Edward J. Dent: Selected Essays ed. Hugh Taylor
Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 1979)
Bernard Shaw went to live in Ayot St Lawrence because the tombstone there of a long-lived lady was inscribed “her time was short”. By the same token, all writers on music should instantly move to Cambridge, for there E. J. Dent ranks as a great scholar-critic, whose style is “witty and distinctive”. Elsewhere, laughable and peculiar might seem apter epithets for such gems as “Schönberg, being a German, has little interest in the subleties of vocal expression”..., “a class which enjoys the sort of music which is played in tea-shops” ..., “pianists have as a rule so little idea of melody” ... and so forth, on far too many of these 300 pages. Not all the snide asides are quite so small-minded and snobby. But these are the typical tones and undertones reserved for alien races, lesser breeds, people who - can you imagine it? - are actually not Etonian, or any caste of Englishman at all, and who may even prefer instrumental to vocal music.
This over-generous selection offers 20 essays spanning some 50 years (1903-51) without any discernible development in style or stance. They are also representative of Dent in being entirely unrepresentative of ordinary music-lovers. The main topics are sung Italian (chamber cantatas, Leo, Cavalieri, A. Scarlatti, Bellini) or sung translation (Verdi in English, opera in Dentish); much of the rest relates to Cambridge tradition or tuition (music for Greek plays, teaching of counterpoint and other theory). The whole attains an unusual degree of MusB (Cantabile) in its quiet donnish flow. This is smooth and limpid enough, often very agreeably so. But it seems to me quite devoid of real depth or breadth or power, whether of intellect or passion. As an influence it risks diluting the main stream of musical discourse, which I take to comprise facts from musicologists, judgments from critics, insights from commentators, and evangelism from enthusiasts. Let's test for each of those elements in turn.
First we have to face the facts; and Dent's are notoriously fallible. In an earlier compilation, some 60 mistakes had to be set right in footnotes. Here, in what might be called Volume Two of the Corrected Works, the admitted tally is about 20. In both books blatant misstatements have been left unamended. In the present selection, an unspecified number of errors have been silently rectified, to my unconcealed dismay. “No useful purpose”, we are admonished, would have been served by reprinting them; as though the truth had no useful purpose. In other respects too the editor is more pro-Dent than prudent. Can we believe for instance that the Bellini essay was originally written in Italian? Certainly (p.xi), or quite probably (p.x); and Dent was at least his own translator. But how could he have even checked the Italian translation, let alone written it, if it is absurdly wrong?1 The editorial view overlooks its own evidence.
That is what comes of letting involvement with Dent cloud one's judgment, which strikes me as exactly what is mainly amiss with Dent himself. Personal impressions and prejudices masquerade as objective truth and sound taste. Try for example these crystallized fruits of a lifetime's devotion to opera translation: “Recitative is by far the easiest part” in 1934, but “the recitatives… give most trouble” in 1951. A centenary in 1928 inspired some typically searching insights: “Schubert's mental background was very largely occupied by a low-class type of music… this naturally accounts for his enormous popularity in Germany and Austria today”. So what high-class type of music may permissibly excite the English élite? Just one small part of The Fairy Queen, apparently, which persistently pops up in these pages. “When I have often heard young maids complaining” is not just perfect, but adorable, beautiful, attractive and very lovely. Why, the very words display so exquisite a sense of form as to suggest their attribution to Dryden.
That grotesque utterance typifies the pretentious subjectivism which will make it so difficult, even for his most dedicated devotees, to push Dent up into lasting eminence.
1 The English text reads at one point “London was steeped in the music of I puritani – organs ground it” etc. The editor comments that Dent avoided translating this last phrase, substituting “I giornali la commentavano”. But the rational explanation is that the Italian translator was puzzled, looked up “organ” in the dictionary, discovered that it meant inter alia “newspaper”, and rendered it accordingly.
The Musical Times, May 1980 (pp.317/319) © the estate of eric sams