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Subject: Onegin and Lang
From: albert innaurato <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:albert innaurato <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Fri, 25 Aug 2017 12:59:52 -0500

text/plain (82 lines)

I'm just wasting time. David Shengold is always good to read, here, and in
many other venues. He is one of the best (the best?) who writes about
opera. And I am curious about reviewers who have attacked composers, both
past and recent, based on knowledge or suspicions of their sexuality.

But I have to disagree about Paul Henry Lang. He was Hungarian. He had a
superb musical training, far beyond anyone writing professionally today. At
the University in Budapest and at the conservatory, his studies were
supervised by Zoltan Kodaly and Erno von Dohnanyi. He worked with Bela
Bartok. He played the bassoon professionally, and also was a good pianist
(that was how his contact with Bartok began). He studied the history of
music intensively, analyzing scores from the Baroque on, and with Bartok
also studied Hungarian and Rumanian folk music and how it had evolved over

Always broke, he began writing music criticism. His work impressed Bartok
for its secure knowledge, intelligence, and wide sympathies. It was during
a discussion of finding a future that might support him that Bartok
suggested he become a musicologist. This was a new discipline then, with
few practitioners. Lang took the advice and studied first in Germany at
Heidelberg then moved to the Sorbonne in Paris, where he received his
second doctorate.

He had rowed in the Olympics in 1924 and had made some contacts with
Americans. When he received his doctorate the Rockefeller Foundation
sponsored him to come to the USA (1928). He spoke no English. He taught
himself. He earned his third doctorate from Cornell while teaching harmony
and counterpoint at other colleges. It was on French opera. After a few
stints at different universities, he was hired by Columbia University as
their first professor of musicology.

When Bartok fled Hungary and arrived in New York, Lang was able to hire him
as a lecturer on ethnomusicology. Bartok didn't speak English but Lang
insisted. The composer was dying and destitute. Among subsequent students
was Richard Tarushkin, who David Shengold mentions.

Lang was definitely NOT "middle brow", nor was he "trendy". The troll who
started the Onegin thread as usual quotes a writer out of context as though
that were his/her entire argument. Lang, however, asks an interesting
question about the style in which Onegin is written. Tchaikovsky operates
by melodic inflection, so in Lang's opinion, operating from the score,
Lenski's farewell aria is a beautiful tune -- period. It would sound as
good on the 'cello. It is not rooted specifically in Lenski's character, or
really in the situation in which he finds himself. It has a general, and
appealing quality of melancholy but an instrument can convey that just as
well, and the melody doesn't need an "actor" precisely located "in the
moment" to live.

This is a test of sorts of how well a composer of operas using this style
inflects his or her melodies to reflect a precise sense of a person's
psychology, mood, and destiny. Lang perhaps did not know Verdi's Macbeth,
but the Sleepwalking scene is entirely managed through the vocal line. But
that line is structured around the words in a way that conveys Lady
Macbeth's mourning, sorrow, and anxiety with chilling precision. No one
else could possibly sound that way, the melody is entirely singular and
personal, precisely rooted in her being in that moment. There is nothing
general, or "instrumental" about it. It wouldn't do for any other
character, at any other moment in the story. No matter how sensitively
played, an oboe would not be anywhere nearly as effective in that sequence
as the human voice singing words.

Lang was not "attacking" Tchaikovsky, and no one of sense would deny the
composer's remarkable melodic ability. But whether a character called
Lensky actually lives in the fullness of human being facing the possibility
of his death in that aria can be questioned. It is an intelligent question.
Aside from David Shengold's brief comments, the praise given Onegin here is
simple minded and silly, Lang was neither.


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