Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

“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.

“Madama Butterfly” revisited

There are times when one should reconsider some point of view one had previously expressed with great confidence, and concede, much though it may pain one to do so, that one may, perhaps, have been a trifle over-hasty. To switch now to the first person, I have to admit I’ve been talking shite.

The last time I wrote about the operas of Puccini, I had characterised him as, essentially, a purveyor of schmaltz – a splendid craftsman who, far from hiding his craftsmanship, put it on display, and who knew better than anyone how to pull at the heartstrings. And while it is certainly very enjoyable stuff, it is not, I implied, to be taken too seriously. You have a good cry as you’re watching it, and afterwards, if not actually forget about it, smile at the thought of having been so affected at the time. It’s showmanship of a very high standard, admittedly, but showmanship all the same, and nothing more.

But now, a full week after seeing a live broadcast into the cinemas of Royal Opera’s superb performance of Madama Butterfly, and still unable to get it out of my head, I find myself questioning this. Even if it were all true; even if Puccini were a master showman, a craftsman of the highest order who knew full well how to get his audience crying; why should that imply that his works are not to be taken seriously? What is it, precisely, that should prevent me from seeing Madama Butterfly as a serious tragic drama?

The plotline is simple enough (and I guess that I should issue at this point a spoiler warning, for those who care about such things). A young Japanese girl, Cio Cio San, from a noble family now fallen upon bad times, and, aged only fifteen, very innocent and naïve about the ways of the world, enters into marriage with a young American sailor Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously, going as far as to reject her religion for her future husband’s, thus earning her family’s disapproval. Pinkerton, on the other hand, does not take this “marriage” at all seriously: he is just in it for a night of sex with an attractive young Japanese girl, and he even jokes quite openly about later finding himself a “proper American wife”. After his night of passion, he sails away, and forgets all about this girl. It is not that he is a villain: he is just a thoughtless young man who is doing what he sees everyone else in his position doing. It doesn’t occur to him – or, indeed, to anyone else – that the “bride” might be taking this whole silly business seriously.

But she does. From that night of passion, she has a little boy. And she waits for Pinkerton to return, as he had said he would, and will not hear anything to the contrary. And when, after three years, he does return, he has his “proper American wife” with him. He is overcome by remorse, and he and his American wife speak of adopting the little boy from his former “marriage”. Cio Cio San, her entire life and soul now crushed, takes out of its scabbard the sword with which her father, on the Emperor’s command, had committed hara-kiri. She reads the inscription: “He who cannot live with honour must die with honour”. And she blindfolds the little by so he cannot see his mother’s final agony, both physical and spiritual.

That is the story, and, for all the talk we hear of operas having silly plots, this seems to me frighteningly realistic. But what is interesting is what Puccini makes of this story. For, as far as I can see, what he makes of it is more than just a finely crafted tear-jerker. It now seems to me that it is nothing less than a tragedy of immense proportions. Cio Cio San’s fate is every bit as tragic as that of Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, or Berg’s Wozzeck. If we do not hesitate to describe those works as tragic (and I don’t think anyone seriously does), I really don’t see why we should withhold that status from this opera. Yes, Cio Cio San is tortured beyond human endurance, and Puccini is often criticised for what many regard as his streak of sadism, and of misogyny. But Káťa Kabanová and Wozzeck are equally tortured, and I’ve yet to hear Janáček criticised for misogyny on that score, or Berg of misandry. And neither is accused of sadism. It seems that these criticisms are made only of Puccini. Is it because he wears his heart so obviously on his sleeve, I wonder? What other reason can there be?

Also, sadism implies an enjoyment in inflicting pain. But I get no sense of that at all in Madama Butterfly. Puccini takes Cio Cio San’s sufferings very seriously. Indeed, he is perhaps the only one who does. Apart from the maidservant Suzuki, all other characters seem to see Cio Cio San as essentially disposable: she doesn’t matter, and neither do her feelings. In the first act, Pinkerton never pauses to ask himself whether Cio Cio San takes the marriage seriously, or as lightly as he obviously does. Even the American consul, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is merely uneasy at the marriage, and no more: he tells Pinkerton to be careful, but, crucially, doesn’t tell him not to proceed with his plans. Later, he expresses frustration that Cio Cio San insists on waiting for the man she still regards as her husband. In the final act, no-one questions that Pinkerton’s second marriage, with a “proper American woman”, is the one that really counts, and not his first. Pinkerton may be remorseful, and everyone may feel sorry for Cio Cio San, but no-one thinks anything of taking her child away from her. The American Mrs Pinkerton promises to Cio Cio San that she will look after the child as if he were her own: she actually thinks this is a kind thing to say. And we can all guess what will happen once the curtain drops on the dead woman and the blindfolded child: the child will be taken away, his mother never more mentioned, and, in time, she will be forgotten. A disposable person well disposed of. Move on – nothing to see here.

