Wodehouse: Uncle Dynamite

January 16, 2021

Uncle Dynamite
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2006) [1948]
320 p.

There can be few less auspicious beginnings for an aspiring son-in-law than to inadvertently smash not just one, but two of the precious items in your intended father-in-law’s collection of curios, but this is just what happens to the hapless Pongo Twistleton upon his arrival at Ashenden Manor. Nor can it be particularly advantageous to find oneself overrun and overruled, in one’s own home, by a bombastic uncle, but this is just the position in which the long-suffering Bill Oakshott finds himself. Likewise, to be engaged to be married to a young man whom all the world sees is unsuitable, and who is persistently in love with another, could never be a recommended course for young and eligible women, but such is the quandary of the beautiful Hermione Bostock.

The resolution of these conundrums, and several others, becomes the project of Uncle Fred, whose boundless invention and shameless deceptions make him well-suited to the task. Adopting false identities, he makes a place for himself among the Ashendenizens, and gradually, by fits and starts, works his way through to triumph. It’s an inspired performance by Wodehouse; maybe not one of his very best, but a far sight better than you or I could do.


Musical anniversaries in 2021

January 11, 2021

There is quite a raft of musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

  • 25 years:
    • Vagn Holmboe
    • Mieczyslaw Weinberg
    • Toru Takemitsu
  • 50 years:
    • Marcel Dupré
    • Igor Stravinsky
  • 100 years:
    • Camille Saint-Saëns
    • Engelbert Humperdinck
  • 150 years:
    • Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
    • Sigismond Thalberg
  • 400 years:
    • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
    • Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years:
    • Robert Fayrfax
    • Josquin Desprez

Birthdays

  • 100 years: Malcolm Arnold
  • 150 years: Alexander von Zemlinsky
  • 450 years: Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years: Philippe de Monte
  • 800 years: Alfonso X El Sabio

It’s the year of Michael Praetorius, in a sense, who gets both a birthday and a memorial commemoration, but the big names this year, at least for me and my house, will be Stravinsky and Josquin. I’ve planned a listening project for each: for Stravinsky, I’ll be focusing on the three big ballets (The Rite, Petrouchka, and The Firebird) and his choral music, with a smattering of other things thrown in; for Josquin I hope to listen through all of his 60-odd motets, 60-odd chansons, and 18 Mass settings. It should be great!

I’m also looking forward to spending time with Takemitsu, whose beguilingly dissonant music always lures me back, and Thalberg, whose virtuoso piano works have been given an airing in a few recent records by top-shelf piano virtuosos (this and this). I did a large Weinberg listening project just a few years ago, but I intend to revisit some of the highlights.

Strange to think that Josquin and Fayrfax died in the same year. I’d have put them in adjacent centuries if asked at the bus stop.

I’m not really sure what I should listen to from Dupré or Sweelinck; I don’t have much in my collection. Suggestions welcome.


Favourites in 2020: Books

January 8, 2021

‘Twas a tough year for book reading in 2020. I had a few reading projects on the go, with middling success. One ambitious project — to read the Bible in one year — foundered somewhere in the Book of Proverbs. I had planned to read a half dozen of Thomas Hardy’s novels, but only got through two — both excellent! I’ve been exploring playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, and that went well until the autumn, when it didn’t. The one thread that I managed to maintain consistently was my ongoing exploration of Roman history and literature.

Since I’ve written, or intend to write, about these books at greater length, I’ll content myself today with brief notice of my favourites from the past year. WordPress’ formatting has gone haywire in recent months, and I don’t know how to fix the wayward image wrapping below; my apologies. In alphabetical order:

Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries

I was fascinated to read this collection of first-hand accounts of meetings with Beethoven written by friends, rivals, and musical tourists. It provides a nicely rounded portrait of the man, and was one of the highlights of my observance of Beethoven’s anniversary year.

*

Boswell & Johnson: Journeys to the Western Isles

I found great enjoyment in these two books which were the literary fruit of the journey Boswell and Johnson took together through the wilds of Scotland. Johnson’s focus is mostly on Scotland, and Boswell’s is mostly on Johnson, and the latter is the better of the two.

*

Esolen: The Hundredfold

A book-length religious poem in which Esolen reaches back to verse forms that once had a wide appeal — hymns, lyrics, and dramatic monologues — to create an insightful and involving meditation on the life of Christ. A book full of music, in more ways than one.

*

Gribbin: Six Impossible Things

A slim, non-technical introduction to issues in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. I appreciated the clarity of the writing, and was left in amazement at our radical uncertainty about what this immensely successful theory actually means. One of the better popular science books I’ve read in some years.

*

Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd

A wonderful novel about the complexities of love, and a meditation on what makes for a good marriage partner. Splendidly written on every page.

*

Hardy: The Return of the Native

A darker, moodier exploration of romance and love, with a variety of interesting formal elements adding to the appeal. Also splendidly written. I wish I had had more time for Hardy this year!

*

von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

Written shortly after Vatican II, this is a very curious and valuable commentary on the aftermath of the Council from an author usually classed with the reformers, but here found to be a sharp critic.

*

Statius: Thebaid

An epic poem from Rome’s first century AD which re-tells an old Greek story about a fraternal rivalry for power in Thebes. It might sound unpromising, but the poem has a lot of personality and a number of things on its mind. A happy surprise.

*

Tacitus: Annals

A narrative overview of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from Augustus to Nero (14-68 AD), this is a sternly written, fiercely intelligent history. One could hardly ask for a better guide to the strange concatenation of emperors through this perennially-interesting period. One of the highlights of my Roman history project so far.

