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August 1937



Parlophone's issues of John Field's Sonata in C minor and Nocturne in A flat major, most charmingly played by Frank Merrick, will find an appreciative public. The music of this precursor of Chopin is of the greatest interest historically, and in saying that I run the risk of suggesting that that is its only interest; on the contrary, i t is really full of life to-day, and every connoisseur of the piano should consider the purchase of these two discs, which I find enchanting.

Mr. Godefroy's article last month on the love duets of Verdi and a passing remark by A.R. in his review of the Parlophone Field records made me ask myself whether i t is possible to recognize in music any emotional quality so strongly marked as to deserve the term" eroticism." For instance, suppose the music of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde had been written as a symphonic poem with, let us say, The Atlantic Ocean as the title, would any critic listening to i t have been able to detect the slightest suggestion of love-making? I doubt it. I have heard old-fashioned people say that Wagner's music was not healthy, the use of which adjective was a euphemism for immoral; and to such old-fashioned people immorality signifies one particular aspect of morality and that alone. If to such people I accused one of their friends of immorality and went on to explain that by immorality I meant in this particular instance slander, they would be surprised by the vagueness of my English. Now I do not believe that anybody yet ever discovered intimations of immorality in music unless he had been previously warned to look for them. What these old-fashioned people mean when they accuse Wagner's music of being unhealthy, or in more precise language evocative of the baser aspect of passion, they really mean that they have not understood a great deal of it, and found what they did follow too loud for their enjoyment. This repulsion they ascribe to their own natural chastity of mind.

When we consider the love duets of Verdi we find that they are only eroti c in so far as a skilful play upon emotion puts the listener in a suitable frame of mind to accept the presentation on the stage of the love that the music accompanies and tries to illustrate. Mr. Godefroy points out that in La Traviata, which deals with illicit love, the music never contains anything lustful or voluptuous . But in the whole of music can there be discovered one lustful phrase, or a lustful aria? I doubt i t . Take, for instance, The Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome, which is an early example of the strip-tease act : I doubt if any listener unarmed with previous information would guess the meaning of the music. To be sure, i t has a certain Oriental glamour, and we associate Oriental glamour in music with a picture of beautiful odalisques swaying voluptuously about a stage; but that does not prove anything inherently erotic in the music qua music. We are told Stravinsky's Sacre de Printemps represents the frenzy achieved in primeval fertility rites, but if we had not been told that I question if we should read into the music anything more than a puzzling row which we gradually grew to like or dislike still more according to our temperaments.

A. R. alludes to Chopin's morbidity and eroticism, and finds both morbidity and eroticism absent from Field. He admits at once that this is an individual view, but A.R. is by no means peculiar in discerning eroticism in Chopin's music, and I recognize that if you choose to associate much of Chopin's music with sentimental yearnings after unobtainable or absent ladies you are justified by the deliberate and direct appeal his music makes to the emotions. But erotically? Almost every day when I tune in to the news at six o'clock I hear some fellow singing or crooning unctuously about wanting to die because some girl had made him cry, and in such music I detect carried to the nth power of ignominious sentimentality music written in the same mood as much of Chopin's. But surely such music expresses emotional defeatism rather than eroticism? Go back to Don Giovanni. If ever a composer was justified in doing all he could to suggest eroticism in his music, Mozart would have been justified in that opera. He can manage to suggest terror, for I think if we knew nothing about the scene with the statue of the Commendatore the music by itself would suggest that something to cause terror was happening. When, however, he has to suggest Don Giovanni in action, as in the duet La ci darem la mano or the serenade Deh vieni alta jinestra, he offers all that is most exquisite of romantic charm in his music, but nothing at aU recognizable as specifically erotic. I t is a simple matter for a master of prose to induce in his readers an emotionally receptive mood by the skilful use of concealed alliteration and variety of broad vowel sounds, but i t is beyond any master of prose to evoke by the .mere use of such devices anything more specific than emotion itself, and if that emotion has to be conveyed more specifically he must rely on the meaning of the words and not on their arrangement. And this, I maintain, holds good for musi c . I hesitate to set a competition for essays on this subject because such essays will almost inevitably result in nothing more than the presentation of individual reactions to music. Yet they suggest a line along which to explore. We know, for instance, that Schumann can suggest death by that magical change into the minor key at the end of The Two Grenadiers, and we know that when Mozart desired to ring emotion from his music he was fond of using the key of D minor. Can we discover a device by which composers can suggest with music alone the passion of love? We know they can suggest the sentiment of love by familiar devices. However, these essay competitions usually teach me something. So for August 15 I suggest as a subject for an essay of not more than 400 words, " What I cOllsider the Three Songs or Arias or Duets that most perfectly evoke for me the emotion of passionate love." For a prize we will give an album up to six discs at the winner's choice. Entries should be sent to me at Suidheachan, Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides. COMPTON MACKENZIE.