The only person to understand the full extent of this tragedy, to understand its earth-shaking nature, is Puccini himself. And to see this merely as a master showman pulling strings to get his audience crying does not strike me as an adequate way to view this – as it seems to me now – extraordinary work. It wrings the heart with terror and with pity, and neither is there just for theatrical effect.

The Royal Opera production, and the performances, were top notch. Conductor Antonio Pappano shapes and paces the drama to perfection, and Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is absolutely sensational as Cio Cio San, both in terms of singing and of acting. A full week after the show, neither my wife nor I can get this opera out of our heads. The other characters on stage may no doubt see Cio Cio San as essentially a disposable human being; but Puccini has ensured that we see her as something considerably more than that. Madama Butterfly is among the great works of tragic drama.

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!

The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.

On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know is the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take this person too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no other emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so, no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

“Verdi’s Shakespeare” by Garry Wills

In this post, I shall be riding not just one of my hobbyhorses, but two.

Regular readers of this blog – and I flatter myself there are a few – will know that Shakespeare and Verdi are both great heroes of mine, and loom large within my cultural horizons. Indeed, these readers may well be wishing that I’d stop banging on about them for a while. But it can’t be helped. The very purpose of this blog, after all, is to bang on about things that are dear to me. So that means I will, I’m afraid, continue to bang on about both Shakespeare and Verdi, and, in particular, on the operas Verdi wrote based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas – the relatively early Macbeth, and Otello and Falstaff, the two masterpieces written in old age – aren’t adaptations, as such, of Shakespeare’s plays, or translations of those plays from one medium into another: they are, rather, entirely new works of art that take Shakespeare’s plays but as a starting point. Shakespeare himself, of course, did precisely the same thing: he took existing works and transformed them into something else. And the end-product is judged on its own terms: we do not, after all, judge Shakespeare’s Othello on how closely or otherwise it follows Giraldo Cinthio’s tale on which it was based; and, by the same token, neither should we judge Verdi’s Otello on how closely or otherwise it represents Shakespeare’s play: we must judge it on its own merits. However, for someone such as myself, a fan both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, it is fascinating to examine what Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito took from the original works, and how they transformed what they took to express their own artistic vision. So when, on a casual book-browsing session in the London bookshops, I came across a book on this very theme – Verdi’s Shakespeare by Garry Wills – I was frankly overjoyed. I couldn’t imagine why, given my interest in this subject, I had not known about this book before.

ShakespeareVerdi

The book is subtitled Men of the Theatre. Nowadays, most dramatists write their plays first, and only later, at the casting stage, are actors found suitable for the roles. But Shakespeare and Verdi both knew the actors or singers they were writing for, and would write with their strengths and weaknesses in mind. Verdi, when his opera was staged elsewhere or with a different cast, would be quite happy to make changes to suit the new singers. Of course, he was less inclined to do this as his artistic vision developed, but even for his late operas he would carefully consider the vocal strengths and weaknesses of the singers who were to sing in the premier. So, with this in mind, Wills considers the singers we know Verdi wrote for, and the actors Shakespeare is likely to have written for: what we can discern of their strengths and weaknesses can, after all, tell us much about how Shakespeare and Verdi conceived their creations.

Wills considers also doubling, and, quite often, tripling and quadrupling: given the size of Shakespeare’s troupe, and the number of characters in his plays, there would inevitably have been many cases of actors playing multiple roles; and, quite frequently, from the internal evidence of the plays, we can, at least, make intelligent guesses on some of this doubling. Quite apart from anything else, Shakespeare, as a Man of the Theatre, would have given his actors plenty of time to change costume before coming on stage as a different character, and the spacings between exits and entrances can give us important clues.

