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Ernest Newman devoted so much of his life to writing about Wagner that many people, the times being anti-Wagnerian, regarded him as a brilliant musical scholar who had unfortunately become limited by a fixed obsession. In his earlier days, he produced important studies of Gluck, Beethoven, Liszt, Strauss, and Wolf; but in later life he seemed to be interested only in one composer. Concerning his articles in The Sunday Times, someone concocted an amusing clerihew:
This is not an article for Ireland's eightieth birthday. That is to say, it is not a eulogy; rather is it a critical plea for wider performance and re-appraisal. The neglect of Ireland's piano music, particularly the best of the shorter pieces, can only be justified by reference to the immensity of the piano repertoire; which is, of course, no justification at all, especially when one remembers that, birthday performances apart, the three or four pieces that do turn up are by no means the choicest possible selection. The most frequently performed of all is probably The Island Spell (1912), yet this is an early piece whose virtues are largely negative ones—an avoidance of ‘impressionist’ harmonic cliché and of an overcrowded texture; it does not reveal Ireland's lyrical gifts. Again, Ragamuffin—the most popular of the London Pieces (1917–20)—and Merry Andrew (1918) are representative of only the lighter, more superficial side of the composer's personality.
It was the late Dean Inge who said, ‘There are two kinds of fools: those who say, “This is old and therefore good”, and those who say, “This is new and therefore better” ’. Finzi's great misfortune was to have lived and worked in an age when much music criticism tends to fly to one or the other of these two extremes. The result is that Finzi's admirers have often written as much critical nonsense about him as the most unsympathetic of professional critics; I have yet to see a single piece of sustained writing in which the strong reactionary element in Finzi's work is not made either the central virtue or the central vice of his entire style.
The four string quartets* of Bloch are a convenient medium for assessing both the strength and weakness of his unusual talent, revealing, as they do, an imperfect endowment of those processes of thought and feeling from which, in the right amalgam, a masterpiece of musical expression can emerge. Only the second quartet represents him at his best. It is one of the few works where inspiration and emotion are under the control of the intellect. There are weaknesses in the other quartets largely brought about by preoccupation with cyclic procedures—a notorious and dangerous expedient for a composer unable by nature to accept the traditional usages and disciplines of sonata form.
A critic and friend, rare combination, has suggested that there are, in principle, two ways of dealing with Stravinsky's latest book. One is to fall flat on one's face and exclaim, ‘A great man's book, a great book!’ The other was to review it simply as a book on music.
To my mind, either course of action is fallacious. The awed approach is a nineteenth-century fallacy, the rationalistic approach a twentieth-century fallacy. At the same time, the romantic, irrationalistic approach is the more objective, the more rational. The truth, quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi, became a truism long before the birth of the romantic genius-hero, and to treat the book of a genius like that of any old ass (as virtually all my colleagues did in the case of Schoenberg's Style and Idea) is to start with a wrong fact and remove oneself from the level of artistic reality for the duration of one's review.
A curious verse, one might think, with which to begin a song-cycle—dry to the point of cynicism, and quite lacking in those superficially poetic characteristics so beloved of song-writers. But Britten's literary taste is both shrewd and subtle. Arthur Waley's Chinese Poems (Allen and Unwin, 1946) are a selection made by the author from his earlier volumes of translations, often with substantial revisions. In selecting six very short pieces from this collection Britten was skimming the cream of a great translator's life-work; yet the poems he chose are not merely magnificent in themselves, they are also arranged with extraordinary subtlety in relation to one another. Whether consciously or not Britten has hit on the one piece in the whole anthology which could best serve as the motto for his own Songs from the Chinese. What could stand more appropriately at the head of these brief settings for the exiguous combination of voice and guitar than a warning against the perils of public life and, by analogy, the grand gesture?