Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Ode to Joy

When, towards the end of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, staring full into the abyss, declares he will take back the 9th symphony, we don’t need to ask whose 9th symphony he is referring to – Schubert’s, Dvořák’s, Bruckner’s, or Mahler’s. And neither do we need to ask what Leverkühn means by saying that he wants to take it back. Beethoven’s 9th symphony stood then, as it stands now, for all those ideals and values that, for all the lessons of history, still stir the blood – freedom, liberty, love, brotherhood, comradeship, joy.

Ibsen had warned us, in Brand and in The Wild Duck, against the Claims of the Ideal. No matter how noble the ideal, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing the idealist, “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”. (That quote, a quick Google search tells me, is from Kant. It was a favourite of Isaiah Berlin’s, who titled one of his collections of essays The Crooked Timber of Humanity: the undesirability of even trying to attain Utopia here on earth was a theme that much exercised him.) Dostoyevsky too had known that straightening crooked humanity to make it fit for a utopia can only be achieved through violence: the Grand Inquisitor may indeed be correcting Christ’s work for the greater happiness of mankind, but burning heretics in an autoda is, presumably, a price that needs to be paid for that universal utopian happiness.

All this the history of the last centuries has taught us, all this we know. Or, at least, should know. And yet, even knowing this, Beethoven’s 9th symphony continues to thrill. And it thrills not merely by the power of the music, but also by the message it explicitly gives us – that of universal love and brotherhood, of ideals, out of which, some still believe, a Utopia may still be built, right here on earth. How can we remain still in thrall to this message? Could it be that even with the knowledge of the dangers of Utopia, even with all the bitter experience of history, we cannot still inside us that longing for a heaven here on earth? And could the message of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and the great, noble feelings it still arouses in us, actually be dangerous?

At this point, it’s as well to pause a while to reflect. Did Beethoven, whom we often tend to refer to as a “visionary”, really lack the vision to perceive what is now so obvious to us all? Lewis Lockwood, in his splendid book on Beethoven, reminds us that when he was composing the 9th symphony, these ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity had already failed, and were in retreat: Beethoven had lived through the times when these lofty ideals had given way to the Terror; he had seen Napoleon (whom he had initially admired, and about whom he continued to harbour conflicting and ambivalent feelings) unleash the most horrific warfare across Europe; and, most recently, he had seen the settlements reached in the Congress of Vienna plunge Europe back again to the most ruthless reactionary despotisms. Beethoven’s assertion of the ideals of freedom and of brotherly love, far from being triumphalist, is better seen as a sort of rearguard action.

So, maybe, he wasn’t advocating a utopia; maybe he wasn’t advocating building Jerusalem on England’s or anyone else’s green and pleasant land. The lines he set of Schiller nowhere imply – as Blake’s famous lines do – striving to build anything at all: it is an assertion, a celebration, of human love for its own sake. And I think it is right that this very idea is something that should thrill us, fill us with joy. I can speak from personal experience on this: it’s over a decade now that I came out of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, having heard Sir Charles Mackerras conduct this symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra (a recording of this remarkable live performance is, happily, still available), my head spinning with … well, spinning with joy, I suppose. To this day I have never heard anything quite so joyful, quite so thrilling. This symphony does what it says on the label.

Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Your magic binds again
What convention strictly divides;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

(Anonymous translation copied & pasted from Wikipedia.)

“What conventions strictly divides” – all those divisions of wealth and of social status, and also of ethnicity and of gender and of sexuality, all those divisions that so many modern strands of thought passing themselves off as “liberal” seek to reinforce rather than overcome… Beethoven’s symphony is, amongst other things, an ecstatic rejection of such pettiness: it urges us all to look higher.

