How the West was Wrung

 

No Country for Old Men, credit Wikipedia

                   How the West was Wrung

Last month, the death was announced of the American writer Cormac McCarthy. Newspaper obituaries described him as a reclusive man who gave few interviews and let his books do the talking. For many years, success eluded him with none of his first five novels selling more than 3000 copies and as a consequence he lived a penurious life. McCarthy finally reached a wider audience when his 2005 novel No Country For Old Men was turned into a multiple Academy Award winning film. The book has been described as a modern Western and the American South West was a location which McCarthy used in other works. Indeed, he travelled extensively in the region whilst undertaking research, eventually settling in El Paso, Texas.

McCarthy remarked that apart from Coca Cola, the only other thing universally known about the United States was ‘Cowboys and Indians’. He added that nobody had taken the genre seriously for 200 years and had decided that he should.

Though a modern Western, No Country contained some archetypal characters such as the drifter, the bounty hunter, the kid, and the sheriff with a weary and reluctant sense of duty; a man gradually being overwhelmed by the savagery of people. Savagery and violence certainly weren’t confined to this book. McCarthy’s first foray into the Western genre was Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, published in 1985. Although it didn’t attract much attention at the time, the book is now hailed as a masterpiece and for some merits the title of ‘Great American Novel’ but like his earlier works it sold poorly.

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Love’s Vicissitudes

Duel of Pushkin and George d’Anthès (1869), by Adrian Volvo, credit Wikipedia

Love’s Vicissitudes 

L’elisir d’amore at Longborough Festival Opera, Tuesday 27th June, 2023, The Queen of Spades at The Grange Festival, Thursday 29th June, 2023, reviewed by David Truslove

Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades may have little in common, but both these new productions drew inspiration from their immediate surroundings. A typical Cotswold village was lovingly created for Longborough Festival Opera’s Donizetti, while an orangery, echoing past affluence in leafy Hampshire, provided the setting for The Grange Festival’s Tchaikovsky.

At Longborough, its picture book charm well suited to country house diversion, it was summer season fun with director Max Hoehn declining to take the plot’s love-conquers-all theme seriously. Jemima Robinson’s designs updated Donizetti’s 1832 rom.com to contemporary rural Britain; stone walls, phone booth-turned-defibrillator, post box and park bench framed by a jigsaw puzzle of birdlife with a topical slogan declaring ‘Green, pleasant and now protected’. When the stage was not already crowded, it was then peopled by a postie (Nemorino) and a chorus of villagers; policeman, builders with hard hats, a Goth, two pensioners and a schoolgirl (Giannetta) on a scooter.

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Em notes, July 2023

English Music Festival founder, Em Marshall-Luck

Em notes, July 2023

In this edition: new works at the Sixteenth English Music Festival and a CD tribute to Walter Leigh. Reviewed by Stuart Millson.

Approaching Dorchester-on-Thames from Henley takes the traveller through the England of Three Men in a Boat and The Wind in the Willows – via roadsides garlanded with early-summer cow parsley and, in the distance, the remnant rings of Anglo-Saxon earthworks. Close to Dorchester is the famous landscape feature Wittenham Clumps, a tree-crested hill, a symbol of pastoral continuity and the venue for this year’s English Music Festival.

Arriving at the great church in fine weather, QR enjoyed a preview of the opening-night concert: the BBC Concert Orchestra and their conductor, Martin Yates – with Raphael Wallfisch, soloist – hard at work in rehearsal for E.J. Moeran’s Cello Concerto. Written at the end of the Second World War for his wife, the cellist, Peers Coetmore, the concerto is a soulful piece – especially in the sad beauty of the slow movement – conjuring in the mind’s eye the lonely west coast of Ireland; although, it seems, there was no specific spirit-of-place intended by this gifted but troubled composer. Experiences in the First World War and a lifelong battle with alcohol had evidently taken their toll. Continue reading

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Dialogues des Carmélites

Jean-Baptiste Lesueur (1749-1826). “Tricoteuses”. Gouache sur carton découpé collé sur une feuille de papier lavée de bleu. Paris, musée Carnavalet. 

