16 March 2011

Épater la bracketoisie

Some little while ago, Osbert Parsley, the Angry Organist of This Blog Will Change the World, posted splendidly in ‘defense’ of Michael Tippetts music: Separated at Birth?
First off, you’ve got to love a blog post containing the line: All of the above, of course, was necessary only for the two people in the blogosphere who still take Norman Lebrecht seriously . . . .
(Though it begs the question: Has anyone, anywhere, at any time taken Lebrecht seriously?)
One dark shadow cast by Osbert’s post, though, is the quiz which he mentions Soho the Dog having posted, “asking you to choose either Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett” . . . just the sort of activity which is of doubtful value (and generally of some harmful result, if the blithe reinforcement of unthinking cultural prejudice can be classified as a type of harm) in the discussion of music.  I haven’t pursued the quiz thus referenced; and Soho is a fellow of no little intelligence, so I am for the time being content to guess that there was some worthy purpose behind the quiz.
Setting aside the bracketology . . . I have in the past (the distant past, now) found myself a little guarded, as a listener, in the case of both Britten and Tippett.  As an undergraduate, I was exposed to the Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra (which I consider a piece which it must be near impossible to dislike, in ways similar to the Prokofiev Classical Symphony and Stravinskys Greeting Prelude) and while in Charlottesville I was instructed to study Curlew River (entirely to my benefit).  I dimly remember the likelihood that A Child of Our Time may have been on the junior year listening list (the source for the end-of-semester drop-the-needle test), but then, the lost for junior year was far the most extensive (so that we lazy students carefully targeted our ‘actual listening’), and superficially, the Tippett seemed an easy work to ‘identify blind’ . . . so (I can confess it now) I never actually listened to it.
Post-Buffalo (where, incidentally, I played in the pit for a university production of Albert Herring), while in St Petersburg, I was made welcome to borrow books from the British Consulate’s Cultural Centre Library.  So it was while I sojourned abroad, curiously, that I read substantial bios of both Britten and Tippett, both of the bios with good, meaty discussion of the music.  It was only apt that the Tippett bio should dwell at some length on the operas, and yet, from reading of some of the operas (for which Tippett crafted his own libretti) — I must emphasize, without any listening to the actual music — I allowed myself to slide into a generally derisory attitude towards Tippett.
I am going to cut way ahead.  My disposition at the time to prefer Britten (of the two) meant that I scarfed up the 37-disc EMI Britten Collector’s Edition box first (and I have been, overall, well pleased with how much of it I find excellent listening).  Tippett was obviously not nearly so profilic, and yet I have been only gradually getting my feet wet.  At some magical point I took the plunge for both the Triple Concerto and The Rose Lake (the latter coupled on the disc with The Vision of St Augustine, which honestly, I have yet to tackle properly), and the concerto and the ballet went a great way towards correcting my estimation of the composer.  Some while ago I borrowed a recording of (most of) the quartets, though I have not seriously listened to them yet (which means, of course, that it is high time I returned the recording . . . .)
My old friend Charles P mentioned King Priam in passing once when we chatted in his office, and I am going to give that a go, soon I hope.
The symphonies were still sitting in the penalty box, and I had to listen so that I could either judge that to be fair, or to destroy the injustice.  Actually, the first thing I listened to, from the Hickox/Bournemouth Symphony box, was the suite from the opera New Year, which my friend Luke mentioned.  The suite is such fun, and so well written, that now (I nearly shudder to consider) I wonder if I shouldn’t forget any aesthetic revulsion I feel towards the libretto/story, and just listen to the opera for the sake of the music.  Bits of music (which I thought at first might represent the aliens, but now, well, I am not so sure) remind me somewhat of the Zappa of 200 Motels, or “Manx Needs Women.”  Surprisingly successful use of electric guitar in the orchestra, it seemed to me.
With the Fourth Symphony, I clicked immediately.  I thought the preceding symphony might be a chore, but . . . .
Firstly, the Beethoven citation strikes me as perfectly fine, which is a change from the (dis-contextualized) first time I heard (only a patch of) the Third Symphony.  That earlier time, it happened that I was driving around, and just landed mid-symphony while dial-twiddling the car radio.  I do remember finding myself musically annoyed by the sudden intrusion of Beethoven, but then, given the “audition” circumstances, that really means nothing.  Chances are, I soon after re-tuned the car radio—in any event, I do not now remember hearing any soprano, then.  (Chances are, too, that it was the first occurrence in the Tippett of the famous Schreckenfanfare.)

From recent on-online discussion, I had been led to expect that the soprano (or, the soprano singing, not the blues, but some stylization of the blues) would somehow be The Problem.  Well, here I’ve heard her sing, myself, and I find no such matter.  Fact is, when she began singing, and there was a sort of responsory duet with solo trumpet, I thought it was more a kind of echo of Threni than aught else.  Any question of adaptation of the blues doesn’t ‘bother’ me at all, in the first place;  and in the second, another classic resonance I found working in Tippett’s favor:  the Schoenberg second quartet.

I guess, most of all, that I am a bit taken aback (in a pleased way) that I find this piece (and indeed, so much of Tippetts work) so readily agreeable to listen to, and to enjoy on its own merits.  What was I thinking, giving any credence to the naysayers?

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