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

Theory in verse

Is there a difference between receiving and rendering?

I have been transported by The Paths of Survival (2017), Josephine Balmer’s new poetry book, which traces the few surviving fragments of Aeschylus’ tragedy Myrmidons backwards across twenty-five centuries, from a contemporary reader to the playwright himself. In this cycle of virtuosic dramatic monologues I have been meeting all kinds of handlers of writing (editors, scavengers, translators, annotators, copyists, and many more) repurposing whatever has been handed down to them.

Like Luciano Berio’ Rendering facing the “stark lacunae” in Schubert’s fragmentary 10th symphony, in the opening “Proem: Final Sentence” a visitor to a papyrology collection reflects:

But in these hushed corners of Oxford
Library afternoons, milky with dust,
the air is weighted down by accruing loss

and this displaced scrap of frayed papyrus
whose mutilated words can just be read,
one final, half-sentence: Into darkness…
Prophetic. Patient. Hanging by a thread (p. 11).

A scribe in Alexandria, 150 CE, remarks:

It barely matters if I blot or blotch –                                                                                            these days no one asks for Aeschylus (54).

The tragedian himself in Sicily, 456 BCE, is revisiting his work:

Now I have come here not to create                                                                                             but to revise, to rescore, to chisel away                                                                                       the features of a life’s work, scrape                                                                                           off the layers of accumulated dust                                                                                                from the shrivelled skin of my plays (73)

Drawing on a variety of poetic forms, techniques, meters, and sources, Balmer achieves something rare, a classicizing theory-in-verse of classical (and literary in general) reception — a theory of classical reception in poetic form and through practices of classical reception. This is neither mere reception nor mere theory but a poetic theorization of what goes under “classical reception” in both scholarship and translation. The collection is also a literary activation of Dr. Balmer’s indispensable scholarly study with the self-explanatory title Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry (2013) which discusses simultaneously translation, research, theory, and literature as forms of radical classical translation.

Her theory-in-verse of reception can only be compared to Ananios of Kleitor: Poetry & Fragments and their Reception from Antiquity to the Present (2009), George Economou‘s unsurpassably subversive exercise in classical rendering where he not only edits, translates, and annotates the obscure Arcadian poet (born 399 BC), and chronicles his philological history, but even … invents him (“an imaginary object of desire, endlessly recreated by his later readers,” Tim Whitmarsh, TLS) since everything in this exemplary scholarly edition is made up.

As I walk Dr. Balmer’s Paths of Survival I am holding tight Christopher Norris’ The Winnowing Fan (2017), a magisterial collection of Verse-Essays in Creative Criticism which revive a Neoclassical poetic genre commonly associated with Pope and Dryden, and charge it with the theoretical concerns of Language Poetry as well as the formal qualities it denounced. For example, here an Empsonian villanella debates Agamben’s formalist aesthetics. In The End of the Poem the philosopher argued that, if poetry is defined by the possibility of enjambment, then the last verse of a poem is not a verse since it forbids enjambment. Norris reflects:

Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.                                                            With tensions unresolved it stays alive.                                                                             Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

Unrest’s endemic to the poem’s sphere.
When meter vies with syntax, then they thrive;                                                             Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.

If metric skill’s enabled us to steer
A crash-free course, still soon we’ll take a dive.                                                                Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

Caesura and enjambment make it clear
These things are poems, till last lines arrive.                                                                  Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear (202).

To take an oar for a winnowing fan in the paths of classical reception is not to mistake it but to render it in a different journey.

Speaking of closures, the end of this post may be a good point to ponder which Puccini rendering and Turandot ending I prefer, Alfano‘s or Berio‘s, or whether I simply think, like Pantelis, that, following Liù’s torture and suicide, the opera is “beyond redemption.”

February 9, 2018

Posted in Culture, Greek Poetry, The "Greeks" | Tagged ,

The spell of caprice No. 24

Paganini 24 is not a piece you listen to but one you obsess about. Its theme alone hits you like this orchestral crescendo:

So many composers and musicians have been obsessing about this five-minute capriccio (1817) that one may write a short history of Western music (classical and beyond) over the last two centuries just by tracing the myriads of variations on Paganini’s original eleven variations. Why has it been so irresistible?

