A Must-Read 'Fiery Angel' by Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh, the distinguished novelist and music critic, is one of the very few writers in the conservative world who consistently finds new and important things to say. I read everything he writes and have his books on automatic pre-order. We met a couple of years ago as speakers on a Hillsdale College cruise, and I had the privilege of long conversations with Michael, the sort of luxuriant and unhurried exchanges that one reads about in the novels of Thomas Mann but have disappeared in the age of texting. His latest book, The Fiery Angel, does not disappoint. It is edgy and provocative. As Goethe wrote, I salute the learned gentleman: He really made me sweat.

As a matter of full disclosure, Michael quotes my writings on music in this book at such length that I cannot fairly review it; I had just the same problem with his previous book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. Call this an appreciation rather than a review, but buy The Fiery Angel in any case.

Sergei Prokofiev’s 1926 opera “The Fiery Angel” provides Walsh with a point of departure. The Russian composer drew on Valery Bryusov’s occult novel, which the author described as “a True Story of the Devil who at Various Times Appeared to an Innocent Virgin in the Shape of a Holy Angel, Luring her to Sinful Actions; of the Ungodly Practices of Magic….” A demon takes hold of the female protagonist Renata. Neither the chaste love of Ruprecht nor the ministrations of the Church can rid her of the incubus. At length she repairs to a convent, but her possession infects the other nuns, and the Inquisition decides to burn her at the stake. The opera is noisy, cacaphonic and merrily perverse; a 2017 Mariinsky Theater version conducted by Valery Gergiev, the reigning superstar of Russian music, is available on YouTube. The concluding R-rated demonic orgy at the convent is at hour/minute 1:49. If you choose to watch it, make sure the kids are out of the room. That isn’t the Prokofiev of “Peter and the Wolf.” The prudish Bolsheviks suppressed the opera, which premiered in Paris after Stalin’s death.

“The Fiery Angel,” along with Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” and other 20th-century music experiments with evil, occupy the first chapters of Walsh’s book. He sees a sign of hope in the very destruction. Prokofiev’s flaming angel Madiel “always reappears, to tempt and guide us, if only we will swallow our fear, open ourselves to wonder and follow.” Walsh adds:

In sum, the West’s fascination with evil and its willingness to accommodate it up to a point–and sometimes beyond that point–is both its Achilles’ heel and its unique cultural strength, the quality that sets it apart from the hierarchical societies of the Middle East and Asia. The cultural-Marxist Left has sought to tar the Christian and post-Christian West with the very sin it so admires in other cultures, and has created a fantasy history in which a hapless proletariat had an arbitrary dogma imposed upon it by popes and potentates, from which it has been crying out ever since for “liberation.” That Marxism is the very definition of an imposition seems not to occur to some, while for others is the very feature of the system they wish to impose.

Michael believes that the West’s capacity to wrestle with evil is its strength: It is inherently fluid, creative and undogmatic, unlike the pseudo-Puritan political correctness of the Marxists and identity politicians.

I’m not so sure. Michael is a conservatory-trained classical pianist and served for years as Time magazine’s chief classical music critic, so both his chops and his credentials are impeccable. But I do not see in Prokofiev or Ravel a rebirth of the Western spirit in a different, fiery form. Truth told, I find the Prokofiev opera painful to hear.

I think that Thomas Mann nailed the matter in his great novel Doktor Faustus, in which his protagonist, the fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn, announces in his syphilitic dementia that he wants to “take back Beethoven’s 9th symphony” by writing a parody that will prevent anyone from hearing Beethoven properly again. That, as I wrote in a 1991 article in the Musical Quarterly, is the content of Debussy’s “esoteric” musical language, and that, as I argued in a 2010 essay for First Things, is why Wagner has corrupted our capacity to hear the classical composers. Wagner, Debussy and their successors didn’t do anything new, in my analysis: Even in their most rarified flights of musical fancy they look backward to the classical style of composition. Their putative innovations actually are variants of classical techniques, sometimes open, and (I say at the risk of the charge of Straussianism) esoteric, in the case of Debussy. That explains why modernism had only a couple of fertile generations after the death of Brahms in 1894, and nothing more. It was too dependent on a past that grew increasingly remote. The modernist re-purposing of classical techniques, moreover, ruined our ears to a lamentable extent.

The definitive treatment of evil in Western music is found in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, one of more than 1,720 published variants of the Don Juan story since Tirso de Molina’s 1616 original. Tirso’s Don Juan is not a great lover but a rapist and serial killer from the high nobility of Spain; his social position makes it difficult to stop him. He is a believing Catholic and is quite sure that his soul will be saved when he repents at some future point. In the meantime, he enjoys raping and killing and doesn’t want to give up his pastimes. Tirso’s (and Mozart’s) point is that the Catholic model of salvation can be gamed by a sociopath. That was also the Protestant objection, but Luther and Calvin found no means to correct the problem except by asserting Double Predestination. The West in my view is poorly equipped to deal with the problem of evil, and I view Prokofiev’s opera and similar exercises less charitably than he does.