Philip Hensher

No example to follow

Ahundred years ago, a character in a novel who was keen on music would, like E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch or Leo- nard Bast, be as apt to stumble through a piece at the piano as listen to it at a concert.

No example to follow
Text settings
Comments

The Cello Suites

Eric Siblin

Harvill Secker, pp. 336, £

Chopin: Prince of the Romantics

Adam Zamoyski

HarperPress, pp. 356, £

Ahundred years ago, a character in a novel who was keen on music would, like E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch or Leo- nard Bast, be as apt to stumble through a piece at the piano as listen to it at a concert.

Ahundred years ago, a character in a novel who was keen on music would, like E. M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch or Leo- nard Bast, be as apt to stumble through a piece at the piano as listen to it at a concert. Given the relative- ly rare opportunities to hear a Brahms or Beethoven symphony before the invention of the LP, the easiest way to enjoy one was probably to play it in piano duet reduction. At the upper end of amateur capacity, there are those memorable small-town enthusiasts who, in Arnold Bennett’s The Death of Simon Fuge, sightread a new piece just published in Germany — the Strauss Sinfonia Domestica.

Music was something to participate in and understand, as well as enjoy, until relatively recently. Donald Tovey’s Essays in Musical Analysis now look like the preserve of the professional; they were actually written for the entertainment of a large concert-going public to help them follow the argument. Only a generation ago, books like Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style and the excellent BBC music guides, with their generous music examples and lucid, objective, analytical approach, were within the grasp of people of good general education. Things have changed a lot since then.

Here we have two books, one about a great composer, the other about a celebrated musical work, the six Bach cello suites. The thing which immediately strikes me is that neither book contains a single music example, apart from some artificially darkened reproductions of an 18th- century manuscript reproduced in Eric Siblin’s, which are worse than useless. Imagine the difficulties a study of a painter would labour under, if it were not permitted to reproduce a single example of his work, or a book about Shakespeare if market considerations forbade the author from quoting any of his own words. The critic would labour to describe — ‘on the left-hand side there is a curiously moving brown tree’ — but he would not be showing you what he was talking about, only describing his own emotions, or the vulgar received opinion.

These books, which work under the usual condition of books about music nowadays, may allude to music, but at no point do they actually show you what they are talking about. The reader, sometimes, has to guess what they mean. The Cello Suites is the most extreme example of any book about music I’ve read recently. Siblin not only assumes that his reader can’t read music; he admits that he himself can’t, or rather, ‘reading traditional music notation was not something I could do without a laborious act of decoding’. He also can’t speak, and doesn’t want to speak, any German, remarking at one point that having to sing, of all things, the German word for ‘quick’ ‘left a bad aftertaste’.

These are grave disadvantages to someone proposing to write a book about J. S. Bach, particularly to someone disinclined to take steps to remedy them. If Siblin had stuck to his brief of explaining what it is like for a near-complete musical ignoramus to try to understand a complex and original production of the high Baroque, we might have had, at least, an entertaining and honest book. I quite like the strand of the book, too, that accounts for Pablo Casals’s resurrection of the suites in the 20th century. However, Siblin will insist on trying to explain what the music is like, which means drawing on the few points of comparison he has at his command. Of a passage in the prelude to the third suite:

[There is a] trapdoor of snaky semitones that warbles out of nowhere to make a nearly Eastern statement. The forces of Islam were pressing against the borders of Austria when Bach was composing the Cello Suites; the foreign-sounding notes might have been inspired by Turkish or Arabic influences. But the phrase sounds heavily Hebraic — is it conceivable that Bach came up with a Jewish reference here?

What Siblin means, I think, is that there is some use of the interval of the augmented second in one sequence. Did this signify Jewishness or Turkishness to Bach’s contemporaries? I doubt it. I can’t think of any example much before the late 19th century. And the 18th century did have a ‘Turkish style’, much used later by Mozart and Haydn, but it was limited to the bass-drum and cymbal thump of Janissary bands, which first made an appearance in the West in 1699 or so. When Bach reminds Siblin of ‘a nearly Eastern statement’, or, at another cringy moment, of Led Zeppelin, it makes the reader think that he just doesn’t know very much music.

