Though not a Michigander, I feel a local’s pride in that the following first appeared in Current Magazine, an Ann Arbor publication, linked below. My thanks to Lynly and Collette.
Now, to the music.
I. Allegro e spiritoso
For some months now, I have been captivated by the music of a composer I had not heard of before then, and whom you, likely, will not have heard of before now. Nearly everyone, however, in mid-18th century Europe, had heard of Baldassare Galuppi: the island born (Burano) Venetian composer was regarded facile princeps of Europe’s then emergent operatic style, dramma giocoso. (For perspective, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, 1789, belongs to the genre.) I have playing at the moment a rather less humorous cycle of compositions, though as cheer-inspiring and dramatic: his concertos for strings (before you ask, Concerto a 4 No. 1 in G Minor: III. Allegro—tell me its refrain is not Vivaldiesque.)
The obscure and somewhat droll name of Baldassare Galuppi was made familiar to me by the wonderful and engaging Music for a While (a podcast) sponsored by New Criterion (a magazine). The fine archeological brushwork was done by one Jay Nordlinger (a host, and a congenial one at that—“Hello, friends,” that familiar and winsome salutation, is surely a salve to which NC subscribers weekly look forward).
To the unexpert and the lay, a Classical Music podcast, more than most other casts, can, by its specialization, seem restrictive, and the listener unacquainted with the repertoire may come to feel more intensely the confining dimensions of its elliptical mould.
No binoculars required for this viewing. I mean to take away nothing from its sophistication when I say that Music for a While appeals to him in the pit as well as him in the box. Jay (Jay, for ‘Nordlinger’ is too tabloid-official, while ‘Mr. Nordlinger,’ unconscionably formal, will simply not do) manages to render democratically accessible what is as a rule regarded the exclusive reserve of the haute monde. In each show, in which there is nothing of the showman, Jay continues to add to the gaiety of the laity. He exhibits a reclined demeanor, denuded of pretension. No monocle or pince-nez comes between the eye-to-eye manner with which he addresses his audience. (Be it remembered: the bow at the end, however gilded the auditorium, is intended both for the seated and those standing.)
Jay himself seems to be a homme moyen sensual who just happened to come across a taste for Wagner or Scriabin as a beer swigger would for fine whiskey or scotch. Tant mieux, I say. He gives you the stuff of opera in the song of the Savoyard. And all entrants, from mudlark to magnate, are given an equally welcoming reception.
One imagines were Jay himself to occupy the player’s seat, he’d take on the loose, interpersonal style of, say, a Gould, rather than the stricter mechanics which predetermine the renditions of a Benedetti Michelangeli. He wouldn’t mind, either— would, moreover, embrace—the human slips and errs of a Cortot.
A frequent figure at the stately Salzburg Festival in—well, no need to tell you where, is there?—he is respected by doyens and dilettanti alike.
His is no strained, suffering passion; his feeling for art is natural, unforced, and untroubled. He is no severe and persnickety critic, concerned with esoteric rules of musical theory: if a musical piece pleases, it is winning. What guides him is the stupendous, untheorizable beauty, or maybe just the fuss-free fun, which music affords the listener.
His enthusiasm can be at times somewhat uncurbed. A composition’s being “the best in the world” doesn’t disqualify another from obtaining to that same preeminence. Nor does a song’s being “the best ever written” prevent the next song on the playlist from being written equally well. This applies also to a rendition—the best ever played; an album—the best ever recorded; and the best performance ever seen. Jay’s “favorite thing ever” is neither his first nor his last. They are the best compositions to the exclusion of every other—excepting every other to which they themselves are the exceptions.
In his other capacity, Jay pens politics for the conservative National Review, in the same idiomatic, unfluffed manner in which he writes (and speaks) on music.
The straight and honest, unpretentious styling of his political jottings have their everyman appeal. The banal colloquialisms, the long-married collocations, the proverbial saws, I would consider offensive from other writers. (Indeed, how one chooses to enunciate banal may be as good a watershed as any to determine how much of the prim marquis one sees in oneself.) Where other scribblers employ a literary commonplace out of negligence, or what is worse, indifference, Jay cannot but greet his readers as he would a neighbor over the picket fence. This neighborly elocution of his endears, while working to offset the imposing refinement and presupposed formality of the subject under his remit. He unravels Ravel, unwebs Weber; makes sense of Saëns, Debussy unfussy; turns on Rachmaninoff. What should be repellently tacky, then, coming from the more self-serious littérateur is (to employ a collocation of my own) quite charming and, in that way, commends itself. Still, this charm does not fully acquit him of the one thing every penman ought to strive always to avoid: cliché. I cannot forgive, at least not wholly, and can never promote, ever, predictability in prose.
