Mozart again: Music in Huxley’s ‘Antic Hay’

1st UK Edition cover

This month my book group read Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, a novel set in London in 1922, published in 1923. I hadn’t read it before and we picked it because it seemed a good way to celebrate 2022, 100 years on from the action of the novel. (As the novel is available online, I will omit page references here as those interested can use the search function in the text.)

I have to say that I wasn’t thrilled with Antic Hay on a first reading, and that wasn’t because many of the characters are petty, obnoxious, self-satisfied, and vapid, but more because I felt that it wasn’t really a novel but a series of quite overly plotted scenes with dialogue in which the ‘characters’ became pegs on which Huxley hangs ideas to sway and knock against each other in the comic wind. And the comedy has proved only partly durable.

For me, there were apparently too many simple dichotomies: the seductress (Mrs Viveash) and the virgin (Emily); the art-hating scientist (Shearwater) and the science-hating artist (Lypiatt); order (the countryside) and chaos (urban London); utilitarianism (workers’ cottages) and noble art-for-art’s sake (Wren’s plan for London), and the melancholy moral intellectual self (Gumbril beardless and talking) and the hedonistic immoral one (Gumbril bearded as ‘Toto’ the shagger). While my objections were simply replicating much of the criticism of Huxley’s fiction as ‘first-rate essays and second-rate literature’ (Karl, 1961: 59) they were also a little taken in by the surface of the novel, when in fact the dichotomies prove more elusive, pointing to a larger idea of the problematic integration of sense and sensation in the human psyche and life.

There’s much I could say about this book, but, as with my other occasional blogposts on fiction I’m going to confine my remarks to how the novel uses music and, as there’s a lot of music here, I’m going to focus specifically on specific pieces that occur in the central three chapters of the novel (Chapters 13-15). Huxley is, in general, very consciously interested in music, famously attempting to structure Point Counter Point as if it were a musical piece (i.e. contrapuntally), but in Antic Hay he confines himself to using specific musical pieces and styles within a number of surface dichotomies in the novel, which contrast between order and disorder. (Readers wanting an annotated synopsis are directed to this excellent short essay by Jake Poller.)

As was seen in my earlier blogpost on a novel from thirty-odd years later by Iris Murdoch, various kinds of music signal a spectrum from cerebral order and proportion through to debauched physical dissipation. Here, specific pieces of classical music by Mozart and Beethoven (particularly on the piano or strings) occupy the cerebral end of ‘Music’, while jazz (particularly on the saxophone) and music hall songs (particular on the barrel organ) occupy the other end, being deemed little better than noise and worse than the natural noises of birdsong.  In between there are ‘lighter’ forms, such as comic opera, while the ‘noise’ of factories and cityscapes occupies extends the sonic into an explicitly non-musical realm. All in all, the novel presents a wide sonic realm, but one that is sharply divided along political, ethnic, class, and moral lines, not just in terms of musical or sonic content but in terms of the way listeners relate to their listening experiences.

This ought to be simple: there’s the classical music of the wealthy central characters, differentiated into moral and serious kinds and lighter, less edifying kinds but both being opposed to the music of the racial and class others that appear in the book’s margins. But the mapping of these various kinds of music onto the characters, their ideas, and onto the other art forms they practice, is, I think, more complex that it first appears and key here, as with The Bell, is the figure of Mozart, who symbolizes a control of proportion that is able to balance the extremes of intellect and body, and ultimately manages to provide enjoyable unhappiness. Let me explain.

The key Mozart works named here are, in order, the g-minor Quintet K516, the twelfth piano sonata K332, and Don Giovanni. The Mozart g-minor Quintet is played at the concert that Gumbril takes Emily to at what proves to be their last meeting (Chapter 13). The following chapter, when he is distracted from a further meeting by Mrs Viveash, he twice plays the sonata and imagines himself as Don Giovanni singing La ci darem, before the two of them dash out to the polar opposite musical event in the cabaret club in Chapter 15.

First, the Quintet in Chapter 13. Arriving late from dinner, Emily and Gumbril miss the first movement entirely, entering at the second movement, the Minuet, about which Gumbril muses:

Minuetto—all civilization, Mr. Mercaptan would have said, was implied in the delicious word, the delicate, pretty thing. Ladies and precious gentlemen, fresh from the wit and gallantry of Crébillon-haunted sofas, stepping gracefully to a pattern of airy notes. To this passion of one who cries out, to this obscure and angry argument with fate how would they, Gumbril wondered, how would they have tripped it?

