New Criterion Article on The Art of the Fugue

It seems to be the practice these days to leave out the second "the" and refer to the work as The Art of Fugue. I don't know the reason for that. The German title is "Die Kunst der Fuge," which according to my high school (and little bit of college) German is literally "the art the fugue." (I don't know how English came by that second "u," or why the German doesn't include one of those "of"-type words, like "auf.") The two recordings of it or parts of it that I have, by Glenn Gould and Gustav Leonhardt, were made in 1962 and 1969 respectively, and reissued in the 1980s, and both say "the fugue." I assume there is some good linguistic reason for  discarding the "the," though it sounds off to me. I also assume that's why this article by Jonathan Gaisman, in the May issue of The New Criterion is called "The Heart of Fugue."

I have a sort of compulsion, which I'm trying to break, to read every magazine to which I subscribe from cover to cover, in order. It was hard for me not to defy that compulsion in this case, as the fugue article is the last one in this issue, and I was eager to read it, because I have a problem with the fugue as a musical form and am always vaguely hoping for some sort of breakthrough in that difficulty.

I've always found the form somewhat...I hate to use this term...dry. Almost inaccessible. Around this time last year I started the project of listening thoroughly to the entire Well-Tempered Clavier (see this post). My intention was to listen to every prelude-and-fugue pair at least three times. I knew I would like the preludes, in general, but had my doubts, based on past experience, about the fugues:

With a few exceptions, the form has left me cold. It seemed dry, abstract, academic. You get the statement of the subject--which is frequently not all that interesting in itself--three or four times, and at that point I usually lose the thread: the piece just becomes a lot of wandering counterpoint, with the subject emerging from time to time. 

I don't think I ever reported on the completion of that project, but I did complete it, with many stops and starts, probably six months or so after I started it. And I very much enjoyed it. And the pattern of very much liking the preludes and being unenthusiastic about the fugues continued throughout. I did, as my listening continued, find that I was enjoying the fugues more, but still they continued to seem, well, all the things that I just mentioned.

The New Criterion article pointed me toward a possible resolution of the problem: just give up. I think it's an excellent brief introduction to the form, and to The Art. But it makes clear to me that a true appreciation and enjoyment of it is beyond me, because my ears and brain are not capable of grasping the structures that make it so impressive and fascinating to those who can grasp it.

I'm very well aware that there are subtleties and complexities in most classical music that I don't and can't grasp. And that some of these are accessible only to those who have substantial training in music theory and very good ears. That undoubtedly limits but does not present a major obstacle to my enjoyment; to be brought to raptures by a piece of music is sufficient, even if I'm missing a lot.

Why is the fugue different? The opening of the article is a simple observation:

Many people, if they wonder how music is made up, suppose that it consists of a tune and an accompaniment. The paradigmatic guitarist in front of a campfire croons the melody, while his hands create the harmonies that give it color.

Well, yeah, but I'm more sophisticated than that, I thought, mildly annoyed. But Gaisman goes on with more elaborate examples: 

Frédéric Chopin admired Bellini, and his nocturnes reproduce the same model: the right hand unfurls a line of singing melody on the piano, and the left provides (in his case) exquisite harmonic support.

Yes, a long way from the campfire guitar, but the basic concept is there in Chopin. Counterpoint, on the other hand, is:

... a compositional method in which there is not a dominating tune and a subsidiary accompaniment, but contrariwise a democratic parity between the voices. (They are called voices even when they are instrumental, not sung.) A choral piece by Johann Sebastian Bach or Handel typically shares out the elements equally between soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, so that the distinction between melody and harmony does not apply; every line contributes to both.

This may seem pretty obvious. It is pretty obvious, in essence. But in this case, as often happens, I had missed the implications of the obvious: on reflection, I realized that almost all the music that I really enjoy exhibits to some degree that voice-and-accompaniment relationship. I would call it, in more elaborate music, a foreground and background relationship. The foreground usually involves melody, a single distinct line or perhaps a mingling of multiple lines, which may be one or two instruments or a whole section of an orchestra or even the orchestra as a whole, with harmony and/or subordinate melody and/or rhythm less prominent. There may be and often is a lot going on in this supporting stuff, but it isn't generally the center of attention. The relationships between foreground and background are far more complex than Gaisman's first simple voice-and-guitar instance, but they do participate in a structure where not everything is of equal prominence (I don't say "importance"--that's no doubt a tricky judgment). 

