Re-reading my review, I see that it’s essentially a description of a piece, rather than an assessment of its artistic or cultural value. Of course, description is a useful and necessary component of a review of a new work. And although writing about music has been famously compared to dancing about architecture, there are ways in which a musical composition’s salient qualities can be communicated through words – especially if the reader is a musically literate person.
“Some critics have suggested that Written on Skin will win a place for itself in the operatic repertoire. I beg to differ. My prediction is that it will receive a few more productions, here and there. Then, in a few years, the operatic world will collectively decide that it has ‘done’ the piece, and will move on to other novelties.
“For all its virtues, Written on Skin is also an arcane and rarefied work of art. New-music connoisseurs may think it’s the bee’s knees – and Benjamin might get a knighthood out of it – but it won’t win the kind of broad popularity necessary to become a repertoire item.” (You can read the full review here.)
I could have also written those words about Pyramus and Thisbe (except for the part about the knighthood). It is an intricate and well-crafted composition, with a clear and strong artistic voice. And like Written on Skin, Pyramus and Thisbe is the work of a committed high modernist, proudly flying her aesthetic flag from a high pole.
I’ve noticed that modernist composers can be uncomfortable with the concept of popularity. (If it is art,” declared Arnold Schoenberg, “then it is not for all. If it is for all, then it is not art.”) Perhaps they see popularity as a 19th-century thing, to be scorned along with diatonic melodies and major triads. For these composers, obscurity can be a badge of honour – yet any critic who dares to point out the unpopularity of their music is dismissed as a churl.
A few paragraphs back, I used the word “success.” Of course, whether a new piece is judged a success or a failure depends on the definition of the word. If success means broad and enduring popularity, then I don’t see much hope for Pyramus and Thisbe (or Written on Skin). However, if success means winning the admiration of a small group of listeners sympathetic to the aesthetics of high modernism, then both operas are entirely successful.
My sympathies lean in both directions. I certainly don’t equate the value of any work of art with its popularity. Yet unlike Mr. Schoenberg and his ilk, I am not keen to disregard the judgements of the Lumpenproletariat. (And sometimes I agree with them.) For these reasons, I often find myself appreciating the artistry of a new composition even though I’m also convinced that the poor thing is doomed to oblivion.
I’m glad the COC staged Pyramus and Thisbe, and I consider the hour it took to hear the piece to be time well spent. But I do not believe that Monk Feldman's opera will stick to the cultural wall. And I’ll be surprised if I have many more opportunities to hear it again.
© Colin Eatock 2015