In rejecting Mozart’s appropriation to Mercaptan’s decadent taken on eighteenth-century civilisation, Gumbril shows his appreciation of Mozart’s ability to marry the pure and unsullied with the irrelevant and irreverent, especially in the immediately following section that describes the third and final movements. The passage is worth quoting at length, not least because Huxley was working as a music critic at the time, so it purports to some authenticity:

How pure the passion, how unaffected, clear and without clot or pretension the unhappiness of that slow movement which followed! Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Pure and unsullied; pure and unmixed, unadulterated. “Not passionate, thank God; only sensual and sentimental.” In the name of earwig. Amen. Pure, pure. Worshippers have tried to rape the statues of the gods; the statuaries who made the images were generally to blame. And how deliciously, too, an artist can suffer! and, in the face of the whole Albert Hall, with what an effective gesture and grimace! But blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. The instruments come together and part again. Long silver threads hang aerially over a murmur of waters; in the midst of muffled sobbing a cry. The fountains blow their architecture of slender pillars, and from basin to basin the waters fall; from basin to basin, and every fall makes somehow possible a higher leaping of the jet, and at the last fall the mounting column springs up into the sunlight, and from water the music has modulated up into a rainbow. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; they shall make God visible, too, to other eyes.

Blood beats in the ears. Beat, beat, beat. A slow drum in the darkness, beating in the ears of one who lies wakeful with fever, with the sickness of too much misery. It beats unceasingly, in the ears, in the mind itself. Body and mind are indivisible, and in the spirit blood painfully throbs. Sad thoughts droop through the mind. A small, pure light comes swaying down through the darkness, comes to rest, resigning itself to the obscurity of its misfortune. There is resignation, but blood still beats in the ears. Blood still painfully beats, though the mind has acquiesced. And then, suddenly, the mind exerts itself, throws off the fever of too much suffering and laughing, commands the body to dance. The introduction to the last movement comes to its suspended, throbbing close. There is an instant of expectation, and then, with a series of mounting trochees and a downward hurrying, step after tiny step, in triple time, the dance begins. Irrelevant, irreverent, out of key with all that has gone before. But man’s greatest strength lies in his capacity for irrelevance. In the midst of pestilences, wars and famines, he builds cathedrals; and a slave, he can think the irrelevant and unsuitable thoughts of a free man. The spirit is slave to fever and beating blood, at the mercy of an obscure and tyrannous misfortune. But irrelevantly, it elects to dance in triple measure—a mounting skip, a patter of descending feet.

The G minor Quintet is at an end; the applause rattles out loudly…

Throughout the following chapter, while Gumbril gets sucked into entertaining Mrs Viveash instead of visiting Emily (resulting in his loss of her) the other two Mozart pieces run in counterpoint. First he recounts his adventures as a Complete man, painting himself as the Don by quoting ‘La ci darem la mano’ at length. But despite his presentation of his meeting with Emily as sublimated sexuality, what plays in his head is K332, which is linked to his sensual (but non-sexual), digital knowledge of Emily’s body. The presence of the music in his imagination and drummed on the tablecloth signals the discrepancy between his surface (false) betrayal as he amuses Myra with:

“the history of the young woman who was married four years ago,” exclaimed Gumbril with clownish rapture, “and remains to this day a virgin—what an episode in my memoirs!” In the enchanted darkness he had learned her young body. He looked at his fingers; her beauty was a part of their knowledge. On the tablecloth he drummed out the first bars of the Twelfth Sonata of Mozart. “And even after singing her duet with the Don,” he continued, “she is still virgin. There are chaste pleasures, sublimated sensualities. More thrillingly voluptuous,” with the gesture of a restaurant-keeper who praises the speciality of the house, he blew a treacly kiss, “than any of the grosser deliriums.”

The twelfth sonata, K332, gets its own bit of music criticism later in the chapter as the reader is given a description of Gumbril playing it for real on Mrs Viveash’s Blüthner, while he ostensibly listens to her jaded nihilism caused by the trauma of her lost love, Tony Lamb:

The music had shifted from F major to D minor; it mounted in leaping anapæsts to a suspended chord, ran down again, mounted once more, modulating to C minor, then, through a passage of trembling notes to A flat major, to the dominant of D flat, to the dominant of C, to C minor, and at last, to a new clear theme in the major.

