Tag Archives: classical music

A toe of the elephant

Intrepid readers of this blog may recall that some years back, I wrote a review of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.  I was very impressed.  If I may quote myself:

I ended up thinking this was one of the most worthwhile novels I’d ever read … and perhaps the most intellectually challenging, to boot.

I just recently finished my second Mann — Doctor Faustus.  (I mainly used the Lowe-Porter English translation, but often consulted the German original.  See my blog post “Dual language e-reader” for details on how I do this.)  This work likewise made a deep impression on me.  Most memorably, since I’m a classical musician, I was very struck with Mann’s knowledge in this area … in some respects perhaps exceeding even mine.  🙂  (Since Adrian Leverkühn, Mann’s protagonist, is a composer, there is ample opportunity for musical discussions.)  I actually can’t think of any other novel which is so intelligent in its treatment of classical music.  In my reading notes, I jotted down a list of music-related passages which I intend to follow up on …

And then (as in The Magic Mountain) there is the parade of philosophical ideas.  And various literary references.  Since I feel overwhelmed when I think of even summarizing all of this, I will discourse upon only one toe of the elephant at hand.  I hope you will not feel too much like one of the famous blind men in the tale … but you do know how you can go about remedying that situation.  🙂

The hero-composer Leverkühn is, we see, at one point occupied by the project of setting, for marionette theatre (!), a selection of stories from Gesta Romanorum.  (In one of the novel’s correspondences with reality, the orchestration for this piece matches that of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.) Of course you can get details in the Wikipedia article on Gesta, but to summarize, this work (hitherto unknown to me) was a collection of stories, in Latin, compiled in about the year 1300.  (The title, Deeds of the Romans, is misleading, since only some of the tales originate in classical Rome.)  Surmised to have been put together by a clergy-person as a manual for preachers, it is ostensibly produced for moral instruction.    Gesta was a best-seller in its time.  Very shortly, below, you will get an idea of why …

Mann includes in Chapter 31 of Doctor Faustus, Tale XXVIII of the Gesta, which I will reproduce below as he renders it (in my Lowe-Porter translation).  This story especially caught my attention, since I am currently in a reading (out loud) group that is wending its way through Giovanni Boccaccio’s own collection of tales, The Decameron (ca. 1353).  As Mann suggests, Boccaccio very likely found inspiration for some of his often-raunchy stories in the piously-framed Gesta.

If you intend to read the following narrative aloud, please remove youngsters, and those with delicate sensibilities, from the room before proceeding further!  You have been warned …

There is for instance the fundamentally unmoral fable, anticipating the Decameron, “of the godless guile of old women,” wherein an accomplice of guilty passion, under a mask of sanctity succeeds in persuading a noble and even exceptionally decent and honourable wife, while her confiding husband is gone on a journey, that she is sinfully minded to a youth who is consumed with desire for her. The witch makes her little bitch [dog!] fast for two days, and then gives it bread spread with mustard to eat, which causes the little animal to shed copious tears. Then she takes it to the virtuous lady, who receives her respectfully, since everybody supposes she is a saint. But when the lady looks at the weeping little bitch and asks in surprise what causes its tears, the old woman behaves as though she would rather not answer. When pressed to speak, she confesses that this little dog is actually her own all-too-chaste daughter, who by reason of the unbending denial of her favour to a young man on fire for her had driven him to his death; and now, in punishment therefor, she has been turned into this shape and of course constantly weeps tears of despair over her doggish estate. Telling these deliberate lies, the procuress weeps too, but the lady is horrified at the thought of the similarity of her own case with that of the little dog and tells the old woman of the youth who suffers for her. Thereupon the woman puts it seriously before her what an irretrievable pity it would be if she too were to be turned into a little dog; and is then commissioned to fetch the groaning suitor that in God’s name he may cool his lust, so that the two at the instance of a godless trick celebrate the sweetest adultery.

