Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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 of are 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 them 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 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.

Strauss on my mind

I’ve had Strauss on the mind lately. Richard Strauss, that is, not Johann the Waltz King – although, to judge from the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, Richard could have gone in that direction had he so wanted.

It all started a few weeks ago, when I found out that I would be working for a couple of weeks in offices in central London. So, naturally, I looked to see what was on in London in the evenings during those two weeks. And I found, to my delight, that the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, was giving over a few days a series of three concerts of Strauss and Mozart. So I booked myself for all three of them. I mean, it would have been churlish not to.

Strauss has a bit of an odd reputation. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Mahler, Strauss’ contemporary, who was the true genius, pouring out his tortured soul in works of emotional profundity and spiritual intensity, while Strauss was merely a showman, who cared more for effect rather than for substance, who often strayed into the crude and the vulgar – a sort of musical Barnum and Bailey. While I have no doubt at all about the stature of Mahler, I have never been at all happy with such an appraisal of Strauss. Yes, he was a showman, he could be crude and vulgar, and, yes, there are many works of his in which showmanship takes precedence over substance. But this is by no means the whole story. In the first place, showmanship need not preclude depth, or even artistic integrity; and in the second place, the composer of Elektra and of Metamorphosen deserves to be taken seriously – every bit as seriously, to my mind, as the unremittingly serious Mahler.

The three concerts included what Chailly has described as Strauss’ “core” tone poems, plus the late work Metamorphosen. Interestingly, Chailly does not include Don Quixote among this “core”, insisting that it was conceived as a set of orchestral variations rather than as a tone poem. And neither does he include the Alpine Symphony, a work which probably does lend credence to Strauss’ reputation of being a showman rather than a serious artist. Even some of the “core” works don’t quite, perhaps, dispel that notion – but the boundary between artistry and craftsmanship seems to me a very blurred one at best. And anyone who says something such as Ein Heldenleben is not a supremely beautiful and moving piece of music is a bounder and a cad, and can meet me afterwards in the car park outside.

Ein HeldenlebenA Hero’s Life – formed the second half of the first of the three concerts. In the first half, we had one of Strauss’ earliest masterpieces – the gloriously ardent and swaggering Don Juan. The orchestra played superbly: the sound was mellow, but deceptively so, as, at the dramatic climaxes, it packed a tremendous punch; but even at its most dramatic, the sound never lost its refinement, never became harsh. And no matter how thick the orchestral texture may be, the sound was never congested: there was always a sense of space around the various strands of the music.

Sibelius had once commented that Strauss provided his listeners with rich and exotic cocktails, whereas he gave the listener pure spring water. We need spring water as well, of course: going straight from one rich and exotic cocktail to another can become a bit too much. Here, the spring water was provided not by Sibelius, but by Mozart, a composer who was very close to Strauss’ heart. Between Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the Gewandhaus Orchestra accompanied Maria João Pires in a performance of Mozart’s 27th piano concerto. It is a work often described as being a late Mozart work, and indeed it is – although we should keep in mind that Mozart was only 35 when he composed it, and that the works Strauss had composed at that age are regarded as his early works. It is a work of ethereal beauty: there seems something quite other-worldly about it. Gone is the exuberance and the drama of Mozart’s earlier piano concertos: where, previously, the second group of themes had contrasted dramatically with the first, here, they seem to complement each other. The music does indeed dance along gracefully, but the brilliance of Mozart’s dancing in his earlier works seems to have vanished, leaving behind a ghost of its former self. Huxley had once commented that Mozart’s music is saddest when it seems to be happy, but never has the happy surface been quite so transparent as it is here, revealing the depths below. It is a work that smiles, and yet breaks the heart, and I don’t think I could hope to hear it performed better than I did here. There is a passage in the first movement development section that is particularly close to my heart: the key changes come so frequently and so quickly, that it seems to give an impression of drifting between keys: I know of no other music quite like this.

