When the death of Peter Maxwell Davies was announced on 14 March, I took down a handful of CDs and began to listen. ‘Max’, as he was generally known, is often a dauntingly difficult composer, and I have struggled to keep up with his output, which includes ten symphonies and ten string quartets. On this occasion I felt that I really should tackle the gritty, dissonant First once again, as recorded by a very young Simon Rattle in 1978, but at the same time my instinct was to put on one of his many delightful occasional or descriptive pieces. Not, perhaps, Farewell to Stromness (the news bulletins had already found it made a perfect musical soundbite), but the wonderful Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, which culminates in a coup de théâtre involving a bagpiper; or Mavis in Las Vegas, a riotous pastiche of American popular genres sparked by a misunderstanding in a Las Vegas hotel, where the composer was signed in as ‘Mavis’. Or perhaps one of the less well known show-pieces: Cross Lane Fair, for Northumbrian pipes and orchestra (complete with evocations of a ghost train, a bearded lady, and a five-legged sheep) or Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights (swelling brass, glockenspiel, and crotales – tiny tuned cymbals).
I did grapple with the symphony, but once that duty was over, I indulged in a personal Maxfest, lay back and relished the Northern Lights, the various species of bagpipe, and Mavis’s raunchy glitter-ball. As I basked in these lighter pieces – what Graham Greene might have called ‘entertainments’– they confirmed a suspicion that I have had for some time: that the truest genius can sing both high and low.
It’s something that seems to apply to composers in particular, as can be seen by observing any concert audience: rapt attention for the serious passages, nods and smiles for the lighter ones, but something deeper still, that inimitable silence when light suddenly merges with dark and we feel ‘the complete consort dancing together’. Haydn or Mozart might seem in every sense classic examples of artists who mix soaring seriousness with earthy jokes – the composer of the Seven Last Words of Our Saviour from the Cross also added a loud fart to his 93rd Symphony – since the very form they pioneered provides a showcase for the sublime (slow movement) and the jokey (minuet and trio, later the scherzo). But let us rather look at Beethoven, who by the time he reached his last symphony or the late quartets was stretching the possibilities of earthiness and heavenliness further than Haydn or Mozart could have imagined. Beethoven appeals at both ends of the spectrum; he had a rumbustious and wicked sense of humour that enlivens even his most troubled passages, sometimes turning on them, toying with them, mocking them, deconstructing them, before returning to them in all seriousness with redoubled intensity. He composed the barely playable Grosse Fuge, which still sounds as though it were by a disciple of Schoenberg. But he also served up bagatelles fit for a chocolate ad. He could storm the heavens in the Missa Solemnis. Or rage over a lost penny. He would have especial fun with other people’s trivia (Diabelli was the most famous victim). He is never monotonous. But most importantly, and what makes him the greatest master, my ‘truest genius’: he was doing all this within individual works.
Only the very greatest composers can shift successfully from the Grand to the Populist within the same piece (Maxwell Davies seldom does, great though he is), and if Beethoven showed one way of doing it, Mahler offered another, even more difficult to emulate. The best of the rest tend to specialise in producing either the substantial main course or a fluffy dessert, although a select few are skilled at both (think of Berlioz’s Requiem; and then of what he did with Weber’s Invitation to the Dance), and there are many who – brilliant though they be in their way – remain merely fluffy (Saint-Saёns, Rossini) or relentlessly weighty (Bruckner, Reger). Brahms could serve up some delightful Hungarian dances and Liebeslieder waltzes, but he meant it sincerely when he jotted down a theme from The Blue Danube on a lady’s autograph fan and added ‘Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms’. Fortunately for Johannes Brahms, however, he was one of those who could blend high and low seamlessly within his masterworks (risking that tinkling 22nd variation in his Op.24, for example, or a student drinking song at the end of his Academic Festival Overture). Some composers do this more than others, but it seems to me that the most interesting ones do it a great deal. It’s why Schubert’s song-cycles are his finest achievements. It’s what we love about Handel. A personal favourite of mine is Carl Nielsen, forever juxtaposing a growling dissonance with a jaunty folk song. He was a Dane, but he understands a smörgåsbord.
