Wednesday, 4 October 2017

At the Fault Line of Life and Death

I visited the Somme last year as part of a school trip. This piece was written shortly after, but I didn't post it at the time, for some reason. Before we left, our school chaplain, Father Jonathan, told us the story of his great grandfather. It is, in part, the story of this man that follows.

Arthur Robert Carpenter looks at us, on his wedding day, in April 1912. Beside him, his bride wears a remarkable hat and a blank, even downcast, expression. Flanking them are two parents; we can’t be sure whose. No one in this photograph looks very pleased on this special day. It might be because of the lengthy process involved in taking such a picture 104 years ago, though it could also be because Arthur’s new wife was already three months pregnant.


There isn’t much to be said about their lives at this point in time, not because they didn’t have lives, but because very little of them has reached us. There are, however, clues. The simple house at the back of the photograph is probably a farm cottage, and while Arthur wears a suit on his wedding day, his boots reveal his trade: they are the well-worn footwear of a farm labourer. But then something changes. After November 1914, records exist that tell us where Arthur was, and the detail becomes clearer as Arthur approached the summer of 1916. And then, at the moment of greatest clarity, it stops, because Arthur Carpenter was one of 19,240 known British fatalities of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

-

100 years later, our school party is travelling to the site of the battle, getting out of the classroom and standing on the claggy, windswept fields where it all happened. The second stop of the first day of our Somme is one of the key parts of this 13-mile front, a kind of ground zero on this fault line between life and death – Beaumont Hamel, the Sunken Lane, and the site of the Hawthorn mine. I’ve taught the events that occurred in this little valley for some years now, but being here changes everything. I realise that I’ve got the scale all wrong. All the action which in my mind’s eye plays out on a vast stretch of land was, in fact, concentrated into a small natural theatre, hemmed in by barren rolling hills that bring the horizon to within little more than 500 metres in any direction. The men who climbed through the bushes from the Sunken Lane, whose ashen faces stare back at us in contemporary photographs, knew that they were the first wave, well in advance of the British front lines. Where I envisage the battlefield from a distance of 10,000 metres and 100 years, their view of this unfolding tragedy must have been localised to an almost absurd degree. German lines stretched left-to-right only 200 metres before them. Clods of earth, thrown up by the mine, would have pelted their position at 7.20 in the morning, a full ten minutes before their attack began. It threw debris thousands of feet into the air and flung back the British camera crew filming from the base of the lane. The tremor travelled along the front, a high-explosive alarm clock signalling impending attack and, as we now know, mounting disaster.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. After almost two years of war, the German lines that stretched from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland looked immovable.  Pressure from the embattled French led to a British plan, an attack of such staggering force that German lines would simply fall away. The plan would also bring into play Kitchener’s volunteers, those million-plus men who’d answered the call-to-arms in 1914. Arthur Carpenter was among them, his having volunteered in around November 1914. We might infer a little reticence in his relatively late enrolment, but in truth, his feelings and motives remain unknown. It’s just as possible that the late-summer harvest was a more pressing concern than playing war.

From here, the plan is well known. An artillery bombardment of apocalyptic proportions would rain molten hell on German trenches along the 13-mile front for more than a week. Nothing, surely, would be left. Then, on July 1st, a series of huge explosions would disintegrate the more heavily fortified German positions and, as the dust cleared, the first wave of British infantry would walk across no-man’s land and occupy the deserted German lines. With machine-gun-spattered hindsight, walking would seem the last thing anyone would wish to do across the Somme, but these were inexperienced and heavily laden men. Walking would be the simplest option.

A while after our visit to Beaumont Hamel, we stare in awe into the carefully-preserved crater at Lochnagar, several miles south of the Hawthorn mine. While the Hawthorn has grown its own dense carpet of vegetation and other craters filled in, Lochnagar has been kept as a huge, gaping memorial to the men who tried to cross the expanse of ground to its west. And at 7.28 in the morning, as the force of the blast lifted the ground into the air, those standing within sight of it – warned in their orders that “the concussion will be considerable” – would have never suspected that even before a single British company had left their trench, the plan was already unravelling.