In a conversation book of 1820, Beethoven had written: “The moral law within us, the starry skies above us.” This is a simplified version of a passage from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

(Translated by Lewis White Beck)

Both the moral law and the starry skies seem to find their place in the great finale of the 9th symphony. This finale opens with a depiction of chaos, with a wild and discordant cascade of notes. This is followed by a sort of orchestral recitative, which appears to be searching for something. Each of the previous three movements is briefly reprised, and each rejected: no, this is not what we are searching for. Only when the now well-known “Ode to Joy” theme emerges does the recitative seem to express approval. And then the orchestra plays it, first low in the bass, then in a higher register, and finally, triumphantly, with the full orchestra. So when the initial music of chaos re-enters, it can be rejected once and  for all. This is where the human voice enters: “No more of these sounds!” it declares. And we move into what we all know now as the Ode to Joy – three verses from Schiller’s poem, sung by the soloists. It may be argued that the tune itself is rather banal, and the truth is, yes, it is [but see addendum below]: the point is to create an anthem that may be sung by all. After the third verse, the music becomes, possibly, more banal still, with a tenor solo above a “Turkish march”. But, even as the music is in danger of sinking into triviality, Beethoven introduces a quite fabulous fugal passage, followed by an ecstatic choral restatement, supported  by the full orchestra, of the Ode to Joy theme. What Beethoven could achieve with a merely banal theme still defies belief.

This is where the symphony may well have ended. The noise of chaos is banished, and human voices have declared that joy has bound all that custom had separated. What more can there be to say? But what follows is, for me, perhaps the most extraordinary thing in the symphony: we may have heard the joyful expression of the moral law within us, but Beethoven wants us also to wonder at the starry skies above. And if the Ode to Joy we had heard was intended to be so simple that anyone could sing it, what follows taxes even the finest of solo singers and choirs. No music I know fills me with such a sense of wonder, of awe. Even after all these years of familiarity, a good performance, like the one I heard in Edinburgh all those years ago, can still leave me enraptured. And towards the end of this symphony, a variation of the Ode to Joy theme returns, and combines with the music that expresses this sense of wonder.  For, in Beethoven’s vision, the moral law within and the starry skies above are not two separate entities, divorced from each other: our place in the vast, incomprehensible universe does not render us insignificant, for what is within us is as glorious and as mysterious as what is without.

This, at least, is what this symphony means to me; and that we are still capable of responding to such a vision fills me, despite everything, with hope. For Adrian Leverkühn didn’t really need to take back the 9th: Gustav Mahler had done that already with his 6th, symphony, which is the antithesis of everything that Beethoven’s 9th expresses. (And I have heard also a very great performance of Mahler’s 6th symphony at the Edinburgh Festival once, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez – but that’s another story.) But even with the knowledge of something so implacably nihilistic as Mahler’s 6th, somehow, beyond anything that could be reasonably expressed, we continue to respond to Beethoven’s 9th. And that in itself is something of a wonder.

 

ADDENDUM (added 16th May, 2018)
The perils of writing about things one knows nothing about is that one is likely to get pulled up by someone who is, shall we say, a bit more knowledgeable.

I had described the “Ode to Joy” theme as “banal”. A good friend of mine, who, unlike me, actually has a good understanding of music, kindly wrote to disabuse me. I quote from his e-mail, with permission:

The theme is certainly deceptively simple, but that, to coin a phrase, is simply deceptive. Over 24 bars it makes do with just five notes, encompassing a fifth, (as does the mysterious opening of the first movement, which is a bare fifth).  Be that as it may, the theme, ostensibly in D Major, starts on the third note of the triad, F sharp, and that note (and not the tonic D) remains the centre of the theme, constantly and immensely subtly repeated and reaffirmed. Indeed, around a quarter of the theme is nothing but the note F sharp. If you sing the theme through, you will easily hear how it revolves around that opening F sharp, and not the tonic D.

Now the effect that Beethoven achieves comes about because the F sharp is treated as a leading note, leading to the G a semitone higher, followed in turn by the A. In other words, the opening of the theme could easily be in the Phrygian mode (there is no tonal certainty as the theme is unisono and so initially has no harmonic foundation), and the D, when it eventually arrives in bar 3, sounds less like the tonic and more like the sixth note of the Phrygian mode. Even when in bar 8 the tonic D is more firmly sounded, it then acts as a kind of elastic buffer, pushing on the flow of the music, rather than acting as a caesura, as the tonic is mostly expected to.

