Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Flos Campi the Enigma

This essay was originally published in the Journal of the RVW Society, No. 42, July 2008. 

The deeper one peers into the life and works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the more enigmatic they both become. Rarely in the post-romantic world has there been a major composer so reticent about sharing his inspirations, his beliefs, or even his inner life. Before his day it had already become common practice for major composers to be, in a sense, literary men as well. Perhaps the most exaggerated example of this can be found in Richard Wagner, whose writings seem an apotheosis for the 19th century German Romantic movement. In his typically paradigm-defining manner, Wagner wrote volume after volume detailing his artistic ideology, that his works might be framed within a specific context. This in turn set an example for many of the composers who followed. Tracing the history of European art music since the Romantic period, we find the necessity of a dual discipline emerging—what can be called the composer as critic, or even the composer as the primitive musicologist of his own work. By the mid-twentieth century it had become both commonplace and expected that a prominent composer should publish manifestoes on art in the form of concert notes, articles, or even books. Some used their literary gift as a means of promoting the musical theories behind their works, others as a means of defending themselves against newspaper critics, others still as an almost parallel art form. A fascinating library of works was thus developed over the decades, including books that are interesting almost entirely in their own right, only tangentially related to the music they took as their original raison d’etre. The writings of Erik Satie, Charles Ives’s Essays before a Sonata, Constant Lambert’s Music Ho!, and John Cage’s Silence are but a few examples of the many books that fascinate even on non-musical levels. Gone were the days when major composers were considered mere servants to aristocratic culture. Indeed, the modern world somewhat surprisingly expected composers to be more than mere musicians: it demanded political theorists, sociologists, even seers—very clearly men of the written word as well as the musical score.

It should be noted that this was a relatively recent development before the day of Vaughan Williams. In the century before his birth we cannot even imagine the notion of Mozart writing an extended philosophical text detailing with the implications of The Magic Flute, or propagating a treatise on The Marriage of Figaro which subsequently might have driven him into political exile. Before this, the idea of Bach writing a multiple volume summa on the spiritual and political importance of cantatas and passion settings is unthinkable. Still farther back, the notion that anyone in Tudor England would have considered the theological opinions of William Byrd, in any substantial and serious way, is at least mildly ridiculous.


This essay was originally published in The Journal of The RVW Society, No 36, June 2006. 

We had the experience but missed the meaning.
                                                                —T.S. Eliot

I remember once sitting in a graduate seminar, listening to presentations on 20th century composers, when a very bright student delivered a thirty-minute talk on the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives. He went into great detail, but the detail was not exclusively about Ives, nor was it primarily about the piece in question. It was primarily about himself: his experience of the piece, his path toward understanding the complex musical material in front of him and, ultimately, his own philosophical and spiritual understanding of life, of which he more or less used the piece as a proof. By the end of the presentation, the other students had certainly learned about Charles Ives and his music, but if they were listening carefully, they learned even more about their classmate.

Regardless of whether or not such a presentation is of value in a purely musicological sense, it is important to note that this method of analysis is no mere student phenomenon. It is in fact a practical rule, albeit tacit, of musicology itself. Most scholars tend to make a strong pretense to objectivity, but a careful reading of standard musical biographies, general histories of music, and articles will demonstrate that the history of music is often used as an ideological battleground, fraught with the agenda of whatever scholar is at hand, rather than as a true discovery of the musician in question, thoughtfully and carefully placed in his or her own day and age. Thus we have a conflicting and even contradictory history of scholarship on any given composer or subject. For example, if we read enough we can learn of the Marxist Beethoven, the Fascist Beethoven, the Freudian Beethoven, or the Feminist deconstruction of Beethoven. Each of them will claim to give us the “true” Beethoven, or at least purport to have placed him properly for the first time. But in each we will also note that some quotations of the composer will have been exaggerated, others will have been suppressed; some important pieces will have been ignored; other, less significant pieces will have been suddenly discovered for the unheralded masterpieces they truly are. To anyone critically following the bias of the scholar, it will become obvious that in many such cases Beethoven is used less as a subject for study than as an object—even to the point of becoming a pawn in what is often a distinctly non-musical game.

