Archive for July, 2019

A brief rumination on fronted adverbials

Until quite recently, I did not know what “fronted adverbials” were. But now that I do know, I find myself using them all the time. Indeed, looking back on my older blog posts, I find I had used them even before I knew what they were. And, on reflection, I think I used them correctly.

Not that I care too much, frankly, whether I used them correctly or not: I worry when my writing does not convey what I want it to convey, or when my phrasing is inelegant; whether or not I stick to some set of prescribed rules is not something that bothers me at all. Which is not to say I am indifferent to grammar: far from it. I belong to a generation that was not taught grammar at school (hence my ignorance till quite recently of “fronted adverbials”), and I regret my lack of education in this respect: I regret it not because I think a greater knowledge of grammar would help me write better – I don’t think it would – but simply because language is such a fascinating human construct, I would, I think, have enjoyed and have benefited from being taught something of how it is constructed. Of course, I could, and, indeed, do, try to compensate for my ignorance now in my adult years, but I don’t really see why teaching something so very interesting in schools should be so derided.

And it is derided. The reader will, I hope, excuse me for not overwhelming this brief post with a plethora of links to demonstrate my point, but you don’t really need to look too far to find often impassioned diatribes against the teaching of grammar in schools. (The teaching of “fronted adverbials” is particularly looked down upon.) Teaching grammar in schools, we are told, is “quite unnecessary”, and one can write perfectly well without being taught anything at all about the subject.

Now, I do not dispute either of these points. What I do however dispute, very strongly, is that “should not be taught” follows from being “quite unnecessary”. When I press anyone on this point, I am told that children are being taught these things at far too young an age, that they are made to learn these things merely by Gradgrindian rote learning, and that all this inhibits something called “creativity”. Once again, I don’t know that I would dispute any of these points (although I may gently suggest, perhaps, that an element, at least, of discipline may indeed help rather than hinder “creativity”). But I do not want to get side-tracked into these matters. I have no opinion – no informed opinion, at least – on when grammar is best taught, or how. My grouse remains that “unnecessary” does not, must not, imply “should not be taught”. Much of what makes us civilised beings is “quite unnecessary” – in the sense that, in most cases, it does not serve any utilitarian purpose. But if we were to restrict our education only to that which is necessary, to that which is useful – if we were to reduce education, in other words, to no more than its utilitarian value – then that indeed really would be Gradgrindian.

I could have written the opening paragraph of this post without knowing what “fronted adverbials” are. But, like Monsieur Jourdain, who was delighted to know that he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, I too am delighted to know what “fronted adverbials” are.  And I really don’t care that it’s quite unnecessary.

Beyond expression

For a long time I used to think that the word “ineffable” described something that one isn’t allowed to swear at. Now that I know what it really means, I don’t think I had been too far off, for that which is too wonderful to be expressed in words really shouldn’t be sworn at. But that such a word exists at all strikes me as remarkable, for in its existence, and in the existence also of its polar opposite, “unspeakable”, there lies an implicit assumption that there are certain things that mere language is incapable of expressing. The ineffable is too great to be expressed in words, and the unspeakable too horrendous: in both cases, language fails us.

It is for this reason, I think, that it is often claimed that music is a greater art form than literature, for it is more expressive: unlike the art form based in language, music can convey the sense of the ineffable. (And also, I suppose, the unspeakable: Schubert and Mahler, amongst others, have both expressed a pitch of terror surpassing anything that may be conveyed by words.) The dictum that music begins where words end is frequently attributed, on the net at least, to both Heine and to Goethe; my searches, however, couldn’t locate a source, and I am always wary of attribution where the source isn’t cited. Rilke, to throw another German poet into the mix, does say in the poem “An die Musik”, Du Sprache wo Sprachen enden (“you speak where language ends”), though one suspects he is putting into words a sentiment that, at time of writing, was already current. A scholarly book to which I have been referred (note to sceptics: Twitter does have its uses if one tries to steer clear of the madness!) claims that the only source for this saying is in the correspondence between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck. But be the source as it may, that the sentiment itself is widely accepted seems undeniable.

Mendelssohn said something quite similar:

The thoughts which are expressed to me by the music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite…

(I take it this is a translation from the German, but I do not know who the translator is: I found it here, from the book Nineteenth Century Piano Music by R. Larry Todd.)

Once again, the sentiment is much the same: music is capable of expressing what words cannot.

