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Edward Said’s Greatest Musical Writings

by DAVID YEARSLEY

“Music at the Limits”, the recently published  posthumous collection of Edward Said’s music journalism, is a monument to a dying breed: the intellectual whose humanistic range extends not only to the fringes of music, where the art can be enjoyed as entertainment or flaunted as the necessary finish on a well-rounded education, but deeply into its techniques and meanings, its possibilities and perils. On every page the writing moves beyond the more circumscribed goals of much criticism concerned merely with the quality and effectiveness of performance to engage and to move an audience; while these aspects are important to Said, his journalism repeatedly reminds us that music is more than artful sound and elaborate display.

In unexpected ways one learns here of music’s potency as a cultural practice, its capacity for meaning (even if indefinite), its power to resist the sometimes suffocating weight of the modern institutions of concert life, and, crucially, the connectedness of music and politics. It is not that these pieces, edited by Said’s widow Mariam Said and introduced by an occasionally awkward but still useful preface by Said’s friend Daniel Barenboim, are without moments of humor. But throughout these diverse and always-engaging reviews, music and its performance are held to the highest standards, judged by a man who not only had a profound knowledge of his beloved art, but of culture and politics. Many are the illuminating parallels he draws between music and literature, yet the range and depth of his cultural references do not daunt, but rather elevate, the reader. The book is a tribute to a man for whom music was essential, as necessary a part of culture and as it was of himself.

In his 1999 memoir, Out of Place, Said complains of the stifling piano lessons he was subjected to in the Cairo of his boyhood. This tuition was dominated by endless exercises of Czerny and Hanon and mediocre repertoire thought to be the appropriate diet for children, though it was in fact for the most part malnourishing. Recalling the young Bach’s copying of forbidden music by moonlight, Said’s clandestine sessions at the piano, sight-reading off-limits works by Mendelssohn and Handel, but most important of all, Beethoven dramatize the youngster’s insatiable thirst for music beyond that forced on him by his pedagogical regime.

Opera broadcasts by the BBC and his parents’ record collection allowed him access to a world of real and compelling “adult” music. In the first years after World War II trips to the Cairo opera house and to concerts by visiting European orchestras — most formatively for Said, that of the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler — brought the disembodied sounds heard over the gramophone and the wireless into a living reality that itself takes on a mythic cast in Said’s memory. That sense of youthful excitement remains in his account’s of the many concerts recounted in Music at the Limits.

Not surprisingly, the piano recital and the opera remained throughout Said’s life his main forms of musical consumption and dominate Music at the Limits. Said is unapologetic about what might be thought now of as his conservative tastes. One will find no glib references to pop culture in this volume; jaunty sarcasm  and sly asides are not part of his style.

Like all of those obsessed with music as a children, Said was powerfully formed by the musical experiences of his youth, and one can’t help but think that his attachment to his core repertory, is anchored not only by Bach and Beethoven but by a nostalgia for a vanished world post-war Cairo and Palestine, even though, as the title of his memoir emphasizes, he felt out of place there.

Said’s mature music criticism is animated by a sense of that same childhood thrill at the unlimited riches of Great Music and its power to break free from containment by cultural and societal authority. Often held to be the most conservative, not to say stultifying, cultural realm, classical music offers Said not only uplift, even escape, but seems also to provide a mode of resistance.  That combination of childhood wonder and possibility often bobs up through the surface of Said’s fluent and carefully-argued prose.

Though confirmed, even entrenched, in his tastes, Said is not closed-minded. In one of the many overviews of a New York concert season that appeared in the Nation magazine, where he was music critic from 1986 until 2003, he admits that he is “no [fan of] early-and authentic-performance.”  Yet that will not stop him from attending a performance of the 17th-century opera, Atys, by Jean-Baptiste Lully under the direction of William Christie at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1992.  While Said’s account of the performance revels in the spectacle and superficiality of the production, what emerges is a rare sense of relaxed enjoyment and recognition of other modes of music and its presentation. Said uses the bright exuberance of the event to contrast with the sodden, predictable opera productions he’d been subjected to at the Met.

Said can be devastating, but  he is rigorously fair-minded, even when wading into divisive and for him highly personal issues having to do with Palestinine. There is a searching review of the John Adam’s Death of Klinghoffer which Said saw in 1991. Said launches a unsparing  critique of those who dismiss the opera as “ideological”, while these very same forces accept other equally political cultural work without reservation. Bluntly put: Palestinians do not deserve an opera. Said condemns the terrorism portrayed on stage, but shows how persistent charges of anti-Semitism, which dogged the opera back than and even more so in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, are unsustainable and self-serving. Yet even while he applauds aspect of the music and production, especially the genius of Peter Sellars, whom Said returns to in an excellent essay on the director’s important cycle of Mozart/DaPonte operas, Said is incisive in his diagnosis of the score’s musical weaknesses, particularly its tendency towards sentimental lyricism, and libretto’s often schematic characterization.

