The Unseen Modernist | Pushing the Wave

The Unseen Modernist

Opinion, 9 September 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Homemade English Muffins
Homemade English muffins
For the second of my classical music-focused columns, I wanted to make a musical connection that may initially seem a little strange; one that jumps between two utterly different times and places, with no apparent link between them.

And yet I heard it this morning.

Camille Saint-Säens is, to my mind, unfairly disparaged as not from the top draw. Even Stephen Moss in The Guardian, while calling for a reappraisal of the Parisian maestro a couple of years ago on the occasion of his centenary, couldn’t bring himself to describe him in glowing terms.

Using a rather tired football cliché, he says that, while Saint-Säens “may not be quite in the Premier League of composers, [he] is certainly top of the Championship and may well be worthy of promotion.”

He continues that “part of the problem” is he “composed with such facility”.

He was a child prodigy – more gifted than Mozart, some reckon; became a concert pianist and renowned organist; and composed unceasingly throughout a long life. “I produce music as an apple tree produces apples,” he once said.

Of course that gets to the heart of what we expect from creatives. That enviable ability to compose with such ease “has been held against him by critics who want their artists to be sculpting from a slab of suffering,” Moss says, adding:

There is plenty of evidence that Saint-Saëns did suffer in his life – a wildly domineering mother, a disastrous marriage, the death of two infant sons (one of whom fell from the window of the family apartment), possibly gay with a penchant for young men (though the evidence is largely circumstantial). But that suffering rarely expressed itself in his music.

He revered form and loathed excesses of artistic emotion. “Expression and passion seduce the amateur,” he insisted. “An artist who is not fully satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colours and beautiful harmonic progressions has no understanding of art.”

Over the course of his career, Saint-Säens evolved from being a modernist champion of Schumann and Wagner in his youth to being “increasingly conservative and out of sync with the musical mood,” says Moss, a world was characterised by pioneers such as Debussy and Stravinsky.

In the face of this modernist revolution, Saint-Saëns carried on churning out tasteful, perfectly formed, self-consciously harmonious music. Pieces that critics might dismiss as bourgeois confections, but which, in an age when anything goes, now sound strangely bold.

Indeed. If you listen carefully to his music, there are a number of innovations in compositional technique that point directly to the marrying of modern and late romantic music that developed with composers such as Bartok and Prokofiev.

The two styles continued to live very separate lives, but there were always composers who sought to bring them together.

Over the years, this union developed to such an extent that, to all intents and purposes, those two vastly opposing views of what classical music could, and should, be are now largely indistinguishable, certainly in much of what is composed today.

Into these deliberations I invite the revered Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who is an interesting stopover in the journey of classical music in the 20th century.

He seems on the surface to be one of the most modern of modernist composers; a minimalist whose tintinnabuli technique of endless repeats of small musical phrases appears very much at odds with the sweeping, broad-brush melodies of much late romantic music.

His oft-imitated approach can achieve an almost hypnotic effect, while having a dry, spare sense to it that recalls something of Gregorian chant.

But if you step back from that, you see that Pärt’s themes and over-arching ideas are not particularly modernist at all. In some ways, he is just as capable of lush, yearning musical lines as any of the greats from the dying decades of the 19th century; they are just presented in an entirely different manner.

To my mind, this is what ensures his appeal to a wider audience, and the reverence he enjoys as a composer. Indeed his music has been described as ‘mystical’, ‘heavenly’ and ‘timeless’.

And I heard this interesting melding of romantic and modern today while playing the album Stained Glass, by Johan Dalene and Christian Ihle Hadland, so clearly that it stopped me in my tracks and forced me to listen.

For there, right in the middle of the opening piece — Fratres, by Arvo Pärt — I was transported directly from Estonia in 1977 to an Austrian Village in 1886, where Saint-Säens composed The Carnival of the Animals. The musical leap was so strong that, despite trying to focus on Pärt’s work, I could not stop my mind switching to that rather more frivolous, yet equally satisfying work.

The Carnival of the Animals is not seen as particularly modern or innovative, of course; I suppose because it is themed music. But I have always seen the piece as both modern and innovative, especially in the limited orchestration and the dynamics within the musical structures.

I am not saying that Pärt was trying to evoke Saint–Säens when he wrote Fratres, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he appreciates the French maestro’s music. Perhaps he even studied the score for the Carnival of the Animals at some point before he took up composing a piece that evokes “the unfolding of a beautiful and seemingly inevitable mathematical process.”

Yet the link in my mind made between those two apparently disparate compositions only underlined my view that Saint-Säens is vastly underrated.
Brunch, particularly on a Sunday and surrounded by family and friends, is one of my favourite meals.

However, I can be quite picky about what I want to eat, whether eating at home or in a restaurant or café. Interestingly, what I want from a brunch in my house and one served to me by a waiter have always been entirely different things, until this week.

And the ingredient that typified that split was the English muffin. I never found any really good ones in a shop to eat at home, so I kept them for brunches outside with friends. But that was never entirely satisfactory, partly because I love them so much.

So I had been thinking about making my own muffins for quite a while, and had even bought muffin moulds, but it was only this week that I finally took the plunge, tackling a recipe by Paul Hollywood.

What had put me off making them before was the time involved to make the dough, let it prove, shape the individual muffins, prove them again and then cook them. Only then are they ready for toasting and eating with your topping of choice (which again varies depending on where I am having brunch).

It seemed there would never be enough time to do them in the morning to have them ready to eat for brunch, and I certainly never got round to doing them the night before.

However, I was up early on Sunday morning and all the ingredients were there, so I thought I would give it a try. It turned out that the recipe itself is pretty straightforward, and the periods waiting for the dough to prove are long enough that you aren’t tied to the kitchen for the whole morning.

But what of the result?

Delicious, homemade muffins, far better than anything I have found in a shop or supermarket. (Admittedly, bakery made ones made fresh that day are hard to beat, but we had the right flour and good ingredients, and there was hardly any difference.)

The only problem is that, now, I don’t want to stop at muffins. Crumpets, anyone?
Life on the writing front has taken an exciting turn.

After weeks of editing, rewriting and reshaping, the follow-up My Life as a Dog, entitled More Life as a Dog, is now off my desk and in the extremely capable hands of my regular and trusted editor. What she will make of it, I do not know, but I am so happy, and relieved, that the book is at the next stage.

That has allowed me to start work two other, very exciting projects, one of which is a collaboration with a good friend on a script idea we first worked on more than a decade ago. Let’s see where it leads!
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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The Unseen Modernist | Pushing the Wave