It might not be so easy to find something light and refreshing among the meaty offerings of Wagner (unless his Siegfried Idyll, which was designed as a breakfast piece for Cosima!), although who would deny greatness to the author and composer and producer of the Ring Cycle? In fact, some years ago in a festive Radio 3 balloon debate about composers it was Wagner who came out as the sole surviving genius. Nevertheless, there is something even more impressive about a composer who can do all the operatic manoeuvres and orchestral flamboyance, but can also construct a convincing sonata form, turn out a touching ballade, a perfect string quartet, or a simple song of longing. Some towering creative artists just cannot offer simple gifts even when presented with the perfect opportunity. Commissioned to write what could have been a roof-raising populist number for the Last Night of the Proms in 1995, Harrison Birtwistle chose instead to test the crowd’s patience with his nightmarish Panic for saxophone, drum-kit, and orchestra. It assuredly raised the roof, and a few eyebrows. Birtwistle is a genius, but he has yet to compose anything that could be popularly associated with his name as Farewell to Stromness was with ‘Max’, his fellow Manchester enfant terrible. Vaughan Williams, by contrast, was always able to write for ‘the people’ (he collected folk songs, edited and composed hymns, produced film scores) as well as shocking them with his cacophonous and angry Fourth Symphony. Moreover, he conforms to my definition of the truest genius, frequently merging memorably accessible moments with uncompromisingly bleak passages, as in the Sixth. Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett fit the definition too. Not only did they both write some of their best work for amateur forces, for children even, but listen to what Britten achieves as he leaps between parody and elegy in his early Frank Bridge Variations or to the effect of the Negro Spirituals in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. All this is, of course, in a direct line from J. S. Bach, the composer as practical man, a figure within the community, producing what he’s asked to, inviting the people to sing along, throwing in a Coffee Cantata for fun.
There is a darker aspect to this subject, however: under the Nazis, ‘difficult’ equalled ‘decadent’, and in Soviet Russia compositions were required to be relentlessly upbeat and heroic. Whereas an English composer could introduce folk songs for purely aesthetic reasons or just because they wanted to (try everything once, said Arnold Bax, except incest and folk-dancing), there was pressure on Stalin’s artists to make a literal song and dance about the joys of communism. They were expected to provide a service – much as Bach was, only for distinctly ungodly reasons. Dmitri Shostakovich’s gift was such that he could write entertainments and (at his best) make no concessions to the demands of propaganda. But anyone who has whistled a waltz from his First Jazz Suite then turned to his Eighth Symphony or his late quartets will not be in any doubt of the sheer scope and essential truthfulness of his genius. Indeed, he went further than any other twentieth-century composer, combining both aspects into an ironic style which could subvert the cheerful heroics it was spouting.
Already these sweeping generalisations about music are threatening to divert me from a broader application of my nascent theory. I am not competent to say whether it might be relevant to the visual arts, although we might consider whether the genius of Guernica lies in the way it combines Picasso’s skill as a quickfire caricaturist with his anger, grief, and appreciation of the grand tradition; and no doubt every Mona Lisa needs a smile to offset its sober folds and fields. Similarly, I have always felt that it is film-makers like the Coen Brothers who achieve most, because they run the gamut of human experience. As for the art form I know best: can it really be said that the best poets sing both high and low? Surely the theory doesn’t work for literature . . .
Yet consider Milton and Shakespeare, who were for a long time treated as equals (both used to be obligatory at A-Level). If we were in the final moments of a poetic balloon debate, and I had to give one reason why it should be my beloved Milton we throw out of our basket, it would be that he only knew how to be lofty: the Fall would do him good. Yes, there are lighter passages in Comus. There is the joke of the ‘Tetrachordon’ rhyme in one of his sonnets. But even L’Allegro is hardly lightweight. And Paradise Lost is unrelieved solemnity – glorious, mellifluous, quotable solemnity, but solely that. Shakespeare, by contrast, was at his greatest when high and low began to fuse as they do in the characters of King Lear and the Fool. The grand blank verse set pieces are there; but he relishes a snatch of bawdy, a madsong, a stand-up routine, or some sly couplets to cover a costume change. Dramatists tend to be pragmatists.