*

Wodehouse: Blandings and Uncle Fred

Not one book here, but an assortment. I polished off the Uncle Fred books, and continued my long, pleasant meander through the Blandings Castle series. When the world’s gone bonkers, and circumstances might reasonably get you down, Wodehouse stands ready to ease the heart and delight the mind.

***

Prospects for reading in 2021 are not looking particularly auspicious, but I am nonetheless looking forward with anticipation, drafting plans in hope rather than assurance. Setting aside with relief my disastrous efforts to spend a year with Yeats, I’m retreating this year to the safety and comfort of Wordsworth; Wodehouse will, I hope, continue to grace my bedside table; and my years-long Roman history project will reach a crescendo, or perhaps a long diminuendo, with a traversal of Gibbon’s gargantuan Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Such, at least, is the plan. We’ll see how it turns out!

Popular authors: Shakespeare (6), Wodehouse (5), Tacitus (3), Seneca (2), Hardy (2).


Favourites in 2020: Film

December 31, 2020

It’s been a somewhat tough year on the film-watching front. Whatever nooks and crannies I was finding for watching movies in the past few years were plugged up this year, first by life changes brought about by unhappy events like a global pandemic, and then by life changes brought about by happy events like the birth of beautiful, bouncing twins. Nonetheless, I did manage to eke out some viewing time, and some of what I saw was sufficiently praiseworthy that I’d like to share it. The “Top 10” list is divided, somewhat crudely, into a top 5 and a bottom 5.

**

To Live
Zhang Yimou (1994)

Zhang Yimou is the filmmaker whom I’ve been most grateful to have discovered this year. This film tells the story of a man who lives through the period of the Cultural Revolution in China. In the course of his life the country moves from one largely rooted in traditional Chinese ways to one wholly formed and managed by the Communist party. Although it is, in that sense, a political movie — political enough, it seems, to have been banned in China — the politics is all in the background. The film is mainly a personal portrait of an ordinary man just trying to do the normal human things under difficult circumstances: get married, have a family, earn a living, be a friend. It is extraordinarily well done, richly textured, often very funny, and finally satisfying. I loved it.

Parenthetically, I also watched several other of Zhang’s films this year, and I would recommend, in descending order of admiration: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Shadow (2018), and Hero (2002). All three stand out for their artistic design: gorgeous cinematography, lavish sets and costumes, and an appealing eye for formality in composition. In this sense, they all three differ from To Live, which is, in comparison, kind of shaggy and loose and earthy. Each was excellent in its own way.

**

The Young Girls of Rochefort
Jacques Demy (1967)

It’s a small French town. The streets are bright and clean. The sun is shining. Beautiful women are everywhere, and love is in the air. How can one keep from singing? Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a simply marvellous musical comedy. We meet an array of characters, and watch with delight as the gentle machinations of the plot bring them into romantic alignment. It is a truly enchanting film, full of life and love and happiness and joy, beautifully structured, and charming in every way. It’s the film that La La Land aspired to be, and as much as I enjoyed that film, Demy’s is better.

It isn’t perfect though. There is that little matter of an ax murderer on the loose, a subplot that seems to go nowhere and amounts to nothing, and there is, more gravely, the matter of all that jazz, but I lathered up with antihistamine cream and I was fine.

**

Nights of Cabiria
Federico Fellini (1957)

I’ve had a very mixed experience with Fellini’s films over the years. Rome, Open City was probably the one that I most enjoyed, with his The Flowers of St Francis coming a distant second. La Dolce Vita left me cold.

I returned to Fellini this year, and his cinematic portrait of a good-hearted prostitute in Le Notte di Cabiria is the high point of my experience with this filmmaker. It took a while for me to warm up to it, but in the end it won me over. It is more of a portrait — a portrait of a beautiful soul — than a story; the episodes — the “nights” — are vignettes meant to reveal something of Cabiria to us. She is tough on the outside, though not proud, and it is only when she is most forgetful of herself that she shows herself most clearly. Fellini takes her to some bleak places, but this is a film that ends well, and that last shot, that beautiful, heart-rending, unforgettable last shot redeemed all.

Thinking that perhaps this good experience might be the start of a beautiful relationship between Fellini and myself, I watched his 8-1/2 and Roma, neither of which, I’m afraid, I was able to finish. We have agreed to an amicable separation.

**

How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal
Eugene Green (2018)

Green’s films are usually hard to find — I’ve been searching for Les Signes and Correspondances for several years, without success — so it was a surprise, but a delight, to find this one on YouTube. (It has since disappeared.)

The story is about a poet, Fernando Pessoa, who gets a job writing advertising copy. It’s very funny, in that understated Green way: a parable, with ludicrous components, about the hazards of mixing poetry and commerce, or, more generally, of putting the liberal arts at the service of the servile arts, or, even more generally, of not respecting the right order of things. There’s a humorous strain about the cluelessness of censorious bureaucrats — a timely theme in 2020! The humour aimed specifically at the Church didn’t seem particularly well aimed, though he did get in at least one good joke about the Jesuits.

I loved that even in a short film of less than 30 minutes, Green still took the time for his traditional 5 or 6 minute musical introduction. These things cannot be rushed.