While British shells pummelled the ground along the front, German personnel were, unknown to the British, cocooned in deep bunkers, carved out of the chalk beneath the battlefield. After a week of constant noise and shaking earth, the barrage came to an end when, at 7.20, the Hawthorn mine exploded, alerting the German army that something new was coming. By the time British infantry left their lines at 7.30, German machine gun crews the length of the front were in position, ready to reap a bloody, unsuspecting harvest of men. At some point after 7.30, probably within the first ten minutes, Arthur Carpenter followed his company and others of the 11th Battalion of the Suffolk’s over the top. As they traipsed towards the Lochnagar crater, the Suffolk’s took immediate and heavy casualties. Bullets from German machine guns did carve through the advancing men, but as many were killed by German shells, now returning the pounding of the preceding week. Private WJ Senescall of the neighbouring Cambridgeshire Regiment later wrote about the appalling effects of this fresh barrage: “A very large shell fell some yards to my left. With all the bits and pieces flying up was a body. The legs had been blown off right to the crutch. I have never seen a body lifted so high. It sailed up and towards me. I can still see the deadpan look on his face under the tin hat, which was still held on by the chin strap. He kept coming and landed with a bonk behind me”.

Some accounts, such as that of 11th Suffolk Battalion’s Corporal R Harley, were able to recall the scene with a sardonic tinge: “A great many of our Brigade not being bulletproof fell before they reached the German line, for the Germans were mowing the grass with machine gun fire. I managed to cross the enemy's front line, when I halted and looked around for my comrades. The nearest of them were about 50 yards away, so I thought I would wait for the reserves to come up. As I was standing there I felt something hit my left-hand top pocket, which reminded me I'd better move. I did so and a few minutes later a bullet passed through my left wrist.”

It is likely that Arthur Carpenter joined the fatalities in these opening moments. His body was never recovered.

-

As we criss-cross the battle field over the next two days, it becomes easy to lose track of the once-immovable axis of rival front lines. I often have to refer to a map to pick out the now-invisible path of the conflict, though the scattering of submerged shrapnel makes the line of battle clear enough to farmers and their reinforced ploughs. And danger still lurks: when we arrive at Mametz Wood, scene of horrendous casualties in Welsh divisions in the weeks following July 1st, an unexploded shell lies perilously close to the roadside. Local farmers are still killed by the munitions that failed to do their work a century ago.

Instead of trenches, long since filled by locals keen to return the land to productivity, cemeteries trace the edges of the killing fields. The rows of white gravestones give some small visual record of the inconceivable loses, but they also mark the process that all such seismic events undergo, as hot war solidifies into cold history. Already, in 1919, that process was underway. As both sides were still counting their casualties, the Treaty of Versailles set out the manner in which German war dead would be commemorated here. As we stand at Fricourt, one of only two German cemeteries in the area, we’re lashed by an icy downpour. I can’t help but imagine it’s a small punishment for the indignity done by our own antecedents to those buried within, crammed four-to-a-cross in this meagre corner of the Somme.

At the same time as the Germans were suffering the humiliation of Versailles, British mourning was being standardised and filtered through the concerns of the day. Across the Somme, we find a particular a kind of language with which we are all perhaps unknowingly familiar, hewn into memorials and graves. “A soldier of the Great War known unto God” is a phrase seen again and again in British cemeteries across France and Belgium, words that resound with a kind of biblical portent and elegance found in the poetry of this post-Edwardian era. We see it again in the small cemetery dedicated to the men of the Devonshire Regiment, cut down on July 1st by a machine gun that sliced through their advance to the south of Mametz village: “The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.” It conditions us, once a year, into a sombre, reverent remembrance; when else would we hear people use a phrase like “Lest we forget”?

The evening before we reach the Somme, we visit the vast British cemetery at Tyne Cot. On the ground of Passchendale, where men once died in deep mud, we’re greeted by the most golden sunset imaginable, the ribbon of stone that encircles the top of the hill bathed in orange evening light. Usually, the crowds throng here. Tonight, we’re alone at this site of pilgrimage. Yet, with no ancestor to find or namesake to seek out, this seems to me a vacant panorama of loss, the anonymity of its scale deadening, rather than consoling. Are there people here, or only names? Must we check our displays of grief in the face of the good taste of its classical elegance? I feel as uneasy here as I did as a child, expected to bow my head in silence for an enforced remembrance. I feel, standing here, like we are all Rudyard Kipling, our view of this war caught between two quite different impulses: the regimented displays of respect that Kipling’s propagandist poetry wreathed in the language of duty, and our modern repulsion at the horror and the waste, which too overtook Kipling after the loss of his son. If we’re going to find meaning here, surely it has to be in the lives, and not in the architecture.