And sometimes, when the audience sees the same actor in different roles, the two roles become associated with each other in the audience’s mind. (Jane Howell made some very imaginative use of this in the superb productions of the three Henry VI plays and of Richard III she directed for BBC back in the early 80s.) On reading or watching Macbeth, we may think that Lady Macbeth’s mental breakdown comes upon us too suddenly, but Shakespeare’s own audiences would have seen the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth also playing Lady Macduff only a few scenes earlier; and in that earlier scene, they would have seen Lady Macduff witnessing the slaughter of her own child, before she herself is murdered. All this, Wills argues, would have prepared the audience psychologically for the sleepwalking scene: having seen Lady Macduff in a veritable hell, the audience is now prepared to see Lady Macbeth, played by the same actor, in her own hell – albeit, this time, a hell of her own making.

Similarly with Cordelia and the Fool: the Fool is not present in the opening scene in which Lear divides his kingdom, and disappears well before Cordelia re-appears: it seems a reasonable conjecture that the same boy actor is playing both parts. This conjecture is strengthened given their dramatic roles: while Cordelia is absent, the Fool is present to remind Lear (and us) of the absent Cordelia; the Fool is, in effect, standing in as a sort of proxy for the missing Cordelia. And when, at the end of the play, Lear howls over Cordelia’s body “And my poor fool is hanged!” we do not need to ask whether he is grieving for the Fool or for Cordelia: he is grieving for them both, because, in the audience’s mind, the two characters have, to a great extent, been fused into one.

The boy actor playing Lady Macbeth, and Cordelia, and the Fool, was, most likely, the boy actor John Rice, and, given the extraordinarily demanding roles Shakespeare wrote for him – as well as the parts mentioned, he would have played Cleopatra, and possibly Volumnia in Coriolanus – he must have been a remarkable talent. But if Rice indeed played these roles, what part would Robert Armin have played? Armin had replaced Will Kemp as the Clown in Shakespeare’s troupe, and was renowned as a more “intellectual” comic than his predecessor; he was also himself a writer of some distinction. Furthermore, he was a major player in the acting company, and it seems unlikely that he would have been fobbed off merely with minor roles. It seems inconceivable that his part in Othello, say, would have been restricted to the almost inconsequential scene featuring an almost inconsequential clown. Wills argues that Armin was well capable of taking on dramatic roles: if he did not play the Fool in King Lear, he may quite easily have taken on Edgar in King Lear – which, despite being a dramatic role, calls for a lot of clowning; and, intriguingly, he would have been likely to take on Iago in Othello. There seems to be no other role suitable for an actor of his stature.

Of course, there is much conjecture in all this: we can never know for certain who took which role. James Shapiro, in 1616 the Year of Lear, seems certain that Armin would have played the Fool in King Lear. That, too, is conjecture, of course. From my own understanding of the play, the same actor doubling Cordelia and the Fool makes a great deal of dramatic sense, and, for that reason alone, it is towards Wills’ conjecture rather than to Shapiro’s that I find myself leaning. But, fascinating though all this may be (to me, at least!) it may justifiably be argued that all of this is too insubstantial to base critical judgement on. With Verdi, we are on safer ground: here, we are not short of documentation. We know, for instance, precisely how Verdi had imagined his Macbeth and his Lady Macbeth:

He told both principal singers, “I want the performer to serve the poet better than they serve the composer” … He went so far as to say that his singers should not sing.

This, of course, has to be put into context of the times, when fine singing tended to take precedence over the demands of drama, but from the copious documentation we have, what emerges is Verdi trying to break free from the tradition where fine singing was an end in itself, and the drama no more than a convenient vehicle for beautiful singing. On the contrary, he insisted, the singing must serve the drama, and if the drama is best served by singing that actually sounds ugly – at least by the standards of the time – then so be it. The singers he settled on for the two main roles – Felice Varesi and Marianna Barbieri-Nini – were not, by Verdi’s own estimation, the best singers available. But, as Wills explains:

The reason Verdi did not want “fine singers” is that he doubted that he could prod such almost feral sounds from them, as he could from Varesi and Barbieri.

