As Michael Feinstein recently reminded us in the New York Times, Jews wrote lots—most—of the great American Christmas songs. David Lehman, author of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, from Nextbook Press, says that this Christmas phenomenon is just one example of his larger point: that the story of American popular music is massively a Jewish story. Tablet Magazine asked Lehman to list his 10 favorite Christmas songs written by Jews. His only regret? “I really wish that ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ was by Jews,” he says. “That would definitely be in the top five.”
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I am often critical of the Globe and Mail, but occasionally they have something good. Or semi-good! Russell Smith has an essay about P. G. Wodehouse up that is refreshingly free of the usual conventional drivel:
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This is rather an interesting brief glance at the issue of the moral orientation of artists and whether it should affect how we view their work. I spent a great deal of my youth reading T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both their poetry and their literary criticism, and I don't think I was adversely affected by the things Smith mentions. If Eliot was an anti-Semite it certainly didn't make me one and Pound's loony economics was something easily ignored. It really doesn't diminish their aesthetic quality in any fundamental way. Though I do recall reading with amusement a little blurb on the back cover of an edition of the transcripts of Pound's radio broadcasts for Fascist Italy. There were actually two quotes, one from Eliot opining that Pound was the most influential poet of the 20th century and one from Robert Graves suggesting that they should have hung Pound for his treason. I wouldn't want to boycott Woody Allen, but when I watch movies of his like Match Point, where through sheer luck a man gets away, literally, with murder, I am pretty sure that the movie is morally bankrupt. As for Michael Jackson, while I can appreciate some of his music (and dislike the rest), it doesn't have much to do with his sexual proclivities. By the way, you have to read the comments to the Smith essay as each of them corrects, with some asperity, egregious errors in the essay. Don't you love the fact that many online newspapers allow comments?There are fashions in these things. Right now, it seems a far greater sin in an artist to be a misogynist than to be a Nazi. It is known that T.S. Eliot’s conservatism veered toward the scary, but not widely known that he was cruel to his first wife; she suffered from a mental illness and once she was committed to an institution he never visited her. I suspect that this knowledge would do more to have him removed from university reading lists than his vile politics could. Being mean to his wife may finally make him worthless as a poet.Many educated people want to boycott Woody Allen because of an accusation of rape, and I couldn’t get my sensitive friends to go see a Roman Polanski film with me if I paid them, but a clever Ezra Pound quote doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Indeed, it makes one seem more sensitive to know Ezra Pound.The fashions are complicated. It is by no means clear how stringent a good moralist must be when it comes to refusing the art of flawed people. Michael Jackson is a puzzling example. I have not once heard a call for a boycott of Jackson’s music, despite the allegations that he was a serial child sex abuser. Indeed, the kind of person calling for the repudiation of Annie Hall tends to be exactly the kind of person claiming Thriller as the apotheosis of art. Michael Jackson is simply cooler.
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Over at Slipped Disc we find yet another reason to dislike the New York Times. The slick emptiness of their reply to a reader complaint about reduced classical coverage is really a masterpiece of its genre:
Thank you for reaching out, and thank you for your feedback. I understand your frustration with the changes we’re making, but they’re necessary to keeping up with the current, fast-paced arts climate.The redesign of the daily arts and Weekend sections reflects an investment in arts coverage and a commitment to giving readers the best experience possible on all platforms, especially print.The changes have all been made with the goal of being a more engaging and useful resource for readers, who are confronted with more information and options than ever before. Being more intentional in our coverage, and delivering stories and reviews with the visual emphasis they deserve enhances engagement and tells readers that what they are reading matters.Thank you for being a valued subscriber.Kristen Stanley,Customer Care AdvocateThe New York Times
I think the nastiest phrase there is "Customer Care Advocate".
On the topic of composers and alcohol, The Spectator has an entertaining essay:
The list of heavy-drinking composers is worthy of Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Song’. It includes Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. There are no reports of Bach getting drunk — but during a fortnight’s trip to Halle in 1713 his beer bill came to 18 grossen, which suggests that he got through eight gallons of the stuff (plus lashings of brandy). Berlioz and Wagner preferred opium, and it’s not fanciful to suggest that you can hear it in the Symphonie Fantastique and Tristan.
I suspect the main reason you can’t hear ‘the drink talking’ in the output of heavy-drinking composers is that it’s easy to talk, write and even play an instrument (badly) when you’re plastered — but difficult to engage in the quasi-mathematical activity of composing. You’re more likely just to give up. Sibelius wrote nothing of consequence in the last 30 years of his life, worn out by years of drinking that was heroic even by Finnish standards.
Yes, in my experience, Finns really do take an heroic approach. I had to carry home a Finnish guitarist friend of mine after he over-indulged on one occasion and when I went out for a drink with his diplomat father, I discovered that "going out for a drink" meant having a drink in every bar in town!
Alex Ross and I have both been reading Richard Taruskin's latest collection of essays that I blogged about here. Ross talks about one interesting essay on exiled Russian composer Arthur Lourié in a blog post where he posts a clip of Lourié's masterwork Concerto Spirituale, which may be his masterwork (and an influence on Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms). Sorry about the quality!
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Anne Midgette, writing for the Washington Post, keeps showing why she is among the most thoughtful writers on classical music:
Yet the idea that music can convey something literal, and that conveying it will make the resulting piece more “accessible,” is widespread, and pernicious. Hence we have NSO performances of works based on Shakespeare interspersed with actors giving earnest Shakespeare readings, or slides projected on screens above the stage. You might as well show pictures of cuckoos and a thunderstorm during Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” Inspiration, be it taken from another work of art or from nature, is a lot more ephemeral than such literal renderings suggest.* * *
Musical Toronto has an item about the oldest surviving piano, one built by the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Christofori. Have a listen:
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For our envoi today, a composer mentioned in Midgette's piece: Enrique Granados. This is John Williams playing his brilliant transcription of the Vals Poeticos: