Posts Tagged ‘wagner’

“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.


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.


Future reading plans: Wagner, Ibsen, “The Mahabharata”, and other matters

I am not at all sure why I make plans for reading. I never stick to them anyway. Something always pops along that takes my fancy, and, like the best laid schemes of mice and men, all my calculations gang aft agley. Which reminds me: I have never actually bothered looking up what “aft agley” literally means. But whatever it means, that’s where my best-laid schemes invariably gang.

I realise also that the time for making plans is at the start of a new year, but I have always thought that a bad custom, as, quite apart from anything else, the gentle inebriation that is so salient a feature of the festive season is hardly conducive to sensible planning: whatever plans are made at such a time are likely to gang very much aft agley much more quickly than plans made in a more sober frame of mind.

In any case, some reading plans do need to be made now. I have just finished La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas (of which more in a later post) – a deeply impressive novel, but, at seven hundred and more pages of sight-destroyingly small print, it took me over three months to read. (I never was a particularly fast reader, and I seem to be slowing up in my old age.) Now that it is finished, I can’t help but feel a sense of freedom. This is not to disparage Alas’ novel, which really is magnificent, but, rather like the ageing roué whose eyes wander even while engaged in a fulfilling monogamous relationship, I couldn’t help looking longingly at all those unread titles, both on my bookshelf and in bookshops, as well as at various old flames whose charms I find myself keen to revisit.

Not that the relationship with La Regenta had been strictly monogamous: there were, as ever, clandestine assignations with various poems and short stories, and, between the two parts of the Alas’ novel, a serious fling with Tony Harrison’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (of which, too, there will be more in a later post). And now that I have parted company with La Regenta, I am currently engrossed in Roger Scruton’s new book on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which, despite its somewhat cheesy title (The Ring of Truth – whose bright idea was that?), is a fascinating read. I am not sure yet whether I should write a post on this: the themes of the Ring Cycle, and Scruton’s interpretations of them, though lucidly explicated, are so complex, and lead to so many areas of thought that are to me relatively new, that I don’t know I could express very much in a post beyond merely a partial understanding. But perhaps it’s worth recording even my puzzlement: sometimes, the very act of posing questions to which I do not know the answers can lead to a better understanding.

One may certainly argue that, like any major work of art, the Ring Cycle, at least to an extent, is intended to puzzle: life, after all, is puzzling, and any work of art that seeks to address life seriously has to convey something of its profound mysteries. One understands such works not by plucking out the heart of their mysteries – even if such a thing were to be possible – but, rather, by coming to some sort of understanding of, and a settlement with, the nature of the mysteries depicted. As I read about the profound mysteries addressed by Wagner, I cannot help but make connections. The connections with The Oresteia are obvious: I have long been aware of (though I haven’t yet read) Michael Ewans’ thesis (referred to in Scruton’s book) that the Ring Cycle is a sort of inverted Oresteia – that where The Oresteia consists of three tragic dramas followed by a satyr play (now lost), the Ring Cycle consists of a satyr play followed by three tragic dramas; and where Aeschylus depicts the emergence of civic society and the concept of law from the primeval murk of our unreasoning instincts, Wagner depicts the very fabric of law and of civic society collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. (It’s all very complex, and perhaps I should allow these ideas to settle in my mind for a while before exhibiting my ignorance and lack of understanding for all to see on this blog.) And there are two other connections as well that Scruton doesn’t mention, but which, since my own mind is already saturated with certain things, I could not help making. One was with the novels of Dostoyevsky; the other, with the plays of Ibsen.

Now, Dostoyevsky I have waffled about a few times on this blog, but, in all the six and more years this blog has been going, I have rarely touched on Ibsen. I am not sure why, since Ibsen is within the foremost circle of writers whom I most value. Not his early plays, which are conventional and rather stiff and boring historic dramas, and which would be utterly forgotten now had he not gone on to write greater stuff; but, say, from The Pretenders onwards. The Pretenders is the last and by far the best of those early plays, and, while I don’t think it matches some other historic dramas such as, say, Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, it is, nonetheless, a play not unworthy of a great dramatist. But then, something strange happened. Ibsen, freed by a government grant from hack-work in the theatre, wrote two masterpieces – Brand, and Peer Gynt. Heaven only knows where these plays came from: nothing he had written earlier would have led one to believe that he was capable of this. These two plays were written to be read rather than performed – they are both way too long for a single evening in the theatre, and need to be cut for performance – but Ibsen seemed to have the theatre in his blood: even when not writing specifically for the stage, he couldn’t help but write works that were thrillingly theatrical. Despite some notable later attempts to revive verse drama (by Yeats and Eliot, for instance), these were the last great verse dramas. Things were changing, and Ibsen was at the forefront of these changes. But if these plays do indeed mark the end of verse drama (and I realise that some may disagree with my contention), then the genre died with a bang rather than a whimper: I personally do not think there has been drama so powerful since Shakespeare.