**

Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi (2019)

While it is certainly nobody’s idea of an adequate response to the evils of Nazi Germany, I am full of admiration for the spirit of Taika Waititi’s World War II comedy in which a young German boy’s imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler. Sure, let us have grim and dark stories that grapple with the malice of the time. Let us have Schindler’s List and A Hidden Life. But I see no reason we cannot also, in the mix, have a bright and winsome comedy that muses on what the war might have looked like to a bright and winsome child.

It is tempting to call this a “dark comedy” — dark on account of its backdrop and certain aspects of its content, and comedic on account of its instincts. But, if we are going to call it that, we should understand that it’s quite a different thing from the “dark comedy” of, for instance, the Coen Brothers. There is a kind of darkness in which a sardonic laugh can find a place; this film has nothing to do with that. This film is fundamentally comical, with the darkness mere pomp, almost a mere wisp. It reminded me of Chesterton, who believed in the titanic strength of comedy, who believed that it is comedy that is the fundamental heartbeat of things, and it is comedy that will finally triumph. This film makes me think that Waititi believes that too.

It’s a bold film, then, in that respect, and I understand why many people found it difficult to take. The nearest thing to it that I can think of would be Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, which also makes of the Nazis an object of satire and jest. Jojo Rabbit is tonally very complex, and I’m curious to know how it will bear up under repeated viewings, but on this first pass it worked for me.

**

Early Summer
Yasujirō Ozu (1951)

A lovely picture about a woman contemplating marriage and all of the changes that it will bring to her life. A beautiful portrait of multigenerational family life, with its complications and confusions and joys. Quiet moments of happiness. A very heartwarming and optimistic picture from Ozu. Slow, of course, but that’s Ozu too.

*

The Return
Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003)

Another marvellous, slow-burn film from Zvyagintsev. Like his later Loveless, it encourages us to dwell on what children are owed by their parents, and is unsparing in its willingness to indict failures to honour those obligations. The story — about two boys who go into the wilderness with their hitherto-absent father — is simplicity itself, and there is enough mystery and ambiguity at play to keep us on edge. The main reasons to appreciate this film are the gorgeous direction and cinematography: the slow pans, the muted colours, the deliberate pacing. It’s sumptuous, in a really bleak kind of way.

*

Cinema Paradiso
Giuseppe Tornatore (1988)

A touching film about friendship, community, and how our upbringing stays with us. The film is, on one level, a story about one man’s life-long love-affair with movies, but on a deeper level it’s about how we are formed as people by the places we live, what we do, and those we know and love. It’s a lovely, charming picture. A nice portrait of life in an Italian village too. For a film about movies, it doesn’t have much in the way of visual flair.

*

Knives Out
Rian Johnson (2019)

Sometimes you just want to see a good whodunit. I don’t know how it will play on repeat, but on first go-round this was a riot. Campy, fun performances, humorous direction and editing, and a cunningly contrived plot. A little talky, but hearing Daniel Craig talk in that affected way is not a chore. One of the best times I’ve had in a movie for a while. I still don’t understand why people put Jamie Lee Curtis in movies.

*

One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang, Zhang Jialing (2019)

A mannerly but nonetheless devastating investigation of China’s repugnant “One Child” policy, told by a young woman who grew up under it and whose family was wounded by it. The scale of forced abortions and, when the state was too slow with the knife, the farming out of children to international adoption agencies is hard to believe, and harder to stomach.  The film contains images that are, on their own, frightening portrayals of the evils of abortion — the kind of thing that will get you kicked off a university campus in the West before you can say “third trimester”. It is absurd, therefore, that in the last few minutes it belly flops by drawing a moral equivalence between China’s totalitarian state and the efforts of pro-lifers to protect babies from harm. Let me get this straight: the problem with all those babies killed and dumped in garbage heaps was that it was done without the mother’s consent? Preposterous. But the film is better than such awkward pieties would seem to allow.

***

Films by same director: Zhang (4), Hitchcock (4), Fellini (3), Green (2), Malick (2), Villeneuve (2), Bong (2).

Oldest: One Week (1920), The Crowd (1928), The Public Enemy (1931).

Newest: Tenet (September), Emma. (March), Little Women (Dec 2019).

Re-watches: Parasite (2019), A Hidden Life (2019), The Tree of Life (2011), WALL-E (2008), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Fugitive (1993), The Princess Bride (1987), Vertigo (1958).

Abandoned: Little Women (2019), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), High Life (2018), Roma (1972), 8-1/2 (1963).


Favourites in 2020: Music

December 29, 2020

The past year was deficient in many respects, but not in the quality of the music that I heard. I’d like to share a selection of the discs that most appealed to me in 2020.

**

Saints Inouis
Ensemble Scholastica
[Atma, 2020]

The marvellous Ensemble Scholastica, based in Montreal, celebrated their 10th anniversary this year with a disc entitled Saints Inouis (“Astonishing Saints”). The musical programme is rather niche: it is structured around liturgies for three specific feast days in the French region of Creuse, located a few hundred kilometres south of Paris. The music celebrates St Pardoux (7th century), St Yrieix (6th century), and the feast of the conception of the Virgin (which would later come to be called the Immaculate Conception). The music itself dates from the 10th-12th centuries, and is of extraordinary beauty. The performances are gorgeous, and this is one of the most beautiful discs of medieval music to come my way in some time.

