Edmund Wilson: I’m delighted to hear about your new magazine.
The Visitor: We hope that it’s going to be good.
Wilson: God knows that some such thing is needed. The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike only made us realize it had never existed. Apart from Norman Cousins’ campaign for peace and an occasional article on popular science, the Saturday Review is interesting only for its reports on new phonograph records. And those quarterlies are still mostly wandering in the vast academic desert of the structure of The Sound and the Fury, the variants in the text of Billy Budd and the religious significance of The Great Gatsby.
But where did you get the money? Not from a foundation, I imagine.
The Visitor: That’s where we were very lucky. We tried the foundations first, but of course there was nothing doing.
Wilson: The big ones, so far as I can see—in the literary and scholarly departments, at least—are run by second-rate professors who have found that they can make more money out of that kind of bureaucratic job than out of mediocre teaching. I’ve been trying for many years to get really good complete editions of the American classics printed—like the French Pléiade series, you know. When a publisher friend of mine who has been trying to do something about it went to the Rockefeller Foundation, he was told that it would first be necessary to have a study made in order to find out whether the books were available—which everyone who has done any work in this field could have told him at once they are not—and then the foundation man remarked that there was really no point in reprinting any author complete: who ever read all of Shakespeare? At the Ford Foundation, he was told that the whole of their cultural budget had been allotted to provide two planes to fly over the Middle West, broadcasting educational programs. The people on these foundations do not seem to have any competence to make judgments on the projects submitted to them (I except the Guggenheim Foundation, which is an older and quite different thing), and they feel free to formulate projects themselves in fields they know nothing about, with no relevance to the applicants’ aims. A middle-aged anthropologist who had devoted many years of his life to a group of Australian aborigines or a tribe of Mexican Indians or something of the sort was told, when he applied to one of the foundations, that it had been discovered in their offices that very little anthropological work had as yet been done on the Turks, and that it might recommend him to investigate this subject, of which he was totally ignorant. A scholar friend of mine who is an expert on the numismatics of the Graeco-Roman world had, when I last saw him, been trying without success to get a grant which would enable him to do research on the coinage of Alexander the Great—of special interest, it seems, as the first really international coinage. I have just read that he has been made chairman of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I hear of nothing but such stupidities on the part of the big foundations.
I have just had a letter from the Ford Foundation inviting me to recommend candidates—let me read it to you—for “a one-year program designed to enable a limited number of poets, novelists and short story writers to spend a year with professional resident theater companies. The intention of the program is to bring established writers in non-dramatic forms into formal association with the theater and, by acquainting them with stage problems and the requirements of dramatic writing, ultimately to improve the quality of plays and scripts available to American directors, actors and producers.” What nonsense! A typical foundation project, obviously thought up by somebody who knows nothing about the theater. What are these prospective playwrights supposed to be actually doing? The way to learn about the theater is to have a play put on or to act in one, and a grant from the Ford Foundation can hardly help one much to do either. A man who really wants to write plays is sufficiently enamored of the theater to get into it at any cost. If a poet does not write plays, why encourage him to hang around theaters? There are some very good people here who are listed as having had grants, but what a farfetched pretext for giving them money to work! In the case of the universities, I don’t know whether the grants that they obtain from the foundations are for projects originated by the bureaucrats, which the university devotes to some other use, or whether the university, knowing how these things are done, dreams up some grandiose project which it knows will appeal to the foundation mind and then uses it for something else; but I have seen a certain amount of evidence that these subsidies do not always go for the purposes for which they were granted
Well, tell me how you did get your subsidy.
The Visitor: It all comes from one backer.
Wilson: An old-fashioned patron?
The Visitor: Yes.
Wilson: You don’t think he’ll interfere with you?
