Archive for April, 2012

“We’ll hear a play…”

“We’ll hear a play to-morrow,” says Hamlet to the players. Of course, he’d see the play as well as hear it, but “We’ll see and hear a play tomorrow” is far too clumsy a line for Shakespeare to write, and, given the choice between “see a play” and “hear a play”, Shakespeare opted, rather interestingly, for the latter. If an order of importance is to be established, hearing comes before seeing.

It is perhaps not so surprising. It is the words that contain and communicate the drama. And this is perhaps why hearing audio recordings of Shakespeare’s plays is so satisfying a way of experiencing them. And also the most convenient: it is very difficult to catch up on the plays in the theatre – even if one happens, as I do, to live within reasonable distance of theatres putting on these plays. Over some forty or so years, I have seen only sixteen of these plays on stage (although, admittedly, there are some I have seen several times, and many others that I have seen on screen – mainly in the variable, but at times quite wonderful, BBC Shakespeare series). Most of my experience with these plays have been through the printed page rather than through performance, and, while there are those who claim that these plays must be experienced in performance and only in performance, experiencing them on the printed page has proved so enriching over the years that I find it hard to think of reading these plays being in any way a lesser experience than watching them.

But there can surely be no bar to hearing these plays; and in this respect, we are fortunate indeed: there are, currently, many quite excellent audio recordings available of, I think, the entire canon. We have available on CD, or as downloads, many of the classic performances made in the 60s by Caedmon (these are currently issued by Harper Collins ): these include such gems as Paul Scofield as Lear (he re-recorded this part many years later on the Naxos label to celebrate his 80th birthday), John Gielgud as Leontes, Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, Albert Finney and Claire Bloom as Romeo and Juliet, etc. (Some of these Caedmon are still missing from the current catalogue – most notably, Paul Scofield’s extraordinarily intense reading of Hamlet; but presumably, these will eventually be released either on CD or as downloads in the not too distant future.)

And we have also several issues from the excellent edition of the complete plays recorded in the 60s by the Marlowe Society. The casts on this latter sets  were not generally as start-studded as those on the Caedmon recordings, but such performances as Richard Johnson, Ian Holm and Anna Calder-Marshall as Othello, Iago and Desdemona; or Tony Church and Irene Worth as Macbeth and his good lady wife; are unmissable. (Also unmissable in the Marlowe Society series is a recording that has recently appeared on CD of Twelfth Night, with Dorothy Tutin phrasing those lovely lines of Viola with the most exquisite beauty and poise.)

And, more recently, we have three more labels, featuring the finest of the current crop of Shakespeare actors, recording these plays: they are Naxos, Arkangel, and the BBC (I know these BBC recordings exist, but I couldn’t find an online catalogue: so much for BBC’s publicity department!) I have not, of course, heard all of these recordings, but the ones I have heard – with the solitary exception of the Naxos recording of Macbeth which had irritating sound effects providing a constant obbligato to the actors’ voices – have seemed to me excellent.

Last weekend, I had to drive up to Lancashire and back. This is normally a tedious drive which takes me some four dull hours if I am lucky with the traffic, and often considerably longer if I am not. But what better opportunity, I thought to myself, of hearing a play or two, uninterrupted! So, on the way up, I listened to the Naxos recording of Othello ,  with Hugh Quarshie, Anton Lesser, and Emma Fielding all outstanding as Othello, Iago and Desdemona; and on the way back, I listened to the BBC recording of Antony and Cleopatra, with David Harewood and Frances Barber in the title roles. And those otherwise tedious hours in the car passed surprisingly quickly.

Othello is the Shakespeare play that most powerfully engages my emotions. The first half of the play is very deliberately paced, but once the passions begin to grip – somewhere around the middle of Act Three, I think –they don’t let go: the tension tightens unremittingly right up to that gut-wrenching ending. I do not know why it should grip my imagination so: after all, I am myself nothing like any of those principal characters. I think it is perhaps because the drama that is being played out is no mere intrigue involving three individuals, but, rather, the drama of humanity struggling for its very soul: Keats had written about having to “burn through” the “fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay”: admittedly, it was King Lear he had been writing about, but those lines could apply just as well to Othello. In destroying the innocent Desdemona (whom, I think, Shakespeare, Pygmalion-like, fell in love with even as he was creating her), Othello loses not merely a heaven in this world, but also the prospect of a heaven in the next: he loses his very soul. And the emotional impact of the poetry that depicts this – especially when delivered by such superb actors – is devastating, even when heard in a traffic jam just outside Birmingham.

