Griping at Walton…

Critical-LanguageOne of the nice things about me — it may, in fact, be the only nice thing about me — is that I’m not a music critic. Yes, I know there are people who think I am; but people believe all sorts of counter-empirical nonsense about all sorts of things, and a nonentity like me is hardly going to be beyond the reach of that kind of stupidity. (Do you know, there are even folks out there who think the BBC is ‘left wing’?! Yes, really: there are!)

The reason I take such pride in this biographical fact is that I know perfectly well that, with my particular combination of gifts (if that’s what they are), I could, by now, have done terrible damage to musicians, music and listeners were I interested in attacking the stuff I happen not to like — as opposed to promoting, explaining and defending the stuff I do like. This, in case anyone’s wondering, is why no-one — apart from a few close friends, in our boozier moments — ever sees me putting the boot into that whole crowd of composers and performers whose work I consider totally without value: even were it somehow provably correct to attack them, it would still be a waste of life, and not only mine.

Having said all this, I ought to come clean and say that there are occasions when I find even an undeniably great and valuable composer manages to disappoint. Not usually on a sheerly or strictly musical level, of course (these individuals are the supreme musical thinkers of our culture; and the very idea that they could screw up musically in some way that they couldn’t spot, and I can, is really too ludicrous to bear), but, rather, as people — which, naturally, can lead to artistic screw-ups at those points where the musical and the personal interact. Let me share one such example with you (though, as you’ll see, it’s really two).

walton youngI don’t know who might have followed up my earlier posting about Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue with a Holiday Season viewing of the whole 1942 film The First of the Few to which I linked via YouTube; but for anyone who didn’t investigate it, I’d like to present the opening four minutes now. This clip takes us from the film’s very beginning, through the title music, and on into the introductory bit of scene-setting with the voice-over by Leslie Howard and then several others. The music in the clip starts with Walton demonstrating that he has a terrific musical mind with a seemingly instinctive grasp of the film composer’s task — and, sadly, ends with a rather shocking piece of ethical as well as musical under-achievement. Here’s the clip:

Since it’s possible that not every reader will have spotted everything that went musically and morally awry in the latter part of that sequence, let me list the problems I humbly diagnose:

At 3:08 Walton includes a quotation from the tedious piece of Austrian bumpkin tat that had the appalling misfortune to become the tune of the Horst Wessel Lied — the official Nazi party anthem and the second national anthem of Hitler’s Germany. So far, so appropriate for 1942, you may say — but if you do say, I require you to admit that, as far as musical meaning goes, Walton’s score voids itself of content at that point. What’s more, things get worse as they get bitter: the fact that the tune, if we may so call it, begins with a sizeable stretch of static harmony means that Walton is able to overlay it with a harmonically static motif from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen — specifically, the shape that arrives with ‘Wotan’s great idea’ at the end of Das Rheingold and then recurs many dozens of times in connection with the sword that is ultimately re-forged by the young Siegfried. Quite what Walton thought he was doing by attaching a fragment of one of the greatest creations of the human mind to both the sight and the sound of regressive barbarity I don’t know; but, musically speaking, I can’t see that he’s doing anything other than stabbing himself in the face. he keeps on stabbing. As the Horst Wessel reference continues, he combines it with a distorted version of the magnificent motif that is ‘Siegfried’s Horn Call’ (3:15)– and then adds two more statements of the ‘Sword’ shape (3:23). The last of these overlaps with a reference to the smithing of the dwarfish Nibelungs — specifically, the version heard at the end of the Act 1 Prelude to the opera Siegfried. And, after this, nothing is left but to inflict the final, expressively and structurally suicidal wound in the form of a quotation (3:46) of the so-called ‘Spear’ motif — in the Ring operas a musical symbol of the god Wotan’s treaty-bound and lawfully constrained dominion over the world — and in the specific form that appears in the majestic set-piece where Wotan consigns his beloved daughter Brünnhilde to a ‘magic sleep’ for her act of rebellious disobedience.

I don’t have the slightest doubt that, whatever was going on in Walton’s mind when he embarked upon what can only be called a terrible act of musical libel, it was at least conditioned by what he had seen and endured over the previous nine years and more — two or three of them in a nation actually at war with Germany — and during which period Wagner’s supremely deep and truthful art had been appropriated by the Nazis for their own worthless ends. To that extent he can perhaps be forgiven — though it has to be said, he definitely takes a portion of the blame for what has become our culture’s enduring tendency to consider Wagner the musical spokesman for a criminal regime that only came to power 50 years after he died.

Even so, the problem doesn’t stop there. For, as we’ll see tomorrow, the fact is that fully 25 years later — with the Nazis long defeated and the 1960s in full swing — he did it all again. And you don’t have to have a low opinion of music critics to acknowledge that making a great work of art stink of abominable evil, before a world-wide audience of tens of millions, twice is a feat of cultural violence that no music critic has ever been able to equal.


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