The Visitor: I don’t see how he can. He’s unshockable—about politics or religion or art or sex or anything. He doesn’t want his name made public, but he’s a cultivated European who married a rich American woman. She died and left him all her money, and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s a collector of various things, but his collections are now practically complete, and are beginning in fact to bore him. He says that, first of all, he would like to see a review that he himself can read, and, second, that a country as big as this and as powerful as we are now supposed to be has enough nearly literate people to make it perhaps important to establish a cultural journal which will not have to worry about money and so will be free to set its own standards and to get only first-rate writers who are allowed to say anything they please. He himself was something of a figure in the cultural life of his country before the Russians took over.
Wilson: Won’t he want to contribute himself?
The Visitor: He comes from a country with a minority language—only spoken by a few hundred thousand people. He has always read English but he doesn’t write it. German was his second language.
Wilson: One of those Baltic barons?
The Visitor: I’m not allowed to tell.
Wilson: Well, I congratulate you!—You say “cultural journal.” So you won’t be dealing only with books.
The Visitor: No, with all the arts—and that’s what I wanted to ask you about. You’ve written so much about literature but not much about painting and music. We wondered if you wouldn’t contribute some opinions about graphic and musical subjects.
Wilson: Gladly: I know nothing whatever about them.
The Visitor: But in the twenties you used to do articles on concerts and exhibitions.
Wilson: Oh, that was in the days when I was cultural man-of-all-work for the New Republic. I wrote about everything from burlesque shows and circuses to Stravinsky and Georgia O’Keeffe. I’d never dare to write such stuff today.
The Visitor: An informal interview, perhaps.
Wilson: That’s what I thought you meant.
The Visitor: I’m sure you must have some ideas on current tendencies in the musical and artistic worlds.
Wilson: I never think much in terms of tendencies even in the literary world. I have preferences in music and painting, of course, but there wouldn’t be any point in enumerating, for example, my favorite painters. In my case, such preferences would be of no interest. If I should say that I like Edwin Dickinson but don’t very much like Rouault, it would be like announcing in public that I like shad but don’t like lobster. In order to talk critically about an art, you have to have some inside knowledge of it, and as I’m neither a musician nor a painter even in an amateur way, I don’t really know how those things are done, so, in any technical sense, I don’t know what these artists are doing.
The Visitor: It would be interesting to hear your preferences.
Wilson: Not for painters or musicians, I’m afraid. But if you want some unauthoritative opinions, here goes. There’s one great phenomenon of modern painting about which I seem to be in a minority of one. That’s Picasso. I can’t really feel much interest in him. Of course, I see the brillance of his work, and even at times the beauty. I’m willing to believe that Picasso is the greatest draftsman since Raphael—that he’s a prodigy of inventiveness, “resourcefulness,” virtuosity, variety, all that. And yet somehow the whole thing bores me. I can’t help feeling that the man himself is shallow. The deliberate ugliness of his women that are seen simultaneously in fishlike full-face and profile seems to me in its way just as facile as the pathos and charm of the acrobats that he was doing in his early period, or the cubism that he played with and abandoned. He goes on doing one thing after the other without ever becoming more interesting. It’s all on the same level! His idea of tragic bitterness at the time of the Spanish Civil War! He could only make Franco grotesque and humanly unbelievable, and those horses with tongues like spikes and eyes like little dots on the sides of their heads—that he said represented the Spanish people—and those caricatured classical women with their thick necks and wooden faces and their fingers and toes like sausages—you can’t imagine them suffering anguish. Picasso was much more interested in his cleverness in putting over women and horses that looked like that than in anything connected with Franco. You know that popular print that belongs to the Guernica period: the little girl holding a candle and confronting the monstrous Minotaur? Once years ago my wife was going to buy it as a Christmas present for me, but was dissuaded by Clement Greenberg, the art critic, who assured her that I’d very soon get bored with it. So I bought it for myself and hung it in my office, and Greenberg’s prediction was correct. I usually enjoy the horrific, but I couldn’t believe in that Minotaur, and eventually I gave it away. Put Picasso beside Goya and he’s nowhere. In Goya you do feel the horror—a desperate and tortured contempt—of the cruelties of war and the Inquisition, of Saturne devouring his children. And his drawings are dark and corrosive, they leave a scar on the mind, whereas—in spite of his calculated outrageousness—Picasso merely startles and amuses. I never get tired of Goya, who is, on the whole, I suppose, the artist that I find most congenial.