Then, curiously, Ibsen devoted several years of his life writing a very exotic two-part drama Emperor and Galilean, about the Byzantine emperor Julian the Apostate. Ibsen himself felt – at least at the time – that this was his most important work, and I have never been able to figure out whether this indeed is a key work in his oeuvre, or whether it is a mistake, an aberration – a wrong turning that he afterwards rectified. I really ned to revisit these plays, and read them carefully: they seem such an anomaly in the context of his other work – but it could be that I have not yet come to an adequate understanding of them.

But other things were brewing in Ibsen’s mind. And while these other things were brewing, Ibsen kept the pot boiling with a comparatively light work – the comedy The League of Youth. But then followed those twelve great prose dramas, from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, that Brian Johnstone – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – describes as “The Ibsen Cycle”. Ibsen himself, towards the end of his life, referred to these plays as a cycle, but it seems to me highly unlikely that they were initially conceived as such, and, other than these works being linked by similar themes, I cannot really detect much of a unity. But the thematic unities across these plays are themselves of interest, and, cycle or not, reading them in chronological order – and keeping in mind Brand and Peer Gynt, which are in many ways harbingers of these late plays (although they are much more than that also) – should, I think, be rewarding. For if we do regard these twelve plays as a single unified cycle (and I am prepared to be convinced that they are), then they may well challenge Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the most insanely ambitious artistic achievement of the nineteenth century.

So that is what I intend to do: over the course of next year, I shall read, in various translations, all the plays of Ibsen in chronological order, starting with The Pretenders, and hopefully, in the process, come to a better understanding of Ibsen’s developing artistic vision. And, of course, record my thoughts here for anyone who cares to read them. If, after all, this blog is primarily about those things that are dear to me, it seems crazy giving such short shrift to Ibsen.

But Ibsen is for next year. I have another scheme that I most certainly hope won’t gang aft agley, and which should keep me busy between now and the end of the year. I want to read The Mahabharata.

I don’t think there has ever been a time within the reaches of my memory when I haven’t been at least aware of the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata: growing up as I did in an Indian Hindu family, these are things that enter the bloodstream at a very early age. I remember the comic strip books I had retelling some of the stories from these two national epics: I was introduced them at so early an age that I did not even bat an eye when Draupadi simultaneously married five brothers. But these stories did not enter the bloodstream fully: when I was five years of age, I left India and came to Britain, and exchanged the stories from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata with Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Bible stories. Inevitably, a residue from early childhood remains, but I now want to come to a better understanding of all this. A few years ago, I read Ashia Sattar’s abridged translation of TheRamayana, and was surprised by the extent to which Valmiki’s original version deviated from the stories I had taken in. I suspect it will be much the same with The Mahabharata.

Not that I am going to read the whole thing. Unlike The Iliad or The Odyssey, The Mahabharata is not a unified work: Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger refers to it as a sort of Wikipedia of the ancient world, with various voices adding to it over time. What we have now is, effectively, a series of accretions overlaying whatever may originally have been the core, and, as is to be expected, not all the accretions are equally of interest – at least, not to a casual reader such as myself. Under the circumstances, abridged editions in which the wheat is sorted from the chaff by expert hands are to be welcomed rather than regretted. So, to this end, I have got myself the single volume edition in Penguin Classics, translated by John Smith (an appropriate name for the translator of a work created by anonymous writers); a much-acclaimed verse retelling by Carole Satyamurthi, published by Norton (if what Carole Satyamurthi has done for The Mahabharata is in any way comparable to what Christopher Logue did for The Iliad, it would certainly be worth pursuing); and, finally, W. J. Johnson’s translation of the eleventh book of The Mahabharata, published by Oxford University Press – one of the shortest, but, I gather, among the most significant books of the massive epic. I doubt I’ll ever be a scholar of The Mahabharata, but reading this books will, at least, acquaint me with one of the major works of world literature – one that should be, but isn’t quite, in my bloodstream.

But before I leap into all that, I may as well continue my Turgenev project, and not let that gang aft agley with all the other schemes. After my encounter with the massive La Regenta, a few novellas may not, perhaps, go amiss. First Love I read many years ago, and don’t remember very well; and Spring Torrents and King Lear of the Steppes I don’t know at all. So, the plan is as follows: once I’ve finished reading about the Ring Cycle, I’ll move on to the three Turgenev novellas, and then tackle The Mahabharata. And if that takes me to the end of this year, I can embark at the start of next year on my Ibsen project.

And, anyone who has stayed with my ramblings so far may be pleased to know, I shall record my thoughts here on this blog, both the worthy and the unworthy, the perspicacious and the downright idiotic. But before I do all that, I had perhaps best find out what “gang aft agley” actually means.

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.

Wagner’s “Parsifal”: some confused thoughts of a layman

It is not the least of the lunacies inflicted on us by the internet that everyone gets to pretend to be an expert on everything. Or, rather, that expertise is any matter is seen not to count: everyone’s opinion is equally valid and equally important. That certain opinions aren’t really opinions at all, but judgements based on knowledge and on understanding, matters not a jot. After years of finding myself annoyed by this, I decided to join what I couldn’t beat: hence this blog, where, on the basis that a cat may look at a king, I freely pontificate on all manners of things I know next to nothing about. True, I do admit to my ignorance, and have no pretence of being anything other than a layman, an amateur – a dilettante, even. But even if I didn’t admit to all this, I don’t see why I shouldn’t add my voice to the cacophony when other voices sometimes even less qualified than my own freely make themselves heard, and, indeed, often get paid for doing so. But that’s the modern world for you.

Now that’s done with, I can with a free conscience write about a work I really do not understand, despite having been acquainted with it now for some thirty years and more: Wagner’s Parsifal. In my previous post, I wrote about the apprehensions I had in going to see a cine-cast of it from the Metropolitan Opera; having now seen it, and still somewhat shaken by the experience, I feel I need to get something down in words on what I feel about it. Not a review of last night’s performance: there are those better qualified than I for that sort of thing. But rather, an attempt to articulate the various wild and whirling and frequently conflicting thoughts I have about this work, in the hope that in attempting to articulate, I may come across a clearer understanding of it myself.

Firstly, the plot. It is a commonplace, and, I think, a mistaken one, that operas invariably have silly plots, and that one should simply forget about the storyline and enjoy the glorious music instead. But that won’t do. Opera has its conventions, true; more accurately, different types of opera have different conventions. But within those conventions, the drama of opera has to be taken seriously, because the music is in service of that drama, and cannot, must not, be considered in isolation to it. Even with plots that may be silly outside the confines of opera, the music must be able to create a world – and not necessarily a realistic world – in which the drama may be communicated with conviction. If it cannot do this, the opera has failed in its most basic terms. But that is not so with Parsifal: whatever else it may be, it is an artistic triumph. And that being the case, we must take seriously its content.

Here, the problem is not so much that the plot is silly: it is, rather, that it cannot be adequately understood without, at the very least, some degree of sympathy with its religious content. The nature of the religious content, however, has been subject to much interpretation and controversy. And even ridicule. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to ridicule it here, especially given that in the secular age we live in, ridicule of religion is commonplace. But ridicule won’t help explain why I was so affected by the performance last night. If I wish to come to a better understanding of that, I need to put aside any cynicism I may have about religion, and try to understand, as best I can, what it is the opera communicates – what it is that I am reacting to.


So here, for what it’s worth, is the plot, which I will try to summarise without any snide comments that are all too easy to make. (And if you already know the plot, please feel free to skip this section.)

It’s a work about the mythical Holy Grail, but it’s not a search for the Grail: the Grail, symbolising, presumably, the presence of the Divine in our world, is already here. But its power to sustain is diminished. Amfortas, the King who rules over the Knights of the Grail, has sinned, and as a consequence, the Grail appears to be losing its potency. The sin was sexual in nature: in setting out to vanquish the evil Klingsor, Amfortas had allowed himself to be seduced by a beautiful temptress. This temptress was an instrument of Klingsor’s, and, while he had been in her embrace, Klingsor had stolen from him his spear – the sacred spear that had pierced Christ when on the cross. With this spear, Klingsor had wounded Amfortas, and the wound, a constant reminder of Amfortas’ sexual sin, and also of his neglect for that which was holy, now refuses to heal. This spear now in the possession of hands that are defiled, and the land ruled by Amfortas and the Knights of the Grail is consequently in decline; and Amfortas is in constant pain, both physical and spiritual.

Into this environment come two outsiders: a mysterious woman, Kundry, who, though seeking to serve, is despised by the knights, but to whom the saintly Gurnemanz shows compassion; and then, Parsifal himself, a lad who is a “fool” – a young man utterly bereft of education or of knowledge, ignorant even of his own name, living and acting merely by his instincts. Kundry knows about him: his mother had deliberately raised him to be ignorant, so he won’t be drawn into battle and killed as his father had been; but one day, the young Parsifal had seen soldiers pass the house, and, enchanted by the sight, had wandered with them away from home. Now, Kundry tells us, his mother is dead.

Parsifal, as he enters, has, in his ignorance, shot dead a swan. Gurnamanz reprimands him, but wonders whether this could be the “holy fool” promised in a prophesy as one who will restore to the Kingdom of the Grail that which has been lost. So he takes the lad to witness the ritual of the Grail. But it means nothing to Parsifal. He is no holy fool, Gurnemanz decides – just a fool.