*

Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories
Graindelavoix
[Glossa, 2020]

In their last few records the vocal ensemble Graindelavoix has experimented more and more with new ways of interpreting the music of Renaissance masters. The style they have evolved, which is about as far as one can get from the pure, cool style familiar to us from the work of English choirs, is rugged, plangent, dark-toned, and lush. This disc, in which they sing the Tenebrae music of Gesualdo, is a match made in heaven. Gesualdo’s extraordinary harmonic adventurousness emerges in all its prickly, abrasive glory in these vigorous and committed performances. I have no idea if this sounds like what Gesualdo had in mind, but I have a feeling he would have liked it. I, at any rate, like it very much. Here is a lovely short film of the ensemble singing Plange Quasi Virgo, from the service for Holy Saturday:

*

Music for Milan Cathedral
Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
[Delphian, 2019]

This wonderful disc is structured around the music of Hermann Matthias Werricore, a virtually unknown composer who, I learn from the liner notes, was maestro di cappella at Milan’s Duomo Cathedral from about 1520-1550, a good long stretch. We get to hear a half dozen of his motets, including a 10 minute setting of Ave maris stella. The program is filled out by other music that would have been heard at the cathedral during his tenure, the best known of whom was Josquin Desprez. I am putting the disc on my year-end list not so much because of the music — though it is wonderful music — but because of the singing by Siglo de Oro. I think I have praised this group in the past, and so long as their singing continues to be as rich, balanced, and transparent as this I’ll continue to do so. Excellent engineering from Delphian made this one of the best sounding discs of polyphony I heard this year.

*

Handel: Acis and Galatea
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
[Chandos, 2018]

I’ve a long-standing admiration for Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Sometimes described as a “pastoral opera”, it is a relatively small scale work (~90 minutes) full of delightful melodies and charming scenes. The story is of a love triangle between the shepherd Acis, the nymph Galatea, and the cyclops Polyphemus — obviously, from the title, Polyphemus is very much a third wheel. It was Handel’s first dramatic work in English, and it is a triumph, well worth getting to know. This performance, from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company, is headlined by the wonderful soprano Lucy Crowe singing the part of Galatea. The singing is great, the choruses are great. It’s all great. Here is the second-Act trio “The flocks shall leave the mountains”:

*

This year marked the 250th birthday of Beethoven, and much of my year was devoted to listening to his music. I went through all of the symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and major choral works, often in multiple interpretations. It was a splendid project. Out of all the music I heard, certain things stand out as particularly excellent. I was very taken with George Szell’s cycle of symphonies, made in the 1960s with the Cleveland Orchestra.  I chose a small but eminent stable of pianists for the sonatas and listened through each sonata from each of them: Solomon, Arrau, Kempff, Gilels, Schiff, and Levit, with occasional forays into the playing of Perahia, Rubinstein, and Richter.

To my surprise, the pianist who consistently emerged as my favourite was Andras Schiff. I was surprised because he alone among these pianists played a “period instrument”, a relatively underpowered piano that lacks the rich sonority of a modern Steinway. But I grew to really appreciate his instrument’s clarity and lack of bombast, and hearing Schiff’s interpretations was one of the musical highlights of my year.

Another pianistic highlight was Ronald Brautigam’s three-disc survey of all Beethoven’s “theme and variations” pieces (excluding the Diabelli Variations).  The most famous among these is the Eroica Variations, but there are many more, including delightful pieces based on the tunes of “God Save the King” and “Rule Brittania”. I have a special affection for theme and variations compositions, and Beethoven was a master of the form. These were great fun. Here is a sample, an unpublished set of six small variations on a Swiss song:

*

Offenbach: Colorature
Jodie Devos, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Laurent Campellone
[Alpha, 2019]

After the austerity of medieval chant, the formality of Renaissance polyphony, the pastoral beauty of Handel, and the robust musical intelligence of Beethoven, we come across Offenbach in exactly the right frame of mind: ready for some candy. Last year (2019) was the 200th anniversary of his birth, and I had intended to listen to some of his music then. In the event, I didn’t get to it until this year, and one of the discs I most enjoyed was this corker from Jodie Devos. As suggested by the title, the disc is devoted to coloratura fireworks, and magnificent it is. Put this music on at a party — assuming we were able to have parties — and before you could say “Vive l’Escargot” your guests would be lined up, dancing a can-can. Here’s an aria from The Tales of Hoffmann:

*

Zender: Schubert’s Winterreise
Julian Prégardien, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Robert Reimer
[Alpha, 2018]

Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise I recommend to everyone. This disc of Hans Zender’s Schubert’s Winterreise is quite a different beast; I recommend it, but only to those who already know the original well. Zender’s Winterreise, which he called a “composed interpretation” of the original, was completed in 1993. It is completely bonkers. The piano has blossomed into an orchestra, and each of the 24 songs has been filtered through the musical developments of the two hundred years since Schubert first wrote them. Strange sonorities erupt, songs fracture and break apart, or take sharp turns down unexpected alleyways, and the singing sometimes reverts to speech. It’s not something to hear every day, but as a stimulating meditation on these immortal songs, it has won a place in my heart.

*

Sorabji: Sequentia Cyclica
Jonathan Powell
[Piano Classics, 2019]

Also in the bonkers category is this monster from Kaikhosru Sorabji. His Sequentia Cyclica is an 8-1/2 hour long colossus, a set of 27 variations on the “Dies Irae” theme from the Requiem Mass. It makes superhuman demands on the pianist — and also on the listener. This is the “theme and variations” form conceived on a massive scale; some of these individual “variations” run to nearly an hour. It is, again, not something I am going to listen to very often, but I am really happy to have heard it. Recommended to those with an affection for Mount Everest, the US national debt, and galactic superclusters.