I have always had a very strong taste for the satirical and the rather sinister; and I am under the impression—which artists tell me makes no sense—that I am much more sensitive to line than to color. I like things to be rather dry and drawn sharply instead of fluently. I particularly admire Degas, and Matisse means very little to me. My first great admirations were Hogarth and Dürer—I had them up on my walls in my youth. Then I discovered Callot, who is of course a lesser artist but has a special personal interest for me. I was stationed in France during the First World War near Nancy in Lorraine, where Callot was born, and when the city was threatened by the Germans, an old print dealer there got out and set up shop in the town where I was. I bought from him a number of Callot prints, some made from the original blocks, and a copy of the 18th-century engraving copied from Callot’s most popular plate, La Tentation de Saint-Antoine. These stood me in good stead. They fell in with my mood of those years and they gave me a certain support. I had some of the series of Desastres de la Guerre—which inspired Goya’s series—and I took acrid satisfaction in the irony and objectivity of Callot’s point of view. I still like to have these prints around me. Later on I got Lieure’s “Catalogue” of Callot, which beautifully reproduces in many fascicules the whole of his engraved and other work. It is fascinating. It seems to unroll the whole life of the 17th century: wars, fairs, landscapes, views of the cities, beggars, Commedia dell’ Arte actors, the ceremonies and fetes of the court—with the people seen as sharp tiny figures, almost on the scale of insects. It is characteristic of Callot that when he gives us a closer view of them, they are likely to be less satisfactory: their features are not so clearly stamped as these prickly little midgelike figures.
I like picture books in general of the comic or fantastic kind: Gilray, Rowlandson, Fuseli, Spitzweg, Cruikshank, Phiz, Edward Lear, Beardsley, Toulouse-Lautrec, George du Maurier, Phil May, Max Beerbohm, Sem, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Peggy Bacon, Saul Steinberg, Leonard Baskin, Edward Gorey—to mention people of very different magnitudes. But a would-be ironist that I do not like is that half-baked Belgian, Ensor. I believe that Sem, the great French caricaturist, is a much underrated artist. He is one of those people that the French consign to an inferior category—like Yvette Guilbert, who was certainly one of the great French artists of her time, but who, when she went back to France in the twenties, having greatly extended her range during the years she had lived in America, was still never taken seriously in Paris, where they spoke of her rather disdainfully as “une chanteuse de cafe chantant.” So Forain is taken seriously, is supposed to belong to legitimate art, though he is certainly a second-rate artist and apparently a detestable person—Sem’s caricatures of Forain are interesting from this point of view—whereas Sem is somehow still a mere journalist, though he is actually a far more interesting and a more distinguished artist. He had a whole very remarkable artistic development: from his earliest albums which he published in the eighties, of old-fashioned caricatures of the prominent people in the French provincial cities—who subscribed, I suppose, to these albums—to his wonderful mature work, in which the whole social world of Paris is presented year after year, with its changing fashions in costume and restaurants and dances and sports. And even in this later work there is a striking constant development: there is even an advance in draftsmanship between the album which shows all his Parisian characters mad about dancing the Tango and the one in which they are dancing the Black Bottom. The one about the Black Bottom contains some of Sem’s best work. He is a master at showing action. How would Elsa Maxwell and the Aga Khan and Barry Wall and Cécile Sorel disport themselves in wildly succumbing to the spirit of the Black Bottom? Everyone will dance it differently, and the album is a tumult of movement. And everybody is dressed characteristically. Sem was a contemporary of Sargent, and he has something of Sargent’s virtuosity with fine fabrics and well-cut garments: the silk hats and smart clothes of the men, the great cloaks and long skirts of the ladies in the era before skirts were lifted. There is never any touch of