Among its many rewards Music at the Limits offers a vivid panorama of Said’s concert-going life over his last two decades from 1983 to 2003, the year in which he died. Music at the Limits begins with a kind of obituary of Glenn Gould that appeared Vanity Fair in 1983, the year after Gould died at the age of fifty. Three other essays are dedicated exclusively to Gould; his entry in the index is longer than Beethoven’s, Said’s greatest musical hero. Gould is for Said a model not only of pianism and the greatest advocate of performance as research into Bach’s complex contrapuntal works, but the first example of the way an artist can and should develop over the course of a career. In his eccentric and obstinate way, Gould brought Bach to the center of piano culture even while he explored other more distant terrain, from Bizet’s Variations chromatique to Sibelius’s sonatas, from Elizabethan virginal music to his own ruminating transcriptions of Wagner and Beethoven.

A later essay from 1987 on musical middle-age warns with gentle, self-referential irony on the part of the then middle-aged critic, of the dangers of losing direction and retreating to the comforts of an obvious and, in the case of the leading piano virtuosos, lucrative career path. Alfred Brendel (by then already, late middle-age, but still called in by Said to serve as a negative example) and Valdimir Ashkenazy are Said’s prime disappointments for failing to pursue a meaningful and unexpected artistic goal. Instead they offer up the same old stuff, or try new things but without direction or dedication. Maurizio Pollini, whom Said greatly admires, here hangs onto to a sense of mission before falling from critical grace for lax programming, off-putting and unreliable virtuosity, only to climb again in Said’s estimation for finally returning to form and departing from the usual repertoire and ingrained attitudes.

Said seems both to admire and to be suspicious of Gould’s early rejection of the concert stage for the recording studio. The super-controlled environment of the studio allowed Gould to convert himself from virtuoso to intellectual, or better, to be both things a the same time.  For Said, great musical moments and careers are built not just on heightened emotion on stage and towering demonstrations of technical prowess, but on deep thought and sustained efforts both to expand the repertoire and to shed new light on the old.

As Said points out in one of the book’s later essays, the Gould phenomenon paradoxically embodies the rejection of a modern concert life even while his success was made possible by it.  Said often confronts the tension between the tremendous excitement of modern, highly artificial musical performance and the debilitating sameness of a concert life; he decries the crushing machinery of the culture industry that limits possibility and experimentation, and that works to thwart creativity not to foster it.  Along these lines, Said complains of the industrialized fodder churned out by summer festivals, proliferating like so many cultural strip malls across North America and Euopre. But the descent of the Sante Fe summer opera season into the “conventional and soporific” does not discourage him from visiting the carefully conceived and creatively, if inconsistently, executed Bard Festival a couple of hours up the Hudson from his home in Manhattan. Here again, Said’s watchword is purpose: the pursuit of a musical and intellectual goal, sound and thought together.

In all of this there is a desire for both high-standards, along with a yearning for lingering the warmth and informality of the drawing room, the intimate, the personal. In spite of dominant steely sameness concert life in the later 20th century, Said criticism finds those moments of rare beauty and exhilarating life that even corporate institutions and attitudes cannot stamp out.

Having begun with a tribute to Gould’s artistic life, Music at Its Limits ends with what could be read as a rumination on Said’s own impending death. Late style was the central concern Said’s literary and music criticism in his last years, and is the theme of his final Nation piece, of September, 2003. The essay appeared just three weeks before his death later that month. Said’s own soon-be-lost battle with leukemia is not mentioned, though perhaps alluded to in the piece’s title, “Untimely Meditations.” Reflecting Said’s canonic tastes, this review of Maynard Solomon’s Late Beethoven ranges widely across the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, and Brahms but also touches on Nietzsche, Adorno, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Sophocles, among other pillars of what one, writing now in the shadow of Said’s legacy, would hesitate to describe with the confining term “Western” culture. In this his final column, Said writes of the way late style “can convey a sense not of resignation but of an unusual rebelliousness, a sense of breaking, barriers, transgressively the basic element of the arts anew.”

It is this danger and daring undertaken within the very temple of decorous high culture that makes this book, and indeed Said’s life, so memorable, instructive, and moving.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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