Jumping Into the Deep End

Jack Butler, submissions editor for National Review Online, is a big fan of pop music but, is to use his own word, "embarrassingly" unacquainted with classical music. Deciding to fix that, he has taken an extremely odd measure:

I have set about remedying this deficiency in classic amateur fashion: i.e., haphazardly, guided by what little knowledge I do have. Which is why, not long into my [New Year's] resolution, I decided to jump into the deep end and listen to all of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

If you asked me how to approach classical music in the way most likely to result in disappointment and dislike, I might come up with this. Sure, listen to the entire Ring, in just a few days, on Spotify, with no libretto. That will surely work. Similarly, someone might introduce himself to the pleasures of bourbon by chugging a coffee mug full of 101 proof Wild Turkey.

At least it can be said of the Wagner cure that the subject would probably not require medical attention. But I can't imagine getting much out of it. Wagner's music is not exactly accessible--you can listen to him for a long time without encountering anything recognizable as a tune. The well-known popular bits, like the Ride of the Valkyries, are few and far between. And, most of all: these are operas which tell a long and complex story. So listening to them with the story unavailable bears some resemblance to listening to a novel read in a language you don't know. But Butler says he did enjoy it, though I think I detect a certain clenching of the jaw in his account

After this, he has recourse to Jay Nordlinger, also of National Review, and a music critic. You can read Nordlinger's recommendations here, and they're fine, but this is the important part:

I suggest that people listen to some things — an assortment of music. Just dip in. If you like something, seek out more from that composer — listen to him, read about him, etc. Feel your way along. Embark on discovery.

If someone asked me for similar advice, I think it would be even simpler: just listen. (I certainly wouldn't decide that my tastes should guide him, and neither does Nordlinger.) That's really all it takes. Sometimes I hear people say, hesitatingly, "I don't know anything about classical music," and seeming hesitant even to approach it without some kind of instruction. That's a mistake, and a bad one if it keeps someone away from the music. When I was a college freshman I took an introductory music course for non-music majors, and it was my first step into the classical music world. So it may sound as if I'm contradicting myself in saying "just listen," but that was precisely the opportunity that the course gave me: to hear a wide range of music and get some sort of sense of what I would like. If I remember correctly, at the end of the course there were two pieces that I especially liked: Smetana's The Moldau and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. If you know those you can see that my taste was already eclectic to say the least: the former is a very straightforward, pretty and melodic piece, the latter a crazed-sounding quasi-recitation of mysterious German poems and atonal music. And I just kept going from there.

Not to say that there is not a very great deal to know usefully about music, both technically and historically. I know next to nothing technically, and would like to know more. And my ear is not that sensitive. I know that I miss a lot because I usually don't grasp the formal structure of a piece. I most likely miss it when, for instance, a composer uses the inversion of a theme from the first movement of his symphony in the fourth movement. That  kind of thing may limit, but certainly doesn't prevent, my enjoyment and appreciation.

This made me want to revisit The Moldau. I haven't heard it for decades. It's still great. It's meant to paint a tonal picture of the course of a river from mountain brooks to the sea. 

And here's just a taste of Pierrot. Don't be alarmed, it's less than two minutes long. I still love it, too.


Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994.