The depressing thing is that someone like Siblin is much more likely to be commissioned to write a book about the Bach cello suites than someone who actually knows what he is talking about. Until relatively recently, we used to laugh at those 19th-century pundits who saw private Mahlerian expressions of love or despair whenever Beethoven went into A major or G minor. Siblin takes us right back to that: for him, the D minor suite ‘establish[es] a gut-wrenching sadness … a painful chronicle’ related to the death of Bach’s first wife; in the C major which follows, ‘love is proclaimed in the downward swooning scale, an amorous rush, a falling into someone’s arms,’ as Bach falls in love with his second wife, Anna Magdalena.

This type of antique bilge ignores the fact that they were written roughly at the same time, but nobody really knows in which order. Someone of Bach’s period in deep grief is not much more likely to write in D minor than in C major, I would guess, whatever the different effects of the keys on the listener. A tragic effort all round, really.

Adam Zamoyski’s biography of Chopin has much more to be said for it. Chopin’s is an interesting story, and Zamoyski tells it with a good grasp of the current state of biographical scholarship — this is an updating of a previous book of Zamoyski’s on the same subject. How Chopin went from provincial Poland via the traditional virtuoso’s route through the imperial capitals to Paris; how, through sheer elegance, expenditure and public intelligence, he commanded the esteem of the intelligentsia and the gratin; and how his always poor health caught up with him long before middle age: these are the traditional elements of the Chopin biography, and Zamoyski covers them with some aplomb.

He is good, too, on Chopin’s rivalry with the other keyboard lions of the time, just when the modern piano recital was being invented. Some of them are rather forgotten nowadays, like Ferdinand Hiller and Ignaz Moscheles; one, Liszt, will always have his name coupled with Chopin’s as the vulgar showman who sold Chopin’s exquisite refinements to the larger world. And there is Chopin’s long and difficult relationship with George Sand, too — her complicated and demanding personality conveyed here quite successfully.

The trouble with Zamoyski’s Chopin is that it hardly seemsaware of why its subject should command our interest in the first place. There were other nationalistically minded Poles in Paris at the time; other rivals of Liszt and Hiller; other good-looking young men that Astolphe de Custine fell in love with; no doubt, other lovers of George Sand, too. We want to read about Chopin rather than, say, Félicien Mallefille because of his music, and about this Zamoyski has nothing of interest to say. ‘With time [the Etudes] were to revolutionise his use of the piano.’ The B flat minor sonata is ‘one of his greatest works and a major landmark’. The B flat minor scherzo is a ‘dramatic, though restrained, piece, and provides a good example of the direction in which he was moving.’ The Barcarolle ‘was a new departure, both in form and content’. The Polonaise-Fantaisie, the greatest of all Chopin’s works,

was to be the final and logical step in Chopin’s development of the Polonaise, so evocative of past grandeur and so declamatory in their rebelliousness, into the pure musical fantasy couched in the language of the Polonaise.

Chopin seems to have found pretty well all verbal description of music absurd. When Schumann’s famous review of the La Ci Darem variations was brought to his attention — the one that ends ‘Hats off, gentlemen: a genius’ — Chopin was amused by the over-detailed description. ‘He sees Don Juan kissing Zerlina on the D flat! Plater was wondering yesterday on just what part of her anatomy her D flat might be…’ Later in life, he made merry with his English and Scottish patronesses (described as ‘looking at their hands and playing wrong notes so soulfully’)because they all said the same thing after he had played: ‘Leik water!’

The Chopin literature in particular has divided into two. On the one hand there are books like Zamoyski’s, which no doubt are the product of deep love for Chopin, but have no means of talking about even so very interesting a piece of music as the Barcarolle to their audiences. On the other, there are some really startlingly austere analyses for a tiny technical audience, no doubt highly valuable, but which leave even the intelligent amateur a long way behind. The literature which used to flourish in between, to help a smart, musical audience follow the argument of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, for instance, seems to have disappeared. Perhaps that smart, musical audience has disappeared, too; or is it just the assumptions of publishers?