Pirandello’s “Enrico IV,” a tragedy of refusal

Luigi Pirandello’s tragedy, Enrico IV (1922), is a great post-modern Hamlet.
I discuss its politics of refusal in terms of melancholic disengagement and destituent power in a chapter of my book-length scholarly project on the self-destruction of revolution since Romantic theater.

Posted in Disengagement, Melancholy, The Arts | Tagged

Listening for the zeibekiko dance

Listening to five pieces:                                                                                                               Manos Hadjidakis: The Accursed Serpent, “The great dance of Karaghiozis”                   Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert, excerpt (7:10-9:50)                                                         Michael Daugherty: Le Tombeau de Liberace, II. “How Do I Love Thee?”                   Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.4, IV: “Passacaglia”                                                               Joy Division: Closer, “Decades”

December 15, 2011

Posted in Classical Music

Learning Greek

Having discussed in my previous post Zimmermann’s Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu, an orchestral composition consisting solely of musical quotes and running through an entire canon, I thought I might also mention a poem consisting solely of verse quotes and running through another canon. In his latest collection, Telling the Stones (2017), Alistair Elliot includes a short, compact poem that runs through the history of Greek poetry, from Homer to Angelos Sikelianos, and concludes with a fragment of Sappho in the (transliterated) original.

Its enigmatic title raises several questions, such as:                                                                   Why speak of “learning” and not “knowing Greek“?                                                                      Is learning Greek an ongoing activity because Greek cannot be fully mastered?                    Is it only a technique of quotation/memorization?                                                                        Is this long poetic tradition what learning Greek consists in?                                                     Is there no ancient/modern Greek but only one Greek language spanning thirty centuries?

April 3, 2018

Posted in Greek Poetry, Greeks

Ubu Roi in the German concert hall, the Parisian arcades, and the White House

This is the most self-referential piece of classical music ever written – but is it a huge prank, a farcical tale, a parlor game, a final exam, a postmodern primer, a funeral march?

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s orchestral “ballet noir,” Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1962-66), based on Alfred Jarry’s play (1896), consists solely of an eighteen-minute collage of quotations from the history of classical music (from the Renaissance to himself) by somebody who always felt that he was personally responsible for its fate. In fact, the entire history of Kultur may be read backwards starting from this work and returning to its origins in Winckelmann.

To me, this grand example of the compositional method Zimmermann called “pluralism” serves also to illustrate Walter Benjamin’s theocratic hermeneutics in his Arcades Project, namely, composition as sorting out of detritus. It is possible to argue that the piece is trying to salvage the fragments of divine truth/history from the wreckage of idololatric culture. Going a step further than Benjamin, it is taking a flâneur‘s stroll in the grotesque ruins of antique stores, like that of Benjamin’s father, in the Parisian arcades.  At the end (starting at 12:35), in an apocalyptic fury of the fused The Ride of the Valkyries and the March to the Scaffold, we can hear the messianic anticipation in the multiplied repeats of the opening of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke IX. (Here is the complete version of the work with German-speaking conférencier.)

In an entirely different context, Jarry’s infantile hero, Ubu Roi (“fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil”), has been compared often to Donald Trump for his “grotesqueness,” “vulgarity,” “odd use of language,” “boorishness and malevolence.”  Zimmermann’s macabre burlesque might be also a fitting soundtrack for today’s White House (“or whatever you want to call it“).

April 1, 2018

Posted in Classical Music, Culture | Tagged , ,

The messianic critique of tragedy*

The rejection of the covenant of assimilation by twentieth-century Messianism was an integral part of the pre-1914 pan-European critique of modernity and “romantic anti-capitalism” (Lukács). “In the years approaching the First World War, the self-confidence and security of German Jewry was challenged by a new Jewish sensibility that can be described as at once radical, secular and Messianic in both tone and content. What this new Jewish ethos refused to accept was above all the optimism of the generation of German Jews nurtured on the concept of Bildung as the German Jewish mystique. … For German Jews of that earlier generation the ‘Bildungsideal’ of Kant, Goethe and Schiller assured them of an indissoluble bond between Enlightenment, universal ethics, autonomous art and monotheism (stripped of any particularist ‘Jewish’ characteristics).” (Anson Rabinbach: “Between Enlightenment and Apocalypse: Benjamin, Bloch and Modern German Jewish Messianism,” New German Critique 34, Winter 1985, 78).

A large number of these thinkers were preoccupied with both the ancient meaning and the modern possibility of tragedy. Interest in it “was common among several literary, political and theologically oriented German-speaking Jews in the period preceding and following the First World War” (Jacobson: Metaphysics of the Profane, 2003, 38). The list is impressively long and includes (in rough chronological order) Freud, Cohen, Simmel, Lukács, Mannheim, Scheler, Rosenzweig, Shestov, Bloch, Benjamin, Cassirer, Arendt, Weil, and Goldmann. They were among the several artists, writers, critics, and philosophers who, in the early twentieth century, responded to Nietzsche’s call for a rejuvenation of tragedy through a recovery of its origins and fundamentals. But their response was thoroughly affected by Georg Simmel’s pessimistic verdict on culture.

