Archive for February, 2011

Still puzzled by “Moby-Dick”…

I have been delaying putting down my thoughts on Moby-Dick, as I wanted to allow some time to let it settle in my mind. Well, it’s been a few weeks since I finished it, and it hasn’t settled yet. I doubt it ever will.

It is unlike any other novel I know of. At times, I wondered whether what I was reading could be described as a novel at all. It’s easy to say it’s flawed, but that hardly helps matters: indeed, perhaps it isn’t flawed at all; perhaps what Meville wrote was precisely what he intended to write. On reading The Brothers Karamazov lately, I found myself thinking that, yes, there is much wrong with this, much that one may take issue with; but given there’s so much that is so uniquely, so breathtakingly brilliant, why focus on its shortcomings? But this is not how I feel about Moby-Dick. While there is much here also that is uniquely, breathtakingly brilliant, I am not sure that I understand Melville’s vision well enough to be able to point out possible shortcomings with any degree of confidence.

It is, quite clearly, an experimental novel. Melville makes his narrator Ishmael say at one point: “I try all things; I achieve what I can”. The entire novel may be seen as a series of experiments, of “trying all things”; and if some, or even most, of these experiments fail, then that in itself does not betoken failure, as the novel seems to me intended, at least on one level, as a record of these experiments, successful or otherwise: even failed experiments deserve a place here. And of course, on those occasions where the experiment succeeds, or even only partially succeeds, what we get defies belief.

But what is the end of all these mad experiments? The white whale, Moby-Dick, is, as everyone knows, a symbol. But the question “What does it symbolise?” is incapable of being answered. However, the question has to be asked, as the mainspring of the entire novel – Ahab’s monomaniac desire to destroy the White Whale – comes from Ahab himself seeing Moby-Dick as a symbol. But these two impossibilities – the impossibility of not posing this question, and at the same time, the impossibility of ever answering it – grind against each other to create at times an almost unbearable tension.

But much of the time, the narrative tone is surprisingly light, even humorous. By the time the Pequod sets sail, we are some fifth of the way into the book, and, barring some passages of dark introspection (including the magnificently titled opening chapter, “Loomings”), any reader unaware of the novel’s reputation may well think they are reading a comic work, a patchwork of light and mainly humorous seaman’s tales.

Even after setting sail, there is, to begin with, little indication of what lies ahead, despite the ominous absence of Ahab. But Melville rather curiously moves away from a narrative mode to give us very full and detailed accounts of whales and of whaling. There is barely any aspect of the subject he leaves untouched – from the natural history of whales to its various classifications; the economics of whaling; the techniques of whale-hunting; how the oil is extracted from whales after a successful hunt; the anatomy of whales; whales in history, religion, and folklore; and so on. The narrator, Ishmael, is tremendously erudite, referring with ease to various writers, philosophers, and religious beliefs from around the world. And he can even be whimsical, as when he compares the skulls of a right whale and of a sperm whale hanging on either side of the ship to philosphers:

Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale’s there? It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles in the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death. But mark the other head’s expression. See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel’s side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw. Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death? This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years. This reminds us that the Right Whale really has a sort of whisker, or rather a moustache, consisting of a few scattered white hairs on the upper part of the outer end of the lower jaw. Sometimes these tufts impart a rather brigandish expression to his otherwise solemn countenance.

These chapters dealing with the various aspects of whales and of whaling are not digressions, as the greater bulk of the novel is taken up with them; indeed, it’s the narrative chapters that appear discursive.

So why does Melville do this? On one level, it’s a sort of delaying tactic: he could not cut straight to the hunt for Moby-Dick immediately after setting sail. Of course, Melville could have filled up the gap with, say, sailors’ yarns, but that would have distracted attention from the main thrust of the novel. But this does not seem a good enough explanation: surely, Melville did not fill up the greater part of the novel with chapters on whales and whaling simply to fill a narrative gap? Unlike many readers, I actually found the content of these chapters fascinating, but I nonetheless find myself at a loss to answer to my satisfaction the question “What purpose do these chapters serve?” To anyone looking simply for an exciting adventure yarn, these chapters are obviously irrelevant; but they seem less than relevant also to the reader looking for glimpses something deeper.

As the novel progresses, we are increasingly given glimpses into this “something deeper”, and these glimpses terrify. In “The Whiteness of the Whale”, one of the most remarkable chapters of a novel full of remarkable chapters, Ishmael muses on the terror that the very thought of the White Whale inspires in him. Ahab, for much of the time, is kept away from the action, but as the novel accelerates towards its denouement, he appears more frequently. And when he does so, he speaks lines of Miltonic grandeur, unlike anything, I suspect, ever spoken by any character in novels. For this is a figure who belongs not to mere paltry novels, but to epic poetry, or to blank verse drama: indeed, one suspects that it wouldn’t be too difficult to turn his utterances into lines of Miltonic or of  Shakespearean blank verse:

Hark ye yet again, – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak! – Aye, aye! thy silence, then, that voices thee. (Aside) something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.

This speech, with its image of striking through the pasteboard masks, is famous, perhaps too famous to allow the reader to perceive it from a fresh perspective. But it is a speech that belongs to drama rather than to the novel. Even the stage direction “aside” towards the end betrays its provenance. But whatever its provenance, this speech poses far more questions than it answers. Of course, it is not the purpose of a work of art to answer questions: enough that they are asked. However, if we take the pasteboard masks to be outward appearances; and if Ahab means to discover the truth of what lies beyond these masks by “striking through them”; then how can this be achieved by destroying the White Whale? What does Ahab hope to perceive by destroying Moby-Dick?