idealization. Sem’s art is astringent but rarely brutal, and the people are usually enjoying themselves. Proust’s favorite, Robert de Montesquiou, was also a favorite of Sem’s, and it is curious to compare Sem’s caricatures of him with the character of Proust’s Charlus, to which Montesquiou is supposed to have contributed. Charlus is temperamental and uncomfortable, humiliated, venomous, doomed, whereas Montesquiou according to Sem is always having the time of his life, dining with his friend Yturri, who adores him, or strutting through a recitation of his poems to an audience of delighted ladies. I don’t know why the people who write about Proust don’t illustrate their books with Sem’s caricatures. He and Proust knew one another, and they were dealing with the same society. It is said that Sem used to stay up till all hours in fashionable restaurants waiting for the moment when some fashionable lady would drop her social mask—which seems to me very Proustian. But Sem rarely aims to degrade as Proust so often does. His drawings have often a peculiar beauty—those of the actress Brandes, with her flat yellow pompadour, her skull-like face and the gestures, at once sinuous and angular, of her long-boned body and arms; the old Rothschild couple, at sunset, walking along the abandoned beach, she moving ahead with her positive umbrella and her salient determined chin, he strolling behind with his half-closed eyes, his black suit and his long white dundrearies; and even the dandiacal figure of the professional decadent Jean Lorrain—with whom Proust once fought a duel—vulgarly precious and weakly supercilious, his fingers loaded with rings.
The Visitor: Daumier?
Wilson: For some reason I don’t enjoy Daumier nearly so much as some other people that I know are his inferiors as artists. I think that the trouble is that a kind of classical sculpture somehow blunts the effect of his satire. Gavarni I don’t like at all—it’s a proof of the Goncourts’ dubious taste that they make such a fuss about him. I suppose that on account of his being so unimaginative they thought he was naturalistic. The drawings of Henri Monnier are feeble enough in this satirical vein, but his little one-act dramas or dialogues are really biting eauxfortes in prose. They anticipate Flaubert and Maupassant. Well, people tell me—though I don’t think it’s entirely true—that I mainly go to pictures for the qualities of literature, that what I really like are illustrations.
The Visitor: But a good deal of the work of Picasso has also illustrational interest.
Wilson: Yes: he turns out innumerable albums, but I never buy these albums. I look through them in the houses of friends.—Oh, I forgot to mention George Grosz: perhaps the very greatest of the satirical artists—at least as great as Hogarth. There has lately been an excellent film made from his drawings and paintings, which brings out the concentrated life that Grosz has put into all those middle-class German faces: their brutality, meanness, stupidity, complacency, debauchery, cruelty, coarseness. I do not remember anything by Picasso that is brought into so sharp a focus. The faces of all these creatures, no matter how brutelike they are, have expressions of the fiercest intensity: they reflect the intensity of the artist. And Grosz, too, is a master draftsman. The stock thing to say about him after he came to America in 1932, was that his work was no longer so interesting; but this was not at all true. He had a straight non-satirical side, which he mainly developed in the United States: the sand-dunes, the nude figures, the portraits of friends, all as solidly constructed as Dürers. And when he went back to satire at the time of Hitler, his Nazi butchers and miserable “Stickmen” were as powerful as anything he had done in his youth and were remarkable for a new use of color. It is true that when he first came to this country, he somewhat relented in his harshness, so that his work seemed less characteristic. There was a German admiration for America that was not merely chic as in France but was based on the obvious features that Germany had had in common with us: energetic activity, mechanical skill, urban building and middle-class comfort. I had never really understood how far this admiration had gone in George Grosz’s case till I asked him once what he thought of American painting. He said that he didn’t think much of it but that American commercial art was something new in the world, which