Mood Nocturne

There is a saying attributed to Aaron Copland that “If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.”

One such literary man is the distinguished poet Edward Hirsch. In his book “The Demon and the Angel”, a collection of brief essays on artistic inspiration, Hirsch writes as follows about the Louis Armstrong masterpiece “West End Blues”: “One feels the duende, for example, in the mood nocturne of Louis Armstrong’s celebrated “West End Blues”, which he recorded with the Hot Fives in 1928.” Hot Fives? Each member was a “five”? Well, that’s not exactly a musical error, simply a copy editing problem. But you tell me what a “mood nocturne” is. What’s more mystifying is the description of the opening cadenza: “It takes a mere twelve seconds and consists of four notes that feel like a clarion call rising out of Armstrong’s rough-and-tumble past, an orphanhood.” What could Hirsch possibly mean by “it consists of four notes”? Maybe he is referring to the opening four notes, which group together by virtue of their equal duration? At least Hirsch can count the choruses in the piece. He writes of how the cadenza is “followed by an odd kind of ensemble chorus” (what is odd about it?) “and then a chorus of trombone.” OK, so that’s two choruses. Hirsch then quotes Wilfred Mellers, who writes that “After the first chorus, however, Armstrong does not play trumpet, instead he scat-sings” (why the hyphen? perhaps a Britishism?) “in duologue” (dialog(ue) isn’t good enough for you?) “with [the] clarinet.” The “duologue” is, of course, the third chorus, not the second. Perhaps Mellers meant that after playing on the first chorus, Armstrong, on his next appearance, does not play trumpet…

Hirsch is right to honor Armstrong alongside Lorca and Rilke, and his reflections throughout the book are intense and beautiful. But why can’t the details be more precise when it comes to music? Or are there similar problems with his writing about poetry?

I came upon this passage the same week that a piece on André Aciman’s “Eight White Nights” in the New York Times Book Review describes a character in the novel as “listening raptly to one of Alexander Siloti’s Bach transpositions.” (Probably the Prelude in B Minor.) I suppose points should be granted that somebody (it’s not clear if the error is the reviewer’s or the novelist’s) knew about Siloti’s arrangements of Bach, but shouldn’t a copy editor have caught the fact that what was meant was a Bach transcription, not transposition?

3 thoughts on “Mood Nocturne

  1. Ned Rorem has written well on this particular subject a number of times, and it is consistently fascinating how many writers seem to have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to musical things.

    Rorem tells of once sharing a cab with author John Updike. In conversation, Updike said to him offhandedly “I don’t really understand music at all.”

    As Rorem points out, would there ever be an established composer of similar reputation who could say publicly without embarrassment “I don’t really understand novels at all.”

  2. Thanks for your note, Carson – great story about Ned and Updike.

    It’s not always literary folk who are fools about music. In one of the lectures that make up his book “Words about Music”, Milton Babbitt talks about scientists at a panel discussion referring to a “Bartok quintet”. It turns out there actually is an obscure quintet by Bartok, but these folks surely meant a Bartok quartet!

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