All of the great composers have been subjected, over and again, to this sort of analysis. These days, it can sometimes seem as though it is the only analysis that is ever done. But despite all of this, the majority opinion of scholars comes to something like a general agreement on a reasonable position: Bach isn’t regarded as a covert atheist, nor is Beethoven regarded as a proto-Marxist by reasonable scholars, though both claims have been made. Likewise a reasonable consensus exists for most of the major composers in the Classical Canon.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, however, is an exception. He is not considered by the majority of scholars to have been one of the most important composers of his era. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, even Shostakovich and Prokofiev tend to overshadow him in general survey texts. Remembered as a primary factor in the English Musical Renaissance of the early 20th century, he is studied closely only by a handful of scholars, and all too often relegated to a “second tier” of “nationalist” composers (most of whom are considered, rightly or wrongly, to be derivatives of the “greater” composers). Thus Vaughan Williams hasn’t been as hotly debated; fewer ideologues have tried to claim him as their own; fewer hostile scholars have tried to deconstruct him and his work. In one sense this can be good: in so being considered, his life and music have avoided a variety of misreadings. But in another way, this can be very bad, and stunt our understanding of his artistic achievement, particularly if all of the small circle of Vaughan Williams scholars hold one narrow ideology, or reductive outlook, unanimously. Imagining this happening to Beethoven demonstrates how detrimental it might be: if all of the major scholars agreed that he was a proto-Marxist, and every quotation of the great composer running counter to this hypothesis was overlooked, others exaggerated, our deeper understanding of his music would suffer. What would happen to interpretation of the Missa Solemnis? Likewise if Bach criticism was to be dominated by scholars without sufficient background in Christian thought, our understanding of his artistic achievement would be hindered, if not maimed irreparably. And yet this, without exaggerating matters, is analogous to the situation confronting the person who would seek to understand and appreciate the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Since the time of his death, there has been one scholarly opinion regarding the religious beliefs of Ralph Vaughan Williams: it is taken for granted that he was an atheist as a young man, and that he later drifted into agnosticism defined in a narrow and reductive sense, which he held for the rest of his life. Every other opinion, be it Hubert Foss’s flirtation with the word “pantheism” or Byron Adams’s suggestion that RVW used scripture in non-Christian ways, is merely a variation or development on this unanimously assumed theme. Over the last half century, the most frequently cited quotations on the subject have become so officially canonized and engrained that no one, to date, has gone back to look at the strength of the quotes themselves. What was their actual context? Who was the source? Are they being presented in a biased manner, or do they come from a biased source? What was Vaughan Williams actually referring to when he made them? None of these questions have been asked, nor has it been pointed out that the reductive view of Vaughan Williams’s supposed atheism and agnosticism has been hung, for over four decades, on the strength (or weakness) of only a handful of these quotes.

More interesting then this, however, are the quotations ignored, which seem to weaken (or in some cases contradict) the prevalent theory of VW’s beliefs. Finally, the pieces themselves speak very strongly, and only when we are willing to question the assumptions of the major scholars are we able to uncover the true depths of pieces such as the Five Mystical Songs, Sancta Civitas, the Dona Nobis Pacem, and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The remedy is not so simple as illuminating the depths of pieces, however, as a great deal of dogma has been written about the religious beliefs of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Scholars seemingly without enough knowledge of Christianity, Church history, theology and mysticism have made pronouncements on the subject, buttressing a narrow understanding of VW’s beliefs with a great deal of misinformation, false assumption, and in some cases, misreadings of even the quotes they have thought supported their conclusions. It will therefore take a great deal of unraveling before the situation can be remedied.

Vaughan Williams the atheist?

In his brief overview of the generally prevalent attitudes towards Vaughan Williams’s beliefs, John Barr sensibly opts for a chronological exposition, documenting the major opinions held by scholars at each stage of the composer’s life.1 Beginning, then, with VW’s childhood, Barr points out that the composer was the son of an Anglican clergyman, who died while Ralph was little more than an infant. Significantly, he also mentions that his mother, Margaret Vaughan Williams, was a Christian with “strict evangelical leanings,” though he couldn’t remember exactly where he had read this. It is no surprise that it was difficult to locate the exact source for the quote, as it is not to be found in any of the primary materials a Vaughan Williams scholar might immediately reference for childhood material. Rather, the description of Vaughan Williams's mother as a “strict Christian” comes from Byron Adams’s article, “Scripture, Church and culture: biblical texts in the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams” published in 1996.2

Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress in Context

a preliminary study
by Eric Seddon

This essay was originally published in the Journal of the RVW Society, No. 26, February 2003; the first in a series reevaluating the religious symbolism and drama in the works of RVW.  