The impact of Antony and Cleopatra is entirely different. It does not even aim to engage the audience’s – or the readers’, or the hearers’ –emotions: we may sympathise with Antony and Cleopatra up to a point, but we never empathise with them. And neither are we expected to. The first time they appear, they are shown in a comic light: there they are, the great queen and one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire – whispering sweet nothings into each others’ ears like lovesick teenagers. We wonder and we marvel, and we feel exalted by the sheer opulence of the poetry, but Shakespeare makes us observe these people without becoming emotionally close to them.

When I last read this play, it seemed to me that one of its major themes was the sheer plenitude of life – the infinite variety not merely of Cleopatra, but of humanity in general, the ever-shifting shapes of which make it impossible to pin down. Yes, all that is certainly in there. But listening to it this time, it seemed to me also to revisit a theme that had been explored previously in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the transforming power of the imagination.  After Antony’s death, Cleopatra imagines him in terms appropriate to a god:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

She knows well that Antony was never like this. “Think you there was, or might be, such a man as this I dream’d of?” she asks Dolabella. “Gentle madam, no,” comes the courteous but uncompromising answer. “You lie, up to the hearing of the gods,” says Cleopatra: such a creature as Cleopatra describes may not have existed in reality, but exists now in Cleopatra’s imagination. And that is good enough. Of course, Cleopatra knows, even now, what he had been in reality: in plays, she says, “Antony shall be brought drunken forth”: this is because Antony had been, as she well knows, a drunkard – an “old ruffian”, as Octavius had so accurately described him. But in her imagination, now, he has been transformed. And Cleopatra transforms herself too, imagining herself to be the great queen she never had been in life, and living out that part as she dies. Only when she has transformed herself into what she likes to imagine herself as being, does she abjure her “infinite variety” and describe herself as “marble constant”. Her imagination has utterly transfigured both Antony and herself from two deeply flawed and frankly rather ordinary mortals into demi-gods, figures not unbecoming a Shakespearean tragedy.

As with Othello on the way up to Lancashire, the performance of Antony and Cleopatra on the way down left nothing to be desired. Roger Allam as Enobarbus performed his famous speeches (the “Age cannot wither her” speech, and the glorious “The barge she sat on…”) with relish; David Harewood, whom I had seen at the National Theatre as Othello (my wife and I went to see that on an anniversary: now, I ask you – what sort of people go to see Othello on a wedding anniversary?) was a splendid Antony, and Frances Barber I thought was an outstanding Cleopatra, at times caressing those gorgeous lines with her lovely velvety voice, and at other times screeching like the proverbial fishwife: infinite variety indeed. But by the end, once Cleopatra has decided to die like the great queen she pictures herself in her imagination as being, she is indeed “marble constant”: Octavius triumphs in reality, but, perhaps, the imagination triumphs over Octavius. And that’s true too.

And so, the next time you face a long boring drive – or even if you don’t, but have a few hours to spare – I’d strongly recommend hearing play. Especially as there is now such an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

7×7: A blog chain mail

Guy Savage from the blog His Futile Preoccupations has nominated this blog to participate in one of those things called “blog memes”, or “blog chain mails”, or whatever. In this, the nominated party has to:

1) tell everyone something about his or her self that nobody else knows

2) link to a post that fits the following categories: most beautiful piece; most helpful piece; most popular piece; most underrated piece; most pride-worthy piece; most surprisingly successful piece; most controversial piece.

And, finally,

3) Nominate 7 other bloggers to participate – presumably having ensured that they have not already been nominated by some other blogger

What larks!

OK, let’s get started.

1) Firstly, something about me that no-one knows, and, obviously, one that I feel appropriate to reveal on this blog: in my spare time, I enjoy having a go at translating poems by Rabindranath Tagore from Bengali into English. This is not in expectation of publication – let alone fame or fortune – but because I enjoy the immersion in Tagore’s poetry that this exercise involves; and also because in attempting to arrange words on a page in order to create something that may be read as a poem in English, I find myself gaining insights into the nature of poetry itself that I don’t think I would have had merely as a reader.