did interest him. It created a whole ideal of the desirable and attainable life: handsome men and beautiful women, with their spic-and-span smiling children, all eating the most excellent food, traveling in the smoothest-running cars, basking and getting tanned on the most enjoyable beaches, housewives relieved of drudgery, husbands coming home from the office and relaxing in adjustable chairs while the loving but comradely wives bring them a reviving martini. It had never occurred to me before that the pictures in our advertisements might be of interest to subsequent civilizations, like Greek statues and Cretan murals. They certainly made a startling contrast to George Grosz’s conception of life in Berlin, but since I did not much believe in the ideal they depicted and thought that the realities of American life offered plenty of subjects for satire, I was surprised to discover that George was more or less delighted with America. In his account of his return to Germany, it is plain that he is full of pride at exhibiting himself as an American. He said that he bought for the occasion one of the most ostentatious of those gaudy American ties that were popular a few years ago—he would never have worn one in New York. The same thing seems to have happened in the case of Kurt Weill. Behind the revolutionary satire of Mahagonny, for example, which is supposed to take place in the United States, where neither he nor Bert Brecht had ever been, you feel an admiration for America, and when Weill did come over here, it was astonishing to find that he was able to get quite away from that German turbidity and sullenness, and to turn out such pretty poignancies as September Song, which appealed so successfully to the American taste, and some of the numbers in One Touch of Venus.
In any case, George Grosz had swung himself quite out of the orbit of the great European central Paris market, which had operated with such shrewdness and assiduity in building up Picasso and the rest. It seems to me that he and Chelishchev—and please don’t spell it Tchelitchew, though he let it go that way himself: he said that he did not sign his pictures, nobody else could have painted them—Chelishchev and George Grosz, it seems to me, were always at a disadvantage in not belonging to the Paris club. Chelishchev was a brilliant painter, who began as something of an imitator of Picasso but arrived at an originality less extraverted rather morbid but extremely imaginative—with his pathetic gallery of freaks, his trees that turn into children and his anatomical paintings of desquamated human heads, all in queer iridescent harlequin colors that it seems to me no one but a Russian, with a Russian’s love of gorgeousness and lack of chastened taste, would ever have thought of combining. And there is a Russian ingenuity that goes with these rather garishly assorted colors. Those deceptive paintings of Chelishchev that seem to be trees or portraits but turn out to conceal other things have a kinship with the novels of Nabokov, who loves to perform the same kind of tricks, and to juxtapose gemmy colors, as both are very much in the tradition of the precious mechanical peacock that Catherine the Great gave Potyomkin and those very fancy Easter eggs that rich Russians used to order from Fabergé. I suppose there’s something Byzantine about it. The many-colored vestments of the old Greek Orthodox Church, with their Fabergé gold and silver, make the same sort of impression on me. It may well be that Pavel Chelishchev was actually, as he seemed to believe, the greatest Russian painter since the ikon-makers. He used to say that Peter the Great had destroyed the tradition of Russian painting by putting the ikon-makers out of business, and that he had been appointed to revive it. In any case, Chelishchev, like George Grosz, came to the United States, and neither of them has ever attained to the same international currency as the members of the organized surrealist group, all of whom it seems to me—unless Dali—were very much inferior to them. But they did not belong to a group and were never the darlings of the dealers.
The Visitor: I should imagine that you don’t care much for abstract painting.
Wilson: In the matter of the abstract painters, I have only a coarse jest: they might be useful as designers of linoleum if they were capable of the necessary discipline.
The Visitor: You were speaking of Kurt Weill. Have you similar prejudices in music?
