7 January 1986 (happiness, seniors and mentors, St Paul, Brahms, modern Lied, Gary Taylor's 'Shall I die?', Fischer-Dieskau, Gerald Moore)
thank you for your agreeable telephone call. It was good to hear your voice; not true that una voce poco fa. As I told you, I was about to write to you. But then became imbroiled in radio interviews and talks with journalists about my forthcoming edition (30 January) of a Tudor play I've attributed to Shakespeare and edited from a British Library manuscript. It seems to be attracting a fair amount of attention already. Otherwise my time has been devoted to attempts to adjust myself to the new year, in which I shall become a senior citizen of 60 and entitled to a free bus‑pass on London Transport as well as certain concessions on railway fares. But these reflections are far from melancholy; I rejoice at having had the sense and the means to retire early, eight years ago, and devote myself to things that I really enjoy and can do reasonably well, instead of being a rather undistinguished (though well paid) civil servant. After a few months of retirement I became vaguely and subconsciously aware of a wholly unfamilar but agreeable sensation, which after I had described it to my family and friends and discussed it with them in some detail was eventually identifed as happiness. I've never for a moment lost it since. I'm not at all sure that it's a suitable psychic environment for the young artist; but it's a great comfort in later middle age. The best thing, in a way, is to be paid well for doing what one enjoys and is good at. That may well be your lot in life. It has already been achieved by my son Jeremy, who is just 28 and a successful theatre composer, at present writing a score for As You Like It and then doing the same for A Midsummer Night's Dream. So he's a happy and active young man. And he doesn’t seem to be too adversely affected by cheerfulness. Much depends on what one wants from the world, and how soon one comes to terms with it. I've always been rather touched by the childhood remiscence of the historian Arnold Toynbee, one of whose very earliest memories was of being reproved by his grandfather for ebulliently boisterous behaviour, with the memorable and ominous words 'We weren't brought into the world just to be happy, you know'. Toynbee in his autobiography remembers clearly thinking to himself ‘I should not have been told this yet; I am only three years old’.
It may be that your seniors and mentors will be telling you the wrong things too. You have to be patient with them, because they are doing their best (I'm sure incidentally that you know Oscar Wilde's claim to have seen, during his American tour, a handwritten notice in a Wild West saloon bar which read, politely, 'Please do not sh the pianist. He is doing his best'). Some of the things they want to instruct you about will be quite irrelevant to your interests, talents and future development. Other things you will certainly know already. Yet others will be new and possibly useful but really too boring to attend to for any length of time. But there it is; the process is necessarily one of trial and error. Even without being much of a Christian I can see the sense in what St. Paul says: 'prove all things, hold fast that which is good'. Schumann too was fond of such trite little aphorisms, which often encapsulate, like the speeches of Polonius in Hamlet, a genuine wisdom. Schumann could even write his prescription in musical notes: Lass das Fade, fass das Aechte, though he had to write the initial capital as an ordinary letter. All this evokes Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus which I'm sure you know; it signposts the road from Schumann to Schoenberg and beyond. I've just been reviewing the latest English book on the music of Brahms (Michael Musgrave: not at all bad if you like structural analysis) which rescues Brahms from his previous status as impotent and senile old bore ('his Requiem is patiently borne ‑ only by the corpse', as Bernard Shaw said) and promoted to forenunner of Stravinsky via rhythm and Schoenberg again via thematic process and formal unity. Which reminds me that I’ve just been asked to serve again on the jury of the 1987 Gruner Lieder competition, and have accepted with alacrity. That's only almost my only occasion to hear 20th century lieder. I was auditioning recently and heard the Berg/Storm 'Das macht, es hat die Nachtigall', which amazed a sweet lady singer on the panel because it sounded so, as it were, traditional. 'It sounds just like the others', she said; with much truth.
I was impressed by your Liederspiel project. I've written a paragraph or two on Loewe and others, in the Lied voce (poco fa) in Grove. And of course I'd love to know more about your projected Housman setting (do you incidentally know those of my dear old friend C.W.Orr, a very gifted better‑than‑amateur songwriter? I'm just on he point of donating my long correspondence with him to the British Library; his letters to me, that is. I've given my letters from the great Schubertian Maurice Brown to the Musikalienhändler Albi Rosenthal, a considerable scholar in his own right, as part of the Brown archive which will be acquired by some university one of these days).
