Wednesday, February 08, 2012

What the Dickens?

Yesterday was Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. At last the UK has seen fit to celebrate one of its own great writers - normally it has to be sports, royalty or pop culture over here - and there's been some great material to read in various papers, plus talks and essays by Dickens's latest and possibly best biographer, Claire Tomalin - such as this, in which she wonders what he'd have made of 21st-century London.

But what about the music? Why isn't there more music inspired by the works of Dickens? Oliver!, of course, is one of the most popular of all British musicals, which shows it can work [PS - glad to say that my old school friend's youngest son is about to take on the title role in the West End!] - and this year's other big anniversary boy, Claude Debussy, wrote a completely enchanting prelude entitled 'Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq.' Here's Pollini playing it:

Now, there are a few Dickens-based operas kicking around, with varying degrees of obscurity. But why aren't there more?

I suspect many and varied reasons for this. First of all, to create a good opera you have to strip a story down to its bare bones and use as few words as possible - not least because it takes such a long time to sing them. Dickens is all about words. And all about complexity, with layer upon layer of character and cause and effect. It would be difficult to leave things out because sometimes even the smallest incident can prove a vital cog in the whole great wheel of Dickensian fortune - much as it can in life. Next, Dickens is frequently satirical - and opera is not often very big on satire, unless it is Gilbert & Sullivan or Offenbach, in which case it's dismissed as "light". Thirdly, and very crucially, Dickens is true to life in the sense that his finest characters are multifaceted and well-rounded: he does create some of the best literary villains of all time, but even then you can see why they are as they are, where they come from, what has shaped the attitudes that turns them into villains.

Still, none of this is a reason not to try. There is still time for the Great Dickens Opera

My fantasy Dickens opera would be A Tale of Two Cities by Poulenc. (No doubt Solticat's would be A Tale of Two Kitties by Milhaud...) What's yours?

Monday, February 06, 2012

Music writing masterclass: Bernard Levin and the Wexford lemon juice

You want to learn how to write beautifully, with erudition and elegance, about a performance you have attended? This little number by the great Bernard Levin has gone down in history as perhaps the best - and the funniest - ever to hit the page. Admittedly, he had an exceptional subject on this occasion. You can find it in the Levin collection Conducted Tour (1982, Sceptre) and I reproduce it here as a gratis advertisement, in the hope that you will buy the book if you like it (it's out of print, but still findable second-hand. Come on, Sceptre - reprint, please!)

Fasten your seatbelts.

On a memorable performance of Spontini's La Vestale, by Bernard Levin

1979 was The Year of the Missing Lemon Juice. The Theatre Royal in Wexford holds 440; it was completely full that night, so there are, allowing for a few who have already died (it is not true, though it might well have been, that some died of laughter at the time), hardly more than four hundred people who now share, to the end of their lives, an experience from which the rest of the world, now and for ever, is excluded. When the last of us dies, the experience will die with us, for although it is already enshrined in legend, no one who was not an eye witness will ever really understand what we felt. Certainly I am aware that these words cannot convey more than the facts, and the facts, as so often and most particularly in this case, are only part, and a small part, too, of the whole truth. But I must try...

The set for Act I of the opera consisted of a platform laid over the stage, raised about a foot at the back and sloping evenly to the footlights. This was meant to represent the interior of the Temple where burned the sacred flame, and had therefore to look like marble; the designer had achieved a convincing alternative by covering the raised stage in Formica. But the Formica was slippery; to avoid the risk of a performer taking a tumble, designer and stage manager had between them discovered that an ample sprinkling of lemon juice would make the surface sufficiently sticky to provide a secure foothold. The story now forks; down one road, there lies the belief that the member of the stage staff whose duty it was to sprinkle the lifesaving liquid, and who had done so without fail at rehearsal and at the earlier performances (this was the last one of the Festival), had simply forgotten. Down the other branch in the road is a much more attractive rumour: that the theatre charlady, inspecting the premises in the afternoon, had seen to her horror and indignation that the stage was covered in the remains of some spilt liquid, and, inspired by professional pride, had thereupon set to and given it a good scrub and polish all over. The roads now join again, for apart from the superior charm of the second version, it makes no difference what the explanation was. What matters is what happened.

What happened began to happen very early. The hero of the opera strides on to the stage immediately after the curtain has gone up. The hero strode; and instantly fell flat on his back. There was a murmur of sympathy and concern from the audience for his embarrassment and for the possibility that he might have been hurt; it was the last such sound that was to be heard that night, and it was very soon to be replaced by sounds of a very different nature.

The hero got to his feet, with considerable difficulty, and, having slid some way down the stage in falling, proceeded to stride up-stage to where he should have been in the first place; he had, of course, gone on singing throughout, for the music had not stopped. Striding up-stage, however, was plainly more difficult than he had reckoned on, for every time he took a step and tried to follow it with another, the foot with which he had taken the first proceeded to slide down-stage again, swiftly followed by its companion; he may not have known it, but he was giving a perfect demonstration of what is called marcher sur place, a graceful manoeuvre normally used in mime, and seen at its best in the work of Marcel Marceau.

Finding progress uphill difficult, indeed impossible, the hero wisely decided to abandon the attempt and stay where he was, singing bravely on, no doubt calculating that, since the stage was brightly lit, the next character to enter would notice him and adjust his own movements accordingly. So it proved, in a sense at least, for the next character to enter was the hero's trusted friend and confidant, who, seeing his hero further down-stage than he was supposed to be, loyally decided to join him there. Truth to tell, he had little choice, for from the moment he had stepped on to the stage he had begun to slide downhill, arms semaphoring, like Scrooge's clerk on the way home to his Christmas dinner. His downhill progress was arrested by his fetching up against his friend with a thud; this, as it happened, was not altogether inappropriate, as the opera called for them to embrace in friendly greeting at that point. It did not, however, call for them, locked in each other's arms and propelled by the impetus of the friend's descent, to careen helplessly further down-stage with the evident intention of going straight into the orchestra pit with vocal accompaniment - for the hero's aria had, on the arrival of his companion, been transformed into a duet.

