Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Wisdom of Mr Andrew Clements

I am so far aware of three written reviews of my recent book, After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono plus one spoken review on BBC Radio Three's Music Matters. The first two written reviews have had much positive to say, but have also offered some more critical remarks, all of which have been taken in good humour, whether I agree or otherwise. In particular, Arnold Whittall's comments in his Musical Times review have made me think - as well as value his words of praise greatly. It came to my attention this week that Andrew Clements, a Guardian journalist, had written a less than complimentary review in Opera magazine.

Upon reading a copy of his review, I found it so ill-informed and, worse still, downright lazy that I was tempted to write to the magazine. Wiser counsel (perhaps) prevailed. However, despite my (perhaps better) inclination just to leave what he had written in the silence it deserved, I thought I should offer here a response to some of his claims: not, I can assure you, out of sour grapes, out of wounded amour propre, since I really could not care less what someone like that has to say about anything, let alone about my work, but because it might prove useful to someone, for instance a young or lesser-known performer, someone in less of a position to reply, who has fallen victim to one of his attacks. (Let us remember that he launched a strange attack upon Tara Erraught last summer, claiming that it was 'hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover'. What a sheltered life Mr Clements must lead, if he thinks that, this page notwithstanding, all lovers must physically resemble one another!)
Clements opens his review:
It sometimes seems as if academics who specialize in opera would like to have us lesser mortals believe that the form is now extinct in the wild...
I am not quite sure what 'wild opera' would be, but I should rather like to try it some time. The chippy disingenuousness of his contrast between 'academics' and 'us lesser mortals', however, is worthy of comment. It is a contrast entirely of his devising, nowhere to be found in my book; anyone sensible realises that people come to opera, and indeed to pretty much anything and everything, in very different ways. Clements's contrast is presumably intended to put him on the side of readers, against us 'academics', as if we all thought similarly, and as if there were something wrong with taking the time to study something, to inform oneself about a subject before writing on it, as opposed to attending a performance, to which all are of course welcome. Of that sin of informing oneself, as will rapidly become clear, Clements certainly cannot be found guilty. 
Based on the title alone, then, Mark Berry's study ought to be very welcome, except that his title turns out to be almost as misleading as Parker and Abbate's ['A History of Opera - The First Four Hundred Years]. For what is promised as the point of departure for a study of recent music drama actually dominates Berry's argument...
Well, yes, since I am placing what is to come 'after Wagner': quite explicitly so. And I talk at considerable length about why I wish to include Wagner's work itself in that; is it really so difficult to understand why Wagner reception might be of interest to someone, even if only to an 'academic'? Besides, if Clements had bothered to read to the end of the first sentence of my book, let alone to the end of the first paragraph, let alone to the end of the Introduction, he would have found discussion as to why the title was (deliberately) problematical and/or provocative, and indeed discussion of more than one meaning of 'after', not least that meaning 'according to'. By all means, say I should prefer a book to be about something else, though it is perhaps a rather pointless complaint, since someone else  - maybe even you? - could write another book, but there is nothing misleading about what I have done. As for 'almost as misleading as Parker and Abbate...', a friend suggested it should be quoted on the cover of the second edition. If only Clements could be persuaded to add, 'without even trying'.
...even allowing for eccentricity, I'm not sure how Strauss's Capriccio merits a chapter in a book avowedly dealing with 'modernist music drama'...
Oh dear. Well, I shall take Clements at his word, but if he is 'not sure', I am afraid that remains his problem. Strauss has no relationship to modernism? The alleged volte face following Elektra has no relationship to modernism? The knowing self-construction of a work such as Capriccio has no such relationship? Maybe, or maybe not; part of the trouble is that such a term as 'modernism' often serves as an impediment rather than an aid to discussion. But really? Did the reviewer not read any of the material in which I tried, however ineptly, to explain why, in the light of such arguments, I was including this work, not least as (sugared?) grit to the oyster? Perhaps he did; in which case, he should take issue with my argument, rather than pretend that argument there was none. As with so many of his other claims, however, I am led to wonder just how much of the book he actually read. After all, if he did not make it unaided to the end of the first sentence... Doubtless my 'academic' style and pretensions are to blame.