Similar claims, I imagine, can be made for the visual arts, and I’d be surprised if they haven’t. Is it possible to express in words what is conveyed, say, by Michelangelo’s Medici Tombs? Or by Velazquez’ Las Meninas? That such works are expressing something is indisputable, but when we try to put into words what it is they express, we flounder. And the reason we flounder is not merely that these works may express different things to different people (although that is no doubt true too): often, despite finding ourselves affected by such works, we fail to express in words just what it is about them that affects us so, even on a personal level.

In this context, literature seems a strange beast. For literature, too, as those of us who love literature will testify, is capable of expressing the ineffable: it is simply not possible to put into words what a King Lear or an Anna Karenina may mean to us. But here, we find ourselves faced with an oxymoron: for, just as painting is composed of colours and sculpture with physical forms, and just as music is composed of sounds, so literature is composed of words and nothing but words; so, in saying literature is capable of expressing the ineffable, we are effectively making the quite ludicrous claim that words are expressing that which words are not capable of expressing.

And yet, unless we think that literature is indeed an inferior art form (and I certainly don’t), that is precisely what we are saying. I used to define poetry as “The manipulation of language to express that which language, were it not for the manipulation, could not express”; I still think that’s a pretty decent stab at a definition, but it falls down somewhat on the fact (for fact I think it is) that this definition could apply to other forms of literature also – to novels  and stories, to plays. Ultimately, it seems to me, this is the profoundly paradoxical aim of all serious literature – to express using language what language cannot express.

But if this is indeed what literature that aims to be serious aims for, and literature that we may justly term ineffable actually achieves, it leaves us book bloggers with something of a problem: what do we say about such literature? If we are talking about fiction, we could, I suppose, merely summarise the plot, but I don’t know that takes us anywhere at all.  Many, I know, stumble upon this blog (and other blogs  too, presumably) by searching for “plot synopsis”, and I have always wondered what they hope to gain from it. Anyway, mine not to reason why: if plot synopsis is what they want, there is plenty available that should satisfy them, though what need it satisfies is frankly beyond me. The problem I have with plot synopses is not a question of “spoilers”: it’s rather that, in any work of literature of any substance, the plot conveys very little of the essence of the work. A mere outline of the plot of Othello, say, says nothing, absolutely nothing, about what it is to experience the work, either on stage or on the page. For that is indeed ineffable.

But, given that the essence of a great work of literature is ineffable – it is so by definition, I think, for it is this very quality that confers greatness – I am on a loser in trying to convey what it means to me, or how I react to it. Oh, of course, I could use a few vague, generic terms – moving, disturbing, thought-provoking, and the like – but they don’t really convey too much. I do try, at least, to go a bit further than that, but reading over some of my old posts, not, I fear, with any spectacular success.

Maybe we should be allowed to swear at the ineffable after all. Fucking Othello!

Sherlock Holmes and the deerstalker

This post is really only for Sherlock Holmes fans. (That is, fans of the Conan Doyle stories: I have to add this rider as there seem nowadays to be many who describe themselves as Sherlock Holmes fans, but who appear neither to have read nor are interested in reading the stories.)  It’s not that you can’t read this post if you’re not a fan – we like to think we’re inclusive on this blog – but I’ll be delving here into Holmesian matters so esoteric and arcane, that those less than obsessed with these stories may well be thinking to themselves “What a sad git!”

Now the preliminaries are over with, let us begin.

Dear fellow anoraks,

Whose invention was the deerstalker? Conan Doyle never mentions the deerstalker explicitly, but near the start of the story “Silver Blaze” (Dec, 1892) we do get this:

“… Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp, eager face framed in his ear-flapped travelling-cap …”

Although not explicitly mentioned, it’s obvious what Conan Doyle meant. And Sidney Paget obliged, illustrating “Silver Blaze” with the now iconic picture of Holmes and Watson sitting in a railway carriage, with Holmes dressed in an Inverness cape and deerstalker hat.


Sidney Paget’s illustration for “Silver Blaze”

However, there is more to it than that. Just over a year earlier, Paget had drawn a very similar picture, again showing Holmes in his deerstalker (though not, I think, the Inverness cape), for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (Oct, 1891). And, as far as I am aware, the deerstalker is not mentioned, directly or indirectly, either in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, or in any of the earlier stories.


Sidney Paget’s illustration for “the Boscombe Valley Mystery”

So, the absence of any evidence to the contrary leads me to deduce that the deerstalker was indeed Sidney Paget’s invention, and that, rather than the illustrator following the author, as is usually the case, here, it was Conan Doyle following his illustrator by giving Holmes the deerstalker in “Silver Blaze”.