"... the distinction between melody and harmony does not apply...." That's the key, I guess. When I listen to a fugue, my ears keep searching for that prominent voice, the stirring tunes sailing over an ever-varying sea of harmony and rhythm, passages connected by transitions that in themselves keep my interest. And not only do my ears not find those things, they don't really grasp what they do hear. They hear a great many notes, but they don't grasp, they don't feel, the interrelationships among them.

All the fourteen fugues and four canons in The Art of Fugue derive in some way from a single theme or “motto” in D minor, but, following an initial treatment that almost wilfully eschews the usual devices, their ingenuity and increasing complexity amount to one of the great intellectual and artistic achievements of Western civilization...

Alas for me, I cannot hear that "ingenuity and increasing complexity." 

If this interests you at all, please read the whole article. It does make me wish I could experience what the author describes. The credit on that article, by the way, says only that "Jonathan Gaisman is a King’s Counsel, practicing in commercial law." Having gone into law after obtaining an undergraduate degree in music, perhaps. 

If you read all the above and think you deserve a reward, here it is. If you didn't, my feelings are hurt, but here's your reward anyway. I didn't bother making notes of which pieces in the Well-Tempered Clavier I especially liked, but I think the F minor prelude and fugue from Book 2 were among them.

 


Four Mystery Novels

The first three of these were audiobooks, listened to on several lengthy trips over the past few months.

Tony Hillerman: The Fallen Man

As you probably know, Tony Hillerman wrote a series of detective novels set in the Southwest, mostly on the Navajo Nation, in the area known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet. I like them a lot, and I'm not sure exactly why. I mean, they're very good, but as detective novels go they're not extraordinarily so. I think it has something to do with a fascination, going back to childhood and Western movies and TV shows, with the landscape of the Southwest. 

After the first book or two, the crime-solvers are Navajo members of the Navajo Tribal Police, beginning with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, later adding Leaphorn's subordinate, Jim Chee, and the stories often involve Navajo culture and its interactions with mainstream "white" America. One of the pleasures of the series is that the main characters develop in time. They age, their relationship to each other changes, their positions in the police force change, new characters appear, but previous ones sometimes remain in one way or another. This is the twelfth of eighteen books in the series, and it finds Leaphorn in retirement, and Chee taking on the central detecting role, frequently consulting Leaphorn. And it involves the fading of Janet Pete, Jim's fiancé, and the arrival of a young female police officer, Bernadette Manuelito, who will be increasingly important. 

That broader story emerged as a patchwork for me, because I didn't read them in order. I haven't actually read many of them; they have, rather, been my first choice when I wanted an audio book to listen to on a long drive. For the most part the choice was determined by whatever the local library had on hand in audio format at the moment when I wanted one, going all the way back to those dim years when "audio book" meant Books On Tape. It would be fun to go back and read them, on paper, in their right order. That sounds like a good project for retirement, but now that I am officially retired, I don't want to devote that much time to them, with so many better works yet unread. 

I don't consider this one of Hillerman's best, but in my experience they're all worth reading. Perhaps part of the reason is that Navajo ways play a lesser role here than in some of the others, making Fallen Man a bit less distinctive. The story opens with two rock climbers on the justly famous Shiprock. One of them takes a very risky look over the edge of the ledge they're standing on, and sees, far below, the skeletal remains of a man in climbing gear. He turns out to be a young man who had disappeared several years earlier just before his thirtieth birthday, when he would have come into full ownership of the family's substantial property. That becomes, of course, a complex story involving the land, lots of money, and far-away financial interests. There's a subplot involving cattle rustling, and I've already forgotten whether it's connected to the murder case. Perhaps only in that Officer Manuelito, investigating the rustling, notices some things that prove significant to the other matter.

Not the best place to start with Hillerman, but certainly a good read. 