2) Most beautiful post: I don’t know that any of my writing is notable for “beauty” – however one defines it – but the occasional post in which I allow myself to be nostalgic about my childhood years – such as this one – has associations for me personally for which the word “beautiful” is perhaps not misapplied. Even when it is about Dracula.

Most helpful post: Some years before I started on this blog, I had, on an internet book group that has since become defunct, led a group read of War and Peace; and since I still had on my hard disk the detailed part-by-part synopses I had written, I thought I’d put them up here. The number of hits these posts get, as well as some mails I have received on them, indicate that they have been of some help.

Most popular post: According the the statistics, my musings on Wuthering Heights and Romanticism has had the most hits. I wonder if I should revise this in light of my having changed my mind on certain matters since I wrote this.

Most controversial piece: Given that I frequently use this blog to have a rant about something or other, I am frankly surprised how uncontroversial this blog is, on the whole. But I suppose this post, in which I have a go at certain types of genre writing and at claims made by certain genre writers, aroused a fair bit of controversy.

Most surprisingly successful piece: In one of my above-mentioned rants, I made some quite intemperate comments about the importance of teaching literature in schools. Now, I am certainly no educationalist, and I certainly hadn’t expected, at the time of writing this post, that it would beCome one of the most popular in terms of hits.

Most underrated piece: This entire blog started because, to celebrate (if “celebrate” is the word I am looking for) my 50th year, i decided to read through all of Shakespeare’s plays; and, once I had done that, I found I had written copious notes on each of those plays, purely for my own personal reference. It was then I decided it might be a good idea to polish them up a bit, and stick them all up on a blog somewhere. These Shakespeare posts I thought would be the centrepiece of this blog, but they get very few hits. The post on Othello, especially, I remember spending quite a bit of time on – although, as ever, when I re-read it, I feel I haven’t succeeded in saying all I wanted to say.

Most pride-worthy piece: I suppose it’s this one on Joyce’s Ulysses, in which I think I did manage to say most of what I wanted to say.

3) And now to pick 7 others. So, in no particular order, here they are (they’re not all literary ones):

Obooki’s Obloquy

Somewhere Boy

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Washtenaw Flaneurade

Tales of a Software Engineer

Seraillon

Caravana de Recuerdos

The problem with putting together lists is that one has to leave so many out! If any of these bloggers have been nominated already, please do let me know, and I’ll revise my list accordingly.

But thanks for nominating me, Guy: it’s been great fun!

“The Night of the Iguana” by Tennessee Williams

I never really got Tennessee Williams. But then again, I don’t think I’ve tried very hard. On the face of it, his works should be right up my street: I love drama, after all, and just about anyone who knows anything about drama rates Williams as among the finest; I love writers of the southern States – William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, different though they all are from each other; and I like works that project emotional intensity. Tennessee Williams cannot be faulted on any of these points.

Yes, it is true that I had once dismissed his works as “overheated melodrama” – but that was in my younger days: now, older and, hopefully, a bit more mature in my judgement, I realise that it shouldn’t bother me if a work is “melodramatic”: as I had argued in an earlier post, it is entirely legitimate for an author to depict extreme and even violent emotions. And as for “overheated” – at what temperature precisely is a work heated to just the correct level? It is one of those glib, undefined terms that one should never, I think, use in literary criticism.

And in any case, my views of Tennessee Williams are mainly based on the film versions of his plays, and, having seen none of them on stage, and having only read a small handful (and that decades ago in my student days), I am not really sure how close these film adaptations are to the original works. The most famous of these films is A Streetcar Named Desire, its impact due to a great extent to the sheer intensity of the young Marlon Brando’s screen presence; but – and this may be due to my shortcomings as a viewer – I couldn’t really understand the central Blanche Dubois character: I could see what she was, but didn’t feel I was given any indication of why she was so – of what it was either in her psyche or in her environment that made her like this. But it is a work held in such high regard, that it’s best to reserve judgement till I’ve reacquainted myself with it.

I remember a few other films also – Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – and The Night of the Iguana. And it was with the last of these that I decided to start off my Tennessee Williams season. Quite often, one gets a good impression of a writer by reading a number of that writer’s work in close succession, and I am hoping that a reading of a dozen or so of his most highly regarded works would help dispel whatever prejudice I might harbour, and maybe even reveal to me a writer of genuine worth. After all, a reputation as high as that of Tennessee Williams could not have emerged from nothing.