After the interval, we were in a different world entirely: Ein HeldelbenA Hero’s Life. In many respects, it’s a work of utter megalomania: in the section labelled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss gives us a collage of themes from his own earlier pieces, leaving us in no doubt as to who the hero of the title is. But I think that to criticise the work on this ground is to miss the humour: whenever I hear this piece, I seem to see a twinkle in Strauss’ eye, a wink and a nudge. Similarly in the second section of the work, which depicts the hero’s enemies: it’s a glorious cacophony of winds, suggesting to absolute perfection a band of snivelling idiots. One may ask what is so very heroic about defeating such a miserable bunch, but once again, this is to miss the humour of the thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but break into a broad grin when I hear this.
And then, there is the love scene. The hero’s companion is depicted by a solo violin, and the hero, in the form of the orchestra, woos her ardently; but she is no doormat merely to do the hero’s bidding. Time after time, the violin solo seems to be responding to the hero’s amorous overtures, merely to go off into intricate cadenzas and arabesques: this is a companion who is very much her own person, and with her own mind, who will respond to the hero as and when she wants to, in her own time, and in her own way. And when she finally does, we have a love scene like no other in music: Strauss gives us sounds so gorgeous, and so opulent and sensual, that it’s almost indecent.

Then comes the battle scene, in which the hero defeats his enemies. This is a section that could come over as overblown – but in this performance, it was genuinely thrilling. The orchestra of about a hundred or so players, including five percussionists (yes, five – I counted ‘em!) went at it hammer and tongs, and yet, somehow, they never compromised the beauty of tone. It was magnificent. And afterwards, the enemies vanquished, we move into the hero’s works of peace – a glorious collage of themes of Strauss’ earlier works. In Don Juan, there had been a thrilling moment when a swaggering horn fanfare had sounded over the massed orchestra: we had heard this only earlier that evening; well, since that moment was so wonderful, Strauss thought he would repeat it again in Ein Heldenleben: and no, it doesn’t suffer from the repetition – it remained just as thrilling.

How does one finish a work such as this? Strauss decided not to pile Pelion on Ossa (or is that the other way round?) – after all the thrills and spills, he opts for a quiet ending, as the hero, having achieved all that could be achieved, renounces worldly things. The music is extraordinarily moving and beautiful. Showmanship? Perhaps. Who cares?

The second concert was not really in the class of the first: this was nothing to do with the playing or the conducting, but because the programme wasn’t as good. It started with Strauss’ early tone poem Macbeth, and interesting though it was to hear this played live, it isn’t a patch on Don Juan, the opening piece in the first concert. The Mozart piece was the 3rd violin concerto, and, lovely though it is, and beautifully played as it was by Christian Tetzlaff, it is not in the same league as Mozart’s last piano concerto. After the interval, we had Also Sprach Zarathustra, and again, I couldn’t help wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this: isn’t the very idea of setting Nietzsche’s philosophy to music a bit of a joke? Once again, I couldn’t help seeing a twinkle in Strauss’ eye. And similarly with the section in which the Übermensch dances: what sort of music would an Übermensch dance to? Strauss makes him dance to a Viennese waltz, and, although the rest of the audience didn’t seem to find this particularly funny, I thought it was hilarious. The piece also has the very famous opening, of course; and the ending too is very beautiful. But for all this, it seems to me somewhat incoherent: despite all the lovely moments and beautiful passages, there is much that seemed to me a bit dull and uninspired. It was all great fun, I suppose, but whereas Ein Heldenleben had been more than just fun, this, I don’t think, was. Once again, this is not a comment on the performance, but on the music itself: there is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was a very great composer … but it’s fair to say, I think, that he was not always great.