The confidence of the piece is manifest in its harmonic mastery, tonal simplicity, and rhythmic swagger. But I have come to appreciate two additional factors. First, this is a highly self-assertive theme for technical variations. It is an invitation to virtuosity, to a musical skill that had only recently emerged in the early 19th century. Second, the first to accept the challenge and start the conversation by writing his own variation was Liszt, the first and arguably greatest virtuoso. Thus I suggest that the piece works like a masterful painting (say, Munch’s “Scream”), poem (Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”), short story Gogol’s “Overcoat”), or song (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I put a spell on you“) that is created as a theme proposed for variations, as an agonistic challenge to fellow artists that invites the mobilization of multiple codes of the art/trade for its competitive repetition/difference.

While obsessing about the post-compositional history of Pag 24, I have come up with eleven of its numerous dazzling instances in roughly chronological order. Since in this blog I am always listening with pianist Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, they are all for piano solo or with orchestra.

Liszt: Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S.141, No.6

Brahms: Paganini Variations, Op. 35, Book 1

Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

Richard Grayson improvises Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in the style of Debussy

Ignaz Friedman: Studies on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 47b

Lutoslawski: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (piano & orch.)

Alexander Rosenblatt: Paganini Variations  

Robert Beaser: Pag-Rag

James Mobberley: Capricious Invariance

Marc-André Hamelin: Variations on a Theme by Paganini

Fazil Say: Paganini Variation

February 1, 2018


Posted in Music, Piano | Tagged

Anti-Hellenism (2)

Anti-Hellenism is a century-old taboo topic that scholars either avoid completely or treat as an irregular version of Philhellenism. Views and actions targeting the Greeks are folded into Philhellenism and marginalized as its aberrations. That is how anti-Hellenism is ignored and tolerated. Here are two relevant remarks from the valuable summary of a Cambridge colloquium on “German Philhellenism.”

a) “One way to tackle the question of what makes German philhellenism distinctly German, [Cambridge faculty Simon] Goldhill suggested, might be to look at audience contexts that reject philhellenism. Who does not love the Greeks, and when?” (Publications of the English Goethe Society 2013, p. 211) This is a good point but one that evades the thorny issue. Why not ask directly who hates the Greeks, who attacks their history and culture? Since we rightly refer to “racists” and “sexists,” rather than people who do not “love” blacks and women, why not talk about anti-Hellenism as such?

b) Another Cambridge faculty, Katherine Harloe, “wondered throughout the day what the role specifically of the hellenic was in each instance of philhellenism” (209). This is another good point, which could be mobilized to inquire whether the hellenic of Philhellenism includes any living Hellenes or prefers its Greeks dead. An insidious form of anti-Hellenism is not to attack Greeks directly but exclude and silence living ones.

The Cambridhe 2012 colloquium in its oral and printed version raised important issues, such as the plurality (as opposed to monolithic singularity) of Philhellenisms and the competition among them for authority. Yet German anti-Hellenism was predictably not among those issues. Given the prestige of Greek culture everywhere (from philosophy to self-help books and from museums to advertising), nobody dares express explicitly and directly their contempt or hatred for the Greeks. Nobody can say in public in so many words that the Greeks are dirty and despicable. Thus scholars, thinkers, and writers find less direct ways to express their discriminatory views, which are harder to detect and debunk and are treated as simply unorthodox Philhellenism.

The locus classicus of such inoffensive anti-Hellenism is Freud’s Acropolis. The father of the Oedipus complex arrives in 1904 on the Athenian hill for the first time and, instead of experiencing “delight or admiration,” he realizes that until that moment he doubted its existence. His earlier depression at Trieste while considering a trip to Athens was “no more than an expression of incredulity” because until then (he was 48) he never wanted the place to exist:

“When, finally, on the afternoon after our arrival, I stood on the Acropolis and cast my eyes around upon the landscape, a surprising thought suddenly entered my mind: ‘So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!’ To describe the situation more accurately, the person who gave expression to the remark was divided, far more sharply than was usually noticeable, from another person who took cognizance of the remark; and both were astonished, though not by the same thing. The first behaved as though he were obliged, under the impact of an unequivocal observation, to believe in something the reality of which had hitherto seemed doubtful. … The second person, on the other hand, was justifiably astonished, because he had been unaware that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis, and the landscape around it had ever been objects of doubt. What he had been expecting was rather some expression of delight or admiration.”

