Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review: The Constant Nymph; or, What is Music For?


The bestselling English novel of its decade, Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph (1924) sets out a love triangle between Lewis Dodd, a socially awkward and condescending composer, Florence Creighton, his aristocratic wife, and Tessa Sanger, the passionate and innocent young girl who has loved Lewis throughout her childhood.  I found it at my local public library’s bi-annual book sale, along with several other Viragos.  I brought it with me to while away the hours in airports and on planes, and didn’t expect to love it as much as I did!  I’ve already started recommending it to friends, and am pleasantly surprised that one of the first books I finished in the new year will likely make it onto my top ten list.

The first two sections of The Constant Nymph, before we get to the romantic tragedy part, reads like a combination of I Capture the Castle or Guard Your Daughters (no, really!) and anything by Elizabeth von Arnim.  It has the beautiful descriptions of nature found in any of Elizabeth von Arnim’s book, with the same understanding that one’s surroundings impact a person and can change her irrevocably.  And it has I Capture the Castle’s quirkiness.  The leading lady of this book, Tessa, is a middle child in “Sanger’s circus,” a raucous and disorderly family living in a nearly-inaccessible house in the Alps.

We get to know a whole cast of characters at this remote home – Albert Sanger himself, a brilliant but overlooked English composer, and his seven legitimate children, along with his current wife Linda and whichever musician friends happen to be staying with them at the moment.  The children live almost entirely ungoverned, which means that the two eldest are child-parents who valiantly take on the responsibility of maintaining what order can be achieved in the household.  All of the younger children are completely wild but totally devoted to their high standards for music.  Their conversations range from exasperating to unexpectedly insightful, and every one of them has a unique and strong personality.  Getting to know them was a delight, even the grasping and troublemaking Linda and her daughter Suzanne.

The book focuses on the nature of musical value, aligning artistry with disorder and demonstrating how it is killed by social conventions.  Disorder is linked with charm and the extraordinary; society equals order, which leads to sameness that is frigid and stifling.  Love is the first step towards civility, but civility as the Sanger circle understands it is antithetical to “normal” culture.  In brief, The Constant Nymph asks what music is for.  Is it for the enjoyment of other people, or is it a composer’s fulfilling of some greater, ineffable call?  The fundamental disconnect between these two ideas is perhaps the largest conflict between Lewis and Florence, as you can see in this conversation:

 “Amateurs,” said Lewis, pronouncing the word as if it made him a little ill, “have no business to have a level.  Is this Leyburn an amateur?”
“Don’t talk in that tone of voice about amateurs.  I’m one myself.  Yes, he is.  He sings very nicely too.  And he’s done a lot of splendid work bringing music to the people.”
“What’s he want to do that for?”
“My dear Lewis!  Why do you write music?”
“God knows!”
“Don’t you want to give pleasure to people?”
“No.”
“That’s a pose.”
“It’s not!  I swear it’s not.  I tell you this, Florence.  The sight of a lot of them listening to my work, or Sanger’s work, or anything decent, makes me sick.  I swear then I won’t write another note, if that’s what it’s for.”  (206-207)

Or this one:

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong.  You put the wrong things first.  Music, all art…what is it for?  What is its justification?  After all…”
“It’s not for anything.  It has no justification.  It…”
“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully.  You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done.  Human life is more important.”
“I know.  You want to use it like electric light.  You buy a new saucepan for your kitchen and a new picture for your silver sty.  I’ve seen it.  My father’s cultured.  He…”
“It’s a much abused word, and one is shy of using it.  But it means an important thing, which we can’t do without.”
“Can’t we?  I can!  By God I can!  Why do you suppose I ran away?  To get free of it.  Why do you think I loved Sanger?”

What’s fascinating to me is that these are some of the same issues with which all music historians and composers have to grapple.  These are the sorts of conversations I’ve had casually with my fellow grad students sitting around the fountain in the music department.  I never expected to find such a balanced treatment of them in a work of fiction!  This blog was started with the intention of puzzling out connections between my musicological work and the fiction I enjoy - well, here’s one!  This conflict over the purpose of music played a huge role in the development of 20th-century classical music and continues to be discussed by music scholars today.  It’s one that I’ve thought about and even written about.  Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote in undergrad and submitted as a writing sample for my grad school applications, entitled “The Composer’s Duty”: Practicality and Modernism in Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis in D.

Classical music of the twentieth century, of course, is not generally noted for its appeal to everyday people.  Modernism – the insatiable drive to create something new and exciting – had taken hold, resulting in extreme experimentation.  The 1950s saw the development of serial, aleatoric, and electronic music, and through these and other compositional styles, art music reached new heights of complexity.  Some composers became extremely self-centered, their audiences forgotten in the pursuit of self-expression.  American composer Milton Babbitt, for example, thought of music as a science, one rightfully unintelligible to the ignorant.  Thus, he concluded, the composer should be uncaring of the opinions of both performers and the public.  Babbitt said in his 1957 talk “The Composer as Specialist,” which was later published under the title “Who Cares If You Listen?”:

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.[1]

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Benjamin Britten had a very different philosophy.  He explained his objections to the so-called “retreat of twentieth-century composers into ivory towers” in a speech at the Aspen Institute:

On the contrary, it is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings…Music does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed, and performance imposes conditions.  It is the easiest thing in the world to write a piece virtually or totally impossible to perform – but oddly enough that is not what I prefer to do; I prefer to study the conditions of performance and shape my music to them.[2]

The Constant Nymph immediately catapulted onto my favorites list before I even got to any of this intellectual musical philosophy.  It was truly lovely, and I highly recommend it (like I said, think a cross between I Capture the Castle and Elizabeth von Arnim!)  And happily, I have another of Margaret Kennedy’s novels waiting on my to-read shelf.


[1] Milton Babbitt, in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Schirmer, 2008), 484.
[2] Benjamin Britten, in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, 478.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I'll definitely be adding it to my TBR.

    ReplyDelete