I vaguely remembered the John Huston film from the early 60s with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr; and I remember having enjoyed it quite a bit.  The play itself is set in its entirety on the terrace of a run-down hotel overlooking the Mexican coast; the fairly long opening section of the film depicting the coach tour before reaching the hotel appears to have been the invention of the film-makers, strongly suggested though it is by what we find in the play’s exposition.

This exposition itself is very skilfully handled. It is one of the hardest things in a play to write expository dialogue without giving the impression that these characters are speaking these lines purely for the audience’s benefit and not their own; but Williams’ technique, both in this regard and in others, is seamless. Laurence Shannon, a former priest who had been locked out of his own church, is acting as a tour guide for a group of conservative Baptist ladies from Texas, and, as is fairly obvious, he is on the verge of a mental breakdown. He appears to have bedded a very young lady from the group, and the other ladies – quite understandably, it seemed to me – are after his blood. This particular hotel is not on the tour company’s itinerary, but Shannon insists, for reasons not made entirely clear, on keeping them there for as long as he can.

The proprietor of the hotel, Shannon is shocked to hear, has recently died, and his wife, the middle-aged and sexually predatory Maxine, who doesn’t seem entirely heartbroken about her recent loss, is now running the place. The only other guests (cut from the film, perhaps wisely) are a family of caricature Germans, described in the most grotesque terms in the stage directions: they are enthusiastic Nazis listening excitedly to wartime propaganda on the radio (this play is set in the early 40s). What these characters are doing in the play I really have no idea: for all their buffoonery, they seem too sinister to provide adequate comic relief, but too absurd to be taken seriously in dramatic terms.

Into this environment of the grotesque and the near-insane, all drenched by a merciless tropical sunlight, there enters a couple at least as strange as any of the other characters seen so far, but more subdued in their colouring: one of them is Hannah, a middle-aged spinster who makes a meagre living from sketching tourists; and the other is her grandfather, nearly a hundred years old and obviously close to death, who describes himself as the world’s oldest performing poet. Through the rest of the play we hear this aged man attempting to finish – while his mind still holds out – one final poem. One doubts whether this poem would make any list of the great American poems of the century, but the effect of its repetition on stage has about it a sort of incantatory power:

How calmly does the olive branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Some time while light obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever, and from thence
A second history will commence … etc.

It succeeds, it seems to me, in dramatic if not necessarily in poetic terms

However, the play itself does have a certain poetic quality to it. Its climactic sequence is not violent, as it might well have been: rather, it comes in the form of a quiet, intimate scene between Shannon and Hannah, in which an offer of moral redemption appears to be made, though not taken.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Tennessee Williams has such complete technical control: the pacing of the drama, the ebb and flow of the tension, the depiction of Shannon’s desperation and of Hannah’s stoicism, or, indeed, of Maxine’s fleshy sexuality, are all admirable, and quite clearly the work of a man who had completely mastered stagecraft. From a noted dramatist, such technical expertise is only to be expected. But the depiction of Hannah goes further than that – it is more than merely admirable: Tennessee Williams imbues her presence with a grace, with a sort of radiance, but without any sense of sentimentality or of the maudlin.

However, I can’t say I was entirely convinced by the play as whole. Too much that is important is left too vague. We can see Shannon’s desperation: like the iguana that has been captured and tied up to be fattened for the dinner table, Shannon is at the end of his tether. But, once again, I needed to know how he got to this stage: what is it in his psyche, in his environment, that has led to this? And similarly with Hannah: what is it that drives her to travel penniless through an inhospitable world with her old and decrepit grandfather? Why is she, too, so lonely? One does not, of course, seek answers to all questions in a work of art: indeed, in any art of any substance, it is essential to convey a sense of mystery, because, after all, the questions of life that can be answered with ease are not really questions that are worth posing. It may well be that there can be no clear explanation for Shannon’s incipient mental breakdown, or of Hannah’s outcast state. But when questions such as these are barely so much as considered, I can’t help feeling that there are major holes in the dramatic texture.

However, the obvious qualities of the play – its sure pacing, its theatrical effectiveness, its marvellously fluid dialogue, its sense of the poetic, and, finally, its hint of a possible redemption – cannot be ignored. I shall most certainly persevere with Tennessee Williams.

On symbols and symbolism

I don’t normally write about football on this blog. (For any translatlantic reader of this blog, I should explain that by “football” I mean what is generally known across the Pond as “soccer”.) This is not because I am not interested in football: I am, and always have been. And, having grown up in Scotland, I remain interested in Scottish football. And anyone who has been following Scottish football will know that momentous events have been happening lately: one of the two dominant teams of Scotland, Rangers, are currently in administration, and possibly heading for liquidation with even the currently confirmed debts well beyond anything they are likely to pay in full. And if the decision of the tribunal goes against them – which, from what I gather, is likely – and they find themselves owing even more in unpaid taxes than they currently do, then a way out seems, to a financial layman such as myself at least, something of an impossibility.

But I do not want to write about this: I know this blog does tend to range quite widely, but finance and football I would like to keep out of bounds – finance because I do not understand its intricacies well enough, and football because even as it is there is no shortage of a cacophony of opinions already on the net – articulate and inarticulate, intelligent and unintelligent, and prejudiced to degrees ranging from the mildly innocuous to the dangerously demented – for me to want to add to it. Yes, I do have opinions on this subject, but I would prefer, I think, to keep these opinions to myself: after all, if a football team thinks it reasonable that taxpayers should subsidise its quest for footballing glory, then why should a mere taxpayer such as myself take exception? Let be, let be.

But I raise this issue here to focus on a point that is perhaps incidental to the main thrust of this story, but which is, for me at least, rather interesting: and this is the part played in all this by the power of symbolism. Now, symbolism is something anyone with even a vague interest in literature has had to grapple with to some degree or other: how can one, after all, pretend to have even the most superficial interest in literature without having at some time or other asked oneself what the white whale symbolises? But, with all due respect, symbolism is not an issue one associates with football supporters (amongst whose ranks, incidentally, I count myself). However, ask any football supporter in Scotland what is signified by “jelly and ice cream”, or by “succulent lamb”, and they will be able to tell you. Those gleeful at the current difficulties of Rangers have long been singing about “having a party”, and enjoying “jelly and ice cream”, when “Rangers die”, and “jelly and ice cream” has now, as a consequence, come to symbolise an uninhibited joy at the current difficulties, or even the possible forthcoming demise, of Rangers: to such an extent, indeed, has this particular piece of symbolism taken root in the psyche of Scottish football fans that stalls have now set up outside Celtic Park selling jelly and ice cream at outrageous prices to enthusiastic customers, while many on the Rangers side of the divide have been known even to deprive their children of this once innocuous dessert because of what it has now come to represent. And “succulent lamb” is the menu item that certain Scottish sports journalists, invited to dinner by Sir David Murray, former chairman of Rangers, had rhapsodised about in what had passed for sports columns, and has now come to symbolise the uncritical and sycophantic commentary that these journalists have, allegedly, indulged in over the years, and continue – again, allegedly – to indulge in even now. Both these items of food, innocent of any association till fairly recently of anything to do with football, have now acquired symbolic resonances to put them on a par even with the white whale. So much for those who think symbolism is no more than an affectation of literary arty-farty types.

We may wonder sometimes why it is that certain writers who make extensive use symbolism should use X to denote Y when they could have used Y in the first place, but thinking in terms of symbols comes to us naturally: few of us, I imagine, will feel comfortable about cutting out the eyes from a photograph of someone we love, even though we know well that it is just ink on photographic paper, and not the real person. Sometimes, the reason we prefer to speak or think in terms of metaphors can be clear: a symbol may represent not merely one thing, but a variety of things that we have learnt to associate together; or a symbol can represent things which we may feel, often feel very deeply, but which our spoken or written language cannot articulate to any satisfactory degree of precision. This, I’d guess, is why symbolism plays so great a part in all our religions. And it is also, I think, the reason why it is so important in our literatures: the finest of our literatures are, after all, attempts to make language express that which is beyond its usual expressive scope.

But there is something about our use of and regard for symbols that goes beyond this. It seems that we humans enjoy symbols purely for their own sake, for some vague aesthetic satisfaction they afford. How else can one explain the jelly and ice cream, and the succulent lamb?

The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (In the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…