Maugham and Music

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Maugham and Music

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Editat: nov. 19, 2010, 8:11am

Being something of a music buff and a Maugham buff at the same time, it seems natural that I should be fascinated by Maugham's musical taste and the musical references in his works. Some random reflections follow, please feel free to add anything that you thought interesting.

Unfortunately or not, Maugham has written very little of music. One of the very few instances in his non-fiction occurs in my favourite essay Reflections on a Certain Book from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952). Here Maugham deals with an infinitely compelling question, namely the aesthetic emotion and its value, and just by the way he gives an explanation why, when arts are concerned, he always wrote for painting and, of course, writing but virtually never of music:

In any case I would not venture to speak of music; the peculiar gift which enables someone to invent it is to me the most mysterious of the processes which produce a work of art.

When they are not preoccupied with his sexual orientation, Maugham biographers deign to mention something about his tastes. In terms of music, Maugham seems to have been fan mostly of music from the Classical and Romantic periods, with occasional glimpses into Baroque or Modernism. Apparently, he was a great opera lover, with a special affinity for Wagner but by no means confined exclusively to him. Some of the most precious bits in Selina Hastings' The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (2009) are excerpts from his letters in which he mentions that he attended Strauss' Rosenkavalier and Verdi's Requiem. Reportedly, Maugham was a regular visitor to the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. It is tantalasing to speculate whether he attended the legendary performances under the baton of Toscanini during the 1930/31 festivals. Several generations of Wagnerians have regretted the fact that no recording, however poor, has remained.

I remember seeing somewhere - but I cannot for the life of me remember exactly where - a questionnaire filled by Maugham in which he mentiones Mozart and Wagner as his favourite composers. Mozart is an obvious choice if one seeks a broad parallel with Maugham's writing. If there is a musical equivalent of ''lucidity, simplicity and euphony'', it must be Mozart. If there ever was a composer who expressed a wider range of human emotions with fewer notes, I have yet to hear about him. Change ''words'' for ''notes'' and ''writer'' for ''composer'' and you get the best description of Maugham in one sentence I can think of.

Interestingly, there are very few references among Maugham's writings of Mozart. I can think of only one on prima vista, and I don't remember the exact source (will check this). Anyway, Maugham once wrote that he can get an equal amount of pleasure from an opera by Mozart as well as from one by Puccini, but it is a different kind of pleasure. It is certainly true that Mozart and Puccini are very different, but if Willie implied that Puccini's operas are inferior to Mozart's, I disagree, though he does have a point here; at any rate though, he obviously was familiar with several operas by each of these composers.

Wagner is quite another story. Here the aforementioned parallel is impossible to be established, which is no big loss since it is a very tenuous one. Wagner is an antithesis of simplicity and sometimes - when performed badly, which is often - lucidity and especially euphony are the last things one thinks of while listening. But his best creations, when performed superbly, are surely among the greatest achievements of the Western civilisation.

Perhaps, one might speculate, Maugham was attracted by the fact that Wagner was a writer. It is well known that he wrote all his libretti and in addition he wrote a huge amount of prose (non-fiction) as well. Unfortunately, Wagner was as terrible a writer as he was a great composer; the little I have tried to read of him, in English or in German, is just about unreadable. The long poems he set to music, however, are often exciting and moving, if very difficult to read in original and often scorned by the critics. Wagner, so to say, invented his own German language, a kind of ''Wagnerish''. On the other hand, what is more likely, Wagner's literary amibitions may well have had nothing to do with Maugham's affection for his music.

Among the great composers, Wagner is by far the most often encountered name among Maugham's writings. Indeed, a first person narrator in a Maugham's short story (see below) once said that he visited a Wagner festival in Germany, which was most probably true and it must have been the Bayreuth festival. In Strictly personal (1942), a vastly underrated book, Maugham dedicates a whole page or so to his dachshunds in Villa Mauresque. All of them were named after heroes and heroines from Wagner's operas and it is entirely characteristic of Mauhgam to call the saintly Elsa from Lohengrin ''exasperating''.

Then there is the short story The Voice of the Turtle from the collection The Mixture as Before (1940). Not one of Maugham's best short stories, certainly, but it has one of the most haunting endings I have ever read. It is also the most explicit Wagnerian reference in all of Maugham, with a two line quotation from the original German text:

The prima donna was standing in the window, with her back to the lighted room, and she looked out at the darkly shining sea. The cedar made a lovely pattern against the sky. The night was soft and balmy. Miss Glaser played a couple of bars. A cold shiver ran down my spine. La Falterona gave a little start as she recognized the music, and I felt her gather herself together.

Mild und leise wie er lächelt
Wie das Auge hold er öffnet.

It was Isolde's death song. ... It did not matter now that instead of an orchestral accompaniment she had only the thin tinkle of a piano. The notes of the heavenly melody fell upon the still air and travelled over the water. In that too-romantic scene, in that lovely night, the effect was shattering. La Falterona's voice, even now, was exquisite in its quality, mellow and crystalline; and she sang with wonderful emotion, so tenderly, with such tragic, beautiful anguish that my heart melted within me. I had a most awkward lump in my throat when she finished, and looking at her I saw that tears were streaming down her face. I did not want to speak. She stood quite still, looking out at the ageless sea.

I often read this short story only because of these final lines. Afterwards I usually listen to Isoldes Liebestod - one of the most shattering pieces of music ever composed - and find it even more incredibly affecting than usual.

Maugham must have been fond of Beethoven too - it is indeed very hard to resist Beethoven; he is overwhelming. In the same short story he mentions his Fifth symphony and in the The Alien Corn from 102454::Six Stories in First Person Singular (1931) he mentions his magisterial Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, or simply Appassionata as it is well-known.

The Alien Corn deserves a special attention of course. It is a fine story, one of Maugham's finest, and there is a great deal about music in it, for George Bland wanted more than everything to be a pianist. The first person narrator mentions a number of things that we may, perhaps, accept as Maugham's opinions. For example, his going to a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Munich probably refers to a real event, only it must have been in Bayreuth (which is not far from Munich). There are also memorable descriptions of Chopin and Bach:

He played Chopin. He played two waltzes that were familiar to me, a polonaise and an etude. He played with a great deal of brio I wish I knew music well enough to give an exact description of his playing. It had strength and youthful exuberance, but I felt that he missed what to me is the peculiar charm of Chopin, the tenderness, the nervous melancholy, the wistful gaiety and slightly faded romance that reminds me always of an early Victorian keepsake.

She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognised the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight of the wide German country, and a tender coziness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space. She played exquisitely, with a soft brilliance that made you think of the full moon shining at dusk in the summer sky.

I have always found Bach's keyboard music, and much of his other music, uncommonly boring, but Maugham's description of Chopin I certainly find very accurate indeed, at least for the repertoire mentioned. Had he heard some of the Scherzi, Ballades or the Second sonata, he would have known that there is much more in Chopin than that; there is tragic drama of epic proportions. The apologetic tone about his lack of special knowledge is 100% Maugham.

It's worth noting the obvious: that one has to be very careful when takes a narrator's words at their face value. For here he says of Beethoven's Appassionata:

I used to play it myself when I played the piano (very badly) in my far distant youth and I still knew every note of it.

Now, I know nothing of music either, but Appassionata seems to me a formidable work. To play it even ''very badly'' one has to be an accomplished pianist - which Maugham almost certainly never was. Of course he was entirely justified to invent this for the story; but it's a nice reminding to be careful with such extrapolations.

To finish with The Alien Corn, it must be said that the movie version in Quartet is disappointing. The chief reason is Dirk Bogarde's wooden performance which becomes atrocious on the piano; his Chopin is perhaps expected to be bad but hardly the worst possible; his miming is positively ridiculous. As for Bach, he is substituted here for a very passable Schubert.

There is another short story by Maugham which is connected with music, though not so specifically. This is the unjustly forgotten The Buried Talent which was never published in book form during Maugham's life but appeared only in magazine (1934). Much later it was reprinted in 497487::Traveller in Romance (1984) and 102415::Far Eastern Tales (1993). The two main characters are opera singers and, as far as I can remember, a reference to Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice was made. There is also some discussion of voice which shows that Maugham is obviously a layman in the field, but with passion for opera.

And here my stock of musical references among Maugham's writings seems to run dry. For sure there are more. If you can think of any, please share.