Wilson: I’m afraid that my taste in music is influenced as much by my interest in the drama as my interest in the graphic arts is influenced by their literary content. To me, such composers as Verdi and Wagner are primarily great dramatists, and I have had a good deal of pleasure in getting complete recordings of their operas and following their libretti line by line, which since I’m not able to read the scores and since you can’t really follow them in the opera house, I’ve never been able to do before. Also, Boris Godunov. When I first saw it at the Metropolitan and tried to make sense of the Italian libretto, I couldn’t understand what it was all about. It was only when I read Pushkin’s play and got to know more about Russia that I could see how terrifically dramatic it was. Musorgsky’s libretto, which I had never seen till I got a recent Soviet recording, is one of the best ever written. Musorgsky wrote this himself. He based it on Pushkin’s tragedy—which is not one of his most successful works: an attempt to write a Russian Macbeth—and converted it into a masterpiece. He added elements from Russian folk music—like the ballad of the Siege of Kazan. The Soviet version has restored it to Musorgsky’s original arrangement. The Idiot is given his proper importance in the scene where he says to Boris: “The nasty boys took my kopek. Give orders to have their throats cut as you cut the little Tsarevich’s throat”; and then he reappears at the end. They sometimes in Western productions have it end with the death of Boris, but this is all wrong. Musorgsky had made it end with the army of the rebellion marching off and the Idiot left behind, sitting alone on the stage, as the snow begins to fall. He sings again his ominous song that he has sung after his scene with Boris:
Flow, flow, bitter tears
Weep, weep, Christian souls.
Soon the darkness will fall,
A darkness extremely dark,
Which we shall not be able to see through.
Woe, Woe, Russia.
Weep, Russian people,
—with its little twitching accompaniment—I hope you don’t mind my singing. This is one of the greatest moments in opera. (It could hardly have been done that way when Stalin was alive.) But everything in Musorgsky is dramatic. Compare the sound of the bells in Boris and in Khovanshchina—in the first, they are mocking at Boris, evidently making him uneasy, at the same time that they are celebrating his coronation; in the second, they are pounding an assertion of power. And the Songs and Dances of Death: the dialogue between Death and the mother of the dying child, with the spine-chilling voice of Death singing a lullaby while the mother grows more and more frantic, the peasant dying in the snowstorm while the voice of Death sings him the trepak.
The Visitor: How do you feel about contemporary opera?
Wilson: I very much admire Britten—though I am told by musical friends that I shouldn’t admire him so much.—He, too, has the dramatic sense to a degree that is very rare. The interludes in Peter Grimes that so intensify the drama of the action, the shadowy buildup of The Turn of the Screw, with its children’s voices and nursery jingles that are always made shadowy, too. Britten’s Turn of the Screw is altogether an original creation, quite distinct from Henry James’s story. Menotti of course, too, has the dramatic instinct highly developed; but he is sometimes more a man of the theater than a firstrate musical artist. Berg’s Wozzek and Lulu, too—though I’ve only heard the latter on records—are most effective in their creepy way. Lulu is a very strange performance. Berg sets out to turn into opera the whole of Frank Wedekind’s long play in two parts that deals with the destructive career of the simpleminded but irresistible “Erdgeist” Lulu, and through hours of grayest recitative the more or less repulsive characters discuss their sordid affairs, financial as well as artistic and amorous. The play itself is always in danger of becoming unintentionally funny—so it presents a considerable challenge—but Berg has put into it, it seems to me, more real pathos than Wedekind was capable of, and at the end the terrible shriek of the Jack the Ripper scene has been led up to with as much suspense and comes with as much horror as the murder of the wife in Wozzeck, with the ripples spreading out on the water when the murderer throws his knife into the pond. I wonder whether the monochrome of The Turn of the Screw—not particularly characteristic of Britten—doesn’t derive from the tonelessness of Wozzeck. The nursery rhymes of the children and the boy’s piano exercise are flattened and deprived of their melodic fulness like the song of the woman at the window and the military march in Wozzeck. It is all like a discolored photograph—very effective in its melancholy ghostly way, but it makes one long for something more ringing.
The Visitor: Have you heard Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron?