That he chooses light pigments should not fool one from recognizing the gravitas of his portraiture. Jay’s approach is disarming, even as he writes about an armed world of fanatics and zealots, ready at all times to propagate their ideological war. He writes of military juntas and merciless oligarchs; of sleazy princes and venal, oleaginous subalterns; of demagogic caudillos and strongmen; of acquisitive polemarchs and their unreflecting myrmidons; of disappeared journalists and those populace-fearing populists who disappear them; of avaricious politicians, whose open ear is never unaccompanied by an open palm; of the always disturbing optics of Western representatives glad-handing dictators. Graft and logrolling, sordid and seamy financial swaps, are commonly dealt with in his papers. Human and economic atrocity (the “anti-materialists” often don’t realize how closely related are these two) might well be considered the common themes of his pen. And he writes, and with especial affection, of those rarefied personages who endevour, by the day, by the hour—by what, to them, may seem like the eternal moment—to make a fallen world a trifle less sordid and seamy, and a little less stricken.
In a sentence, a bottom one, his contribution to freedom is commendable, and deserving of acknowledgement broader and appreciation deeper.
I don’t very much care a damn how that last sentence sounds to moral relativists, those unlovely humanists who recycle tacky epithets about one group, with civilian slaughter or slavery in mind, being another group’s freedom fighters. I employ the word freedom here unconditionally. Let it provoke whom it may. Writing down despotisms and autocracies—which is what China, Venezuela, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia, N Korea, and allied factions are—writes up freedom. And for this reason I make bold to assert that from among the myriad experts, analysts, and heavily-titled others, the bespectacled unassuming NR staffer with a penchant for classical music has covered more of the scorched field—if not as analytically, systematically, or expertly, then surely more intimately and accessibly—than the officialized galère of experts for hire. I happily trade any dull graph or statistic for a revealing live quote recorded by Jay. These impressions are the more vivid for coming from a single person than a geopolitical organization, the more vibrant for being spoken from the organ of the chest than that often cold one of the head. We needn’t always regard the anecdotal as evidence. Our better analysts (Bruno Maceas is one) will furnish us with the desiderate cool thinking in heated times. What is lugubriously called ‘real-life’ encounters (and so often they are lugubrious, though the better ones) are meant to supply us with perspective, and fill in the colour where, with your black-and-white statistic, it is often lacking. A well-steered interview with the anonymous denizen may aid analysis by disclosing the psychology of the people most affected by global contests often beyond or distant (and sometimes contrary) to their quotidian interests, but in whose name those contests are waged nonetheless.
To that end Jay is quite the portraitist. He compiles cameos on assorted human figures who unexpectedly find themselves navigating war’s bewildering backdrop. He acquaints himself personally with victims, survivors, escapees, refugees, dissidents–the common tenants of war’s halfway house. The activist and the protestor are granted the space of an article denied by a placard. He interviews those also struggling to succor their compatriots from the fringe, from exiled presidents to “targeted” journalists. (He has an understandably intensified esteem for the latter.) His anecdotes on the exploits of these heroic individuals typically conclude with the declaration, “wow, the lives some people lead…”. His indignation at collective man’s bestiality is relieved, and his faith restored, by the individual instances of humanity brought to bear, in daily vivid, inspiring vignettes, against it. Such scenes inspire men to song.
Jay attends, and often partakes in, the various ‘freedom forums’ (the names of these seminars are often tacky), the ‘peace conferences’, the ‘global discussions,’ interviewing the brass-hats, or steering through the event’s itinerary as honored host. Yet however lofty the stage, his is the living-room interview. Level with his guest, level with us, his audience, level with himself. Which puts him—in the midst of a posturing, sententious media and their ventriloquizing ‘figures’—on a different level withal.
We may, then, find Jay appearing in a variety of theatres, pour ansi dire: touring one of Europe’s numerous gilded capitals, at the opera house, or government house; viewing a tragic performance, or discussing the tragedy of the times; either looking down on the stage, or down from it.
But it seems that when not seated in the box or seated on the stage he spends the time between seated at his desk. He has a swift output, faster than prestissimo, even writing pieces on his pieces, which he titles “Impromptus”, minuets, or morceaux, meant as a sort of side commentary or footnote to his principle column (not inconsequently he finds himself quoting often of himself—and as often excusing himself for it). When one’s subject matter stretches from the pleasantries of Ann Arbor and golf, to the outrages of war, one must keep a fast timing to, so to speak, note it all. (His other podcast, Q&A, less formally partitions the stage of politics from art.)