Instead of wishing for the destruction of Greece, what I would call Philhellenic anti-Hellenism denies its reality – and then theorizes the denial, exactly as Freud did following the “disturbance” of his Philhellenism on the Acropolis. As I wrote in 1993, the Moderns “are those who are against the Ancients because they themselves want to be the true Greeks and therefore need the Greeks dead. Indeed, the extinction of Greece is the inadmissible desire at the heart of the post-Reformation world, a desire for which there is no common term (like anti-Hellenism, for example) or tradition of study – no regret or research.”  I was referring to “the philosophical colonization of Greece by the Hellenic ideal and her death sentence pronounced by universal proclamations of philhellenism” (The Rise of Eurocentrism, 170).

Did Freud ever ask any Viennese Greeks whether the Acropolis really existed?  Did Schubert ever ask any Viennese Greeks about the Greek War of Independence? Commenting on Schubert’s setting (1819) of the 12th* of Schiller’s 16 strophes in “The Gods of Greece” (1788), pianist Graham Johnson speculates:

“For the second four lines of the strophe we find ourselves in the tonic minor and the deserted fields of present-day Greece. Is that perhaps what gives the section beginning ‘Ausgestorben trauert das Gefilde’ the feeling of a slow Greek folk dance with instrumental interlude for oboe and plucked strings in the piano’s left hand? Could Schubert have known any Greek music from some of Vienna’s many Greek emigrés? Is it possible that he equates the glories of Greece’s past with the cause of Greek independence from the Turks, the struggle for which was to break out out two years later, in 1821? The piano line intertwines with the tune of the singer, ornamented with weaving melismas, and in rhythm that suggests the Greek open circle-dance known as the syrtos.”

Listening to this lied, I can always hear Pantelis’ left hand.

January 27, 2018

* “Beautiful world, where are you? Come again,/Fair springtime of nature!/Ah, only in the enchanted land of song/Does your fabled memory still live on./The fields, deserted, mourn,/No god appears before my eyes,/Ah, of all the living warmth/Only the shadow has remained.” Continue reading

Posted in Culture, Greeks, Hellenism, The "Greeks"

Anti-Hellenism (1)

Why don’t we study anti-Hellenism?

This question came again to my mind as I finished reading an excellent review essay by the Cambridge historian of classical reception Dr. Helen Roche, “The Peculiarities of German Philhellenism” (2017), which surveys studies published from 2004 to 2016 in several disciplines in order to revisit the question of what makes this phenomenon so distinctive.

In the last section of her essay, which touches upon developments in Hellenic studies, Roche cites various scholars to stress that, well into this century, the modern Greek continues to be seen as a “dirty descendant” of glorious antiquity, experiencing a “deficient modernity” and eliciting a “racially legitimized contempt,” and she reminds us that “the disappointment felt by members of the German occupying forces during the invasion of Greece by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War clearly had an impact on the readiness with which some were ready to condone atrocities against the indigenous population” (The Historical Journal, 17). The critique of this (idealist) Hellenism without (living) Greeks has prevailed since the emergence in the 1980s of post-colonial studies of modern Greece (16).

The next sentence, though, takes a puzzling turn: “This was the dark side of that philhellenic kinship which was supposed to exist between ancient Greeks and Germans, but which left no space for modern Greeks” (17). Why is contempt and hatred for the Greeks “the dark side” of Philhellenism? This is like saying that owning human chattels was the dark side of the Enlightenment. It was not the dark side: it was plain slavery. Disdaining living Greeks, and committing and condoning atrocities against them is not the “dark side” of Philhellenism but a supremacist bigotry and brutality for which we could easily use the term anti-Hellenism though we do not. With no such term in common use, however, can any violence against the Greeks be accepted and discussed as discriminatory, racist, and colonial?

