Holde Kunst Review: Robin Holloway's Essays And Diversions II

After thumbing through this (as originally published) expensive book at Borders, and choosing not to pay $50 for it, Essays and Diversions II has remained on my must-read-when-cheaper list. As Klingsor would say, die Zeit is da

Essays and Diversions (v. 2)
Essays and Diversions (v. 2)
by Robin Holloway

A student of mine gave me a copy of The Girl with the Golden Tatto, describing it as “a can’t-putter-downer.” Well, I put it down (after reading it quickly in a day, and that book needs to be read quickly). Holloway’s book is also a can’t-putter-downer but one which doesn’t necessarily need to be read quickly. But classical music lovers are likely to read it quickly indeed. Most of this review is likely to be strikingly positive about Holloway’s intelligence, perception, and wonderful writing style. So, for convenience’s sake, I’d like to get the few caveats out of the way at once. 

Whenever describing his own music, Holloway is generous to the point of hubris. That’s OK! Some musicians, who are, perhaps, less enamored of his neo-tonal style, might sniffily find this a tad unseemly. Also, Holloway is obsessed with evaluating works in terms of their debts to other works. In terms of their lineage, so to speak. Well, that’s a neo-romantic’s occupational hazard.

In comparison with another very fine collection of essays I recently read (Boulez’s Orientations), Holloway commits himself to no perceptible credo or vision of musical progress. Not everyone is a Boulez, obviously. But leaving Holloway aside, to this reader it is symptomatic of a malaise in contemporary composition wherein everthing is about the past — just like Hollywood makes new versions of The A Team, seemingly every comic book hero and, sadly, Gilligan’s Island.

 The best thing about Holloway’s writing is its pithiness coupled with its wildly opinionated slant on things. He prefers Percy Grainger to Shostakovitch. I can’t imagine that four out of five dentists agree with this, but more power to him. He also endorses the canard that Viennese expressionism is wholly about angst and morbidity. It’s not, and I regret (for his sake) that he can’t find his way to this repertoire. But he has a refreshingly open mind, and recognizes its greatness although it’s not for him.

An amusing episode from the book concerns his judging a composition competition and regretting the poor quality of the neo-tonal compositions while endorsing neo-tonality as a mainstream style. “The long-forseen, nay, longed-for counterrevolution shouldn’t be like this!” he laments. 

The book has five parts. The first part, “Places,” is descriptions of cities and experiences mostly connected with premieres of Holloway’s works. Oddly (or perhaps to be expected) the weakest section is about his home turf in England. Generally, “Places” is the weakest part of the book.

Delightful is part two, “Composers in Brief.” Holloway wildly asserts that Glinka is not merely the fountainhead of Russian music, but is the fountainhead of a Franco-Russo style that, in his view, ultimately eclipses Teutonic hegemony. His enthusiam for little-known French operas gratifies my own heart, as I’ve often felt that French opera of the second half of the 19th century is a repository of some of the greatest and most underrated works of the romantic era. Bizet and Chausson are discussed, but had he known I was reading, he may have thrown Massenet in too!

Holloway’s association of Reger’s repugnant physiognomy with his turgid style is priceless:

For a start, he is surely the physically ugliest of all composers, surpassing even Prokofiev, or Zemlinsky, whose repulsiveness actually inspiired an opera libretto. Reger’s slobish face, plus pince-nez and thick, sulky lips, already anticipates the music’s mix of short-sighted with greedy grossness…

His lusty, love/hate relationship with the Entartete Musik composers, Korngold, Krenek, Schulhoff and especially Schreker among others, is a delight to read, although being quite familiar with this repertoire I disagree with almost everything he says. Or at least, with Holloway’s idea that the excessiveness and voluptuousness of much of this music is a kind of Chinese dinner that tastes great at the time only to leave you hungry afterwords. 

Part 3, “Composers at Length,” is more substantial but less interesting because these are articles for sober publications or liner notes and thus don’t have the off-the-cuff opinionating that the rest of the book has. The best of these is the article on Debussy’s Etudes.

The best and most remarkable part of the book is Part 4, “Charting the Twentieth Century.” What a delight to read such a musician, completely trashing the notion of historical progress and inevitable teleology. Holloway humanely understands that the value of a composer such as Rachmaninoff isn’t to change the world but to give us more musical pleasure. Amen to that! Holloway comments that Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is contemporaneous with the early works of Boulez. And he knows that this situation isn’t wacky — it’s only the blinkered historians who perceive it as such. Holloway has the knack for exulting in (or at least, acknowledging) the validity of disparate styles without needing any given style to be accorded pre-eminance.

I myself has been frustrated with people who unimaginatively are puzzled by the fact that four of my favorite composers are Rachmaninoff and Puccini, Schoenberg and Boulez. But that’s a fact, Jack! I promise you. 

Delightful and, I think, necessary, is Holloway’s brutal put-down of the Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Music. Firstly, he outlines a vastly better way it could be done (concentrating on individual masterpieces, and especially unfamiliar ones) and then proceeds to excoriate that worst kind of academic writing: pseudo objective, pseudo-neutral listings of names dates, places, and isms. 

The final section is apologetically call “Odds and Sods.” Holloway needn’t apologize! His 20 best orchestral recordings list, attack on boring music (including classical and romantic concertos by Haydn and Tchaikovsky and a baroque opera by Scarlatti) are wonderful. How many readers of this blog haven’t sat through works by the Masters that aren’t merely boring but soul-crushingly so, and been afraid to say so? Nobody will raise and eyebrow at an alert musician’s boredom at Carmina Burana, but  to take on the big boys is cool. Baroque opera is boring. There, I’ve said it. Since Holloway has gone after pieces by Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Scarlatti, let me e pater le bourgeoisie by nominating Beethoven’s violin concerto, almost all of Gershwin (which Holloway loves) and all of Faure (which Holloway also loves) as personal candidates for the snoozmobile. Holloway’s depiction of dental catastrophe augmented by a Best of Mozart tape is hilarious and all too familiar. 

I just wish that such an astute Englishman could explain to me what I need to be loving in the works of Elgar and Britten. He talks a lot about ‘em, as really great figures.They are fine composers, but let’s not get carried away. I think, alas, I’ll have to find out on my own. This book is extremely worth purchasing. And if I have made it seem comparatively lightweight, so many pages of enthusiastic music talk by such as Holloway makes an enduring and educational experience.