For the third and last concert, there can be no doubt at all: it was, from beginning to end, utterly magnificent. It started with the magnificent Tod und VerklärungDeath and Transfiguration; the final section of this work, representing the transfiguration of the soul after death (or some such), is a gloriously opulent passage even by Strauss’ standards; my expectations were high, and the orchestra did not disappoint. After that came another of Mozart’s late masterpieces – the clarinet concerto. I must admit that, immediately after the ending of Tod und Verklärung, my ears took a bit of time to adjust to Mozart’s very different sound world, but once they did, it was utterly irresistible. The soloist, Martin Fröst, shaped and coloured each phrase exquisitely, and as we moved into the interval we were left wondering how anything could possibly come after this and not seem an anti-climax.

What came afterwards was Metamorphosen, one of my personal favourite works by any composer. It is a piece for 23 strings, an unbroken span of some half hour or so; it was composed by Strauss in his eighties in the years after the end of the Second World War, and it is a lament for the depths into which the culture had sunk in which Strauss had been steeped. Now, Strauss’ relationship with Nazism remains controversial: from what I can work out, he was, personally, a very decent and generous man, without any hint at all of racism or of anti-Semitism; but the unfortunate fact remains that, in his admittedly old age, Strauss did allow himself to be wheeled on by the Nazis as the great representative of the German Musical Culture. It was naïveté on Strauss’ part rather than anything else, and while such naïveté cannot be anything other than reprehensible, to label Strauss a Nazi, as some have done, does seem grossly unfair. But, be that as it may, Metamoprphosen is a great masterpiece. I went through a phase in my early twenties – not, for various reasons, the most cheerful years of my life – when I used to listen almost obsessively to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, and to this: its deep gloom and desolation, rising to uninhibited passion before subsiding once again, has long resonated with me, and listening to it live, and played and shaped so beautifully, was for me a particularly fulfilling experience.

The concert could have ended here, but they obviously wanted to end with a bang: so, to finish off, we had the hugely witty and exuberant Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’ musical depiction of the prankster from Germanic folklore. It is a tremendous orchestral scherzo, and it was played with great verve and gusto: it brought the house down.

So, after all that … was Strauss a great musical genius, or just a showman? I incline towards the first option – how could the composer of Metamorphosen be anything but a genius? – but frankly, I don’t know that I care much. Genius or showman, this is music that I love, and I wouldn’t be without it. And that’s all that really matters.

Starting again on “Don Quixote”

There was a time when virtually everything I read, I read for the first time. Those were the years of heady discovery, when I would survey all that I had yet to read, and determine that I would conquer, if not all, at least as much as I possibly could. It could be said, with some justice, that I was not so much a reader as a train-spotter, delighting myself by ticking off newly spotted trains on my list.

I was, of course, young then, but even in my youth, I soon became drawn to re-reading certain books – partly because I wanted to enter again those fictional worlds that had so enchanted me, and more importantly because I realised that so much of what I had already read I had not adequately taken in. Sometimes, this realisation would strike me even as I was reading the work: I could quite often sense, though not quite grasp, powerful undercurrents in what I was reading, and I’d know that I needed time for the work to sink into my consciousness; I’d know I needed to revisit. And now, with more years of reading behind me than I could possibly look forward to ahead, I find myself at a stage when the majority of what I read I have read before. I have always known, of course, that in my pursuit of literary excellence, I would never, as Alexander had done, run out of new worlds to conquer; but that realisation no longer spurs me, as it once had done, to conquer as many worlds as I possibly could: I find myself less enchanted now with the idea of conquest. What I want now is to understand as much as I can.

So now, Don Quixote. It is my fourth reading, but in some ways, it is my first: this fourth reading is my first with the mindset I now have. All books need the reader’s response to complete them, and, inevitably, my response now will be different from what it had been before.

And the translation I am reading is different also: it is John Rutherford’s version, published by Penguin Classics, and is one of a triumvirate of recent translations (the other two being by Edith Grossman and by Tom Lathrop) that have all garnered praise both for their accuracy, and for their liveliness and wit.

