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Macaulay on Genius: Shakespeare, Mozart, BalanchineThe 'Supreme Genius' theme in the Nov. 16 NYT article


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#1 papeetepatrick

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 11:21 AM

Okay, it was suggested that I start another thread on this aspect of the article by Macauley on Balanchine and NYCB. I've said my piece, but if anyone else has any ideas, put them here instead of bart's thread which is to focus on NYCB's performance of Balanchine as seen by Macaulay now.

I'll just reprint my whole post from over there, and there I'll delete the part that is focussed on here. Has to do with the question of proclaiming Top Geniuses. I'm sure plenty of people have strong ideas on this, so say something if you do--this has come up before and some people seem to think genius can only be one. I disagree totally. Anyway, as before:

He's good when talking about the specifics of NYCB, and esp. things like the descriptions of Von Aroldingen and Whelan in 'Union Jack'. Others will have been to NYCB more over the years, but I've been enough to see that he's characterized the evolution pretty well; it's Martins's company and it looks like it, tamer and tighter and paler. I liked the subtlety of the '4 years following Balanchine's death' as well, because I think of those years as having been especially inspired as well and went pretty frequently--in fact, the best performances (except one or two in the 70s as with Melissa in 'Swan Lake') I saw were in 1985, 1986, and 1987.

But, since you've linked to the whole article, I have to protest this kind of sophomoric thing:

"How long does it take a genius to dominate his art? While Shakespeare was alive and for some decades after, he was simply one of several excellent Elizabethan playwrights. Only gradually did he became accepted as England’s best, and it took more than 200 years for him to become the world’s. Mozart was established in most musicians’ minds as the supreme composer within 10 years of his death, yet even “Don Giovanni,” his most immediately successful opera in international terms, took 48 years before it reached Europe’s most prestigious theater, the Paris Opera"

Why anyone other than an undergraduate would write something that is reducible to 'My Favorite Geniuses Are, (By the Way) Also the Uber-Geniuses' is obvious, but not nearly everybody pays attention to this coarse kind of assessment. Shakespeare could perhaps be said to have become 'England's best playwright', but he can by no means be said to have managed 'in 200 years to become the world's greatest playwright.' This means that by becoming the best-known, be became somehow greater than Euripides, Sophocles and Racine, who are the ones to whom he deserves comparison (at very least these.) The Mozart pulp is even more absurd. The 'supreme composer'? Even within the time frame Macaulay gives, he has to be compared, and in all musical forms, to Bach, Haydn, Beethoven. After that, he would need to be compared to Wagner, Schumann, Berlioz, Debussy, Stravinsky, which he is tacitly if he's still being referred to in this lone lofty sphere by someone in the 21st century. But even if not, it's incredible that someone would try to say that there was any composer greater than Bach.

By the time he gets to Balanchine, it's almost like advertising and publicity. That Balanchine would be a 'growth industry' is testament to his greatness, but not to his 'greater than everybody else-ness'. There are many people who love Balanchine who do not think he was greater than Petipa or Graham. There is something about the way Macaulay writes it that makes it, as with Mozart and Shakespeare, a kind of hero worship that has a 'hyper' quality to it, and that people who are primarily interested in just great works of art (by whomever) are not taken in by.

Then there's this, which even with the 'disclaimer' (at least there's that), still comes across as a consolation prize:

"The posthumous pre-eminence he has now achieved has its negative aspects. There are a few features of Balanchine’s style and several parts of his surviving repertory that I don’t love. During his lifetime it was standard to talk of him as one of several of the great choreographers of the day. Now his contemporaries Frederick Ashton, Martha Graham and Antony Tudor are in danger of becoming the dance equivalents of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and Philip Massinger, whom Shakespeare eclipsed long after they had all died. Several of Balanchine’s slightest creations have been preserved, while some of the best works by Ashton, Graham and Tudor have become endangered species or extinct."

This is just silly and could probably be described as solipsistic, as opposed to all the passages in which he talks about specific ballets and dancers. So, in order to 'feel good', do we also need to proclaim a 'greatest ballerina' (not just 'favourite', but rather 'absolute, undisputed greatest'), and will that definitely be Ms. Farrell, or will there be people who think Ms. Fonteyn, or Ms. Sizova, or Ms. Makarova, or Ms. Ulanova, or Ms. Plisetskaya, or Ms. Alonso, etc...And we certainly need to fasten on Joyce as 'supreme 20th century writer', because Proust, Faulkner, Beckett and the others were just not in the same league. Not that I don't think this need to anoint 'supreme beings' is not representative of a parallel with the 'top 1%' that is what distinguishes culture in some ways in the 80s, 90s and 00s. Along the lines of People Magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive', etc.--'high-tabloid style', you might call it.

Macaulay therefore defines Shakespeare, Mozart, and Balanchine as Cults, and no mistake about it. I don't think any of the three would take this as a compliment.

Has Picasso surpassed Rembrandt and Michelangelo and Leonardo and Cezanne and Raphael? Enquiring minds want to know.



