Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jeremy Denk responds:

NOTE: The librettist of The Classical Style—an Opera of Sorts here responds to Kristi Brown-Montesano's post just below, adding “I felt it was necessary to respond, even if only to allay the sense that I was attacking musicology as a discipline—seeing as I count a good number of musicologists as among the most inspiring people I have ever met.” 
I was saddened, and not a little astonished, to see this response to The Classical Style. After having written a libretto based on Charles Rosen’s music-analytical tome, arguably the nerdiest opera ever written, to be accused of “American anti-intellectualism” in the comments is … strange?
The author of this review ascribes to me a “hostility” to musicology, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am a huge musicology nerd, and fanboy. With alarming frequency, I read Taruskin, Kerman, McClary (among many others) for the sheer pleasure of their considerable insights. The opera was not in any way, or at any moment, intended as mean-spirited—I think I can speak for both myself and the composer. This review says the libretto “jeers in turn at gender studies, historical context, cultural studies, and other aspects of humanist musical inquiry.” “Jeers” seems to me a strong, even biased, choice of words. Everyone and everything in this opera of sorts comes in for some teasing, including the principles of harmony, the Big Three composers, the Tristan Chord, Sonata Form, and Charles Rosen himself—and I’d hoped that it was clear (comedy is tricky that way!) that this teasing includes affection. Everything in the piece is subject to exaggeration; it is often quite obviously unreal, making it hard to tell whether things are themselves or their caricatures. I’m not exactly sure why I would have to explain this? 

Snibblesworth’s deflating entrance is a comic effect (the librettist says, pedantically), not a serious statement on the nature of musicology. I invented a fake German monograph on “good melodic writing” for good measure, and did all sorts of things to make him funny—but also realized, as I was doing it, that he would become lovable and perhaps, to some extent, steal the show. He is indeed a strange, ineffectual, fun villain. When I was thinking how to transform all these concepts of music into opera buffa characters, I decided I need to find a defining (humanizing) foible for each:  Beethoven is ponderous and sanctimonious, Mozart is sex-obsessed, the Tristan Chord is decadent and dissolute. Finally, the foible of the musicologist is clear: everything exists in order to be analyzed. 

We were quite aware of choosing absurdly reductive gender stereotypes for the Tonic/Dominant/Subdominant, and in making Mozart a pants role (à la Cherubino), and other decisions, which were all undertaken with a twinkle in the eye, we hoped. 

I’m not sure I would have chosen dunce caps for the seminar—it was a way of making the participants more obviously the blithering Socratic stooges (teachers’ pets) that I had in mind. It’s true that the Sonata Form scene does not range far from music-appreciation notions of Sonata Form, but 1) the vast majority of the text is drawn from Rosen’s chapter, “Theories of Sonata Form;” 2) I’m not sure how a rhetorical Taruskin-Rosen feud, and its various parsings, would play to a more general audience (though it might indeed amuse an audience of AMS members.) We were hoping to give the uninitiated a bit of a form lesson in real time.

Your review ascribes a thesis to this opera: that Rosen’s “the music itself” musicology is preferable to the contextualization of Snibblesworth, Taruskin, et al.  The reflexive conversion of works of art into theses can be dangerous, and tiresome—in this case it seems to me a bit of projection?  Naturally, a work based on Charles’ book is partly a homage to him—and as such, in his book, in his world, he is the puppetmaster, and has the last word. But I certainly didn’t set out to demonstrate a thesis, and had no “real target,” other than an evening of stimulation, musical reflection, amusement, and, if all went well, hopefully some delight.  

The following sentence from the review seems diagnostic: 
Snibblesworth’s self-serving definition of classical music (“It’s music so beautiful that it has to be explained”) is played for laughs, but it’s hard to see how The Classical Style—both Rosen’s book and the opera—aren’t equally implicated.
Agh! How humorlessly this poor laugh line is treated. (I can’t believe we’re having an academic discussion of the voice of Snibblesworth, but here we go!) When Snibs says this, it is a followup to a moment in the first scene, a moment when the same question is uttered by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven: “What’s Classical Music?” It’s a running gag, if you will, about the undefinability of the unavoidable term. Barthes observes that certain lines in prose float free of any particular voice, and become the sort of generalized voice of the author, or even author-less—this is what I had in mind here, I suppose. And of course the opera and this librettist and Rosen’s book are implicated!  That’s the whole point. We’re all implicated. Snibblesworth is one of the least self-serving characters in this opera, anyway. 

I totally agree with you that opera is a “humanist genre,” and one of the great humanist gestures is to laugh at ourselves. I don’t think it’s a stretch, either, to imagine that Beethoven/Mozart/Haydn might be mystified by the current jargon of musicological discourse. 

All the above being said, I hate to contribute to a sense of musicology’s persecution, and I don’t understand the phenomenon of perfomers’ hostility to musicological insight. My classes with James Hepokoski, for instance, at Oberlin, were among the greatest inspirations of my life, and I sat and drank in the wonders of Mahler, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Schoenberg … a lot of music I had no patience for as an idiotic teenager, suddenly filled with meaning through his inspired contextualizing lecturing. So, too, my classes with Jane Fulcher (French opera) and J. Peter Burkholder (Ives and Monteverdi) at Indiana, and I could go on. I was very unhappy when I saw certain musicians disdaining musicologists at the Marlboro Festival. So please accept apologies for offenses caused.
MORE NOTE: Brown-Montesano reponds: “Well, not that funny." Meanwhile, more press (from the Ojai North performance, Berkeley):

Jeremy Denk, noted pianist and essayist, is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow (video HERE). His blog, Think Denk, is widely followed and consistently provocative; his “life in piano lessons” was treated in the New Yorker in April 2013 (video HERE).

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