The entire theme is 24 (3 x 8) bars long, not the 32 one might expect, two lots of 2 x 8, and thus, as it were, dispenses with eight bars by cleverly nesting the ‘missing’ bars in the central section of the theme. And all this using precisely and merely five consecutive notes, mostly in scalar form, plus an octave A, over said 24 bars.

The effect of this ‘leading note as quasi-tonic’ F sharp which is resolved upwards, as one would expect of a leading note, but then continuing to the dominant A (not stopping at the tonic) and then back again, gives the theme a sense of, as Everton football club claims, onwards and upwards. The theme is restless, constantly moving forwards, while yet revolving around itself, and it is the working out of these thematic characteristics (there are plenty more, but more technical) which makes up the tremendous variations which are the rest of the movement. The Turkish march, far from being banal, is of a visceral excitement.

I could actually follow that analysis since I can still give a mean performance of that tune on a descant recorder.

I have made, as Bertie Wooster would say, a “bloomer”. But if after each bloomer comes such enlightenment, may I carry on making yet more such bloomers!

 

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Aida on the M6

We hadn’t been looking forward to the long drive south down the M6 motorway on New Year’s Day. To relieve the tedium, we decided to put Verdi’s Aida – a favourite opera of us both – on the car stereo, but it wasn’t a good idea. I’m not really sure how people manage to listen to music in the car: the quieter passages are all but inaudible, and the lower register is inevitably drowned out by the rumble of the engine. The soft opening strains of Aida were virtually inaudible, but we kept it on anyway, listening to what we could, our musical memory filling in what we couldn’t. We had heard it often enough, after all, over the years.

I remember that when I first encountered it – many decades ago now – I was a bit puzzled. I was puzzled why Verdi, having created dramas of great complexity, should choose for a subject so simple – one may even say “simple-minded” – and so conventional a story. I was puzzled why, having created in his previous operas characters of such intricacy and detailed nuance, he should now settle for characters that were, once again, simple and straightforward. Verdi had, I knew, intended this to be his last opera, so I put it all down at the time to his wanting to bow out with a big popular hit; the simple-minded nature of the drama was something that had to be put up with, I felt, for the sake of the beauties of the score. But really, that won’t do. First of all, whatever one may think of the quality of Verdi’s art (and he has many detractors, I know), the seriousness of his artistic intent is surely not in any doubt. And Verdi had searched far and wide for a plot for his opera before settling on this one; he had also given extremely detailed and precise instructions to his librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, so there can be little doubt that the final libretto is precisely what he had wanted. And in any case, given his stature at the time – no-one had greater claims than he of being a living legend – anything he cared to compose would have been a box office hit. If Aida does not present us with a complex drama or with complex characters, it is not because such things were beyond Verdi, or because he made do with whatever was available, or because he had lowered his artistic standards: it is because dramatic complexity was not what he wanted here. To point to all the conventional elements of this piece as evidence of Verdi’s lack of artistic ambition is fail to address what Verdi actually did achieve.