It's interesting to note by way of conclusion to this rambling that Maugham's musical tastes are very similar to mine, for I too love Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven and Chopin. It is indeed fascinating when I reflect that - from what I've read of his anthologies so far and from what I've seen in Purely for my Pleasure (1962) - apparently our tastes in terms of literature and painting are vastly different indeed. I need to read much more of the anthologies, but just about one third of Maugham's collection of paintings I wouldn't put on my walls even if I get them as a present.

nov. 19, 2010, 2:51pm

Frustratingly, I still can't find the exact source of this very interesting questionnaire I've mentioned in my previous post.

But in Calder's biography I've found a reference to a questionnaire that was sent to Maugham by Compton Mackenzie during the 1920s. It must be the same; sadly, Mr Calder forgets to mention how he came to consult it. But he does mention Wagner as Maugham's favourite composer (Mozart is skipped) and, in addition, The Magic Fire Music and Lotte Lehmann as his favourite music and singer, respectively.

I have listened very little of Lotte Lehmann's recording legacy, but The Magic Fire (Feuerzauber) Music is a great favourite of mine too. It is very final of Die Walküre and the powerful words of Wotan, together with the orchestral explosion afterwards, are indeed one of the most unforgettable moments ever composed for the opera stage.

If anybody is interested, here is the piece in question; unfortunately in hideous modernist staging and with rather mediocre singing, but that's YouTube after all; at least the orchestra is passable:

Wer meines Speeres
Spitze fürchtet,
durchschreite das Feuer nie!

(Very free translation:
''Those who fear the point of my spear shall not pass the fire!)

PS Also, the aforementioned reference in Selina Hasting's book is more informative than I thought: it mentions Mozart's The Magic's Flute as well as a trio in the last act of Strauss' Rosenkavalier. Obviously Maugham knew the latter pretty well.

Editat: des. 8, 2010, 4:53am

One charming musical reference missing in the novel but neatly included in the movie The Painted Veil, in a scene which is to be found in the novel as well.

Kitty brings to Waddington a letter for Charlie and, as an excuse for her visit, gives him a record as he had earlier asked them if they had brought some new records because he was bored with his old ones. So Waddington looks at the record and says:

''Oh, Stravinsky. Very modern.''

Too modern for my taste indeed.

des. 7, 2010, 10:48am

#3 Somewhat too modern, Waldstein, but don't you think RITE OF SPRING is a powerful and often moving composition? I have to say I share your antipathy for most modern so-called "classical" works, particularly of the atonal variety. To find music in dissonance is like finding order in a riot.

Editat: des. 23, 2010, 7:43am

Indeed I do. Rite of Spring is one of Stravinsky's works, together with Petrushka and Firebird, which I do on ocassion find moving, when I am in the very special mood for them. Significantly, all three works are among his early ones.

Editat: juny 25, 2011, 4:44pm

Two more Wagnerian references - which seem to occur in a most unusual places.

From Maugham's essay Some Novelists I Have Known:

I was once sitting at the opera behind a distinguished and talented woman. The opera was Tristan und Isolde. At the end of the second act she gathered her ermine cloak around her shoulders and, turning to her companion, said: 'Let's go. There's not enough action in this play.' Of course she was right, but perhaps that wasn't quite the point.

Poor woman. She must have been bored to death by what is probably the longest love duet is all opera.

It is interesting to observe that in the same essay there's one of Maugham's rare passages in which he is somewhat preoccupied with the question of taste and his attitude strongly smacks of intellectual snobbishness. That said, Maugham of all people had the right to be an intellectual snob; whether he was especially intelligent or of impeccable taste are debatable questions, but what is surely a very well documented fact is that he made a great success of his life. I am not sure many people achieve this, even on a much smaller scale, especially people as sensitive and restless as Maugham. Still, such passage as this leaves me with a slightly bitter taste in the mouth:

There are persons of intelligence and susceptibility who prefer Verdi to Wagner, Charlotte Bronte to Jane Austen and cold mutton to cold grouse.

I don't know about the last two cases, but I see nothing wrong with anybody who prefers Verdi to Wagner. On occasion I do too, though on the whole I wouldn't want to be without either.