And also, as far as I can remember, Conan Doyle never mentions, nor even describes anything that could resemble, the Inverness cape. That too, it appears, was Sidney Paget’s invention.

Of course, there was nothing particularly unusual about a deerstalker in those days. Gentlemen often wore it, especially when out hunting. (Which, in effect, is what Sherlock Holmes was doing.) The deerstalker was one of several items of headwear that Paget had drawn for Holmes. But, curiously, those other items of headgear (including, once, a top hat) haven’t remained in the popular imagination: it is the image of the deerstalker that has stuck – to such an extent that one cannot even think of such a hat without picturing Sherlock Holmes.

For this, I think we have primarily to thank William Gillette, the American actor who, in 1899, adapted Holmes for the stage, and played the character over 1000 times. (He also played Holmes in a silent film in 1916.) It was he who popularised the Inverness cape and the deerstalker that Paget had introduced, and had added to it the curly pipe, which appears nowhere either in Conan Doyle’s text nor in Paget’s illustrations. Indeed, in “The Red-Headed League”, the pipe is described as “black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird”; and whenever Paget drew Holmes with a pipe (as in the picture below illustrating “The Man with the Twisted Lip”), he invariably drew it as a straight pipe.


Sidney Paget’s illustration for “The Man with the Twisted Lip”

Later, of course, came the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films, and the deerstalker, Inverness cape, and curly pipe became synonymous with Holmes. And that image remains. Even Jeremy Brett – perhaps now the most widely seen Sherlock Holmes on screen – donning various items of headgear other than the deerstalker has failed to dent this popular image.


Now, those of you who aren’t Holmes fans but who have, despite my advice, read this far, may well be thinking to themselves “So what?” Well, so nothing, really. It’s just that I’m something of an anorak in these matters, and, as I sit on my patio this sunny Sunday afternoon, a drink in one hand and a book of Sherlock Holmes stories in the other, these, rather than more profound questions concerning the nature of our lives, are matters I find myself musing upon. Perhaps, if I put a bit of effort into it, I could develop this stub of a post into something more of general interest, and reflect upon how myths develop in the popular imagination, and upon how creations of the imagination, once created, assume a life independent of the creator; and so on. Well, yes, maybe. But I am enjoying this summer afternoon on my patio too much right now to go into all that. Some other time, maybe.

Now back to “The Red Circle”…

Boris and the Vixen

I hope I’m not disappointing anyone, but this post is going to be about opera.

More specifically, about two of my personal favourite operas – Mussorgsky’s  Boris Godunov, and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – performances of which I had the privilege of attending over the last week.

Other than their both originating from Eastern Europe (one is Russian, the other Czech), and apart from their both being among my personal favourite works, they have little in common. Except, perhaps, that, each in its own way, they’re both quite unusual operas. Mussorgsky’s opera, based on  Pushkin’s sprawling epic play, is itself a sprawling epic opera, but seems rather strangely structured: the central character Boris appears in only four of its seven scenes (in four of its nine scenes in the later 1873 version); and there are long scenes, taking up substantial parts of the opera, that seem at best only tangentially related to the central plot, making one wonder just what they are doing there. This was perhaps inevitable given that Mussorgsky (who was librettist as well as composer) had to radically cut down the text of Pushkin’s play, reducing twenty-five scenes merely to seven: this inevitably results in some narrative discontinuities, where the audience has to fill in the gaps for themselves, and also in a few threads that don’t appear to lead anywhere. It’s a work that seems to want to expand further than what can reasonably be accommodated in a single evening’s performance.

Janáček’s opera is even stranger: it is based not on a play or even a novel, but on a comic strip in a newspaper; it is virtually plotless (a summary of the incidents that occur don’t really amount to what most of us would recognise as a plot); and it tells of the interactions between humans and animals in a woodland setting. Hardly the stuff of traditional opera.

But we shouldn’t wonder at their strangeness: all works of genius are strange to some extent or other. Boris Godunov, like Mussorgsky’s later opera Khovanschina (which was left unfinished), takes us to a turbulent period of Russian history. (Although we may wonder whether there has ever been a time in Russian history that wasn’t turbulent.) The period is the late 16th century: Boris is asked by the populace to accept the crown, to prevent further civil warfare and bloodshed. He agrees, but his very first words set the tone: “My soul is heavy”. Yes, soul: this is a very Russian opera after all.