In the second act, the music seethes and writhes with a sense of evil: we are in the realm of Klingsor. Gurnemanz had earlier told us about Klingsor: he had, in the past, attempted to join the Knights of the Grail, but had been refused because he had not been “pure”. (The subtitles last night said “pure in heart”, but Wagner’s libretto is uncompromising: “pure”, it says, without qualification. It should be noted, however, that if Wagner does indeed mean racial purity here, he does not say that either: we are free to provide our own definition of “purity”.) After the refusal to admit him, Klingsor, to rid himself of sexual desire, had castrated himself; and he had then acquired demonic magical powers. Now, we see him in his realm. He has under his power Kundry, whom he awakens from her sleep. It was indeed Kundry who had seduced Amfortas on that fateful day the sacred spear had been lost. Now, she is summoned, against her will, to seduce the young Parsifal, who is approaching.

Parsifal is still the fool, the innocent we had seen before. He is enchanted by the seductive warbling of the Flower-Maidens, whose singing we may find either sensual or sickly, depending on how sybaritic we are. Then, Kundry appears, and calls Parsifal by his name. She tells Parsifal, much to his distress, how his mother had died, heartbroken by the absence of her son. With Parsifal now emotionally subdued, Kundry gives him a more than motherly kiss. But the kiss has on Parsifal an electrifying effect: suddenly, he understands. He understands now what he had failed to understand when he had witnessed the ceremony of the Grail; he understands now the spiritual agony of Amfortas, and the need to restore to the Kingdom of the Grail the stolen spear. He understands also his own guilt in not having understood before; he understands his responsibility – both what he is responsible for, and also, what he is responsible to. Kundry’s further advances are resisted. As she becomes increasingly desperate, she reveals her past lives: in a past incarnation, she had seen Jesus carry the cross, and had laughed at him. And for this, she is cursed in all her future reincarnations. She is now doomed to be for ever, through all her lives, in Klingsor’s power, unable to do the good she so craves, unable to escape the endless cycle of evil. Kundry’s seduction resisted, Klingsor appears himself to vanquish Parsifal: but his spear, that sacred spear, sticks in the air; and, on Parsifal making the sign of the cross, Klingsor’s evil empire collapses.

In the third act, we are back in the Kingdom of the Grail. Many years have passed since we had been here last. With the power of the Grail in decline, the place is now virtually a wasteland: there is no longer a community of knights – they now each forage for themselves. Society is in a state of utter dissolution.

Kundry is again present, but all she can now utter is an inarticulate moan: “dienen … dienen…” – “to serve, to serve”. Gurnemanz, now older, still has compassion for her; but he is powerless. Again, Parsifal enters, but he too is aged now, and tired with much travel and with worldly suffering. He carries with him the sacred spear. Having reached this place he had been seeking for so long, he disarms himself, plants the spear into the ground, and prays. Gurnemanz recognises him now, and recognise also the spear. The day is a sacred one: it is Good Friday, when nature renews itself. At this, the climactic point of the work, Gurnemanz anoints Parsifal as the new king, and Parsifal baptises Kundry; she, mistaking him for Jesus, wipes his feet with her hair. She is at last freed from the cycle of suffering and of evil, and her eventual death brings release – nirvana, if you will – from the cycle.

Amfortas is finally made whole, and Parsifal now presides over the ceremony he had previously failed to understand. The final chorus tells us of the “Redeemer redeemed”.


What is one to make of all this? Especially in the secular age that we now live in? Is this all mere lazy sentimental religiosity, as so many claim? It’s tempting to think so, for that saves one the very considerable trouble of trying to untangle it all. The Christian eucharist, the sacred symbol of the Holy Grail, the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and of renunciation (themselves derived from Hinduism), the Schopenhauerian ideas of relinquishing will and desire, the European pagan tradition of the Fisher King presiding over a waste-land and awaiting redemption … What a curious hotchpotch it all is! Is it actually worth untangling? Or should we just say “the music is wonderful”, and leave it there?

No, that isn’t enough. I have often wondered why and how it is that even those of us who are not religious believers can nonetheless be affected by religious art; the consensus of opinion appears to be that we respond despite the religious content, but I am inclined to think that we respond it not despite, but because of it; that, no matter how advanced the position we may place ourselves on the scale of more-atheist-than-thou, there remains that embarrassing but significant aspect of our psyche that responds to religious concepts; and this being the case, we should put our embarrassment to one side and try to understand just what it is that we are responding to. Even if it means trying to negotiate the deep waters of theology of which I know and understand so little. But, I can only re-iterate, I am not speaking from the perspective of an expert: this is but a layman’s view.

The first point that strikes me is that in the theology underpinning this work, divine presence in the world, as symbolised by the Grail and by the spear, is not unconditional: whether this is because God is not absolutely powerful, or because God chooses to exercise His power only in certain circumstances, humans must by their own actions justify the presence of the divine if they are not to turn the world they inhabit into a moral and physical waste land.