And yesterday, despite the inadequacy of listening in the car, it struck me – somewhere around M6-M5 interchange north of Birmingham, I think – just how profoundly anti-nationalist the work is. This in itself is surprising. For, while I am sure that Aida cannot be the only major work of nineteenth century art that is anti-nationalist, I found it difficult to think of others. Amongst composers, Chopin was a fervent Polish nationalist; Smetana and Dvořák were Czech nationalists; Mussorgsky, Balakirev and co. (the group known as “The Five”) looked to create a specifically Russian music; Wagner’s strident Germanic nationalism is notorious; Brahms kept a portrait of Bismarck above his desk. In literature, things were hardly any better: Dostoyevsky was extremely nationalist, and even Tolstoy in War and Peace could barely restrain his pride that it was the Russians who gave Napoleon his come-uppance. Of course, there are exceptions – Turgenev is an obvious one – and it’s best not to make any hasty generalisations (as I fear I am prone to do): but it’s safe to say, I think, that nationalism was a fairly widespread phenomenon in nineteenth century Europe. And it is fair to say also, I think, that it would have been no surprise had Verdi been a fervent Italian nationalist, especially given that by the time he composed Aida, he was, in effect, the living representative of the entire nation’s culture. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from his early opera Nabucco, had been enthusiastically taken up as an anthem of Italian patriotism; Verdi himself had fully supported Garibaldi’s campaign, and had celebrated joyously the emergence of Italy as a new, unified nation (in 1848, when the occupying Austrians had temporarily been forced to retreat from Milan, Verdi had actually written in a letter “Italy will yet become the first nation of the world … I am drunk with joy! Imagine that there are no more Germans here!!”); after unification, Verdi had supported Cavour; had been elected to the Parliament, and later, appointed to the Senate (although, despite his patriotic fervour, he preferred to keep a distance from political activity); and so on. In short, Verdi was a very unlikely candidate for the composer of an anti-nationalist work. And yet, that is what Aida seems to me to be. It seemed to me so obvious yesterday, driving through the rain and the winter murk, that I wondered why this had not struck me before.

The story is of lovers from across a divide, and thus, looks back very obviously to Romeo and Juliet. Which, in turn, looks back to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and, no doubt, that too looks back on something from even earlier. It’s a time-honoured story. But here, the divide is not between feuding families, but, quite explicitly, between nations – nations furiously raging together. Aida is an Ethiopian slave girl in Egypt, captured in war; but what the Egyptians do not know is that she is actually the Ethiopian royal princess. She is in love with the young Egyptian soldier Radames, and he loves her too. But Radames is also loved by the Egyptian princess, Amneris, and so, the two princesses (one still a slave girl) find themselves unequal rivals. Things get really complicated when Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army against their old enemies, the Ethiopians – against Aida’s people. And so on. It’s all fairly standard stuff, unlikely to be of any interest to anyone nowadays were it not accompanied by Verdi’s music. Even at the time of writing (in the 1870s), it was probably already old hat.

But this tired old plot nonetheless encapsulated Verdi’s theme – individual human love set against the hatred of nation unto nation. Of course, individual love doesn’t stand a chance, and is crushed. But in that ineffably beautiful final scene, we do not hear the tread of doom: we hear, instead, the most ecstatic outpourings of the human soul, as Aida and Radames expire in each other’s arms as only characters in opera can do, discovering in their defeat a nobility and an exaltation that the irrational armies clashing my night could never even envisage. And as these two sing of waking into Eternal Day, they are joined by the grieving voice of Amneris, nominally the villain of the piece, but who too had loved, and had lost: Verdi’s generosity of spirit does not leave her out.

And how far all this is from the crude and violent shouts of war (“Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!”) we had heard in the opening scene. The soldiers are ultimately the victors, of course. That is inevitable. And they will go on fighting. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring factions are reconciled by the deaths of the lovers, but things had moved on from Shakespeare’s time: in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (written only a few years after Aida), there’s a parody of Romeo and Juliet, but here, the lovers from two feuding families do not bring the warring factions together: once they elope, their respective families, far from being reconciled, merely slaughter each other. In Aida, too, there is no hope of reconciliation: the ignorant armies will continue to clash by night, urged on by equally ignorant cries of “Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!” But in the defeat of Aida and of Radames, a defeat they both willingly accept in preference to anything the outside world may consider victory, Verdi gives us a different music. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, they make Death proud to take them.

The villain of this opera turns out not really to be Amneris, although she may seem, superficially at least, to fit that role: for she too is driven by love. The villains here are collective. They are the theocrats – the priests who urge the war; they are the Egyptian empire, the war machine. And among the villains is also the defeated Ethiopian king, Amonasro, Aida’s father. For he too is a man of War. It is he who insists that his daughter must betray her personal loyalty and embrace instead the collective identity that has been pre-determined for her: she is, above all, an Ethiopian. In our modern world, with people from very different cultural backgrounds living cheek by jowl with each other to a far greater extent than ever before, the Amonasros have not disappeared: quite the contrary, they have multiplied. But their clamour and their stridence must not be allowed to drown out the very different music that Verdi gives us – a music that is both fragile, and also of a surpassing radiance.

