A very interesting article by Roger Scruton, tackling something I think important, which is the question of how the West can rise out of nihilism, be proud of itself, and live up to its best potential.

[From a discussion on the Modernity (or not) of Sibelius]

Greenberg’s essay really is piffle – his argument is really metaphysical rather than concrete. He asserts but does not demonstrate. He pretends to discuss Modernism in general, but is really only talking about the plastic arts, painting in particular. His argument is finally based on a Bohemian pose.

From the top: Greenberg says Modernism rose in response to the crisis of Romanticism, in particular to the degenerations of revivalism and academicism (he mentions this didn’t apply to music or literature, but doesn’t think this exception to his thesis needs explanation).

What actually made this new movement different from previous new movements is rather vague. Greenberg says:

Modernist innovation has been compelled to be, or look, more radical and abrupt than innovation used to be or look: compelled by an ongoing crisis in standards.

Over the past hundred and thirty years and more the best new painting and sculpture (and the best new poetry) have in their time proven a challenge and a trial to the art lover — a challenge and a trial as they hadn’t used to be. Yet the urge to relax is there, as it’s always been. It threatens and keeps on threatening standards of quality. (It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.)

So Modernism may be defined as being especially radical and challenging, in response to a threat to “standards of quality”. (The phrase in brackets is particularly interesting – the word “apparently” suggests he doesn’t understand why things use to be different.) Is “the urge to relax” really the great threat to standards of quality?

No, the threat is not the urge to relax, but the cause at the root of this urge, which is:

the demands of a new and open cultural market, middlebrow demands.

the relative democratization of culture under industrialism

an opposition that hadn’t been present in the past.

these threats, which came mostly from a new middle-class public

So that’s the problem, you see. The common people became more affluent, and more interested in art. Their “middlebrow demands” precipitated the crisis, which could only be resisted by art becoming “a challenge and a trial”. What were these “middlebrow demands”? How were these demands made? How did they differ from demands of previous times? (“It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.”)

From Greenberg’s argument we see the basic problem was that the new public existed at all. After all, the elite do not want to be associated with the pastimes of the plebians. Imagine an aesthete in a concert hall listening to Beethoven’s 9th symphony – and surrounded by suburbanites having a jolly good time. Intolerable! How could they possibly appreciate such a masterwork?

It is in answer to this crisis that art must become “a challenge and a trial”, in order to weed out those who desire to “relax” (this desire not being a problem before Modernism pronounced it so, “apparently”). This is in fact the archetypal Bohemian gesture, a ego-defensive attempt to shock the bourgeoisie (├ępater les bourgeoisie), and drive the impure ones from “our” temple.

What does this have to do with Sibelius? Not much. He began composing in the style of his time, and developed his individual voice, modifying his methods to facilitate expression. Nothing especially Modern about that. He wasn’t endeavouring “to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism”, although he was resisting the pressure of Modernism to atonalism and a general pose of radicalism.

As reported in the February issue of Ansible:

Kim Manners (1951-2009), US tv producer/director of many episodes of The X-Files and Supernatural, died on 25 January; he was 58. He also worked on Automan and ST:TNG.

His episodes for Supernatural were certainly of the highest quality. A damn shame he won’t be making any more. Interesting to find him associated with Automan, of which I have vague but fond memories. (Shame about the ST:TNG connection!)

Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009), Mexican-born actor best known to sf fans as Khan in Star Trek and the film The Wrath of Khan (1982), died on 14 January aged 88. Another famous part was Mr Roarke in tv’s Fantasy Island (1978-1984).

Apart from his striking good looks and great personal charm, he must be noted for his employment of these qualities to great service in his many roles, sf and otherwise. (As an aside, I can’t help but pre-emptively grieve that, someday, we must mourn the passing of the much underrated and underused Bill Shatner.)

Angela Morley (1924-2009), UK-born transsexual composer whose genre work included E.T. and the first two Star Wars films, and who as Wally Stott was musical director and band conductor of The Goon Show, died on 14 January; she was 84.

I certainly hope no-one is claiming that Morley wrote the music for Star Wars! Interesting to add another name to the curious list of men who, later in life, decided to become women. Other notables include travel writer James, later Jan, Morris, and composer Walter, later Wendy, Carlos. (I’ll just add here as an aside that I find the whole sex change business extremely silly.)

John Mortimer (1923-2009), UK author, playwright, barrister and much-loved public figure perhaps best known for creating Rumpole of the Bailey, died on 16 January aged 85. Genre link: his script work on The Innocents (1961), a film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.

I hope Mortimer wasn’t responsible for the only episode I’ve ever seen of Rumpole, in which a person was tried for some murky business involving a Post Office box, and only in a “twist” at the last minute was it revealed that the PO box belonged to somebody else. Well, even if he was responsible, his involvement with that creepy film The Innocents goes some way to rubbing out his guilt.

The Modernist arc

6 February, 2009

[From a post about the problem of modern (visual) art]

I think it’s a fallacy to blame modern art on the invention of photography. After all, there are no analogical innovations to explain similar developments in music or architecture.

