Kill PBS. Or at least kill the "public" part of it. That was a well-publicized plank in the Republican revolution of 1994.
But here it is 1999, and PBS is still with us -- which some of the time (I have to confess) still seems like a good thing. I get to watch Kenneth Clark's stroll through civilization, Ken Burns's series on the Civil War, the Metropolitan Opera's complete production of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs, and the weekly McLaughlin Group shouting match: PBS has brought some informative and even ennobling television into America's homes.
But there are other times when public broadcasting exasperates even its firmest supporters: If we don't quite want PBS killed, we're tempted to maim it a bit.
A case in point is the six-part series, The Great Composers, airing successive Wednesdays beginning April 14. Co-produced by WNET in New York, the BBC, and NVC Arts, the series presents hour-long programs on Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler (the series included a seventh program on Bach, which WNET declined to distribute because of its broadcasts on Bach's cello suites last year).
As ideas for television programs go, the notion of producing an instructional series about the great composers was not a bad one. Basic music education in America has been terrible for a generation. High schools have nearly abandoned orchestra, while colleges typically assign "Music Appreciation" to their least distinguished instructors as a kind of punishment. So anything that reintroduces the great music of our civilization is to be welcomed.
Good notion though it is, however, it's a difficult one to pull off. Music and television make an uneasy mix: Music, particularly symphonic music, is about listening; TV is about seeing. Opera, because of its spectacle, can work on screen, but in order to make string quartets and symphonies visually appealing, directors often have to resort to close-ups of bouncing bows, sweeping views of the brass, and even fly-overs of alpine meadows and shots of butterflies.
The situation is even worse in a narrative program. Music, the ostensible topic of the show, must be relegated to the background so that we can hear the text -- the purpose of which is to add our understanding of the music, which we're not listening to.
Then too, it's hard to make composers' lives good TV. There are some notable exceptions -- the life of the Renaissance composer Gesualdo would make a great cable mini-series -- but basically, composers are boring. Beethoven moved a lot. Mahler liked to spend long stretches of time by himself starting at manuscript paper. One of Bach's main tasks was to teach schoolboys Latin.
This isn't gripping stuff. The artists' lives don't lack drama, but that drama is interior. It's the drama first of summoning, every day for years, the discipline to master a particular craft (how to write a fugue, why the passage between two notes is difficult for the oboe, how to assign notes to a group of horns -- besides all those hours practicing piano). And it's the drama second of finding the courage to become an individual and to express that individuality through the discipline of art. Biography is really just a footnote -- which makes great art, but dull theater (that's why Peter Shaffer, in the movie Amadeus, had to replace the dull historical Mozart with a much more saucy fictional one).
A portion of PBS's six-hour series rises to the difficult task. It's hard not to fall in love with Mozart's music just watching Cecilia Bartoli talk; to hear her sing it is to lose all resistance. The great American musicologist Robbins Landon eloquently tidies up the mess left by Shaffer's Amadeus, and there are lots of beautiful shots of Mozart's haunts in Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague. The program on Beethoven is the series' best. Charles Rosen rightly explains Beethoven's music as "highly moral," and William Meredith, director of the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State, keeps the scholarship solid without being pedantic. About Puccini we get to hear stories of his serial adulteries from gossipy neighbors, and the program on Tchailkovsky deals honestly with his homosexuality and controversial death.
But most of the PBS series could stand improvement, and some of it is straight-out awful. This is about music after all, and an astonishing amount of the music is badly played. The Puccini program begins with a performance of Nessun dorma so out of tune that the singer would be laughed out of any addition. The Prague Symphony, led by Roger Norrington, sounds slightly worse than a student ensemble (I don't know if I've ever heard a clumsier reading of the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde).
Both the reputations of Michael Tilson Thomas and Jonathan Miller would have been better served if they had been out of town when the film crew showed up (Thomas, for instance, reveals himself to be painfully ignorant of Beethoven's purposes in his discussion of the Third Symphony). There are corny camera angles and stupid directorial gimmicks. What's the point of having a string quarter sit with their backs to each other? And why all the shots of Mozart symphonies being rehearsed in a church sanctuary -- a place where they would never have been performed? When there are so many great concert performances available on film (particularly from James Levine, Leonard Bernstein, and Herbert von Karajan), why did the producers subjects us to footage of marginal ensembles in rehearsal? The rare quality performances -- Charles Rosen playing a bit of a Beethoven piano concerto, forty-five seconds of Solti leading the London Symphony in the Ninth Symphony, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic playing Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony -- only reveal how poor the rest of the playing is.
Bad as the performances are, the entire program on Wagner is worse. Wagner was a towering genius of the nineteenth century, and his Ring is possibly the greatest dramatic work ever created. You wouldn't know it from this program. Not only is the Ring barely heard (limited to a few bars from each of the operas), but the selections are silly, and, with the exception of the soprano Deborah Polaski, the singers are mediocre.
But most reprehensible is PBS's decision to make Wagner's anti-Semitism the core of its program. Wagner's racial views have become a lucrative cottage industry for a number of academics, and their fantasy is given free rein in this hour. Wagner was a racist, but then so were Liszt, Darwin, and indeed most "liberal" scientific thinkers in the nineteenth century. And -- contrary to the program's talking heads -- Wagner's anti-Semitism was not the central purpose of his life. Certainly it wasn't the key to his operas. Wagner's villains are villains not because of their race but because of their behavior.
It's hardly illuminating to blame the Third Reich on Wagner. (In an example of spectacularly misleading editing, the plans for Wagner's ideal opera house in Munich are presented as part of a computer animation of the renovations Albert Speer proposed to Hitler for Berlin.) The man was a political liberal whose purpose in establishing his Festival Theater was to found an ideal community undivided by class (here he is best compared not to Beethoven but rather to Robert Owen and William Morris).
Far from being an ardent nationalist, Wagner actually thought Germans backward and provincial, and he would have found the Nazis repugnant; if he was anything, Wagner was a snob. The Great Composers hour on Wagner is a monument to irresponsible scholarship and reprehensible editing.
It's things like this that make me consider joining the opponents of PBS. The program could have been so much better. And it should have been. Our lives are a mess of contradictions, and yet, within that mess, out greatest desire is to make sense of it all, to see the transcendent purpose. In the greatest pieces of music, we find the validity of our hope for transcendence confirmed. That's what the bus driver in St. Petersburg means when she says at the end of the hour on Tchaikovsky that his music "is better than medicine."
That message is hinted at occasionally in the series, and the music can still be potent, no matter how badly mangled. But the message ought to have come through loud, because it's the one thing that makes this music worth listening to. It's certainly the one thing that makes programs like The Great Composers worth raiding the public purse for.
Michael Linton is associate professor of music at Middle Tennessee State University. His piano suite "Las Fuentes del Cafe del Rey Moro" was recently released on the Heartdance label.