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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.

Letters from David Wright, Neil Powell, R. A. Sharpe
Sir:
May I suggest that the Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse is perhaps not quite the 'disgrace' that Andrew Waterman makes out in PNR 2? His review remarks what it omits, but gives little indication of what it contains, and in effect blames it for not being the Faber Book of Modern Verse. But the Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse was specifically designed to balance Michael Roberts's Faber Book of Modern Verse, and to draw attention to the poets omitted. For example notable absentees from Roberts's muster-roll are Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edgell Rickword. Re: Yeats and Auden: Roberts naturally represented the middle Yeats and the earlier Auden very fully; therefore we focused on the later work. And is it necessary, in 1976 or even 1953, to apologize for not including The Waste Land, which is to the twentieth century what Fitzgerald's Rubayait was to the nineteenth or Gray's Elegy to the eighteenth? The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse is aimed at people reasonably familiar with modern poetry, and its object is to point to the good work that exists outside current fashions. Perhaps it can claim some success, having been the first anthology from 'a prestigious publisher' to direct attention to the work of poets as diverse as Geoffrey Hill, C. H. Sisson, Norman Cameron, Patrick Kavanagh, Stevie Smith, and Charles Causley, to name some of those now well-known. Finally, if Mr Waterman is unable to understand why Philip Larkin is modestly represented, he may find some of the reasons set out in an article by Richard Swigg in the same number of PN Review.

Yours, etc.
DAVID WRIGHT
Braithwaite, Cumberland


ANSWER TO A LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Sir:

Agreeing as I do with almost everything that Donald Davie says and implies in his two contributions to PNR 2, I am afraid that any attempt I might make to pursue what you aimiably describe as an 'altercation' would appear rather lame. Nevertheless, I'd like to try and tidy up a few points of detail which Professor Davie raises about what I said and implied.

I certainly didn't want to advocate 'going all the way with Yvor Winters': I argued that Winters was able 'to make (admittedly at the expense of Wordsworth and Yeats, among others) a sensible and coherent distinction between traditional and modernist poetry' and intended the parenthesis to imply that the 'expense' was excessive, indeed unacceptable. I agree with Winters that 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' is a poor poem and also, not at all paradoxically, with Davie that Wordsworth is a great poet. The trouble with Wordsworth is that, in W. M. Merchant's happy phrase, 'few great writers have made less effective use of the waste-paper basket'.

Of course Winters hasn't said 'the last word' about 'the world of poetry' and neither, thankfully, has anyone else. This would have been clearer if my essay had appeared, as eventually it will appear, as the introductory chapter of my book Carpenters of Light establishing a background of possible critical terms and ideas. This should also explain my very artial treatment of a few isolated passages in Davie's own work, which is dealt with in much more detail later in the book.

As for 'political and institutional implications': agreed, I didn't touch on them in that essay, but I think I can claim to have done so elsewhere, for instance in some of my contributions to The Use of English. Admirable, valid and welcome as Donald Davie's emphasis on a political-historical perspective may be, is it not possible and proper to view literature in other perspectives too?

Yours etc.
NEIL POWELL
Baldock, Hertfordshire


THINKING PROPERLY ABOUT MUSICAL HISTORY

Sir:

The many confusions and errors in Professor Walker's 'Think-ing about Musical History' (PNR 2) ought not to be allowed to go uncorrected.


If you wish to understand the Battle of Waterloo or Oliver Cromwell or the South Sea Bubble, the historian will tell you what you want to know. Indeed, unless you read his books, such topics will remain for ever closed to you; Oliver Cromwell no longer exists. But if you wish to understand Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, or Beethoven's Eroica symphony, you do not consult a historian. You acquaint yourself with these works directly, by listening to them. There is nothing that reading the history books can tell you about music that hearing it won't tell you more clearly.

 
The subject matter of the historian of music is the creation of works of music and not these works themselves; if I wish to learn how these works come to have the features they have, I consult the historian. The answers will, of necessity, be incom-plete because the historian of the arts recounts innovations and there can be no complete explanation which accounts for their having every feature they have. But we can discover how a composer came to use and develop a particular style. To complain that music history does not help us to understand the Eroica is rather like complaining that a historian of the industrial revolution has failed to tell us how the steam turbine works. That is hardly his job.

As for the claim that the historian tells us either nothing about the work or else that what he does tell us cannot be heard, this seems false. I learn from Charles Rosen how Haydn developed the style of C. P. E. Bach; if I heard two relevant works which illustrate the influence then, of course, I might judge that the later develops the earlier. But I would not be sure that they were not both influenced by a third composer whose works I do not know. It is the historian's job to confirm or falsify conjectures of this sort.

What Professor Walker perhaps has in mind here is that our musical experience is independent of any historical knowledge we happen to possess. As he puts it, 'There is no evidence that our experience of phenomena is changed by knowledge about phenomena'. One has to concede that Walker's examples are not examples of historical research that might be expected to alter our understanding of music. The Gesualdo water marks are hardly likely to alter our interpretation of Gesualdo though the historian might reasonably retort that they are interesting per se. But some historical knowledge is surely indispensable to our hearing of music. To know that Mozart's K465 quartet was written at a time when its dissonances seemed daring is surely necessary to an understanding of the work. We need to know what effects Mozart expected his music to have if we are to see how he thought the music would strike the listener. Such historical knowledge is so widely disseminated that perhaps Walker forgets that it is historical knowledge at all. But it is and it is indispensable. We constantly exercise our historical imagination when we listen to music. And equally I would argue my knowledge that Ravel intended the slow movement of his G major piano concerto as a tribute to Mozart enhances my appreciation of it; for it enables me to pick out aspects which I might have missed and which Ravel presumably thought of as important. And again this is information I acquire from the historian.

Consistently with his general theme, Walker argues that the language of music is a 'closed system'; 'it unfolds according to its own laws'. He claims that its connection with its environment is 'casual not causal'. Even if Walker's thesis is true, and I do not think it is, it is noteworthy that it is itself a historical generalization on the basis of which Walker ought to recommend, not no musical history at all, but a musical history solely concerned with the development of the language. It is still musical history. An unsympathetic critic might conclude that it was not so much musical history that Walker dislikes, for he is quite prepared to make sweeping historical generalizations about the isolation of music from the social currents of the time, but the sort of painstaking and careful historical research which alone corroborates or refutes such claims.

Equally Walker's surprising suggestion, that Bach changed his job in order to write more choral works, entails a historical judgement, namely that this sort of thing was possible in eighteenth-century Germany. Walker attributes to Bach a social consciousness more appropriate to the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries. In Bach's time a composer was merely a superior sort of domestic and it is not very plausible to imagine that he would contemplate changing positions merely because he wished to 'express' a different side of his musical nature. A more serious regard for musical history might enable Walker to avoid such anachronistic judgements.

In his closing remarks, Walker asks rhetorically whether it was the primary purpose of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to advance the language and replies that most of them had no idea whether they were moving 'forwards, backwards or sideways across the face of history'. More historical claims! I wonder why Haydn described his op. 33 set of quartets as composed in 'an entirely new and special manner' if he did not think he was developing the language. Of course the primary purpose of these composers was to write good music but one would have to be naive to assume that they had no idea at all of their place in musical history.

Equally I find Walker's observations on Beethoven's 'musical illiteracy' rather strange. Of course he could not have heard Mahler, Brahms or Wagner, and it is hardly very informative to point this out. But according to Ries, he deeply admired Bach, Handel and Mozart: if he had music in his hand or on his desk it would usually be by one of these three.

Yours, etc.
University of Wales, Lampeter
R. A. SHARPE

This item is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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