I’ve been thinking about great instrumental breaks the last couple of days, and one of the greatest and most recognizable is David Mason’s piccolo trumpet solo in the Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” Mason died on April 29th at the age of 85. Obituary here.
See also Frye’s comments on popular music as a form of “musical drama” in the post below.
From “Music and the Savage Breast,” Canadian Forum (April 1938):
When men ceased to believe that the sun went around the earth, they gave up the music of the spheres. By that time music was a flourishing art form, and its development did a great deal to clear up the superstitions connected with it, which were based on ignorance like all superstitions. But while the superstitions have gone, the terrific emotional impact of music has not. Cultivated music refines and canalizes this impact; popular music gives it to us straight in the midriff. And popular music, it should be noted, is musical drama; that is, it is associated with dancing and marching, which are forms of dramatic action. It is directly descended from the war dance and the fertility rite. Every high school girl knows what a powerful erotic stimulant music is, and everyone interested in promoting wars knows that music can turn a decent man or woman into a murderous maniac. (CW 29, 89)
Satie noted that ”Trois Gymnopedies” was inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbo. Frye in Notebook 34 makes an interesting observation regarding that novel in relation to the historical novel and the romance:
The purely historical novel I think represents a bookish & antiquarian failure of nerve, unless it is symbolic recreation of an archetype, as Salammbo of Druidism or Ivanhoe of chivalry. The distinction between the epic & the romance is very important when applied to historical novels. (CW 15, 25)
Which is to say that Salammbo incorporates both the “war dance and the fertility rite,” which is perhaps reflected in the wistful melancholy of Satie’s composition.
It is only when we get to the point of having some sense of having the total subject in our minds that we begin to recognize a source of authority beyond that, of the poet or the creative artist whose work we are studying. If we are listening to music, let us say, on the level of Bach or Mozart, the response keeps shifting from the personal to the impersonal. On the one hand we feel this is Bach, that it couldn’t possibly be anyone else. On the other hand, there are moments when Bach disappears, and what we feel is; this is the voice of music itself; this is what music was created to say. At that level, we are not so much hearing the music as recognizing it. (CW 7, 503)
Rolling Stones performing “Honky Tonk Women” on Top of the Pops in 1969 with Mick Taylor on second guitar — their best lineup ever. The open G tuning drives the song’s roots very deep into the Delta blues upon which rock ‘n’ roll is based.
I’m reading Keith Richards’s surprisingly good autobiography, Life. Here he is describing his discovery of open tuning, which freed him as a composer and set him apart as a performer:
The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes — the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of the different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you’re working on the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which you’re actually not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just lying there saying, “Fuck me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliche in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing. And you can even let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works along similar lines — sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do. It’s the drone. (243)
No doubt some will think this is a laughable reach, but Richards is obviously expressing the excitement of finding something in music that is in the potential of music itself and independent of his intention, and about that Frye, of course, has something to say:
Often creative people begin with the sense of a small school to which they belong and they write manifestos defending that school. However, as they get more authority, they tend to break away from the school and speak more and more with their own voice. As the maturing process goes on, the voice becomes steadily more impersonal. If it’s a great creative mind, it moves in the direction of speaking with the authority of the art behind it. I’ve often drawn the distinction between listening to music, say, on the level of Tchaikowsky, where you feel that this is a very skillful, ingenious, and interesting composer, and music on the level of Mozart or Bach, where you feel that this is the voice of music. And that’s not to say that the music is impersonal because it obviously couldn’t be anyone but Mozart of Bach. Nevertheless, the feeling is one of having transcended the ego which is no longer opaque but completely transparent for revealing the authority of the art itself. (CW 24, 488-9)
After the jump, Son House performing the open G tuned “Death Letter Blues,” demonstrating Frye’s principle that “originality” is really a return to origins.
The Papageno Papagena duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute
Frye’s “Current Opera: A Housecleaning” (CW 11, 73-75), written when he was 23:
This is not a criticism of the performances of the opera company that visited Toronto recently, as the present critic succeeded in seeing only Madame Butterfly. If this was typical, they were adequate enough, if somewhat perfunctory. Of course Madame Butterfly is unfortunate in having a modern and quasi realistic setting, which throws an onus of stage “business” on the singers. The result in this case was a good deal of spasmodic cigarette-lighting and nose-blowing and uneasy and rather aimless puttering about the stage in an effort to make some gesture in the direction of drama. But the response to a melodrama of stock pathos is one thing, and the response to Puccini’s extraordinarily competent and fluent journalistic style of composition is quite another, and a general impression remained of an hermaphroditic and ill-conceived mingling of outlines.
