Composers on the operatic stage

Two recent musical premieres drew my attention to a very special operatic figure, the composer. The first premiere was the release on CD of Dellaira’s tragic The Death of Webern, which explores the mysterious circumstances of Webern’s demise in 1945, and the other, the first performance of Scene 2 of Hallett’s comic To Music, which looks at the online distractions of the creative process.

Together, they got me thinking about other operas where a major, or even the central, role is given to a composer, often a “double” of the composer of the opera. Here is my far from exhaustive chronological list, with the composer’s role [in brackets] when it is not mentioned in the title. I would be grateful for additional examples.*

Wagner:                     Tannhäuser (1845)

Paolo Serrao:             G. B. Pergolesi (1857)

Wagner:                     Die Meistesinger von Nürnberg (1868) [Hans Sachs]

Rimsky-Korsakov:    Mozart and Salieri (1898)

Janáček:                     Osud/Destiny (1907) [Živný]

Strauss:                      Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) [composer]

Pfitzner:                     Palestrina (1917)

Strauss:                      Capriccio (1942) [Flamand]

Corigliano:                The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) [Beaumarchais]

Schnittke:                  Gesualdo (1993)

Franz Hummel:        Gesualdo (1996)

Leonid Desyatnikov:  The Children of Rosenthal (2005) [Mozart, Wagner, Verdi,      Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky]

Michael Dellaira:      The Death of Webern (2013)

Steven Stucky:           The Classical Style (2014) [Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann]

Nick Hallett:              To Music (in progress) [composer]

This is the kind of collaborative musical game Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and I love to play all the time.

December 26, 2016

*I am grateful to Ms. Litsa Drossos for reminding me of the role of the archetypal composer, Orpheus, in operas like L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, and Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Posted in Classical Music, The Double

The imperial destiny of the Trojans

The goddess of my life, Artemis Leontis, and I made sure last month to catch one of only five performances of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens (1856-58) in a fittingly grandiose new production at the Lyric Opera.


I have been exploring with special interest this Shakespearean grand opera since its revival in the 1960s but, until we saw it live in Chicago, I had not fully realized how directly it rewrites Virgil’s Aeneid (in Berlioz’s own libretto!) as a prophecy of Napoleon III’s Empire. This five-act, five-hour work of imperial scope and ambition stages imperialism as historical destiny. From beginning to end, every episode and motif points explicitly to “Italie!” as the preordained destination of the Trojans, and the lavish orchestral and choral writing reiterates it in a myriad of extravagant colorations. I cannot think of another opera in the repertoire that is so blatantly imperial in both size and ideology.

So what was Katina Paxinou, one of the greatest tragedians of the 20th century, doing on the cover of the Lyric’s program? It didn’t say, and we couldn’t think of any connection to Berlioz or Virgil. Perhaps she represented the archetypal tragic heroine of classical myth, like Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens. Indeed the director, Tim Albery, tried to introduce some tragic intimations of the fall that is the ultimate destiny of all empires but I found them unconvincing. As Edward Said stressed in his review of the Met production, Berlioz admired the ongoing expansion of the French Empire in North Africa. Like the Parisian stage of the 1850s, this opera can amply accommodate melodrama but remains impervious to tragic insight.

December 8, 2016

Posted in Classical Music | Tagged , ,

A transatlantic communication between Greek and American poets

My recent post, “Left Melancholy and its Poetry after the American Elections,” has been published under the title “Η Αριστερή Μελαγχολία και η ποίησή της μετά τις Αμερικάνικες εκλογές” in the excellent Greek literary magazine (as well as cutting-edge publishing house) Θράκα/Thraca (2013-), which appears in printed and electronic form. I am grateful to the editors and, especially to the translator, Thanos Gogos, for this publication.


My post concluded with a suggestion: “But why read poets who wrote for another time, place, and occasion (like Auden) and not living ones who have been writing under conditions of intense socio-political crisis about dignity after despair? This is a great moment to read the Greek poetry generation of the 2000s and explore its disillusioned, defiant Left Melancholy.”

In a highly creative response to my suggestion, the magazine Thraca has launched a series, “Γράμμα σε έναν Αμερικάνο φίλο,” where Greek poets who belong to the “Generation of the 2000s” put together a letter, as it were, to an imaginary American friend by making a small selection from their work to send to those who feel “melancholic” (in the sense of the critical term) over the recent American elections. So far contributing poets have included Nikos Erinakis and Yorgos Alisanoglou. The editors plan to incorporate English translations as well. A very promising collaborative initiative!

December 15, 2016

Posted in Collaboration, General Philosophy, Greek Poetry | Tagged

“World Literature” as cultural institution and disciplinary regime

Aamir Mufti, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a major thinker in the transnational humanities, has written an Orientalism for the early twenty first century:  not a sequel or an update to Edward Said’s epoch-making book but one of comparable breadth, integrity, and urgency. His Forget English! (2016) criticizes capitalism, globalism, colonialism, and Eurocentrism by offering a rigorous genealogy of “world literature” as cultural institution and disciplinary regime.  My review essay, which recommends its wholeheartedly, has appeared in the journal boundary 2.



