Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Anthony Burgess On Mozart; Celestial Watercooler Conversations

Anthony Burgess imagined a "celestial colloquy" in his book that celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of Mozart's death in 1991. His book, "On Mozart," (which was also published under the title "Mozart and the Wolf Gang") opens amid activities and watercooler conversations in the afterworld.

"Stendhal:
Hector Berlioz, as a literary musician, you will perhaps appreciate the thing I have done. Here, where there is no worry about publishers, royalties, a scant readership, it is possible to practice the craft of fiction in a kind of musical purity. I have written something. Here it is -- in print. It is brief, as you see. It is an attempt to write fiction in the shape of Mozart's Fortieth Symphony -- the late one in G minor. Can one subdue human passion to musical form? Can one purge the emotions thereby? Read it. At your leisure. Or, if your bored, during the performance of this next scene or act. I would welcome your opinion."

"Berlioz:
It does not seem easy to read."

"Stendhal:
Meaning it is Stendhalian, Read it."


Marie-Henri Beyle (1783–1842), known by his pen-name Stendhal, is most familiar to musicians for his early biography of Rossini (Vie de Rossini, 1824); a thick book filled with colorful musical observations.

In this imagined conversation, Stendhal is riffing on the concept of "Evenings with the Orchestra," written by Berlioz. In "Evenings" Berlioz recounts tales and stories told among musicians when the are required to play boring music.

The celestial colloquy is itself interrupted by three acts of an opera about Mozart, performed in heaven to an assemble of spirits. Mendelssohn explains: "Our heavenly time is flexible, but I have to invoke clock time to achieve synchronicity. I mean that an opera is due to commence."

As flexible as heavenly time is, Berlioz does not read the "fiction in the shape of Mozart's Fortieth Symphony," until 49 pages later; or should we say 49 pages of Earthly book space later.

The passage comprises eleven pages (page 93-103) and is simply center-titled "K. 550 (1788)." Two spaces further down is a centered section marker: "First Movement." Each of the four movements from the symphony has a section marker.

The text is an attempt to superimpose scenes from the relationship of Louis XIV and and Marie Antoinette onto the music itself. The text and the design of the argument is deeply informed by elements of the structure of the music.

Two writers have begun to unravel these connections: Werner Wolf in "The musicalization of fiction: a study in the theory and history," from 1999, and more recently, "Music in the words: musical form and counterpoint in the twentieth century novel," by Alan Shockley.

Take a look at these two sources. Then we will chase this lovely writing around the sonic labyrinth to see if we can resonate in its juxtapositions.

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