25 November 2008

Three Oranges, No Waiting

The remarkable clarity of style and structural perfection of the music amazed me. I hadn’t heard anything like it before. The composer, with barbaric audacity, breaks with the ideals of the Romantics and includes the shattering pulse of the twentieth century in his music. — Sviatoslav Richter, speaking of Prokofiev’s Sixth Piano Sonata

All I do is keep the beat, and bad company. — Mark Knopfler (“Romeo and Juliet”)

There is a good deal of poignancy and near-tragedy in Prokofiev’s biography. For just one example, whatever the ‘absolute’ troubles there might have been in the Chicago production of the premiere of The Love for Three Oranges, a certain edginess in Prokofiev’s character in discussing things with the Chicago Opera probably served only to compound delays — and yet, at the last, this was an episode with a happy ending, because (a) here was an instance of a Prokofiev stage-work actually reaching the stage, and (b) the March from the opera took off as a ‘hit’, and much of the musical public who have not heard very much of the Prokofiev catalogue, can whistle the Three Oranges March.

I won’t take space to lament the traditional Prokofiev laments. The good news is, he worked hard, and wrote a lot of fine music: here is a case (not really all that rare in the 20th century) where an artist’s talent and dedication produced a significant body of work, which was in effect a cultural triumph over the uncongenial circumstances of his life.

There is, in short, art which endures, and whose excellence continues to shine when at last in interest in the details of his biography will fade.

I think that must be the point. Who (apart from musicologists — and it is right that they should, of course) cares much about the details of Bach’s life? I mean the full-fleshed biography; I don’t mean the treasured historical facts such as the visit to Sans-Souci, the challenge which Frederick the Great posed ‘Old Bach’, and the magnificent response which is The Musical Offering.

The diamond-bright highlights like this are part of our common cultural heritage. By and large, though, we can all enjoy Bach’s music without knowing when he moved from this town to another, and how poorly he may have got on with a certain employer. Our enjoyment of Bach’s music does not depend on a tabloid-like emphasis on the biography. (Nor, in the case of a less-accomplished composer, will a fascinating biography make up for artistic paucity in the actual music.)

It seems to me a delicate balance (and I am fond to think that I am close to a state of equilibrium): I read the biography of Prokofiev, and there is a certain degree to which the author’s portrayal of the composer and his time and place may kindle interest in a piece which had before struck me as a little impenetrable, perhaps. Music is the most abstract of the arts, by its very nature; and the art of music in the West has explored such a wide range since the time of the Romantics, that the comforting familiarity of models of the past peels away from the the sound that composers have found interior motivation to create.

Can the listener's reliance on biography become excessive? Can we enter the soundworld of the music, without requiring that the piece recharge us with a biography-resonant frisson?

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