I enjoyed too your apercu that people become, and think like, what they do. It's a philosophy of action, a Kritik der praktischen Vernunft. The unflattering phrase 'deformation professionelle' sums it up rather well. One becomes coloured by the way one daily preoccupations dye the mind. Different casts of thought approach a given problem or topic in wholly distinct ways, each of which may be apt enough for the given environment. The process begins, I believe, at a pre‑professional stage; it's already inscribed in the genetic code. I learnt as an examiner that there are many ways of being intelligent and exercising effective thought. The young potential ambassador for example is readily and sharply distnguishable from the young potential
administrator, and has been, one feels, from earliest youth, just as a mushroom appearing first above ground as the tiniest of visible specks is already beyond doubt a predestined mushroom. Sorry if that sounds too fatalistic; there's certainly plenty of scope for adaptation, even of the most immutable inherited characteristics. That's why it's a important to get the right influences. One way of dong that, as St. Paul says, is by reading and hearing absolutely everything, as I see you are. Good for you.
I don't know about Gary Taylor's Shakespeare poem. I'd have to give it much more work and thought than I have time or inclination for before I could form an intellectual respectable view. 'Shall I die?', or shall he commit ceremonial hara‑kiri on the steps of the Bodleian Library? I'm sorry to have to confess to a touuh of Schadenfreude, since Gary and I are old pen‑enemies, though we get along well enough in conversation.
The text suggests to me a lyric (despite its lenght) from an Elizabethan songbook; its metrical feet dance quite deftly. Was it Words for Music Perhaps (to use a W. B. Yeats title; do you know his poetry?).
Well, I’m rattling on rather a lot – literally, on this typewriter; and there are still certain unsettled stimuli remaining from your interesting letter. Would you like to tell me sometime a little more about the Italian original of Die Spröde, of Brahms/Kopisch?
And thank you for your encomium of Fischer-Dieskau. I’ve ventured to pass your comments on to a lady I know who is practically the F-D fan-club personified; goes to all his concerts, owns all his records, and so on, and yet doesn’t know all that much German or have all that much natural affinity with the lied as an art-form. It would be very unfair to compare her in any way, though, with the lady in Oscar Wilde who didn’t like music but adored musicians. My friend has a kind of deep wordless communion with the mind and art of Fischer-Dieskau, absorbing his moods of majesty and melancholy like great draught of wine, zur rechten Zeit mehr wert als alle Reiche der Erde. I was greatly delighted to hear of his kind agreement to join Gerald Moore and myself as patrons of an amazingly gifted group or troupe here called the Songmakers Almanack, founded by that great young song-pianist Graham Johnson. You seem to have had a fruitful encounter with F-D; like the meeting between the young Wolf and Wagner. I’ve never met him, though of course he has long been a hero. But I somehow go more for heroines; and I’ve seen (though not heard) more of Schwarzkopf, though admittedly mainly because her late husband Walter Legge was a dear friend of mine.
And alasa, I’m out of touch with Gerald Moore. He no longer attends concerts, even of the Almanack; he lives confortably and quietly in the country with his nice wife, who like mine is named Enid – a great bond between us, Gerald says – and lives a tranquil sweet life like a Schubert song. O wie ich mir gefalle in meiner stillen Ländlichkeit; or warm ist’s mir geblieben im Wohngemach; or es ist so still, so heimlich um mich. I shall try to write a book on Schubert songs, if I’m spared, one of these days; but the task is so sheerly massive, like climbing Everest, that the initial prospect is rather daunting. Yes’ I’ll certainly ask Gerald to be good enough to consider writing a foreword to my Brahms book, in due course. You’re quite right; he’s a real master.
Well, I must stop; I’ve been summoned to dinner. My warmerst good wishes, my dear Erik, for the new year. Let me hear more of your saying and doings; be sure to tell me of any plans for coming to England; look after yourself.
Farewell for now,
yours as ever, Eric