...the now almost forgotten and rarely-performed music-theatre piece that Henze produced at the end of the 1960s, Der Langwierige [sic] Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer
...We all make mistakes, even we 'academics', so I shall pass over Clements's capitalisation of the adjective 'langwierige'. But he objects to my choosing to write about a piece that is 'almost forgotten and rarely-performed'. Quite why, I am not at all sure. 'Almost forgotten'? I suppose it depends by whom. Certainly a number of people to whom I have mentioned my work have been delighted that someone has bothered to write on it, finding it 'rarely performed' but certainly not forgotten. Moreover, part of my motivation has been to try, successfully or otherwise, to shed some light upon works that have not been favoured by the conservatism of opera-house programming.

As for Henze having 'produced' it 'at the end of the 1960s', I wonder whether Clements might prefer the 'after' of my 'misleading' title. Had he bothered to read the book, he might have found the sentence, 'Work began in January 1971.' If I am wrong, then I should certainly be corrected; so too should Henze.

Clements continues:
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that these works have been chosen more to suit the thesis that Berry is trying to propagate than as a useful synthesis of the multiple directions in which 'modernist music drama' actually travelled through the course of the 20th century.

The relationship between subject and object is of course complex; we have Hegel to remind us of that. But yes, of course, I have an argument, which is, I hope, derived from the material, and yet which, also, informs my reading of the material. I make that explicit. In no sense, have I suggested that I am trying to be comprehensive; I have said precisely the opposite, and have given my reasons for doing so. Again, by all means criticise those reasons, but why try to imply that I have given none? Here, as earlier, the introduction of '20th century' is odd; I have not restricted myself to that and, indeed, Clements earlier criticised me for having written also about nineteenth-century matters.

Other leading opera composers of the second half of the century who fit comfortably into the modernist mould are more or less ignored...

Yes, because, as I have said time and time again, I am not seeking to be comprehensive. That is not only a feature and, clearly to his mind, a shortcoming of the book, but part of its very clearly-stated essence. I talk about impossible choices, but also point to the virtues of selectivity. This is not an encyclopaedia, and was never intended to be. Again, why imply that I have not discussed such issues, especially within my discussion of the very business of writing history (on which Clements says not a word). Has he perhaps not read that discussion, or just forgotten it? (I have had him pointed out to me at concerts before. Often he has had his eyes shut; on occasion, I have heard him snore. Perhaps he reads books for review as he listens to performances for review.)

Berio gets a few mentions, with only one of his stage works, La vera storia, mentioned by name (when it is described as a 'meta-opera', whatever that is)...

An opera about opera, perhaps? Delighted to be of help, in any case.'s surprising that he makes no mention of Lachenmann's own 1997 music-theatre piece Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern...

Is it? Is it really? I should have loved to talk about Lachenmann's work, and hope to do so on another occasion, but given that I have explicitly stated that, for the later period covered by my book, I intend to talk about staging rather than composition, can it really be so very surprising? Again, maybe I should have stuck with discussion of works, but I have given reasons for my decision; to pretend that I have not done so is either uninformed or downright dishonest.

Above all, it's often historical context that's missing in his discussions; the sense of any of these works, particularly the more recent ones, being seen within the wider musical landscape in which they were composed.
I am not sure why Clements appears to use a semi-colon there; perhaps my somewhat faint copy of his review has misled me. His claim, however, is truly bizarre. The elision between 'historical context' and 'the wider musical landscape' is odd; it is hardly unreasonable to take in political, social, and wider cultural developments too. Yet the claim that the 'wider musical landscape' is missing is simply untrue. If anything, I think the book might have benefited from less on Darmstadt and more, say, on the Years of Lead.

