The tragedy of revolution is that liberation conspires with terror.

A link to my scholarly project The Tragedy of Revolution:

“A tragic understanding admits that revolution is subject to counter-revolution, that liberation is risking oppression.”

Posted in Melancholy, Philosophy, Revolution

Schubert as a Byronic hero

Every time I start listening to Schubert’s Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden” (1824), its opening fortissimo octaves stop me on my tracks: Did I really just hear that?

And that is only the start! The tremendous, relentless contrasts of the entire first movement never let the listener feel assured or safe as they shift constantly, driven by those triplets haunting every turn of phrase.

This grand movement is a supreme epitome of the classical style that can have many uses: in musicology, as an introduction to this particular style; in composition, as a compendium of basic techniques; in music appreciation, as an illustration of key features; in performance history, as a survey of quartet playing; and in reception studies, as a key moment in the transition from home to concert music. There are few movements that can capture so well nearly all aspects of classical music as a code, institution, and discipline.

Here I want to propose an intermedial approach that focuses on the Byronic hero. Since I have compared the concerto to the Bildungsroman, and the quartet to the “collaborative work of friends“, and I have also been inspired by Eric Ball’s powerful political reading of Schubert’s Impromptu, op. 90, No. 2, I am intrigued by the idea of comparing the 1st movement of Schubert’s No. 14 (introduced by the “fate motif” I mentioned above) to the melancholic peregrinations of a Byronic hero (or heroine). This “Allegro” offers no heroic journey of a Beethoven musical theme. Its triplet motif wanders, until it dies homeless and remorseful, like one of those solitary, lovelorn, brooding, suffering literary figures, from Byron’s own Childe Harolde, Conrad, and Manfred from the 1810s to the Russians Onegin (1820s) and Pechorin (1839) to Heathcliff and Rochester (both 1847) to Leverkühn (1947).

I would take this further. Byron’s impact on music, from Berlioz to Strauss, is well known. “The most prominent composers in Germany during the 1850s – Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, and Schumann – all liked to be compared to Byron” (Tunbridge: “Schumann as Manfred,” The Musical Quarterly 87, no. 3, 2004, p. 546). However, before these composers came the Byronically self-fashioned Schubert, an anti-hero to Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero.  During the time of the 14th quartet’s composition, he realized that, after eighteen unsuccessful attempts at an opera, he would never be the next Rossini and it was too late to be the next Classical hero. The bitter realization of his twin failures (possibly after he attended the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th in 1824?) turned him into a Romantic anti-hero, a Byronic hero. It was this new trajectory that eventually led Schubert to his Winterreise (1827), the ultimate Byronic journey, based on the verses of the lyric poet Wilhelm Müller, a Byronic Philhellene who died a year before the composer. Cora Palfy has argued convincingly that, in works inspired by the English poet, composers like Berlioz, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky deform and subvert dominant musical genres, like the sonata, in order to question Beethoven’s heroic supremacy. I suggest that in Schubert’s late works we can see the same defiant gesture, a deliberate “sonata failure” (“Anti-Hero Worship,” Indiana Theory Review 32: 1-2, 2016, 182), that enabled the composer to structure both musically and thematically the last phase of his work on the basis of a very popular literary model of his time, the doomed Byronic hero. In this sense, just as Schopenhauer followed Hegel, Schubert followed Beethoven.

As performers of music and literature respectively, Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and I always talk about such dialogues between the two arts, especially unconventional cases where they do not attempt to “illustrate” one another.

March 12, 2018


Posted in Classical Music, Literature, Melancholy | Tagged ,

The pianist-thinker

Certain great pianists spend their lives thinking deeply about music, and feeling torn between the ethereal and the apoplectic – either dancing on the piano (clip 1) or crawling under it (2).  Some times they believe they have mastered their instrument…

while other times they believe that their instrument has become their master.

I know, because Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, is one of them.

The critic Huntley Dent has suggested that pianists fit into three large categories: Personalities (like Cherkassky and Wang), powerhouses (like Cziffra and Argerich), and poets (like Gieseking and de Larrocha). Inspired by the example of Pantelis, I would add a fourth category of pianists, thinkers, in which I would include, among others, the scholarly Jeremy Denk, the critic Harris Goldsmith, the comparatist David Greilsammer, the encyclopedic Marc-André Hamelin, the literary Angela Hewitt, the polymath Stephen Hough, the cross-over Labèques Sisters, and the essayist Igor Levit. I would take this further and argue that, even though every instrument can boast great virtuosos, only the piano can claim that it produces musicians-thinkers.

I consider my friend, Pantelis, too a literary thinker in that literary interests large (such as periods) and small (such as techniques) thoroughly inform his playing and contribute substantially to our collaborations. I recall the wonderful poetic quality of his artistry as I salute his birthday tomorrow and his Athenian appearance the day after.

May 7, 2018

Posted in Friends, Piano

“Neoliberal Austerity and Left Melancholy”

I have just published in the Michigan Quarterly Review a review essay on the anthology Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (New York Review Books, 2017), edited by Karen Van Dyck.  It is fitting that Michigan’s C. P. Cavafy Modern Greek Chair is participating in a special issue of the house journal on “Poetry at Michigan” with an exploration of current Greek verse.  (I am grateful to Keith Taylor, departing Associate Editor and great lover of Greek literature, for his support.)

This piece may be read together with another review essay I have published on the same poetic trend and generation, and with its companion paper.

They may be all read while listening to the music of austerity.

April 30, 2018

Posted in Collaboration, General Culture, Greek Poetry, Greeks, The Common

Χρόνος, Χάυντν, Χάιντεγγερ

Ο Δημήτρης Καλοκύρης, κορυφαία μορφή των ελληνικών γραμμάτων, τεχνών και εκδόσεων, ζήτησε από 40 συνεργάτες και συνομιλητές του να σχολιάσουν με λίγα λόγια ορισμένους από τους 88 καταπληκτικούς εικαστικούς Ωρολογιακούς Μηχανισμούς (2017) που πρόσφατα δημιούργησε, εξέθεσε και εξέδωσε.  Αυτό είναι το κείμενό μου για το ρολόι που διάλεξα να σχολιάσω.  Ο τέλειος τίτλος της σελίδας είναι δικός του.

Σεπτέμβριος 2017


Posted in Classical Music, Greek Poetry | Tagged ,

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