Tag Archive: Music

On “Treating Shadows as Solid Things”

I’m drawn to works of art that say things other than what they say they say. Milton’s unspoken sympathy for the devil is a particularly delicious example; more poignant is the veiled or transfigured longing in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or Marianne Moore.

But surely there’s no weirder example of an artist contradicting his stated intentions through the very content of his artwork than the paradoxical presence of Virgil in Dante’s Commedia. This colossal poem narrates the journey of the still-living Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; the divine powers have selected Dante to make this singular pilgrimage, both so that he can give the world a first-hand account of the afterlife and so that he can save his own soul, which had evidently come perilously close to being lost. Virgil, the spirit of the great Roman poet, is his guide.


On Music and Language

Music’s love affair with language is an intense one – or rather, it ought to be. The old adages about the perfect marriage between music and text – “the words must serve the music,” “prima la musica, poi le parole,” etc. – reek of a certain outdated marital attitude. The relationship, at its best, has never been master-and-servant. It is a dynamic bond. The words and the music must put pressure on one another – they must be a little wary of one another,
and each recognize the other’s power, before they embrace.

On the Music of Giuseppe Verdi

Originally published in The Yale Review, 2013

The English composer Thomas Adès, in his book Full of Noises, confesses – after incisive appraisals of composers ranging from Mahler to Janáček to Britten – that Verdi ‘‘is very difficult for me.’’ At first, he seems merely dismissive: he mentions Verdi while discussing composers whose music just doesn’t work 99 percent of the time. But the 1 percent of Verdi’s music that does work evidently bothers him:

“For some reason this music [in this case Simon Boccanegra] won’t lie down and die . . . it still somehow has a kind of wriggling existence. . . . Everything about it is wrong. It could hardly be worse. Yet it has this strangely powerful effect if it’s done well. . . . I look at it in fascination, and I think: why is it that, despite everything, [Verdi] can make a single moment that is so incredibly strong? Because those moments are stronger than they would be if someone had planned it properly. These things suddenly leap out, like a knife out of the canvas.”