Saturday 28 October 2017

Making a good impression: The music of The Death Of Stalin

Can brutal dictatorships ever be funny? Armando Iannucci thinks so, and he's crafted a hilarious and terrifying film about the farcical circumstances surrounding the death of just about the baddest dictator of them all, Joseph Stalin, in 1953. The humour in his film The Death of Stalin arises from a few things. People act absurdly as they second-guess everything that is ever said to them. Stalin's ministers scramble for position as his body lies on his office carpet, still warm. And then there's the way with language familiar from Iannucci projects stretching back to the news spoofs On The Hour and The Day Today (old collaborator David Schneider joins him in the screenplay credits). Iannucci and friends are able to render horrible insults and threats funny by their weird specificity (see Beria shouting, from a little window, that he'll gouge out someone's eyes one at a time "so you can watch it happen"). Some question whether this grim moment in history should be played for laughs (see historian Richard Overy's po-faced critique of the film's historical accuracy, for example), but the humour heightens the horror. No one here is making light of on-the-spot executions or Beria's hideous abuses.

Most in the audience will, I suspect, find themselves too gripped by the grim spectacle of Stalin's ministers climbing over each other to advance their careers / survive (often both) to have noticed what goes on on the soundtrack. Mozart and Tchaikovsky here rub shoulders with a Shostakovich-sound-alike score from Christopher Willis, who has worked on a previous Iannucci series, Veep. I suspect Iannucci - a keen classical music lover - knows enough about Shostakovich to have asked Willis for something along the lines of the 10th and 11th Symphonies, which come from 1953 (the year of Stalin's death) and 1957 (a year after Khrushchev's "Secret Speech") respectively.  Willis has done very well, contributing music that sounds like those pieces, and which nods in their direction without borrowing too heavily from them. Listen out for a moment of muted, glassy strings, recalling a favourite atmospheric effect of DDS's, used in a number of the symphonies. There's also a mini-piano concerto which blends the nervy pianism of the 1st Concerto with squawky wind-heavy orchestration of the 2nd. Willis elsewhere mentions Weinberg as a reference point too, though I'd have to know my Weinberg better to spot quite how. Interestingly, the symphonies are the reference point, rather than the workmanlike film scores that Shostakovich pumped out during this period. The decision has generally been taken to avoid the faux-propaganda stylings we get so often, and I'm glad of that.

One element of the plot which could have been developed further involves a concert pianist, seen playing Mozart's 23rd Concerto at the start and the end, who turns out to be Maria Yudina. She's not (I don't think) referred to by her surname during the film, and I didn't guess it was meant to be her until I read the credits later. Her anti-Stalin feelings are not in question - she was a rare example of an off-message voice who was tolerated - and her intense religious faith is hinted at in the film. She's played younger in the film, though, than her actual 54 years, and rather more glamorous too. The whole, rather brilliant, opening scene of the film is based around a story from 1944 (moved up to 1953 here) of the scramble to record a version of a live radio performance after-the-fact, after Stalin requested a copy, and the on-air rendition had gone untaped. The source for this story seems to be the Shostakovich "memoir" Testimony (and you might know what I think of that), though there may be corroboration elsewhere.

Shostakovich fans can go and see the film confident in the knowledge that a particularly skillful pastiche of their favourite awaits, and everyone else can enjoy the jokes and cower at the brutality hidden in plain view.

I should also mention that the film is based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury; proof to the skeptical, hopeful, that those things can have some value.

The image at the top is the film's best poster, I think, which uses a different visual trope of Soviet propaganda to to slanty 1920s stuff we usually see. The image is used for the purposes of review and study and falls under "fair use"; it will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s)

Thursday 19 October 2017

Thing happens, revealing larger thing about classical music

Just recently, a thing happened to a person involved with classical music. While some found this thing amusing, and others still commented that sometimes things just happen, this thing revealed a larger, more troubling thing about classical music.

Many years ago, things happened, but they were different things. Now, increasingly, this sort of thing is all too common in the world of classical music. But what does this thing tell us about the state of classical music as it presently is? Jenny Squeakygate, director of the London Contemporary Percussion Quadrangle, says this sort of thing does happen in the modern world. "The thing is", she comments, "that these things are a consequence of the way in which things are done and the ways in which the public engages with those things."

But is it really fair to simply dismiss this thing as a thing that happened? The format of reports such as this, coupled with a need to pick holes in things, suggests not. "While this thing might have been an accident, it reveals that many within classical music are actually very complacent about a lot of things", says Phillipa Barline, blogger and freelance commentator on things like this. "While organisations are throwing money at things, they are in fact neglecting other things, which I have decided are the most important things".

Whatever the significance of this thing, one thing is clear: things will continue to happen, and they may or may not be indicative of larger things.

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).