ENDNOTES, 21st September 2017

Edmund Blair Leighton – God Speed

ENDNOTES, 21st September 2017

Edward Gardner conducts Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder for Chandos Records, reviewed by STUART MILLSON

Several works proclaim the creed of the late-romantic period – in particular its transition into the world of early modernism: Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and his ‘Resurrection’ symphony; Havergal Brian’s Symphony No. 1, ‘Gothic’; and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder – the latter appearing in a dazzling, deeply-felt new recording on the Chandos label, conducted in Bergen by Edward Gardner, and supported by soloists of the calibre of Stuart Skelton, tenor, and Sir Thomas Allen.

Berg, Schoenberg and Webern, the Second Viennese School, and those of their predecessors, Wagner and Mahler, are often viewed in terms of a musical progression or evolution: the mysterious, melancholic, descending phrase at the opening of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde taking symphonic and operatic music beyond mere “storm and stress” to a darker, or to some, more brilliant horizon. In this supercharged musical closure to the late-romantic era, dissonance and chaos began to grind against established harmonies: the vast orchestral scores of the period breaking free from all hitherto normal frameworks. Like a painting exploding out of its own physical boundaries, the music of Schoenberg brought music into an entirely new dimension.

How apt, then, that in this farewell to romanticism, Schoenberg chose a story which Wagner himself might have set: the tale of Danish King Waldemar of Gurre and his obsessive love for a maiden called Tove. But it is a love which ends in tragedy: Tove, sung on this CD set by soprano, Alwyn Mellor, is found dead, a discovery which brings torment and derangement to Waldemar (a Heldentenor role, delivered passionately by Stuart Skelton) – the King’s subsequent defiance of God unleashing in the now deathly atmosphere of Gurre and its surroundings a supernatural chain of events, not least the appearance of an army of phantoms, sung with biting, raw fervour by male choirs, brandishing clanking, rusty weaponry in their monarch’s name.

The work – in a physical setting perhaps reminiscent of Gormenghast, or a castle from The Lord of the Rings, or possibly even a Gothic Hammer Horror film set in Transylvania – Gurrelieder, the text based upon the writings of 19th-century Danish botanist and mystic, Jens Peter Jacobsen, demands massive orchestral and choral forces, including four harps, ranks of brass and percussion players, and multiple choirs – all of which fill the stage of the Grieghallen in Bergen, where this live performance was recorded, to capacity. Yet the piece grew from more modest beginnings, a gestation period which included work on the score from 1900 to 1903, and subsequently in 1910, through to the world-premiere performance in Vienna in 1913.

The drama begins with an orchestral introduction – flutes playing a dotted, innocent yet intricate pattern over a growing swell of strings, with a lone trumpeter possibly signifying Waldemar’s appearance in the radiant, yet end-of-day woodland setting. Surrounded by such verdant beauty, the King seems to be in a state of ecstatic feeling, and longs to be reunited with Tove. From over-ripe lushness (Schoenberg’s technicolor romanticism verging on decay), the score’s direction suddenly changes, to music which could easily have come from Die Walkure – as Waldemar now urges his thoroughbred horse to gallop home to Gurre’s now moonlit battlements with all haste. The orchestral writing starts to hint at what is to come – with music which begins to hurtle along, to fall over itself with an energy and congestion which an augmented Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra manages to absorb with great steadiness. A series of rapturous declarations of love then follow between Waldemar and Tove – but the growing intensity of it all is shattered by Tove’s death, the cause of which – at the hand of Waldemar’s murderously jealous wife, Helwig, is related in the famous ‘Song of the Wood Dove’. The gentle creature – although sung by a full-bodied operatic mezzo-soprano, the superb Anna Larsson – is a witness to Tove’s fate; the stark truth and accusation of this scene brilliantly and terrifyingly concluded by a massive, sinister, sustained brass chord, and slow, portentous strokes on timpani.

Following the song of the Wood Dove, the short Part ll of Gurrelieder begins with an equally terrifying and stormy passage in which Waldemar shakes his fist at heaven, singing:

“Herrgott, ich bin auch ein Herrscher…” [Lord God, I, too, am a ruler… The course you pursue is wrong which means you are a tyrant, not a king.]