So far, so understandable. But I start to have problems when I consider the nature of the transgression that has caused the efficacy of divine presence to diminish. There are many terrible crimes in this world – crimes that may justifiably be described as “sinful”: disdain for compassion, unrestrained greed, wanton cruelty, defilement of innocence, genocidal hate, and so on. Does illicit sex really score so highly on this scale? Amfortas was caught in what we would nowadays call a “honey trap” – tempted by a beautiful woman on a mission specifically to tempt him. And yes, he had neglected his sacred duty, and had failed to protect the sacred spear. Reprehensible though all this is, one can’t help feeling that the punishment greatly outweighs the transgression. To attach so great a weight to a sexual transgression seems to me to reek of an obsessive censoriousness regarding sexual matters that so many secularists – myself, I confess, included – find so distasteful about so many religious codes of morality.

Unless, of course, we are to take his failure to protect the sacred spear as symbolic of a greater desecration; but what it may be symbolic of, I am not too sure. I remain worried by the linking of a sin that is not forgiven (insofar as Amfortas’ wound does not heal) with an act of sex that is consensual, not accompanied with violence, and not even a betrayal of any living partner.

But the wound does remain unhealed: not even the proximity of the Grail can bring divine forgiveness here. It is unclear to me whether God deliberately does not heal, or whether He can not heal: in the context of the dramatic situation, I suspect the latter. To ensure divine presence in this world of ours, to suffuse the Real with the Eternal, humanity must play its part. Divine presence cannot be taken for granted.

Fair enough. Let us move on.

A holy fool, we are told, must resolve this. The holy fool is a figure familiar to Russian culture: we have one in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (based on a play by Pushkin), and Dostoyevsky’s Idiot is, of course, a variation on it. The potency of this character comes, I presume, from the fool’s innocence: a fool is, after all, unaware of evil. But by the same token, the fool must also be unaware of good: Parsifal’s first act in the opera is, after all, to kill a presumably symbolic swan. I don’t really understand the concept of the “Holy Fool”, and neither do I understand the significance of the prophesy that only a Holy Fool can restore divine presence to the world.

But there are further puzzles to come: the point surely is that this fool we see doesn’t restore the divine. The Parsifal we see restoring the sacred spear is not a fool at all, holy or otherwise, but a man of wisdom and of understanding. How did this wisdom come about? The prophecy speaks of a fool made wise through compassion; and indeed, Parsifal does indeed feel compassion – for Amfortas, for Kundry, for the state to which the kingdom of the Grail is reduced. But is not the compassion felt after he has attained wisdom and understanding? These qualities are not attained through compassion, but through a moment of magical transformation: he become wise instantaneously, when Kundry kisses him. Where does this magic come from? From the divine? Presumably so: it is hard to imagine where else it might have come from. But if this divine presence is powerful enough, and willing enough, to grant him this wisdom and understanding, then why had it not been powerful enough, or willing enough, to forgive Amfortas for his transgression, and heal his wound? Why does it not forgive the penitent and suffering Kundry, and release her from the cycle of evil and of suffering? Either there is a gap here in Wagner’s scheme, or there is something very important that I am missing. It is not merely a detail of the plot: on the contrary, it seems to me central to the whole thing. If humans are to play their part in ensuring divine presence in the world, then what part is it precisely that we are expected to play? If it is to feel compassion, “mitleid”, then Gurnemanz already feels this; what is it that Parsifal brings to the proceedings that Gurnemanz cannot?

This is where I feel lost. Human action is insisted upon, and yet at the same time denied, insofar as the human action that redeems the world is presented as a consequence solely of divine intervention. It doesn’t, for me, add up, no matter how hard I try to empathise with the religious perspective underlying this work.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as irrelevant – to say, as so many have done, that the music is wonderful, and let us merely be satisfied with that. That was effectively Nietszche’s position: he loved the music deeply, and yet was revolted by its Christian sentiments. For to Nietzsche, belief in God, in the transcendent, is to devalue the human; such belief is to admit that human values, on their own, are not sufficient. To present the world bereft of divine presence as but a wasteland is, according to this viewpoint, to impoverish human life itself:

Everything that has grown up in the soil of impoverished life, the entire false coinage of transcendence and another world, has in Wagner’s art its sublimest advocate…
– from “The Wagner Case” by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by T. Common

Once again, I feel out of my depth commenting on this. (In case anyone is marvelling at my erudition on this matter, let me confess that I am not at all well-read in Nietzsche, and was only guided to this quote by Lucy Beckett’s book on Parsifal.) But I can’t help wondering whether belief in “human values” and the desire for transcendence are necessarily as mutually exclusive as Nietzsche appears to have thought. My beloved Wordsworth, I suspect, would not have thought so.


So there we are. I have rambled on long enough about things I do not understand. I know what I experienced last night was tremendous: whatever doubt I may have about it in the cold light of day were swept away in the presence of that extraordinary music. To such an extent, indeed, that one may even begin to resent the music for being so powerful, and forcing us to accept and even be moved by that which otherwise we would reject. Settembrini was, perhaps, right: music, as John E. Woods’ translation has it, is “politically suspect”:

“Music is invaluable as the ultimate means of awakening our zeal, a power that draws the mind trained for its effects forward and upward. But literature must precede it. By itself, music cannot draw the world forward. By itself, music is dangerous.”
– from “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann, Part 4, Chapter 4, translated by John E. Woods

The reluctant Wagnerian

This Saturday, I shall be in a nearby cinema to see and hear a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera New York of Wagner’s Parsifal. I was persuaded to get tickets for this by our lad, who, despite all the love and affection that his doting parents have lavished upon him over the years, has turned out a diehard Wagnerian. I do not doubt that this particular production is very fine; I do not doubt that it features some of the best singers of today: names such as Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape are hard to argue against, after all. Neither do I doubt that the orchestral playing, the choral singing, the conducting (Daniele Gatti will be in the pit), etc., will all be top notch.  Indeed, I have put myself through this opera before, having listened often to recordings of the full work, and also having heard it live on no less than three occasions. I confess also that at times, the effect of the music has been so overwhelming, that I have found myself completely drawn into it – to such an extent that I had become unaware of anything but the music, unaware even of those hours passing by. But nonetheless, I feel strangely apprehensive about this Saturday.

I know that I am by no means the first who has felt himself both drawn to and repelled by Wagner, but let me state right away that the repulsion has nothing to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Not that I doubt that he was grotesquely anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his own times; and I am, further, prepared to accept the possibility that his racism did, as has been alleged, indeed find its way into his works. This does, admittedly, remain a controversial point, and emotions often run high when it is raised; and I am not myself sufficiently knowledgeable in this area to offer my own opinion on the matter. But I am prepared, at least, to accept the possibility that his racist ideology did indeed seep into his work, and even, as some claim, form its ideological basis. But if it did so, then it did so in a coded form, since at no point in any of his works is either race in general or Jewry in particular explicitly mentioned. This means that those of us blissfully unaware of whatever code Wagner may or may not have used can appreciate his work without the slightest thought of whatever psychopathic unpleasantness may or may not underlie it. No: whatever uneasiness I feel about Wagner’s operas, it is not on ideological grounds. It is something else.

But when I try to specify what that something else is, I find myself on uncertain ground. That his work has a powerful effect on me cannot be denied: I remember in particular a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the English National Opera a number of years ago that held me effectively hypnotised: I really had lost all sense of my surroundings, all sense of time passing. And, during the Edinburgh Festival of 2006, I attended an outstanding concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, featuring a then relatively unknown Jonas Kaufmann in quite resplendent voice as Walther. (I doubt we could afford to go and see Jonas Kaufmann now, given his current superstar status in the opera world!) So good was this performance, that even after five hours and more, I actually found myself thinking it was too short! So yes, I have indeed been under Wagner’s spell – many, many times.

But perhaps that is the point. Do I like being under his spell? Do I like getting to the state where I forget my surroundings, where I forget the passage of time? Do I like being drawn in to quite such an extent? And the answer to that, I think, is no, I don’t. There is something – for want of a better word – unhealthy, I find, about all this, something sickly. I cannot define it: but there is something intangible about Wagner’s work that is not to my taste, and I find myself resisting; although I do know that once that music starts, any resistance on my part will very soon melt away.

Even with Parsifal, the last and, in many ways, the most problematic of Wagner’s operas. It’s an odd hotchpotch of Christianity, Buddhism, mysticism, medieval myth, and – so I’m told – the philosophy of Schopenhauer. It is also, according to some, the most overt expression of Wagner’s racist ideology, although its racist aspect, should it exist, remains as obscure to me as any other aspect of the work. The whole thing may indeed be very profound, as is claimed, but, although I have known it for some thirty or so years, and although I have indeed made some effort to understand it better (Lucy Beckett’s book on this opera is justly renowned), I have never been able to make much sense of it. Now, I have given up trying: whatever its depths, its concerns are not, I think, mine. Debussy seems to me to have hit the nail on the head: after an entire essay ridiculing the opera and attacking it in no uncertain terms, he ended by declaring it to be “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”. That’s good enough for me. The whole strikes me as utterly incomprehensible – or, at least, not comprehensible to a mind such as mine – but I am all for lovely monuments of sound.


This year is, of course, the bicentenary of those two great giants of the opera, those mighty opposites Wagner and Verdi. And inevitably, there have been discussions of which of the two we prefer; or, even, who was the greater. I’ll politely pass on the latter question, but the former is an interesting one, as our personal preference between the two defines so much of our aesthetic values. Music journalist Jessica Duchen thinks it is no contest: for her, it’s Wagner. Peter Conrad, on the other hand, has written an entire book to demonstrate the superiority of Verdi. As for me, while I am looking forward, albeit apprehensively, to Parsifal, I can’t help wishing that our dear boy had sided with Verdi instead, and that, instead of Parsifal, we could go off together to see something like, say, Don Carlos. For there is to Verdi a generosity of spirit and a healthy, forthright humanism that, for me at least, leave the twilight murk of Wagner’s world far behind.