Posted in Uncategorized

The demonic control of Greek mothers over their sons

Greek men are often controlled by their possessive mothers, especially if they are their only male child. Among male intellectuals, scholars, and artists, in particular, there may be relatively few who are not so controlled. Their oppression is brutal and life-long but they rarely protest it since it becomes an integral part of their identity and they cannot think of their lives without maternal benevolent tyranny.

One way to define this predicament is through the fascinating German notion of das Dämonische/the demonic, the condition of being possessed by the monstrous. The notion suffuses Brahms’ “demonic” Ballade no. 1, the first of 4, op. 10 (1854), also known as “Edward,” because it is based on a grisly Scottish ballade, which the composer found translated in an anthology by Herder (1778-79). Like the poem, the composition consists in a dialogue between Edward and his mother: She questions him, he dissimulates, then confesses that he has killed his father, and leaves forever, cursing her because she made him do it. Thus there are two moments of horror, of unfathomable truth: first, the revelation of the murder, and then, the revelation of the culprit: The mother made her son kill his father in order to possess him through his complicity in murder.

The middle part of Brahms’ ballad (in this clip, 1:47-3:47), the son’s sordid confession, consists of a great manifestation of the Romantic demonic in music as a Beethovenian hammering rhythm of galloping triplets intimates fate, builds through an extended crescendo, and reveals the horrible deed in a fortissimo.

One of the several conceptions of the demonic that Kirk Wetters distinguishes in his study Demonic History (2014) is “Demonic Remainders in the History of Reason and Rationalization” (197). This conception “inheres in the individuals’ contradictory sense of responsibility for events and the simultaneous inability to control their course. Such a relation to events formulates itself retrospectively as guilt: the point of the demonic is experienced most intensely at the point when it is too late to substantially alter the outcome. … The demonic is the justified or unjustified, unjustifiable sense of complicity with a finished course of events” (198).

Greek men who are dominated by their mothers (as well as by their aunts functioning as complements or by lovers as substitutes) are haunted by such an unaccountable guilt, the self-contradictory sense that they are both only partially responsible for their fate and yet unable to change its course. The distinguished poet/performer Vasilis Amanatidis (1970) has published the sixty-poem cycle μ_otherpoem: μόνο λόγος (2014), an extraordinary book-length lament on this traumatic relationship. It is the only subject that Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” is reluctant to discuss at length with me. He will touch on it with indignation and exasperation, and then drop it. Nevertheless, he has drawn my attention to the Maenadic role of mothers of pianists.

My account of this phenomenon, which I omit here, is based on matters pertaining to specific social/gender and economic/class factors and not at all on general genetic or psychological ones. That is why I limit my considerations to Greek society, which is the one I know best, and do not discuss the role of mothers in other societies.

November 27, 2016

Posted in Uncategorized

On Jewish Modernity


In my book The Rise of Eurocentrism: Anatomy of Intepretation (1993), I highlighted the central role played by the Hebraism vs. Hellenism polarity in the self-definition of modernity, and especially in the evolution of Jewish modernity. This evolution is the focus of a superb new study, Enzo Traverso’s The End of Jewish Modernity [2013] (2016).

The book’s “Introduction” opens with a comparison of two major 20th-century figures, Leon Trotsky and Henry Kissinger, “archetypes of the Jew as revolutionary and the Jew as imperialist.” They embody “two opposite paradigms of Jewishness. The first left its mark on the interward years, the second on the years of the Cold War.” The author insists unflinchingly that the Jewish modernity they embody “has reached the end of its road. After having being the main focus of critical thought in the Western worls — in the era when Europe was its centre — Jews today find themselves, by a kind of paradoxical reversal, at the heart of the mechanisms of domination” (3). The Jewish voice, “which used to be dissonant, is now in counterpoint. Today, it blends in with the harmony of the dominant discourse” (4).  That is why its modernity is exhausted.

John Murray Cuddihy traced the same trajectory (from critical to dominant discourse) in his absorbing study The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (1974), which explored how “Judaism became Jewishness” (14). The consistent move of major Jewish figures from progressive to conservative ones (such as Maimon to Norman Podhoretz, Varnhagen to Cynthia Ozick, Lasalle to Harold Garfinkel, and Mendelssohn to Ayn Rand) shows how emancipated intellectuals enter “a strange world, to explore a strange people observing a strange halakah (code). They examine this world in dismay, with wonder, anger, and punitive objectivity” (68). Many felt belated and backward. As a response, “came early the ideology of Hebraism — namely, that whereas ‘you may be a superior civilization (whatever that is), we, in our political and economic impotence, are a superior moral heritage’ [Michael Polanyi]. There is Hellenism, which is pagan, perhaps civilized, and with an eye to beauty, but greater still is Hebraism, with its concern for justice and its superiori morality. From Luzzatto to Heine (from whom Arnold got it) and beyond to Hermann Coehn (1842-1914) and the Marburg neo-Kantians, this is a major theme of alienated Diaspora intellectual Jewry. It is the ‘moralistic style’ of the modern oppositional intelligentsia” (183). Thanks to its “‘ousider’ prophetic intellectuals … Hebraism as ideology gave meaning to Jewish civilizational inferiority and moral superiority at one stroke” (183-84).  That generated its critical force.