With a powerful, Bruckner-like drive to it, Waldemar’s song of defiance leads to the unleashing of the ‘Wild Hunt’ of his warriors – drums and a massive brass fanfare summoning the phantom army from creaking graves. Yet another Brucknerian touch precedes this overwhelmingly sinister and dramatic passage: a doleful tune, evoking the brooding phrases of trombones and Wagner tubas from the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony. The theme appears, once again, at the end of the Wild Hunt, played this time on the deep, rich cello section of the Bergen Philharmonic.

But no sooner has the composer established the story and characters (all except Queen Helwig, who never makes an appearance) than the “sense” of the work changes – partially forsaking late-romanticism and entering the sound-world with which most people associate with Schoenberg the modernist, or Berg or Kurt Weill.  A jester – Klaus – a ghostly relic of the old court at Gurre – tells us (accompanied by bizarre, quirky tones from the orchestra) of an old mad king who worships a girl, long-since dead; and then after having heard the final statements and melting away into nothingness of the tragic, defeated Waldemar and his warriors, a narrated sequence introduces a paean to Nature – although, again, with many surprises.

Here, Thomas Allen – the ‘Speaker’ – describes the ‘Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind’, an encounter with shooting stars, a spider – fiddling and weaving a web, “Sir Goosefoot, Lady Amaranth and Sir Glow-worm – with his fire-red tongue”, but not before we close our eyes and enjoy an orchestral introduction of simple, even primitive sustained phrases on high woodwind suggesting the gradual, radiant opening of a summer day. Like the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony, or the sparing, astringent sounds in early sections of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Schoenberg’s writing suspends us in time. To quote the libretto – an “exquisite dream” of “transient summer” is all around us (Gurre’s death and insanity, at last, cleansed and wafted away); but in describing these beauties, the Speaker addresses the audience, not in the language and atmosphere of Schubert’s lieder or Mahler’s Rhine legends, but in the half-speech, half-rhyming style of German Expressionism – Sprechgesang – as if we are looking at a pastoral scene through a strange distortion of refraction. A peculiar, angular, hypnotic intensity – part-way between a scene from the master of ceremonies in ‘Cabaret’ and an over-emphasised reading from a Grimm fairy-tale – “gazes upward at the sun” and urges all flowers – all the world, in fact – to “Awaken, awaken to joy”.

And finally, we come to the seismic, Zarathustra-like conclusion of Gurrelieder, where the sun rises in ineffable glory – the massed choirs unleashed by Edward Gardner’s impassioned direction as the fiery sky appears “out of the night tides”. Waldemar and all that happened at the beginning of the saga seem a distant memory – almost part of a different work – as the voices of the Bergen Philharmonic and Edvard Grieg Choir (with the Choir of the Collegium Musicum, Orphei Drangar and singers from the Royal Northern College of Music) combine to hail the light of the new day.

An ambitious programme for any orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic gives its very best performance for this memorable Chandos CD – which has certainly tested the company’s sound engineers, Brian Pidgeon and Ralph Couzens, supported by Jonathan Cooper and Gunnar Herleif Nilsen from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. Capturing both the delicacy and the vast sonority of Schoenberg’s visionary score is a challenge for all concerned, especially when such a piece really demands a performance space equivalent to the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall.

The CD booklet contains some extremely interesting photographs of the rehearsals and final performance – and it is a marvel to see just how packed the Norwegian hall was (stage and auditorium) for this extravaganza. My only criticism is that the CD fails to give us the response of the audience. At the end of the monumental sunrise, I expected to hear a roar of approval from the concertgoers at the Grieghallen. But this caveat aside, herewith one of the best CD issues of the year.

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review

Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and choirs conducted by Edward Gardner. Catalogue number, CHSA 5172(2) 

Posted in ENDNOTES:Music, QR Home | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Denial and Disaster

Hue, firefight

Denial and Disaster

Mark Bowden, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017, reviewed by WILLIAM HARTLEY

For those of a certain age it is sobering to realise that the men and women who fought in this 26 day battle are now in their sixties and seventies. The Tet offensive of February 1968 and the ensuing battle to retake the city of Hue may once have been seen as another wearisome episode in a war which was to drag on for seven more years. Yet as author Mark Bowden shows, it was far more important than that.  