Roche proceeds to criticize what she calls (note her scare quotes) a “hyperbolic definition of ‘violence’ against Greek culture” (18), and she explains (using double scare quotes): “In this reading, the supposed ‘colonial violence’ imposed by European artists, scholars, and archaeologists in their appropriation of Greek antiquity (and its surviving material antiquities) could, under the wrong conditions, descend into the perpetration of literal violence against the oppressed inhabitants of an occupied nation” (17-8). If attitudes to Greeks may be discussed only under the rubric of Philhellenism, with its bright and dark sides, under what conditions is it possible to speak about committing atrocities against them and exercising colonial violence?

If the European cultural and material appropriation of Greek antiquity “could, under the wrong conditions, descend into the perpetration of literal violence,” what might it turn into under the “right” conditions?  Here Roche seems to foreground the civilizing mission of the Bavarian regency, arguing that “it was German wealth and architectural expertise which endowed the city [of Athens] with all its crowning glories of a self-respecting European capital: a state university, library, museum, public gardens — not to mention the royal gardens” (18-9). I am sure the author does not mean it this way but this sounds like the argument of the British Empire’s apologists that the colonies should be grateful for the railways.

Roche suggests that, even if at times the idealization of Greece had “singularly destructive” effects, it should not be taken to “its most racist and belligerent extremes,” and should be instead qualified by “the emergence of a more subtle and complex picture” (20) of Philhellenism — a suggestion foreclosing the mention of anti-Hellenism, let alone its study, and keeping it a scholarly taboo.

It remains unthinkable to discuss an attack on Hellenism as anything but a betrayal of Philhellenism. I am not talking here specifically about ethnic discrimination or persecution targeting Greeks, such as anti-Greek bashing, but the very opposite of Philhellenism, the Hellenophobic ideology that treats Hellenism in all its intellectual or material manifestations as corrupt and dangerous. Why is there no monograph, edited volume, conference, bibliography, or course on the major cultural phenomenon of anti-Hellenism, tracing it back either to early modernity or to antiquity?

Every time we walk around Vienna’s Greek Quarter, Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, will ask me: “With all his strong interest in the Greeks, did Freud ever meet any in his city?”

January 16, 2018

Posted in Culture, Hellenism, Literature, The Arts | Tagged

Greek women poets on Greek myth

A new bilingual poetry collection, Phoebe Giannisi’s Homerica (2017), which has just appeared, brings to mind the growing number of Greek women writers of the poetic generation of the 2000s who have been publishing book-length cycles that draw explicitly and extensively on Greek myth. Recent collections include (in chronological order) Elisavet Arseniou’s Οδυσσία: Κείμενο πολιορκίας (2005), Eleni Kefala’s Μνήμη και παραλλαγές (2007), Giannisi’s own Ομηρικά (2009), Natalia Katsou’s Κοχλίας (2012), Konstantina Korryvanti’s Μυθογονία (2015), Patricia Kolaitis’ Ο Λιθόπαις (2016), and Anna Griva’s Σκοτεινή κλωστή δεμένη (2017).

There are many eminent features of this poetry, such as its performative character and its experimentation with agency, that bring it close to the English-language work on Greek myth of contemporary British, Irish, Australian, Canadian, and American women writers, such as (in order of age) Margaret Atwood (1939), Gail Holst-Warhaft (1941), Louise Glück (1943), Eavan Boland (1944), Anne Carson (1950), Linda Gregerson (1950), Rita Dove (1952), Carol Ann Duffy (1955), and Josephine Balmer (1959).

Emergent trends in classical reception research, such as “dialogicism,” “postclassicism,” “deep classics,” and “globalized classics,” may highlight the several literary and philosophical interests that the two groups of writers share.  Many of these writers arguably deserve a volume in the highly promising series Classics in Twentieth-Century Writing (Bloomsbury), edited by Dr. Laura Jansen, which will be launched this year with a monograph on Carson.

January 11, 2018

Posted in Greek Poetry, Greeks, The "Greeks" | Tagged