Category Archives: Music

Johann Sebastian Bach

From the Matthaeus Passion

On this date J.S. Bach died (1685-1750).

Frye on the Matthaeus Passion:

In the twenty years I’ve been listening to the Passion, I’ve changed my mind about it.  I used to feel that the narration was something to sit through, & one waited for the arias and the choruses.  Now I feel that the work is primarily narration, as the arias & choruses, with greater familiarity, fall into the background as commentaries.  This, of course, brings out its real tragic structure, as it’s like Greek tragedy, not only in its use of chorus, but in its reporting of events.  Even Christ, even though he does his own singing, is contained within the narration.  (Cited in Robert Denham, Frye Unbuttoned, 18-19)

“The Rite of Spring”

On this date in 1913 Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris.

Frye in an April 1936 review of the Jooss Ballet in The Canadian Forum:

So the ballet has gone through a period of transition.  It has used incidental music not originally intended for it, and the greatest of the composers treating it seriously as an art form — Stravinsky — has been temperamentally unsuited to it, for though he clearly recognizes, and has explicitly stated, the necessity of impersonality and convention, his own style tends toward the vehement spluttering of Wagner and Tschaikowsky rather than the more objective balance required.  Behind Stravinsky there is the “emigre” Russian ballet, associated with the names Diaghilev, Massine, and Nijinsky.  A typical product of this school visited Toronto last fall, and the laboured virtuosity of its dancing, the eternal jiggling monotony of its nineteenth-century music, its set poses, rococo pictorial backgrounds, and vaguely allegorical programs amply showed how far the ballet had yet to go.  (CW 11, 80 – 1)

Sir Arthur Sullivan


Today is Sir Arthur Sullivan‘s birthday (1842 – 1900).

Here is an excerpt from Frye’s student review for Acta Victoriana of the Music Club’s April 1933 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore.

But here, in the calm hush and cloister-quiet of Gate House, the artistic conscience of the Music Club rises to defend itself.  If there ever was a time when Pinafore could be well done, it argues, that time has long since passed.  Considered as a whole the farce is clumsy and ill-conceived, besides being unendurably hackneyed, and it simply cannot be sustained on its own momentum.  No human power can prevent that unspeakable finale from dragging painfully to a limping and inept close.  All the standard actors of the Music Club are good for lots of entertainment, says the conscience, but they could do nothing with their parts; they had to kick them off the stage and substitute themselves.  The cast of characters in Pinafore are all stuffed shirts and artificially bulged chemises, O critic, but those who took their places are wholesome happy youngsters who are all friends of yours, and you for one know that the fairy changelings are infinitely more attractive. (CW, 17. 233-4)

Frye’s doubts about the contemporary appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan notwithstanding, after the jump there’s a delightful version of “The Sun, Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” from Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, a wonderful film about the creation of The Mikado.  Yes, and okay, there’s a performance of “Three Little Maids From School” from the same film too.  (If you haven’t already seen this movie, put it on top of your list.)

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Ninth Symphony

“Ode to Joy” finale conducted by Leonard Bernstein

On this date in 1824 Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna.

Frye in a letter to Helen Kemp, April 18th, 1934:

I heard the ninth symphony last night.  There was some Wagner ahead of it that didn’t amount to much.  I enjoyed the symphony, though that Ode to Joy bothered me as usual.  I would like to hear the 9th as the only thing on the programme, with the Ode sung in some language I don’t understand.  The translation was execrable.  The singing was all right, or would have been if it had been possible to sing that infernal orgy at all — most of it is simply sopranos screaming on an A flat, a sound which fairly pulls my own vocal chords apart in pure sympathy.  The symphony itself is prolix — suprisingly so, I think, but the general effect is tremendously exhilarating and disturbing.  Exhilarating because of the size of the attempt, disturbing because the attempt is strained and in the last analysis unsuccessful.  The symphony, big as it is, is only a torso of a complete subjective component of musical form.  (CW 1, 201)

Handel’s Messiah

London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis, Halelujah Chorus

On this date in 1742 Handel’s Messiah premiered in Dublin.

