Vindications: Essays on Romantic Music
by Deryck Cooke
Recommended Ages: 15+
Western civilization owes Deryck Cooke big-time for retrieving, to some extent, one of the great artistic losses of the 20th century, a great symphony that might never have been heard due to Mahler's early death. I felt something like the pain of that loss when I read Bryan Magee's biographical sketch of Cooke in the foreword of this book. In fact, so profoundly did Magee, a close colleague and personal friend of Cooke, express his feelings of loss at the early death of that musician, critic, and BBC broadcaster, I was actually in tears before I reached the main body of this book.
In this book, editor David Matthews brought together what he considered a representative selection of Cooke's critical writings, including notes on his favorite Romantic composers: Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner and (to my surprise) Delius. In these essays Cooke defended his views on the language of music (a phrase that also serves as the title of his most important book) - which is to say, the non-verbal vocabulary composers throughout the age of tonal music used, especially through melody, to express emotions, states of mind, and an impression of sensuous beauty. He systematically explored the themes of Wagner's music dramas, Mahler's symphonies, and Delius's violin concerto. He painstakingly cleared up the famous "Bruckner Problem" concerning the variant texts of that master's symphonies. And he also wrote cogently about Beethoven's late string quartets, Strauss and Stravinsky's totally opposite approaches to neo-classicism, the rhythmic structure of a Beatles song, and exactly why Wuthering Heights is a great romantic novel.
Cooke scored his deepest hits, I thought, in his criticism on criticism itself. He powerfully observed how little right a music critic has to judge the weaknesses of a work he himself could never have created. He asks whether criticism of this kind might not be, more than anything else, a confession of the critic's aesthetic blind spots. He challenges future writers on the music of the great masters - and later observes how few of them took up that challenge - to deal not with matters of taste or opinion, but with a falsifiable, which is to say scientific, theory about what's going on under the hood of a great symphony, concerto, or music drama. He dares music journalists to start over and address those works that are undeniably works of genius not as subjects of criticism, but as phenomena whose communicative power is real and can, perhaps, be explained. He approaches music in a way that I have always, deep down, wanted to study it and write about it: as a scientist, with a comprehensive yet detailed knowledge of the evidence and a unifying theory that he is convinced explains it all.
As a disciple of music, I can think of few things more exciting than the possibility of taking up Cooke's challenge and continuing his work. However, as a child of the TV-blighted late 20th century and the even more Internet-blighted early 21st, I am painfully aware that I did not have the kind of musical formation Cooke had. Going back to Magee's biographical sketch, I salivate with envy at a picture of a fatherless, working-class youth born in 1919 coming by the ability to play great symphonies in four-hand arrangements, and being able to find similar youth able and willing to play them with him.
Setting aside religion (on which my views differ from Cooke's as night from day), I am reminded once again that electronic gizmos are really the opiate of the people. How I wish we could all quit cold turkey, detox ourselves as individuals and as a society, and recover the super-powers ordinary people used to have up to Cooke's salad days, if they can be recovered! I'm willing to give it a try, to the extent of not watching TV or having an internet connection at home (though, alas, writing this blog means staying at work after hours). Maybe I won't ever know Wagner or Mahler the way Cooke did, but with books and sheet music filling my spare time instead of flickering screens, perhaps I will find out it's not too late to experience a deeper, richer engagement in the best humanity has to offer, in things both enduringly and objectively beautiful.