Jay taps rapidly indeed the pen that serves as his baton. (With my own pen’s pace made to feel slower than a Celibidache.) And he shows no signs of rallentando.
Impromptus, by a happily shared meaning, brings us back to music.
Jay, as the rhythm moves him, will breach the classical genre, as grandly varied as that category is in itself. Jazz ballads, chansonettes, negro spirituals; even, on one instance, (and for that matter most likely the last), nu-metal, which was not without its post-crime confessional:
In my latest Music for a While, I utter a very strange sentence: “I’d like to give you about 25 seconds of ‘Frantic Disembowelment.’” When you listen to a podcast, of course, you can’t hear the quotation marks.
I find the wryness and dryness of that explanation to be quite hilarious. And the offending line in question, this spoken by a man who is perfectly unironic around such phrases as ‘oh heavens’ and ‘bet your booty’, was itself damn—pardon—*darn funny.
The particular episode in which the “very strange sentence” appears is titled Over the moon. And indeed, for about 25 seconds, he went from lulling at the moon to howling at it. But that he at all risked disemboweling the eardrums of his audience was, I must say, a bald ass, rock n’ roll move.
And speaking of bald asses, Baldassare was himself the classical music equivalent of a rock star in the 18th century, mutatis mutandis.
I modify my former claim; Galuppi’s anonymity is not of the complete sort. Without being aware of its author you will likely recognize the chorus of his Concerto quarto in E-Flat Major, III. A tempo. (It has probably been featured in some luxury car commercial, as the self-assured madam smooths along a bereft stretch of German chaussée.)
Galuppi is not the only eclipsed name brought to light by Music for a While. The Venetian islander is but a specimen of a whole species revealed me by the good musicologist Dr Nordlinger. Other seldom-named names have brought with them nameless charms. A felt a similar frisson of joy when I first heard the music of Catalonian composer Xavier Montsalvatge (did ever a cooler name waft off the Mediterranean?); and I had a forgotten teenage tryst with Mompou, dear friend of the first named, revitalized. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor will make you think twice on hearing the name, before listening more than once to the music of that unremembered bicultural composer.
In his treatment of music, Jay brings about a dual feat, bringing due remembrance to the forgotten, while managing to make verdantly fresh the sere and wilted through overexposure. At minimum, we the rapt listeners are furnished with an interesting occult anecdote or beguiling fact. (I think immediately of a program relating the fascinating life—and afterlife—of the pianist Tchaikowsky, and one on another virtuosic Polish Jew, Moritz Moszkowski).
Even the musical layman’s repertoire will include a few Chopin sonatas, the Debussy etude, the coda of a Mozartian symphony, and of course the Choral Ode, that joyous refrain. (And I’ve not even mentioned those two remorselessly overplayed tunes, le Claire-de-lune and “Moonlight” sonata…)
For those us ‘into’ classical music, we have the pleasure of seeking to discover lesser known, yet brilliant composers fogged behind the worn pane of time; as well the delight of being able to hear new renditions of the familiar. Classical music, then, is unique in that the listener is given a double enjoyment—the fresh discovery, and the discovery afresh.
Music for a While is kept about the music, at least for the most of that while. Which is I suppose as it should be. But no respect for propriety or any ‘should be’ will prevent Jay from enlisting his audience to the commendable cause; personal opinion is sometimes given, and soft remonstrance sometimes made against the latest news pertaining to the authoritarian and the oppressive. More opportunity for political commentary is given than the listener might initially suppose natural to a podcast concerning itself with classical music. So many virtuosos being Russian, so many being Jewish (and of the former, so many encompassing the latter), biographical accounts lead oftener than not to accounts of the gulag or the concentration camp.
Horowitz, Hofmann, Kreisler, Menuhin, Schnabel, Stern, Perlman, Ashkenazi…what? Something peculiar strike you about the foregoing names? Yes, of course, the Zionist conspiracy lives on, its chord as strident in the field of music as in other (as in all other) departments of life. (I gratefully tip my shtreimel in the direction of Neo-Nazi conspiracists everywhere for the accidental compliment paid my tribe with every paranoiac outburst that draws eyes—and in this case, ears—to spectacular, odd-evening Jewish success.)
