Excerpt from Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Ian McEwan

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    Dec 1998, 193 pages
    Nov 1999, 193 pages

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At last he was warm enough, though his left hand still tingled. He removed his coat and slung it over Molly's chair. Before returning to the piano he went about the room turning on lamps. For over two hours he tinkered with the cello part and sketched in further orchestration, oblivious to the darkness outside and the muted, discordant pedal notes of the evening rush hour. It was only a bridging passage to the finale; what fascinated him was the promise, the aspiration--he imagined it as a set of ancient worn steps turning gently out of sight--the yearning to climb on and up and finally arrive, by way of an expansive shift, at a remote key and, with wisps of sound falling away like so much dissolving mist, at a concluding melody, a valediction, a recognizable melody of piercing beauty that would transcend its unfashionability and seem both to mourn the passing century and all its senseless cruelty and to celebrate its brilliant inventiveness. Long after the excitement of the first performance was over, long after the millennial celebrations, the fireworks and analyses and potted histories, were done with, this irresistible melody would remain as the dead century's elegy.

This was not only Clive's fantasy, it was also that of the commissioning committee, which had chosen a composer who characteristically conceived of, say, this rising passage in terms of steps that were ancient and made of stone. Even his supporters, at least in the seventies, granted the term archconservative, while his critics preferred throwback, but all agreed that along with Schubert and McCartney, Linley could write a melody. The work had been commissioned early so that it could "play itself" into public consciousness; for example, it had been suggested to Clive that a noisy, urgent brass passage might be used as a signature for the main evening television news. The committee, dismissed by the music establishment as middlebrow, above all longed for a symphony from which could be distilled at least one tune, a hymn, an elegy for the maligned and departed century, that could be incorporated into the official proceedings, much as "Nessun dorma" had been into a football tournament. Incorporated, then set free to take its chances of an independent life in the public mind during the third millennium.

For Clive Linley the matter was simple. He regarded himself as Vaughan Williams's heir, and considered terms like conservative irrelevant, a mistaken borrowing from the political vocabulary. Besides, during the seventies, when he was starting to be noticed, atonal and aleatoric music, tone rows, electronics, the disintegration of pitch into sound, in fact the whole modernist project, had become an orthodoxy taught in the colleges. Surely its advocates, rather than he himself, were the reactionaries. In 1975 he published a hundred-page book which, like all good manifestos, was both attack and apologia. The old guard of modernism had imprisoned music in the academy, where it was jealously professionalized, isolated, and rendered sterile, its vital covenant with a general public arrogantly broken. Clive gave a sardonic account of a publicly subsidized "concert" in a nearly deserted church hall, in which the legs of a piano were repeatedly struck with the broken neck of a violin for over an hour. An accompanying program note explained, with references to the Holocaust, why at this stage in European history no other forms of music were viable. In the small minds of the zealots, Clive insisted, any form of success, however limited, any public appreciation whatsoever, was a sure sign of aesthetic compromise and failure. When the definitive histories of twentieth-century music in the West came to be written, the triumphs would be seen to belong to blues, jazz, rock, and the continually evolving traditions of folk music. These forms amply demonstrated that melody, harmony, and rhythm were not incompatible with innovation. In art music, only the first half of the century would figure significantly, and then only certain composers, among whom Clive did not number the later Schoenberg and "his like."

Reproduced from Amsterdam : A Novel, by Ian McEwan. © 1997 by Ian McEwan, used by permission of the publishers : Doubleday.

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