Composers dissing composers

Earlier today I commented on John Gilks’ post about The Lion Heart a new opera by Corey Arnold and Kyle McDonald that received its world premiere in a semi-staged production this past weekend.

Near the end of his review John said “I might suggest that dismissing “modern opera” is not a great starting point for creating one.” In reply, I commented at the bottom of his page. “And yet there’s a long tradition of composers dissing one another even if it’s not terribly nice.“

I had two particular precedents in mind, although there are lots more.

Exhibit A:
When Richard Wagner was in exile he wrote several essays and pamphlets, venting his frustration as he could no longer show the world what he could do as a composer or conductor.

His Das Judenthum in der Musik (1850) attacks Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, even though the latter had been one of the most generous & supportive to the German composer during his disastrous first visit to Paris. Talk about ungrateful.

Opera and Drama (1851) is in effect a defense or promotion of Wagner’s own future work even before he had shown us what he might be able to do. Wagner said that opera made a fundamental error, in confusing means and ends; the means (Music) becomes the end, while the supposed end(drama) has been reduced to its means. In other words, instead of music being employed to make drama and theatre, opera is using theatre and drama in the creation of something musical. Wagner in effect disrespects every opera ever written, in the process throwing down the gauntlet.

Lohengrin had premiered in 1850 in Weimar thanks to Wagner’s friend Liszt. In the 1850s –after the big essay was written—Wagner set to work on his Ring operas, composing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, almost as if to show us how an opera could fulfill the precepts laid out in the essay. And amazingly he did a fair job of creating something that justified his critique of opera, although one might well point at the “arias” and scenes in his music dramas that still seem to fall into the old trap of making music the end goal, rather than drama. Yet even so he is a genuine reformer. We might point at second generation Wagnerian operas such as Pelléas et Mélisande or Elektra as better examples of works that employ musical means to create drama.

Exhibit B:
Thomas Adès came on the scene more recently, a composer of operas that arguably stand among the most important of the last quarter century. But in addition to his musical activities Adès also tried his hand at the game of disparagement. In April 2013 I wrote twice about Conversations with Tom Service, a book that seems to echo Wagner in its disparagement of earlier composers, although this time Wagner is the target.

Adès Conversations (April 7 2013)
Adès contra Parsifal (April 13 2013)

Adès sets himself up as a peer to Wagner. It’s a brilliant way to promote himself and his music.

And now Kyle McDonald & Corey Arnold are possibly within that tradition. So far we’ve heard the first part, where they issue critiques (in a recent interview). Kyle said the following:

To the “layperson,” much of opera can seem like speaking coding to a person who just wants to play the video game. We’ve had a nasty habit in the last 50 or so years of increasingly pushing the “coding” in fine arts, deconstructing beauty until it becomes mere atoms. Highly specialized people with certain personalities enjoy this, but the majority of the rest of the species do not.

To save opera, we have to make it for humans again, which means i) making it a gateway to feeling and not to thinking (i.e., in a language we speak, with humane runtimes, and bending the score to accommodate acting, and not the other way around), ii) ignoring Twitter entirely, and iii) letting go of the past.

I can relate to this critique. When Kyle says “bending the score to accommodate acting, and not the other way around” he reminds me of what Wagner said.

The question is: will the new operas they create live up to such a critique?

Kyle McDonald

We shall see.

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6 Responses to Composers dissing composers

  1. “We’ve had a nasty habit in the last 50 or so years of increasingly pushing the “coding” in fine arts, deconstructing beauty until it becomes mere atoms. ” This is such a weird and inaccurate generalisation that rational discussion starting at this point seems utterly futile. If anything, the last thirty years in the classical arts have seen a plethora of more or less successful experiments to do exactly the opposite. I’ll revisit their critique when they write something half as good as Written on Skin.

    • barczablog says:

      Aha yes indeed, the wonderful thing about this conversation is that so far it’s all talk. We shall see whether they (Kyle and/or Corey) can produce something worthwhile.

      Thanks for the comment!
      …and see you at the opera one of these days.

    • barczablog says:

      And as for the quote (“We’ve had a nasty habit in the last 50 or so years of increasingly pushing the “coding” in fine arts, deconstructing beauty until it becomes mere atoms.”), I won’t dismiss it just yet. In some of the arts “beauty” itself is anathema or at least suspect, problematic. The point is, they’ve thrown down a kind of gauntlet. Let’s see if they can live up to these words.

  2. Andrew Ager says:

    I wrote a “dystopian and hopeless” opera that was premiered in 2015. It was well-received. I appreciated very much what operaramblings said about it. Now I am writing a new setting of “The Great Gatsby” for a company in the US. Another “dystopian and hopeless” tale…oh well…

    • Well, Andrew, we can hardly hope to compete with you, so we thought we’d leave the dystopia and hopelessness to the pro! Why re-invent the wheel when you’ve already perfected it? 😉 And congrats on the new commission!

  3. barczablog says:

    I’m a big believer that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Donald Trump is my classic example, whose every mistake & troll remark merely attracted attention & votes. While I try to write criticism through the pink glasses of a Pollyanna sensibility (“if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all”) maybe this time I lurched in the opposite direction. It’s one thing to quote a dead composer like Wagner, quite another to invoke those in the GTA.

    I don’t know if I was aware of Andrew’s show back in 2015 (can’t recall): but didn’t see it.

    At this point I won’t stir the pot, but I hope the conversation continues later.

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