Dialogues des Carmélites

Opera by Francis Poulenc, directed by Barry Kosky, on Saturday 10th June 2023 at Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati; reviewed by David Truslove; performances continue until 29th July

A floor-shaking thud from an amplified guillotine sends a pair of shoes flying across an empty stage. This is the first of 16 gut-wrenching moments portraying the execution of the nuns of Compiègne in the final tableaux of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Presented at Glyndebourne for the first time, Barry Kosky’s new production of this operatic masterpiece, based on a true story, underlines the fears, courage and dignity of a group of Carmelite nuns during the last days of the French Revolution as they face the choice of renouncing their vows or accepting the certainty of death.

Martyrdom is hardly a common operatic subject, or an obvious choice for country house entertainment, especially after last year’s staging here of Poulenc’s absurdly comic Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Yet, as an interrogation of fear and belief, Carmélites (premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1957) develops Poulenc’s religious preoccupations initiated some thirty years earlier in works such as the Litanies à la Vierge Noire and his Mass, both signalling the composer’s return to his catholic faith following the death of fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud in a car crash in 1936.

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What friends are for

                   

Sydney Friends Meeting House, credit wikipedia

What friends are for, by Bill Hartley

The Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, has been associated with the town of Darlington in County Durham since the 17thcentury. Even the local football club is nicknamed the Quakers. In the town centre there is a rather elegant Friends Meeting House which was built in 1839. Today it sits awkwardly amongst the charity shops, night clubs and bargain drinking spots. Here, the Quakers meet twice a week for silent prayer and contemplation. It seems like the perfect place for someone to go in search of a quiet, non ritualistic, religious experience. Close by they also maintain the Quaker tradition of philanthropy by running their own charity shop.

For anyone with a vague idea of what the Quakers are about, the banner draped over the portico might be confusing. It invites passers-by to ‘Join us in the fight for Climate Justice’. Below that, rather more alarmingly it adds, ‘act now to save your home’. This seems like a peculiar bandwagon for a supposedly religious organisation to climb on. Would not something about God, or a shared spiritual experience, have been more appropriate than representing themselves as a branch office of Extinction Rebellion?

Climate Justice is a complex subject. Sonia Klinsky, an associate professor at Arizona State University, distils the problem rather effectively. She points out that whilst China is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Saudi Arabia, the US and Australia to name but three all have more than twice per capita emissions than the country which is supposedly the worst offender. She adds that low income countries have been arguing for years that it would be unjust to require them to cut essential investments in areas that richer countries already take for granted, such as electricity generation.

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Rigoletto, Opera Holland Park

Helene Schjerfbeck, Rigoletto, credit Wikidata

Rigoletto, Opera Holland Park

Rigoletto, Opera Holland Park, June 3rd 2023; opera in three acts with music composed by Giuseppe Verdi, Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave; a new production by Opera Holland Park, directed by Cecilia Stinton; the City of London Orchestra and Opera Holland Park Chorus conducted by Lee Reynolds; reviewed by Leslie Jones

John Allison considers ‘La donna è mobile’ a ‘Me Too tune’ (see ‘Flecks of Light in a Renaissance Painting’, Official Programme). The Duke of Mantua, played by tenor Allesandro Scotto di Luzio, is a cynical misogynist, so cynical that he assumes that Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda must be his mistress. ‘Woman is fickle’, he proclaims in the aforementioned aria, ‘like a feather in the wind’.

Here, Sigmund Freud meets John Stuart Mill. For according to historian Thomas Dixon, the Duke is in thrall to ‘an excessive form of carnal appetite’, to wit, ‘concupiscence’ (see ‘Lust’, Official Programme). Women have only one use, and innocence, as represented by the overly-protected Gilda, constitutes a challenge, or even an aphrodisiac. ‘Women are cunning little demons, the Duke contends. And evidently disposable items, to be duped, or abducted and raped, if all else fails’ (see Leslie Jones, ‘Rigoletto, reloaded’, Quarterly Review, 8th February, 2017). Evil is all the more toxic when conjoined to power. Verdi had no time for what Theodor Fontane called ‘auxiliary constructions’, i.e. for religion and its consolations (Fontane, as cited by Freud in Civilisation and Its Discontents).