Ahab does not accept God (“Who’s over me?”), but has a dread of nihilism: he suspects, and fears, there may be nothing beyond these pasteboard masks. But he has to find out. And he knows also that the White Whale is a metaphor (“To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”) – a metaphor representing all that prevents him from apprehending some truth beyond external appearances. But why should he think that he will be able to see beyond these appearances better by destroying what is, in essence, but a metaphor? There is a mystery here that I cannot fathom – that, possibly, cannot be fathomed – but it is presented in terms that have assumed the proportions of mythology.

Throughout, there are echoes of the Bible, of Milton, of Shakespeare. Here, for instance, is the scene between Ahab and the ship’s blacksmith:

“…What wert thou making there?”

“Welding an old pike-head, Sir; there were seams and dents in it.”

“And can’st thou make it all smooth, again, blacksmith, after such hard usage as it had?”

“I think so, Sir.”

“And I suppose thou can’st smoothe almost any seams and dents; never mind how hard the metal, blacksmith?”

“Aye, Sir, I think I can; all seams and dents but one.”

“Look ye here, then,” cried Ahab, passionately advancing, and leaning with both hands on Perth’s shoulders; “look ye here – here – can ye smoothe out a seam like this, blacksmith”, sweeping one hand across his ribbed brows; “if thou could’st, blacksmith, glad enough would I lay my head upon thy anvil, and feel thy heaviest hammer between my eyes. Answer! Can’st thou smoothe this seam?”

I find it hard not to think of Macbeth speaking to the doctor:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Similarly, when Ahab is struck by the ravings of the mad boy Pip, and insists that Pip stay with him, it’s hard not to find echoes of Lear’s insistence on keeping with him the mad Poor Tom:

KING LEAR  Noble philosopher, your company.

EDGAR  Tom’s a-cold.

GLOUCESTER In, fellow, there, into the hovel: keep thee warm.

KING LEAR Come let’s in all.

KENT This way, my lord.

KING LEAR  With him;
I will keep still with my philosopher.

The final part of the novel breaks the bounds of what we may imagine a novel can achieve. Ahab refuses to help the ship Rachel, weeping for its lost children; he himself weeps precious tears into the sea. And then, we come face to face with the White Whale itself. The final three doom-laden chapters possibly rank with some of the finest of Dostoyevsky as the most exciting of any novel; and, as in Dostoyevsky, the excitement here is more than merely physical. When, finally, the Pequod goes down to Hell taking a bit of Heaven with it, one can but gasp in astonishment, even without understanding what it may betoken.

Did I understand what it was all about? No, I don’t think I did. But perhaps one is not meant to understand it anyway. Were there longueurs? Yes, a great many. But no matter. What other novel can provide an experience to compare with this?

Opera as drama

–         You like opera? 

It’s almost as if I’d been discovered to be an aficionado of hardcore pornography.

 –         Well, yes… I mutter apologetically.

–         Really? Opera? Isn’t it a bit … er … a bit… well, you know …

 Yes, I know. Indeed, it’s a bit. I try to explain myself. A bit. One can’t like all operas, I say, any more than one can like all films, or all novels. There are many operas I’m quite indifferent to, and can take or leave; some about which I have ambivalent feelings; some with which I have yet to come adequately to terms; and some I actively dislike. But then again, there are a great many I do like, and a handful that have been life-changing experiences. 

–         I suppose you just have to ignore the silly plots and listen to the music. I never could stand the sound of it myself.

I try to move the conversation on at this point. It would take too long to explain that, for me, opera is drama. Yes, it is music as well, but the music in opera serves, or, at least, should serve, the drama.

This needs to be qualified, obviously. After all, as everyone knows, the plots of opera are silly.

But are they? Is everyone right in knowing this? The plot of Peter Grimes, say, isn’t silly. Or Wozzeck. Or Elektra. Or Kátya Kabanová. These are all powerful dramas, and are often based on plays that are acknowledged dramatic masterpieces. Well, fair enough, not opera of the 20th century, perhaps, but if we go back earlier – don’t we have all that stuff with magic love potions and gypsy ladies throwing the wrong baby into the fire, and all that sort of thing?

Well, yes. You’ve got me there. Throwing the wrong baby into the fire certainly takes some explaining. But even here, I’d argue, the music serves a dramatic purpose, and loses much of its point if the dramatic context is ignored. As with blank verse drama, opera is a very stylised art form, and can, as a consequence, take much artifice. In other words, opera is not compelled to conform to the conventions (and they are merely conventions) of realism, any more than, say, Shakespearean drama is. After all, by the conventions if modern realism, even such imperishable dramatic masterpieces as King Lear or The Winter’s Tale are likely to appear a bit silly.

Stephen Sondheim, when asked what the difference is between operas and musicals, famously replied “expectation”. This is certainly true up to a point, but I don’t believe for one minute that Sondheim  really thinks there is no real difference between the two forms. The difference, surely, is the use to which the music is put. Put crudely, the music in musicals serves a decorative purpose: a musical without the musical numbers is not likely to be particularly interesting, but it can still make sense as drama. A South Pacific or a My Fair Lady without the music can still be playable. But this is not so with opera, because, here, the music conveys the drama. Of course, things are rarely so clear-cut: one can easily point to passages in some musicals where the music does serve a dramatic purpose; and one can also point to music from even the finest of operas that are little more than decorative. But if we regard these alternatives not as a clear-cut dichotomy but as poles of a spectrum, it may reasonably be argued, I think, that operas and musicals tend to occupy different halves of that range. In musicals, the music decorates the drama; in opera, the music depicts it.

Take, for instance, the opening duet of Le Nozze di Figaro. Figaro is taking measurements of the room: his music, to begin with at least, is in broken phrases. However, when Susanna sings, she seems not to have heard those broken phrases: she offers us, instead, a couple of long-breathed melodic lines. This is because she is not concerned with Figaro’s measuring: she is trying out her new hat, and wants Figaro to look at it. Figaro resists for a while, continuing with his broken phrases, but, as Susanna shows no inclination to sing his music, he begins to sing hers. Those broken phrases of his are now forgotten, and the two end the duet singing in unison: needless to say, the tune they are singing is Susanna’s tune. The entire structure of this duet is a reflection of how these two characters react to each other.