This suggests the obvious reflection that the opera would be all the better for being completely conventionalized; surely a drama that depended on automatic movements making no pretense of holding a mirror to any kind of nature would be better suited to the declamation and rhetoric which singing involves. If Madame Butterfly depended at all on chorus work the demands of the drama would of course be less obtrusive, but when it proceeds almost entirely by aria and recitative the stage effect is bound to be stiff and awkward. The opera began as a method of incorporating Greek drama in Western art forms: two or three leading characters, a chorus, a mythological setting; all this was de rigeur throughout the seventeenth century, and in fact provides the basic form for Handel and Glück. If Handel was dissatisfied with the opera, it was not because he rebelled against the operatic convention, but simply because it was not concentrated enough for him to impose his massive designs on it. His genius expanded into the oratorio, which is not less conventionalized than the opera but far more so. After his time a century long duel was fought between the traditions of German counterpoint and of Italian melody, a conflict resolved only by Mozart, which had for its chief incidents the row between Handel and Bononcini, the Glück–Puccini opera fight in Paris, the triumph of Rossini in Vienna, the establishment of the Italian comédie larmoyante in the nineteenth century, its destruction by Wagner, and the belated attempts of Puccini and his colleagues to cling to Wagner’s coat-tails. All the energy which the great Germans bent on incorporating the opera into the tradition of systematic music did not, however, succeed in affecting the Italian model to any extent, and attempts to revitalize it now can have only an eccentric interest. The Italian operatic tradition has lived long, but it is not the less dead for having died hard. The impact of the Russian ballet annihilated what was left of it at once; a single touch of the immense strength and discipline of conventionalized art was enough to sweep the facile virtuosity of the Pattis and Carusos into limbo.
We have said that it is necessary to conventionalize the opera to avoid the absurdity and incongruity which the sensitive listener is bound to feel: every work of art asks a suspension of judgment from us, but the serious opera asks too much. But of course where the appeal is comic, where the incongruous becomes artistically valuable, this objection disappears. For if we conventionalize the opera in any direction, we immediately get something that is not an opera, however excellent an oratorio or ballet it may be. Therefore when Mozart’s unerring instinct brought the opera to its highest pitch of perfection and established it as an art form in its own right, it appeared as comedy. For high tragedy in musical drama seems difficult to reconcile with the loose and florid construction of opera: it needs massed choruses undisturbed by the broken lights of the stage. Tragedy, in short, belongs to the oratorio; the opera is comic, seldom succeeding with anything more serious than pathos. Madame Butterfly is typical of a large number of entirely unconvincing melodramas. Owing to the difficulty of getting a genuinely sympathetic audience, there is no form more easily parodied than the opera: the whole English tradition, from Gay to Dame Ethyl Smyth, has run not only to light opera but to mock opera. It will probably be impossible to convince the antiquarians of future centuries that Gounod’s Faust is not a parody of Goethe: they would simply point to Ave Maria as an instance of Gounod’s skill in parody. The association of the opera with high society and its support by wealthy women pretending to culture has also helped to make it entertainment closer in spirit to the circus than to creative art.
Whether Wagner ever succeeded in nullifying these objections is a question at present beyond our scope. His framework is mythological, of course, but not conventionalized; his gods are Dionysiac rather than Olympian, and the general effect is one of assertive antinomianism and self apotheosis carried to its fullest extent. As a master of display Wagner probably has no rival in history, but that very fact makes him anarchic and disruptive as an artist; even if he did succeed, no one else can follow him in his field. Wagner stands with Nietzsche as the joint godfather of Naziism, and until we have found out whether the swaggering and posturing of pompous heroes who do not have to pay their own way is more lasting and worthwhile, in art or in life, than a unity founded on rationality and humour, we shall be unable to put Wagner in his proper perspective. But we can hardly deny that he did his work with sufficient thoroughness; so completely did he shatter the opera that it is now in a state of decadence from which it can never be rescued. It is possible, in fact it is highly probable, that the opera, in a changing social order, is undergoing a catacomb period of which Wozzeck may furnish an example. But “grand opera” is no longer synonymous with culture, even with ermine and diamond pseudo-culture; the contemporary turn to symphonies and chamber music is a healthy and hopeful sign.