Monday, March 28, 2011

John Steane, 1928 - 2011

Anyone who has ever tried to write about music, and particularly singing, in a way that is both meaningful and free of technical language knows how incredibly difficult it is. John Steane was brilliant at it, as he proved over many decades of writing about music: first as the author of the never-surpassed The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record, 1900-1970 (Scribners, 1974), then as a columnist for Gramophone, Opera Now and other publications. He had deep knowledge, boundless enthusiasm, and unassuming eloquence at his command. Most of all, though, he conveyed the emotional power and distinct individuality of the human voice, and made his readers want to listen with the same keen intelligence and warm appreciation.

Here is a small sample of his work, from a post I never quite got around to writing about words in opera (and Indian film songs). It is from his "Aria" feature in the May/June 2008 issue of Opera Now; he's writing about Lensky's "Kuda, kuda vy udalis" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin:

"Rather in the spirit of that famous child who is supposed to have expressed a preference for radio over television on the grounds that 'the picture is better,' I find much to be said for opera in a foreign language. In Italy, for example, I'm told that opera might be more popular among the young were it to be sung in English so that the embarrassing words would not be quite so mercilessly intelligible. To us, poor Lensky's solo before the fatal duel on the early winter's morning is beautiful and intensely moving in Russian, German, Italian or French. But oh, how banal the words sound in English translation. And not just the words. The ideas seem trite and the emotions sentimental. Not that we require originality from Lensky in his predicament, still less literary polish (even though he is a poet by profession, and creation of Pushkin). It is that these formalized expressions don't ring true, and the more clearly we hear and understand the words the less conviction they carry as the real utterance of real individual in these dire circumstances."

I have to interrupt here to say that my objection to English words is somewhat different. I don't require the words to simulate "the real utterance of a real individual," but rather that the words help convey the emotional truth of that character in that moment. Heightened expression is fine with me; overwrought or thuddingly obvious expression isn't.

Back to J.S.:

"The music is a different matter altogether. The sad melody we have heard in the prelude played over by the cello perfectly embodies our pity for the young man. As elegiac phrases gather urgency, so our compassion is intensified, and when the climax is reached, with the aria's single fortissimo, the heart opens in sympathy. Then, when Tchaikovsky brings back the opening phrases as in a musical coda, the effect is of more than formal artistic satisfaction: rather the forlorn reiteration of an unanswerable question and the sorrowful acceptance of a young life lost.

"It is music that, as we say, 'speaks' to us. We don't want to rob Lensky of language—we want to hear his voice, but at the same time to have the freedom of illusion which spares us the banality of:

"Shall I survive the day's dawning?
I vainly try to read its warning.
It shrouds itself in mystery:
No matter, this is fate's decree."

This insight—that opera communicates on levels that transcend the literal meaning of the words—is one that I remind myself of every time I find myself squinting at supertitles rather than really listening. John Steane always listened, with deep attention, and had the ability to express what he was hearing with a rare generosity of spirit.

Here is a link to the obituary published today in the Guardian UK:

Update 29 March 2011: I wrote this post last night as soon as I heard the dismaying news about John Steane's death (he died on March 17, but his Guardian obituary was published yesterday). This morning I took The Grand Tradition off my shelf and looked at its author biography (probably written by Steane himself): "John Steane is best known for his work in the field of Elizabethan literature. He has written a critical study of Marlowe, and edited plays by Jonson and Dekker, as well as the major works of Nashe and Marlowe's complete plays. He has also written a book on Tennyson. His life-long amateur interest, of which this book is the culmination, has been in singing and the gramophone." Lovely, and characteristic of his unfeigned modesty, that the "amateur interest" in music (which has resulted in the 600+ pages we're holding) is only mentioned in the last sentence. Unmentioned entirely are the decades he spent as a beloved teacher of English at Merchant Taylors' School.

You can find a partial list of his published works at WorldCat; it excludes the many entries he wrote for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the New Grove Dictionary of Opera (now both part of Oxford Music Online), and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. And, of course, it excludes perhaps his most widely-read works: his many articles and columns for music magazines.

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