 Or consider the big sextet in Act Two of Don Giovanni – “sola, sola in buio loco”. Donna Elvira starts it off, with a melody bespeaking nobility and tragic dignity. Leporello then takes up this melody, but it is now subtly transformed to appear comic. This, once again, reflects what is happening dramatically: both are lost in the dark, but where Donna Elvira’s emotional vulnerability is being abused, Leporello merely wants to find his way out of a scrape. Then, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio enter, to expand what had been a duet to a quartet. And, as they enter, the music undergoes a tortuous change of tonality, as E flat gives way to D. There may be a musical reason for this: I am not enough of a musician to know about that. But there is certainly a dramatic reason: Donna Anna and Don Ottavio are not going to accommodate themselves to the music: rather, the music has to change, no matter how awkwardly, to accommodate itself to them. And even here, Mozart isn’t finished: Don Ottavio sings a mellifluous melody of consolation in D major, but Donna Anna, refusing to be consoled, changes immediately to D minor, and modifies Don Ottavio’s melodic line to incorporate rising intervals (which someone who can read scores better than I can will no doubt be able to identify) of heartbreaking intensity. No-one doubts the musical quality of any of this – we’re talking here about Mozart, after all! – but the point surely is that the music is in service of the drama.

One cannot make general rules, of course: operas come in so many shapes and sizes that it is pointless trying to define rules that will cover everything. The drama presented in an opera may be good, bad, or indifferent; it may even be silly. But it is drama, all the same, and the music communicates that drama. The music may even find dramatic depth where none exists in the libretto, but, whatever the quality of the drama it communicates, unless that music is dramatic in nature, it is not, almost by definition, operatic music. The drama of an opera can encompass the subtleties and complexities of a Cosi fan Tutte, or the passionate fervour of Fidelio; the sad intimacy of a La Traviata, or the epic myth-making of the Ring Cycle; the dream-like trance of Pelléas and Mélisande, or the thud and blunder theatricality of Tosca; the nostalgic charm of Der Rosenkavalier, or the harsh realism of From the House of the Dead. There is no end to the variety in opera, any more than there is to the variety of plays, or of novels. And this variety is essentially dramatic, I’d argue; and it is the music that communicates the drama.

Let us end by considering that quite extraordinary final act of Rigoletto. Verdi was never really bothered by the plot: it could be as improbable as one wants – the plot is hardly the point. The mechanism of the plot in this case – the mere matter of what happens – is negligible. What matters is the significance of what happens. Rigoletto lives in a heartless society in which he, a hunchback, is merely a figure of fun. The only way he can respond to this is to become part of the cruelty and heartlessness that  surrounds him, to become himself a very agent of the evil that oppresses him. But one part of his life he has had to keep apart from this: he has tried to keep his beloved daughter protected her from the evil that surrounds her, and in a state of artificial innocence. It cannot be, of course: inevitably, her very innocence is her downfall. But in that final act, surrounded as we are by utter darkness, both literal and metaphorical, we find a kind of drama that only opera can achieve. The evil but utterly charming Duke enters with his famous solo – “La donna è mobile”. Famous though it is, there is not much to commend it in musical terms: it is slight, trivial, and even, perhaps, vulgar. But in terms of pure theatre, it is stunning. For this trivial little ditty not merely depicts the character of this swaggering, shallow and unthinking Duke, it provides also a contrast so striking to the enfolding darkness that it startles. It may not be possible to defend “La donna è mobile” in purely musical terms: but in dramatic terms, it is dynamite. (We shall hear a reprise of this trivial tune later, but in such a context that even after years of repeated listening, it still strikes terror in the heart) And then, there follows the quartet: an unthinking delight in the passing moment;  rage and love; charm that we know to be rotten even as we are seduced by it; hope shattered and bitterness vindicated; cruelty and tenderness, pity and terror … it’s all there, and it’s all there at the same time, taking the listener’s ear and heart simultaneously in countless different directions. Only opera can achieve this. And what it achieves is dramatic.

Art with a capital F

Now that serious analysis of serious art has been effectively sidelined from the mainstream, what do the newspapers fill their arts pages with? Well, stuff like this, apparently. And this. (And many others that I can’t be bothered to look up and provide links to.) Pretentious gibberish? Well yes, of course it is. What else can one expect when significance is sought where there isn’t any? Of course, this kind of stuff is hilarious, but it’s sad to reflect that the laughs are actually unintentional. And sadder yet to reflect on what has been lost to accommodate this.

The BBC Shakespeare

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the BBC broadcast new productions of all the Shakespeare plays. At the time, it wasn’t too well received: as I remember, even before the first play was broadcast., the critics – who didn’t, I guess, realise how quickly and how ruthlessly high culture would become sidelined out of existence from mainstream broadcasting – openly sneered at the whole idea. And, it must be said, the first broadcast – a disastrously dull version of Romeo and Juliet – seemed to confirm the most pessimistic of outlooks. It was dutiful, very traditional, unimaginatively directed and shot, and, to a television audience that would soon be thrilling to the visual splendors of Granada TV’s lavish adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, the production values seemed cheap, and the visuals merely bland. It was hardly an auspicious start. 

The productions that followed were distinctly better, but hardly anyone seemed to notice: the whole enterprise had already been branded a failure – a stodgy, self-conscious piece of “heritage broadcasting”. However, the BBC was committed to the project, and, almost apologetically, they continued. What had initially been scheduled for peak hour viewing on Sunday evening was, after a while, scheduled for weekdays, as well hidden away as possible. After a while Jonathan Miller took charge of the project from Cedric Messina, directing a few himself; but one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the BBC as the series came, at long last, to an end. Never, never again! 

