Reading Music

by Alex Ross

Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage
by Herbert Lindenberger Stanford University Press 364 pp $49.50 (cloth) $18.95 (paper)

Look over the shelves of the music section in a bookstore--as Herbert Lindenberger encourages you to do in the introduction to Opera in History--and you will see a fair number of opera books by literary critics. The pioneer of the genre is Joseph Kerman, whose 1956 study, Opera as Drama, found a readership far outside the tight circles of opera fanatics. Kerman's book was an intellectual history, a critical intervention, a readable statement of personal taste. Although Kerman himself is not a literary critic, he is a musicologist with an acute feeling both for the connection of music and words and for the ways in which music eludes or transcends the literary. In his strict aesthetic judgments, in his determination to separate masterworks (Verdi) from kitsch (Puccini), he is very much a musical practitioner of New Criticism. Kerman's successors in opera studies have tended to echo more recent critical trends. Some characteristic titles are Paul Robinson's Opera and Ideas(intellectual history), John Bokina's Opera and Politics(Marxist criticism), and Wayne Koestenbaum's The Queen's Throat(gay studies). Herbert Lindenberger is more of a generalist; he seeks to engage a well-read opera fan and avoids academic cant. Yet he remains a literary critic in his outlook--emphasizing narrative and text, raising voguish questions of ethnicity and sexuality. Opera, a hybrid genre, invites such treatment; it also sometimes resists it. What often eludes these critics' grasp is, not surprisingly, the music itself.

Opera in History is an elegant book on an unwieldy theme. The title creates a swirl of expectations that no single volume could possibly fulfill. Are we talking about the ways in which opera represents the past? The ways in which opera is entangled in its own present? The ways in which opera forms a canon for the future? All of the above, it seems. "My interest here," Lindenberger writes at the outset,

is the ways that history has found itself in works of art as well as in the processes by which art is made; I am correspondingly interested in how an art form such as opera can be contextualized within those various narratives that we package under the name history.

From this diffuse starting point, he branches out in various directions--surveying the general history of opera form; exploring the affinities between Monteverdi and John Donne; reading musical theater in the time of the Weimar Republic; and ending with a backward glance at operatic history through the distorting lens of John Cage's collage pieces Europeras 1 & 2.

The intent behind this expansive selection of works is clear: Lindenberger wants to spread articulate sympathy to areas of the repertory that have been dismissed in earlier surveys but that have lately enjoyed a renaissance in smaller opera houses and recordings. In Opera as Drama, Kerman tended to spurn the more virtuosic and melodramatic arts of bel canto and verismo while canonizing Wagnerian and Verdian music drama as the apex of the tradition. Lindenberger is inclusive rather than exclusive. One substantial chapter relishes the sometimes inert but always sumptuous arias of Handel, which seldom fit a modern conception of "drama" but have great effect on a moment-to-moment, will-she-reach-that-note basis.

In another chapter, Lindenberger draws on Edward Said's study of Orientalist tropes in Western discourse and asks how our postcolonial mind-set affects our experience of operas written in the age of empire. He is respectful of Said's often scathing critique of Oriental bric-a-brac in Western art; at the same time, following Said, he seeks a "contrapuntal interpretation," a "double awareness" that allows both for a listener's visceral experience and a critic's intellectual distance. And so he gives nicely nuanced readings of Orientalist stereotypes in Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio; Saint-Saëaut;ns's Samson and Delilah; and John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer. He is careful not to paint Western composers as inveterate oppressors: Orientalism may be a cover for musical adventurism, for the exploration of "new sonic territories," and in some narratives an Oriental Other turns out to be more sympathetic than conventional Western figures.

It's not surprising that a book concerned with the intersection of opera and history would culminate in two big chapters on German music: a discussion of Wagner's borrowings from Aeschylus, Norse and Icelandic sagas, and German philosophy; and a compare-and- contrast of Schoenberg's severe biblical opera Moses and Aaron and Weill's satirically populist The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Often portrayed as a nationalist ideologue, Wagner emerges here more as an eclecticist, stitching together disparate traditions rather than empowering a central German myth. Lindenberger reveals Schoenberg and Weill to be closer than the polemics of the 1920s--and the composers' own polemics against each other--would suggest. As Lindenberger observes, the Weill-Brecht collaboration that Schoenberg took to be the epitome of political kitsch displayed a surprising degree of avant-garde alienation under its tuneful surface, while the most seductive passage of Schoenberg's twelve-tone monster is the Orientalist hoedown "Dance Around the Golden Calf." As with Handel, Lindenberger favors Weill's looser, more audience-friendly work over the seamless music drama fashioned by Wagner and given modernist shape by Schoenberg and Berg. Again, he is making a riposte to Kerman, who has only Berg and Stravinsky writing real opera in this period.

In the chapter "Rossini, Shelley, and Italy in 1819," Lindenberger attempts, less successfully, to pair two extraordinarily dissimilar figures--a worldly, craftsmanlike, at times bitingly witty Italian opera composer and a brazen, visionary English poet. To make such a comparison, it is not enough to say that both Rossini and Shelley "achieved the height of their fame" during their lifetimes, "suffered a considerable period of neglect," then "returned only in recent years." That pattern could fit dozens of others. The tone of these two is strikingly different; either Berlioz or Wagner would have made a more apt musical companion for Shelley. I have similar hesitations about a pairing of Monteverdi and John Donne: The lyrical splendor of the first hardly matches the fugal complexity of the second. Lindenberger is, again, concerned in this comparison with the decline and resurgence of reputations. But it's somewhat redundant to speak of resurrected reputations in the late twentieth century, when an increasingly diversified and specialized musical culture has promoted a revival of almost any first- or third-rate composer you'd care to name.

In one significant sense, the literary critic's excursion into opera comes up short. He rarely describes the sound of the operas under discussion--not even with armchair impressions, much less scholarly descriptions. His knowledge of the literature is extensive, his account of the genealogy and the reception history of individual works precise. But his argument repeatedly halts at the border of music itself. For example, a neat comparison of Wagner's alliteration and dense rhymes with those of Gerard Manley Hopkins spills over into a footnote that ends:

Wagner was using the linguistic forms of what he saw as a lost past not simply to bring this past to life...but he was reworking these forms as a means of creating a revolutionary new musical style.

What new style? How does language mirror sound? So crucial a relationship should not have been reported in a footnote. Intelligent fans will appreciate Lindenberger's lucidity and fairness, but they may be left wondering what textures, chords, arias, and ensembles really thrill him. For all its idiosyncrasies, and perhaps precisely because of them, Kerman's remains the unrivaled short book on opera.

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