A sentimental post to start the year

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

There comes a time in middle age when the Ghosts of one’s Christmases Past begin to outnumber even the most optimistic of estimates of the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. Since I have long passed that tipping point, and the weight of Christmases Past lies so heavily in the balance, I trust I may be excused for focusing on the former rather than on the latter. And as I do so, it is hard not to feel, as Wordsworth did, that there has indeed passed away a glory from the world. Now, before I am accused of sentimentality – as is usually the case when I try to speak of such matters – let me expand a little.

Something has changed – something is very different now from what it had been in our childhood years, and the difference, as any smug commentator will tell you, is in what has changed in ourselves rather than in the outside world. Wordsworth – never the sentimentalist despite ignorant claims to the contrary – recognized this. The innocent brightness of a new-born day, he knew, is lovely yet. There’s no point asking where is fled that visionary gleam: it’s still there – we just can’t perceive it any more, and that’s all. It’s the way things are: no point lamenting the inevitable. But Wordsworth himself, though determined to find strength in what remains, could not help lamenting. We cannot, after all, stop feeling things merely because “there’s no point to it”.

One of the most touching of these laments is the poem “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, written in the darkest days of 1915, when he was an old man of seventy-five years, and when Europe, as if justifying the prophetic pessimism he had expressed in his novels years earlier, was in the process of tearing itself apart. In this wonderfully touching poem, Hardy looks back on childhood innocence and naivety; but the poem is not really about either: it is about one’s longing for a time when such innocence and naivety had been possible. There may not be any point to such longing, but we feel a great many things that have no point to them. That such longing is futile does not make it ridiculous, but, rather, imbues it with a profound sadness.

I find a similar lament in a piece that is often regarded merely as candy-coated decorative fluff – in the score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It is, of course, a perennial Christmas favourite, to be wheeled out every year along with the crackers, the Christmas tree, the mince pies, and the Dickens; and few, I think, will deny its charm. But what frequently is denied is its profundity. Tchaikovsky himself, we are told, considered the subject matter to be too light, and although, being a consummate professional, he gave it his finest craftsmanship, what he withheld was his artistry. It is merely decorative, merely a bit of fluff.

I have never been able to reconcile myself to this view, as I find the music genuinely and very deeply moving. I can’t deny that it is full of music that is decorative; neither can I deny that its subject – a Christmas Party, a child’s subsequent entry into a world of fairy tales, and her journey to the Kingdom of Sweets – is very slight, even, perhaps, trivial. But I was very interested to read recently this excellent piece by music critic Gavin Plumley, in which he argues that The Nutcracker is a piece that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s initial feelings about the nature of his commission, he argues, the composition of the piece was taken very seriously indeed, and not merely in terms of craftsmanship.

Although it’s always dangerous relating a work of art to the artist’s biography, it was good to have confirmation of what seems to me obvious from the music – that, far from being decorative fluff, it is a serious and deeply felt work, and a response to an emotionally shattering event (the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister). As Plumley puts it, “The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested”. But what exactly those “larger questions” are is not obvious, and different listeners will have different views on this.

To me, these larger questions are not about mortality: Tchaikovsky kept that for his 6th symphony, a work that, for me, in many ways complements The Nutcracker. Neither is The Nutcracker, as is often suggested, about Clara’s progress from childhood to womanhood: true, the nutcracker become a handsome prince, but I can detect no eroticism in the music, nor any indication of Clara’s sexual awakening. Indeed, she and the Nutcracker Prince go to the Kingdom of Sweets, which hardly suggests leaving childhood behind. These are not what I see in this piece, although what I do see seems difficult to articulate.

One thing that never ceases to strike me about the score (the full score, that is, and not the series of bleeding chunks that form the suite) is a sense of tenderness, a sense of yearning, and a profound melancholy that seems quite at odds with its alleged light-hearted fluffiness. Is there anything in all music that is more tender or yearning than that beautiful passage at the start of the forest scene towards the end of Act One? Or what about the passionate longing in the Act Two pas de deux? (“How is it possible to make so much just out of a simple descending scale?” Britten had wondered.) The underlying seriousness of passages such as this bleeds, as it were, into the rest of the score, infusing even the most joyous of numbers, the most seemingly uncomplicated of childlike dances, with a sense of something more deeply felt – something more deeply interfused, as Wordsworth might have said.

The Nutcracker depicts childhood innocence and naivety, but, as with Hardy’s poem, these are not, for me at least, its central themes: at the centre of this piece there is, I think, our adult longing for childhood innocence and naivety. And this longing, Tchaikovsky knew as well as did Wordsworth or Hardy, is futile: no matter how fervently we may long, we can never return to our childhood state. Indeed, this state of blissful innocence may never really have existed in the first place. But that does not prevent us from longing for it. It is this sense of futility of such longing that infuses this otherwise joyous music with so profound an underlying sense of sadness: I find it almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. Longing for something that can never be attained is a familiar Romantic trope: in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, this longing was for erotic fulfilment; here, it is for a childhood that is for ever gone.

That, at least, is how it seems to me. Underlying the joyous festivities of The Nutcracker (for it is indeed joyous), I seem to hear a lament similar to what I find in so much of Wordworth’s poetry, or in Hardy’s “The Oxen”.

Tchaikovsky’s next great masterpiece, his last, was his 6th symphony – an unblinking stare into the face of death itself, and among the most shattering of any works of art, in any medium. If The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s Song of Innocence (albeit innocence seen from the perspective of experience), his 6th symphony is his Song of Experience. They are two very different works of, for me, comparable artistic stature. While one looks back at the Christmases Past, evoking its joys but imbuing these same joys with the profound sadness for that which is lost, the other looks heroically and unflinchingly at what is Yet to Come. As another poet put it, we look before and after, and pine for what is not.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Happy new year to you to – hope it’s a good one for you!

    Reply

  2. Posted by obooki on January 1, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Happy new year. Glad to hear you’re blogging again; too many of my favourite blogs have fallen into abeyance of late. My father was going on all Christmas about The Nutcracker too. They’d been to one of those live broadcasts they have down in those remote areas of the country (i.e. outside London) where art does not reach.

    Reply

    • Oh – I certainly don’t intend to give up blogging!
      I love those live broadcasts in cinemas. I am just within the boundary defined by the M25, and so, still within the bounds of civilisation. But while civilisation reaches my neighbourhood, my wallet doesn’t always reach civilisation … And a trip to the local cinema is always so much easier than trekking into central London!

      Reply

  3. Posted by Carl McLuhan on January 1, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    Happy New Year to you, dear Himadri: Thank you for getting back into the saddle again. Increasingly an era in which intelligence and articulateness are being undermined, if not outright ridiculed, it’s so fine to hear a voice which is so strong and proud about just such things.

    I’ve been listening to that voice for many a good year now, going back to The Dusty Shelf days, and I’m glad you’re still here. What gladdens me even more is that you’re giving more attentiveness to Wordsworth, whom I’m often championed for hitting the right tones about some of life’s deeper moments. Not that I’m not aware of his shortcomings, but there are moments of crystal clarity in his vision of things.

    Our new year has awakened to a great unravelling of our combined civilizations. I certainly would not have imagined that such a thing were possible, being the optimist that I am, but these political realities have generated enormous negativities in our thinking. One can only hope that we are all in the midst of a massive collapse out of which some phoenix will be born. In the meantime, we will all mine our best literature for those sure ideas which have proven to be worth and worthy of our time. And to continue to talk about them.

    Thanks for being there.

    Cheers and hugs,
    Carl

    Reply

    • Hello Carl, it looks like there may be very dark times ahead of us … but then again, when has this not been the case? At times such as this, it is to another poem of Hardy’s that I turn – “The Darkling Thrush”.

      There are references to Wordsworth scattered all over this blog. he is one of those writers I can’t seem to shut up about! 🙂

      Reply

  4. A lovely and moving start to the new year. Thanks for this piece Himadri, and all best to you for 2017.

    Reply

  5. Happy New Year to you. I have long loved “The Oxen” for its images of a past world that one could believe existed, as you say. The “Nutcracker” also conveys the very best of the season to me. As an adult, I long for the days when the brightness of Christmas was accompanied by “The Nutcracker,” “Hansel and Gretl” and the usual holiday carols and when my worries were not the Bay of Pigs but what might show up in my stocking.
    But yet, as Wordsworth would agree, the little child soon grows alarmed and outgrows the days of splendour in the grass and glory in the flower.

    Reply

    • Hello,
      Those carols have a very special resonance for me also. I arrived in UK from India in October 1965, aged 5, and we sang those carols at school: they were the first Western music I think I ever heard, and just a few bars of any of those carols are my madeleine cake dipped in tea.

      My view of childhood is, I think, very Wordsworthian: this is certainly one reason why Wordsworth means so much to me as a poet.

      Shades of the prison-house begin to close
      Upon the growing Boy

      Oh dear! 🙂

      Reply

  6. Posted by mudpuddle on January 9, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    lovely post… Tchaikovsky possessed the privilege and ability of turning his demons into music: sort of a time machine he had, enabling him to actualize states of emotion and, concurrently, different places in time; envious we may be, but it’s a gift of wondrous benevolence and one of the ways in which we are able to visit the past, ourselves…

    Reply

  7. Posted by alan on January 10, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Happy New Year. I’m glad to see you writing again.
    Inevitably, I differ in that I do not long for childhood innocence and naivety, I associate it with powerlessness and dependence upon others and fear old age for the same reason.
    The brightness of a new-born day is lovely yet, hell is other people.

    Reply

    • You know – even if the above comment didn’t have your name on it, I’d have guessed it was from you!

      All I can say is … you stick to the Marxist Sartre, and I’ll stick to the revolutionary-turned-conservative Wordsworth! 🙂

      Reply

  8. Happy New Year Himandri! I wish you all the best!

    I cannot say I long for innocence and naivety of childhood, but at least I can long for a time when innocence and naivety had been possible.

    This is a beautifully written post, and it is good to have you back.
    Anna

    Reply

    • And a belated Happy new year to you also!

      I am certainly keen to return to blogging, although, I guess, the posts are likely to appear frequently than previously. I’d like to think that the decrease in quantity may imply an increase in quality – but I doubt that will be the case!

      Al the best, Himadri

      Reply

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