So how does the series look now in retrospect? Surprisingly good, to be honest. Well, some of it still looks dull and stodgy (I’m afraid that Romeo and Juliet does not improve with time); and it is a fact of life that nostalgia often adds a layer of glamour even to that which is best forgotten. But looking back, even some of the earlier productions, before Jonathan Miller took over, look … well, they look rather good. One can but wonder, for instance, why the critics of the time failed to admire a quite superb performance of Measure for Measure, with Kate Nelligan and Tim Piggott-Smith outstanding as Isabella and Angelo.  Or why they failed to be charmed by a conventional but utterly wonderful production of Twelfth Night, with a cast including Felicity Kendal, Sinead Cusack and Alec McCowan. It is also hard to see why the quite superb productions of the two Henry IV plays (preserving on film Anthony Quayle’s justly famous portrayal of Falstaff) passed by unnoticed. I suppose that by the time these were broadcast, the series had already been written off as an embarrassment. 

And things certainly improved further with Jonathan Miller: the productions were still conventional, but there was now more of an attempt at interpretation, rather than a mere dutiful laying out of the goods, as it were. Unfortunately, some of productions of the bigger works were little better than mediocre: Hamlet was merely so-so, and King Lear, despite some good moments, looked under-rehearsed.  Miller directed the latter himself, and, as in his previous BBC production of the play, made the surprise choice of Michael Hordern – an actor better known for lighter, comic roles – as Lear: Miller no doubt had his reasons, but I’m not quite sure this piece of casting paid off: while Hordern does a thoroughly professional job, he does not convey the sense of tragic grandeur which – pace Jonathan Miller – does seem to me an essential feature of the play. 

Othello, also directed by Jonathan Miller, remains controversial, but for me, it is magnificent. Antony Hopkins was possibly the last white actor to black up as Othello in a mainstream production, and while some find this offensive, I can’t say I do: if we can still accept white tenors blacking up to sing Verdi’s Otello (and we do), I don’t see what the problem is here. Antony Hopkins gives a sustained outpouring of passion that leaves me gasping for breath, and Bob Hoskins’ portrayal of a sociopathic Iago is frightening. Penelope Wilton looks not quite young enough for Desdemona, especially in close-up, but given what she makes of the role, I, for one, am quite happy to overlook that. 

But generally, it was the lesser-known works that came off best. I don’t think, for instance, that it’s possible to find anywhere a finer production of All’s Well That  End Well. And director Elijah Moshinsky made an excellent job of that very strange late play, Cymbeline.

Best of all, perhaps, were the productions directed by Jane Howell. Titus Andronicus is not exactly one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, but it’s hard to imagine it done better; The Winter’s Tale is every bit as dramatic and as moving as it should be; and her production of the tetralogy of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III is my nomination for the best drama I have ever seen on television. No, really – it is. 

So, a mixed bag, but at its best, a magnificent achievement that is not likely to be repeated because the ambition that gave birth to this series no longer, one suspects, exists. Last night, we watched the BBC Shakespeare production of Antony and Cleopatra, a play that, in certain moods, I consider my favourite work in the canon. It is another one Jonathan Miller decided to direct himself, but, like the series itself, is something of a mixed bag. Among its plus points are the visuals: although it’s by no means a lavish production, Miller gives as luxurious colours and textures, suggesting the overflowing exuberance of a canvas by Rubens. Colin Blakeley was an unorthodox but inspired choice for Antony, Emrys James is all one could ask for from Enobarbus, and the late Ian Charleson was about as good an Octavius as I have seen: he presents Octavius – quite rightly, I think – as a man naturally passionate, but who has to subdue those passions to assume his immense responsibilities, and who, unlike Antony and Cleopatra, has visions of a time of “universal peace”. 

Jane Lapotaire’s Cleopatra, I must admit, I don’t find quite as convincing. Of course, it’s the most difficult role in the play, as it’s virtually impossible to live up to the descriptions we are given of Cleopatra, and to convey a sense of “infinite variety”. But she does speak her lines well, and her performance of that glorious final scene is magnificent. However, I must take issue with some of Jonathan Miller’s directorial choices – and, especially, with some of the cuts. Now, I am not a purist in this respect: most Shakespeare plays can survive a few judicious cuts. However, what makes this play so particularly moving is the way the sense of the sublime that we witness in the final scene develops from the human fallibility we had seen earlier. Human beings, we are made to feel, are complex and multifaceted and ever-changing and endlessly malleable, and what we sense as the “sublime” is but an element contained in this mass of messy contradictions that is humanity. However, in this production, thanks largely to the cuts, the sense of the sublime at the end seems merely superimposed: there is a discontinuity between the very flawed  human being Cleopatra we see through most of the action, and the godlike queen we see at the very end. Cleopatra is denied those scenes that would have established this sense of continuity: she is denied the scene with her treasurer, for instance, or that marvellous moment where, even at the point of death, we catch that glimpse of the Cleopatra we had formerly known when she refers to Octavius as an “ass unpolicied”: these cuts are particularly grievous. The Cleopatra we see at the end and the Cleopatra we had seen earlier do not seem here to be the same person, and the sense of flawed humanity developing into something beautiful and noble is, as a consequence, lost. 

Most unforgivable of all is a cut of a mere two words – “Ah, soldier!” 

Towards the end of the play, the Roman soldiers return to the monument to find Cleopatra dead (she has committed suicide), and her attendant, Charmian, on the point of dying. As she dies, she says:

It is well done, and fitting for a princess
Descended of so many royal kings.
Ah, soldier!

The first two lines are taken, virtually word for word, from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives: Shakespeare obviously knew a good thing when he saw it, and was happy to re-cycle. But then, he adds two simple words – “Ah, soldier!” – and the whole thing is magically lifted into a different sphere. Just two simple words.