Furthermore, as David Biale has documented in his Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (2011), the prophetic intellectuals of oppositional intelligentsia sought indeed to draw on their moral Jewish heritage. His book begins by endorsing the position of Isaac Deutcher, in his famous 1958 talk “The Non-Jewish Jew,” that major thinkers such as Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud “were all heretics, yet their heresy might be understood as a rejection that grew out of the Jewish tradition itself” (1). Jewish secularism was less radical than it appeared since it was based in the premodern tradition it rejected in its “attempt to fashion a countertradition, an alternative to Judaism as a religion” (13).  Traverso declares that this major modern countertradition, which flourished between 1750-1950, has been over for over half a century for reasons that he explains at length.

The “Conclusion” of Traverso’s book opens with a comparison of two major 19th-century figures, Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli: “They also reflect two distinct trajectories of the Jewish intelligentsia. If the model of critical intellectual embodied by Marx dominated the twentieth century, that of Disraeli became more general at the century’s end, when revolutionaries gave way to statesmen and consiglieri. Today, the Jewish intellectual is no longer the pariah described by Hannah Arendt in the 1940s; he or she is rather to be found in think-tanks linked to the state, an ‘organic intellectual’ of the ruling classes. This shift is evidence of a change of era: the end of the age of critical Judaism and the beginning of that of a Judaism of order” (128).

In the era of globalization, writes Traverso, the challenge to hegemony comes not from its “others” (the Jews who operated within the West) but from its post-colonials (who until now have been forced to operate outside). “European Jewish thought adopted a self-reflexive posture of Western culture, challenged from within by a stratum of its own representatives who, rejected and thrust to its margins, became its critical conscience (sometimes at the price of ignoring the non-European world, as in the case of the Frankfurt School and psychoanalysis). All these Jewish ‘outsiders’ displayed a deep and often tragic sense of belonging to Europe. … The birth of post-colonialism coincides with the exhaustion of the Jewish cycle of critical thought in Europe, a few generations removed from the Holocaust and decolonization, when the cumulative effects of these two historical caesuras have become evident” (131-32).   Proposing a contrapuntal archetype for our times, the writer concludes that the great post-colonial critic Edward Said was right to present himself as “the last Jewish intellectual.”

November 22, 2016

Posted in Uncategorized

German Nazi views of the Greeks


A newly translated study of classical reception by the Nazis emphasizes that what made their approach to antiquity unique was its concept of race. In his study Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe’s Classical Past (2016, originally published in 2008 as Le national-socialisme et l’Antiquité), historian Johann Chapoutot shows that their claim to antiquity was “inscribed in the flesh and blood of contemporary Germans, who possessed the same racial essence as the ancient Greeks and Romans. This continuity of race justified the Nazis’ territorial conquests: if the Greeks and Romans had originally come from the North, then the Mediterranean basin … rightly belonged to the legitimate heirs of the North” (394).

This Aryanist view of history was put into brutal use when Germany invaded Greece and its army encountered the natives: “In 1941 the invasion initially prompted some disillusionment and confusion, until the Nazis’ awareness of their Nordic superiority swept it away and cleared their consciences. The contemporary Greek people were a population of half-breeds that had degenerated through long centuries of promiscuity and racial mixing with their Asiatic and Turkish neighbors; accordingly, all sexual relations between German soldiers and Greek women were strictly forbidden. Little by little, such haughty disdain would nourish and legitimate the Nazis’ practice of almost genocidal terror upon the Greek civilian population, beginning in 1942, as Mark Mazower has shown [in his study Inside Hitler’s Greece]. The Greek people were thus less native to their own country than the Germans themselves, who were the legitimate, pure descendants of the Indo-Germanic race that had come from the North in the first place to bring civilization to the Greek peninsula” (92).

Interestingly, some German racial theorists had already argued that the Greeks had been always half-breeds since the ancients themselves had degenerated into racial mixing by allowing nonnative blood and exotic values to pollute their original Nordic natural purity. In the book The Myth of the Twentieth Century: An Evaluation of the Spiritual-Intellectual Confrontations of Our Age (1930) influential Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg “considered the polarity between Apollo and Dionysus to be a consequence of the racial and spiritual schizophrenia of the Greeks, who were torn between faithfulness to their Nordic roots and an upwelling of nonnative peoples that had insinuated itself into their blood after their emigration south: ‘The Greek was always divided within himself and vacillated between his own natural values and those of alien and exotic origin’” (62). Thus ancient Greek bastardization proved that the Germans remained both the original and the authentic Greeks.

November 5, 2016

Posted in Uncategorized