Here is Powell playing the variation “in the style of Debussy”, complete with score:

*

Fading
The Gesualdo Six
[Hyperion, 2020]

My disc of the year, however, is this one from the British ensemble Gesualdo Six. The music is an eclectic mash-up of Renaissance polyphony and modern vocal music, tied together thematically by references to light and darkness. We hear Veljo Tormis’ Four Estonian Lullabies and pieces by Joanna Marsh, Sarah Rimkus, and the group’s own director, Owain Park, interwoven with music by Gombert, Byrd, and Tallis. It works wonderfully. The singing of this young group is immaculate, and I look forward to hearing much more from them in the future.

Here is Owain Park’s own setting of Phos hilaron, which, being translated, goes like this:

Hail, gladdening light, of his pure glory poured,
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
holiest of holies, Jesu Christ, our Lord.

Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
with undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life alone;
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.

Fitting thoughts as we close out this year and look forward to another.

***

That’s the kind of year in music it has been for me. Wishing you all the best for 2021.


Marston: The Malcontent

December 15, 2020

The Malcontent
John Marston
(Bloomsbury, 2014) [c.1603]
176 p.

Well, this disguise doth yet afford me that
Which kings do seldom hear, or great men use,—
Free speech: and though my state’s usurp’d,
Yet this affected strain gives me a tongue
As fetterless as is an emperor’s.
(I.1)

John Marston, about ten years younger than Shakespeare, was a successful playwright for the London stage, and a few of his plays recur in anthologies of the period. The Malcontent is one of them.

It is an entertaining play. Set in the court of Genoa, it tells a story in which the duke of Genoa, having been overthrown by a rival and sent into exile, returns disguised as a crabby, frank-talking jester, — the ‘malcontent’ of the play’s title — intent on protecting his wife and winning back his position. In a series of lively comedic scenes he worms his way into the court’s good opinion, meanwhile laying traps for his enemies.

One of those enemies, Mendoza, is a ladder-climbing sycophant willing to do anything to protect and advance his position:

I’ll be reveng’d. Duke, thy suspect;
Duchess, thy disgrace; Ferneze, thy rivalship;
Shall have swift vengeance. Nothing so holy,
No band of nature so strong,
No law of friendship so sacred,
But I’ll profane, burst, violate, ’fore I’ll
Endure disgrace, contempt, and poverty.
(II.1)

He reminded me of Iago in some respects — one of his lines (“Fortune still dotes on those who cannot blush.” (II.1)) might have come from Iago’s mouth without incongruity — though ultimately he is not nearly so vivid nor dangerous. (Othello is also a c.1603 play.)

The pleasure of the play, however, is not so much in the characters as it is in Marston’s clever plotting, in which disguises proliferate, false pretences spread thickly on the ground, and double-crossing is the order of the day. The plotting is not tight, exactly, for there were some scenes for which the purpose was obscure to me, but it is absorbing and moves swiftly to its happy conclusion.

This is the first of the Elizabethan/Jacobean plays I’ve read in this project that has been mostly prose. Verse pops up here and there, mostly at moments of high import or eloquence, but it is the exception.

In his study of the plays of this period, Swinburne finds Marston an uneven playwright, complaining that

the reader in struggling through some of the scenes and speeches feels as though he were compelled to push his way through a cactus hedge

yet concluding that despite his defects there are still good reasons to read him:

But when the poet is content to deliver his message like a man of this world, we discover with mingled satisfaction, astonishment, and irritation that he can write when he pleases in a style of the purest and noblest simplicity; that he can make his characters converse in a language worthy of Sophocles…

I don’t know whether I should agree with Swinburne here or not. A possible example of a cactus hedge might be this passage, in which the villain Mendoza erupts in a diatribe against women:

Women! nay, Furies; nay, worse; for they torment only the bad, but women good and bad. Damnation of mankind! Breath, hast thou praised them for this? and is’t you, Ferneze, are wriggled into smock-grace? sit sure. O, that I could rail against these monsters in nature, models of hell, curse of the earth, women! that dare attempt anything, and what they attempt they care not how they accomplish; without all premeditation or prevention; rash in asking, desperate in working, impatient in suffering, extreme in desiring, slaves unto appetite, mistresses in dissembling, only constant in unconstancy, only perfect in counterfeiting: their words are feigned, their eyes forged, their sighs dissembled, their looks counterfeit, their hair false, their given hopes deceitful, their very breath artificial: their blood is their only god; bad clothes, and old age, are only the devils they tremble at. (I.6)

It’s crass and stupid, of course, but consider who’s saying it, and I think it could be played to good comedic effect on stage, so I’m not sure it deserves outright censure. On the other hand, an example of Marston’s “pure and noble simplicity” might be this moral reflection:

Favours are writ in dust; but stripes we feel
Depravèd nature stamps in lasting steel.
(II.3)

Overall I found Marston remarkably amiable, and certainly less thorny-going than I found Jonson or Chapman. Perhaps further acquaintance would firm up my views; the other of his plays that I’ve seen anthologized is a tragedy, The Dutch Courtesan, and perhaps I’ll read it. We shall see.


Bruckner: Os justi

December 15, 2020

My goodness, this is beautiful singing. Bruckner’s Os justi, sung by Tenebrae.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks what is just.
The law of his God is in his heart:
and his feet do not falter.
Alleluia.