-

And so, I’ve borrowed a life. Before our visit, our school chaplain, Father Jonathan Beach, speaks to my students about his great grandfather, Arthur Robert Carpenter. Arthur’s life is a thread of family history that connects Father Jonathan vividly to July 1st 1916. He recalls his great grandmother never being without Arthur’s picture within a locket around her neck, even though she remarried and had eight more children. When Arthur died, she received a standardised notification, the gaps in which were filled with the scant detail of his death. She asked again, in 1919, if anything more could be known. It could not.



Our final stop is to the imposing monument at Thiepval, the great red-brick and Portland-stone tower memorialising the British victims of the Somme with no known grave. I go straight away to find the wall on which Arthur’s name is inscribed. As I’d expected, it’s positioned, frustratingly, high up on one of the internal piers, but it’s there: CARPENTER AR. Suddenly, the whole monumental structure is invested with meaning for me: I can’t imagine the lives and deaths of 19,000 people, but I can imagine something of the life and death of this one, whose face looked out at me from his wedding photograph.

I say a few inadequate words about Arthur to our gathered pupils, and our guide Alain, an ex-military man, tells us what he feels at this place. “I feel three things. The first is tremendous sadness. The second is unbelievable gratitude. The third is great pride.” Earlier in the day, Alain had asked me what this trip had made me feel. I’d said something about my appreciation of the geography and how I saw the landscape differently, but at Thiepval, I realise I’d misunderstood what he was asking me. In the minute’s silence we share after Alain’s words, I think about the men, who came from so many different places, in every sense. As we leave, I tell Alain that my feelings about the war itself are so complicated and conflicted. I feel I don’t know what this war was really about, ultimately. But what I really see in the moment of silence is the faces of those men in so many photographs, like Arthur, who seem so far from us in so many ways, and yet are right there, looking at us. In the end, it need be no more complicated than that.


Images in this post have been used with the permission of Jonathan Beach, great grandson of Arthur Carpeneter.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Rachmaninov Uncovered

When I first thought about writing about music, I remember the limits of my ambition being the idea of writing the programme notes for my local amateur orchestra. One day, it happened - the man who did them retired, and it turned out it wasn't as sought after a job as I'd imagined. A little later, I started playing the violin with the orchestra, very very badly, at the back of the 2nds. The job of designing to posters also came up, and I tried that out too.

I thought of all this the other day when I saw an angry professor of music on Twitter taking exception to the design of the CD on the cover of the new issue of BBC Music Magazine. I like to think of the professor of music in question as a friend of this blog, though I don't bring it up here intending to weigh in on one side or the other. Rather, it got me thinking about the way in which design suggests intention, or maybe its lack, and whether when borrowing imagery from the past, we aren't sometimes a little blasé about its origins.

But back to those posters. The only tools I ever had at my disposal were MS Publisher and the image editing software Gimp, which was on the receiving end of a lot of swearing and which I never really figured out. One of my first efforts was for a concert we put on of Russian music and, far more ignorant of Russian history than I now am, I reached for as many cliches as MS Publisher was fit to hold.



I threw slanty propaganda-style text at it, a splash of anachronistic red (look at the composers involved) and an image of St Basil's Cathedral for good measure. I had remembered putting in some Cyrillic style backwards Rs, but I clearly thought better of it before submitting the final draft. This concoction of visual stereotypes seems rather ghastly to me now, but it did the job at the time.


Next for the over-literal-visual-treatment was the New World Symphony. You can probably spot some Morris tropes beginning to develop - the big white spaces (you couldn't have a hard edge or border because the cutting process wasn't that precise), primary colours, and a favourite MS font which sadly doesn't appear in more recent versions of the programme. You know what, though? I still rather like this one.


This next one came from the legendary occasion when we played a November 11th remembrance concert with a difference - the difference being the inclusion of the first movement of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, for reasons which made sense to us at the time. It was as incredible as it sounds. And a fun fact - the future principal trumpet of the Philharmonia was one of 4 trumpet extras we added to our existing two, just for that piece. 


Now this one, if I may say, was a visual coup. I still have no idea how I managed to get Beethoven's eyes inside the shape of a lark (again, look at the programme).


The same sea of white space in this Elgar one, but you know what? I stand by it. Nice job.


This was my last and, if I may say, Best Ever BSO poster. I had learnt what to do with the oodles of required information, and I think really maxed out the potential of MS Publisher. But enough of BSO posters already - what about Rachmaninov?