Tet was the Vietnamese equivalent of the Chinese New Year. In the weeks leading up to the holiday the North Vietnamese had been infiltrating thousands of troops into the south. At Hue these troops aided by local civilians invaded the city, seized key installations and began the revolution. The North Vietnamese leaders had assured their troops that there would be a popular uprising against the American supported regime of President Thieu. This of course didn’t happen. Like most civilians, the South Vietnamese preferred to hang back and see who was likely to prevail. In Hue, 10,000 North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong took over the country’s third largest city and began dealing with senior supporters of the Saigon government.

Bowden explains how at Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), General Westmoreland (‘Westy’ to President Lyndon Johnson) had convinced himself that the Tet offensive was an elaborate diversion because the real aim was to attack the garrison at Khe Sahn. Westmoreland believed that the Hanoi regime wanted to re-run their defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and consequently forces were held back to defend the place. He seems to have overlooked the fact that during the Tet offensive, Khe Sahn was the only place not attacked.

Despite an extremely accurate CIA assessment, senior officers at MACV failed to appreciate the scale of the North Vietnamese occupation of Hue, believing there to be only a few hundred enemy troops in the city. This was to have disastrous consequences for the soldiers and marines who were sent to recapture Hue. Company strength forces found themselves being met by NVA regiments.  

In his postscript to the book, Bowden suggests that fifty years after an event is a good time to be researching a book; there are still survivors available to be interviewed and though he concedes that memories can fade or be distorted, the vivid first hand accounts they provide, augmented by letters and diaries, more than make up for this. Bowden travelled to Vietnam to talk to North Vietnamese veterans; elderly men who despite the presence of party officials were prepared to concede that they had gone too far in ‘re-educating’ the South Vietnamese and who soon realised that the idea of a popular uprising was a myth fed to them by their political masters in the north. Others are still resentful of the fact that they were ordered to evacuate Hue when American firepower became too overwhelming. They felt that the US could have been made to pay some more before the withdrawal took place.

The sense of denial by Westmoreland and his senior officers worked both upwards and downwards. Scarcely a mention of Hue was made in his communiques to President Johnson. Instead, he represented the whole offensive as a desperate last throw of the dice by an enemy whose move had been both anticipated and successfully beaten off by US forces. It is unfortunate that Bowden wasn’t able to include some explanation of why MACV headquarters was behaving this way. Was it a form of institutional groupthink of the sort that convinced the German military that Stalin had no further armies left? At Hue, marine battalion commanders were being accused of weakness or a lack of aggressive spirit when they reported being beaten back by North Vietnamese firepower.

The marines and soldiers who went in had gained their combat experience campaigning in the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam. They had no knowledge of urban warfare and some naively looked forward to the idea of getting out of the jungle. One enterprising junior officer, recognising his ignorance of this kind of fighting, remembered that battalion headquarters possessed a small library of manuals. He spent a couple of hours reading up on the subject before collecting the weapons and equipment that he thought would be of assistance.

Wisely, Bowden recognises that the battle to retake Hue was in essence a squad level action with ten to thirteen men being deployed. As a consequence, he concentrates on the fighting at this level and the book is a great piece of storytelling. Veterans on both sides recount their roles in the battle. Nearly fifty years on it can now be appreciated that this was one of the most important battles fought since the Second World War, a Stalingrad for the 1960s. The North Vietnamese may have lost but it was an important step towards the beginning of the end for US involvement in the country.

The experiences of individual marines can make for truly horrific reading. Eighteen-year-old Richard Leflar was hurled into the horrors of street fighting and loaded down with weapons and ammunition by unsympathetic comrades. Breaking cover, he was blown into a hole and came to in darkness lying on a pile of corpses. Another teenager Alvin Grantham, shot through the chest, was zipped into a body bag by a marine who paused in the act calling out, ‘this one’s still alive’. Operated on before the anaesthetic has begun to take effect, Grantham was shipped to Japan where he contracted malaria then typhoid before returning home 50 pounds lighter.