This opera no doubt lacks the complexity of character and the intricacy of drama that we may find in various other operas by Verdi, but it gives us, I think, a vision of something else – something that is important for us to hold on to. We may take the easy way out and dismiss it all as merely “sentimental” or “naïve”, but I think we would be wrong to do so. Verdi, too, in his time, had been a patriot, a nationalist: possibly, he remained so even to his death. But he knew there is also that within us that can surpass and transcend such matters, and in Aida, he gives this its fullest artistic expression. And not even the rumble of the engine and the roar of the motorway could quite drown that out.

 

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

Look back in joy: Verdi’s “Falstaff”

Now that autumn is upon us, our thoughts turn inevitably to matters autumnal.

Now, that was a crap sentence, wasn’t it? I did consult the thesaurus for an alternative to “autumnal”, but nothing quite expressed what I wanted to express – autumnal, relating to autumn, approaching the end of the natural cycle, looking back upon the spring and summer of our lives and preparing for the chill on oncoming winter, and so on. Better inelegant than imprecise, I thought, so “autumnal” it remains.

We tend to see as special the works created by great artists in the autumnal phase of their careers. We note the valedictory quality, say, in the late works of Mozart, and the visionary quality of those of Beethoven, as if a full life to look back on had given them the fullest understanding of what that life meant, and a closeness to death mystical insights into what may lie beyond. In most cases, we are mistaken: Mozart died at only 35, after all, and Beethoven at 58, and it is doubtful whether either knew themselves to be in their autumnal phase. And this is not even to mention those great artists whose creativity had burnt out long before they had approached the autumns of their lives (Wordsworth is perhaps the most egregious example of this).

But sometimes, there are indeed cases where the artists know themselves to be in the autumn of their lives, and produce works to which, for want of a vocabulary adequate to the purpose, we apply such vague terms as “mystical” or “spiritual”; or they look back upon the life that they know they must shortly leave, and produce works that are a sort of summing up.

One such work is Verdi’s opera Falstaff, a piece that has recently been much on my mind and on my CD player. Premiered in 1893, it was, Verdi must have known, finally and most definitely his last work. True, he had announced his retirement before on several occasions, and had made more comebacks even than Frank Sinatra, but Verdi was in his eightieth year by the time of Falstaff’s premiere: no more encores – this was the final final curtain.

The story of how the aged Verdi came in touch with the brilliant young poet Arrigo Boito (and who was no mean composer himself); how Verdi’s initial caginess gave way to admiration, and, eventually, to love; and how the two collaborated on the two great crowning glories of Verdi’s career, the Shakespearean operas Otello and Falstaff; is too well-known for me to relate. (Although that didn’t stop me relating just that in an earlier post.) When they started work on Otello, the story that Verdi was coming out of retirement to compose a new opera, and one that was based on an undisputedly great play by Verdi’s idol Shakespeare, was, in Italy, national news. The opera was a triumph – taking Shakespeare’s play as a starting point for something startlingly new, and matching, to my mind, the greatness of its inspiration.

Verdi was then 73. Surely, now, it was time to retire. But no Boito had other ideas. Verdi had, after all, never written a comic opera. His very first opera, yes, but that was decades ago, it had flopped, and, despite the celebrity status Verdi had attained since, it had never even been revived. No, that doesn’t count. Even Wagner had written a great comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: do we really want posterity to say that Wagner had composed a great comic work, and that Verdi hadn’t? Or, worse, couldn’t?

