What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Berlin 1953

OK, So I bit off more than I could chew. I was going to follow up "In the Beginning" with "In the End" - where I would offer at least a suggestion or two for why I think that the active repertoire of "classical" music pretty much went out of business about 35 years ago, with the deaths of Dmitri Shostakovich & Benjamin Britten.

So far, so good - but then I decided to rustle up my own musical examples, with appropriate video, for YouTube posting.

Big mistake. Huge, in fact.

I got absorbed in the task.

Comments (11)

I think you're hugely generous to include Britten within "classical" music, even quote large. I've yet ever to hear anything he wrote that was remotely bearable. I'd be tempted to move the date back four years to the death of Richard Strauss, but I suppose Shostakovich deserves to be in the club. But the whole affair had been unraveling for over two decades: Stravinsky's work is principally formless, although The Firebird has a few melodious snatches (when I was in 5th grade I won, inter alia, a recording of Oedipus Rex from the Met Opera Quiz; in ten years I've never been able to sit through the whole thing, although in all honesty I gave up trying some time ago). But is Stravinsky simply a product of Russia, rather than the larger musical culture? I think not, but that's probably a relevant factor. In short, I agree with your general thesis wholeheartedly.

I think you should include Howard Hanson, if only for his Romantic Symphony, completed in 1930.

Paul: I know where you're coming from. It took me many years to acquire a feeling for Britten's music.

But I just *dare* you not to like his "Hymn to the Virgin" (1930) or "Simple Symphony" (1934) or "Ceremony of Carols" (1942) or "Rejoice in the Lamb" (1943).

Stravinsky's *Oedipus Rex* is another matter entirely. A very peculiar (albeit brilliant) work. I can't blame you for disliking it.

James Drake: Howard Hanson's "Romantic Symphony" is as pleasant to play in as it is pleasant to listen to. (I've played 'cello in that symphony several times).


OK, I will grant you that at least some of those pieces are actually quite nice (I wasn't familiar with all of them but have tracked several down on Youtube). Perhaps not exactly the way I would have done it (if I could write music), but nice enough to support your including him after all. And what was wrong with me last night? It's been rather more than 10 years since I was in the 5th grade.

Paul - the thing about Britten is that he was a child prodigy - almost comparable to Mozart. And he was recognized as such at a very early age. So he came, too soon, under the influence of some of the most "advanced" musical thinkers of his time & place.

The unfortunate result is that one often has to listen for his native genius through a thicket of "modernist" difficulties.

And yet, he was damned, in his time, as a hopeless reactionary! Go figure.

I have to enter a word in praise and defense of Benjamin Britten. I've performed most of his liturgical music, and much of his work written for performance in churches (e.g., Ceremony of Carols, St. Nick), and on the whole have admired it tremendously. His Jubilate Deo is a screecher, I admit, if poorly performed; a choir must be really superb to carry that one off without causing discomfort. But it is no different in this than pieces from any era that are insanely difficult to perform well.

So, two things about Britten redeem him completely in my eyes: Abraham and Isaac, and Curlew River. These two pieces express sublime truths about the love of parents for their children. Deeply, deeply affecting; parental love as an aliquot of the Love that binds and heals all things. And it ain't just the librettist; it's the music, too. For these two pieces, I will always love Benjamin Britten.

While I'm at it, let me also defend Vaughan Williams. Sure, most of his stuff is hackneyed, but check out his Mass in G Minor. Delicious.

And, finally, blessed Herbert Howells. His cycle of services, written each for one of the great cathedrals or chapels of Britain, are simply magisterial; in my humble opinion as a mere professional performer of liturgical music, they verge on the supernal. Very, very rarely does a cynical young countertenor weep at the same time that he sings as loudly and carefully and beautifully as he can, while feeling the top of his head open up to the vault of heaven and chills of dread and glory run over his whole body. Howells will do that for you.

Kristor - thanks for your comment. It's nice to see you post here.

Concerning Britten: I'm glad I'm not alone, here. That said, I'd caution anybody not already familiar with his idiom against starting out with either "Abraham & Isaac" or "Curlew River" (or, for that matter, *any* of the "Canticles" or "Parables"). Compared to Schoenberg or late Stravinsky, these are relatively accessible works. But, by any more reasonable standard, they're not.

Also, which version of *Jubilate Deo* are you talking about - the one in E flat (1934), or the one in C (1961)? Just curious.

Concerning Ralph Vaughan Williams, you write: "let me also defend Vaughan Williams. Sure, most of his stuff is hackneyed..."

Well, poor RVW! With friends like this, who needs enemies? Apart from his *Fantasia on Greensleeves*, I simply can't imagine what you're thinking of. I mean, c'mon - it's not like there's any community left in the world that is still sufficiently steeped in the English folk-song tradition to find any of his work "hackneyed!"

But, yes, the Mass in G minor is "delicious."

Concerning Herbert Howells: I only know his *Requiem* & "Take him, Earth, for Cherishing" - but they're lovely.


It was Britten's Jubilate Deo in C that I was thinking of. It's hard to carry off because you need a choir that can sing very fast, very accurately, and very very quietly. A choir that can manage even one of those at a time is rare.

Maybe I was too hard on RVW. But to me, with a few exceptional strokes of true genius, most of his work falls into one of two categories: unlistenable modernist stuff, where he is trying to be original, and medleys of folk songs punctuated with sforzandi for the strings so the ladies in the pews can tell where one old warhorse ends and another begins. In these medley pieces his orchestration is often breathtakingly gorgeous, but that's the only appeal they hold for me. The profound, heartfelt and deeply moving Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis is one exception, probably because Tallis was such a total genius. But that's not fair to RVW, either, because in that piece he plumbed depths that Tallis himself only indicated.

If you get a chance, I highly recommend Howell's Mag and Nunc "Collegium Regale," performed of course by King's College Choir. One of my very favorite pieces to sing. The Gloriae of the two canticles are heartbreaking.

Kristor - many thanks for the Howells suggestions.

RVW-wise, I take it that you would count the Fourth & Sixth Symphonies, &/or the Partita for Strings, as "unlistenable modernist stuff:?"

OK, OK, you got me. I am guilty of allowing my intense antipathy for his 7th Symphony, the Antarctic, to color my impression of his non-traditional works. That piece has always struck me as a musical depiction of the outer darkness.

I guess I shall have to go back and give his other symphonies another try.

Kristor - Oh dear! I fear you've misunderstood me...

The "Fourth & Sixth Symphonies, &/or the Partita for Strings," really are RVW's closest approximations to "modernism" - much more than the *Sinfonia Antartica*. I wasn't offering them as counterexamples to your thesis!

If you want to fall in love with the music of Vaughan Williams:

Job - a Masque for Dancing (Bruno Walter is said to have approached the conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, after an early performance of this great work, with the words, more or less: "but this is the most beautiful music that anyone ever wrote!)

Third ("Pastoral") Symphony

Fifth Symphony

Serenade to Music

The Lark Ascending

...and, just possibly, if you enjoy opera:

Sir John in Love (not nearly so brilliant as, but far more loveable than, Verdi's Falstaff.

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