It will not speak of me or others,
Of love or youth, or of anything else,
For it was composed while I was asleep
Riding on horseback.
And this, and this. The last is hanging on the wall above my desk. It cost a pretty penny.
Taruskin now has his own tag, including posts where he's not mentioned, but where his association with law is relevant.

I saw Zero Dark 30

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