I personally think that it was only when Verdi saw the quality of the libretto Boito was producing that he fully committed himself to the project. The main plot was taken from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with (inevitably given this was opera rather than a straight drama) many of the plot complications ironed out; but it was enriched with passages derived from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, and also with elements from Boito’s and Verdi’s own native Italian culture (for instance, the solo Fenton sings in the final scene, with the final line completed by Nanetta, is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet). Add to all that Boito’s own genius. Libretti are, traditionally, not meant to be anything much more than something for the composer to work on, but such was the delight Boito took in his own language, and such was his skill in making that language obey his call (a skill that I, a non-Italian speaker, can appreciate only second hand when I read analyses of it), that the libretto, even without the music, is utterly exquisite. Verdi knew that if the work was to be known as a Verdi-Boito collaboration rather than a masterpiece by Boito with some music by Verdi, he would, tired and aged as he was, have to be at his very best. It was a challenge he was glad to take up. Before he met with Boito, Verdi was constantly giving his librettists detailed instructions on how he wanted to libretto to go, even down to details as to what the rhythms should be, what words were to be used, and so on: and now, in his old age, he found himself working with libretti that were works of art in their own right.

Unlike Othello, the previous Shakespeare play Verdi and Boito had tackled, The Merry Wives of Windsor isn’t usually regarded amongst Shakespeare’s finest plays. Many even find it rather disappointing. Shakespeare had taken Falstaff, one of his greatest creations, from the Henry IV plays, and had stripped from him everything that had made him so memorable: here, he is nothing more than a comic buffoon. The plot, such as it is, is no more than a rumbustious situation comedy – at times, a farce. All this is true enough, but it seems to me that if we stop expecting it to be something it never set out to be, and accept it as the riotous farce it is, it is all very enjoyable. Boito added depth to the text partly by additions from other sources (mainly the Henry IV plays), and partly by his own linguistic exuberance. And Verdi, of course, set it to music. And what music!

And yet, Falstaff occupies a rather uneasy position within the Verdi canon. There are many otherwise dedicated Verdians who love Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, who find themselves transfixed by Simon Boccanegra or by Don Carlos, but who, often by their own admission, don’t quite “get” Falstaff. Some go as far as to say they dislike it. And, conversely, there are also those who generally disparage Verdi, but who hold up the two operas he created with Boito (along with, sometimes, the Requiem Mass) as works where, unlike the inferior stuff he had produced earlier, Verdi really did achieve great heights. (This latter group sometimes rubs it in by claiming that these late works of Verdi achieve heights that the earlier works hadn’t because Verdi had, by that stage, learnt from Wagner.) Needless to say, I don’t accept either position. But it is true to say, I think, that these last two operas do indeed stand apart somewhat from Verdi’s earlier work, and not merely by virtue of having superior libretti.

To try to understand why Falstaff often fails to capture the hearts and minds of so many fans of Verdi, I think back to when I first heard this opera – nearly forty years ago now – and, largely innocent of musical sophistication, found myself confused. Where are the tunes? I wondered. No sooner does any semblance of a tune get started, it disappears. Where is the continuity? In the second act, the two young lovers, Fenton and Nanetta, sing a gorgeous love song, but, goddammit Giuseppe, why don’t we get to hear this properly? Why overlay this lovely romantic song with a whole lot of other tuneless voices going about their allegedly comic business?

Something such as Aida, say, with its spectacles and its glorious array of tunes, I could hear through and enjoy, but this took some time. It was some time before I realised that the fast, mercurial nature of the piece – each little wisp of a tune giving way to the next one before it is allowed time to settle – is the essence of the whole thing. It is almost as if Verdi had so many musical ideas teeming inside his head, he had to get them all out in this single work which, whatever ideas Boito may have for even further collaboration, would be, finally and definitely, his last. And as for that gorgeous romantic tune of the young lovers getting overlaid with the allegedly comic business, it is that overlaying itself that is funny. All that used to frustrate me now makes me smile. And laugh.

And that orchestra! In Luisa Miller or Il Trovatore – great works both: don’t listen to what the anti-Verdi camp tells you! – the orchestra was there primarily to support the singers. Here, the orchestral writing is far more sophisticated: the colour of the orchestral sound is constantly changing, from moment to moment, commenting on the action, counterpointing the singers with their own little scraps of melody that disappear almost as soon as they’re heard, forever giving way to new musical ideas; and it laughs and chatters away, constantly delighting the ear with its vitality and energy and wit, and its seemingly infinite variety and invention.