The poets of the Augustan age would follow suit, ready with an epigram when required; not afraid to amuse us with something slight or lowbrow or ephemeral, but always stylishly turned, brilliantly timed. If only Wordsworth – whose work is extremely important to me – could have taken himself rather less seriously, could have recognised when he was risible (‘I’ve measured it from side to side/’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.’), glanced down from the sublime, made the odd quip. Was it this that alienated Coleridge, who could certainly do a comic turn (chiefly as conversationalist)? Both of the Lyrical Balladeers believed they were deploying language ‘really used by men’, but Jane Austen does that rather better, and includes women too. Of the Romantics, Blake is the genuine all-rounder, whose genius makes no distinction between high and low, whether he is illustrating or printing or writing. His ‘Tyger’ is loved by children; his ‘Lamb’ has become one of the most popular Christmas Carols; ‘Jerusalem’ is England’s unofficial National Anthem. It’s obvious too that Keats could drop the Romantic death-mask, laugh and poke fun at himself (‘There was a Naughty Boy . . .’); Shelley couldn’t. If Keats had lived he would have kept touching the earth as well as reaching for heaven. Shelley wouldn’t. Nor were the Victorians much inclined to cater for non-sophisticates, which is why they are so easy to parody. But then we recall Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ – and Tennyson at least did let his hair down for his dialect poems.
In near-recent times, it is somehow reassuring that a poet as ‘highbrow’ as T. S. Eliot could descend to cat-level (though his other light verse descends to dark and offensive depths), but he had already achieved the century’s most significant interweaving of high and low in The Waste Land. Perhaps it is W. H. Auden who really reminds us of the scope available to a genius. Auden would try anything, could write at the drop of a hat on a given topic and in any given form; and he showed the same broad mind when it came to publishing (he had work in Playboy, for instance). If he felt like composing a book of clerihews he did so (Academic Graffiti) and no one thought the less of him. They might have done had he only written such verse ( Academic Graffiti is dedicated to a man who did – Ogden Nash) but this was the author of big serious poems like The Sea and the Mirror.
If the suspicion that prompted this essay ever becomes anything like a proper theory, there may have to be something in the formula that explains why it doesn’t apply so reliably to Irish writers. Despite his remarks about stepping down into the ‘rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, Yeats stays on his high horse most of the time. It is something to do with the paradox of folk material, that the fairy stories he draws on (and actually interwove with early poems in a 1925 reprinting) are ostensibly ‘of the people’ but at the same time quite sophisticated affairs, rich in diction and haughty in tone. Yeats doesn’t really have the common touch, except in his lyric voice. There is no angry vernacular. If there is a rag-and-bone shop, Steptoe and Son are well out of the picture. Some of this rubs off on Yeats’s heirs. Seamus Heaney found an enormous readership, but he didn’t capture the rude, raw-edged, rough-tongued life of the land the way Patrick Kavanagh did, nor could he so confidently introduce Homer into a local boundary squabble as in the older poet’s sonnet, ‘Epic’. Farmer’s boy though he was, native of the boglands, Heaney was happiest on the poetic heights, keeping his eyes sharp, his hands and shoes clean, only digging metaphorically. He admitted he felt uncomfortable when his friend Ted Hughes tried to drag him off to fish in muddy backwaters. Like Yeats, Heaney tends to mythologise people, as he does in Station Island, or even in simple poems to his wife (in that collection’s opening poem, ‘The Underground’, she is both Gretel and Eurydice).
Similarly, Eavan Boland is a superb and widely admired poet; she has stormed the men’s round tower, challenged the notion of status of the muse, and reclaimed women’s experience as a subject fit for Irish poetry. But for all that preoccupation with ‘the oral tradition’ her natural voice remains one of elevated concern. There are no laughs. No one swears. In her celebrated sequences, there are shifts of tone, but not from very high to very low. Perhaps that isn’t necessary; the work is potently musical already. The point may be that there is something about the way the Irish distil their poetry that imbues their work with a unique blend of light and shade. They don’t need to step down. They find popularity without that. Besides, there is a tradition of Irish entertainers (Dave Allen etc.) who are virtually poets; and a good number of Irish poets (Kennelly, O’Siadhail, Durcan) who are highly professional entertainers.
