Gotham Diary:
Music and Pleasure
April 2017

26 & 27 April

Wednesday 26th

Via The Browser, I’ve just read a lament by one Lary Wallace, at Aeon, about his age-related loss of interest in new pop music. It’s a well-written example of a familiar type of piece, but I had to ask myself why I was reading it. The answer was clear: I was reading it because I am a very bad person, tickled with glee by the misfortunes of others, at least those others who didn’t start out properly, with Bach and Mozart — music that doesn’t mark the moment but that goes on growing. There has never been any danger of my tiring of Bach or Mozart, possibly because there are at least twenty-five other serious composers who also keep me interested, but mostly because Bach and Mozart and the others keep opening up over time. And the beauties — the beauty of Brahms’s Violin Concerto is timelessly caressing. I can remember when some pieces of music were shockingly new, but I can’t tell you when those shocks occurred; the music carries no datestamps. I am grateful that my music does not remind me of adolescence, for why would anyone want to be reminded of that? I claim no virtue; I always disliked the edge of rudeness in pop music, its insolence and insistence. Rock’s adolescence must be against it: the popularity of an antisocial art form is regrettable.

Wallace writes,

I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing.

The last statement is ridiculous. Aside from shouty, monotonous garage-band rock, I like just about everything truly musical (thus excluding almost everything that passes for song on and off Broadway today, including the incomprehensible Hamilton). I have a lot of very odd recordings. But the interest of everything doesn’t get in the way of my loving the stuff that I love. I once went for a year without listening to any opera but Bellini’s I Puritani, and listening to it almost every weekend when I tidied the apartment — and I’m still crazy about it. (Unlike the Young Victoria and her suitor, I have never warmed to Norma.) At a recent concert performance of Il Segreto di Susanna, I wept with pleasure at every familiar turn. Serious music is like that old river: you never step into it twice.

I’m not trying to make a case here; I just think that I was very lucky to be granted big ears at an early age. And it’s true that music is more a matter of hearing for me than it seems to be for other people. It does not involve being anywhere; although I hear best in a quiet concert hall, I hear very well at home. I don’t much care for staged opera, because there is so much extraneous fiddle-faddle — theatre, I suppose. (Theatre is a very different, almost more puritan pleasure.) If music involves sight at all, it’s sight-reading, following scores and seeing things that I may not have heard. I adore the MP3 format because it promotes the internal voices while scrapping the ambient acoustics. Music for me is a supersaturated experience of notes expressively sounded, and nothing more.

To me, the passion for pop — taking it at all seriously — is an American disease, and that’s how I think it will be remembered in the long run.


Thursday 27th

Somewhere in this room there must a copy of Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama, which I haven’t really looked at (much less read) in decades. Ah, there it is — how handy: I didn’t even need to get out of my chair!

At the very end, one element which had not been accounted for in the form comes to its fruition: Elvira’s romantic chromatic chords are repeated and repeated twice for the finale cadence, while her own line has a new decoration, wonderfully delicate, tremulous, and warm. This brings the whole episode together in a flash; more, it brings a piercing new inflection — Elvira is no longer the same, or at least our understanding and sympathy have matured. In a single musical piece, action has been incorporated, unified, and interpreted. Resolved in itself, the little scene guides the total drama forward, for our sense of the total piece depends upon our realized impression of Elvira here.

Everything that happens in the little trio, near the beginning of Act II of Don Giovanni, happens in the score. Don Giovanni serenades Donna Elvira, who succumbs despite every resolution. Meanwhile, Leporello, dressed in Giovanni’s cloak, prepares to lead Elvira off so that his master can seduce her maid, his real target. Ever since reading Kerman’s analysis of the trio, this has been my favorite expression of sonata form. You might think that binding the vital impulses of drama to the rules of a musical form would be deadening, but what happens instead is that the form invigorates the drama with a musical vitality that changes our idea of theatre. To the extent that you hear a sonata while the three characters are singing, you are filled with the transformative enlightenment that, in the best operas, takes the place of theatre. Mozart does not decorate — I’m sorry that Kerman used that word — his librettist’s lines of verse with pretty music; rather, he articulates their meaning, with the help of changes in key that are possibly more powerful if they are not clearly understood. What any listener can hear is movement — the movement that constitutes music drama.

The best operas are not the most popular ones. Kerman’s book is notorious for its denunciation of Puccini’s Tosca as “that shabby little shocker” (p 254). Plays to which music has been added, whether with simple songs as in Broadway musicals or through-composed scores as in Tosca, are much easier to grasp that true music dramas. Indeed, the art of music drama is easy to miss. Mozart and Verdi, both accessible composers, developed sophisticated command of music drama as they matured, but they never let it obstruct their accessibility. (Except perhaps in the extraordinarily compressed Falstaff.) You can listen to little trio that Kerman writes about as if it were just a pretty thing, a charming moment in a dark comedy. You can listen to the king’s lament, “Ella giammai m’amò,” without noticing that the cello’s wailing is exactly what regal Philip has buttoned up. You can be unconscious of the best operas’ metamorphoses of spoken theatre, and still have a fairly good time. Most operagoers are and do.

This is by way of explaining my complaint, yesterday, that theatrical stage business too often gets in the way of the music in opera. I ought to have made the point clearly: in the best opera, the theatre is in the score, and there is no need for illustrative mime.


In this week’s New Yorker, there are pieces about two Americans, Elizabeth Strout and Rod Dreher, who may have very little in common but to me both emblematize the desert of intellectual pleasure that stretches from sea to shining sea — from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexica, anyway. Both writers (and very different kinds of writers they are!) seem to have followed the same trajectory, putting asphyxiating rural backgrounds behind them, only to grow strong enough, in urban environments, to reconsider and even to try to re-enter the worlds from which they came. Pleasure is not much discussed in either piece; I suspect that it has had a larger place in Strout’s life than in Dreher’s, but what matters is that their seriousness is not particularly pleasant. Maybe they have lots of fun on the side, but that doesn’t matter, either, because fun is not pleasure. “Serious fun,” a term that pops up now and then, is an oxymoron that means something like “pleasure.” “Pleasure,” meanwhile, carries a great deal of carnal baggage. Non-carnal pleasure, except in the relatively recent field of gastronomy, is almost un-American.

It’s true that pleasure, especially intellectual pleasure, is not very sociable. It is best experienced by individuals in quiet rooms — and by individuals who have experienced a lot of pleasure in the past. The art of being pleased looks like a selfish skill, and the art of discrimination, of refusing everything but the very best, seems almost inhumanly mean. But turning up one’s nose is the sign of the unformed pleasure-seeker. The formed pleasure-seeker no longer needs to seek. The world abounds in occasions for pleasure. Occasions for horror and regret may be more numerous, but pleasure is our only real hope of putting an end to them.

As Madame de Pompadour’s power and influence at the court of Louis XV grew to its summit, it occurred to the lady that all she needed for complete success was a reputation for piety. She attended services and performed good works. She seems not to have understood that, so long as she continued at court as the king’s mistress (even if she no longer slept with him), she could never be regarded as pious. And it’s a failing of institutional Christianity, with its ghastly Augustinian confusion about sex, that she couldn’t. In the New Yorker piece, Joshua Rothman isolates Rod Dreher’s refusal to accept same-sex marriage as the raison-d’être of the Benedict Option. Why, oh why, is sexuality such a big deal?

More anon.