Not just victim, but perpetrator, alights on the historical classical stage, Karajan only being the most notorious instance. Alfred Cortot, unregenerate Vichy collaborator, is another. And we know much already of the Wagner-Hitler pivot. We can repeat this process of “another,” adding progressively less famous, but no less culpable, musicians and artists who assisted or meekly conformed with the occupying Axis regime. For every tear-washed story of “fortitude in the face of danger,” there are many more of weakness and buckling before it.
This brings us to an enlightening, and at the same time grounding, point: Music is celestial, but (as these criminal facts remind us) its practitioners are temporal, and very much of this world. You have your Kissins, and you have your Quislings.
Jay’s voluminous, indeed Mozartian repertoire is, like that capacious composer, as capable of offering lightness and frivolity, ala alla turca, as the piercing, melancholic duskiness of a requiem. He waltzes as well as he funeral marches.
As for the man, he is in no spiritual chains to any one muse. Loyalty to a flag or a lapel pin is less important than to what those symbols are designed to represent, and he’d rather lose a false friend than any part of his true self by withholding an opinion for rapports’ sake. This is evidenced by his tramping of Trump, as well, most recently, his put-putting of Putin. His prompting is to moral truth, and he is ever willing to rip up his Eroica, as it were, when revolutionary leader becomes the tyrant he overthrows.
There are different levels of know, from knowing of, to knowing intimately. I do not know Jay where I would respond affirmatively if asked on the street casually the question. Yet the amiable if irregular correspondence sustained over the past two year has shown him to be as straightforward and unguardedly personable as the person we are acquainted with through his work. And I suspect that I am not the only one among classical music groupies for whom he is never too rockstarish to furnish with an electronic signature.
I am not sure how many groupies flock to the New Criterion but Jay will, for the while, keep rockin the classical hall.
And so Galuppi plays on. (And what a lovely, “breathtaking” piece—a Nordlingerian descriptive, if not quite in my own fashion.)
Yet how to reenter music into the discussion from politics, to Galoop the loop, as it were, without risking a dissonant note? The transition from street to stage is not so inharmonious as may seem, but rather one journalese would inevitably called ‘seamless’, and easily demonstrated:
The newspapers tend to separate the “arts & leisure” section from the one of hard news and politics. But upon the latter does the former depend. The enlightened isle of the Laodicean is not so remote as its pacific inhabitant fancies. Politics—the systematic expression of the conditions under which a set of peoples desire to live—encompasses even those without a politics (which, keeping to this broad sense, is itself a form political expression). My leisurely consumption of sior Galuppi depends upon how much leisure I can in fact afford. You may have pleasant recollections of that pre-bellum opera attendance, but you shan’t be attending any opera so long as the opera house is under occupation, or bombardment. (One draws up for oneself a caricature: the oblivious haut couture artiste, standing before a museum piece in deep and portentous contemplation, as outside the windows the bombs fall. The canvas shows a scene of some far-off war).
On the contrary, art has of course been produced in the very worst of war; in physical conditions as such, art is perhaps, for the aesthetically inclined, the most natural vehicle for a metaphysical bolt. Primo Levi regarded the intellectual as having an advantage, though not a physical one, in the camps above his laical peers, in that he can turn into his mind as a sort of retreat from the numbness of the horrible hour. Patrick Leigh Fermor, as a soldier in that same war, would turn to reciting Horace amid his campaigning. You might say that, though making its ultimate appearance in the physical, art resides at a metaphysical address, and so long as your mind is your own, it is still possible, even under the most physically deprived conditions, to produce it. (And yet vide 1984 in fiction, or North Korea in fact, if you believe politics can enslave only the body, yet never the mind.)
The valuable coin in which Jay Nordlinger deals is Janus-faced, with politics on the one side and music on the obverse. What two subjects can appear more innately removed from each other than the realpolitik and the ideal? We all know the truism about the reliability of appearances.
Actually, the two subjects in which Jay specializes, like the two facing foes of a coin, depend upon each other if they are to have any currency at all.
One familiar (given the subject, ever too familiar) with the countenance of war—with personal and national struggle—is he who can truly and best appreciate the beauty of humanity’s loftier productions. Jay is perched strategically at that nexus where art and life imitate each the other. Galuppi blasts from the amplifier, bombs blazon from amphitheater of war. Art glints between the verdigris.
And thus the two domains in which Jay exercises his labor and nurtures his love—the street and the theatre; the smoke-choked air of war and the rarefied air of art; “real life” and the abstract ideal—are not really contradictory or incongruous at all. More than interdependent, they are symbiotic.
Life is the stuff of opera, indeed.