The version I saw last week performed by the Royal Opera was the earlier, and more compact, 1869 version. It is not a version I am familiar with: the recording I have (and through which I know the piece), conducted by Claudio Abbado, appears to use the longer later version from 1873, but includes also a scene from the earlier version that Mussorgsky had taken out. The differences between the 1869 and the 1879 are fascinating, but it would take a greater Mussorgsky scholar than myself to write a proper analysis of it. As for as I can see, Mussorgsky, for his later version, stripped out a brief scene in which Boris encounters the Holy Fool (who is about as archetypal a Russian figure as may be imagined); adds two long scenes involving various political and romantic machinations in Poland, where Dmitri, the Pretender, is manipulated by the Polish Princess Marina, and who is herself manipulated by the Jesuit priest Rangoni; and added also an extra scene after Boris’ death, in which we witness an attempted lynching, and where, at the end, we see the armies of the Pretender march through the land, as the Holy Fool laments the fate of the Russian people: whoever is in power, it is the people who continue to suffer. In addition to this, Mussorgsky had significantly expanded at least two other scenes. (There are most probably further changes if one were to study the scores in detail – something I am not, alas, qualified to do.)

I did, I must confess, miss those extra scenes, and the extra passages Mussorgsky had composed for the later version; but even this more compact version seemed sprawling. I do not mean that as a criticism: I love the sprawl. Between the famous coronation scene at the opening, and perhaps the even more famous death scene at the end, we find ourselves in the gloom of a monastery cell, where the monk Pimen is chronicling the history of Russia (this scene is primarily expository, though not wholly so: we see also the young schismatic monk Grigory, who will later claim to be Dmitri, heir to the crown). Then, we have what seems to be a quite irrelevant scene set in a tavern, where we encounter the striking figure of the drunken monk Varlaam. True,  it does relate to the main action  in that we also see Grigory, now escaped from the monastery, and trying to make his way across the border into Lithuania; but the focus of this scene falls on Varlaam (sung with some gusto in this production by John Tomlinson): quite apart from anything else, he is given what must be the best “drunk” music ever composed: here was a composer who knew well what it was like to be drunk, and reproduced it unerringly in music. (In this earlier version, we do not see Varlaam again after this tavern scene: in the later version, we see him again in the final scene, attempting to lynch and hang a Catholic.)

Only after all this – some half way through the opera in its earlier version – do we encounter Boris again (after his brief appearance in the opening coronation scenes), and, perhaps to our surprise, we encounter him as a gentle and tender man, loving and solicitous of his children. But his soul is heavy: Prince Dmitri – the real prince Dmitri, not the one who later pretends to be him – had been murdered: he was a mere child. According to Pimen’s narration, it was Boris who had ordered the murder. We never quite get to know the truth of this. But in the terrifying final moments of this particular scene, we see Boris tortured with guilt, and hallucinating: he sees the murdered child appearing to him, and he cries out in terror, disclaiming his guilt. The music Mussorgsky provides for this really does make my hair stand on end: I really know nothing in any other opera to match this for sheer terror.


Bryn Terfel as the tortured Boris Godunov. Or, perhaps, me after a rough night. Take your pick. (Picture courtesy Royal Opera)

Some day, I’d love to see the later, more expanded version, but I can’t complain: this was every bit as majestic and as imposing and as dark and terrifying as I have always imagined this opera to be. Bryn Terfel as Boris was simply extraordinary, projecting both the tender side of the character, and also the tortured and demonic side, with equal conviction. I am not really qualified to comment on the musical aspects of the performance, but Marc Albrecht’s conducting, and the orchestra’s playing – and also, in this of all operas, the singing of the chorus: it can be argued that the people are the real protagonists here – left, as far as I was concerned, at least, absolutely nothing to be desired.

(I have now seen Bryn Terfel live on three occasions – as Hans Sachs, as Falstaff, and now, as Boris Godunov. Not a bad threesome!)

With The Cunning Little Vixen, we enter a very different world. We are no longer dealing with kings and pretenders and marching armies – we are in a forest, and the first orchestral sounds we hear seem to evoke the wind rustling the leaves, and the chirping of insects. A forester takes a nap, and a frog lands on his nose. On waking, he finds a fox cub, and takes her home to be a sort of pet for the children. The forester, and all the animals – the fox, the frog, the various birds, the mosquitoes – all sing.

The music is certainly very beautiful but at this stage, one is entitled to ask – What is Janáček playing at? The English title suggests a cute, Disneyfied view of the animal world, but the English title is misleading: the original Czech title is Příhody lišky Bystroušky, which, roughly translated, means (I’m told) “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-ears“. Somewhat less Disneyesque than the English title perhaps, but it still doesn’t help us much. A summary of the plot, such as it is, doesn’t tell us much either: the fox cub grows up into a vixen, wards off the advances of the dog and kills all the chickens (no Disneyesque cuteness here!), runs off back into the forest, drives out the badger and takes over his home, falls in love and marries a fox (to ecstatic singing from all the other woodland animals), has many fox cubs of her own, and is then, all of a sudden and quite out of the blue, shot by a poacher. And the vixen’s death isn’t even the climactic point of the opera: the orchestra is given a few bars of sad, reflective music on the vixen’s death, and then we move on. In contrast to Boris Godunov, where death seems an earth-shattering event, here, death is presented merely as something that happens every day: it’s no big deal really.

Alongside this, we get the world of the humans: we see the forester at home with his wife; later, we see him in a tavern with a priest and a schoolmaster (Janáček’s drunk music is very different from Mussorgsky’s); the schoolmaster is pining for someone named Terynka, but his love is unrequited; while the priest, returning home tipsy, reflects on the time he had been falsely accused of a sexual misdemeanour. Later, we find that Terynka (still unseen), is to marry someone called Harašta, who is also a poacher: the schoolmaster’s love is fated to remain unrequited. The priest, meanwhile, has left: we are told briefly that he is lonely and homesick. And so on. A lot of incidents, yes, but they refuse to gel into anything resembling a coherent narrative line. Everything just seems to happen – with nothing much leading up to them, and nothing much resulting from them. Even the death of the principal character, the vixen. These things just happen – and that’s all. Even death.

To get some idea what Janáček was “playing at”, we must look to the music.

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union…

It is “Nature’s social union” that Burns speaks of that Janáček here depicts in his music. On Saturday night, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, performed all three acts without an interval, and the whole thing emerged like a vast orchestral tone poem with voices, an all-embracing paean to nature, and to its eternal cycles of self-renewal. But of course, the fact that Nature renews herself regularly is scant consolation to us poor sods who face inevitable extinction: and this is acknowledged. The climactic point of the opera comes not with the death of the vixen, but with the Forester’s rueful monologue, in which he reflects sadly, though not bitterly, on the passage of time, and, by implication, on his own inevitable extinction. The music here is almost unbearably poignant: Simon Rattle says in his programme notes that the ending of the opera leaves him in tears, and Janáček himself had asked for this music to be played at his own funeral. I myself find it very hard to listen to this monologue without thinking of Wordsworth’s line “that there hath passed away a glory from the earth”. And yet, this is not quite the last word. Once again, the forester falls asleep, as he had done at the start of the opera, and once again, a frog jumps on to his nose, but it’s not the same frog as at the beginning: it is that’s frog’s grandchild. And in the final bars, the music itself seems to expand to fill the void with sounds of what I can only describe as ecstasy.


Lucy Crowe as the Vixen, and Gerard Finley as the forester, in “The Cunning Little Vixen”. (Picture courtesy London Symphony Orchestra)

It’s not a long opera: it’s only about 90 or so minutes – shorter than some of Wagner’s single acts. But in that 90 minutes, we find music that is, by turns, gentle, nostalgic, boisterous, exuberant, calm and nocturnal, joyous and celebratory … and even, at times, dark and tragic: the music that opens the third act, say, speaks of death as surely as does any funeral march in a Mahler symphony. This opera, for me, is Janáček’s Lied von der Erde, but how different his focus is from Mahler’s! In both works, I suppose, the sadness and the angst are, as it were, sublimated into a sort of ecstasy, but where, in Mahler, the longing fades away at the end, serenely into silence, here, we seem overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude of Life itself.

Of the performance, there is not really anything I can say other than it held me spellbound throughout. The London Symphony Orchestra produced the most extraordinary sounds and it’s hard to imagine this cast – led by Lucy Crowe as the Vixen and Gerard Finley as the forester (with a telling cameos from Hanno Muller-Brachman as the poacher Harašta, and Sophia Burgos as the Fox) – being bettered. I am not entirely sure what, if anything, Peter Sellers’ semi-staging added to the proceedings, but the way I felt on leaving the Barbican, I was in no frame of mind to complain.

Well, I suppose I’ve probably spent my entire annual opera allowance over just a few days. But it was worth it. I wouldn’t have missed these for anything.