Music and language, reconciled | Harvard Review
Readers from New York Book Review who are also music lovers — and who have reached a certain age — will know that music lovers of the past may have read the writings of a few titans of music who were also superb prose writers. I am thinking in particular of Igor Stravinsky and Charles Rosen, whose literary contributions to this journal have been enormous, even eclipsed by their musical achievements. Now the NYRB did it again, inviting Matthew Aucoin ’12 to provide delightful and thoughtful reading in these pages. Like Stravinsky and Rosen before him, Aucoin displays a style of prose, a reflection, a boldness of opinion resulting from expertise, which place him in the league of these predecessors. It is a pleasure to read his plays in the New York Reviewmany of them included in his new book, The Impossible Art: Adventures at the Opera.
I’ve known Matt since he was in high school and have watched his taillights fade away with joy and awe ever since. Even then he was a prodigious talent, as a composer and performer, but also as a writer. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he was an award-winning composer, conductor and poet, always focused on opera, the confluence of language and music. He composed not one, but two pieces for my undergraduate course “First Nights: Five Performance Premiers” (see “First Nights,” January-February 2000, page 52). He led the first (Music for Mike2011) and played as a pianist in the second (His own agreement2016, co-commissioned by Dumbarton Oaks).
Photograph by Steven Laxton
Reading his book, published in December, a two-CD album of his music (Orphic moments) has just been released, and Matt is rehearsing his opera Eurydice for its first performances at the Metropolitan Opera and its worldwide distribution; I hope readers of Harvard Review will have seen and heard it, and will thus have an idea of the brilliance and depth of Aucoin’s music, and of his poetry.
impossible art, partly composed of essays written for other purposes, is indeed a book and not a collection, thanks to Aucoin’s skilful assembly. It ends, so to speak, with the intro and outro, a brief introduction to the marvel of the opera, and, then, a virtuoso finale of farewell marveling at the virtuoso finale of The Marriage of Figaro. Wrapped in these covers are the facing chapters of a diptych of Orpheus and Eurydice, a long essay on Orphic operas (Monteverdi, Charpentier and Birtwistle, among others) and a concluding section on Aucoin’s own work. . Eurydice. The centerpiece is dedicated to Verdi, with Aucoin’s wonderful appreciation for otello standing roughly in the middle of the book (and the Verdi section); and Verdi is surrounded by sections on Stravinsky on one side, and Whitman, Adès and Czernowin on the other. It’s a wonderfully symmetrical structure, and it reads like a novel, which you might not expect for something so architectural.
This is partly because Aucoin can really write. His prose is a pleasure to read, and the moments when he makes me want to stop right away and go listen to the music he describes so vividly is what makes the experience so enjoyable. (“Sounds sometimes burst into a burning, bubbly foam like a sparkler; sometimes they crumble into a heap of buzzing molecules; sometimes they wobble forward with an aggressive stutter.”) Or this observation on the music of Harrison Birtwistle: “This mass of detail gives a pungent funkie, strong earthy smell.
Aucoin’s mission here is twofold – musical and poetic – and he has the critical chops and authority to handle both. A poet and composer himself, he is keenly aware of the tensions, challenges and wonders that can occur when music and language, media that do not work in the same way, seek to communicate simultaneously. Aucoin is particularly sensitive to the richness of the work of WH Auden (Stravinsky The progress of the rake), Arrigo Boito (Verdi, especially otello), the visual poetry of Luis Buñuel (Adès The Exterminating Angel), Walt Whitman (Aucoin’s own Crossing), and others, including the playwright Sarah Ruhl (author of the play on which Eurydice is based).
At the center of the book is Verdi, who is surely for Aucoin the marvel of what opera can and should be. But he doesn’t idealize Verdi, who is instead praised for his common sense about what to do – and what not to do: “One of Verdi’s great strengths was his cunning pragmatism: he had a cat-like instinct to only jump when he knew he was going to land on his feet, to innovate only at a pace that his audience could bear. There’s not much reference to Puccini here, and Wagner. So it’s not a book about operas that most people like: it’s about operas that he likes and about operas that contribute to his idea of what opera is and what opera is. opera maybe.
Everything is not perfect. I think Aucoin is perhaps trying almost too hard to remind us of his theme of “impossible art”, setting up impossibilities perhaps more often than we really need to, and making of the opera a titanic number. He chooses almost impossible operas, on the one hand (Czernowin, Birtwistle), and likes to point out the difficulties (“I’ve only ever had a few experiences…which even came close to fulfilling my dream of what an opera can be”) , or to overcome impossibilities (on The progress of the rake: “Somehow impossible, this two-way subversion does not cancel each other out, but rather catches fire and comes to life”). And like other opera writers, he has to spend a lot of time on the plot summary, one of the most horrible things about writing about music and simultaneous words: things you can’t not write without separating them and almost ruining them. But he’s pretty good at it, and like a good art historian describing the painting we’re looking at, he uses his disadvantage to point out things we might miss (“Shadow’s role, which doesn’t appear in Hogarth, is a cunning invention of Auden: he is the incarnation of Tom’s sick will, the diabolical force of unreason…”).
Since reading the book for the first time, I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Eurydice. It’s beautiful, and Aucoin’s very personal description of the creation of the opera, and his dialogue with Sarah Ruhl in the penultimate chapter, are particularly gratifying to reread with the opera resonating in the ears. I believe that Eurydice will be played again and again, and that Aucoin’s readers will become his listeners, and his listeners will become his readers; the irreconcilable arts of music and language, the impossible art, in the hands of Aucoin, are perhaps not so impossible after all.