Daffy developments

Radio 3 round-up
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It is all years ago, but I still have on my conscience the day I wickedly played a summer school class a recording of Elgar's orchestration of Bach's organ Fugue in C Minor without revealing whose recording it was. "Oh dear, yes," they all sighed, "those vulgar Stokowski arrangements..." When it finally emerged that the perpetrator was the blessed Sir Edward, the embarrassment was exquisite. Yet in last Saturday's Private Passions,Patricia Routledge was to be heard marvelling that the composer of such wonderful symphonies and concertos could descend to a treatment of Bach "so full of bad taste".

Mind you, it was also obvious that she enjoyed every blustering moment of it. And in any case, who under 50 still invokes good taste as an artistic criterion? After all, a connoisseurship of stable values may be more hindrance than help in appraising a pluralistic culture, let alone individual originality. It was actually in defence of Stokowski that Hans Keller once declared: "Those who pride themselves on their good taste have it instead of anything else." And there are good reasons why Elgar's Bach orchestration deserves more than an indulgent giggle.

For a start, it suggests how Bach was once understood, not just by the public of a particular era, but by a creative genius. Then again, the scoring attains perhaps the ultimate in brilliance and virtuosity even in Elgar's output. Yet it soon becomes evident that the virtuosity is far from an end in itself. The arrangement was Elgar's first major effort after the death of his wife, and muse, Alice; and, to friends, he confessed turning to Bach because he felt he could no longer compose anything of his own. As the crackling trombones, teetering strings and crashing percussion grow ever more frenzied, one senses less a master having a rollicking good time than the rage and despair of a spirit near the end of its tether. In the face of such personal authenticity, what price taste?

Whereas in the case of Carl Stalling... True, one has only to listen for half a minute to the incredible quick-change musical thrills and spills of a Bugs Bunny sound-track to realise that here, in his way, was one of the supreme applied musicians. But in last weekend's Radio 3 Sunday Feature, A Corny Concerto, the jazz and film composer John Zorn wanted to claim much, much more: that as composer of some 1,200 Warner Brothers cartoon scores, Stalling virtually created the language of cartoon film music; that he anticipated Varese in integrating music and noise; that his development of collage-form was as original as Stravinsky. None of this will really stand up. Many of Stalling's gestures come out of a vaudeville tradition that had already been exploited by Ives; Varese was already using noise-making instruments by 1918; and Stravinsky's collage surfaces mask deeper continuities that are inevitably absent from the fits and starts of a five-minute Daffy Duck film. Yet, divorced from their images, these manic sequences of music do throw up consistencies of gesture, texture and momentum which might be thought of as adumbrating a style or taste - and a purely American taste at that. Which, in turn, might just have been Zorn's real, underlying point.

Comments