The first time I read Don Quixote, I was fourteen. I read the older Penguin Classics version, translated by J. M. Cohen. I found out later that this version had a reputation for being very scholarly and accurate, but a bit dull and lifeless. Certainly, “dull and lifeless” would have been at the time my own appraisal of the book, but whether this was due to the translation, or my being, as I suspect, too young to take in such a book, I don’t think I am in a position to say. My second reading came in my late 20s, when, having read a glowing recommendation of it in The Observer by the late Anthony Burgess, I excitedly purchased a re-issue of a translation made in the eighteenth century by Tobias Smollett (who, of course, was a fine novelist in his own right). Smollett’s version was everything Cohen’s wasn’t: it was colourful, lively, and very, very funny. Perhaps inevitably, Smollett had cast it in the mould of his own times: in his hands, it became an eighteenth century picaresque novel, of the kind Smollett himself used to write. It was raucous and energetic, but, many opined, it lacked the qualities of inwardness and of nobility, and the melancholy of unfulfilled and unfulfillable aspiration that had led Dostoyevsky to describe this as the “saddest of all novels”. Further, standards of translation were looser then than they are now: Smollett’s version was not always, so I’m told, the most accurate.

But so taken was I with the qualities this version possessed, I was not so concerned with those that it didn’t. So when I tackled the book again in my early 40s, it was Smollett’s version again that I went for. But now, with the new translations so widely acclaimed and so easily available, there seems no reason to put off a fourth reading. It has been about fourteen years since I last read this book: I seem to encounter it every fourteen or so years, so now is as good a time as any. Especially as so much of my reading these days is of literature written in the times of Shakespeare.

So, how should I approach this book now? It is not possible to discard all the baggage that comes with a work such as this: it is not possible, however much one tries, to put out of one’s mind what one has already heard and read. That Don Quixote is at the same time insane, in that he mistakes windmills for giants and sheep for armies, and also sane, for he can perceive in life a rare beauty that others cannot; that Sancho Panza is the ideal complement to Don Quixote because he is down-to-earth and can see the windmills and the sheep for what they are; that the novel is thus both sad and funny at one and the same time; and so on and so forth – all truisms that anyone could spout about the book without even having read a single page. Is it possible, I wonder, to put this out of my mind when reading, so I can approach it fresh? No, I don’t think it is. Inevitably, my view of Don Quixote – or of The Iliad, or of Hamlet, or of Faust, or of Anna Karenina, or of any of those books that have so exercised our collective consciousness over the centuries – is a view seen through the lens of past readers and commentators.

Well, I have started it now. And soon, I shall be posting here, no doubt, comments on it, which, since it is unlikely that I can think of anything to say about this book that has not already been said, are likely to be mere re-creations of comments that had been made before. At least in this way I can out-Borges Borges, for Borges’ Pierre Menard had merely re-written Don Quixote, whereas I, if I go about this correctly, have the opportunity of re-writing its critical commentary.

So now, in my armchair at weekends, in bed at night, on commuter trains while commuting, I find myself transported into the world of the great Don Quixote and his loving squire Sancho Panza – for, amongst other things, Don Quixote is also a great love story: rarely have two characters loved each other to the extent that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza love each other.

And sometimes, when I am not reading, I find myself listening to recordings of Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem Don Quixote. And when I do, I cannot help thinking that, with all due respect to John Rutherford, to Edith Grossman, and to Tom Lathrop, and, indeed, to all others who have attempted this monumental task of translating Cervantes’ novel, it is Rchard Strauss’ translation of Cervantes’ novel into a musical form may well be the greatest translation of them all.

Winter’s journeys

I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but followed the arts!

– From “Twelfth Night”, Act 1, Scene 3

Lacking both linguistic skills, and any real knowledge or understanding of how music works, I really am not the right person to write about lieder – the form where, more than any other, words and music merge.

For someone who writes a blog devoted mainly to literary matters, I am frequently shamed by my lack of linguistic skills. Even my mother tongue, Bengali, I can read with confidence only with a Bengali-English dictionary within easy reach. French I can read up to a point, but that point is well short of the stage where I can enjoy its literature; and I am easily lost when the language is spoken at conversational speed. The other European languages which I wish I knew in order to read their literatures – German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian (there’s Ibsen), and, perhaps above all, Russian, I am ignorant of. And as for the classical languages, I once again draw a blank. The remedy to all this is obviously in my hands: learn those languages, dammit! Well, maybe that is something I can do once I am retired: it is, for various reasons, not for now.

