As Abhorrent As The Worship Of The Golden Calf

Sir Donald’s backhanded defense of opera.

Doubtless there are some people to whom the use of music for illlustrating other things is as abhorrent as the worship of the golden calf was to the law-giver of Israel; but if you wish to break all the commandments of aesthetic philosophy at once you will infer that, because stage music is of a lighter texture than purely instrumental music, therefore opera is a lower order of art.

It is indeed an art in which a music can succeed that would have no chance of achieving distinction as absolute music, but it is no more essentially lower than the string quartet is essentially lower than other forms of poetry.


  1. Frere Mussel

    So it appears that this Sir Donald character hasn’t listened to any opera composed post 1850. Although i would agree that earlier opera does have a lighter texture (as does the instrumental music from this time) and we all know a harpsichord driven band can sound something like skeletons copulating on a tin roof…That being said, for a thick texture you need look no further than, Jeunfa, or the tertzet at the end of Falstaff, or many many moments in Varissmo. Act 3 finale of Andrea Chenier, on and on and on.

  2. Miss Mussel

    Wouldn’t you say though, that over all, orchestral music has a denser texture only because it doesn’t have to leave room for singers…where the thicker texture continues on for 80 minutes (Bruckner) rather that moments?

    Sir Donald Francis Tovey died in 1940, so Flastaff would technically still have been in that blasted “new music” category and honestly, who listens to that stuff anyway?

    Anyway, all of this is beside the point. What he is saying is that opera music isn’t automatically crap because it’s not absolute music.

  3. Miss Mussel

    I think Sir Donald must mean, in this instance, that string quartets are a form of poetry or the whole metaphor doesn’t work.

    (2) is spot on, though and I think I would have to agree. I’ve only read two volumes of Tovey so far but have a pile of others looking forlornly from the corner. He’s quite the character.

  4. Slithy Tove

    (1) I believe some text has dropped out of the quotation? It surely must read “but it is no more essentially lower than the string quartet THAN [SOME KIND OF VERSE–epic maybe?] is essentially lower than other forms of poetry.” (Sometimes Tovey didn’t catch typos like this–he was a careless proofreader by his own admission.)

    (2) By “lighter texture” Tovey doesn’t mean thinner orchestration, but that in opera musical action (such things as modulations or development of themes) is spread out more thinly over time. This appears over and over in his essays and lectures. He considers that more goes on (say) in the first movement of the Eroica than in a whole act of the Ring.

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