Mighty opposites

Dickensians amongst us have been celebrating the bicentenary. Some Dickens-sceptics have tried from time to time to be party-poopers, but they have been politely told to piss off.  And quite right too.

Personally, I rather like these anniversaries. Why pass over an excuse to celebrate the works of a writer I love? But while I have already been celebrating Dickens (I re-read Our Mutual Friend), I was considering also having another go this year at the author whose aesthetic values are so diametrically opposed to those of Dickens, that she could justly be described as his antithesis: Jane Austen.

I have long held a theory that each reader leans either towards Austen or towards Dickens, and no-one can love both equally. True, I know of at least two people who claim to love them both equally, and I believe them; however, I see no reason why facts should get in the way of a good theory. These two novelists – the greatest English novelists, according to Edmund Wilson, and I am certainly not going to pick a fight with him on that – split everything between them.  

I am firmly on the Dickensian side of the fence (as, I note to my delight, was Vladimir Nabokov, if his idiosyncratic Lectures on Literature is anything to go by). But, instead of sensibly saying that I am temperamentally not suited to Austen and leaving it at that, I have, I fear, said some very rude and intemperate (and frankly very foolish) things about her in the past; indeed, it is only the transient nature of internet posts that saves my appearing a complete idiot.

Feeling there was obviously something in Austen’s novels that I was missing, and being a type that doesn’t like the idea of missing things, I read through Austen’s novels a good five or six years ago. True, I wasn’t converted, but I did get some inkling, at least, of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; and I find them now, rather unexpectedly, resonating in my mind. In other words, they have left behind an aftertaste. The time now is right for a revisit.

There are many other cases, I think, of writers who are so completely opposite to each other in terms of their literary and aesthetic values that a study in comparison can throw light on both. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, for instance, come very obviously to mind, as do, I think, Donne and Milton, or Ibsen and Chekhov. And, moving away from literature, another pair of mighty opposites suggest themselves: Verdi and Wagner. This pairing is one I think we’ll be hearing much about next year, as it happens, very conveniently, to be the bicentenary of both. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at them.

I know I am not qualified to write posts either on Verdi or on Wagner, but lack of qualification has never stopped me before. And in any case, I love Verdi.

Yes, I know, I know, that’s dispraise by omission… But it’s not that I don’t like Wagner: I do. But I don’t like liking Wagner, if you see what I mean. It’s nothing to do with his odious anti-Semitism, deeply unpleasant though that is: it is more to do with the very feature of his works that so entrances his admirers – the ability his music has of completely enveloping the listener, of making the listener forget the passage of time … to forget everything other than that blasted music. I know Wagner’s music can have this effect because I have experienced it myself. Many times. But whether I enjoy experiencing this sort of thing is another matter.

However, it’s still over ten months before the double bicentenary, so I’ll have plenty of time to think out my responses to these two undeniable giants. I think I already know what I’ll be saying about Verdi. As for t’other one, our teenage lad – already a Wagnerian, poor thing – has still to convince me. And who knows? – I may still be convinced. Why listen to music at all – or read books – if one is not prepared to expand one’s tastes?

Comedy is no laughing matter

Definitions are tricky things. There is so much that is more easily recognised than defined. For instance, we all know that a “tragedy” is a play (or a film or a novel or an opera or whatever) where everyone – or, at least, the main character – dies at the end; but even so, we recognise Oedipus the King as a tragedy even though Oedipus remains at the end very much alive. Fair enough – the mood at the end isn’t exactly upbeat – but then, what about The Oresteia? Not only does no-one die at the end, the whole thing culminates with a triumphant hymn of joy! Such inconvenient disregard for the rules of tragedy has led theoreticians to come up with all sorts of alternative definitions. The intricacies of these definitions need not concern us now, but they can – as far as I’ve read – be boiled down to “Tragedy focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience”. That really is sufficiently broad-brush to cover everything we recognise as tragic.

But what about comedy? We’re on safer ground here, surely? Comedy is whatever makes us laugh. (Or, if we want to include such stuff as Absolutely Fabulous, it is whatever is at least intended to make us laugh, even if it doesn’t.) But there are objections here as well. There are many works that are undeniably tragic in nature, but which do nonetheless contain incidental humour. So we may modify our definition with the adjective “primarily”: a comedy is a work the intention of which is primarily to make one laugh. No problem with that one, one might think. But a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Proms, listening to the Welsh National Opera perform Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Throughout the four and a half hours or so of the music (six hours including the intervals), I don’t think I laughed once. I don’t even think I smiled, or chuckled. I knew all the jokes already, and, to be entirely honest, they weren’t that funny the first time round either. There are more laughs in any two minutes picked out at random from an episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet, I recognised the world presented in that opera as essentially comic. And what’s more, I found it elating. Walking back from the Royal Albert Hall to the South Kensington tube station, I seemed to be in another world.

