Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Most Aggravating Fiction I Ever Read

Recently I seem to be spending a lot of time listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120, his 33 variations on that waltz theme that Anton Diabelli circulated to publicize his publishing business.  For those who do not know the story (easily accessible through Wikipedia), Diabelli figured he could come up with a “best seller” by composing a waltz that would be published with a variation by every important Austrian composer living in 1819, “as well as several significant non-Austrians,” as the Wikipedia author puts it.  Here is how that author describes the response to this project:

Fifty-one composers responded with pieces, including Beethoven, Schubert, Carl Czerny, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, and the eight-year-old Franz Liszt (although it seems Liszt was not invited personally, but his teacher Czerny arranged for him to be involved).

However, asking Beethoven to write a single variation was a bit like asking anyone else to eat a single potato chip (the basis for a major advertising campaign by the folks at Frito-Lay);  so Diabelli published Beethoven’s 33 contributions in one volume and everyone else’s in a second.

The problem that arises when Beethoven goes over the top in the number of variations he composes is that both performer and listener have to confront a major challenge of orientation both “in the small” (within each variation) and “in the large” (within the entire composition).  When I have had to deal with getting my mind to embrace an opera by Richard Wagner “in the large,” I have, in the past, resorted to “total immersion listening.”  This amounts to listening to a recording of the piece with as much frequency as a serious performer would spend practicing the music.  Opus 120 clearly deserves that attention (particularly since I doubt that my keyboard skills will ever be up to playing the damned thing);  but I am not going to make any promises as to whether I shall have any results to report (let alone when I may arrive at those results).

Nevertheless, that parenthetic remark about keyboard skills triggered thoughts about authors I have encountered who insist on showing off their knowledge of music, often with the result of advertising the painfully shallow limits of their amateurism.  My favorite bête noire used to be Douglas Hofstadter, whose Gödel, Escher, Bach practically invited me to throw it against the wall (which I probably would have done had I not been assigned the task of reviewing it).  Fortunately, I was eventually able to take some comfort from Vladimir Nabokov, which I reported in an earlier post.  In that case I was responding to a comment by David Simon about the television business:

The average Emmy voter has the attention span of a gnat.

This inspired me to respond as follows:

Vladimir Nabokov had chosen somewhat more elegant language when he lectured about reading Dostoevsky as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize" (a pleasure which I had experienced at its greatest when I had to write a review of Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach) ….

There is, however, one author for whom I would be hard pressed to call the reading experience “a mischievous but very healthy pleasure.”  That author is Fred Hoyle, at least when he was writing science fiction, rather than any of his more serious work in astronomy.

Hofstadter’s sin was in trying to draw conclusions about Johann Sebastian Bach by looking at his more “idle pastimes,” such as the puzzle canons from the BWV 1079 Musical Offering, while completely ignoring all those uncanny examples of synthesizing technique and expression that may be found in his sacred music.  Hoyle, however, would use his fiction to go straight to the jugular of Beethoven’s masterpieces, usually by creating an alter ego who was a concert pianist.  In The Black Cloud that character decides to test the hypothesis that an enormous cloud blocking out the sun is actually sentient by playing Beethoven’s Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) to it.  (As I recall, the cloud dismisses the performance with a style that Nabokov would have enjoyed.)  However, this “Hammerklavier” experience is chicken feed when compared with October the First is too Late, whose protagonist is obsessed with Opus 120.  Quite honestly, I have forgotten the number of times he plays this work in its entirety in the course of the novel.  I know it was at least three, and I remember finishing the book with the feeling that I had now endured the most blatant example of authorial masturbation I had ever encountered in text!  Beethoven may have had a problem with writing too many variations on this one theme, but that problem was nothing compared to Hoyle’s making us endure playing the result far beyond any limit we would call excessive.

For my part I have to confess that I have yet to hear Opus 120 performed in a recital.  I suppose that is why I am now focused on taking to trouble to get the music into my head.  When the occasion arises I want to make sure that I am better prepared to be a serious listener than Hoyle ever was!

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