From the time of its premiere at Covent Garden on 26 April 1951,  Ralph Vaughan Williams’s operatic masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress, has been at the very least enigmatic for those who would seek to understand, categorize, support or criticize it. One of the first points of contention usually raised is the question of its suitability for the operatic stage. Its critics point to what they consider to be the static nature of the action, often described as independent tableaux rather than scenes flowing one from another. They point further to the content of those tableaux; suggesting that such noble, religious sentiment ought to be performed in cathedrals rather than opera houses. Finally, they point to the fact that the composer himself referred to the piece as a ‘Morality’ rather than as an ‘opera.’ All of these arguments tend to put the supporters of the piece on the defensive from the outset. One feels that, as a musicologist, one must deliver an apology for the piece rather than focus on its unique qualities. Indeed, to discuss how unique the work is seems dangerous, as it might further alienate the piece from a potential staging. To compound the problem, those of us who recognize the piece’s dramatic qualities, who actually find in it a supremely dramatic statement, often  find ourselves in  the most difficult of positions: trying to prove what to us seems self evident. The temptation even exists to get a bit frustrated with RVW himself for having named the piece a ‘Morality.’ It begins to seem that if he had just named it an ‘opera’ in the first place, he’d have saved us all a lot of trouble in trying to get it staged.
            This temptation, though, is better off ignored. The fact is that in designating the piece a “Morality,” the composer was illuminating the sub-genre of the piece rather than obscuring it, and that such a designation does not at all separate it from the general canon of operatic compositions. Thus,  instead of defending the piece by a discussion, primarily, of  its interior virtues in an isolated fashion, this article aims to do something slightly different: to place The Pilgrim’s Progress in the context of Vaughan Williams’s thought and in the context of the 20th century, and to compare and contrast the opera’s achievement with it’s most similar contemporaries. Two other composers’ operas in particular, produced in the same decade, will help to illuminate the unique, but necessarily operatic place in musical history The Pilgrim’s Progress occupies.
            During the 1950’s three major composers, none of them particularly known for operatic endeavors, each produced masterpieces for the stage. In September of 1951 Igor Stravinsky, who had long wanted to write an English language opera, produced The Rake’s Progress, an opera in the form of a “moral fable” based upon Hogarth’s 18th century paintings, with text by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Earlier in the same year, as part of the Festival of Britain, Ralph Vaughan Williams produced the results of four and a half decades of work when The Pilgrim’s Progress was staged at Covent Garden. The third of this interesting operatic triptych, Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites, was produced in Milan’s famed La Scala in 1957. It was based on the true story of the execution of 16 Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

James Russell Lowell on the Function of the Poet

For all of its mannerisms and 19th century zeitgeist, James Russell Lowell's 1855 lecture, "The Function of the Poet," remains an important document to American literature. It was delivered too early for him to have read or taken seriously the claims of Walt Whitman, which is a distinct advantage: he wasn't yet in the position to inadvertently soil himself by missing the brilliance of the New Yorker (a task which he accomplished later in his career). As a result, much of what he wrote resonates strongly and freely with Whitman's artistic goals.

Some of Lowell's historical ideas are admittedly off the mark, such as when he suggests that, in early times of any culture, the "poet and priest" were the same person. This isn't true, though it probably sounded good to undergraduates at the time. But all quibbles aside (quibbles have all too often buried important works) many of his points serve as prescient, and permanent, warnings to the nation. The essay as a whole reminds us that the function of poetry cannot be reduced to materialistic concerns--that art serves as more than a reminder, but also as a guide to that which is more important. More than this, he provides insight into the nature of how poetry relates the outer person to the inner person--a rather profound, and clearly stated, understanding which, when expanded, can show how damaged or incomplete one might be without the exercise of poetic thought and sensibilities.