Although there are wonderful things in this opera that still, after multiple hearings, send shivers up my spine, it would be foolish to claim it’s among Verdi’s greatest masterpieces. What can be claimed, I think, is that Verdi was trying here to create a new kind of opera. However, when we come to Verdi’s other Shakespearean operas, Otello and Falstaff, we are in a different world. By this stage, Verdi had already created the kind of opera he had wanted in a string of masterpieces, and he was officially retired; but, for various reasons – most salient of which, one may guess, being that he never found a suitable libretto – he had not, after Macbeth, written an opera that takes his beloved Shakespeare as its source material. But now, in his 70s, the music publisher Ricordi introduced him to the accomplished young poet and composer, Arrigo Boito. It was an unlikely pairing: Verdi was the Grand Old man of Italian Arts, and, by that stage, the epitome of all that was conservative, while Boito came from a Bohemian background, and was openly rebellious, as young artists tend to be, against all that reeked of the establishment. Indeed, Boito had written some extremely indelicate verses condemning the established artistic monuments of his time, and Verdi, the most obvious establishment figure, had taken great personal exception to them. However, Boito, recognising genius even from, as it were, the enemy camp, jumped at the opportunity to work with Verdi, and Verdi himself, though cautious, must have seen something in the young Boito. First of all, Verdi asked Boito to tidy up the messy libretto of his earlier opera Simon Boccanegra. Boito did so brilliantly, prompting Verdi not merely to rewrite some of the music for that work, but to put something of his best into that re-writing. At last, Verdi had found a librettist of sufficient talent, and he knew what he wanted: he wanted to tackle Shakespeare again. This was, after all, a man who could not only read Shakespeare in the original English (as Verdi could not) – he knew Shakespeare well enough, and possessed sufficient poetic gifts himself, to have translated Antony and Cleopatra into Italian. Verdi had, at long last, found his ideal librettist.

The story of how these two very different men, from different generations, outlooks, and artistic backgrounds, overcame the various barriers between them to form what ended up as a close and affectionate friendship I find genuinely touching. The two ended up loving each other. Boito visited Verdi often, both before the passing of Verdi’s wife and after, and, shortly before his own death in 1919, wrote:

The voluntary servitude I consecrated to that just, most noble, and truly great man is the act of my life that gives me most satisfaction.

The transformation of Shakespeare’s play into the opera Otello is remarkable (I had previously written something about it here). Possibly the most striking difference is in Iago’s motivation: in Shakespeare’s play, this remains a matter of some contention (I have written my own thoughts on it here): to summarise, Iago gives us two possible motives – first, that he was passed over for promotion, and second, that he suspects his own wife with Othello; but the two motives seem to negate each other: it’s almost as if Iago can’t decide why he hates Othello so much. It’s not so much that his hatred has sprung from his motives, but, rather, that his hatred itself has been his starting point, and that he has to keep supplying himself with motives to justify that hatred. But in the opera, Boito gives Iago a monologue that has absolutely no equivalent at all in Shakespeare’s play. The opening lines of this monologue is a blasphemous parody of the Credo from the Latin mass:

Credo in un Dio crudel
che m’ha creato simile a sè
e che nell’ira io nomo.

I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.

(Translation by Aaron Green. See here for full text and translation of this monologue.)

Iago – or Jago, in Boito’s libretto – is not really a nihilist, as has often been claimed: he believes in a God all right. But the God he believes in is an evil God, a cruel God, as nothing else could explain why he, Jago, had been created in such a way. Jago, in pursuing evil, is but serving the God he believes in – the only God he can believe in.

It is a frightening picture, and Verdi clothes this monologue in the most terrifying music. For Verdi took Jago very seriously. He insisted repeatedly that Jago must not be a traditional mustachio-twirling villain. Sadly, in just about every performance I have heard, that is precisely what Jago ends up being. In every performance and recording I am acquainted with (bar only one) Jago ends his monologue with a villainous laugh. This laugh is not written in the score, and, as Wills rightly reminded us, Verdi had previously insisted that the tubercular heroine of La Traviata should not cough, and that the jovial Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera should not laugh, even at the point where he says he is laughing: these things are all communicated by the music. So how likely is it that Verdi would have approved of Jago laughing – especially when, with that laugh, he emerges as the pantomime villain that Verdi most certainly had not intended?

Towards the end of this monologue, Verdi inserts a few pauses in the music: this is not, as often appears to be the case in performance, because Jago is teasing the audience, delaying giving them answers that he already knows: quite the contrary – the pauses indicate that Jago is thinking. The conclusion he arrives at – that life is meaningless and heaven an old wives’ tale – is a difficult one, even for him, and it costs him a great effort of will to get there. When Verdi first saw this passage of Boito’s libretto, he was ecstatic, and described it as “Shakespearean”. It is a bit of a mystery why he did so: Verdi must surely have known that there was nothing like this in Shakespeare’s play. I’d hazard a guess that Verdi described this as Shakespearean because, as so often in Shakespeare’s plays, we see here a character in the process of thinking. He is not just expressing things that he has already thought out, and neither is he simply giving vent to his emotions: we see him actually in the process of formulating his thoughts. To diminish this to merely pantomime villainy seems to me frankly inexcusable.

