Category Archives: Music

Video of the Day: “Penny Lane”


The solo begins at 1.09

I’ve been thinking about great instrumental breaks the last couple of days, and one of the greatest and most recognizable is David Mason’s piccolo trumpet solo in the Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” Mason died on April 29th at the age of 85. Obituary here.

See also Frye’s comments on popular music as a form of “musical drama” in the post below.

Erik Satie


“Trois Gymnopedies,” 1888

Today is Erik Satie‘s birthday (1866-1925).

From “Music and the Savage Breast,” Canadian Forum (April 1938):

When men ceased to believe that the sun went around the earth, they gave up the music of the spheres. By that time music was a flourishing art form, and its development did a great deal to clear up the superstitions connected with it, which were based on ignorance like all superstitions. But while the superstitions have gone, the terrific emotional impact of music has not. Cultivated music refines and canalizes this impact; popular music gives it to us straight in the midriff. And popular music, it should be noted, is musical drama; that is, it is associated with dancing and marching, which are forms of dramatic action. It is directly descended from the war dance and the fertility rite. Every high school girl knows what a powerful erotic stimulant music is, and everyone interested in promoting wars knows that music can turn a decent man or woman into a murderous maniac. (CW 29, 89)

Satie noted that “Trois Gymnopedies” was inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbo. Frye in Notebook 34 makes an interesting observation regarding that novel in relation to the historical novel and the romance:

The purely historical novel I think represents a bookish & antiquarian failure of nerve, unless it is symbolic recreation of an archetype, as Salammbo of Druidism or Ivanhoe of chivalry. The distinction between the epic & the romance is very important when applied to historical novels. (CW 15, 25)

Which is to say that Salammbo incorporates both the “war dance and the fertility rite,” which is perhaps reflected in the wistful melancholy of Satie’s composition.

Johann Sebastian Bach


Glenn Gould playing Fugue of Praeludium No.22 in B flat minor (BWV 891) from “The Well-Tempered Clavier”

Today is Bach‘s birthday (1685-1750).

Frye in “The Teacher’s Source of Authority”:

It is only when we get to the point of having some sense of having the total subject in our minds that we begin to recognize a source of authority beyond that, of the poet or the creative artist whose work we are studying. If we are listening to music, let us say, on the level of Bach or Mozart, the response keeps shifting from the personal to the impersonal. On the one hand we feel this is Bach, that it couldn’t possibly be anyone else. On the other hand, there are moments when Bach disappears, and what we feel is; this is the voice of music itself; this is what music was created to say. At that level, we are not so much hearing the music as recognizing it. (CW 7, 503)

Quote of the Day: Keith Richards on Open Tuning


Rolling Stones performing “Honky Tonk Women” on Top of the Pops in 1969 with Mick Taylor on second guitar — their best lineup ever.  The open G tuning drives the song’s roots very deep into the Delta blues upon which rock ‘n’ roll is based.

I’m reading Keith Richards’s surprisingly good autobiography, Life. Here he is describing his discovery of open tuning, which freed him as a composer and set him apart as a performer:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes — the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart.  It’s tuned GDGBD.  Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate.  Only three notes, but because of the different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound.  It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring.  I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers.  The notes are there already.  You can leave strings wide open.  It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work.  And if you’re working on the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which you’re actually not playing.  It’s there.  It defies logic.  And it’s just lying there saying, “Fuck me.”  And it’s a matter of the same old cliche in that respect.  It’s what you leave out that counts.  Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other.  And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing.  And you can even let it hang there.  It’s called the drone note.  Or at least that’s what I call it.  The sitar works along similar lines — sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings.  Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do.  It’s the drone. (243)

No doubt some will think this is a laughable reach, but Richards is obviously expressing the excitement of finding something in music that is in the potential of music itself and independent of his intention, and about that Frye, of course, has something to say:

Often creative people begin with the sense of a small school to which they belong and they write manifestos defending that school.  However, as they get more authority, they tend to break away from the school and speak more and more with their own voice.  As the maturing process goes on, the voice becomes steadily more impersonal.  If it’s a great creative mind, it moves in the direction of speaking with the authority of the art behind it.  I’ve often drawn the distinction between listening to music, say, on the level of Tchaikowsky, where you feel that this is a very skillful, ingenious, and interesting composer, and music on the level of Mozart or Bach, where you feel that this is the voice of music.  And that’s not to say that the music is impersonal because it obviously couldn’t be anyone but Mozart of Bach.  Nevertheless, the feeling is one of having transcended the ego which is no longer opaque but completely transparent for revealing the authority of the art itself.  (CW 24, 488-9)

After the jump, Son House performing the open G tuned “Death Letter Blues,” demonstrating Frye’s principle that “originality” is really a return to origins.