The battle took place in drizzle and misty conditions quite unlike the Vietnam of steaming jungles, which added to the misery the troops had to endure. Although the efforts of the South Vietnamese forces fighting in Hue receive less coverage in the book, Bowden doesn’t forget the war correspondents such as Michael Herr and the remarkable Cathy Leroy, a French photo journalist fond of showing off the shrapnel wounds in her legs. These people shared the risks with the troops and told the real story of what was going on in Hue. Bowden records moments of black humour too. Having recaptured the radio station, the marines broadcast the Righteous Brothers’ hit You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling to the North Vietnamese.  One marine recalled the irony of the Saigon government’s anti-smoking campaign in the midst of the war. At the end of it all with 250 soldiers and marines dead, plus 1,554 wounded, Westmoreland was replaced and Johnson announced that he wouldn’t stand for re-election

Hue 1968 tells a story which over the years has faded into the morass of the Vietnam war. Bowden has done an excellent job in bringing it back to prominence as arguably the single most important battle fought in that protracted conflict. The author keeps the story local and human, often letting the veterans do the talking. It is arguably the best book about the horrors of urban warfare since Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad.

Hue City, 1967, wounded American soldier & colleagues

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service

Posted in Book Reviews, QR Home | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

ENDNOTES: September 3rd 2017

View from the Downs, photo by Stuart Millson

ENDNOTES: September 3rd 2017

Music and Landscape – the works of John Ireland, by Stuart Millson

In this season of harvest and late-summer sunshine, what could be a more apt musical accompaniment than the music of John Ireland (1879-1962). Born in Cheshire, Ireland belonged to a group of English composers (whose unofficial figurehead was probably Sir Arnold Bax) which possessed a feeling for remote country places, for stone-circles and ancient earthworks, whether in rural Dorset, the Channel Islands or the South Downs.

Although not as well known as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten (Britten, for a time, was a student of Ireland’s), this unassuming composer was a skilled craftsman, able to produce reflective melody – tinged with an element of sadness – building an often powerful musical atmosphere, revealing a visionary personality attracted to occult forces and supernatural states. He did not write a symphony, and his longest works, though full of concentrated ideas, tended to be short. Continue reading

Posted in ENDNOTES:Music, QR Home | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Bistro Vadouvan, Putney Wharf

Bistro Vadouvan, Putney Wharf

Em Marshall-Luck enjoys “French and Spice”

Located on the south side of the River Thames, a stone’s throw from the serenely gliding swans, and the busier bustle of Putney Bridge, is Bistro Vadouvan. Ignore the trendy pubs and Carluccios, in the knowledge of a finer meal to be had in this restaurant, whose strapline “French and Spice” describes the cuisine aptly – elegant cuisine with the addition of oriental spices and ingredients (many of them Middle-Eastern).

Bistro Vadouvan is tucked away in a courtyard area with square cobbles and pretty trees and flowers: there is a long frontage with pale-peach-coloured sun awnings which also serve to provide shade (or, depending on the vagaries of the Great British Summer, shelter) for the outside seating at café-style tables and wicker chairs, while huge ale barrels serve as informal standing tables.  Continue reading

Posted in EpiQR, QR Home | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Alt History

Painting, by Zdzisław Beksiński

Alt History

Mark Wegierski considers the science fiction subgenre of “counterfactual history” or uchronia

It is important to note that alternative history pertains to events that are in the past at the time when the narrative is being written. So, for example, the 1920’s projections of Hugo Gernsback about the 1980s cannot be properly termed as alternative history – even though his vision of the world of the 1980’s is much different from what has actually occurred.

One common type of alternative history is the “Hitler Victorious” scenario. A prominent work of this genre is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), now a U.S. television series. Clearly, most commentators today condemn Hitler and Nazism. However, there is less agreement about the irredeemable evil of the Old South, although several treatments of “Dixie Victorious” have envisaged the upshot as negative. Continue reading

Posted in Current Affairs and Comment, QR Home | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Canada, Matrix of Modernity, part 2


Untitled Photomontage, by Zdzisław Beksiński

Canada, Matrix of Modernity, part 2

Mark Wegierski continues his analysis

An essay based on an English-language presentation read at the First Sir Thomas More Colloquium: ‘Diplomacy, Literature, Politics’, at the Akademia Polonijna (Polonia University) in Czestochowa, Poland, held on March 11-12, 2010

The concept of “soft totalitarianism”, as distinct from the “hard totalitarianism”, typified by regimes such as those of Hitler and Stalin, emerged from various dystopian novels and political writings of the Twentieth Century.