Because he was less bombastic, in a sense, and certainly more contained in his scope than Emerson, Lowell's lectures don't have the same reach or grandiose complexity. There is a humility to them, despite his reputation, and because he is bold enough to present his ideas nakedly, both his minor errors and his more solid brilliance shine through clearly. These days, when scholars and artists are so afraid to make a mistake that every opinion is footnoted, or thought recycled, it's nice to read such risks. And in the end, if we don't all start risking our real voices, what will become of us? A nation of muted puppets, waiting for a master ventriloquist, is a macabre scene.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Are You Man Enough to be Neutered?" * A Review of the Jim Gaffigan Show

As a Catholic father of seven children, I was cautiously optimistic when The Jim Gaffigan Show was announced--particularly as the promotional materials suggested he would be drawing from his real life as a Catholic father of five. Now I don't watch a whole lot of contemporary comedy, but if Gaffigan is on and I'm flipping by, there's a certain protocol, a bit of a "stop, drop, and roll," which I endorse:

1) Press "Pause" on U-verse.
2) Visit bathroom to prevent Comedy Related Accident.
3) Stretch stomach muscles to avoid Comedy Related Injury.
4) Move sharp edged furniture.
5) Press "Play."

Any man who can transform the term 'Hot Pockets' from a culinary abomination into three syllables of permanent comedic value is a flat out genius. Let's not kid around here: I don't wish to tarnish a great man in a blog review.

Letters to Malcolm and the Trouble with Narnia

Letters to Malcolm
and the Trouble with Narnia:
C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their 1949 crisis

Eric Seddon


N the early spring of 1949, C.S. Lewis read part of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, still in manuscript, to J.R.R. Tolkien. Expecting enthusiasm from his longtime friend and colleague, he received instead what would remain Tolkien’s permanent dismissal of the work. The assessment was blunt and unequivocal: Tolkien deemed the book almost worthless—a carelessly written jumble of unrelated mythologies. He simply detested it (Sayer 312, 313). Although shaken by this terse and unexpected verdict, Lewis later sought the opinion of Roger Lancelyn Green, whose encouragement lead to the ultimate decision to finish the book (Green & Hooper, 241). It went on to become one of Lewis’s best sellers. The first of what eventually became The Chronicles of Narnia, it has been continuously in print ever since. Now half a century from its first publication, the place of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe seems increasingly remarkable. Like The Lord of the Rings it remains embraced and even celebrated by a society steadily annexed by secular values. Its success both in book sales and, more recently, at the box office have even resulted in the somewhat bizarre spectacle of secular critics writing polemical tracts attempting to marginalize, if not deny, the Christian elements of the plot.[1] Thus Narnia’s success has remained somewhat oddly stunning—the greatest testimony to its place in literature being this steady endurance in the public imagination, despite the societal shifts since its first publication.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Treat It Gentle * The Autobiography of Sidney Bechet

[ The following was originally published on my other blog, The Jazz Clarinet, but I have always felt the aural poetic of music was essential to understanding American culture, and therefore that there is a certain cross over quality between the two blogs. Sidney Bechet is an essential figure in jazz history. Along with Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, he is one of the founders of jazz in the recorded era. An argument can be made that his solo style has influenced, directly or indirectly, nearly every reed player since his day. Yet even if he hadn't influenced players by his musical brilliance, the observations of a lifetime spent in music which were collected for his autobiography would remain an essential text in American literature. 

As a jazz musician, I've had the privilege to learn a history that few white kids of my generation got to know--a history of America as seen through the eyes and lives of the great African-American musicians who created, pioneered, and developed the music we refer to as jazz. That history can be confrontational, as it calls into question many of the egalitarian myths that have propped up our national self-esteem for so long. But it is also deeply beautiful--a true story of the most terrible of hardships overcome by faith, hope, and love. Such is the story of the great Sidney Bechet, who recounts the history of his family from slavery through his artistic achievements as a major figure in world art history.

Bechet's insights regarding the Blues are essential for our understanding of the most important indigenous musical system of America, and his penetrating discussion of commercialism remains one of the finest tonics to a perpetual American disease.The following provides just a few quotes of a book that I think ought to be read in full by every American high school student. E.S. 7/13/2015 ]

Monday, June 29, 2015

Washington Irving and the Satire of Cultural Amnesia

Though his particular gift for wit fell out of fashion in literary circles of the early 20th century, Washington Irving was once understood as essential to American literature. He could count among his admirers the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, and Mark Twain. Despite his stock having fallen in academia, there remain very good reasons to revisit him today, as he is arguably our foundational satirist.

While his gifts as a writer were admittedly middle brow and inclined towards a light, popular style of prose, Washington Irving seemed to know of the fundamental cultural challenge to the revolutionary mindset: that our greatest intellectual temptation would be to a self-inflicted amnesia. As a nation of immigrants, most of us are descended from people who left behind their previous nations, previous home towns (often the familial home from time immemorial), and in many cases did so without entertaining the hopes of seeing those left behind again. While this is often accompanied by a particular sort of bravery and ingenuity, it can also be haunted by the phantoms of what was left behind¯so much so that we can be in denial of who we were and to what institutions, philosophies, and values we owe our beliefs and ideals.

