Colin Wilson on Music

Pan Piper


This is Brandy of the Damned (1964) topped up and with a new label. Three-star quality; but – perhaps because the spirit is so strong? – the taste seems curiously raw: a good case for public analysis.

   Declared contents: The Romantic Half-century; Mozart and Beethoven; Modern Music; Bartok; Skryabin and Bloch; Jazz; Delius; English Music; Opera; and (new in this edition) American Music.

   Declared aims: partly intellectual (to write existential criticism) and wholly personal (to communicate experience of recorded music).

   “Intellectual” isn’t the word that would leap to everyone’s lips to describe the passages beginning “It is easy to get sick of the music of Wagner…” (p.27) or “Mahler was a short man...” (p.45); and there’s plenty more like that. The book is certainly personal, but in a way that might lead people to prefer their music with Colin Wilson off it.

   And that could be a pity. His spirit really does catch fire and enlighten. He is a born luminary. He can absorb, and he can expound, just as naturally as breathing and just as much as if his life (and ours) depended upon it. He seeks to inspire. Certainly he communicates, like the live wire he is. This leads to some nasty shocks (Così fan tutte “only one stage better than Gilbert and Sullivan”. p.62). But the intermittent flashes show a lively mind and reveal a broad view.

   Which is just as well; for the vitality and universality of music, no less, is the main theme. For Mr Wilson, a body of work is almost a physical presence. A composer and his music are like any and every man and his life. Each is influenced not only by tradition (p.92) and environment (p.201) but by physical health (Holst, p.152; Grieg, p.204). Each has his own individuality (p.217); all are worth study (p.9) and evaluation on the basis of what each “says” (passim). What is said (= “content”, p.201 etc) not how it is said (=“originality”, “form”, “style”, p.136 etc) is important. Some have only one thing to say (eg Delius et al. p.142). Others have one main thing; in the features of Benjamin Britten’s music, for example, Mr Wilson seems to discern a set ex­pression of injured innocence (p.168-72). Some have a lot to say, but are often boring (Bach, Hindemith, p.80), others have nothing much to say at all (later Walton, p.167; Cage, p.229). Desirably what they say is about active living; an artist’s “business is with human evolution” (p. 237). This means going “beyond the merely personal” (p.227). Thus a com­poser may express his era (Sullivan. p.146; Brahms, p. 36), or what he has learned of the nature of life (Op 111 and the late quartets, p.225). Finally, greatness is life-affirmation (p.108) in praise of a transcendent reality (p.63) of which the composer is high priest (p.210).

   Now perhaps it is not just coincidence that the author, and his idea of music, can each be seen as a real presence, experiencing and communicating for dear life. Could it be that his reflections on music are just his reflection in music?




   It could be. This is the hazard of criticism: no one entirely escapes it. But this aesthetic has very respectable antecedents (cf Tolstoy, What is Art?, 1898). And after all if music can be a way and a walk of life, then why not a vehicle of life as well – conveying values, assisting progress? At any rate, Colin Wilson on music covers a deal of ground; so much that the essence of his doctrine must surely be exceedingly powerful. This is “For me, no work of art can he clearly separated from the personality of the artist and his whole life” (p.20). After that it seems merely feeble to point out that, in fact, it not only can be but almost always is. One sees what is meant. Even so, it is not the whole truth. The creation of new music, as of new life, involves separation; an attempt at reunion could easily con­fuse the issue, in every sense. It seems a pity to miss the quality of separate life that animates so much great music.

   So the central vision has its limits. And when it comes to what Mr Wilson himself calls “blind spots” (Bach and Chopin, p. 9-11) we must agree with him that the vision is slightly defective. Records have their limits too. Thus I doubt whether one would rate Butterworth's Housman settings nonpareil if one knew C.W. Orr’s; but these have not been commercially recorded. Again, if one produces facts from the sleeve there fire bound to be a few surprises; and where else could one find Hanslick blamed for Wolf’s madness (p.39) or the Metamorphosen named as Strauss’s last work (p.188)?

   But no doubt what really matters in art is, as Mr Wilson says, the value and intensity of personal truth. It matters in his criticism too; and it does much to justify his general thesis. Here – for 5s! – is a strong, sane and friendly voice talking to us; very revealing of its subject as well as its author, and very persuasive in its advocacy; and hence out­standing as turntable-talk, as audiobiography, and perhaps also as a record seller?


The Musical Times, Apr. 1967 (pp. 329-330) © the estate of eric sams