Wilson: Only on records, again. It is impressive, but, in spite of its leaning on Wagner, it did not seem to me very dramatic—though I’m told that the orgy of the Golden Calf, which needs a ballet, of course, is quite terrific on the stage. But what a disagreeable orgy, so full of reminders of death!—though this is, of course, just what Schoenberg intends. The Wagnerian romanticism that Schoenberg began with, as his later method developed, was reduced to more and more of a starvation diet; and I felt about Moses and Aaron that it was too moralistic and didactic—very much a lugubrious monologue of the somber and stern Jewish master, who is never to arrive in the Promised Land. Moses goes up on the mountain and is handed the laws of the twelve-tone row. It takes him some time to grasp them, and while he has been away, the people have been getting dissatisfied. They are longing to dance and to sing, and Aaron—who is somebody like Stravinsky or Bartók or Hindemith, who is weak enough to make use of melody—agrees to let them have their fun. At the end of the Golden Calf revelry, Moses comes down from the mountain and is deeply shocked by what has been going on. The Golden Calf vanishes, and the people complain that their joie de vivre has been taken from them. Moses rebukes Aaron, who has been disloyal to his leader by giving them “das Bild” and “das Wunder” instead of waiting for Moses to bring his “Gedanke,” which transcends these meretricious attractions. Aaron defends himself on the ground that ordinary people are only able to comprehend a part of the all-inclusive “Gedanke.” “Shall I debase der Gedanke?” cries Moses—that is, abandon the serial system. He smashes the Tables of the Law and begs God to relieve him of his mission. For the very queer and arrogant last scene, Schoenberg never wrote the music. His difficulties and doubts about it are shown in certain passages of his letters. It was as if he, too, had broken his tables, as if he, too, were becoming discouraged, were losing his grip on his mission. But he had written the libretto for this scene, and here Aaron-Stravinsky is brought in in chains, and Moses-Schoenberg bawls him out for stooping to please the people instead of consecrating his gifts to the Gottesgedanke. “Shall we kill him?” the soldiers ask. “No,” says Moses, “Set him free, and let him live if he can.” But Aaron is by this time so crushed by shame that when the soldiers release him, he falls down dead—which is not the case in the Bible, where he continues to co-operate with Moses and take orders directly from God.
The Visitor: What do you think of twelve-tone music in general?
Wilson: I can’t follow it, so I don’t really know. But I’ve found it reassuring to learn that accomplished musicians can’t follow it either—that is, simply to listen to it without a score. I was talking about it the other day with one of the most distinguished American conductors, and one who is particularly notable for his catholicity of taste. I asked in what way the serial system was an improvement on music that was simply atonal. He said that it had two advantages. One, that it gave to the analysts of scores and the writers of program notes more scope for their technical explaining and made their explaining more necessary; and Two, that a man like Schoenberg, so exacting and puritanical, having completely made hay of the conventional harmonies, felt constrained to impose on himself a difficult gratuitous discipline. Debussy had not felt the need of any such theoretical structure, and Webern, though he followed Schoenberg’s system, could have achieved his effects without it. But the serial system has, in any case, by this time become something of a cult. I’m told that in the schools of music, the Schoenberg technique is now so much the thing that the students have to withstand a strong pressure, and even to risk something like ostracism, if they don’t want to become twelve-toners. A friend of mine who has seen a good deal of these students tells me that it is almost like the pressure of a homosexual group—though he didn’t mean to imply that there was any connection between homosexuality and serial music. Except, of course, that they’re both culs de sac. It strikes me that—in America, at least—the composers are the most ingrown group of any in the major arts. Their audience is so limited, and it is almost as if, finding themselves doomed to this, they take pride in defying the neglect of them by making it more limited still. They feel safer in the Kafka-esque burrow of the dark and hidden twelve-tone row.