I have been a little disappointed in the last few Hillerman audio books that I've listened to. It seemed that the narrator was somehow not as engaging as I expected. Eventually I realized that I had been accustomed to the narration of George Guidall, whereas the newer ones are by Christian Baskous. There was something about Guidall's voice, a dry and wry quality, that seemed to fit the books better than Baskous's. I think I'll see if the library has any of the older Guidall ones. 

Ann Cleeves: White Nights and Red Bones 

These are the next two novels in the series set in the Shetland Islands with Detective Jimmy Perez as the central character. I wrote about the first one, Raven Black, back around the turn of the year, in this post. Of these two, I liked Red Bones better. Much of the plot of White Nights never really quite made sense to me. My fault, possibly. (The title refers to the summer nights which at Shetland's latitude never get entirely dark.) I didn't find the characters all that interesting, either. It begins with a bizarre incident in which a man attending an art exhibition has an emotional breakdown in front of a particular painting, and is later found dead, an apparent suicide, but of course...well, this is a detective novel. That sounds kind of promising, doesn't it? Like I said, maybe my lack of response was just me. Or maybe the book needed to be read, not listened to.

Red Bones was more engaging. It revolves around an archaeological dig almost in someone's front yard. The dig sounds interesting in itself, the site being that of a wealthy medieval merchant's home. We get a glimpse only, but an intriguing one, of the world that the merchant would have inhabited. The students doing the digging are sympathetic characters, one of them a serious student, another more of a playgirl. Guess which one becomes a murder victim. (You probably guessed wrong.) Some human remains are found in the dig. Guess when the death took place. 

Here, from Ann Cleeves's web site, are some remarks about the use of this novel as the basis of the first season of the Shetland TV series (see my post at the link two paragraphs above for more remarks on that):

Red Bones, the third instalment of Ann Cleeves' Shetland Quartet, is set in spring: a time of rebirth and celebration. And a time of death... for April is the cruelest month.

Perhaps that's why Red Bones was chosen as the basis for Shetland, a new two-part crime drama set in Scotland and starring Douglas Henshall. A special Shetland preview on November 21st was well received by the local audience, and Ann Cleeves gave it her approval too: "It's great," she said. "It's not faithful to the book but it's faithful to the atmosphere and spirit of the book. It's important that it's a good piece of TV rather than stick rigidly to the book."

I agree, Ms. Cleeves. I note, by the way, that the first novel in this series was set in winter, the second in summer, the third in spring. I haven't checked to see whether the fourth is set in autumn. (UPDATE: it is, and also the title is two words consisting of an adjective which is the name of a color and a noun: Blue Lightning.)

Ross Macdonald: The Barbarous Coast

This is one I read, in the beat-up old paperback which I bought long ago. I have most of the Archer novels, and they are, as a group, the most unsightly books on our shelves. Which seems appropriate. 

I said a good deal about Ross Macdonald in one of the 52 Authors posts, so I don't need to repeat my general opinion of and enthusiasm for his work. This novel is not his best, but since I like all of his Lew Archer novels, that's only a mild criticism. As with the Hillerman book above, I would not recommend this as the best place to start if you don't know the author's work. It's a relatively early one, and some of the later ones are better--this one appeared in 1956. But then the very first one, The Moving Target, is one of his best. 

It's a fairly typical Macdonald story: sad people who have seen their hopes thwarted--sometimes by their own foolish decisions, sometimes by the actions of others, sometimes by fortune--do things that make them even sadder, or dead. Archer moves among them, stern but compassionate. 

Something that bothered me, and which has bothered me in crime dramas generally, is the protagonist's impossible resilience and recovery after violence. The action of this book takes place over a few days. If my memory is correct, Archer receives at least two very brutal beatings which leave him unconscious. That he bounces back from these within hours and continues to work on the case, barely eating or sleeping, is implausible. .

One notable feature of this book is its bitter contempt for the movie industry. Macdonald seemed to share that with Raymond Chandler. Hollywood and Las Vegas form what you might call an axis of evil for him. In this conversation Archer is eavesdropping on a couple, a young woman, her profile "young and pretty and smooth as glass," and an older man, "an aging clown I'd seen in twenty movies":

"You said you'd catch me if I fell," she said.

"I was feeling stronger then."

"You said you'd marry me if it ever happened."