Seneca: Tragedies

December 3, 2020

Six Tragedies
Phaedra, Oedipus, Medea, Trojan Women, Hercules Furens, Thyestes
Seneca
Translated from the Latin by Emily Wilson
(Oxford, 2010) [c.50]
xxxvi + 240 p.

Quid ratio possit?
Vicit ac regnat furor.

What can reason do? The question is posed in the course of Seneca’s Phaedra, and it is central to all of these tragedies, plays in which ungoverned passions run amok, wreaking destruction on all sides. Madness conquers and reigns.

The plays are horror shows. Suicide, murder, cannibalism, child-murder, incest, self-mutilation – nothing, it seems, is beyond the reach of human depravity. In her play, Phaedra struggles against lust for her step-son; by play’s end he has been cursed and torn limb from limb, and she has killed herself. In his play, Oedipus cannot escape the gruesome end which the fates have prepared for him:

Fate is driving us: give in to fate.
No amount of worrying can change
the threads of fate’s fixed spindle.
All that human beings suffer,
all we do, comes from on high.
(Act V)

Medea is overcome with desire to revenge herself on her husband for his betrayal, no matter the cost to herself:

Come to me now, O vengeful Furies, punishers of sinners,
wild in your hair with serpents running free,
holding black torches in your bloody hands,
come to me, scowling as you did of old
when you stood round my marriage bed. Kill his new wife,
kill her father, and all the royal family.
(Act I)

In The Trojan Women neither Hecuba, the Trojan queen, nor Andromache, the wife of Hector, are able to prevent their children being sacrificed to the gods. Hercules, in his play, falls into a madness and slaughters his entire family. And in Thyestes the anger of two warring brothers results in one feeding the other’s children to him in a gruesome feast.

What is Seneca’s point in these plays? They are not celebrations of violence and depravity; throughout, the tone is melancholy and resigned. My best guess is that they are artistic explorations of his Stoic philosophy. The Stoics believed that detachment from passion, positive or negative, was the key to happiness. Their watchwords were steadiness, rationality, and acceptance of whatever fate laid in one’s path. Perhaps in these plays Seneca is attempting a proof by contradiction: see what happens when you don’t heed the counsels of Stoicism! Love, hatred, grief, terror, menace, and terrible suffering rule the day; witness the terrible consequences. This, at least, is my best reading of the grand strategy at work.

As is probably obvious from the subject matter of the plays, they bear a significant debt to the Athenian tragic tradition. Like the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides they are written in verse (iambic trimeter in the Latin), and are structured antiphonally with sections for dramatic characters alternating with sections for a chorus which comments upon the action. Although it is hard to judge from the page, my sense is that this structure gives the plays a somewhat episodic feel, like a sequence of vignettes, rather than developing them into a flexible drama that builds forward momentum. The plays are not particularly long – around 1000 lines, typically, and I would imagine that on the stage they would play in about an hour or so.

Seneca’s plays have been enormously influential in our tradition. The introduction to this Oxford edition argues that, among classical writers, his influence on European literature is second only to Virgil’s. These plays were read widely in the Middle Ages, and decisively affected early modern drama during the development of national traditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, in particular, owe them a debt: the tragedies of Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus must be based more or less directly on Seneca’s Thyestes), Webster, and Marlowe are all, to some degree, drawing on them. Personally, I would be more inclined to pick up the plays of those “imitators” than I would be to dwell overlong on Seneca, but I have enjoyed reading them, at least this once.


Beethoven books

November 19, 2020

Beethoven
Impressions by his Contemporaries
O.G. Sonneck (Ed.)
(Dover, 1967) [1926]
272 p.

The Beethoven Quartets
Joseph Kerman
(OUP, 1967)
380 p.

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony
And Other Writings
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(Oxford, 1953)
172 p.

The Year of Our Lord 2020 has been many things, most of them not particularly endearing, but it has had this going for it: Beethoven, had he lived somewhat longer than he did, would this year have celebrated his 250th birthday. To mark the occasion I took up a few books about the great man.

**

The Dover volume is a delightful treasure-chest: it gathers up the personal recollections of many people who met Beethoven, or knew him well, giving us an unusually intimate angle on the man and his life. The recollections range from the rough and simple — from an old man, for instance, who lived across from the Beethovens when Ludwig was a boy — to the highest of high brow — Goethe. Some were written by Beethoven’s intimate friends, some by his compositional rivals, and some by mere admirers who happened to meet him once and remembered it for the rest of their lives.

When we think of Beethoven, we (or, not to generalize unduly, I) tend to think of the brash, proud artist who dominated European music and knew it. That Beethoven is here, to some extent. We hear, for instance, the famous anecdote about the time he refused to give way in the street to the Empress and a group of Dukes, saying to his companion, “Keep hold of my arm, they must make room for us, not we for them.” We get the story about how, upon being told that certain intervals in one of his pieces were forbidden “by all the theoreticians”, he responded, “But I allow them!” We hear a few stories about how he tweaked the vanity of his compositional rivals (by, for example, on one memorable occasion, improvising a cheeky musical commentary on a theme of a rival played upside down).

Other well-known stories about Beethoven appear in this volume: his angry cancellation of his third symphony’s dedication to Napoleon, his humiliated reaction to the failure of the premiere of his opera, his rather humorous antics at the podium when conducting his music (and the manner in which the comedy turned to pathos when he lost the ability to hear the orchestra he was leading).