The roots of Modernist progressivism stretch back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century, when our modern scientific understanding of the world began, and when political revolution (in America and France) seemed a real and imminent possibility. From the scientific revolution we gained the idea of the world as mechanistic, that is, changing via observable material causes rather than by divine fiat. This concept led to things like science fiction and the big public health movements of the 19th century, but also shaped that period’s revolutionary mindset, which led to Marx’s notion that society was like a boat in the sea of history, that’s course could be altered at will, even (or especially) if the crew mutinied. This idea in turn fed back into the arts, leading to what we can call the Bolshevik art movements of the 20th century, which deliberately sought to insult their patrons, assault their audiences, and claim a privileged understanding of historical “necessity” (“anyone who has not understood the necessity of the dodecaphonic system is useless!”).

The revolutionary pose of Modern artists was always a pose, of course. Artists did their best to get comfortably settled into the art (anti)establishment, usually with support from the public purse, and aspired to bourgois comfort even if they proclaimed themselves to be Leninists. Architect Mies van der Rohe insisted his clients live in stark, undecorated boxes, but his own homes were always furnished in a most comfortable and old-fashioned style.

After their peak of public interest in the mid-20th century, the vapidity of “revolutionary art” gradually came to be understood, but still few artists and critics are prepared to expose themselves to ridicule by suggesting that art should sincerely attempt to be understandable and beautiful, without the pretense of attacking or sneering at its audience. Nor has the idea that artistic traditions are to be nurtured, rather than annihilated, gained much currency.

My Vaughan Williams collection isn’t comprehensive but it is pretty deep. Apart from various singles (too many to list), I have a number of the complete sets, except for:
Boult(Decca) – I’m not generally a fan of Boult; I already have his EMI set, and don’t wish to invest in another set, with inferior sound, and performances probably not much different.
Slatkin – this set is completely out of print.
Bakels/Daniel – The best CD contains 7 and 8 (excellent/good), but what I’ve heard of the rest of the cycle (2, 5 & 9) is unimpressive.
Norrington – recorded several of the symphonies; none of these recordings are in print.
Davis – reviewers panned this set, except for 6, which I have.

Of the complete sets I have, I would order them this way:


I put Previn first because his 7th is probably the best on record, while Handley’s is the failure of his set, being brash and superficial (I wouldn’t rate any of Previn’s performances as failures – 6 is his weakest; otherwise I usually prefer him to Handley for his warmth and care with detail). Haitink is warmly played and efficiently managed but often borders on bland and dull. Boult’s “authority” in this music is often touted (he knew the composer and recorded the first complete cycle of symphonies), but in his EMI set he has the worst orchestra (except in 3, 4 and 6), the most unnatural sound, and a heavily “macho” style too often at odds with the music, or at least insufficient to its content – he is best in the darkness of 6, worst in the celebratory 8. Thomson is always broad and monolithic, and too often seems to have nothing to say, but his 5 and 8 are excellent; 6 and 9 have their qualities.

Finally, a caveat: I will not rate the Sea Symphony, as its kitschy Victorian atmosphere has thus far appealed to me not at all. If you think you will enjoy a cantata which begins “Behold – the SEEEEAAAA!!!!!!!!”, then by all means investigate it yourself.


Symphony No. 2 “London”

An exciting and poetic depiction of London in the composer’s time (before WWI). Some rate this Edwardian monument as Vaughan Williams’ best symphony (as his first “proper” symphonic achievement, it was the composer’s favourite), but it’s less individual than his later works. Previn (LSO/RCA) is excellent, unmatched in detail and shaping. The others lack atmosphere in comparison. His remake is also good, but may be too amorphous for some.

Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”

Inspired by the ruined landscape of France during World War 1, this “symphony in four movements, three of them slow” (RVW) is subtle and introspective; definitely not Edwardian. Previn is great, Handley is great, Boult is typically powerful but surprisingly sensitive, albeit swifter than most.

Symphony No. 4

Vaughan William’s most overtly “Modern” work, this most strident symphony begins with a crisis and ends with a slammed door. Previn is powerful but perhaps a little slow for some. Handley is less inhibited, but perhaps lacking a little in character. Boult is good and quite fierce (albeit in unnatural sound) but lacks energy in the 4th movement. Apparently his earlier version is superior, but in trebly early-1950s sound. Berglund in this and 6 is good but ultimately too generalised.

Symphony No. 5

Perhaps VW’s most beautiful symphony. Beginning with this symphony, VW became a “serious” symphonist (whereas previously it was only an occasional inclination). Previn is very emotional, Handley is more spiritual, Thomson (best of his set, along with 8) is transcendant; they are all very fine. Boult is good but a little stiff and insensitive by comparison. Gibson is good in the 1st and 3rd movements, less convincing in the others. Barbirolli is always mentioned as THE one to get, but this is wrong. Compared directly with the above recommendations, he is surprisingly stiff and unromantic (Previn is the more Barbirollian option!). In fact, I find Barbirolli generally disappointing in this composer (though I may get lynched for saying so).