Here is what TS Eliot has to say about it:

You cannot say there is anything peculiarly poetic about these two words, and if you isolate the dramatic from the poetic you cannot say there is anything peculiarly dramatic either, because there is nothing in them for the actress to express in action; she can at best enunciate them clearly. I could not myself put into words the difference I feel between the passage if these two words “ah, soldier” were omitted, and with them. But I know there is a difference, and only Shakespeare could have made it.

Well, if even old TS couldn’t put it into words, I’m certainly not going to try. There comes a point where one can do no more than merely stare and wonder. But how anyone could be so insensitive to cut those two words out, I really cannot imagine. No doubt Jonathan Miller has his reasons, but they’re hard to discern.

 So, like the series in general, a mixed bag. But for all that, I’m so glad I watched it!

My favourite composers

I had promised myself I’d never do another of those stupid lists again. You know the kind – your Top Ten Novels, your Top Ten Symphonies, your Top Ten Hammer Horror Films … No, hang on, that’s quite a good one actually … But then I see posts here, and here, that encourage us to compile our list of Top Ten Composers.

Well, now I am doing it. Since I want to use the blog to write about what I love; and since I love music dearly; it makes sense for me to try to write something about music – at least once in a while. The problem is that I have not received a proper education in music, and can therefore write no more about it than a few subjective impressions. But at least a list gives me a good excuse to mention what I like, so that’s fair enough. I hope.

At any rate, my rather pathetic excuse for compiling his list is that it was New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini is making me do it. So here goes.

But first, the usual disclaimers. One can’t really list the ten greatest composers, since music is not a competitive sport any more than football is. (Football – that’s “soccer” for our translatlantic readers – did, admittedly, use to be a competitive sport until the richer teams got even richer and closed the door on the possibility of any smaller team ever winning anything. Not that I am bitter about it, you understand. But I digress.) If one were to list the Greatest Composers, then one would, I imagine, list music’s Holy Trinity of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in some order, and then think of seven others. And even the choice of this top table of music may not be unanimous: ever since BBC’s radio 3 decided to put on a Mozartfest a few weeks ago, I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read telling us Mozart wasn’t that good, really. But leaving aside such people (who appear frankly to have their taste where the sun doesn’t shine), it is quite conceivable for a knowledgeable and cultured music lover nominating for the top table, say, Lassus, Handel and Stravinsky. Or, perhaps, Monteverdi, Schütz, and Wagner. Or something.

What follows is necessarily a subjective choice. These are the composers whose music I, personally, could least do without.

First, for me, is Mozart. The music I could least do without are those three operas he composed to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte – to my mind the finest works for the stage between Shakespeare and Ibsen. And there is also Die Zauberflöte, which seems to me great despite rather than because of the libretto. Of course, the libretto has been defended, but I don’t get it: I really have no idea what it is in that libretto that inspired Mozart, but inspire him it did.

Moving away from opera, is there any medium Mozart didn’t master? Arguably, his string quartets were not quite of the standard of those by Haydn or Beethoven, but they’re masterpieces all the same; and his string quintets, his clarinet quintet, and that wonderful Divertimento for String Trio K563, can surely stand comparison with the greatest chamber works by anyone. His last four symphonies (the last three of which were all composed, apparently, in the course of a mere six weeks) are breathtaking: Beethoven may have extended the scale and the expressive range of the symphony, but even Beethoven never surpassed these works for perfection of form, or for depth of expression. Or take those astonishing piano concertos – at least a dozen of which are masterpieces of the highest order. Or that sinfonia concertante for violin and viola. Or the late clarinet concerto – or the unfinished C Minor mass (or, for that matter, that unfinished Requiem Mass) … Or those wind serenades (did anyone ever compose better for winds?) … It is all too easy merely to reel off these works, but less easy to specify what it is about them that make them, for me, so indispensable.  Perhaps the quality I find in Mozart above that of any other composer is the ability to express so many different things at the same time. As an example, listen to that final movement of the D minor piano concerto, K466. It starts off with a theme of barely contained, surging passion, but by the final bars, we are in the world of pure comedy. Where and how did this transformation take place? God knows how many times I have heard it over the years, but I never could work it out. And I think it’s because there is no transformation:  those same themes have in them the potential both for the darkest tragedy and the most genialcomedy, and Mozart could bring out whichever aspect he wanted at will.

This ability of his to encompass extremes at the same time serves him well in opera, where he frequently depicts the endless complexities of the human heart. In Cosi fan Tutte, characters could simulate and yet be passionately sincere at the same time. In Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira can be an absurd comic figure who fails to learn from experience, and who falls for Don Giovanni repeatedly; and yet, at the same time, even while being absurdly comic, she has also a generous heart with an aspetto nobile and a dolce maestà; she is a figure of immense tragic dignity. The two perspectives co-exist, with neither blotting out the other. Similarly, Leporello can find the gulling of Donna Elvira funny, and yet, at the same time, feel for her genuine pity. Human emotions are too complex, too slippery, too elusive ever to be pinned down: all their complexity and contradictions must be shown simultaneously. It is tempting to say only music could do this, but that’s not quite accurate: only Mozart’s music could do this. I generally find it impossible to describe accurately the mood of any Mozart piece: they seem to encompass everything. And all the time, they all seem lit with some strange and ineffably beautiful other-worldly light.

Next up for me is Beethoven. (Yes, I know, these aren’t terribly original choices, but I don’t claim originality.) Beethoven projects the image (much of it carefully cultivated and promoted by himself) of the heaven-stormer, the man who defiantly shook his fists at the gods. Yes, of course there are elements of that, and yes, I continue to find it thrilling. But there are other aspects also – a great many other aspects. Beethoven could summon up courtly grace and elegance and well as could Mozart; his music contains as much wit and humour as does the music of Haydn’s – although, admittedly, Beethoven’s style of humour is often of a sledgehammer variety; and his music also projected a sense of lyrical exaltation, as in the violin concerto, or in the 6th symphony, where, like his exact contemporary Wordsworth (they were born in the same year), Beethoven found in nature “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”.