But I’m afraid that the Anglo-Saxons are no longer a musical people—though they seem to have been in the past. Shakespeare is full of music, and the poetry up through the 17th century continues to show the influence of music to a degree that you don’t find today. It may be that the Cromwellian attack on the Church and the theater and on gaiety in general blasted music so it never recovered. In any case, the Anglo-Saxon world has not for several centuries been musical. In Germany and Italy and Russia, the people were always singing and playing on some instrument or other. But I don’t think we have much music in us. Prokofiev, for example, may not have been a great composer, but he was certainly full of music. So was Richard Strauss, who was certainly not a great composer. We have no such composers as this. Of course our popular music is brilliant, and it goes all over the world. But a good deal of it has been derived from materials provided by the Negroes, with their supreme African sense of rhythm, and much of the best of it has been written by Jews. I don’t know why the Jews should be so musical. Perhaps they brought their love of music from Russia and the German-speaking countries, and they could cultivate music in the synagogue at a time when a Jew was not free to cultivate the plastic arts, and when his full self-expression in literature was still hampered by difficulties of language.
It seems to me, besides, that the problem of a market has affected non-popular music more perhaps than it has done even painting. Music is not a parasitic art, but in order really to flourish, it seems to need to be supported by some well-established institution that will enable it to reach a large audience: the theater, the Church, the dance. The symphony orchestras can keep it alive, but they cannot—even by way of recordings—make the music of the concert hall a part of the life of a people. The dramatic element is very important. Aside from church music and opera, you find that even in concert-hall music Beethoven was a one-man drama, as was Brahms in his quieter way, and Richard Strauss, when he was not doing operas, was composing his programmatic “tone-poems,” which could not be more theatrical. A Menotti can make money by writing for the stage, a Copland by writing for ballet or the movies, but a non-dramatic composer, unless he has private means, has to depend on grants from foundations or get a job in the music department of some university. How great would be Stravinsky’s reputation or how widely would his work be played, if he had not in his early career made connections with Dyagilev and been able to go on writing ballets all his life. His non-theatrical works are as delightful as everything else he writes but they are only very rarely played—you have to get them on records.
The Visitor: You do admire Stravinsky?
Wilson: Tremendously. Unlike Picasso, Stravinsky has meant a good deal to me—more than any other contemporary artist in any non-literary art. It is inspiring for any kind of craftsman to have the spectacle of such a sustained career—the artist always himself and always doing something different, but always doing everything intensely with economy, perfect craftsmanship and style—so different from Picasso’s diffuseness that sometimes seems almost mere doodling. Stravinsky has kept going through his eighties with such tireless pertinacity and vivacity that I feel he has helped me to keep going. I’m not in the least religious, but I think it’s significant and admirable that Stravinsky should begin every day with a prayer.
—Well, I guess that’s enough. When people get to talking about subjects that they don’t really know inside out, you are likely to get a combination of banalities, naivetés and what I love to have my critics call “gross blunders,” and I expect I’ve been guilty of all of them. I hope that I haven’t made Sem seem more important than Michelangelo—or given you the impression that I haven’t in the past very much admired Schoenberg.
The Visitor: Thank you very much.—Now, what doo yoo theenk of thees keend of myooseee?
A prolonged even whistle is heard.
Wilson: It doesn’t sound eeree or loopee enough for electronic myooseee.
The Visitor: Eelectroneee? Noo: Eelectrooloox—a keend of myooseee freequeentlee heerd een thee oordeenaree Amereereecan hoosehoold.
Wilson: Yes: eet soonds veeree fameeliar. Noo, tell mee, what are yoo going too call yoor magazeen?
The Visitor: The seem neem: Eelectroloox, and thee poorpose weel bee the seem.
Wilson: Woon’t yoo reeveel, pleese?
The Visitor: Eeee—eesee, eeesee does eet. Thees weel geeve yoo soom ideee of the keend of mateereeal that wee are hooping too coollect and preesent.
The sound suddenly ceases. Wilson awakes. The maid has stopped the vacuum cleaner in order to empty its contents.
June 1, 1963