On top of my lack of linguistic skills, there’s my lack of understanding of matters musical. Oh, I can pen easily enough descriptions of what certain works of music make me feel, but as soon as we turn to anything resembling analysis – you know, all that stuff about harmony or counterpoint or whatever – I find it impossible even to feign some understanding. So, these two great shortcomings on my part – my lack of linguistic skills, and my lack of understanding of how music works – should really mean that I am doubly unqualified to write anything on lieder, German art songs, where so much of the artistry resides in the conjunction of the language and the music – in the way the two come together. But I am nonetheless determined, on the grounds that this is after all my blog and I can therefore write about what I want, to rush in where I really should fear to tread: for this blog was intended to give me a platform to sound off about matters on which I feel passionately, and there is little I feel more passionately than Schubert’s Winterreise, the Winter’s Journey. This cycle of twenty-four songs has haunted my mind for a great many years now, and even though I do not know German, I have followed it so many times with both the original German text and with the translation, the linguistic barrier really does not seem that great. No doubt the work would make an even greater impact on me if I did know German, but I really cannot imagine any impact greater than the one it makes on me even without that knowledge.

The original poems are by Wilhelm Müller. Not a name as well-known as, say, Goethe or Heine or Schiller, but, I am reliably informed, a poet more than merely competent. I am obviously not qualified to judge these works as poems; however, given how inextricably these poems are now linked with Schubert’s music, I’d imagine that even those who know the German language well may find it difficult to judge the quality of these works purely as literary works. But these considerations need not detain us here: whatever the relative contributions of Müller and of Schubert to the finished song cycle, we may acknowledge the searing impact the cycle never fails to make. I have heard it live a few times – the most recent hearing last year at the Wigmore Hall, where we made the unlikeliest of family outings to hear baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake give a quite stunning performance – and I have more recordings of the piece than may seem reasonable to any sane mind. But Winterreise is not about sanity: it is about obsession, and it generates amongst its admirers an obsession perhaps comparable to the one it depicts. There are as many ways of interpreting these songs as there are musicians capable of performing them, and each new performance, each new recording, is a new venture into these still obscure and mysterious reaches of the mind.

Schubert re-arranged the order of the songs. Thus, we get from the beginning a picture of deep winter– the very first song tells of “road shrouded in snow”, and subsequent songs tell us of the ice, the frozen river and so on – while, as late as the sixteenth song in the cycle, we are given an autumnal picture of leaves falling from the not-yet-bare branches. But this is a minor consideration: what matters is the emotional continuity of the work – a work which opens in darkness, and moves on steadily, step by trudging step, into a darkness even more profound and all-encompassing, and, possibly, greater even than the darkness that Müller had envisaged. The story, such as it is, is much the same as that of Schubert’s earlier song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (also set to poems by Wilhelm Müller): boy, rejected by girl, loses the will to live and succumbs to thoughts of death. This is not in itself, perhaps, a particularly interesting story; indeed, in its outlines, the story may even seem clichéd and hackneyed: the sorrows of a jilted lover possibly form the most common theme of songs of all ages and in all cultures. But in both these cycles, this old, old story is mysteriously transformed. And, despite apparent similarities, the two cycles are markedly different. In Die Schöne Müllerin, we witness joy transformed into despair, but Winterreise is even darker: here, we have no direct depiction of joy: despair is there from the beginning – the repeated piano chords opening the first song anticipating the weary trudge the protagonist later makes, longing no longer for his lost love, but only for death. Whatever joy there is in Winterreise is but joy remembered – remembered with pain, and with bitterness. And unlike Die Schöne Müllerin, Winterreise does not end with death: that, indeed, is part of the tragedy. Even death, so devoutly wished for, is denied the protagonist. Instead of death, we find at the end something even more strange, even more enigmatic. And the whole thing seems somehow to transcend the mere sorrows of the jilted lover: lovers, after all, are frequently jilted, but few, one imagines, alienate themselves so utterly from the rest of mankind, and wander through the unpeopled bleakness of the winter landscape, without rest and seeking rest, seeking only extinction.