Frye on Handel in his remarkable student essay on Romanticism:

The rhythm force of music is incarnated and symbolized in the dance.  Hence, men like Bach, Handel, Mozart were all dance composers.  The suite or selection of dances in one key was a standard artform, and later, when the sonata sublimated the dance rhythm  of the suite into a stricter form, the minuet, in many ways the typical dance, was often retrained. (CW 3, 54)

Frye on Haydn


Further to Michael’s post, Frye on Haydn in Notebook 5

If I had such a thing as a favorite composer, it would be Haydn.  I think it’s Haydn anyway.  I’m going to write something on him someday.  More and more I find myself turning to Bach & Haydn, which means more & more away from Mozart.  Mozart’s a skeptic & Haydn’s a Christian.  Haydn has everything.  He has all of Schubert’s ease of melody sags or goes soupy the way Schubert does.  He’s as witty as either Mozart or Scarlatti: I’ve just read through 37 minuets & 24 German dances, a grueling test for any composer & he says something pointed & epigrammatic practically every time.  But he has more than wit: he has an amazing eloquence & range in his melodic line: he can be marvellously “singable” & yet swoop over everything form a soprano to a bass range: D major sonata in Book I with the lovely long Adagio.  He may not be as profound a thinker generally as Mozart, but I think he’s a greater thinker in musical form than Mozart: he has a sense of organic unity about him & an originality of creative thought, still in musical form, Mozart hasn’t.  Haydn develops a plot; Mozart works out a situation.  But the plot really develops, that’s the point.  He had much more influence over Beethoven than Mozart, I think, particularly in things like the Pathétique: only Beethoven is analytic & disruptive where Haydn is synthetic.  He’s really almost more radiant than Beethoven for that reason.  His trios are more fun to read on a piano than Mozart’s because they’re all piano & Mozart’s are balanced: Mozart’s are more expertly written, but it’s plot & situation again, & Haydn’s more fun.  In things like the G major sonata, Book II, slow movement, his impersonality, gone serious, just drops you out of sight: he’s too wrapped up in pure music ever to be sad or cynical, like Mozart.  He hits cold depths of ice Mozart doesn’t get down to because he doesn’t believe enough.  Sometimes the coldness of pure Rococo, the winter-chill of our autumnal culture: slow movement of C major quartet, op. 59 No. 2 or something in the fifties: 55, I guess.  But that doesn’t mean he’s an abstract music writer.  Sometimes Bach is unplayable, either because, as in the Art of Fugue, he’s just writing absolute music, or because he’s gone beyond all reading or reproduction into pure thought, as in the C# minor of the WTC I [The Well-Tempered Clavier, book 1].  Sometimes Beethoven’s unplayable when he’s appealing to a wrench in the guts too physical for a performance to reach, as in the Coriolan or the 106.  (That doesn’t necessarily mean greatness, any more than an unactable play is necessarily great because King Lear is unactable).  But Haydn always has a powerful ease of reproduction: his music exists only for performance.  His piano sonatas are in one idiom, his string quartets in another, etc.  That’s why he’s the easiest of all composers to play: he thinks so purely in terms of the genius of reproducing instruments.  Hence he’s an amateur-family musician, and could do what the Bible could almost have done (not quite: its achievement is overrated) for amateur-family English prose style.  He’s probably the only great composer who could have written a national anthem.  But he’s got something ultimate in his time & Mozart & Beethoven & Goethe haven’t: there’s too much Goethe in Mozart and too much Beethoven in Goethe.  Something of the rebirth of imagination: the thing Blake had.  Haydn was no Bach and couldn’t do the Mass or Passion job to save his soul, if it had ever been in any danger, but the Creation does give the perfect Paradise-existence of the imaginative mind: the super-pastoral note.  I daresay the Seasons is the same thing: I haven’t heard or read it, but winter is as pastoral an idea as summer.  He’s been so grossly underrated for the same reason that Mozart used to be: a supreme genius of comedy, patted on the back for being amusing, like Dan Chaucer and gentle Shakespeare—the Papa Haydn approach.  Chaucer, being ironical, is Mozartian; Haydn’s closer to the 13th c.  (Notebook 5, CW 25, 163–5)