We also get a few glimpses of Beethoven the mystic, the musical genius who bestrode his age and whose musical utterances were treated as oracles in certain quarters. The composer Ignaz von Seyfried, for instance, recollecting one of Beethoven’s famous piano improvisations, wrote that:

When once he began to revel in the finite world of tones, he was transported also above all earthly things; — his spirit had burst all restricting bonds, shaken off the yokes of servitude, and soared triumphantly and jubilantly into the luminous spaces of the higher aether.

We also learn that Beethoven was a

man filled with a sacred fire, who bore his God in his heart, and in whose soul, perhaps, there blossomed forth a springtime of paradisiacal mildness amid all this uproar of the elements.

At least he said “perhaps”. My appetite for this sort of thing is quite limited, though it would be churlish to doubt that Beethoven’s piano recitals were memorable and moving occasions for many of those who heard them.

At the other end of the spectrum, we read about how Beethoven’s late compositions challenged the expectations of his listeners, many of whom received them as evidence of his decline. Louis Spohr, himself an accomplished but conservative composer, described the finale of the Ninth Symphony as “monstrous and tasteless”, and Beethoven’s late works in general as “wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful’. It’s hard not to smile at such appraisals now.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the stories here gathered together is that the Beethoven they reveal is actually quite a different sort of man from the “revolutionary artist” reputation that he had, then and now, in certain quarters. We hear from a number of people who, seeing him seated alone and looking surly, were afraid to speak to him — a man too great, it seemed, for the hoi polloi. But almost without fail that forbidding exterior dropped away when the man was actually approached and engaged: he was generous, kind, happy to talk, and seemed genuinely appreciative of the attention. He sat alone and looked surly, perhaps, because he couldn’t easily carry on a conversation. (Those who did try to talk to him had to write down their side of the encounter.) It was cheering for me to see this side of Beethoven appear so often and to so many different admirers.

Best of all are the anecdotes that reveal Beethoven’s own love of music, and the love his music engendered in others who heard him with understanding and appreciation. I was surprised to learn that Beethoven regarded Handel as “the master of all masters”, and, we are told, even quoted from Messiah on his deathbed (saying, “My day’s work is done; if a physician still can be of use in my case (and then he lapsed into English) his name shall be called wonderful.”). Beethoven once, as a young boy, improvised at the piano for Mozart, and in his maturity regarded “The Magic Flute” as Mozart’s greatest work; “Don Giovanni” he apparently disliked, mostly on account of its subject matter. And I would not have guessed that he would name Cherubini as the greatest opera composer of his day, but he did. I laughed at the story of how Franz Liszt, as a boy of just 11 years, played for Beethoven; Liszt recalled that

Beethoven asked me whether I could play a Bach fugue. I chose the C-minor Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavichord. “And could you also transpose the Fugue at once into another key?” Beethoven asked me. Fortunately I was able to do so.

Of course you were, Franz.

Beethoven’s health took a turn for the worse late in 1826. A long parade of people, distinguished and not, came to pay their respects. He passed away on 26 March 1827, one of the most celebrated men of his age.

*

The biographical side of Beethoven, be it ever so interesting, is nonetheless only a sideshow. The music is the main thing. I’ve been celebrating this anniversary year with a lavish listening project that has taken me through all of the symphonies, piano sonatas, piano concertos, major choral works, and string quartets. It was to help me better appreciate the latter that I picked up Joseph Kerman’s volume. Kerman was reputed one of the best musicologists of his generation whose writings were accessible not just to scholars but to educated music lovers as well. It is a very good book.

It is also, to my detriment, a rather technical book. Kerman is a capable analyst of the harmonic structure of Beethoven’s quartets, and devotes a healthy chunk of the book to that happy pastime. I, however, was not able to follow him beyond the shallows. Consequently I eventually fell to skimming over these sections, without much benefit. I will also note an odd thing: the book is full of musical examples in score, but the text itself does not reference the examples; presumably I am meant to know which example is pertinent to the particular point he is making, but, more often than not, I did not know.

Kerman’s love for the quartets comes through strongly. He is not afraid to point out weaknesses where he sees them, but he knows that he is grappling mostly with masterpieces. (His favourite, by the way, appears to be Op.131.) I can’t say that reading the book has greatly increased my appreciation of the quartets, but while I was reading I listened to them a lot, and that has increased my appreciation. Count this one a second-hand victory.

*

Kerman is an able critic, but I picked up Vaughan Williams’ little book to learn what a great composer thinks of Beethoven. I admit I came away somewhat disappointed. Not to spoil the book for prospective readers, but Vaughan Williams likes the Ninth Symphony, for the most part, although there are bits that he doesn’t like. You don’t say? He gets a little technical, but not anything like Kerman. The most endearing parts of the essay are those in which he takes some good spirited digs at the modernist composers, such as Debussy and Stravinsky and Prokofiev, for whom “every other two bars of their compositions could be cut out without losing any music”. It’s not true, but I don’t mind it coming from Vaughan Williams.

More interesting to me have been the “Other Writings” collected in the same volume. There is a short piece on the simple joys of sound and harmony, a defence of nationalism in music, and in particular of an English preference for English music, a warm appreciation of the music of Gustav Holst, and a spirited, if finally unconvincing, argument in favour of playing older music, such as that of Bach, with modern instruments and with modern sensibilities.

One of the best pieces is an essay on the challenges and rewards of composing music for films; he proposes that music should be part of the organic structure of a film from the beginning, not pasted on at the end, though I think it is still true today that film music is normally an afterthought. Even those filmmakers who make best use of music — Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino — usually do so with pre-existing music, rather than music composed specifically for the film.