#2 bart

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 11:48 AM

I admit that when I first read the article I loved thinking of Balanchine as part of a Holy Trinity, largely because I value his work just as highly as Shakepeare's and Mozart's. However, as you say, the idea that a single creator can "dominate his art" is simply incorrect. I wonder, though, how literally Macaulay makes us to take this.

Your post made me think of those public buildings raised by worthy institutions in the 19th century, each with its list of Great Men (rarely women, unless its a nursing school) engraved along the entablature. The names are often accompanied bas reliefs or busts). Which names go on the wall, and which do not, is culturally determined and will vary from place to place, time to time. It also depends on the prejudices of the people paying for the building.

I imagine that Macaulay's pieces are strictly limited as to word count. So reducing the names to three has the virtue of making the copy fit its allotted space, if nothing else. :)

#3 SandyMcKean

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 11:48 AM

I hear what you are saying Patrick, but I don't take it as seriously as you do.

I sort of liked Macaulay's comparisons of Balanchine to other "greats" such as Mozart -- and particuarly how the preception of greatness evolves over time. OTOH, if I thought that Macaulay was really proclaiming who the "greatest of the greats" are in the arts, I too would have a problem with his statements. However, I don't read him that way. I see his comments as interesting examples of possible ways of looking at historical figures in order to put flesh on his overall points. I see nothing wrong with such specualtion, and I have a very hard time believing that Macaulay himself actually thinks that somehow he is picking the absolute #1 great of all the greats in any given field. He's giving us analogy that's all......and like most analogy you can't take it to extremes.

#4 papeetepatrick

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 12:12 PM

Sandy--he may not think it, but he does write it, at least in the case of Shakespeare--because it is not something established that Shakespeare became the world's greatest playwright. I think he frankly does it a bit more with Shakespeare and Mozart than even with Balanchine. While I think it is appropriate to see Balanchine as equal to Shakespeare and Mozart, it would be interesting to know what someone thinks in terms of how one genius is like another, which is where you would find the 'Trinities' that bart refers to. But there would be other 'trinities' for other geniuses, I think. Thanks for the remarks.

#5 Helene

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 02:05 PM

Sandy--he may not think it, but he does write it, at least in the case of Shakespeare--because it is not something established that Shakespeare became the world's greatest playwright.

I don't know of any other playwright who has been translated into as many languages and is part of standard curriculum, advanced scholarship, and performance as Shakespeare, nor has been adopted informally as a national playwright by other countries, such as Russia and Germany. If not the world's greatest playwright, Shakespeare has proven to be the most important playwright of the last half millenium by those standards.

Love of Shakespeare is not universal. Once of my favorite fictional responses was by Gunilla Dahl-Soot in Robertson Davies' "The Lyre of Orpheus", who called him a "grocer".

#6 Ray

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 02:13 PM

Sandy--he may not think it, but he does write it, at least in the case of Shakespeare--because it is not something established that Shakespeare became the world's greatest playwright.

I don't know of any other playwright who has been translated into as many languages and is part of standard curriculum, advanced scholarship, and performance as Shakespeare, nor has been adopted informally as a national playwright by other countries, such as Russia and Germany. If not the world's greatest playwright, Shakespeare has proven to be the most important playwright of the last half millenium.


He's the Nutcracker of English studies!

#7 papeetepatrick

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 04:00 PM

Sandy--he may not think it, but he does write it, at least in the case of Shakespeare--because it is not something established that Shakespeare became the world's greatest playwright.

I don't know of any other playwright who has been translated into as many languages and is part of standard curriculum, advanced scholarship, and performance as Shakespeare, nor has been adopted informally as a national playwright by other countries, such as Russia and Germany. If not the world's greatest playwright, Shakespeare has proven to be the most important playwright of the last half millenium.


He's the Nutcracker of English studies!


Oh, I adore Shakespeare and don't think of any playwright as greater. My emphasis on this as that certain forms of expression are from other periods and ways of experiencing and thinking, so it's never accessible to one 'greatest' person. Sophocles couldn't write 'a Midsummer Night's Dream' and Shakespeare could not write 'Antigone'. For another example, many French think Racine is greater than Shakespeare, and I've found him quite as impressive, even though the output is far smaller. I imagine I'm sometimes taken off-guard when Macaulay tries to do these big sweeping things, because they never seem to be nearly as convincing as when he talks about the individual works (incidentally, a Macaulay review of Martha Graham Dance Company in NYC in 2007 is also very interesting, because he is actually talking about 'Night Journey' in specific ways, just as he talks about 'Union Jack' in this one (the description of Von Aroldingen was worth the whole review), not making hierarchies based on putting Ashton, Graham, and Tudor into little categories as Jonson, Marlowe, etc., These I find tiresome mainly because they are never accurate and illuminating the way his insights into actual pieces, recent performances, and dancers are. I think I'm always a bit allergic to anything that has too much suggestion of Cult, though, and that Mozart- and Wagner-lovers can be especially extreme here--and these are two of my favourite composer, by the way.

#8 dirac

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 04:19 PM

I hear what you are saying Patrick, but I don't take it as seriously as you do.