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Frye on Opera


The Papageno Papagena duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Frye’s “Current Opera: A Housecleaning” (CW 11, 73-75), written when he was 23:

This is not a criticism of the performances of the opera company that visited Toronto recently, as the present critic succeeded in seeing only Madame Butterfly. If this was typical, they were adequate enough, if somewhat perfunctory. Of course Madame Butterfly is unfortunate in having a modern and quasi realistic setting, which throws an onus of stage “business” on the singers. The result in this case was a good deal of spasmodic cigarette-lighting and nose-blowing and uneasy and rather aimless puttering about the stage in an effort to make some gesture in the direction of drama. But the response to a melodrama of stock pathos is one thing, and the response to Puccini’s extraordinarily competent and fluent journalistic style of composition is quite another, and a general impression remained of an hermaphroditic and ill-conceived mingling of outlines.

This suggests the obvious reflection that the opera would be all the better for being completely conventionalized; surely a drama that depended on automatic movements making no pretense of holding a mirror to any kind of nature would be better suited to the declamation and rhetoric which singing involves. If Madame Butterfly depended at all on chorus work the demands of the drama would of course be less obtrusive, but when it proceeds almost entirely by aria and recitative the stage effect is bound to be stiff and awkward. The opera began as a method of incorporating Greek drama in Western art forms: two or three leading characters, a chorus, a mythological setting; all this was de rigeur throughout the seventeenth century, and in fact provides the basic form for Handel and Glück. If Handel was dissatisfied with the opera, it was not because he rebelled against the operatic convention, but simply because it was not concentrated enough for him to impose his massive designs on it. His genius expanded into the oratorio, which is not less conventionalized than the opera but far more so. After his time a century long duel was fought between the traditions of German counterpoint and of Italian melody, a conflict resolved only by Mozart, which had for its chief incidents the row between Handel and Bononcini, the Glück–Puccini opera fight in Paris, the triumph of Rossini in Vienna, the establishment of the Italian comédie larmoyante in the nineteenth century, its destruction by Wagner, and the belated attempts of Puccini and his colleagues to cling to Wagner’s coat-tails. All the energy which the great Germans bent on incorporating the opera into the tradition of systematic music did not, however, succeed in affecting the Italian model to any extent, and attempts to revitalize it now can have only an eccentric interest. The Italian operatic tradition has lived long, but it is not the less dead for having died hard. The impact of the Russian ballet annihilated what was left of it at once; a single touch of the immense strength and discipline of conventionalized art was enough to sweep the facile virtuosity of the Pattis and Carusos into limbo.

We have said that it is necessary to conventionalize the opera to avoid the absurdity and incongruity which the sensitive listener is bound to feel: every work of art asks a suspension of judgment from us, but the serious opera asks too much. But of course where the appeal is comic, where the incongruous becomes artistically valuable, this objection disappears. For if we conventionalize the opera in any direction, we immediately get something that is not an opera, however excellent an oratorio or ballet it may be. Therefore when Mozart’s unerring instinct brought the opera to its highest pitch of perfection and established it as an art form in its own right, it appeared as comedy. For high tragedy in musical drama seems difficult to reconcile with the loose and florid construction of opera: it needs massed choruses undisturbed by the broken lights of the stage. Tragedy, in short, belongs to the oratorio; the opera is comic, seldom succeeding with anything more serious than pathos. Madame Butterfly is typical of a large number of entirely unconvincing melodramas. Owing to the difficulty of getting a genuinely sympathetic audience, there is no form more easily parodied than the opera: the whole English tradition, from Gay to Dame Ethyl Smyth, has run not only to light opera but to mock opera. It will probably be impossible to convince the antiquarians of future centuries that Gounod’s Faust is not a parody of Goethe: they would simply point to Ave Maria as an instance of Gounod’s skill in parody. The association of the opera with high society and its support by wealthy women pretending to culture has also helped to make it entertainment closer in spirit to the circus than to creative art.

