Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Music Criticism of Kingsley Amis

Of course, Kingsley Amis (1922 - 1995) father of novelist Martin Amis, was not a music critic at all. But in his novel Girl, 20 (1971) he does a very convincing job of depicting his central character, Douglas Yandell, as a pianist and music journalist. Usually I find that when writers who are not musicians talk about music, they make the most elementary mistakes. But as Wikipedia notes,
Girl, 20, for instance, is framed in the world of classical (and pop) music, of which Amis was not a part – the book’s relatively impressive command of musical terminology and opinion shows both Amis’s amateur devotion to music and the almost journalistic capacity of his intelligence to take hold of a subject which interested him.
Amis's most famous novel is the absolutely hilarious Lucky Jim, a farcical depiction of college life. Girl, 20 is about the romantic misadventures of a famous conductor and violinist and manages to deliver some delightfully brief off-hand musical criticisms. After inadvertent exposure to some pop music which he describes as "wordless yelling" and "various mechanical noises, chiefly metallic" Douglas muses on how suddenly the prospect of listening to all of Bruckner's 8th Symphony didn't seem so bad. After a subsequent exposure he notes:
I was sorry for having too hastily rejected those musical works which consist of a stated period of silence under concert conditions. First Bruckner, I thought, now John Cage. Who next? Nielsen, Busoni, Buxtehude? Yes, listening hard to the works of any or each would almost certainly prove less onerous than having a tooth drilled down to the gum without anaesthetic.
 What is so charming about this is the freedom and ease with which Douglas, in his inner thoughts, evaluates and dismisses various composers. In most places, popular journalism, blogs, even a lot of musicological writings, all 'classical' music is lumped together as 'good'. Or perhaps all lumped together as 'irrelevant' and fading away. But the truth is that all classical music is not easily lumped together: some of it is good, some of it is great, some of it is bad and some of it is simply too long, ponderous and wearing to listen to. Like Bruckner's 8th. Here is the whole 86-minute-long piece:

One of my favorite bits is when he responds to the conductor's wife asking, "Isn't pop music music?" His simple answer: "No." He refers to a Miles Davis record as "faithfully render[ing] that tiny, elementary universe of despair and hatred."

His longest bit of music criticism is his reaction to a rehearsal of a Mahler symphony:
The movement turned out to be the first movement of the First Symphony: a considerable mercy, seeing that it might so easily have been something broad, full, ample, spacious, massive, leisurely and going on for over half an hour from the Second or the Third. Thanks to some paroxysm of curtailment on the composer's part, I was in for little more than fifteen minutes' worth. ... At first against my will, I listened to Mahler's enormous talentlessness being rendered by Roy and the N.L.S.O. As they went on, flecks of seeming talent began to insinuate themselves. Factitious fuss turned itself into a sort of gaiety; doodles in the horns and woodwind were almost transformed into rustic charm; blaring and banging acquired a note of near-menace; even that terrible little cuckoo-motif reflected something more than the great man's decision to let the world know how jolly preoccupied he had been in those days with the interval of the perfect fourth.

Let's have a listen to that movement. Hmm, the first interval we hear (and the second, the third, the fifth, etc.) is that perfect fourth. Unfortunately, this clip does not contain the whole first movement.

I can't find the continuation of this performance, so here is another clip of the whole first movement, in a performance by a quite good college orchestra:

We can actually listen to this music, with its long-held high notes, mutterings in the bass, cuckoo-like motifs, horn doodles and so on in the respectful, admiring way that Mahler's music has more and more been listened to in recent decades. Here is a good newspaper article on Mahler that quotes some of the criticism of him, like Vaughan Williams' comment that he was a "tolerable imitation of a composer". But mostly conveys how Mahler is currently regarded: as perhaps the most important symphonic composer. The article, reluctant to actually say something as judgmental as "Mahler's symphonies are great musical works" instead cryptically says, "His symphonies live in the present tense, progressing on their nerves, each fearlessly unconventional and unpredictable." I'm sure we are meant to take this as praise.

But we could also listen to this movement and agree with Amis that it exhibits an "enormous talentlessness", couldn't we? Can we see what he meant? There is a kind of ridiculousness to that ever-recurring descending fourth, a kind of pointlessness to the themes, a kind of pompous fakery. Or we can hear it as "fearlessly unconventional and unpredictable". Except that it really isn't! Except for the length and the music's conviction that it is profound, there is really nothing unconventional about the music, and the return of that descending fourth and a lot of other things is very much predictable!

I'm starting to think that, for a novelist, Kingsley Amis was actually a pretty good music critic. For one thing, in his going against the grain of public consensus he often strikes closer to the truth. Public consensus about the relative merits of this and that composer often has to do with fad and fashion and it is nice to be reminded from time to time that everyone might have a quite erroneous opinion. The composer that everyone is admiring might indeed be enormously untalented... If you want to compare Mahler to another composer of symphonies who really is talented, you might have a look at this post.

UPDATE: One commentor took me to task for my off-hand dismissal of Bruckner's 8th Symphony. Looking over the post I see that I did go too far. So I spent some time with Furtwangler's 1954 recording and yes, it is pretty good stuff. I suspect that Bruckner might be a stronger symphonic composer than Mahler, though the latter gets all the attention these days.


vp said...

[Bruckner's 8th is] "too long, ponderous and wearing to listen to"

What is refreshing about the excerpt of the novel is that the protagonist, unlike you, gives the impression of being prepared to reconsider his musical prejudices.

I will add, sotto voce, that if you're not a big fan of the Karajan/Vienna performance (I'm not myself) you may get more out of a more urgent performance such as Furtwangler's. Or not. But it's your loss.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the comment. Actually, I reconsider my musical opinions pretty much every day! The last post I put up on Bruckner was quite complimentary. What I was doing here was extrapolating what Amis suggests, but doesn't actually say.

But yes, one of the strengths of the novel is that the protagonist gets kicked around as much as everyone else.