The second place I've just remembered there are quite a few Wagnerian hints is the short story Winter Cruise, one of my least favourite stories by Maugham due to its idiotic and all but pornographic plot; yet the piece is fun to read and has some memorable, if farcical, scenes. But to the point - the Wagnerian hints. Since the whole story is set on a German ship and all characters but the loquacious Miss Reid are Germans, it is hardly surprising that there should be some amusing references to Wagner:

Germans were so musical. He had a funny way of strutting up and down on his short legs singing Wagner tunes to words of his invention. It was Tannhäuser he was singing now (that lovely thing about the evening star) but knowing no German Miss Reid could only wonder what absurd words he was putting to it. It was as well.
''Oh, what a bore that woman is, I shall certainly kill her if she goes on much longer.'' Then he broke into Siegfried's martial strain. ''She's a bore, she's a bore, she's a bore. I shall throw her into the sea.

''The lovely thing about the evening star'' is easy to be identified: it must be ''O du, mein holder Abendstern'' (''Oh thou, my gracious evening star''), Wolfram's serenade, such as it is, from the Third act of Tannhäuser, one of the closest to opera aria Wagner ever came, in his mature works at all events. One can only surmise that Tannhäuser's eternal struggle between the spirit and the flesh appealed to Maugham.

Siegfried's martial strain is a trifle more difficult to locate with such certainty, but the words certainly fit the famous Siegfried's theme. Will have to refer to the music drama for anything more accurate.

But Maugham certainly knew Siegfried pretty well, as shown in the following, highly preposterous, conversation from Winter Cruise:

As soon as dinner was over and Miss Read had left them the captain sent for the radio-operator.
''You idiot, what in heaven's name made you ask Miss Reid last night whether she wanted to send a radio?''
''Sir, you told me to act naturally. I am a radio-operator. I thought it natural to ask her if she wanted to send a radio. I didn't know what else to say.''
''God in heaven,'' shouted the captain, ''when Siegfried saw Brünhilde lying on her rock and cried:
Das ist Kein Mann'' (the captain sang the words, and being pleased with the sound of his voice, repeated the phrase two or three times before he continued), ''did Siegfried when she awoke ask her if she wished to send a radio, to announce her papa, I suppose, that she was sitting up after her long sleep and taking notice?''
''I beg most respectfully to draw your attention to the fact that Brünhilde was Siegfried's aunt. Miss Reid is a total stranger to me.''
''He did not reflect that she was his aunt. He knew only that she was a beautiful and defenceless woman of obviously good family and he acted as any gentleman would have done. You are young, handsome, Aryan to the tips of your fingers, the honour of Germany is in your hands.''

If anything, this passage makes clear that Maugham (1) knew the plot of Siegfried quite well indeed and (2) he was rightly slightly apprehensive in the preface of Creatures of Circumstance (1947) that he hadn't changed the nationality of his characters; right after the SWW few people probably relished anything about Germans, let alone ''the honour of Germany'', even in so flippant a context.

I can only suspect that he also knew the other three parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen quite well too. Maugham's fascination with Wagner might be a fruitful topic for an essay. Lots of parallels - monstrously far-fetched and outrageously speculative - can be drawn between the two men.

des. 23, 2010, 10:06am

Fascinating, as usual, Waldstein, thanks. Interesting how Maugham mines so much humor from Wagner, recognizing in him, perhaps, the ultimate cultural straight-man.

Editat: des. 26, 2010, 9:46am

Among the great composers, I think, Wagner is one of the most unfortunate. Most music lovers take him either as a bombastic joke or as by far the greatest composer who ever lived. He is of course neither. Maugham certainly was amused by him, but he also seems to have had genuine, and great, admiration for his music.

juny 25, 2011, 6:36pm

For what it's worth, and it's probably worth noting, having listened to a lot of Rachmaninoff recently it occurred to me that an interesting parallel can be drawn between Maugham and the great Russian composer. Sadly, I can’t think of a single reference to Rachmaninoff in any of Maugham’s works and it remains a matter of pure speculation whether he knew his music at all. He probably did, and he might even have attended some of Rachmaninoff’s concerts during his spectacularly successful career as a concert pianist during the 1920s and 1930s.