Whether Wagner ever succeeded in nullifying these objections is a question at present beyond our scope. His framework is mythological, of course, but not conventionalized; his gods are Dionysiac rather than Olympian, and the general effect is one of assertive antinomianism and self apotheosis carried to its fullest extent. As a master of display Wagner probably has no rival in history, but that very fact makes him anarchic and disruptive as an artist; even if he did succeed, no one else can follow him in his field. Wagner stands with Nietzsche as the joint godfather of Naziism, and until we have found out whether the swaggering and posturing of pompous heroes who do not have to pay their own way is more lasting and worthwhile, in art or in life, than a unity founded on rationality and humour, we shall be unable to put Wagner in his proper perspective. But we can hardly deny that he did his work with sufficient thoroughness; so completely did he shatter the opera that it is now in a state of decadence from which it can never be rescued. It is possible, in fact it is highly probable, that the opera, in a changing social order, is undergoing a catacomb period of which Wozzeck may furnish an example. But “grand opera” is no longer synonymous with culture, even with ermine and diamond pseudo-culture; the contemporary turn to symphonies and chamber music is a healthy and hopeful sign.

Il trovatore


Maria Callas sings “D’amor sull’ali rosee” — on the rosy wings of love — from Il trovatore

On this date in 1853 Verdi’s Il trovatore premiered in Rome.

John Ayre in his biography describes a stopover in Rome during Frye’s 1937 visit to Italy, including an opportunity to take in a Verdi opera:

After the exhilarating taste of Tuscany, Frye was thoroughly dismayed.  “History of Roman art: bastard Etruscan, bastard Greek, stolen Greek, bastard Oriental, bastard Northern Italian, bastard copies of bastard Greek, bastard Dutch, and various kinds of eclectic bastardy.”  In viewing the “junk piles” — the Thermae, the Vatican, the Laterine — he caught a glimmer in the development of Greek sculpture but most everything disappointed.  Even what was good was diminished by irritants.  The Vatican obsessively plastered fig leaves on nude sculpture.  An Italian mania for “restoring” friezes had even spread to the supposedly inviolable Sistine Chapel.  There was opportunity, however, of seeing a more enticing contemporary side of Rome — in its opera and ballet — but on the pretext of disliking Verdi, Frye passed up the chance to see a production of Rigoletto.  Although he was still suffering a degree of intolerance (Beethoven good, Verdi bad), there was undeniable considerations of money and his still insistent desire to keep working on Blake. (136)

Frye on Shakespeare and opera in A Natural Perspective:

The only place where the tradition of Shakespearean romantic comedy has survived with any theatrical success, as we should expect, is opera.  As long as we have Mozart or Verdi or Sullivan to listen to, we can tolerate identical twins and lost heirs and love potions and folk tales; we can even stand a fairy queen if she is under two hundred pounds.  And when we look for the most striking modern parallels to Twelfth Night or The Tempest, we think first of all of Figaro and The Magic Flute.  (25)

Mozart: Symphony 36


“Linz,” third and fourth movements

On this date in 1783 Mozart’s Symphony 36, “Linz,” premiered in Linz, Austria.

Frye in “Expanding Eyes”:

I am by no means the first critic to regard music as the typical art, the one where the impact of structure is not weakened, as it has been in painting and still is in literature, by false issues derived from representation.  For centuries the theory of music included a good deal of cosmological speculation, and the symmetrical grammar of classical music, with its circle of fifths, its twelve-tone chromatic and seven-tone diatonic scales, its duple and triple rhythms, its concords and cadences and formulaic progressions, makes it something of a mandala of the ear.  We hear the resonance of this mandala of musical possibilities in every piece of music we listen to.  Occasionally we feel that what we are listening to epitomizes, so to speak, our whole musical experience with special clarity: our profoundest response to the B Minor Mass or the Jupiter Symphony is not “this is beautiful music,” but something more like “this is the voice of music”; this is what music is all about.  (CW 27, 407)

“Don Giovanni”


A superb rendition of the finale in a 1990 production at the Metropolitan Opera

On this date in 1787 Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered in Prague.