Verdi’s conception of Otello is also remarkable. Looking around the net, I often find individual performances praised for communicating an animalist ferocity in Otello, or, conversely, criticized for not communicating an animalist ferocity, but from Verdi’s own recorded correspondence, animalistic ferocity was precisely what he didn’t want: not consistently, at least. He had grave doubts about engaging Francesco Tamagno for the role, worried that Tamagno always sang “with a full voice”, whereas the role, in Verdi’s opinion, required far greater subtlety and shading. This is not to rule out ferocity at certain points, but it does mean there is far more to this role than blasting off the roof beams with sheer volume and power. Victor Maurel, who sang Jago in the premier (and later also sang Falstaff) had similar reservations about the can belto approach to the role of Otello; he later wrote:

The ideal of vocal power necessary for Otello was provided with astonishing intensity by the creator of the role, Francesco Tamagno. But we think it dangerous to instil in the minds of Italian interpreters of Otello the idea that this kind of extraordinary vocal power is a condition sine qua non of a great interpretation.

Verdi, as usual, personally coached the singers himself very thoroughly, but sadly, the premier was too early for recordings, and what recordings we have of Tamagno singing passages from the opera were made many years afterwards, and, though spellbinding, they don’t necessarily reflect Verdi’s instructions. Those we can only conjecture from the documentary evidence we have.

Verdi had intended Otello to be his swan song: he had already officially retired once, was now well into his 70s, and had composed what was self-evidently a masterpiece. But presumably, working with Boito on another Shakespearean project proved too great a temptation. And this time, the opera was to be a comedy – his first comic opera since his very first work Un Giorno di Regno, which had flopped disastrously some fifty years earlier and had never since been revived. The source this time was The Merry Wives of Windsor, by common consent among Shakespeare’s lesser works, but which, if somewhat lacking in depth and in artistic vision, remains nonetheless, it seems to me, a charming and delightful work, full of laughs and good humour. Boito took this somewhat unwieldy comedy, thinned out the plot and the number of characters, enriched the concoction by adding some passages taken from the magnificent Henry IV plays, and created a witty and enchanting libretto that a composer of operas could only dream about.

If we leave out his first opera, Verdi had no experience of writing a comic work. But you wouldn’t think so from listening to this. The music conjured up by the aged Verdi, now approaching his 80s, is full of youthful zest, warm-heartedness, and a love of that life he knew he must leave sooner rather than later. It’s almost as if he had too many melodic ideas to fit into just one work, so he crammed in as many as he could: the result is that we hear not so much fully developed melodies, but, rather, scraps of melodies: almost before we have had the opportunity to take in any of the melodies fully, Verdi’s inexhaustible imagination has rushed off somewhere else, and is presenting us with some new scrap of tune. The orchestration, as witty as the libretto, is also constantly changing from moment to moment; the harmonies, too, are never allowed to settle. The headlong rush is irresistible. The counterpoint is extraordinarily intricate, and it is exhilarating – never more so than in the finale, a fugue which never seems fusty or academic, but is, instead, full of vigour and of the sheer joy of being alive. In Verdi’s long life, he had been no stranger to personal tragedy, but he left us at the end with the most joyous of love letters to life: there is no other work I can think of that is so full of the sheer unadulterated joy of just being alive. It is indeed a miracle. And once again, I don’t think there is anything quite like this in Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s joy was, all too often, soaked in the deepest melancholy. But here, although the note of autumnal melancholy does occasionally creep in, that is by no means the principal tonality. Once again, Boito and Verdi had taken Shakespeare as a starting point, and had transformed it into something entirely new.

Throughout the book, Gary Wills is a knowledgeable and reliable guide to these astonishing acts of artistic transformation. He is steeped in the worlds both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, and writes knowledgeably and with great insight on their respective creative imaginations. And he communicates, without gushing, his enthusiasm for these works. After reading this book, I found myself reaching once again for Shakespeare’s plays and – given that I can’t read the scores – recordings of the operas. And both the plays and the operas are self-renewing works: with each revisit, they appear as something new.

I don’t know how many readers have stayed with me to the end of what has turned out to be a very long post on matters that are, I know, only of minority interest, but in case one or two have, I would recommend this book without reservation. And then I would then recommend immersion in Shakespeare’s plays, and in those extraordinary operas Verdi and Boito fashioned from them. Even if you end up being an obsessive like me, there are, I’d contend, worse things to be obsessed with.