Rachmaninov left Russia for good in 1917, after the October/November Revolution. Florid programme notes (like mine) like to describe the eve of his departure, with bullets whistling down the streets outside while the composer, in a white-heat of inspiration, rewrote his youthful 1st Piano Concerto, barely noticing the sounds of the world changing. But he was no fan of the Bolsheviks, and the loss of his homeland was clearly a source of great distress to him.



So it's rather incongruous for BBC Music Magazine to have slapped a picture of Lenin (in stained glass??) on the front of their cover CD, which features a performance of Rachmaninov's Preludes. What did Rachmaninov have to do with Lenin? As little as possible, the joke might end. Our musicologist friend put this to the publication, who responded that Lenin had more to do with Prokofiev and the disc's artist, Sviatoslav Richter, though it's hard to know quite what - Prokofiev skipped the country a few months after the Revolution and only resettled in the country in 1936, twelve years after Lenin's death. And Richter, though based in the Soviet Union until its demise, had his international career thoroughly thwarted by Soviet concert planners, who clearly saw him as some sort of flight risk (this is covered in Bruno Monsaingeon's excellent documentary on Soviet music, The Red Baton (Notes Interdites in the original French), and quite possibly in his essential film-interview with Richter, though it's been years since I saw that so I can't remember).

So there's an issue of relevance, though that's hardly new - British cultural institutions are quite happy to wheel out the Russian visual cliches to shift their Russian concerts, etc, and I can tell you that when designing that first poster, I was just drawing on the sort of visual shorthands for Russia that are all around in PR (silly me). It isn't unusual to see musical programmes relating to aspects of Russian history that include music only very tenuously connected to it. I wonder if we'd accept the same sort of tokenistic approach to cultures more readily associated with the current interest in identity politics?

There's a deeper problem, though, and it has to do with the willingness to reach for imagery that has altogether more sinister associations. It's actually unthinkable that a CD company would decorate their disc with an image of Hitler, and highly unlikely they'd go for Mussolini, or Franco, yet the Soviets aren't so off-limits. Lenin didn't commit the crimes of Stalin, but his rule was based on a large-scale disregard for the lives of those deemed outside the Communist project, and it's worth remembering that his economic policies during the Russian Civil War led to the deaths of millions of people through starvation. What would we be saying about our attitudes towards or even knowledge of these issues if we thought of his image as something attractive to cut and paste onto out CD cover? It's certainly not "overthinking" the problem to ask this question.

It's not as though BBC Music Magazine is alone in appropriating the imagery of totalitarian Russia. We are particularly in thrall to Stalinist propaganda, and with some good reason - its distinctive, highly effective and visually appealing. But we have to ask what that style was in service of, and whether we betray a certain crass disregard for its implications by pinching it to spice up our PR campaigns. I suspect this problems arises from the lack of clean break with Leninist and Stalinist Russia, which never fell from Western favour with the force that some those European fascist regimes did in 1945. Stalin lived on, having really won the Second World War, and his own propagandist legacy never decisively became the other half of a binary shared with Western might and light, in the way Hitler's did.

So the imagery stays with us, but without the black and white moral colouring of an SS uniform. Images, though, do add up to something, particularly in combination with other images. Any designer should be aware that pictures from the past carry worlds of baggage and meaning, and that we must dip into the art-box of history with caution. 

There was some discussion about the preferred spelling of Rachmaninov - He himself was apparently in favour of Rachmaninoff, but I just can't do it myself. I do look forward to hearing the Rachmaninov disc, and to discovering if the cover article on Shostakovich and the Soviet government departs from the formula.  The image of the November issue of BBC Music Magazine was posted on their Twitter account. I made all those posters, so I suppose the copyright rests with me; any other images have been used for the purposes of review and study and fall under "fair use"; they will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Out of Time: The Music of Alfred Schnittke


When I was a nipper, just getting the Russian music bug, it seemed that Alfred Schnittke was the natural successor of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and all those other Russian composers who had broken into the Western cultural consciousness. You don't seem to see his music on disc or in concert all that much any more, however, and I'm not sure why. I've written something over at Bachtrack, though, with the hope that you might be tempted to fire up the YouTube and dip into the music of this challenging but very rewarding composer. Here's me getting a bit florid on the subject:

"Schnittke’s music is nervy, fragile, and its textures delicate stuff. Even at its most vigorous and agitated, it seems that if we could hold it to the sun, light would bleed through. Past and the present exist together here. Like cities, all music is built on the ruins of the old, but in Schnittke, the sound of centuries otherwise lost to us is still there, like ancient wallpaper revealed where new layers have peeled away. The frisson is in the ragged overlap between both; neither old, nor new, but something else, a distant memory that resurfaced just a moment ago."


Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, 18 September 2017

O brave new world, that has such freebies in 't!


Last night I popped on the London Symphony Orchestra's live stream of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, broadcast in full and for free on YouTube. Most of my Twitter timeline seemed to be there, at the Barbican in London, and I was able to join them, for free. Live. Did I mention it was free? And live? Well it was.

The LSO's big catch, Sir Simon Rattle, brings with him an expectation of innovation and outreach, and free broadcast on YouTube would seem one way to chip away at that thick wall of assumption about classical music's supposed remoteness and elitism. They're not the first to try this sort of thing - live online broadcasts (though very not free) have been pioneered by Rattle's previous band, die Berliner Philharmoniker; Bachtrack, too, have of late been hosting free streams (including a rather exciting one from Gothenburg this Wednesday with some rareish Shostakovich (yes please) and an actual symphony by a non-dead composer). The buzz of Rattle's opening concerts, though, seems like a sensible time to the LSO to really go for broke and reach a bigger online audience than ever before. They're doing all three Stravinsky/Diaghilev ballets next Sunday which should, in theory, be the night-in of choice for every A level music student ever.

Build it - with the world's most sought-after maestro and essentially a free ticket to events sold out months and months and months ago - and they'll come, right? Not, perhaps, on yesterday's evidence. The LSO put on a good show - high-quality sound and image, a variety of fixed camera angles (pleasingly straight forward in comparison to the swoopy BBC Proms TV coverage), pleasant and informal interval fluff, and a live chat feed if you like that sort of thing - but YouTube's own viewer counter never rose above 300, and hovered below 100 for some of the second half. Maybe their numbers weren't accurate, and maybe there were other ways of watching this that will have boosted the figures, but the data I could see suggested that we're some way away from teenage bedrooms around the planet and smart TVs in far-flung living rooms reverberating en mass to the sound of live-streamed orchestral splendour.

It's also not clear where the LSO wants this to go, and if the free model is the aim or the way into a Berliner-style monetised package. It could be a "pay us a few quid and watch on YouTube" deal with the occasional freebie intended to hook in some newbies. If it really was only 300 people watching one of the world's greatest orchestras and one of classical music's most recognisable figures, it suggests that there's a long, long way to go. And in a world of freebies, in which it's entirely possible to consume almost any entertainment for free if you know how, what is there to suggest that the LSO playing live and effectively gratis is any more worth your time than any of the other stuff that'll cost you nothing? Of course, it's really super-exciting-premium-freeness to me, and probably to you, but classical music's greatest problem isn't the price. Rather, it's the mental block that exists in the minds of the many, many people who believe it isn't for them. And we can't discount the failure of the great institutions of the art form to make the case for their own specialness.

So well done LSO, who are really trying things where others stick to the programme regardless of effect. I will pester people I know to watch it all online. But this is likely to be only one little piece in a much bigger picture. If the world does come to appreciate the hugeness of the bargain they're currently missing on YouTube, arts-marketing-types will need to have found the way to crack some much larger barriers than the cost of admission.

Overgrownpath has some interesting musings on some related issues, not least the way in which digital platforms have allowed entertainment megacorporations to monopolise culture.

The picture at the head of this blog is a screen shot from the LSO's YouTube channel. At the time of writing, the video version of the live stream has had just over 4000 views. The seating capacity of the Barbican Hall is 1943. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Shosta-faux-vich

He's heard this one before.
A Proms performance of Shostakovich's ubiquitous Fifth Symphony at the weekend brought out all its accumulated myths and canards, gleefully repeated by critics, programme note writers and radio presenters. They're trotted out so often, so relentlessly, that they may as well be true now, but from my little corner of the internet, I may as well offer a little corrective, because in all honesty, who else will?