Oh yes, one more tiny detail.  Mann just happens to omit the Moralizacio, the moral lesson that the Gesta places after the story proper (or shall we say the story improper?).  Evidently this is supposed to make everything just peachy …

My beloved, the knight [the husband] is Christ; the wife is the soul, to which God gave free will. It is invited to the feast of carnal pleasures, where a youth — that is, the vanity or the world — becomes enamoured of it. The old woman is the devil ; the dog, the hope of a long life, and the presumptuous belief of God’s clemency, which lead us to deceive and soothe the soul.

Of course Boccaccio spins his spicy Decameron tales with no such moral lessons to come in as the Deus Ex Machina at the end.  Which is why the Church tried to ban the work.  (It was too popular though, so a “corrected”, i.e. expurgated edition was created instead, which the Church tried to fob off on the populace at large.)

I now have learned that the Gesta Romanorum tales have echoed down through the centuries, not only influencing Boccaccio, but being re-presented in works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, to name only the two most world-class names.  Thanks to Herr Mann for this engrossing, thought-provoking novel, which among so much else, yields such rich pathways into the literary past!


Leave a comment

Filed under Book reviewlets

How to ruin a pretty good piece of music

This past August, I was once again a participant at the Bennington Chamber Music Conference, at the like-named college in Vermont.  At one of the faculty concerts, there was performed a work already familiar to me:  Anton Arensky’s String Quartet in A minor, Opus 35.  (It is very unusual, as string quartets go, in that it is scored with two cellos, instead of two violins.)  I had always had some liking for the piece, though perhaps finding it a bit on the “kitschy” side.

But, a few months before I re-encountered this piece at Bennington, I learned something about it — not for the better — that now is indelibly connected, in my mind, with the music itself.

In March of this year, I myself played the viola part in a New York City performance of this Arensky quartet.  Actually, we just performed the famous second movement  (sometimes heard in a string-orchestra version), called “Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky”.  I wanted to learn about this background of the piece, so I started to do some research …

The theme of the Variations movement is described in the Bennington program notes as a “solemn, lyrical hymn”.  But there is much more to it than that.  The theme is from the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s “Sixteen Songs for Children”, Opus 54, composed in 1883.  The text that Tchaikovsky set (in Russian, as you might expect) is a poem called “Legend” by Alexey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev.  Now, here is where things get interesting.  The Pleshcheyev poem (as you can read, in detail, here ) is a translation of an 1857 poem called “Roses and Thorns” by the American poet Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903).

Richard Henry Stoddard

Here is Stoddard’s poem:

The young child Jesus had a garden,
Full of roses, rare and red:
And thrice a day he watered them,
To make a garland for his head.

When they were full-blown in the garden,
He called the Jewish children there,
And each did pluck himself a rose,
Until they stripped the garden bare.

“And now how will you make your garland?
For not a rose your path adorns.”
“But you forget,” he answered them,
“That you have left me still the thorns.”

They took the thorns, and made a garland,
And placed it on his shining head;
And where the roses should have shone
Were little drops of blood instead!

So the Jewish children took all the roses away from Jesus, and placed the crown of thorns on his head.  If this is not emblematic of the centuries-old anti-Semitic trope of the Jews being responsible for Jesus’ death, I don’t know what is!

One might hope that Pleshcheyev’s translation — which was what Tchaikovsky actually used — altered the text to get rid of the anti-Semitic venom.  But a Google translation that I did from the Russian — laughably crude though it is — indicates that this is not the case:

There was a garden for Christ the Child,
And he made many roses in him;
He watered them three times a day,
To make a wreath myself then.

When the roses blossomed,
He called the children of the Jews;
They tore the flower,
And the garden was completely devastated.

“How will you weave a wreath now?
There are no more roses in your garden! ”
– “You forgot that spikes
Remained to me, “said Christ.

And they made spikes
A wreath of spiny for him,
And drops of blood instead of roses
The man decorated it.