And of course, there is the Late Beethoven. Perhaps no other composer had quite so identifiable a “late period” as did Beethoven, although, given that Beethoven was only in his 50s when he died, it is unlikely that he recognised the works of his later years as specifically “late works”. But they are as visionary and as other-worldly as we could possibly expect Late Works to be – although it does seem to me that even at his most other-worldly, there remains a strong sense of the earthy – e.g. in the scherzi of the op. 109 and Op. 110 piano sonatas, or in several of the Diabelli variations.

The other member of Western music’s Holy Trinity is Bach, but I must admit that while much of Bach’s music is precious to me (and, I guess, to anyone who cares at all for music), a great deal of his music I find rather intimidating. And since this post is about the music that means most to me personally, let us keep Bach for later, and skip to Brahms, a composer who, I’m sure, would have felt deeply embarrassed to have found himself placed above Bach even in a list such as this. But there is something about the combination of raw passion and deep autumnal melancholy in his music that I frequently find chiming with my own mood. Those four symphonies of his I find have become almost something of an obsession: certainly, I have more different recordings of them than is entirely sensible, and I spend a disproportionate amount of my spare time listening to them. And those concertos! I remember still when, as a teenager, I was discovering this music, I fell in love particularly with that 2nd piano concerto – which really is more a symphony for orchestra and piano rather than the concerto it claims to be. There is one moment especially in the scherzo that particularly delighted me: I used to play that movement over and over again, and every time that moment approached, I could feel my excitement rising. It comes as the opening section moves into the middle section. Now, normally, when a movement is in ABA format, the section A is allowed politely to come to a decorous end before section B starts: sometimes, there is even a pause to signal the transition. But here, as we approach the end of section A, the music rises in waves of seemingly uncontrollable passion. The piano feels after a while that it can no longer keep pace with the mad rush, and drops out. And then, just as the orchestra reaches the mighty climactic point of this passage, at this very moment, we move abruptly into the middle section – straight into a Handelian theme in double counterpoint. The effect, even on repeated listenings (and how repeatedly have I listened to this!) is exhilarating.

Let us move now to the death-haunted world of Schubert. It is not a world devoid of sunny grace or eloquence – indeed, I find it hard to think of anything of a happier disposition than the Trout quintet – but the general mood I find in much of Schubert’s work is that of a haunting sadness and of melancholy; a sense of the tragic that moves at times into the realms of sheer terror; and a deep, deep sense of loss and of longing. All these elements are found in the song cycle Winterresse – about as bleak a work of art as ever was conceived – but, perhaps even more, I find them in the last collection of Schubert’s lieder, which was published after his death under the collective title Schwanengesang. Strictly speaking, this is not a “song cycle”, but these songs seem so unified in mood, that they are often treated as such. Almost unbearably moving are the six songs in the collection that set to music poems by Heine: there is one song especially – “Am Meer” – that tells of a parting by the sea, and is so haunting that I swear I have heard it even in my sleep.

Those last three piano sonatas, the last three string quartets, and that glorious string quintet of his seem to me to be, like Winterreise, on the edge of sanity. The G major string quartet epecially – a great favourite of mine – seems to take us towards the uncompromising emotional world of Bartók. And Bartók is, indeed, my next choice.  I remember still when I heard all six string quartets of Bartók plyed on a single mad day by the Belcea Quartet at the Wigmore Hall. I am not sure how they kept their concentration, for, even though I was only listening, and even though the concerts were well spread out through the day, by the time that almost unbearably sad 6th quartet came around, my concentration, I’m afraid, had gone. But I’m glad I attended those concerts: each of those six quartets, written at different times of Bartók’s life, is different; each opens up new worlds of sound, of sonority; and yet, each is unmistakably the product of the same astounding creative genius.

It was a recording of the 2nd violin concerto that first alerted me to this strange musical mind – those plucked notes on the harp, followed by that almost ghostly theme on the violin … I had heard nothing like that before, and nothing since. Indeed, there is much in Bartók that may be described as “ghostly”: the slow movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was famously used in The Shining, Kubrick’s attempt at a horror film; but perhaps even more eerie and frightening for me is the middle movement of the Divertimento for Strings. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many Hammer horror films, but I can’t listen to that music without picturing the coach with the lonely traveller driving through the Borgo Pass, and on towards Castle Dracula.

Virtually everything Bartók ever composed is a masterpiece – those string quartets, the sonata for two pianos and percussion, the one act gothic opera Bluebeard’s Castle – right up to that sonata for solo violin, and that late, mellow 3rd piano concerto. But throughout it all, there seems to me a tremendous passion. I find it impossible to remain detached during a performance of any work by Bartók: each work demands total immersion

I have already picked five composers, and am conscious that I have yet to pick Bach. But old Johann Sebastian will have to wait just a bit longer, for the next on my list is his perhaps equally great contemporary, Handel. The comparison between the two composers is fascinating, but it’s difficult articulating it, since to describe the works of such towering geniuses in generalised terms is inevitably to simplify. But on the whole, I find Handel a more theatrical composer than Bach; and, perhaps for that reason alone, I find myself listening to more of Handel’s music.

I actually came to Handel’s music rather late. For a long time, I had imagined him as little more than a purveyor of ceremonial pomp and grandeur. It was only when I heard some of those exquisite arias from Giulio Cesare that I realised how far removed my picture of Handel was from the reality. And so, over the hast few years, I have found myself exploring more of this composer’s music, and moving well beyond Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks. And I can barely begin to describe the riches I have found – from the pastoral freshness of Acis and Galatea to the high drama of Saul; from the sumptuous grandeur of Solomon to the melting tenderness of Rodelinda; from the nobility of Belshazzar to the sheer radiance of Theodora. One could go on and on. And throughout, there is a melodic inspiration that is perhaps matched only by Schubert (who was, however, very different temperamentally).