In his dystopian novel Brave New World (1932), and a subsequent preface, Brave New World Re-visited (written after World War II), Aldous Huxley posited a future society that would be mostly non-coercive, but at the same time, totalitarian. While George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), portrayed a highly coercive society, in his “Appendix” Orwell noted that the control of vocabulary and language was the key to the maintenance of the system – “Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak”. If semantic control could somehow be maintained through non-coercive means, an apparatus of coercion might become unnecessary. In The Managerial Revolution, likewise, James Burnham identified a caste of managers controlling society. Continue reading

Posted in Current Affairs and Comment, QR Home | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Parsifal, Reloaded

The Attainment: Vision of the Holy Grail, by Edward Burne-Jones

Parsifal, Reloaded

Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, 21st August 2017, director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, conducted by Hartmut Haenchen, reviewed by Tony Cooper

Parsifal, Wagner’s farewell to the world, was completed in January 1882 and was first seen in that year. This production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg (Intendant des Hessischen Staatstheaters, Wiesbaden) marks its tenth outing at Bayreuth since its première.

The philosophical ideas of the libretto fuse Christianity and Buddhism but the trappings of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem – focusing on the Arthurian hero Parzival and his long quest for the Holy Grail – are essentially Christian based. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Matters, QR Home | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Contention City

3.10 to Yuma

Contention City

Bill Hartley, in a mythic landscape

In Tombstone, none of the locals knew precisely where Contention City was. They’d all heard of it but even the otherwise helpful ladies at the information office were at a loss. In the sweltering heat of an Arizonan summer we set off to find the place. The general rule in Arizona would seem to be if it still has rooftops then it goes on the map, which is how we ended up at Fairbank marked as a settlement but in fact deserted. Fairbank, it turned out, was an old mining camp which had been preserved; the schoolhouse and some other buildings were there, dating from the late nineteenth century. We found a man cutting the grass who wasn’t much better informed than the people in Tombstone. He pointed us northwards but that was all the directions we received, plus advice to carry more water. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Matters, Current Affairs and Comment, QR Home | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

Herm of Plato

Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

André Laks, Glen W. Most, Early Greek Philosophy, vols. I-IX, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard Press (2016)

The subject of philosophy is often labeled ‘The Great Conversation’, an on-going dialogue linking contemporary wisdom-seekers with the sages of the remote past. A number of books have been written on this topic. A few single-volume offerings of the last 75 years are of note: for example, B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), G. Clark, Thales to Dewey (1957), A. Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy (2010). Approaches to antiquity vary. Not all philosophers will agree today on what their objectives should be. But whatever research is done, it implies a study of the progress, and transmission, of knowledge.

Essentially this exchange of ideas entails a search for meaning(s). In ancient times this consisted of resolving issues related to any number of matters: i.e. arrangements in the heavens above, order in the earthly spheres below and debates on the internal nature of mankind and on his [or her] relations to external things. To the degree that philosophy’s earliest development is traceable, the distinction between theology and philosophy was small: either of them might have been a sub-division of the other. Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews, QR Home | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Bayreuth, Meistersinger

Bayreuth, Meistersinger

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 19th 2017, director Barrie Kosky, conducted by Philippe Jordan, reviewed by Tony Cooper

Barrie Kosky – artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin – was born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe. He describes himself as a ‘gay Jewish kangaroo’. This innovative, flamboyant and wonderfully-quirky character will go down in history as the first Jewish director to hold court in Bayreuth Festival’s illustrious 141-year-old history. And also as the first person outside of the Wagner family to direct Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth.

Appointing Kosky is a big gesture by Katharina Wagner, the artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, and the daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner. For it acknowleges Wagner’s anti-Semitism and her family’s association with Adolf Hitler. In the revamped exhibition, housed in the newly-restored Villa Wahnfried, where Wagner lived with his wife Cosima and their children from 1874 to 1882, the Third Reich, likewise, finds its place. Continue reading

Posted in QR Home | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment