Archive for August, 2017

The spectrum of comedy

There’s a strong case to be made for not analysing comedy. Laughter is a spontaneous thing, and as soon as one starts analysing, the very essence of what made us laugh in the first place is gone. All we know is that we have in us an impulse under certain circumstances to contort our faces into odd grimaces, and sometimes, in more extreme cases, to open our mouths and emit some peculiar noises. And that it feels good when we do. So let’s just leave it there.

But we can’t leave it there. At least, I can’t, especially when I think it gives me a good excuse for a blog post. So let me crave your indulgence for a bit while I try out a pet theory I have long held – that there are, essentially, two poles in comedy, and all that makes us laugh lies at one or other of these poles, or, more usually, at some point on the spectrum somewhere between.

At one end we have comedy that is dark, that is aware of the suffering and the misery of our common human lot. This kind of comedy can occupy the same space as tragedy: indeed, it can often be both comic and tragic at the same time. It acknowledges, as tragedy does, that life is indeed dark and comfortless, and profoundly sad; but where tragedy tries to salvage some sense of human dignity and nobility, comedy relishes the absurdity of it all – the absurdity even of trying to salvage anything. In this category I would place such works as Dead Souls, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22,

And then there’s the other extreme, where all thoughts of darkness are banished, where one is encouraged to smile at sunny cloudless skies, and to celebrate the fact, for fact it is, that even our brief existence can contain such warmth and happiness. In this category I’d place such works as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Inimitable Jeeves, Singin’ in the Rain.

Most comic works are somewhere on this spectrum, though leaning perhaps towards one end or the other. And, almost as if to illustrate my contention, two of the finest British television sitcoms – one may go as far as to sat the finest, without any objection from me – exemplify these two extremes. Both started in the 1960s, and the various series continued into the 1970s. One is Steptoe and Son, which a friend tells me that he finds so grim when he watches them these days on DVD that he cannot even bring himself to laugh; and the other is Dad’s Army, which, despite being set during the dark days of WW2, manages, without the slightest hint of self-importance, to celebrate all that was worth fighting for.

Steptoe and Son was successfully remade for American television as Sanford and Son, but since I haven’t seen this, I’ll comment on the British version only. It presents a father and a son, working class rag-and-bone traders – i.e. people who collect unwanted items people wish to get rid of, and salvage what they can out of it. Scavengers, if one wishes to be unkind. They live together in a dirty and impossibly cluttered old house, eccentrically furnished with various items that have been discarded by others. The decorations in the main living room include a medical skeleton and a huge stuffed bear. The old man is a pathetic creature, aware of his approaching end, and terrified that his son may leave him to fend for his own in his last days; he uses all the emotional blackmail and manipulation he can think of to keep hold of his son. The son himself has dreams of all the things that he may one day be, but he is no longer at an age where such dreams are viable: far from being an impressionable teenager, he is in his 40s. Possibly older: old age isn’t too far away from him either. He is deeply lonely and unfulfilled, and hates his father for having held him back; but he also loves his father, and can’t leave him, no matter how much he longs to. And so the two are stuck, loving and hating each other at the same time, seemingly for eternity.

This does not seem very promising material for comedy. And indeed, many would argue that it isn’t. Scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson skilfully weave a path balancing the various conflicting elements of this essentially tragic situation, and, aided by two peerless performances (Wilfrid Brambell as the father and Harry H. Corbett as the son), manage to get more laughs out of this than one might have thought possible. But the tragedy isn’t short-changed either. The whole thing is a masterpiece of dramatic writing. We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the best dramatic writing is reserved for the stage, but we must beware of snobbery – even, or especially, unwitting snobbery: I do not think I have encountered anything in twentieth century theatre that surpasses in sheer quality, and very little that equals, these scripts by Galton and Simpson. They manage to invest these characters and the relationship between them with such depth and complexity, that there were entire episodes consisting of just these two talking to, and reacting to, each other: nothing further was needed – not even, quite frequently, a plotline.

The contrast with Dad’s Army could hardly be greater. This is set in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea, on the south coast of Britain, during WW2. And it focuses on the local branch of the “Home Guard”, an outfit consisting of volunteers who are either too old or too young to be called up for the forces, or who have been exempted for medical reasons, or on account of the importance of their jobs. Their task was to fight back as best they could against enemy parachutists, saboteurs, and the like; to help organise the local defence against air raids, or other enemy attacks.

Now, this premise seems no more conducive to comedy than did the premise of Steptoe and Son: the days depicted were indeed dark days; invasion by one of the most evil regimes in history seemed imminent (with the enemy themselves only a few miles away across the channel); and news of injuries and deaths from abroad, and shortages and hardships at home, were everyday things. And yet, out of this, somehow, emerged the sunniest of comedies.

It’s an ensemble piece. At the centre of it were George Mainwaring (pronounced “Mannering”), played by Arthur Lowe, the captain of the platoon, and the local bank manager; and Arthur Wilson, his underling both in the bank and in the platoon itself, where he is sergeant. Mainwaring is impossibly pompous and self-important: he is convinced that he is, by nature, a leader of men, and that his Home Guard platoon, consisting largely of doddery old men, he can mould into a mean and ruthless fighting machine. Wilson, played by John le Mesurier, is the more intelligent, and he wryly recognises the absurdity of it all. One would expect in such a situation that Mainwaring would be from an upper class family and Wilson from a lower, but the genius of the writing is that it is quite the opposite: it is Wilson who is from a privileged background, although, given his rather lackadaisical attitude to life, has risen no further in life than a senior bank clerk; and it is Mainwaring who is middle class, who has had to fight his way to get where he is, and who resents the privileges which Wilson has had, and has wasted. He resents also Wilson’s natural charm, and his popularity.

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The main players of “Dad’s Army”, picture courtesy BBC

The platoon is made up of a wonderful cast of comic grotesques, as beautifully eccentric and as vivid as if they had just stepped out fresh from the pages of Dickens. Each one is cast to perfection – Clive Dunn as the doddery old Mr Jones, the butcher, endlessly reminiscing of his younger days under Kitchener in the Sudan; John Laurie as Mr Frazer, the somewhat mad old Scottish undertaker; Arnold Ridley as Mr Godfrey, a pleasant old gentleman, as willing to please as he is physically incapable of … well, of doing much at all; Ian Lavender as Pike, the immature mummy’s boy; and James Beck as Walker, the spiv, well dodgy and – although we never get to the details – more than slightly crooked, who could get you anything you needed for a price, with no question asked. (James Beck died at a distressingly young age while they were shooting the sixth series in 1973, and although they continued for a few more series without him, the gap he left behind was never quite filled.)

These characters, especially Mainwaring and Wilson, have more complexity than may at first appear. Mainwaring may be insufferably pompous, but when the occasion demands, he could be genuinely heroic: when, in one episode, they had to form a line to clear the rubble created by an air raid, with those at the head of the line in imminent danger of being crushed by falling masonry, Mainwaring actually pretends to have drawn the short straw so that he could take the most dangerous position himself. This really is extraordinary courage, but such is the quality of the scripts (by Jimmy Perry and David Croft) and of the performances, it does not seem at all out of character. In another episode, he gives an absurd lecture to the platoon about the distinguishing physical characteristics of a typical Nazi, prompting the thought that had this man been born in Germany rather than in Britain, he would probably have been an enthusiastic Nazi himself.

Wilson, too, has depths that are not apparent: he may see the whole thing as a joke, but, as he concedes at one point, he is rather proud of being in the platoon, and even admires what Mainwaring has achieved. Underneath his general good humour there is more than a hint of sadness for an essentially failed life: we find out in one episode that his marriage had broken down, and that he only very rarely sees his now grown-up daughter, whom he never mentions, but of whom he is proud.

And there are the minor characters as well – Pike’s possessive mother Mavis (Janet Davies), with whom Wilson is obviously having an affair (Pike is the only one who seems unaware of this); the gloriously eccentric pairing of the effete vicar (Frank Williams) and his cantankerous, truculent verger (Edward Sinclair); and there’s the grocer, Mr Hodges (played by Bill Pertwee), who is also the Air Raid Warden. He is the sort of “villain” of the piece – brash, vulgar, unlikeable, and, Wilson says, “common” (“common” being just about the worst put-down in this class-ridden society). It is always a problem how to handle such characters in what is essentially a genial comedy, these Malvolios who refuse to be part of the general harmony: Wagner has been roundly criticised for his depiction of a similar character, Beckmesser, in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, who is presented without any sympathy at all, and whose ultimate humiliation Wagner appears rather to relish. There is nothing like that here: Hodges may be a bit of a fly in the ointment, but it is a fly one may live with, and he doesn’t unduly disrupt the sense of community and of gentleness that characterises the good-natured humour. At no point is the comedy allowed to turn sour.

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Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell in “Steptoe and Son”, picture courtesy BBC

Dad’s Army is always a pleasure to revisit. Steptoe and Son perhaps less so: one has to brace oneself for it. And, for me, they epitomise not merely the best that television has to offer (Steptoe and Son is great drama as well as great comedy), but also the two extremes between which, it seems to me, all comedy lies. They remind us also not to look down on the humble television sitcom: it is true that the heights these two series reached have rarely or never been followed up, but it is nonetheless good to remind oneself that such heights are indeed possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“All that is I see”

HAMLET
Do you see nothing there?

QUEEN GERTRUDE
Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.

  • From Hamlet, III, iv

Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes has entered our consciousness, and we are quick to point our finger at those who claim to see that which isn’t there. But there is also its direct opposite: there are also those who, unable to see anything at all, are convinced that there is nothing to see. For how can there be, when they are so utterly convinced, as Gertrude is, that “all that is” they see?

Steering a judicious course between the two opposites can be a tricky business. For instance, an artist dropping paint-filled eggs from her vagina some consider “art”, while I find myself both amused and bemused by the whole tawdry business, and cry “Emperor’s New Clothes”. But then, I find myself utterly entranced by Elliott Carter’s Symphonia, and those many to whom this is merely random noise similarly point their fingers and cry “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Now, there is no proving by algebra that I am right and that others are wrong. I am not even very willing to put it to the vote, as whatever music is currently fashionable, or even much that is currently unfashionable, is likely to get more votes by far than anything composed by Elliott Carter. And so it goes, each of us defending what we value from attacks by philistines, while ourselves attacking as “pretentious” that which may be valued by others.

And I am not really sure that debate and discussion can take us too far towards breaking this impasse. I could, I suppose, try to put into words what, say, Elliott Carter’s Symphonia makes me feel, but I have neither the vocabulary nor the technical understanding to go beyond that. And if someone feels nothing on hearing that music, then a mere description of what I may happen to feel will mean little.

The easy way out is to say, as many do, that it’s all subjective, that there isn’t any absolute criterion to judge these things, and that, taken admittedly to extremes, one cannot even say with any objectivity that Rembrandt’s drawings are superior in any way to my own lazy doodles. But, for various reasons, I have never been at all satisfied by this solution. “I like this and you like that.” Far from being the start of the dialogue, that’s the end of dialogue, for there’s nowhere further we can go. The concept of excellence itself becomes redundant. And we all find ourselves, each one of us, stuck in our own individual bubbles, unable to enter anyone else’s, and unable equally to invite others into our own.

So, when faced with that which others find of artistic value, but which means little or nothing to me, I tend to keep quiet. I tend to accept that my own horizons are far from all-encompassing, and that there may indeed be much of value that escapes me. (Although I do draw the line at dropping eggs from vaginas, diverting though this may be.) I would prefer not to join the ranks of “reviewers”, as they are known, on Facebook and Goodreads, and, no doubt, book boards and reading groups around the world. I would prefer not to peremptorily dismiss works created by minds greater than my own with such withering criticism as “It was boring” or “Nothing happens” or “I could not relate to it”, or some such.

But there is more to all this than pretending to see what isn’t there, or failing to see what is. There are also cases where one does see what’s there, but finds oneself not caring much for what one sees.

Recently, a good friend of mine, someone who is steeped in Western musical culture and whose understanding and discernment in musical matters really are beyond dispute, told me that he didn’t much care for Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, a work often regarded as one of the high points of Western civilisation. He wrote to me (and I quote with his permission):

I’m really not that fond of it, never have been. I can’t see, as it were, the point of it. … By making this confession I’ve at last been honest with myself, obviously it doesn’t matter a jot what I think, but I’ve been plaguing myself all these decades, wondering, and there! Now I’ve said it.

In the section of his mail that I have replaced with three dots, he gave a brief explanation of what he disliked about the work. I will not reproduce those lines here, since this post is about our responses to art in general, and not specifically about the Hammerklavier sonata. But his comments are not the unthinking “it was boring” of Amazon reviewers. This is the view of someone who can see quite clearly what is there, but who, even having seen, finds himself not caring for it.

As he says himself, what he thinks about it makes no difference to the wider picture: the Hammerklavier sonata will continue to be regarded as one of the high points of Western musical culture. But his view of the work, outlier though it may be, nonetheless highlights an important point: although I have spent much time insisting, mainly in reaction to unthinking condemnation, that “all is merely subjective” is not a very tenable position, subjectivity does indeed have a place, a very necessary place, at the feast.

And yes, I too have what may be termed “blind spots”. But this particular piece of terminology may be defective: there are times when, like my musical friend, the problem is not that I am blind, but that I just don’t care for what I see. I tend not to write on this blog about those things I don’t care for. For one thing, I find I am less perceptive on things I don’t like. And more importantly, what’s the point? There is so much I do love and can happily write about, why waste my energies rubbishing what I don’t?

But the main reason why I tend not to write about what I do not like is my uncertainty on these matters: I am never quite sure whether I have failed to see, or whether I have seen, but didn’t much care for what I saw. There have been instances enough of the former: those with sufficient time and patience may look back on older posts where I have been less than admiring of certain writers, whom I have later gone on to praise. We all change over time, and our perceptions change even as we do. And that is as it should be.

But sometimes, I do feel I know a work adequately, but I still fail to admire. Or, at least, to admire as much as others admire. Or to admire as much as I think I should. So let me get it off my chest (confession is good for the soul, after all): I have never much cared for The Tempest. There. Having plagued myself with this for decades, now I, too, have said it.

Of course, there are passages of exquisitely beautiful poetry throughout. When it comes to the art of creating verbal music, Shakespeare seemed able to turn it on as and when he wanted. But is this admittedly beautiful poetry saying anything very profound? I frankly doubt it. And the drama – where’s the drama? The exposition is achieved through a very long and boring narration – so boring, that Prospero has to keep interrupting himself to tell his daughter to stay awake. Even now, when I read it, I can’t help wondering what Will was playing at: even a novice playwright would have known better. And where’s the dramatic tension? What little tension there is in the play  dissipates completely by the end of Act 3, so the fourth act is mainly taken up with a masque, and the fifth shows us what we knew all along was going to happen. As for the comic scenes, they’re the most tedious and the most unfunny since all that palaver with Launcelot Gobbo back in The Merchant of Venice.

Once again, my view of the play doesn’t matter a jot. The Tempest will continue to be seen as one of the great peaks of our civilisation. And it may well be that some time in the future, I will read over the above lines with profound embarrassment. But I have known this play for some four and a half decades now, both on page and on the stage, and while I have no doubt I have further discoveries to make about it, I doubt very much whether any of these discoveries will make me like this play significantly better than I do now.

For many, The Tempest is the culminating point of Shakespeare’s art, his parting gift to mankind before his well-earned retirement to New Place in Stratford. But for me, that parting gift is The Winter’s Tale, which ends with a vision of the Resurrection itself. It is true that this Resurrection is a mingled chime: it is subdued, and is, perhaps, more melancholy than joyous. Not even the Resurrection, in Shakespeare’s vision, can atone fully for our guilt, or restore all the losses that we have suffered in the course of our lives. But it is the best we may hope for. And this subdued and melancholy joy, this radiant half-light, seems to me a more fitting and more moving end to Shakespeare’s dramatic career than the forced and bitter reconciliation at the end of The Tempest.

None of the above, incidentally, is intended as a critique of The Tempest: it is intended merely as an example of our refusal, given our individual temperaments, to respond to things that are far outside our scope. It is true that we expand our scope by taking in things that had initially been outside it, but certain things are too far outside: there are limits to how far our perspectives may be expanded. Confessing to this may not matter a jot in the wider scheme of things, but there it is for what it’s worth. In the time-honoured phraseology of Amazon reviews, I couldn’t relate to it.

I shall now go away and listen to Maurizio Pollini’s recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, which, despite the views of my far more knowledgeable and discerning friend, I continue to find thrilling. There really is no accounting for tastes, is there?

“The power of the black earth”: Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”

It’s a fairly uncontroversial contention that Verdi and Wagner were the two towering opera composers of the nineteenth century – especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even those allergic to either of these composers (and there are many who deeply dislike one or the other, or even both) will concede their importance. I certainly don’t dispute this, but there are times when I think the greatest operas of that era were neither by Verdi nor by Wagner, but by a Russian civil servant with no formal training in music – Modest Mussorgsky. And last night’s concert performance at the Proms of Khovanschina was as memorable an operatic evening as I think I have ever experienced.

Both Mussorgsky’s two major operas are problematic. Boris Godunov exists in two very different versions, which are usually conflated: this practice of conflation is understandable, as fixing on one or other of these versions necessitates the omission of some of the finest scenes in all opera; but a conflation is not what Mussorgsky himself ever envisaged, and it certainly weakens the drama. As for Khovanschina, it was left in a sadly unfinished state when, in 1881, Mussorgsky died aged only 42, as a consequence of severe alcoholism. The textual issues surrounding this opera are immense, and I am certainly no expert, but, from what I understand, Mussorgsky had orchestrated a few parts, left piano versions of most of the rest, but had left the endings of the second and fifth acts uncomposed.

After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov prepared his own version on Khovanschina, and re-orchestrated the whole of Boris Godunov, to make Mussorgsky’s own highly idiosyncratic orchestrations more palatable. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestrations are brilliant, and it is perhaps to be regretted that, in our authenticity-fixated times, they are going out of fashion. However, there is no doubt that these orchestrations, brilliant though they are, are not what Mussorgsky had himself intended; and, given that our ears have now become so accustomed to strange sounds and harmonies that Mussorgsky’s sound-world no longer seems particularly odd, there is no reason not to return to his original intentions in Boris Godunov. This leaves the problem of Khovanschina, which was left in such an incomplete state that we do not often know what Mussorgsky’s original intentions were. Now that Rimsky-Korsakov’s re-imagining of Mussorgsky no longer seems acceptable, what do we use?

Most performances nowadays use the version prepared in the late 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich, with whatever modification the conductor in question may see fit. And, it has to be said, Shostakovich’s version is quite splendid. However, this is not always the best solution either. Shostakovich was working in the era of Soviet Communism, after all, and belief in progress was not merely taken for granted, but routinely extolled. And, in this most political of operas, that puts a slant on matters that Mussorgsky himself would most likely not have gone along with. In a recording made of a live performance from the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Claudio Abbado (to my mind, one of the greatest recordings ever made of any music), Shostakovich’s version (judiciously edited) is used for the main part, but, for the final chorus, it is Stravinsky’s version that is preferred. Stravinsky’s quiet ending, which can be seen as imparting a mood either of serenity or, as Simon Morrison’s programme notes of last night’s Proms performance puts it, of “quiet desperation”, is very different from the thrilling blaze of sound that Shostakovich provides; and, maybe because I am so used to hearing Abbado’s recording, it is Stravinsky’s ending that seems to me just right. But Shostakovich’s ending is worth hearing as well: there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The problem with Khovanschina is not merely textual: there is the matter of the content also. Heaven knows how many times I have heard this opera (mainly in recordings, and, last night, for the first time ever, also live in concert) – I still cannot follow the damn thing. If anyone were to ask me to summarise the plot, I’d be all over the place. This is not because the plot is “silly” – as opera plots are supposed to be, according to a not-very-accurate cliché – but because it is so complex. Various characters seem to move in and out of the action, and it’s hard to say what exactly lies at the centre: indeed, it seems at times that there is no centre. It’s not really about a principal character, or even a group of principal characters: it is about an entire nation in the throes of upheaval – social, political, religious. The scale is as vast as can be imagined: epics don’t really come much more epic than this. Even Wagner’s Götterdämmerung only ends with the end of the world.