I sort of liked Macaulay's comparisons of Balanchine to other "greats" such as Mozart -- and particuarly how the preception of greatness evolves over time. OTOH, if I thought that Macaulay was really proclaiming who the "greatest of the greats" are in the arts, I too would have a problem with his statements. However, I don't read him that way. I see his comments as interesting examples of possible ways of looking at historical figures in order to put flesh on his overall points. I see nothing wrong with such specualtion, and I have a very hard time believing that Macaulay himself actually thinks that somehow he is picking the absolute #1 great of all the greats in any given field. He's giving us analogy that's all......and like most analogy you can't take it to extremes.


I would add that Macaulay was probably using popular 'genius' figures that would be recognized immediately by general interest readers, as a sort of shorthand to indicate the kind of company in which Balanchine belongs and, as Sandy says, to flesh out his points.

#9 kfw

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 05:26 PM

Sandy--he may not think it, but he does write it, at least in the case of Shakespeare--because it is not something established that Shakespeare became the world's greatest playwright.

I don't know of any other playwright who has been translated into as many languages and is part of standard curriculum, advanced scholarship, and performance as Shakespeare, nor has been adopted informally as a national playwright by other countries, such as Russia and Germany. If not the world's greatest playwright, Shakespeare has proven to be the most important playwright of the last half millenium by those standards..

That's the sense I get from it, that he's not ranking Shakespeare, Mozart and Balanchine but referring to how they're ranked by the general populace. He at first only writes of Shakespeare's being "accepted" as England's best playwright, and of Mozart likewise being accorded supremacy soon after his death (which was considerably before the time of most of composers who'd be mentioned in the same breath). He goes on from that first comparison to call Balanchine "a growth industry," not the greatest choreographer of all time.

Of course he does later write of "Balanchine’s supremacy" and that of Shakespeare and Mozart, but then a short while later he laments that Balanchine's contemporaries are being eclipsed in the same way Jonson, Marlowe and Masinger were. All in all, he could have been clearer.

#10 SandyMcKean

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 05:58 PM

All in all, he could have been clearer.


Granted.

#11 miliosr

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 06:13 PM

Maybe this needs to be a third thread discussing Macaulay's article from Sunday but I thought the paragraph in which he compares Ashton, Graham and Tudor to Jonson, Marlowe and Massinger (second to last in the article) should have been the lead paragraph.

I can only speak for myself but I would rather have read Macaulay's thoughts on how to preserve Ashton, Graham and Tudor (and others) in the face of the global Balanchine onslaught than read yet another article about the extent to which performances of the Balanchine repertory have/have not declined under Peter Martins' leadership. (And, for the record, a more apt comparison would have been between Ashton, Graham and Tudor on the one hand and Baal, Isis and Odin on the other. After all, we still have the texts of Shakespeare's contemporaries. But dances are perishable goods. Once lost, they're as impossible to revive as the cult of Isis.) :)

#12 GWTW

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Posted 17 November 2008 - 11:55 PM

:) miliosr, you made me laugh. The cult of Baal may be lost for ever, but I'm pretty sure the Ancient Egyptians left enough written material to be able to revive the cult of Isis (and thanks to the Rosetta Stone, we can even read it).

#13 sandik

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Posted 18 November 2008 - 12:16 AM

He's the Nutcracker of English studies!


You know, it's not nice to make me laugh like that, and splutter all over the monitor!

I thought that Macaulay made some very important points in this essay, particularly about the changes that occur over time, after an artist has stopped producing new work. Bach's importance as a composer waned and then waxed after his death, as far as the general musical population is concerned -- I don't know that time is always the most accurate editor of history, but it's certainly the most inexorable one.

#14 bart

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Posted 18 November 2008 - 05:24 AM

That's the sense I get from it, that he's not ranking Shakespeare, Mozart and Balanchine but referring to how they're ranked by the general populace.

Thse posts have sparked a lot of interesting thoughts. I think, on the whole, that kfw's makes the most sense as to Macaulay's use of these three exemplars.

What's important to me is to see Balanchine -- someone not hugely understood outside ballet circles -- placed on a pinnacle along with much more generally familiar Great Names. I thank Macaulay for that -- and for explaining rather persuasively why Balanchine should be in such select company.

I also hope that more thoughtful and intelligent writers will start to think in terms like these. It's about time that "ballet" rejoined the company of the higher arts, where it was -- briefly and perhaps only locally -- when Balanchine was creating in New York City in the 40s-70s.

#15 miliosr

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Posted 18 November 2008 - 07:27 AM

GWTW -- Reviving the Cult of Isis is analogous to reviving Antony Tudor's Romeo & Juliet, isn't it? We can figure out (with some certitude) what the principals (Isis/Osiris, Romeo/Juliet) should be doing but what about all those pesky corp members/other Egyptian dieties?? And, the cost of recreating all those ancient Egyptian temples/head pieces would appear to be as beyond us as recreating those marvelous sets/costumes from Romeo & Juliet!

Alas, I'm beginning to feel a bit like Julian the Apostate. Except where his dying saying was "Vicisti, Galilaee," mine will be "Vicisti, Balanchinean"!!! :wink:


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