If the story of the Fifth is not known to you, here's a brief recap. In January 1936, Shostakovich was riding high from the success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an adaptation of Leskov's 1865 grim novella of the same name. Such was its acclaim that productions had already been staged in Leningrad and Moscow, but after a two-year run, the piece was to suffer a spectacular fall from grace when Joseph Stalin decided to attend a performance. Stalin's party left before the end, and a few days later an infamous review appeared in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda, entitled "Muddle instead of music". It railed against the cacophonous decadence of the piece and, in a vein which was to become very familiar to Soviet composers, complained "the power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning." It concluded, ominously, "It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

It was clear that the review followed as a direct consequence of Stalin's visit, but the extent to which he himself dictated its contents has been a matter of some speculation. It's juicier, of course, to state that Stalin himself penned the piece, though I've never come across any evidence to support this one. There's then usually a compression of what happened next: Shostakovich, who was working on his Fourth Symphony in the early months of 1936, is often said to have abandoned the piece forthwith, taking the end of the review (that it "may end very badly") as a clear hint that trouble of the terminal kind may follow if his present musical path wasn't left behind. But that's not quite true.

In fact, he remained bullish, despite the shock of the Pravda review. His close friend Isaak Glikman later recalled the composer saying "Even if they chop my hands off, I will continue to compose music - albeit I will have to hold the pen in my teeth." And, despite what you'll read elsewhere, he carried on working on his wild and complex Fourth Symphony for months; he played it for Otto Klemperer in May, four months after the review appeared, apparently with every intention of having it performed at home and abroad. And it went on like this. In the Autumn of 1936, full orchestral rehearsals were held, and it was only at this point, after a number of such sessions had happened, that the composer seems to have been convinced to cancel the Symphony's first performance. Even then, accounts differ as to quite why: some claim that the orchestra and conductor were under-prepared for the difficulties presented by the piece, though the more often accepted story has Shostakovich having a visit from some Party officials and being talked into dropping the whole thing.

Why does this matter? Well, compressing the narrative gives a very different impression of Shostakovich's propensity to take fright and his willingness to compromise artistic principles. The Shostakovich of the compressed narrative emerges far more inclined towards saving his own skin, though given the show trials and widespread executions of the period, such an impulse would be eminently understandable. The Shostakovich of reality remained committed to his artistic path for some months in the face of some very open official intimidation.

He did cave in the end, though, and modified his music enough for his next symphony, the Fifth, to be widely regarded as a "corrective". This one unfolded in a much more traditional manner - sonata form first movement, scherzo, slow movement and an apparently triumphant finale - though its more conventional form did provide the model for similarly proportioned symphonies (the Tenth, and to a lesser extent the Eighth) in which he was able to say some quite complex things. It also provided the rhetorical cipher for a new sort of musical irony, one in which the music could be viewed as saying the exact opposite of what it superficially appeared to be saying. The ending, famously, could be a glorious celebration, or it could be an utterly hollow fanfare, with tears of defeat streaming down the face as the mouth grins on.

But before we get too deep into irony, it's worth stopping to discredit the most common canard of them all: the Symphony's famous subtitle, "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism". This phrase, replete with either contrition or irony, depending on your point of view, is often placed into the mouth of Shostakovich, but it doesn't seem to have actually emerged from there. Rather, it was coined by a journalist, writing about the Symphony (I don't know who, but I recall hearing someone give the identity of the author). In Laurel Fay's biography of Shostakovich, the composer is reported as having written "one [critical interpretation] gave me special pleasure, where it was said that the Fifth Symphony is the practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism", a quotation credited to an article with the composer's name attached in a Moscow newspaper. 

So the composer seems to have acknowledged the statement (assuming that the article was written by him, which they weren't always), but he didn't come up with it and, importantly, it doesn't appear on the score as any kind of a subtitle. It may well have been popularly associated with the Symphony, at the time and after, but there's a difference between that and it being the kind of official subtitle as it is often purported to have been. Why does this matter? Well, firstly because it's not true and is frequently stated as being true, and secondly because putting it into Shostakovich's mouth suggests an attempt by the composer to shape the literal interpretation of the work in a way that he seems to have been, at all points in his career, very reluctant to do. For a long time, the statement was taken literally; latterly and in the light of the "revelations" of the now-discredited memoirs Testimony, as a statement of brazen irony equal to that signaled in the Symphony's closing minutes. If Shostakovich didn't make the statement (which he didn't) then a move in the ironic shadow-dance is subtracted and we're left to look for our answers in the music.

One more thing. If we're going to preface our quotations from Volkov's Testimony with words like "disputed" or "widely disbelieved" or "thoroughly discredited", then don't we have to stop quoting lines like "your business is rejoicing!" and, in the case of the Tenth Symphony, "a portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking"?