Schubert’s music takes us into very extreme states of mind. We begin to wonder after a while if the protagonist of this cycle, the singer of these songs, is entirely sane. To begin with, he longs for those earthly delights that he feels can never be his – not merely his lost love, but human companionship, the warmth and comfort of the sleeping villagers who will never know his despair. He dreams of spring, but the only flowers he can see are those painted on window panes by the frost and ice. This may all seem like the self-dramatising of adolescence, but Schubert’s music tells us otherwise: whatever we may feel on reading the words alone, any knowing smile is wiped off our faces by the almost unbearable intensity of the music, depicting a seemingly endless, steady trudge through the snow and ice. The singer sees a crow following him, and imagines the crow waiting for him to die so it can then pick at his body: “let me at last see constancy even to the grave,” he reflects. He begins to hallucinate: a “friendly light” seems to dance before him, and he is eager to follow, even though he knows this is but an illusion.

In the last five songs, we enter into even deeper realms of darkness. He sees signposts, pointing to various towns and villages; he describes himself as “ohne Ruh’ and suche ‘Ruh” – without rest, and seeking rest (Schubert sets this line to the most passionate of musical lines); but then, for the last stanza, the passion subsides into a deeply sinister monotone: he can see but a single signpost now, possibly a signpost of the mind, which points him to a road he must travel, and from which none has returned.

“Der Wegweiser”, sung by Christoph Prégardien (tenor), with Andreas Staier (fortepiano)

The next song is called “Das Wirthaus” – The Inn – but this inn is a graveyard. Here, he lies down, hoping never to wake; but even here death is denied him: even this inn turns him away. The next song is manic – a furious, hysterical outburst that ends with the lines “If there is no God on earth, we ourselves are gods!” And in the penultimate song, he sees three suns in the sky: he wishes for all three suns to set, as “I would feel better in the darkness”. And now, having taken us into the heart of madness and of hysteria, we have the enigmatic final song, where the singer sees an old organ-grinder, who, starving, frozen, barefoot on the ice, ignored by all and seemingly oblivious to the dogs snarling at him, plays as best he can:

And he lets it all go by, everything as it will…

And the protagonist finishes this mighty piece with lines of the utmost tenderness and humility:

Strange old man, should I go with you?
Will you turn your organ to my songs?

What can this mean? What does this strange old man symbolise? To say that he symbolises Death seems to me too pat an answer: to see the protagonist finally seeing Death in the form of an old man seems too simplistic a solution to the complex of feelings and emotions Schubert’s music inspires in us at this point. Could this old man be, perhaps, a projection of the protagonist himself into the future? After all the anger, the bitterness, the madness and the hallucinating, can he be finally resigned merely to dumb, uncomplaining endurance? Perhaps. I personally prefer to see the old hurdy-gurdy man not as a symbol at all, but simply as no more than what he is – an old man, starving and frozen, inured almost to pain and to suffering. And for the first time in the entire cycle, right at the very end, the singer feels kinship with a fellow human being, and compassion for someone other than himself. I find it hard not to be reminded of that scene in King Lear:

Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold? I am cold myself.

I don’t know whether Müller’s poetry on its own can take us into the realms of King Lear, but combined with Schubert’s music, it does. And whatever perverse element in me urges me to return repeatedly to Shakespeare’s most terrible play urges me to return also to this most visionary of works. I have made countless winter’s journeys over the years.

[The English translations of these songs are taken from the translations by Mari Pračkauskas, which appear in the liner notes of the recording of Winterreise by Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel, on the Decca label.]