Nono's work needs also to be seen against the background of the whole European avant garde after World War II for which a wholesale rejection of opera as a genre was initially de rigueur
...Yes, I agree, which is why I offer that background. As I said, I wonder whether I have offered a little too much of it. I cannot help but wonder whether Clements read chapters on Henze and Nono from some other book, if he read anything at all. Take the following words, for example:

Opera would seem an obvious means of bearing such witness [as Nono intended] to  humanity, yet the semi-detached case of Henze excepted, the post war avant-garde had remained suspicious of so apparently tainted a form ... If all along it were suspected by the avant-garde that the 'last opera' was Lulu - itself, significantly, an unfinished work - then the avant-garde took Stravinsky's and Henze's, let alone Britten's, post-war attempts at rejuvenation as explicit confirmation of ... death. It had been as strange a death as that of 'liberal England', holding little apparent justification beyond pointing to the absence of 'viable' new words and ... moribund production values ... Yet the claim seemed as self-evident to its proponents as the symphony's demised had to Wagner. Boulez would change his mind, principally through his collaboration with Wieland Wagner on Parsifal and Wozzeck ... Stockhausen would come round to operatic composition in typically spectacular style, but that development lay some years hence. It was left instead to Nono to break the de facto prohibition on graven operatic images...
There is plenty more whence that came.

The impression of After Wagner as a rather ad hoc assemblage of vaguely connected essays, to which Berry hoped to give a longer life by publishing them in a single volume...Well, if that is his impression, that is his impression. All I can say is that that is not what happened. I acknowledge in the Preface that earlier versions of the chapters on Parsifal and Moses und Aron were first published elsewhere, and state that that was done in order to try out the ideas on which I was working. The book may or may not come across as such an assemblage - my fear was almost the opposite, that I had sometimes hammered home the general argument a little heavily - but if so, that is a failing derived from my incompetence rather than my dishonesty.

...the closing chapters, in which he unblushingly recycles the three reviews of Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production of Parsifal that he first published on his own website after seeing the production in 2008, 2011 and 2012.
Yes, up to a point - and that is the point of the seventh chapter, although not, I might add, 'the closing chapters'. (There are two more to go.) I take those reviews and consider what might be learned from them in a more general discussion of the production and of the broader issues in the book. I make that perfectly clear, so yes: I am 'unblushing'. They are not, however, recycled, but treated in what I hope, although others might differ, is critical fashion. Why 'three' is emphasised I am unsure; perhaps Clements is fonder of Hegel and/or the Holy Trinity than we might hitherto have suspected. A large point of my point is how the production and my response evolved. I have eliminated unnecessary repetition, or at least tried to do so, and presentation of the reviews remains a relatively small part of that single chapter.

Maybe there is a higher purpose to it all, an intellectual coherence; if so, it's one that I didn't grasp at all.

You said it. At the risk of repeating myself beyond endurance, I shall repeat that the broader argument is clearly spelled out: in the Introduction, in the three 'Preludes', in the chapters themselves. A reader may not like it; (s)he may not agree with it; (s)he is perfectly free to take issue with it. If 'it's one that I didn't grasp at all,' the rest of us will draw our own conclusions.

And finally, Clements's closing sentence, which actually closes his review, so I use the word in the common sense rather than his:
Berry's bundle of 'histories' doesn't constitute a comprehensive History of his subject in any useful sense.

It was never intended to do so - as would have been abundantly clear to anyone who had taken care to read the book. Next from Andrew Clements: In Search of a Sequitur: My Life as a Critic.

A final thought: Andrew Clements is paid for his writing and for his (alleged) reading and listening.

1 comment:

Chris L said...

As a veteran reader of Clements's Guardian reviews, I can vouch for the fact that he is a bit of a joke, one who thinks turn-of-phrase alone is enough to disguise his particular mix of "I know what I like" and increasingly desperate attempts to keep up with the in-crowd. Like you say, he isn't worth worrying about, although he does have his "good days", on which he's quite amenable to being called out in person, if you can be bothered; you may even get an apology/partial retraction. For my own part, I once posted a gently teasing response to an uncharacteristically non-dismissive Havergal Brian review he'd written; he, in turn, posted a gratifyingly good-humoured reply to what I'd written.