It would be hard to say where the high ends and the low begins in a poet such as Paul Muldoon. But Muldoon has become thoroughly Americanised, and that brings a different perspective on this theory, because their writers from Whitman onwards have made a point of shifting gears dramatically: it’s become as much a convention for American poets as the car chase has for American film-makers. Indeed, it arrived with Modernism, which was largely learnt from film. It is in the very DNA of Dr Williams’s Paterson and endures into the later, long-lined Williams (C.K). The Beat Poets thrived on it. Those Americans who only choose to lift their eyes to the abstract heavens with Wallace Stevens’s angels are, I would argue, the weaker for it. W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, even Louise Glück, do lack an earthy component that we find in, say, Denise Levertov, A. R. Ammons, or the miniatures of Kay Ryan. And glancing further back, we may wonder why the ever-various Edna St Vincent Millay was sidelined, and (more radically) ask ourselves whether Marianne Moore’s sheer range gives her more staying power than either Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell. Moore’s might be thought the most obscure and elitist of voices, but she it was who appeared on television throwing the first pitch in a baseball game. Lowell’s dramatic fall in fortunes is surely connected to his humourlessness, his unrelenting density of texture. His work makes this reader think of packed rooms, crowded seas, a noisy dinner table, allusion jostling with irony. Bishop is more likely to bring to mind those fragile air balloons in ‘The Armadillo’ – possibly floating past Moore’s immortal steeple-jack.
Is any of this more than just an ignis fatuus glimpsed from Max’s ghost train at Cross Lane Fair? There’s no doubt that the theory works best for modern British composers, and in the end, I suspect that my ‘suspicion’ applies rather more readily to home-grown artists. Think of Ted Hughes. If you only knew his Collected Poems, you would have no idea of the light touch he reveals in his Collected Poems for Children. Hughes’s problem was that he seldom managed to merge the two voices effectively; when he did, in Season Songs, he produced some of his most authentic work. In the past seventy years, British poetry has lurched from high to low and back again, with only a handful of writers managing to maintain their equilibrium. There sit Kathleen Raine and Vernon Watkins on a steadily eroding Parnassus, still ‘defending ancient springs’, glorious but unsmiling. Reading these neglected poets can be (much as I love them) like listening to too much plainchant. It’s easier to play with the circus animals in the lowlands, which is what most of us do these days, though we versifiers know that to aim low in poetry is an even faster track to obscurity than the Parnassian Line. It is probably – and surprisingly – Philip Larkin who shows how to strike the right balance. He was a poet whose life was devoted to finding the ideal blend of high and low, under the influence of Yeats and Hardy respectively; the title poem of High Windows is a demonstration of this aesthetic. Since his death, British poets who seem to get it right (i.e. do not lapse into stand-up routines, playing for laughs and exit-lines; and do not become Larkin clones) are not always those winning the prizes. But there are a few who have shown they are willing to attempt a lively reeling earthdance like Maxwell Davies’s A Spell for Green Corn, as well as to conjure the slow, dark immensities of his Worldes Blis. I think of particular works by Robert Crawford, Philip Gross, David Morley, Carol Rumens, Penelope Shuttle, and of Max’s friend and inspiration, George Mackay Brown. Our own High Hill (Geoffrey), unashamedly lofty, but amusing, lighthearted, sardonic, makes the strongest case for true English genius. Yet I wonder whether even he properly sounds the depths of human experience, which includes the dart of human insight as well as the spark from heaven, the belly laugh as much as the Damascene vision. In truth, there is ‘nothing of the circus’ about him . . . though maybe there is in the extraordinary R. F. Langley, whose voice is only now beginning to be heard.
That phrase about the circus was Jean Sibelius’s, a way of preparing audiences for his bleak Fourth Symphony, the so-called ‘Barkbrod’, written after an operation for cancer of the throat. His symphonies perhaps don’t ‘contain the world’ (as Mahler famously insisted to Sibelius himself a symphony should), but he is a composer who was happy to produce popular miniatures alongside those intense masterpieces. He learnt early on that tea-rooms would pay good money for a sad waltz – though foolishly he opted for a lump sum rather than royalties and thereafter his worldwide hit, Valse Triste, would taunt him whenever he heard it played. It is easy to forget that much of what we are discussing comes down to the need for a creative artist – genius or not – to make a living. Shakespeare certainly understood that, and knew there was no better way to please a paying audience than to briefly loosen the tightening knot of his dramas with a song:
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear your true love’s coming
That can sing both high and low . . .
John Greening has published more than a dozen collections (notably To the War Poets, Carcanet, 2013), and several studies of poetry and poets. His edition of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (OUP) appeared in 2015, along with a classical music anthology, Accompanied Voices. Following the pamphlet Nebamun’s Tomb (Rack Press, 2016), his next book will be a major collaboration with Penelope Shuttle, Heath (Nine Arches), out this July. A further Carcanet collection is scheduled for 2017. TLS reviewer and Eric Gregory judge, John
Greening’s awards include the Bridport Prize and a Cholmondeley. He is RLF Writing Fellow at Newnham College. www.johngreening.co.uk