His first book, Dietrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, capitalized on the amnesia of New Yorkers by a mix of biting satire and real history of the Dutch reign in Manhattan. The book is foundational to any study in American humor: wild, free, self-deprecatory, and merciless to the public figures of his day; by turns lyrically funny, absurd, and reflective. Without it, we might wonder whether American humor, from Twain to the Marx brothers to Jerry Seinfeld to Stephen Colbert, would have taken the particular shape it did.

When Americans, always prone to utopian daydreams, were in danger of taking themselves far too seriously--when the term “manifest destiny” was embryonic--Dietrich Knickerbocker rolled his bugged-out eyes, chuckled gruffly, and whispered into the ear of a young nation, “Remember thou art mortal.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"The boy has left us for a time": Fatherhood and Fertility in The Last of the Mohicans

James Fenimore Cooper's  masterpiece is a wild romance, like a river with tributaries and rapids shooting from all directions. Semi-comedic episodes intermingle with the terror of the inferno, history vies with love story, the plot lurches, drags, and sprints until one peak among many, like one of the Adirondacks in which so much of the book is set, looms in stillness above the rest. Just when it seems as though all strands of symbolism in The Last of the Mohicans can't possibly be tied together, a silence falls over the book as Cora Munro, the book’s heroine, pleads desperately to the Lenape chief, Tamenund, in a final attempt to spare herself and her sister from being handed over to the Hurons. The moment is a study in character and symbolic depth:

Cora bowed her head…and, for a bitter moment struggled with her chagrin. Then, elevating her rich features and beaming eye, she continued in tones scarcely less penetrating than the unearthly voice of the patriarch himself: ‘Tell me, is Tamenund a father?’[1]

Adding power and symbolism to the question is Tamenund’s answer, framed in majestic prose:

            The old man looked down upon her from his elevated stand, with a benignant smile on his wasted countenance, and then casting his eyes slowly over the whole assemblage he answered: ‘Of a nation.’  

            The beauty of this moment conjures up sensations that range from Abraham, who was told by God that he would be “a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4), to George Washington, already revered in Cooper’s day as the father of the young American Republic. Yet it is also haunting, as we know that Tamenund’s nation is disappearing: the time for the destruction of his people is at hand.  Symbolically there is a tension between these visions of fatherhood: will Washington’s fatherhood be permanent, like Abraham’s, or is it destined to fall, as did Tamenund’s? In Tamenund’s answer is posed a further question to a young nation building upon the ruins of an older one.
            The implication of ruins is significant. Two of Cooper’s contemporaries, Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, pointed out that America had no physical ruins, such as were to be found in Europe. Irving used this as an occasion for his untiring wit when addressing the English readers of Bracebridge Hall, slyly lamenting that, unlike theirs, his native land could not “boast of a single ruin.”[2]  Hawthorne took a more condescending tone (towards all) when suggesting that America’s lack of ruins made the writing of romance impossible. America, he suggested, possessed “no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong,” and therefore could have no true romantic literature. “Romance and poetry, like ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers,” wrote Hawthorne, “need ruin to make them grow.” [3]

            What Hawthorne failed to realize, Cooper knew intuitively; that the external ruins of a society, be they the abbeys of the English countryside or the great Roman Aqueduct, are not the real ruins, but merely the architectural echoes of a deeper tragedy—the extinction of a way of life, the destruction of a society. The Last of the Mohicans, which predates Hawthorne’s comments on the subject by nearly four decades, remains a preeminent example of  American Romanticism precisely because Cooper identifies a deeper source of shadows, in the extinction of a noble race of people, whose society contained some real virtues worthy of our admiration and sympathy. These ruins are made more haunting by the fact that there are few physical remains: An entire people, once brave, noble and free, is simply gone. Thus there are few moments in literature to match the tragic proportions of the Mohicans finale. Perhaps the best parallel is the lamentation of the Geatish woman in Beowulf, for her song bewails not only the death of their great hero, but is a harbinger of the inevitable extinction of her race. These are not merely fading monuments or crumbling walls, however poignant they may be, but human ruins, and the anguish is written not on the landscape but upon the human heart.