Vaughan Williams worked for several years on a hymnal for the English church, and he has a fine little essay celebrating the beautiful hymn tunes produced over the centuries by English church musicians. (His exemplar is “Miles Lane”.) He remarks that spending time with those tunes did more for his composing than any amount of formal study could have done, and praises the value of hard work in a practical music context, which, he notes, in another grumpy appraisal, turned even Mahler into “a very tolerable imitation of a composer”.

After the lead essay, the longest in the collection is a “musical autobiography”, in which he traces the course of, and notes the primary influences on, his musical development. His education intersected with the lives of Stanford, Parry, and (or nearly) Elgar, and I found it a quite fascinating story. But, I admit, it is a story that takes us down an inexcusably tangential path when our attention is supposed to be on Beethoven, so I will save it for, perhaps, another time.

**

For an envoi, let’s hear the Op.131 quartet, played here by the Alban Berg Quartet. Happy birthday, Beethoven.


Chapman: Bussy d’Ambois

November 6, 2020

Bussy d’Ambois
George Chapman
(D.C. Heath, 1933) [c.1604]
36 p.

Chapman is best known today because Keats once looked into his Homer; fewer readers will have looked into his Homer themselves, and fewer still, I imagine, will have read this, or any other, of his plays for the Jacobean stage. Yet he once enjoyed a high, or reasonably high, reputation, and this play, in particular, has been remembered as a good example of his art.

The play is a “contemporary drama”, being based on true and timely events –in this case, on the life and death of Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, a Frenchman who had risen high in the French court in the 1570s before carrying on an affair with the wife of a Count, for which transgression he was slain. Chapman takes the tale, amps it up with some lurid supernatural elements, complete with Latin spells and ghostly friars, and fashions from it a quite entertaining tale. (Chapman was not the only author who found in Bussy’s life a worthy subject: Dumas also wrote a novel about him.)

As a dramatist I didn’t find Chapman particularly adroit though. The mechanics of the plot moved along briskly enough, but his characters did not emerge very clearly for me as individuals. When, in the third Act, I came across this description of Bussy, I felt I was getting to know him for the first time:

MONS. I think thee, then, a man
That dares as much as a wild horse or tiger,
As headstrong and as bloody; and to feed
The ravenous wolf of thy most cannibal valour
(Rather than not employ it) thou would’st turn
Hackster to any whore, slave to a Jew,
Or English usurer, to force possessions
(And cut men’s throats) of mortgaged estates;
Or thou would’st tire thee like a tinker’s strumpet,
And murther market folks; quarrel with sheep,
And run as mad as Ajax; serve a butcher;
Do any thing but killing of the King.
(III, ii)

And it is true, on reflection; he is a social climber, and not scrupulous about how he gets to the top.

The introductory notes to the play in my anthology express Chapman’s distinctive strengths well:

Chapman was not dowered with the penetrating imagination that reveals as by a lightning flash unsuspected depths of human character or of moral law. But he has the gnomic faculty that can convey truths of general experience in aphoristic form, and he can wind into a debatable moral issue with adroit casuistry. This gnomic faculty is active throughout this play. There are, for instance, these lines in which a character gives a back-handed compliment to the righteousness of princes:

That Prince doth high in virtue’s reckoning stand
That will entreat a vice, and not command.

(II, ii)

Or consider this brief passage in which one nobleman criticizes another for promoting Bussy to a position of influence, which ends neatly on an aphoristic note:

GUISE.Y’ave stuck us up a very worthy flag,
That takes more wind than we with all our sails.
MONS. O, so he spreads and flourishes.
GUISE. He must down;
Upstarts should never perch too near a crown.
(III, ii)

He experiments with longer set-pieces too, as in this passage about envy. (Whether this is an example of adroit moral casuistry or a example of failed moral illumination, I leave as an exercise.)

HENRY. This desperate quarrel sprung out of their envies
To D’Ambois sudden bravery, and great spirit.
GUISE. Neither is worth their envy.
HENRY. Less than either
Will make the gall of envy overflow;
She feeds on outcast entrails like a kite:
In which foul heap, if any ill lies hid,
She sticks her beak into it, shakes it up,
And hurls it all abroad, that all may view it.
Corruption is her nutriment; but touch her
With any precious ointment, and you kill her.
Where she finds any filth in men, she feasts,
And with her black throat bruits it through the world
Being sound and healthfull; but if she but taste
The slenderest pittance of commended virtue,
She surfeits of it, and is like a fly
That passes all the body’s soundest parts,
And dwells upon the sores; or if her squint eye
Have power to find none there, she forges some:
She makes that crooked ever which is straight;
Calls valour giddiness, justice tyranny:
A wise man may shun her, she not herself;
Whithersoever she flies from her harms,
She bears her foe still claspt in her own arms.
(II, i)

Actually, I think that’s rather good — I think. There is a density of thought and a readiness of expression that appeals to me. But I’ve read it a few times over, and typed it out, and there are still portions of it that I can’t quite follow. By the end I’m no longer sure what is being said.  This illustrates a general problem I had while reading the play: I found it hard to follow the development of the story. I was glad to find a decent scene-by-scene synopsis, which I fell to reading before tackling the same scene in Chapman. It helped me keep my bearings, and improved my appreciation of what I was reading. That said, I can’t say that I will be in a hurry to re-visit this play, or Chapman’s plays more generally. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll look into his Homer.