Literature and Sugar-plums

This is my favorite time of year, even if I am squarely among the over committed in December, the very busiest month of the year for me. For me, it is quite easy to indulge in the fantasy of the season, dancing sugar-plums and all. It must be partly because Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite composers, and not just because it is Christmas in America with its ‘Nutcracker Suite’ traditions. I have toted a portable turn table and a collection of Tchaikovky’s work around with me since I was four years old. Honestly, as a child I insisted on bringing them even if we were to be away from home for just a few hours. As long as there was electricity, Pytor Ilyich was coming too, along with a selection of Offenbach, ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ and ‘Snow White.’ Eclectic taste, and it would seem to have predestined me for a life long affinity with theatre and story telling.

Today, to my Brahms loving friends, my Tchaikovsky revelation puts me squarely in the ‘Romantic,’ ‘sensibility’ or even sentimental camp, if you will indulge my blurring of literary and musical history, genres, and terms. My friends do share that ‘post-romantic’ skepticism for the intensely emotional in their music. And I suspect in their literature too. Somehow, it seems wrong not to embrace music that is described as genius, or that ‘cannot be listed to passively,’ and is so emotionally powerful it is said to contain its own dramaturgy. That’s my kind of composer.

Dancing sugar-plum fairies aside, Tchaikovsky’s preoccupation with aesthetic and emotional impact, as well as his willingness to stray from formal music theory to achieve an effect on his audience might sound familiar to anyone obsessing over Romantic literature, like I am right now. Music has been a point of access to literature for me this term on several occasions, but mostly in the ‘Augustans and Romantics’ unit. The unit has bothered me almost to distraction, and in a fit of desperation, I started casting about for an effective way to access the texts. Enter Tchaikovsky, Handel, and Gay.

The parallels between literature, music, and culture are a real pleasure this term. Themes and allusion in early and baroque opera echo Augustan preoccupations. Listening to Handel and Gay’s work side by side helped put Augustan satire in perspective. It was a little surprising to me that the satire was so difficult, unappealing, and disturbing. This seemed unusual because as a rule, I like the genre and was really looking forward to these texts. I thought my reaction must be because my historical knowledge was too limited to really appreciate what the satire was directed at. This kind of ‘reader anxiety’ felt troubling and I thought to read something else but then it occurred to me that no English major should accept that kind of effect on the reader without further investigation.

Taken severally, Augustans and Romantics are a quite a handful. Taken together, as we do in this unit, the complexity of reading, analysis, and interpretation of texts ranging from soup to nuts makes an interesting puzzle to pick over on ever so many levels. I needed a way to put my experience as a reader in perspective. Even in my reading anxiety I never resorted to ‘weak reading.’ I would like to take credit for that but I cannot. The texts are too complex for the ‘what does it mean’ reflex. I finally realized they require more from me as a reader and scholar.

One day I decided to rummage around in my music collection for something that would put the Augustans in perspective. At the time he wrote it Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’ made such fun of the opera seria so popular in England at the time that it effectively ended Handel’s career as an opera composer and impresario. Happily he turned to composing oratorios  like ‘Messiah’ instead. While I am terribly sorry for Gay’s effect on Handel’s operatic career, I am very glad about his effect on me as a reader. This December along with my sugar-plum fairies, I have visions of structure, antithesis, the anxiety of influence, and antithetical criticism dancing in my head. After all, Tchaikovsky’s inspiration, E.T.A. Hoffman was a German Romantic writer. Thanks to them both, Clara had her dream, and I have mine, anxiety, imagination, and all.

Caowrites is studying for a BA English by distance learning.

2 thoughts on “Literature and Sugar-plums

  1. I thought you were about to talk about the literature as in the sugar plums metaphor in Little Women! It might be worth looking up: the sugar plums are the sensationalist literature which Jo writes and gives up writing after a talking to by ‘her Bhaer’ and could lead to a discussion of what literature should or should not be: whether it should trivialise or raise expectations.

    My 2p.

    Best wishes, Katherine


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