Symphony No. 6

I think this is one of Vaughan Williams’ lesser symphonies. It has a strong concept, but the music itself doesn’t much hold my attention. The famous quiet last movement bores me. Boult is best overall, fierce, coherent and convinced, but his finale was mastered a little strangely (it gradually gets louder and hissier, or perhaps that’s my stereo). Haitink provides some interest by playing this turbulent score very urbanely, giving the impression of turmoil beneath still waters. Handley is generally good but doesn’t convince me of this work’s worth. Previn is exciting until the crude finale (Berglund also falls down here). Andrew Davis is often wheeled out as the recording to own, but I think this may only be due to its interesting sound, unusually dark and distant – the performance itself is not especially committed or insightful.

Symphony No. 7 “Sinfonia Antartica”

A fine work sadly lumbered with a silly title, a wind machine, and some illustrative quotations in the score which add little to the musical experience. Previn is slowest, grandest, scariest, but you’ll need to program the spoken parts out of it. Bakels‘ “objectivity” works here – he is scary and heavy but swift. Between them, Previn and Bakels most successfully present this music independent of its filmscore origins, instead an evocation of the fragile human psyche dwarfed by a vast and dangerous universe.
Boult is very heroic and “stiff upper lip”, which is a rather limited view on this work. Thomson is a bit generalised, has some uncomfortable phrasing in the first movement, and a terribly underwhelming organ in the “ice-fall” section. Haitink is well played and recorded but rather anonymous, with a fake-sounding wind machine. Handley falls flat, with no atmosphere or emotion, just a spectacle for orchestra (and the recording isn’t spectacular enough to get away with that). Barbirolli’s is good for a first performance, but now sounds like a recording of mere soundtrack music.

Symphony No. 8

The least programmatic of the symphonies, and also the most fun. I like Thomson best because his broader tempos enable him to show greater detail – the impression is of ‘more music’ rather than ‘slower music’. It’s an excellent, committed performance too. Previn, Handley and Bakels are good, but Previn is probably the most joyous, and does best with the ending, being the most emphatic. Boult is roughly played, unsubtle and ultimately dull, even duller than the blithely efficient Haitink.

Symphony No. 9

On the advice of Boult, Vaughan Williams planned to revise the finale, but died before he could do so. This is a shame, as it is obvious what needed fixing: the structure as it is seems diffuse, and the apotheosis arrives too suddenly, without adequate preparation. The structural problem can partly be overcome by taking the movement allegretto (as opposed to the designated andante), but then the apotheosis is even more of a problem, as it obviously requires a slower tempo (I would suggest some surging rubato to accommodate the transition).
Handley is fairly successful in the finale, and his overall performance has something of a flowing narrative feel (appropriate in as much as the symphony was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels), although, as usual, he rushes his fences too much for my taste. Boult, on his second time around, does pretty well in the finale, but the ending is hampered by unsubtle recording, and the overall playing and recording quality is second rate; his scherzo lacks energy too. Previn is very atmospheric and characterful, and most gleefully wicked in the 3rd movement; his finale is perhaps more disconnected, but his slower tempo makes it sound more momentous (a good thing).

A note on the programming of discs

The effective arrangement of the Vaughan Williams symphonies on CD seems to be an almost insurmountable problem for record companies, who are insensitive to the negative effects ill-considered juxtaposition can have.

For instance, if you program the 7th followed by the 8th, the epic Antartica will swamp the smaller, more subtle 8th (see Previn, Bakels). Programming any music at all after the long hushed ending of the 6th is tactless (all but Boult offend). Following the meditative 3rd with the caustic, rage-filled 4th is also a miscalculation (Previn, Handley). The Boult set is best in this respect, tastefully pairing 3 with 5, 4 with 6, and 8 with 9.

Other works

Along side the symphonies, Boult presents a very powerful performance of the Tallis Fantasia. Sadly the other non-symphonic works are less impressive: his Wasps overture pales besides the account in Previn’s set. The Wasps and Job suites are lumpy and dull; Handley’s performances (not in the complete set) are a better option. The concerto for two pianos is duller than the original version for one (at least under Boult’s direction). Boult’s Norfolk Rhapsody and In Fen Country are also misses, even compared with the complacent Haitink.

Haitink includes some songs sung rather gratingly by Bostridge.

Previn includes a decent account of the violin solo, but the soloist is too forward and rough-sounding. The tuba concerto soloist is a bit breathy and parpy (though infinitely better than the original under Barbirolli – Barenboim is probably your best option in this admittedly short and slight work).

For the non-symphonic (and non-balletic, non-concerto) orchestral works, your best option is a two-disc set conducted by Marriner (the Australian Eloquence set is more complete than the Decca). All the performances are really top-notch (a nice change for Marriner) – warmly shaped and beautifully recorded. This collection comes with the best recording of the rarely-heard Romance for Harmonica. You might want to supplement with a more emotive performance of the much-recorded Tallis Fantasia.