Remember Footnotes?

June 27, 2010

If it seems that there are more hit-and-run posts than usual this summer, and fewer longer expositions, it’s because there are. I’m deep in another medium — a book that needs to be finished by the end of August — and in many ways it’s refreshing to be back in the old mode, where revision and second-thoughts take place before publication. But you know what I really, really miss? Hyperlinks. Writing without the allusive immediacy that links give seems somehow artificial now. So thoroughly have I internalized the newer ways of communicating.

The Singing Composer

June 27, 2010

I once heard a famous composer express the conviction that all composers are frustrated singers. No friend to such blanket claims in general, I nevertheless began to form an interesting list in my mind; so I ventured: “It might support your suggestion to recall how many recent composers have been excellently sympathetic pianists in performance with singers: you, Britten, Poulenc, Barber, Bernstein, Hoiby, Bolcom, Musto.” Those were, I believe, the names that I suggested. For some reason, the composer sneered and said, “I don’t see your point.”

Well, I — and he — could have gone further. Samuel Barber, the centenary of whose birth we observe this year and who wrote magnificent songs, was not only a notable accompanist but was able to sing his own songs beautifully:

How ironic — and touching — that a person with a disease that is gradually taking away his main skill can still advocate so effectively for the very ability he’s losing.

There are a lot worse places to be spending a big chunk of the summer than in the New York Public Library.

The feast day of the boy saint Aloysius Gonzaga is a great time to single out juvenile virtue:

(The title of this post is a quote from Margaret Juntwait of the Metropolitan Opera — yes, that Margaret Junwait — who led me to this video.)

There has been a good deal of merited attention given lately to Christopher Hitchens’s new memoirs, Hitch 22 — deserved, that is, by the description within its many pages of a number of incidents that are amusing, and often in words that are entertaining. Different people approve and recoil from different parts of it, but it seems everybody is talking about it.

One of the things that “everybody” will have his or her own viewpoint on is the the rightness of his many attacks: how we feel about his savaging of Kissinger, Mother Theresa, Clinton, or God will depend entirely on how we feel about each of those entirely incommensurate subjects. Even some of us who are willing to let him rail against the Deity, however, will bridle at this, as flagged in a thoughtful review:

[Hitchens] also relishes Kingsley [Amis]’s insistence that the only critical tool anyone really needs is the word ‘good’ and its variants (running from ‘bloody good’ to ‘some good’ to ‘no good’ to ‘absolutely no bloody good at all’). So Jane Austen, both men agreed, is ‘not all that good’. The reason Kingsley gave, with which Hitchens concurs, is that she had an ‘inclination to take a long time over what is of minor importance and a short time over what is major’.

Could there possibly be a more egregious example of simple-minded criticism? Such a charge against a writer, if true, would seem to indicate the possession by that author of a literary virtuosity of the first rank. Hitchens all but boasts of his lack of musical taste or interest. Could any musician or lover of music mistake number of words for a hierarchy of values? Can anyone who dismisses Jane Austen’s artistic sorcery — which is perennially compared, and not entirely fatuously, with that of Mozart — based on a mere counting of words, be blamed for being wrong about anything else whatsoever? As my elderly Southern relatives would have said, casting their eyes down to the floor, “He just doesn’t know any better, bless his heart.”

Perhaps part of the point for Hitchens pertains to the issue of virility — one about which he is alternately defensive, defiant, and refreshingly enlightened in his memoir. But, if that is his hangup, let this commenter from a blog be the sufficient answer:

I’m a 64-year-old married male, a retired Navy pilot and Vietnam vet, who was first introduced to Jane Austen in high school and have reread all of her novels annually ever since. I always start with Mansfield Park, the work that continues to generate the most questions, and finish with Pride and Prejudice, the most enjoyable. Jane was a genius whose understanding of men was equal to her understanding of women. Her heroes were as manly as her heroines were womanly, and she treated the wimps, the hand-wringers, the cowards, and the effete with disdain. Any real man would love Jane Austen.

Show and Tell

June 18, 2010

The headquarters of a musical-instrument concern around the corner from where I live (rejoicing in the strangely bilingual name of Steinway) currently has, in their front window, an unusually informative display. Instead of the intimidating, ebony bulk of that culturally-loaded product of the descendants of the Steinweg family, we get a genial, succinct lesson in the structure of the resonating parts of the piano and the intricacies of its action. If there’s an award for shop windows, this should win it:

It may also sell some pianos by creating an appreciation for their inner workings.

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