The most striking similarity between Rachmaninoff and Maugham is that both of them, all of their lives, were accused of being anachronisms. While Maugham continued to write stories very much in the way Maupassant had done in the nineteenth century, so Rachmaninoff continued to write symphonies in the manner of Tchaikovsky. Of course in both cases there is no question of slavish imitation, or even any great similarity of styles. While Schoenberg and the New Viennese School, to say nothing of his revolutionary (at least musically) compatriots Stravinsky and Prokofieff, were charting new ways into atonality and dissonance, Rachmaninoff stubbornly refused to leave tonality and melody. Likewise Maugham never tired of writing with simplicity and lucidity stories that have ‘beginning, middle and end’ and can be understood by everybody who can read.

I find it a remarkable similarity, indeed, that both Rachmaninoff and Maugham, until comparatively recently, were not at all taken seriously by professional critics, musical and literary respectively, yet their works have never been out of print or out of the standard repertoire. This makes me wonder, yet again, what sense artistic criticism really makes, if any. Here it flatly contradicts both the popular taste and the test of time, and aren’t these factors more important than the opinion of a bunch of erudite fellows? After all, lasting popularity suggests a wide human appeal. Critical praise suggests nothing of the kind.

Other, and smaller, similarities between Maugham and Rachmaninoff include, for instance, spending half of their lives away from their native land: the former in France, the latter in America. However, both the reasons and the circumstances were radically different. Rachmaninoff left his homeland for purely political reasons. Being from a family that can be called proletarian only by misusing the word, he turned out to be persona non grata after the revolution of 1917. Rachmaninoff never went back to Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was then called, and, reportedly, until the end of his life suffered from severe nostalgia, trying to make himself at home in America (and Switzerland from time to time) but never quite succeeding. In contrast, Maugham’s reasons for leaving England for France are rather more complex and still not fully elucidated: avoiding taxes or avoiding his wife, living freely with Gerald or enjoying the greater prestige that men of letters had in France, or simply stronger links with the country where he spent a happy childhood than with England, or all that together, we’ll probably never know for sure. Unlike Rachmaninoff, Maugham did visit England a number of times over the years after his moving to Cap Ferrat.

Interestingly, both visited America for the first time in the course of two years (1909-10). But the reasons, of course, were very different indeed. Maugham was attending the production of one of his plays, Rachmaninoff was playing the world premiere of his (now famous, then ignored) Third Piano Concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic (or the New York Symphony Society as it was then called). Both were in their own ways grateful to America: Maugham gave the manuscript of Of Human Bondage to the Library of the Congress, Rachmaninoff used to play at every American concert his own transcription of The Star-Spangled Banner. (By the way, in the early 1940s Horowitz expressed his gratitude for his brand new American citizenship in a similar manner, by making of a stupendous transcription of The Star and Stripes Forever which he used to finish his American concerts with - until he became convinced that after such an encore the public was apt to forget the rest of the recital and he never played the piece until the end of his life, nearly four decades later.)

I find it fascinating that Rachmaninoff and Maugham were almost exact contemporaries, the Russian composer being but a year older (born in 1873), but both experienced a great shift in their creative lives during middle age. Strangely enough, the directions were totally the opposite. In 1918, aged 45 and out of purely pecuniary motives, Rachmaninoff had to turn himself from, primarily, a composer and a conductor into a virtuoso pianist giving at least 40 to 50 recitals per season. The amazing thing is that until then, though he had appeared many times as a pianist, he had no working repertoire because he had played almost exclusively his own works. How Rachmaninoff could, for just a few years, build an enormous repertoire of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven and who not and turn himself into one of the hottest tickets on the American concert stage is one of the minor miracles in music history. The price was high though. He lived for quarter of a century after 1917, made quite a few recordings which today prove beyond any doubt his unique place in the history of pianism, but he composed very few original works; only six actually, though almost all of them are among his finest. Maugham’s life-changing event, of course, was his first travel to the South Seas, the consequences of which for his life and work were incalculable: it renewed his interest into the genre of the short story which resulted in three of his finest short story collections, it stimulated further travels in the Far East and gave him material for three novels and two travel books more. These travels also gave Maugham’s works a cosmopolitan character which is one of his trade marks.

Though only one year younger, Maugham outlived Rachmaninoff by 22 years. There is something poignant, it seems to me, about the fact that while in the beginning of 1943 Rachmaninoff was dying of cancer under the sun of California, somewhere among the marshes of South Carolina Maugham was writing The Razor’s Edge