The historical upheavals depicted in this opera took place in the late 17th century, when the young Czar Peter, later known as “Peter the Great”, ruthlessly consolidated his power. The political landscape of the time was hugely convoluted, with various factions fighting each other for power with untrammelled brutality. There were various factions of the aristocracy – princes and boyars; there were the modernisers, who looked towards the West; there were the Old Believers, the faction of the Russian Orthodox Church who bitterly opposed the church reforms of the mid-17th century, and maintained their adherence to the old rituals and practices. There were, nominally, two Czars – the young Peter, and his half-brother Ivan, who appeared to have had what, in modern parlance, we’d describe as “learning difficulties”. Since both were essentially children, Ivan’s sister, Sophia, acted as Regent. With the various factions contending against each other, and, sometimes, amongst themselves, the nation was in utter turmoil: violence and brutality were everyday things, hardly worthy to be commented upon. It was out of this turmoil that Peter, the liberal reformer, emerged with absolute power, and created what in Mussorgsky’s time would have been recognised as “modern Russia”. A triumph of Enlightenment, some may say. And, indeed, that is the impression one might get from the famous prelude, depicting dawn over the River Moscow – the emergence of light to banish the darkness.

But if only things were that simple. Mussorgsky, unlike Vladimir Stasov (who had helped him put together the libretto from historical sources), did not believe in progress. The liberal progressive, Peter the Great, who had dragged feudal Russia kicking and screaming into modern times, had, after all, used the most ruthless and cruel of means to achieve his ends: his liberalism had cost the nation uncountable lives and immense suffering. In the earlier Boris Godunov, the Fool – the Holy Fool – had famously lamented that whoever rules, whoever has power, the people go on suffering: mere dumb, animal suffering, and nothing more. And this seems to have been Mussorgsky’s view also, although, given the unfinished state of Khovanschina, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what Mussorgsky himself thought of these matters.

But we have a guide, I think, in a letter Mussorgsky wrote to Stasov while putting the libretto together. This letter is quoted in just about every piece of writing I have come across on Khovanschina, so I might as well quote it too:

The power of the black earth will manifest itself when you plough it to the very bottom. It is possible to plough the black earth with tools wrought of alien materials. And at the end of the 17th century they ploughed Mother Russia with just such tools, so that she did not immediately realise what they were ploughing with, and, like the black earth, she opened up and began to breathe. And she, our beloved, received the various state bureaucrats, who never gave her, the long-suffering one, time to collect herself and to think, “Where are you pushing me?” The ignorant and confused were executed: force! … But the times are out of joint: the state bureaucrats are not letting the black earth breathe.

“We’ve gone forward” – you lie! We haven’t moved! Paper, books have gone forward! – we haven’t moved. So long as the people cannot verify with their own eyes what is being cooked out of them – until then, we haven’t moved! Public benefactors of every kind will seek to glorify themselves, with buttress their glory with documents, but people groan and, so as not to groan, they drink like the devil, and groan worse than ever: we haven’t moved!

 

  • (I have quoted this from the programme notes from last night’s concert. Since no translator is credited, I assume that the writer of the notes, Prof. Simon Morrison, has translated this himself.)

 

Mussorgsky’s image is perhaps a bit laboured, and his articulation clumsy, but what he is saying seems clear enough: Russia has its own deeply rooted traditions (symbolised by the “black earth”), and foreign ideas (“tools wrought of foreign materials”) implemented by force will not better the people’s lot: whatever happens, the people, as predicted by the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov, will go on suffering.

This is far from Stasov’s faith in progress. And indeed, this is a hard and bitter pill to swallow for someone like myself, believing firmly as I do that certain principles – human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on – are of universal value. But can these values that we may consider “universal” be imposed upon a recalcitrant people, emotionally wedded to their own traditions? Can it be done without “force”? And even more pressing perhaps than the question “Can it be done” is “Should it be done?” If works of art pose difficult and troubling questions, I know of none that is more difficult and more troubling than this.

