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The Food of Love

by Guy Dammann

That music is the most seductive of the arts has been observed often, and often well. The ancient Greeks marvelled at its ability to manipulate mood and emotion just as today we sit in cinemas, happy to cede control to the sounds which swirl around us from unseen sources, tugging our aptly named heart-strings at the director’s behest. It is no coincidence that the birth of opera bore witness to music’s power even to affect the will of gods, in the legend of Orpheus – a myth which, in some way, each subsequent opera has reaffirmed.

Seduction is the explicit concern of a recent opera to premiere in the UK, Peter Eötvös’ adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s novella Love and Other Demons, which opened at Glyndebourne last August. There are those who find the Hungarian composer’s music difficult on the ear, but few can deny its electricity when heard live. His astringent, often cacophonous idiom storms the senses, forcing open our ears and minds, rather as Marquez’s heroine induced her would-be confessor into a half-crazed world of frenzied – literally rabid – desire.

But we shouldn’t expect music to do all the work; and Orsino’s oft-quoted soliloquy about music being the “food of love” strikes back at the lazy listener. For the image of music as easy nourishment for the romantic spirit, rich in power both to seduce and console, is a feint, conceived by its author to disguise a more disdainful attitude. The Duke begs his players’ indulgence because music’s charms seem to him to fade on repetition – “Enough! No more: / ’Tis not so sweet now as it was before” – thus promising, at last, to dim his senses and quash the listless yearnings of an unlucky lover.

Orsino is a nobleman, of course, who keeps musicians as servants so that music, like wine, can be called for when nerves are in need of soothing, or minds in need of numbing. He is also a character who, like his creator, long preceded the great bourgeois musical revolution, when musicians proudly threw away their livery to compose for an altogether grander master, that of humanity itself. But the implicit insight that music – no less than love – demands effort to be kept alive applies equally to Shakespeare’s contemporaries Byrd and Dowland as to Beethoven and Brahms.

Music’s most famous seducer has, like Orsino, musicians at his beck and call. (Women too, if we are to believe his valet’s catalogue of 1,003 successful conquests). But Don Giovanni is also a character who, propelled inexorably on the wings of sexual desire, is as devoted to his hedonistic ethic as his medieval forbears might have been to chivalry: christened the “no-man” by Kierkegard, Mozart’s anti-hero is presented to us as a noble character in a world in which nobility has been stripped of meaning.

This is an aspect brought out powerfully by Francesca Zambello’s production of the opera for Covent Garden, revived for the third time in the Autumn when the lead was sung first by the mercurial Simon Keenlyside and then by the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, whose excellent Germont in the Royal Opera’s recent La Traviata was over-shadowed only by Anna Netrebko’s
mesmerising turn as Violetta. Devoid of moral and musical character (his music always apes the style of his prey), Giovanni’s existence is entirely bound up in the rituals and language of seduction, an object lesson not in the ethics of promiscuity but in the perils of sensation robbed of human meaning. For this reason, he remains the opera’s moral and musical centre, and his dramatic descent to the infernal regions leaves the remaining characters entirely bereft of purpose.

Except one. Zerlina, the one character who believed she might gain from the nobleman’s attractions, stands out, the emblem perhaps of an emerging social and artistic dynamism. Mozart was, of course, one of the first composers to kick the servant/master relationship up the backside – quite literally if we are to believe his letters – and became keenly aware that the social respect he felt was due to his artistry. But Mozart’s ability to eek out a good, if at times precarious living, as a freelance composer and performer was also partly enabled by the development in Vienna of a new kind of concert culture, marked by an expectation of attentive, active listening on the part of the audience.
It is a culture which, if it brings with it some of the problems of pretentiousness and snobbery that afflict contemporary classical music, nonetheless survives healthily enough today. For it is through our listening that the musical work takes actual form. We seduce it, as much as it seduces us.

In this sense, you might say that music without active listening is rather like sex without love – albeit that, “as empty experiences go”, quipped Woody Allen, “it’s one of the best”. But then, as the fable of Giovanni suggests, the emptiness may catch up with you in the end, one way or another.


Guy Dammann writes on music and philosophy for The Guardian.

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