Algis Valiunas Articles

The Genius Cycle

‘Art produced at the knife’s edge of despair.’
Jun 29, 2015

The art song for voice and piano—Lied, mélodie, canzone—is the poor relation of opera and oratorio, at least as far as popularity is concerned. There are legions of classical music fans who can hum every bar of La Traviata from overture to last gasp and who make attendance at Messiah sing-along concerts part of their Christmastime ritual, yet rarely or never listen to the masterworks of this low-ceiling repertoire.

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A Seventh Note

The score for destruction by Hitler and Stalin.
May 04, 2015

Saint Petersburg from its ground-breaking in 1704; Petrograd from 1914; Leningrad from the arch-demonic founding father’s death in 1924; and St. Petersburg redux, with the hope of civilization restored, in 1991. But the most beautiful and illustrious Russian city is still best known as Leningrad, its name immortalized with the black luster of incalculable wartime suffering. And perhaps the most famous 20th-century symphony is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh (1942), the “Leningrad,” so-called by acclamation.

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Notes and Music

The words of Virgil Thomson, composer and critic.
Feb 02, 2015

There are four 20th-century writers who are widely considered to be the gold standard in American journalistic criticism of the arts and intellectual life: H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, James Agee, and Virgil Thomson.

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Fantastic Voyage

The literary (?) career of Jules Verne
Jul 21, 2014

Certain amusements appropriate to childhood or adolescence have established a beachhead in adulthood, or its 21st-century American simulacrum. Grown men and women indulge, with or without shame, in video games, fantasy football leagues, sitcoms, online porn, comic books, and movies based on comic books—or that involve Las Vegas, 33 shots of tequila, and waking up athwart two female Sumo wrestlers and a chimpanzee.

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Bernini’s Progress

In and out of favor, in and out of fashion.
Mar 03, 2014

Facile cosa è farsi universale. (It is an easy thing to make oneself universal.) The statement in English has a blowhard’s windy obscurity. It sounds as though it came from the facile mouth of an exceedingly minor Transcendentalist. Some things are best said in Italian, and by men who can back up such words. 

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Olympic Moments

2:30 PM, Feb 08, 2014

Mr. Vladimir Putin intends that the current Olympic games be forever stamped with his glory.  Sochi is being protected by a “Ring of Steel.”  Thus has spoken Russia’s current Man of Steel, who sees himself as the rightful descendant of the original, although Mr.

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Unhappy the Man

The life and work of August Strindberg.
Jul 08, 2013

The earth is a place of woe and wailing: This is an understanding as old as human consciousness. However, most men and women have always seen that such an understanding is hardly adequate. Small contentments and towering ecstasies, consolation and redemption, must have their significance as one considers the arrangements that the Powers have made for us.

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God in the Details

Is the decadent Baudelaire the answer to the bourgeoisie?
May 06, 2013


What are we to God, and what is God to us?  

Hardly questions that men considered serious naturally turn their minds to these days. Most intellectuals got past such matters long ago, and treat them with derision, even hostility. Anti-abortion Christians and Jew-crazed fellahin alike are loathed as uncivilized; so-called decent liberal politics is stripped of any attachment to the supernatural. Social and political concerns strictly of this world consume the intelligentsia.

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Courtier Prince

The adventurous history of an Elizabethan favorite.
Jul 02, 2012

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the courageous but overmatched Jimmy Stewart gets credit for laying out a desperado in a gunfight when, in fact, it was John Wayne who fired the kill shot. The legend is irresistible and carries Stewart to a Senate seat. With Sir Walter Ralegh (1554?-1618), too, the legend is so attractive and so engrained that it is a challenge to keep the story straight.

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Huston Chronicle

The man who filmed the stuff that dreams are made of.
Mar 12, 2012

John Huston (1906-1987) had the talent and the courage to live as he pleased. Who would not wish to be able to say the same for himself? Who does not feel diminished beside someone who has done as much? Yet one can live as he pleases and still fall well short of the life he might have lived if he had demanded the very best of his talent and courage.

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The Modern Sound

Two prophets, in music, of suffering and redemption.
Sep 12, 2011

Despite the insistence of formalists that music is about nothing but itself, the supreme composers take in and give out as much life as the supreme novelists do. That is as true of the modernists as it is of their generally more revered predecessors—though when it is modern life that the composer expresses, the sound world tends to get hectic, emotionally contorted, and downright strange, befitting the times.

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