On the brink of ultimate disaster they managed to arrest their joint progress to destruction and, working their way along the edge of the stage like mountaineers seeking a route round an unbridgeable crevasse, most gallantly began, with infinite pain and by a form of progress most aptly described in the title of Lenin's famous pamphlet, Four Steps Forward, Three Steps Back, to climb up the terrible hill. It speedily became clear that this hazardous ascent was not being made simply from a desire to retain dramatic credibility; it had a much more practical object. The only structure breaking the otherwise all too smooth surface of the stage was a marble pillar, a yard or so high, on which there burned the sacred flame of the rite. This pillar was embedded firmly in the stage, and it had obviously occurred to both mountaineers at once that if they could only reach it it would provide a secure base for their subsequent operations, since if they held on to it for dear life they would at any rate be safe from any further danger of sliding downhill and/or breaking their necks. It was soon borne in upon them that they had undertaken a labour of truly Sisyphean proportions, and would have been most heartily pardoned by the audience if they had abandoned the librettist's words at this point, and fitted to the music instead the old moral verse: The heights by great men reached and kept, Were not attained by sudden flight; But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upwards in the night.

By this time the audience - all 440 of us - were in a state of such abandon with laughter that several of us felt that if this were to continue a moment longer we would be in danger of doing ourselves a serious internal mischief, little did we know that the fun was just beginning, for shortly after Mallory and Irvine reached their longed-for goal, the chorus entered, and instantly flung themselves en masse into a very freely choreographed version of Les Patineurs, albeit to the wrong music. The heroine herself, the priestess Giulia, with a survival instinct strong enough to suggest that she would be the one to get close to should any reader of these lines happen to be shipwrecked along with the Wexford opera company, skated into the wings and kicked her shoes off and then, finding on her return that this had hardly improved matters, skated back to the wings and removed her tights as well.

Now, however, the singing never having stopped for a moment, the chorus had come to the same conclusion as had the hero and his friend, namely that holding on to the holy pillar was the only way to remain upright and more or less immobile. The trouble with this conclusion was that there was only one such pillar on the stage, and it was a small one; as the cast crowded round it, it seemed that there would be some very unseemly brawling among those seeking a hand-hold, a foothold, even a bare finger-hold, on this tiny island of security in the terrible sea of impermanence. By an instinctive understanding of the principles of co-operation, however, they decided the matter without bloodshed; those nearest the pillar clutched it, those next nearest clutched the clutchers, those farther away still clutched those, and so on until, in a kind of daisy- chain that snaked across the stage, everybody was accommodated.

The condition of the audience was now one of fully extended hysteria, which was having the most extraordinary effect - itself intensifying the audience's condition - on the orchestra. At Wexford, the orchestra pit runs under the stage; only a single row of players - those at the edge of the pit nearest the audience, together, of course, with the conductor -could see what was happening on the stage. The rest realized that something out of the ordinary was going on up there, and would have been singularly dull of wit if they had not, for many members of the audience were now slumped on the floor weeping helplessly in the agony of their mirth, and although the orchestra at Wexford cannot see the stage, it can certainly see the auditorium.

Theologians tell us that the delights of the next world are eternal. Perhaps; but what is certain is that all earthly ones, alas, are temporary, and duly, after giving us a glimpse of the more enduring joy of Heaven that must have strengthened the devout in their faith and caused instant conversion among many of the unbelievers, the entertainment came to an end when the first act of the opera did so, amid such cheering as I had never before heard in an opera house, and can never hope to hear again. In the interval before Act II, a member of the production staff walked back and forth across the stage, sprinkling it with the precious nectar, and we knew that our happiness was at an end. But he who, after such happiness, would have demanded more, would be greedy indeed, and most of us were content to know that, for one crowded half-hour, we on honeydew had fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.

Bernard Levin

Friday, February 03, 2012

Friday Historical: Rubinstein meets an old friend...

A real "look what turned up on Youtube" moment: this wonderful footage, from 1966, shows Arthur Rubinstein visiting the Steinway factory in Hamburg to test out his favourite piano after it has been repaired. He plays extracts of Szymanowski, some Chopin Etudes and Ballades, Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and the Schubert B flat Sonata, among other things. The swathes of fascinating interview material include a story about the manuscript of the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu, which he found inside the album of the Baroness d'Este after buying it at an auction - Rubinstein was a passionate collector...

The film, about 27 mins long, is in German, but if you want subtitles you can find them by clicking the 'cc' box in the video box's bottom menu bar.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Violin birthdays for astrological doubters?

Happy Heifetz's Birthday! Happy Kreisler's Birthday, too! What chance that the two greatest violinists of the 20th century shared a birthday? But that's life, so let's celebrate.

Here is some amazing film of Heifetz: at home, practising, playing ping-pong and - good heavens, smiling?

And now Kreisler...a radio broadcast from his 80th birthday with congratulations spoken by his colleagues, including Mischa Elman, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein and many more, followed by an interview with Kreisler himself (in two parts).

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Robert Maycock

We are all devastated to hear of the death last week in a car crash of the arts journalist Robert Maycock, a treasured colleague and former editor of Classical Music Magazine. A great supporter of contemporary and world music, he worked for The Independent for many years and was also the biographer of Philip Glass. He was 63. More information from Classical Music Magazine, here.