The contradictions of modern culture represent an intense dramatization of the constitutive conflict between life process and generated forms. This is what Simmel called “tragedy of culture:”  “The great enterprise of the spirit succeeds innumerable times in overcoming the object as such by making an object of itself, returning to itself enriched by its creation. But the spirit has to pay for this self-perfection with the tragic potential that a logic and dynamic is inevitably created by the unique laws of its own world which increasingly separates the contents of culture from its essential meaning and value” (Simmel: “Concept & Tragedy of Culture” [1911], 1968, 46).

Messianism often negotiated its cultural orientation by questioning tragic thought and theater. Simmel’s students (such as Lukács, Mannheim, Bloch and Benjamin) and other avid readers talked about tragedy among themselves, debating philosophical ideas and planning theatrical projects.  More than anyone of his contemporaries, Benjamin was determined to discredit both the theory and the writing of tragedy: If Nietzsche’s God was dead, his God did not die – he only forsook the world to test people’s messianic faith.  “An incomplete secularization, the indirect yield of Lutheranism, had left the world with a vacuum from which tragic freedom and tragic grandeur could no longer emerge. The theater of this vacuum, its ennui, its irrational and cruel passions, is that of deus absconditus, the theater of the hidden god” (Heller & Fehér: The Grandeur and Twilight of Radical Universalism, 1991: 311). Caught between ethnic nostalgia and religious anticipation, Benjamin, together with several other people of his generation, aimed to give the godforsaken world of modernity an alternative, messianic vision, with the “angel of history” providing hope, utopia, and redemption to those who might identify with the opening line of Rilke’s 1st Duino Elegy (written in 1912, publ. 1923): “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” That historical predicament was melancholic, not tragic, as mortals still looked forward to the Day of Judgment.

Benjamin’s systematic endeavor to replace tragedy with the Traurspiel as a modern ideal of theater and thought lasted for some ten years, and represented his life’s major project of combined philosophical inquiry and stylistic study.  Later, in the 1930s, he also supported Brecht’s anti-Aristotelian “epic theater.”  “Benjamin remained faithful to the program of the Trauerspiel essay. As far as the theory of drama was concerned, his attempt to create a blueprint for untragic drama, the drama proper to modernity, remained his principal lifelong concern” (314).

March 19, 2018

* This post is the opening of my lecture announced in the poster above.  The entire lecture has been posted on my website under Pirandello’s Enrico IV.

Posted in Bildung, Culture, Melancholy, The "Greeks" | Tagged , , , ,

The regular piano collaborator

Long-term collaborations in classical music used to inspire confidence in the tradition of the genre. Whether we were listening to an LP or the local classical station, we the audience knew that the stability and continuity of several schemes guaranteed the authenticity and superiority of this music – Ormandy conducting the Philadelphians and Marriner the St Martins, the Amadeus Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio. (It felt the same with labels such as Deutsche Gramophone and the RCA Red Seal.)

A very special source of reassurance used to be the regular piano accompanist: We could count on Gerald Moore to play with Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus with Elly Ameling, Dalton Baldwin with Gérard Souzay, Erik Werba with Irmgard Seefried, and more recently on my colleague at Michigan, Martin Katz, with Marilyn Horne.  These musical pairs seemed destined for classical eternity.

Things are quite different these days. The pairing of singer and pianist is far less predictable (I can think of a few exceptions, such as Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake, and James Gilchrist & Anna Tilbrook) but the instrumentalist, now justifiably promoted to “collaborative pianist,” is more learned (Graham Johnson), flexible (Malcolm Martineau), and reflexive (Charles Spencer). I will never forget Roger Vignoles’ enthusiastic sophistication, during a singers’ master class, as he grew more and more interested in the views of another collaborator, and got to explore at length with him Brahms’ “Von ewiger Liebe.” The fellow pianist was, of course, Pantelis Polychronidis, my collaborative self.

Sometimes I miss the security (and self-flattering satisfaction) of guessing “Geoffrey Parsons” before the announcer could finish “Schwarzkopf” but I am happy to be often surprised by less predictable and stable musical pairings.  (Yet, in the midst of so much flux in life – the NME is closing its print edition! – a few things seem to remain classically the same:  Christa Ludwig will be 90 on March 16, and still giving masterclasses in Vienna.)

March 9, 2018

Posted in Collaboration, Piano

“Anarchism and Hellenism in Richard Wagner’s Revolutionary Cultural Politics (1848-52)”

Richard Wagner is one of the seminal thinkers discussed in my book, The Tragic Idea (2006), which surveys the philosophy of the tragic from Schelling (1795) to Heidegger (1935).  Here is the original, longer version of that entry, which focuses on the connections between anarchism and Hellenism in Wagner’s cultural politics.                                       [Click on the name below, and again on the name in the next screen.]


image:   Prussian and Saxon troops assault revolutionary barricades during the  1849 Dresden uprising

February 26, 2018

Posted in Classical Music, Collaboration, Culture, Hellenism, Revolution, The "Greeks" | Tagged