Frye in “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres”:

The verbal action of Figaro is comic and that of Don Giovanni tragic, but in both cases the audience is exalted by the music above the reach of tragedy and comedy, and, though as profoundly moved as ever, is not emotionally involved with the discovery of plot or characters.  It looks at the downfall of Don Juan as spectacular entertainment, much as the gods are supposed to look at the downfall of Ajax or Darius. (CW 21, 115)


“Women Making Music” (Date unknown)

Today is Tintoretto‘s birthday (1518-1594).

I’ve noticed while trolling for Frye quotes how interesting it is to see who or what he’ll mention in passing to make a larger point, as he does here with Tintoretto.  It’s always easy to get the measure of Frye’s genius in bulk; but there is a particular pleasure in picking it up in the tiniest detail.  And, in a pleasant bit of serendipity, the larger point of the quote below nicely complements the painting above.

Once we have understood the self-imposed limitations of Elizabethan music and realized that its whole spirit is domestic and intimate, that it is Marvell but never Milton, Vermeer but never Tintoretto, Jane Austen but never Tolstoy, we shall accept it for what it is and not indulge in evolutionary reveries. . . We have dropped [the notion of evolution] in literature: we no longer say that poetry has “improved,” that Dryden found it brick and left it marble, or that Pope or Tennyson or anyone else represents centuries of “development.”  We know now that poetry never improves; it only alters.  But musical criticism, owing to the illiteracy of most musicians, has a way of lagging a century or two behind literary criticism, and while the general outlook of Lives of the Poets is dead, that of Johnson’s friend and contemporary Dr. Burney is still alive.  Hence it is generally accepted that everything in Elizabethan music is a crude and unformed beginning of what later composers progressively improved on. (CW 25, 168)

Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Definitive Collection


Rolling Stones, “It’s only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Top of the Pops, 1974 (It’s still the pre-video age, but this segment is famous for its production, even for a Top of the Pops feature)  Previous posts on Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll here and here.

Here is a much more complete collection of Frye’s references to rock & roll.

Literature, as ordinarily conceived, is so small and specialized a part of one’s reading that we forget how much of our total verbal experience is untouched by it. For many a student in grade eight whose verbal experience is centred on television, The Lady of the Lake may be a pretty meaningless collection of words, something that those unaccountable adults, for whatever reasons of their own, think he should read. The way out of this is not to try to choose the kind of literature that can compete with the appeal of television—no such literature exists. But the teacher should understand that teaching literature means dealing with the total verbal experience of students. The points of contact between literary and subliterary experiences should be kept in mind; obviously the same forms of comedy and romance and irony that appear in literature also turn up in television drama or rock ballads. I am not saying that a teacher should be constantly pointing such resemblances out, only that they are occasionally useful. Far more important, however, is the fact that students are being steadily got at by a rival mythology determined to capture their imaginations for its own purposes, armed with far more skill, authority, and prestige than any teacher has. This is why I think students should be encouraged to become aware of the extent to which they are being conditioned by the mass media, as a central part of their literary training. Some of them have reacted with a general hatred and contempt for everything their society produces, but that, of course, is quite as dependent on conditioned reflex as anything it revolts against. Besides, it does not distinguish between genuine and false forms of social mythology. What is absurd about growing up absurd is adjustment mythology, not society itself. (On Teaching Literature, CW 7, 449)

Coming to point (crazy Oedipus) where we can’t afford supremacy of ideology any more: let’s have a war and smash that guy’s ideology.  Primary concerns must become primary.  (Leads directly to authority of poet, but not in this paper.)

Feeling that this is so led in sixties to revival of ecstatic metaphor: drugs, yoga, Zen, folk singers, rock music (Woodstock) would bring in a new conception of community.  Revitalized tribal culture in McLuhan. (CW 6, 599)

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