"You got more sense than to take me seriously. I'm two years behind on alimony now."

"You're very romantic, aren't you?"

"That's putting it mildly, sweetheart. I got some sense of responsibility, though. I'll do what I can for you, give you a telephone number. And you can tell him to send the bill to me."

"I don't want your dirty telephone number. I don't want your dirty money."

"Be reasonable. Think of it like it was a tumor or something--that is, if it really exists. Another drink?"

"Make mine prussic acid," she said dully.

The real import of this exchange didn't hit me until I'd read a few sentences into the next paragraph. If that guy lived into the '60s and '70s he probably had lots more fun of this sort. Sometimes it just amazes me that moviemakers consider themselves in a position to give moral lectures to the world. 

Macdonald-BarbarousCoast

This is a very ugly cover, and only partly fitting. The diving girl is justifiable because one of the young female characters is a competition diver. I presume she did not dive naked, though. I guess that red curvy thing is a boxing glove, which is fitting enough. 


Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor

I have underrated this concerto. I've listened to it three times over the past week or so, as part of my little project involving Joseph Joachim's view of the greatest violin concertos:

The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.

I had not heard it for many years, and though I remembered liking it I thought of it as above all a technical showpiece, impressive but not necessarily deeply affecting. And on the first of these three hearings that expectation was, if not fulfilled exactly, then not contradicted, either. 

As far as I could recall, I did not own a recording, so I went to Idagio and settled on one, one of very many: Arthur Grumiaux and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by Bernard Haitink. I enjoyed it, of course, but in a casual sort of way. Very impressive. Oh, that's lovely. I like that tune. Great finale. But I was pretty sure it was not going to end up at the top of my Joachim ranking. 

Thinking I would try a different recording, just out of curiosity, I went to Classics Today and found a recommendation for another Grumiaux recording, this one with Heinz Wallberg conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. (The recommendation, by the way, is from David Hurwitz, whose reviews on YouTube I've mentioned before. I've also mentioned that I found him a little annoying to watch and listen to, but he's grown on me. I've begun to enjoy his quirks, his humor, and his generally unpretentious style.)

My reaction to the second Grumiaux recording one was pretty similar: beautiful, not a rival to Mendelssohn's. 

Then I discovered, while looking for something else, that I have an LP that includes this concerto. How did I not know that I have it? Well, two reasons: one, it has both the Bruch and Mendelssohn concertos, and I never know how to shelve multi-composer recordings. I have a good many of these, probably between fifty and a hundred, and they're shelved in very rough chronological order, since such albums usually include works of more or less the same period. That doesn't work very well, though it's better than nothing. And two: several years ago I came into possession of several hundred LPs that were going to go to Goodwill if I didn't take them (see this post). And most of those have hardly been organized at all. Or played. This was one of them: 

Milstein-Mendelssohn-Bruch(Image from Discogs; my copy is STEREO, to be played only with a stereo cartridge and needle to avoid damage)

The New Philharmonia Orchestra is not the same as the Philharmonia Orchestra though they are related (seems to be a long story). I don't know whether it was just the fact that this was my third hearing of the concerto within a week or so, or the nature of the performance, or my state of mind at the moment, but this time I was bowled over. It's a great concerto, fully worthy of Joachim's placement of it among the greatest. "Richest, most seductive"? Not the adjectives I would choose, but very powerful in any case and certainly among the greats.

This is a 1961 recording, and as I mentioned, it's an LP: analog all the way. The other two I heard were digital, though they're old enough that they were probably recorded in analog. And they weren't at the highest possible resolution. Whether any of that had to do with my reaction I can't say. Maybe it was Milstein himself. 

Now on to Brahms. I've heard that one fairly recently, and really thought that there had been a discussion about it here, but I can't find it. I already know that I love it. I think it's going to be hard to say that I prize any one of these over the others. 

Also, I'm adding Sibelius to this project, which at that point will put me outside of Joachim's list by nationality--he did say "the Germans"--and although the composition of the Sibelius concerto just barely falls within Joachim's lifetime, we can assume he never heard it. I've heard it, but only once or twice, and I didn't feel like I had really gotten it. Maybe I should add Tchaikovsky, too?