So what was it in that work I responded to? What was it I recognised as being comic, even though it didn’t make me laugh? And it’s not just Die Meistersinger: I fail to laugh at other much loved comic operas – Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, say; or Shakespeare’s comedies – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or even much loved episodes of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers: I have seen all of these so often I know all the jokes backwards, and the element of surprise that is so essential to raise a laugh is no longer there. And yet, for all that, I enjoy entering into these worlds which, despite the lack of laughs, I recognise as comic. Some of them even leave me feeling elated.

I suppose if the term “tragedy” can be defined as works that focus primarily on the darker elements of the human experience, then, conversely, “comedy” can be reserved for those works that do the opposite, i.e. as works that focus primarily on all those elements that enhance life, that make it worth living – all those things that tell us there is more, much more, to life than merely the death that ends it. Before Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he had composed Tristan und Isolde (a concert performance of which this September, incidentally, I have tickets for), and there, the two protagonists, having given up on all that this world has to offer, long only for death. That I can recognise as tragic. But comedy tells us something very different. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs too renounces, and the renunciation is not easy: but the renunciation does not lead to a longing for death. Sachs even refers to the story of Tristan & Isolde (Wagner allows the orchestra to play a strain from his earlier work at this point), but tells us he does not want to end like King Marke: that tragic world is referred to, and is rejected. There is more to long for than merely death.

Viewed in this light, it is surprising how rare true comedy is in the modern world. Much that is ostensibly comedy has these days a dark edge: sometimes the darkness becomes dominant. There’s satire, there’s black humour: indeed, some even tell us that comedy is necessarily dark, and that comic works that do not address this darkness are not worth the candle. I have personally felt very uncomfortable with this. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate darkness in comedy: I can respond to the desperation at the heart of Steptoe and Son, the savagery of the satire in Till Death Us Do Part. But is this true comedy? Are not such dark drama and such vicious satire really aspects of the tragic?

The pilot episode of Steptoe and Son had ended in one of the most powerful and affecting of all tragic scenes: the son, Harold, desperate to get away from his father, had, quite insanely, attempted to draw the cart on his own (and yes, I’d guess the reference to Mother Courage here is entirely deliberate); and, unable, naturally, to do this, he had broken down in tears. And his father, bringing him back home and telling him sympathetically that he’ll make him “a nice cup of tea” somehow accentuates the tragedy: it rubs in the terrible truth that for Harold, there can be no escape, that he is doomed for ever to “nice cups of tea” with his father, whom he loves and hates at the same time. How many serious, tragic dramas have achieved scenes of such tragic intensity, I wonder? Yes, there are belly-laughs in Steptoe and Son, but belly-laughs alone do not a comedy make: the heart of Steptoe and Son remains a dark one.

For true comedy, one has to go to the likes of Sgt Bilko, Dad’s Army, The Morecambe and Wise Show. We have to go to the idyllic fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse (that Eden from which we are all exiled, as Evelyn Waugh once said), to the charm of Pickwick Papers. Or to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, or to Verdi’s Falstaff. Not that these worlds are entirely untroubled, of course: Wodehouse’s world, admittedly, is of sunny, cloudless skies, where the worst danger to be faced is that of Bertie being hitched up to Madeleine Bassett; but Pickwick Papers is darkened by those extraordinary chapters of the debtors’ prison; Hans Sachs does not find it easy to acknowledge his advancing years, and to renounce that one hope of happiness he had cherished; and even Falstaff, at one point, threatens to descend into those dark regions of Otello, as Ford is overcome by an insane jealousy. We know of course that there is no real danger of the darkness overwhelming the light: the very fact that these works are all set out as comedies reassures us. The presence of the darkness can be and often is acknowledged. But that darkness is, in one way or another, overcome: unlike in Tristan & Isolde, there is more to look forward to here than merely death.

But works such as this – works that affirm – seem to me these days to be increasingly rare. It is almost as if writers can no longer believe in affirmation. Or that they consider it trivial, or self-deluding. Have we, I wonder, lost the ability to affirm in the face of it all? I’d guess we haven’t lost the ability to respond to it, to judge from my response (and not merely my response) to Die Meistersinger; or to judge by the continuing popularity of Wodehouse, or the re-runs of Dad’s Army. But possibly we no longer believe in it strongly enough to create it.

“There are dark shadows on the earth,” writes Dickens towards the end of Pickwick Papers, “but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.” But, he continues “we … have no such powers”. Dickens’ eyesight, admittedly, did change later in his literary career: it became more bat-like, more owl-like. But I for one remain grateful that before this change in his eyesight, he gave us Pickwick Papers. And one can be equally grateful that Verdi, after a career of composing tragic operas, signed off with that miraculous work of true comedy, Falstaff; or that Wagner, in between composing operas about lovers longing for death or about the end of the world gave us Die Meistersinger. The comic vision is one that enhances our lives, and to lose it would be tragic.