Bach is my next choice (“and not before time”, I hear you say). On the whole, I find him a more introverted composer than Handel. Instead of the great monumental public statements of Handel, Bach gives us – even in large scale works such as St Matthew Passion, or the Mass in B Minor – music of a quiet intensity and inwardness, almost as if the act of making music were a means of speaking privately to one’s God. Much of Bach, as I say, does intimidate me: I have no doubt that his various preludes and fugues, A Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, etc., are amongst the peaks of human achievement: but all too often, I feel myself distanced from it. But what I experience when I do get Bach I don’t think I could even begin to describe.

Only last month, I was at the Wigmore Hall to hear Thomas Zehetmair give a recital of some of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, ending the concert with the D minor partita, with that passionate powerhouse that is the concluding chaconne. Have I ever heard anything quite like that? No, I hadn’t. It was unlike anything else. One doubts whether Brahms would have composed that passionate passacaglia that concludes his 4th symphony if Bach’s chaconne had not existed. It is emotionally exhausting merely to listen to it. But Bach could relax as well: and he could exult – listen, for instance, to the outer movements of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, with its stratospherically high trumpet. Indeed, the sheer range and variety of moods in these six Brandenburg Concertos are such that it seems at times that they contain everything anyone could possibly want from music.

Before I move on to my last three choices, let me briefly mention a few composers I wish I could have included amongst my favourites. I am afraid I had to leave out Janáček, whose increasingly unorthodox operas (as well as the mad Glagolitic Mass, and the two string quartets) I love deeply. I am equally sorry to leave out Mussorgsky, who would certainly have made this list had he remained sober enough to have composed more. But even as it is, Boris Godunov and Khovanschina (Mussorgsky didn’t get round even to orchestrating the latter: we usually hear it in the superb orchestration by Shostakovich) are possibly my favourite operas since Mozart; and I am sorry also to omit Mahler, a composer I have been coming round to recently after years of bemusement and incomprehension. As for Wagner, yes, I have frequently found myself spellbound by his music: I have found myself so immersed that I have lost all sense of the outside world, of time passing. But whether I actually enjoy being in this state is another question. I do like Wagner, but I’m not sure that I like liking him, if you see what I mean; and while I can understand why some people would choose Wagner as their Number One, I am frankly quite happy to leave him out. There are many other very great composers I have had to leave out, of course, but this post is long enough as it is, so let us move on.

Modest Mussorgsky (Have you seen anyone looking quite so pissed?)

Puccini is out of the top ten too, I’m sorry to say – although I’m sure that in other moods, I’d decide that I couldn’t do without La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. But Verdi is certainly in, and is my next choice. I don’t think any other composer had quite so powerful a sense of the theatre. People often complain about the silliness of many of his plots, but that does seem to me to be missing the point: the plots matter less than what Verdi made of them. I dare anyone to read the synopsis of something like Rigoletto, say, and not laugh at the absurdity of it: but the finished product is heartbreaking. It is not what happens that interests Verdi: his interests lay deeper. Rigoletto, for instance, is a man who is despised and mocked, and the only way he can live with this is to despise and mock those despise and mock him. He becomes a part of the evil and the corruption that so oppress him. But his soul must find some respite from this endless cycle of inhumanity, and he finds this respite in his love for his daughter. But the evil around him – and of which he is himself is an agent – cannot be be held back, and he unwittingly helps destroy the very thing that he has tried with all his soul to protect. The plot –  mere mechanism whereby all this happens – may be absurd, but the very real human emotions are overwhelming. In most tragedies, the protagonist dies: but Rigoletto’s tragedy is that he must go on living, even when the earth holds nothing that is worth living for.

In masterpiece after masterpiece, Verdi depicted and explored human passions. In his very old age, he produced what some think are his greatest works. But I’m not so sure. Of course, his Requiem Mass, and his two late Shakespearean operas – Otello and Falstaff – are beyond compare, but I really don’t know that, despite the superior libretti of these last two operas, they are superior to the likes of Rigoletto, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, Aida, etc. It was Stravinsky who said that he loved these works beyond the point where criticism made any difference. And this brings me round neatly to my next choice. 

Stravinsky remains a towering figure. His earlier ballets – The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring – have all entered the mainstream repertoire now, but the quality of his output, despite a very long creative life never declined. His restless creativity was constantly seeking out new styles, new modes of expression. And whatever mode, whatever style he worked in, it’s almost as if he couldn’t help but create masterpieces. It’s hard to imagine that the composer of a score as richly melodic and as Romantic as The Firebird could compose so bleak and desolate a work as Oedipus Rex; or that the composer of the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms could go on to compose Agon and Thereni. In the 1950s, with the emergence of the postwar avant-garde, Stravinsky may have appeared a bit of a dinosaur: he soon saw to that by taking on the avant-garde at their own game, and composing serialist works. And what works they are!

There is much in Stravinsky’s immense output that I confess I haven’t quite come to terms with yet: Stravinsky seems a composer whose works one may spend an entire lifetime exploring.

My final choice is a safe and standard middle-of-the-road Classic FM choice, but I don’t care: I love the music of Tchaikovsky, so there. Yes, I know, he did compose the 1812 Overture, but it’s Tchaikovsky’s bad luck that this piece has become so well-known, just as it’s Beethoven’s good luck that Wellington’s Victory hasn’t. And I could live without Tchaikovsky’s concerti as well: at best, they are merely decorative. Neither am I entirely convinced by Tchaikovsky the opera composer: there are some fine things in Eugene Onegin and in The Queen of Spades, but neither counts among my favourites. No – it’s those last three symphonies and those three ballet scores (not just the suites – the full scores of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker) that I’d find very difficult to do without. Britten, I gather, used to keep the score of Sleeping Beauty near him when he composed, to inspire him whenever he encountered problems with orchestration.