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Those were the Proms that were

Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms (Photo: Andrew Morris)
It's gone so quickly, especially when seen from a distance. There may be two weeks left, but my Proms are over, save the delayed TV relays and the Last Night hate-watch which, as ever, I hope none of my non-classical friends tune in for. And the distance is because I have never lived further from Prince Albert's mighty, wildly unsuitable hall, so four visits was my lot this 2017 season.

One solitary promenade in the arena meant I stood for less than any season since 2002, but that one Prom was a whopper. Rattle's Gurrelieder - effectively beginning his LSO tenure in style - was the one I'd mentally marked on P-Day (when the Proms are announced and which, now I think about it, is NOT a good name). UK people with a internets can see it on the iPlayer until the end of September, and would be advised to seek it out as, like an eclipse, it's a heavenly wonder that doesn't come around that often.

The others were all Bachtrackers - two from the BBC NOW at the start of the season (Prom 5 and Prom 6), the highlight of which was Nicola Benedetti's completely incredible performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto (and you may have heard that I like him). My last visit was last week's BBCSO performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred, which you can read about here (look out for a favorite character from Toy Story in the review. See, you want to know now.)

Friday, 1 September 2017

Now where have I read that before?


How nice to see my words appearing in BBC Music Magazine, though, what's this? They appear to be in quote marks. So now, I'm wondering, if straight quotation from my liner notes makes up a third of the CD review, does that mean I'm owed some of the reviewer's fee? Probably not, though at least I spelled the composer's name correctly.


It's Boris GOLTZ, Michael.





Friday, 7 July 2017

Igor Levit's monumental performance of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues

Birmingham Town Hall (Photo: Andrew Morris)
My long drive up to Birmingham was rewarded with an intense and riveting performance of Shostakovich’s mighty Preludes and Fugues from pianist of the moment, Igor Levit. Here’s the introduction to my Bachtrack review:

Deep into Igor Levit’s monumental Birmingham Town Hall performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s vast cycle of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, I wondered if this work was some kind of Everest for pianists. It’s rare to meet it complete, in concert. The careful, transparent counterpoint places exacting demands on its interpreters and although it’s never flashy, there are devilishly difficult corners. Success here depends upon unwavering concentration from musician and listener alike. If you fell, there’d be no soft landing, and certainly nowhere to hide. But the mountain analogy only gets you so far. This isn’t music of lofty vistas, of high-wire daring or summit-triumph. Shostakovich’s immaculate miniatures are spare, interior, and their rewards quiet and very personal. When Levit reached the final page of the last, defiant fugue – the effort and intensity registering on his face and his hands pounding out its final unisons – it was clear that this was a long, lonely and intensely moving pilgrimage to some of the subtlest landscapes the piano can paint.



Friday, 26 May 2017

Classical fans bemoan poor quality of yet-to-be-announced Proms season

A broken record


Music fans have freed extra time for whinging this year by bemoaning the poor quality of programming at the 2017 BBC Proms early, three weeks before season details are even due to be published. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of carping have been awash with complaints of slim pickings and dumbing down in the yet-to-be-announced concert series. Twitter user @classicalbore commented that there would be “not much worth seeing at the #2017Proms. Can tell already.” There have also been suggestions that Norman Lebrecht is to dust off his annual Proms-bashing article template and has been seen examining the more obscure composer anniversaries listed in the Boosey and Hawkes music diary in search of outrage-worthy omissions in the season’s programming.

Aficionados are also anticipating an excuse to whine about the dearth of British composers programmed this year, with music by such unsung greats as William Alwyn, George Lloyd and Kaikhosru Sorabji unlikely to be performed. A post on the Bax Botherers forum summed up the mood among many anoraks, complaining “The BBC think they can throw us a performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony now and then and that we’ll stop going on about music no one else likes. In actual fact, every performance of a piece by a composer not born in Britain is another missed opportunity to play one of Brian’s 31 other symphonies.”

Meanwhile, Proms organisers are expected to continue their wearisome commitment to composers who aren’t dead by including new commissions in otherwise granny-friendly concerts. Jenny Squeekygate, head of new music at the Proms, commented “Believe me, none of us like this stuff anymore than you do, but we have noticed an inverse correlation between contemporary music and champagne-related accidents in the Albert Hall boxes.  And besides, it just wouldn’t be the Proms without a 7/8ths empty Oli Knussen concert, would it?”