In case you haven’t got the idea yet, I love this opera. It is very dear to me. Every time I hear it, or every time that music plays in my inner ear, I find a smile spreading across my face. For, from this opera, all darkness is banished. It is reasonable to wonder, I think, to what extent a comic work can afford to banish the darkness in our lives, and claim still to depict our lives truthfully. I think the answer is that no single work of art, no matter how profound or how wide its scope, could hope to address all aspects of our existence, and that it is perfectly legitimate, therefore, to focus on the joys of living rather than on the sorrows. It is not, after all, that Verdi has not known the sorrows: his own life had certainly not been free from grief and personal tragedy. In his past works, he has expressed, sometimes with a searing intensity, the pain of loss, of parting, of loneliness. Indeed, the anguish expressed in his previous opera, Otello, is so searing that often it is difficult to listen to. Verdi knew about all that. But that kind of thing is not his focus here.

There is, though, one point where the music comes close to the tragic. Ford wrongly suspects his wife of infidelity, and is given a monologue that comes dangerously close to Otello territory. Of course, the jealousy is unfounded, but the jealousy in Otello, too, was unfounded. Verdi could easily have presented this scene ironically, but he doesn’t: he allows us to feel Ford’s torment. The only reason it doesn’t unbalance the work is that this passage is placed in the context of comedy, and we know, therefore, that there cannot be to this drama an Otello-like ending. But Ford’s torment is real enough, and Verdi knows better than to mock it: he gives it its full weight. However, at the end of Ford’s monologue, something wonderful happens: Falstaff, on his way (as he thinks) to an assignment with Ford’s wife, enters wearing his gladrags, and the orchestra, that had been as grave and as solemn as it had ever been in any of Verdi’s earlier operas, bursts all of sudden into the broadest of grins. The tragic potential is not dismissed: it is, instead, placed into a comic context – a context that reminds us just how damn silly we all are, really. As the ensemble at the very end of the work (composed in the form of that most academic of musical forms – a fugue) reminds us, “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – the whole world’s a joke! Best not take ourselves too seriously.

For me, Falstaff ranks with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as the greatest of all comic operas. Or even, perhaps, insofar as the concept of “greatest” is at all meaningful in this context, the greatest of all operas. Some might suggest Rossini – Il Barbiere di Siviglia, say; or Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. I’m not really much in sympathy with either, but far be it from me to rain – as the toned-down version has it – on anyone’s parade. Let’s just say they’re not really my thing, and leave it there. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is also a strong contender, but, for all its glories, it does have its longueurs. For me, when it comes to comic opera, it’s Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Verdi’s Falstaff that rule supreme.

Mozart’s opera takes us to a feudal estate, where the Count, though not a bad man, has been corrupted by the power he wields; and he uses that power tyrannically, subduing both his servants, and also his wife. Not, perhaps, the most obvious scenario for comedy, but there’s comic business a -plenty; and it all ends with a glimpse of Heaven. Not the Heaven promised us in the other world – comedy isn’t generally very interested in the other world – but in this one, proceeding as it does not from divine forgiveness, but from human.

In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Hans Sachs, middle-aged, a widower, and lonely, comes to the understanding that it is not for him to stand in the way of youth, and that he must renounce his own desires to ease their way. It is not an easy understanding to come to terms with: indeed, it is painful; but in this wisdom, painful though it may be, lies joy.

Falstaff is the only one of these three composed in the autumnal years of the composer’s life, and yes, it is a sort of “summing up”: Verdi here is looking back on life. But he looks back with no hint of anger or of bitterness, no angst, nor even sorrow or regret: rather than look back on spring and summer through melancholy autumnal mists, he re-creates, with a quite miraculous immediacy, the youthful exuberance of spring, the joy of summer. The next world? Pah! No time for that sort of thing here. There’s enough to delight in in this world. And Verdi expresses his delight in this world, in this life, and his gratitude for having been allowed to be part of it, without the slightest hint of sanctimony or of false piety. Falstaff is the least autumnal of all autumnal works.

“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.