Of course, it is true that I am a sucker for a good tune, and Tchaikovsky wrote some of the very best – but that’s not, I think, the primary reason for my love of Tchaikovsky: Dvořák was at least as fine a melodist, but his music tends to leave me (for whatever reason) indifferent. It’s the kind of melody Tchaikovsky wrote that sends up the spine those shivers that cannot be explained away. I love the grace and elegance of so much of his balletic music (both in his ballet scores, and in his symphonies); and I love the sheer, unadulterated passion. In Western culture, unrestrained expression of raw passion is sometimes looked down upon as being in bad taste: but I probably retain enough of a non-Western sensibility to find myself responding to it. There are many great tragic symphonies, of course – the 4th symphony of Brahms, the 6th of Mahler, the 4th of Sibelius, the 4th and the 6th of Vaughan Williams (something about those numbers 4 and 6!) etc. But none is quite so devastating – for me, at least – as is the 6th symphony of Tchaikovsky – a real slash-your-wrists symphony if ever there was one. There is nothing in all music that leaves me as utterly overwhelmed as that final adagio, which, after its titanic climactic moment, fades away into nothingness.

And yet, not long before Tchaikovsky composed that symphony, he gave us The Nutcracker, a score of magical childlike wonder. I like to think of these two works as his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Here’s Simon Rattle, for long a Tchaikovsky-sceptic who has recently undergone a conversion, speaking of The Nutcracker:

One of the great miracles in music …extraordinary touches of orchestration, ideas that sound as though they were written 20 years later… the fountain of melodic adventure [that] almost beggars belief.

Well, those are the ten I would choose today. As with any list, it leaves out too much: but while there are other composers I’d have loved to have included, there’s none there, I think, that I’d be happy taking out.

Are our public libraries worth fighting for?

Even in these times of economic crisis, the UK’s GDP in real terms is now three times greater than it was in 1964. Then we were opening libraries: now we are closing them.

Today is Save Our Libraries Day – as worthwhile a cause as any for those of us who care about learning, about culture. But while I naturally support this campaign, I wish I could feel more enthusiastic about it.

Whenever I walk into a public library these days, my heart sinks. This didn’t use to be the case. I owe much to public libraries, which helped open my eyes to so much that is now so valuable to me. In these libraries, I was surrounded by the riches of human culture, and, like a sponge, I absorbed what I could. Even with books I merely browsed, the subject and the writer were stored away in my mind for future reference: I absorbed, through osmosis, what was around me: I became aware of culture.

However, when I walk into public libraries these days (something I tend not to do as I find the experience too depressing), I usually see very little that is worth absorbing. Books of quality, of cultural worth, are generally conspicuous by their absence: instead, shelves are filled with vapid celebrity biographies, misery memoirs, television spin-offs, and Tesco-lite ephemera. It’s not that these books don’t have a place in a public library: libraries have always catered for popular tastes, and that is as it should be. It is when they take over, and sideline out of existence the more worthwhile products of human culture and learning, that one has to ask oneself whether enough remains of that noble concept that created these libraries in the first place.

I do not think I exaggerate. Yesterday in the Guardian, Sophia Deboick, historian and writer on popular culture, addressed the same question, and gave a description of modern libraries that I all too sadly recognised:

Very little study space was available and the book stock did not suggest great ambitions for the community it served. Misery memoirs and celebrity biographies abounded. Any decent books were hoarded at the central library and there was usually only one copy of non-fiction hardback titles for the whole county. DVDs were a central part of our offering. Although partly justifiable as money-spinners, I still found it profoundly depressing that we had a whole wall of gross-out comedies and spoof horror films, while the literary classics section was afforded all of two feet of shelving space. Libraries should be about leisure as well as learning, but there comes a point when entertainment [takes] over from education as the primary focus.

From my own perspective, I have on several occasions looked at the book sales in our local public library, and have been shocked to see books of high quality sold off at ridiculously cheap prices because they were not wanted on the shelves. I have picked up for a mere couple of pounds each handsome and virtually brand new copies of the Complete Essays of Montaigne, the Collected Fictions of Borges, George Thomson’s translation of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, etc. I felt embarrassed: paying merely two pounds for such treasures is effectively robbing the community. When I bought the Essays of Montaigne, I remember asking the lady at the counter why the library was selling this off. “Surely,” I said, “a book such as this would grace any library? Instead of selling this off, shouldn’t you be giving this pride of place on the shelves?” I did not receive an answer. She may well have thought the same as myself, but was powerless: friends of mine who are librarians tell me that it is often council policy to sell off books that aren’t being taken out. In short, populism is the order of the day: the concept of something – such as, say, the Essays of Montaigne – having to it an inherent merit that goes beyond mere popular taste is a concept that is nowadays merely sneered at: to make the best freely available to everyone is apparently “elitist” and “patronising”. The result is, of course, that if a member of the public does want to read Montaigne but is too impecunious (as I was in my youth) to afford it, then that’s too bad: the public library has already sold its copy to me for a princely two quid. And no-one going into a library now will have the opportunity of absorbing culture by osmosis, as I did in my younger years, because, after all, you can’t absorb what isn’t around you.

So yes, I will be supporting the campaign to save our libraries, albeit without as much enthusiasm as I’d like, but, should this campaign succeed, that really should not be the end of the story. If we are to subscribe to the ideal of Preservation of the Good, we must not only have some idea of what constitutes the Good (and hence, is worth preserving); we must also allow that certain products of our human culture do have an inherent value, irrespective of popularity. Otherwise, we merely end up with shelf upon shelf of celebrity biographies, misery memoirs, television spin-offs and Tesco-lite ephemera. And these really aren’t worth fighting for.