Classical Music

By Tim Page
Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Firebird

Igor Stravinsky was unquestionably the most influential composer of the 20th century; many listeners thought him the greatest as well. Over the course of a career that spanned more than 60 years, this tiny, fragile, immaculately groomed man came to seem the virtual personification of musical modernism. To put his longevity into perspective, it should be remembered that Stravinsky counted Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy among his early champions, won his peerage in a musical milieu populated by Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius, lived to applaud the first masterpieces of Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter, and died in an era given over to the avant-garde experimentation of John Cage and the young Steve Reich.

Stravinsky deserves nothing less than an epic biography, and now -- thanks to the Cardiff-based critic and musicologist Stephen Walsh -- he has one. The first volume, published in 1999, was called Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934 and took the composer through the radically innovative works that also became his greatest popular successes ("The Firebird," "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring"). This new 709-page installment, entitled Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971 (Knopf, $40), deals with less familiar music but with a more familiar figure: Stravinsky as the respectable face of a long-ago revolution, an incredibly famous man who held the same sort of position in the musical world that Picasso commanded in the visual arts. Even Frank Sinatra wanted his autograph.

This is not an especially happy story. Stravinsky grows old, sours and drinks too much. He quarrels with and eventually breaks with his children. He establishes a long and complicated friendship with the brilliant musician Robert Craft, who helps to keep him active and interested in recent developments in contemporary music but eventually takes charge of his public life, to the extent of publishing bilious articles under the master's name. (The old debate about who wrote the bulk of the six volumes of Stravinsky/Craft "conversations" is effectively settled here -- Craft did.)

Walsh has an uncanny command of the high cultural milieu of the mid-20th century: In addition to Stravinsky and his fellow musicians, characters such as W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley and George Balanchine are evoked indelibly. Indeed, Walsh's account is charged with three qualities that were eternally important to his subject: precision, elegance and grace. The result is one of the best books ever written about a musician.

Closer to Fine

The American composer Irving Fine (1914-62) fashioned a collection of pristine, eloquent, meticulously crafted works. Fine, whose death at the age of 47 from a heart attack cut short a career of enormous promise, might be described as a neoclassicist with deeply romantic tendencies. In lieu of the desiccated brittleness that typifies much American work in the neoclassical genre, however, we find in Fine's music a lush, heartfelt and seemingly spontaneous lyricism. His best scores -- and Fine was a remarkably consistent composer -- contain hardly a superfluous or ill-considered phrase.

Now Phillip Ramey, another American composer, has written a searching, sympathetic and altogether admirable first biography, Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time (Pendragon, $32). It almost came too late: Since 1999, when Ramey began his research, several important sources -- including Fine's colleagues Arthur Berger and David Diamond and his widow, Verna, -- have died, while others are now in their eighties and nineties.

Ramey does not attempt to turn biography into hagiography. He candidly discusses Fine's bouts with depression, as well as some probable extramarital affairs. Moreover, not all of the assessments of Fine's music are entirely favorable. Diamond thought the Symphony (1962) "forced" and "unnatural," while Ned Rorem objected to the Stravinsky-like "wallops" in its finale: "I can get a little irritated by that sort of thing." Nevertheless, it is hard to disagree with Ramey's ultimate assessment: "Fine can be seen in retrospect as a musical aristocrat, an unusually refined artist well on his way to major status. That this gifted composer should die in middle age, just as a personal style consolidating seemingly contradictory elements was finally in his grasp, is not only tragic but deeply ironic."

It's No "Orientalism"

Whatever may be said for the late Edward W. Said's other contributions to our intellectual life, his writings about music -- as collected in Musical Elaborations (1991) and in a bizarre book-length dialogue with the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim -- were obscure, pretentious and not even especially erudite. A short, posthumous volume entitled On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (Pantheon, $25) will do nothing to elevate Said's reputation in this field.

Although the Columbia professor reportedly played the piano rather well, he comes across as an unusually pompous tourist in the world of classical music, doing his best to hide his general befuddlement with a tortuously expressed string of dubious "insights" -- most of which, when they can be deciphered, have been accepted wisdom among professional musicians for years. He decides -- by cracky! -- that the late works of Richard Strauss just might have some merit in them and makes repeated reference to something called "Metamorphosis" (can he perhaps mean the great "Metamorphosen" for 23 Solo Strings?). Yet Said feels it incumbent upon himself to set up an elaborate defense of Strauss against the Marxy-craftsy pedantry of Theodor Adorno, who believed that the composer's "ego ideal" was "fully identified with the Freudian genital-character who is uninhibitedly out for his own pleasure." (Such nonsense was not uncommon from Adorno, who also suggested that anybody who might be so vulgar as to whistle a theme from the Brahms First Symphony would be "fetishizing" it.) Said lards further Adorno-speak throughout his writings about Glenn Gould, although he doubts that the pianist "had read Adorno or even heard of him" ( pobrecito !).

Meanwhile, by way of practical criticism, "Gould stood very very high indeed and was easily on a technical level with artists like Michelangeli, Horowitz, Barenboim, Pollini, and Argerich," Said declaims, leaving the reader to wonder idly whether he knew any other names that he might have tossed into this dog's breakfast. He uses the examples of Strauss, Stravinsky and Britten to trash John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles" (1991) -- rather unfair competition for an attractive and inventive pastiche, but there is no evidence that Said ever heard any of its contemporaries. Meanwhile, Mozart's "Così fan tutte" is described as "an opera whose strange lightheartedness hides, or at least underplays, an inner system that is quite severe and amoral in its workings." (Simultaneous light and dark in Mozart? Say it ain't so!) Many more such gaspers can be found in On Late Style .

Of Plácido, Luciano and Kiri

Reporters usually looked forward to conversations with Joseph Volpe, who recently stepped down as general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Volpe was blunt, aggressive, outspoken and always seemed to be enjoying his job immensely. He not only refused to adopt the surface decorum traditional to the Met but seemed actively hostile to it. Who else but Volpe would have dismissed the soprano Kathleen Battle the way he did, in 1994, not with a lot of perfumed vagaries about "creative differences" but -- bam ! -- because her "unprofessional actions" were "profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all cast members"?

Now Volpe has written a memoir, The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera (Knopf, $25.95). While the title smacks of typical New York provincial self-importance (on Earth ?), this engaging volume will delight readers for whom opera is not only an art but also an endless fount of good gossip. Plácido, Luciano, Renée and Kiri (no last names necessary) are here, in all their glory and otherwise; Volpe, for his part, is not averse to telling tales out of school.

Volpe grew up in a less than grand neighborhood in a very fancy town (Glen Cove, Long Island) and comes by his class resentments honestly. He began as a carpenter at the Met and rose steadily through the ranks, although he was twice refused the top job for reasons he believes (not unreasonably) were due to the board's ingrained snobbery. I could live without some of Volpe's crowing, the worst excesses of which suggest that the board may have been on to something, and I find the pocket history of the Met B.V. (Before Volpe) that the volume necessarily includes pedestrian and secondhand. Still, The Toughest Show on Earth must be counted as a rarity -- one of those much-ballyhooed "insider books" that actually delivers the goods. ·

Tim Page is The Washington Post's music critic.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company