Monthly Archives: March 2010

Frye Alert


The closing sequence of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould

The Australian blog Art Neuro today mentions Frye while praising Canadian culture, and Canadian film especially:

Nobody says it out loud, but Canada is the cultured, well-educated, bookish, serious  brother to the sporty, happy-go-lucky, pretentious Australia. Here’s something for people to chew on: the film that kicked off the Australian film renaissance in 1970 was ‘Wake in Fright’, directed by Ted Kotcheff who is a Canadian.

Canada is the land of Glenn Gould and ‘32 Short Films About Glenn Gould’. Australia is the land of David Helfgott and ‘Shine’. Their premier pianist defined the playing of Bach for generations to come. Our pianist is a guy who had a breakdown trying to play Rachmaninoff’s third and went crazy. The movie about their guy is one of the most significant biopics of all time. Our biopic is an Oscar winner but really just another movie.

Another Canadian, John Ralston Saul is a front line top of the heap intellectual. We don’t have anybody who can go toe to toe with John Ralston Saul. Canada produced Northrop Frye. We don’t have a single literary critic that can hold a candle to Northrop Frye, then or since.

You can read the entire post here.

Also, PDF Database offers a number of Frye related PDFs here.

Stephen Leacock


Stephen Leacock, photographed by Yousef Karsh, 1940

On this date in 1944 Stephen Leacock died of cancer at age 74.

Frye regularly refers to Leacock’s Lord Ronald from Nonsense Novels, the hero who is always riding off in all directions.  He nicely utilizes the figure here to characterize Canada’s unusual cultural development during its colonial period:

Canada had no enlightenment, and very little eighteenth century.  The British and the French spent the eighteenth century in Canada battering down each other’s forts, and Canada went directly from the Baroque expansion of the seventeenth century to the Romantic expansion of the nineteenth.  The result was the cultural situation that I tried to characterize in my earlier conclusion [to Literary History of Canada].  Identity in Canada has always something about it of a centrifugal movement into far distance, of clothes on a growing giant coming apart at the seams, of an elastic about to snap. Stephen Leacock’s famous hero who rode off rapidly in all directions was unmistakably Canadian. This expanding movement has to be counterbalanced by a sense of having constantly to stay together by making tremendous voluntary efforts at intercommunication, whether of building the CPR or hold federal-provincial conferences. (“Conclusion to the Second Edition of Literary History of Canada“, CW 12, 454.)

Leacock’s “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias” from Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town can be read here.

Frye’s References to Debussy


Debussy’s “Hommage a Rameau”.  Arturo Michelangeli, piano.

Further to Michael’s earlier post

I may be cracked, and mustn’t arrive at premature conclusions, but I think I can exhaust and distinguish the styles of [William] Byrd, [John] Bull & [Orlando] Gibbons.  Byrd is an intensely virile, straightforward composer: his rhythm is the most positive element in his style, and that has the slightly march-like swing of all good English music, even when written by a German like Handel or a Frenchified composer like Purcell. His forms are bare and intense: it’s his immediacy that makes him fond of sharply outlined pictures—he’s more interested in programme music than the other two and does more with the lilting folk tunes.  Bull is dreamy, sensuous, atmospheric, and early Debussy, with lovely & expressive melodic lines weaving through his harmonies.  Like Debussy, too, he has a sharp wit, as in the King’s Hunting Jigs.  Gibbons is more Mozartian: he has great architectonic power & a much larger synthetic sense of form, and commands the full fortes in style of writing in a way which really puts him far ahead of Frescobaldi & his more conventional fugues: in fact, he’s the 16th c. at its ripest.  To him, as to Mozart, music is a mystery to be explored by a clear mind.  He’s a synthesis of Byrd’s classic & Bull’s romantic style. . . . Bull was the Debussy of his time, and his music has the same subtle, delicate, mysteriously ectoplasmic quality about it. (Notebook 5)

The immensely increased range that modal harmony affords to music makes it incredible that it did not play a more active role in the art between 1600 and 1900 than is generally assigned to it.  There are explicit examples of course: the Lydian movement in Beethoven’s op. 132 quartet; the Dorian movement in Brahms’ fourth symphony.  But it would be interesting to examine the subject further, particularly in modern music.  Recently I was reading through a volume of piano pieces by Sibelius, and came across one in a set of pieces with names of trees, I think op. 85, in G sharp minor with a four-sharp key sig­nature and a flat supertonic throughout—in other words in G sharp Phrygian.  Debussy’s Hommage a Rameau, also in G sharp minor, has the E sharped through the last half-dozen bars, and so ends in G sharp Dorian.  Chopin’s Prelude in F major, op. 28 no. 23, has a Mixolydian cadence, a fact which draws squeals of ecstasy from Huneker, who pre­sumably never read Byrd, who did the same thing in every tenth piece he wrote. (“Modal Harmony in Music”)

When I start learning to compose I shall investigate modal harmony: I find myself quite baffled by the stupidity of musicians in ever dropping it.  Arranged in order of sharpness, they are Lydian, Ionian or major, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian or minor, Phrygian, Locrian.  Lydian is a shade brighter than major, Dorian a shade more majestic than minor, Phrygian & Mixolydian, Phrygian especially, gloomy and plaintive.  I dare say a lot of Bach’s minor music is really Dorian, a lot of Chopin’s Phrygian, a lot of Beethoven’s major Lydian, a lot of Mendelssohn’s Mixolydian.  You see, it’s an interlocking scheme.  A piece of B Lydian would have a key signature of 6#; in B major, of 5#; B Mixolydian, 4; B Dorian, 3; B minor, 2; B Phrygian, 1; B Locrian, none.  I ran across a piece in G# by Sibelius (a set of tree-pieces op. I think about 85) with 4#—G# Phrygian, in other words.  Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau ends in G# Dorian.  Wonder if a spectrum association would ever be made by some future Scriabine: Lydian red, etc.  I’ve got more notes on this in Elizabethan music somewhere. (Diaries)

Of the universal rationalization of history to make the preceding age, the age of the father, an aberration from the great tradition (the second father or old wise man) which is now being carried on by the new people.  Thus music does fine as far as Mozart, is just awful until modern times, & starts again with Debussy.  How this affects Ruskin’s championing of Turner & his denigration of the rococo & baroque. (Diaries)

TGIF: PowerPoints


Tim Lee, possibly the only standup comedian with a PhD, does a bit on PowerPoints with PowerPoints.  Worth seeing.  Worth showing to your students.