Mussorgsky, like Conrad, seemed to have had no faith in any political solution. In Nostromo, Conrad rejected one by one all possible political solutions: all are found wanting; all are corrupt, or become corrupted; and those that become corrupted do so because corruption lies latent in the very foundations. So where are we to turn? In Under Western Eyes, written some eight years after Nostromo, Conrad faces precisely this question. There, the protagonist, Razumov, becomes embroiled in political and moral complications despite his best efforts to keep aloof from it all; and he declares to Privy Councillor Mikulin his intention to “retire”. Privy Councillor Mikulin’s response is as simple as it is unanswerable:

“Where to?” asked Councillor Mikulin softly.

One has to stand somewhere. But where?

Mussorgsky’s opera ends spectacularly with the Old Believers declaring quite unambiguously where they stand: they immolate themselves en masse. This was no invention on Mussorgsky’s part: many Old Believers, in shockingly large numbers, had done just this after their sect had been proscribed. From our enlightened liberal viewpoint, we may look on this with horror, as we do on any mass suicide of religious cults (e.g. the horrific incident of mass-suicide in Jonestown). And indeed, it is horrific: it cannot be anything other than horrific. But this is the Old Believers’ answer to Mikulin’s seemingly innocent question: “Where to?” The Old Believers choose eternity rather than the corrupted here-and-now, and, unlike enlightened liberals like ourselves, they had the strength of their faith to embrace their choice.

I find it frankly difficult to know what to make of this ending. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – which received its first performance while Mussorgsky was still busy at work on Khovanschina – had also ended with an act of self-immolation: there, Brünnhilde threw herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and this act of sacrifice destroyed the entire world, and brought down heaven itself;  and then,  after the destruction of this inevitably corrupt and irredeemably compromised world, the work ended with a radiant reprise of a theme we had heard in Die Walküre, an earlier work in the Ring Cycle – a beautiful theme representing hope that a new world, free from the corruption both of humans and of gods, may be able to rise again from the ashes. But the libretto Mussorgsky left behind offers no comparable cosmic vision: he is dealing with history, not creating mythology, as Wagner had done. And it isn’t easy to figure out how Mussorgsky would have finished it. Shostakovich’s ending offers us splendid spectacle (this is the ending conductor Semyon Bychkov used in the Proms concert last night, although he stripped out the Dawn theme from the start of the opera that Shostakovich brought back at the very end); and, undeniably thrilling though this ending is, I remain unconvinced that it offers an adequate resolution to what had gone before. In Stravinsky’s ending, the chants of the Old Believers merely fade away into silence, and we are left to make of that what we will.

Whatever text we use, whatever pick’n’mix approach we may take regarding the various orchestrations, Khovanschina, vast and unwieldy though it is, is a masterpiece. This, and Boris Godunov, are, for me at least, among the highest of peaks in the operatic repertoire. Music criticism is not my line, and proper reviews by proper music critics can, I am sure, be found at the touch of a search engine, but the performance I heard last night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra hugely expanded, with no less than three different choirs joining forces (the people, as represented by these choirs, are perhaps the most important protagonists of all in this opera), and a cast of soloists one really can’t imagine being improved upon, offered a musical and dramatic experience of exceptional quality.  If you are reading this post within 29 days of my posting it, and have some four and a half hours to spare, I can warmly recommend hearing the broadcast of the performance on the BBC website.

Repin-portrait-of-the-composer-modest-mussorgsky-1881

Portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Mussorgsky himself, of course, died untimely, with Khovanschina in a sadly incomplete state. A few days before he died, Ilya Repin painted a famous portrait of him. It is a striking image. At one level, we may think of it as comic: with that madly unkempt hair and beard, and the glazed expression of the eyes, it is hard to imagine anyone looking more drunk, and drunks are always good for a laugh. But it is also a deeply tragic portrait: it is the portrait of a visionary, a dramatist and a composer of genius, but sunk to a state that he could not help sinking to. The portrait itself, I think, is a masterpiece: it is painted with a realism and unsentimentality that is almost brutal, but also with an immense compassion.

That we can hear at all Mussorgsky’s great uncompleted work is something of a miracle. We owe an immense debt of thanks, first of all to Rimsky-Korsakov for helping keep Khovanschina in the repertoire for so many decades, and to Stravinsky and to Shostakovich for presenting to us at least something of what Mussorgsky himself might have gone on to achieve.