The sonata K332, implicitly from the key descriptions that the book describes the first movement specifically, is one with an almost encyclopaedic presentation of a large number of classical music ‘topics’., often used to introduce Topic Theory to undergrads. Students typically learn to identify the ‘singing style’ at the opening, the brief ‘learned’ style’s contrapuntal imitation, the Sturm und Drang of the transitional material and the galant figures in the secondary subject area. This second subject material—and indeed the topical range of the exposition as a whole—is so extensive that the exposition poses a question about balance and proportion that pretty much necessitates a thematically limited and quite short development section using a short bit of newish material and then some things from the secondary subject material for the retransition.  

For this music to symbolise Emily suggests that Gumbril is well aware of her full humanity and, in particular, her emotional range. Yet the version of his encounter he had told earlier in the chapter to Mrs Viveash cast Emily as just one of the women playing the unwitting Zerlina to his cynical and falsely bearded ‘Complete Man’, Don Giovanni. Interrupted in his playing of K332 by the maid bringing tea, Gumbril breaks off, wishing he had his beard (an accoutrement he had in fact discarded for his later meetings with Emily, presenting a more honest—literally bare-faced—version of himself) and returns to humming La ci darem, this time casting Mrs Viveash as Zerlina, a role she deems ‘delightful’. The chapter closes, leaving a potentially sexual temporal lacuna between it and the appearance of both protagonists at the Cabaret club at the opening of Chapter 15.

In addition to the three Mozart pieces of Chapter 13—14 the novel makes multiple invocations of two Beethoven piano works, the Arietta from op.111 and the Diabelli Variations op.120, both of which are formally Theme and Variations, a procedure apt for showing how the same raw material—even something trivial—can be transformed into different kinds of shape, mood, and emotion. Like K332, both the Diabelli variations and the Arietta show topical range; the latter is specifically invoked as being an unexpected enrichment of the meagre possibilities offered by the theme: as the Monster says in the course of the cabaret’s dramatic performance:

Somewhere there must be love like music. Love harmonious and ordered: two spirits, two bodies moving contrapuntally together. Somewhere, the stupid brutish act must be made to make sense, must be enriched, must be made significant. Lust, like Diabelli’s waltz, a stupid air, turned by a genius into three-and-thirty fabulous variations. Somewhere…

While Mrs Viveash is unimpressed with the play (in contrast to her adoration of the voluptuous nihilism of the jazz song ‘What’s he to Hecuba / Nothing at all’), Gumbril thinks it ‘charming’. Their reactions here are contrasted like those of Gumbril and Emily to the Mozart Quintet earlier, when Emily had denied the she had enjoyed it because ‘Enjoy isn’t the word. You Enjoy eating ices. It made me happy. It’s unhappy music, but it made me happy’ (Ch 13). Music, love, happiness are thereby differentiated from noise, lust, and enjoyment. As Emily says:

Some people think that it’s only possible to be happy if one makes a noise …. I find it’s too delicate and melancholy for noise. Being happy is rather melancholy—like the most beautiful landscape, like those trees and the grass and the clouds and the sunshine to-day.

Music as art is in this novel is presented as being properly differentiated from music for pleasure, where it is deemed merely a distraction from the nihilism of a modernity traumatised by the losses of World War 1 and the looming threat of further war. Entertainment ‘music’ is lumped in with other kinds of modern urban and capitalistic sounds, from the mechanism of factories to the mechanical barrel organ. Music as art is somehow quiet, because it is not noise, despite being sound. We may find this differentiation odd, perhaps even obnoxious today, but its force in the early twentieth century, albeit that certain section of society represented by the central characters in Antic Hay, forms a context in which music, art, life, and love were understood.

More could be said: there is the contrast of Gumbril senior’s reliance on natural ‘music’ (the starlings in the trees in his square) and its beautiful unpredictability compared with the ludicrousness of the similarly ambient noise of a music hall song – music purely as ‘enjoyment’ – which itself asks about natural phenomenon (the barrel organ playing ‘Where do flies go in the wintertime’ as Lypiatt contemplates shooting himself to dead in Chapter 19). In short, if students are looking for a useful short dissertation topic at UG or Masters level, what this novel reveals about a music critic-novelist’s view of music and the human in the broader sonic city  would not be a bad choice.

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