If anything, this more condemnatory to the Jewish children than the original English.  (“They tore the flower, / And the garden was completely devastated”)

Lest you, dear reader, think that I am just being too sensitive about this issue, let me show you that others share my aversion to the anti-Jewish message.  On YouTube , one can find Tchaikovsky’s song rendered by the USSR State Academic Russian Chorus.  The notes supplied with the video provide this translation of the text:

When Jesus Christ was yet a child,
He had a garden small and wild,
Wherein He cherished roses fair,
And wove them into garlands there.

Now once, as summer time drew nigh,
There came a troop of children by,
And seeing roses on the tree,
With shouts they pluck’d them merrily.

“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
The Boy said humbly: “Take, I pray,
All but the naked thorns away.”

Then of the thorns they made a crown,
And with rough fingers press’d it down,
Till on his forehead fair and young,
Red drops of blood, like roses sprung.

“The Jewish children” has here managed to become “a troop of children”.  Nice and harmless, for the English-speaking web surfer …

One more “alternative version of the facts” … this from the GodSongs website.  At least they are honest about their version’s antecedents:  “The lyrics of this song were translated by American author and translator Nathan Haskell Dole (1852-1935) from the Russian poem Legenda by A N P [sic], which is itself a translation of the poem “Roses and Thorns” by American Richard Henry Stoddard”.  Here is the GodSongs version:

Christ, when a child, a garden made,
And many roses flourished there.
He watered them three times a day
To make a garland for His hair.

And when in time the roses bloomed,
He called the children in to share.
They tore the flowers from every stem,
And left the garden stript and bare,

“How wilt Thou weave Thyself a crown
Now that They roses are all dead?”
“Ye have forgotten that the thorns
Are left for Me, the Christ child said.

They plaited then a crown of thorns
And laid it rudely on His head;
A garland for His forehead made;
For roses: drops of blood instead.

Again, the Jewish children have conveniently disappeared.  Some may say that this makes things OK, and that I am being unduly sensitive.  But how can one forget the words that Tchakovsky set … which he was certainly aware of, and which, by setting them to music,  he gave his tacit approval to?

Others will perhaps argue that Stoddard, Pleshcheyev, and Tchaikovsky were simply the product of their times … which like many (most?) past eras and societies, were inherently anti-semitic.  I may somehow understand this, intellectually.  But getting my feelings to go along is another matter …

I confess that I have been influenced in my views, on the bearing that “extra-musical” matters have on the “music itself”, by the writings and talks of the contemporary American musicologist Richard Taruskin.  On YouTube there is, for exmple, this talk of his called “Did Somebody Say Censorship?”.  And here, from Volume 2 of his Oxford History of Western Music,  is part of his discussion on perhaps the most famous, arguably anti-Semitic work of all:

… the turba [“crowd”] in the [J.S. Bach] St. John Passion, following the Book of John itself, is identified not as “das Volk” or “the people” (as it is in the Matthew Passion), but as “die Juden” or “the Jews.” An accusation is being made, one that is no longer supported by responsible historical or theological scholarship, that the Jews rather than the Romans were responsible for Christ’s death. That accusation, now often called the “blood libel,” has had a bearing on a history of bloody persecutions, culminating in perhaps the most horrible page in the history of the twentieth century.

Obviously, Bach had no part of that. Nor was he, as far as anyone today can guess, personally anti-Semitic as the term is understood today, except insofar as he probably subscribed to Luther’s doctrine that the Jews should submit to conversion on pain of punishment. In all likelihood he rarely, possibly never, met a Jew and thought little about them. The St. John Passion was intended for performance before a congregation of Christian believers for whom the Gospel text was … well, Gospel. The insult it contains to Jews was wholly incidental to its purpose.

But today it serves other purposes and is performed before other audiences. Bach is long dead, but the St. John Passion lives on. Jews not only hear it nowadays, they often participate in performances of it, and are sometimes shocked to learn what it is that they are singing. Are they wrong? Does Bach’s music redeem the text? Would it impair Bach’s work from the standpoint of its present social use if the text were emended to exclude the blood libel?  And if people disagree about the answers to these difficult questions, on what basis can they be adjudicated?


1 Comment

Filed under NBR, Ol' reliable MISC category