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Endnotes, June 2023

J.S. Bach, A Portrait in Leipzig, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, June 2023

In this edition, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in a new recording on the Chronos label, reviewed by Stuart Millson

J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – stands alongside Rachmaninov’s Second, or Mahler’s Symphonies Five to Seven, written some 150 years later – as one of the great voyages in classical music: one of those rare pieces in which the composer, heart and soul, stands before you. In Mahler’s case, the journey might involve a transition from darkness to brilliant light, but in Bach’s – being the creator of a purer, abstract, but no less emotional form of music – the pathway offers endless illumination, intricacy and invention; from the wintry introspection of the 14th variation, to the carefree, courtly Canone, the dance-like variation 27 (track 28).

The Goldberg Variations (so-called) were published in 1741, but as Corrina Connor reminds us in the CD’s excellent accompanying booklet, the elaborately engraved title page of the original score read as follows:

‘Keyboard study, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for the refreshment of music-lovers’ spirits by Johann Sebastian Bach, Composer to the royal court of Poland and the electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and director of choral music in Leipzig.’

As the story goes, Bach’s work soothed the spirits of one Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony; a nobleman who engaged at his establishment a musician by the name of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-56) – an artist who could be relied upon to restore the mental vitality of the insomniac diplomat – hence, Goldberg Variations.

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Blowback

Cadmus Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth, Maxfield Parrish, 1908, credit Wikipedia

Blowback

Matthew Goodwin, Values, Voice and Virtue, The New British Politics, Penguin, 2023, Pb, 239 pp, U.K. £10.99, reviewed by Leslie Jones

A major realignment is taking place in British politics, according to Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. In a “post-industrial and knowledge based economy”, “cognitive-analytical skills” (Spearman’s g) are at a premium.[i] Hence the exponential increase in university places. In the 1960’s, 8,000 people entered British universities each year. In the 2010’s, the corresponding figure was 350,000.[ii] Goodwin discerns here the emergence of a new “ruling class” of university educated professionals, located mainly in London and other urban centres of the new economy. R Herrnstein and C Murray, in similar vein, refer to the “cognitive elite”, those with the requisite intelligence to enter the “high-IQ” occupations.

Some may dispute the author’s contention that the working class once dominated Britain’s economy and society.[iii] But what is clear is that manufacturing jobs have declined from 30% in the 1950’s to 9% at the time of the Brexit Referendum.[iv] The power of the trade unions, which boasted 9 million members in the 1950’s, has also been dramatically reduced – ditto working class representation. The Labour Party once resembled its supporters. Prominent figures like Manny Shinwell, Ernest Bevin and Aneurin Bevan had working class credentials. Some leading figures in the party, in particular Peter Shore and Tony Benn, although privately educated, were staunch supporters of British sovereignty as a bulwark of workers’ rights.

But the number of Labour MPs with working class roots fell from 64 in the 1980’s, during the leadership of Neil Kinnock, to 7 under that of Keir Starmer.[v] And indicatively, the proportion of Labour MPs who opposed Brexit was 96%. Little wonder that the working class, once instinctively loyal to Labour, are deserting an institution widely perceived as part of the Liberal establishment. This declining support can be linked to the rise of national populism throughout the West. The author rejects the condescending and facile explanations of the disaffection of manual and skilled workers, notably the media (especially social media) manipulation of a “morally inferior underclass of racist, irrational and ignorant Little Englanders”. [vi] Likewise the notion that Brexit was driven by “institutional racism” and nostalgia for empire.

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Revelations

Konrad Horny, Eisenach  Schlosberg, 1800, credit Wikipedia. Eisenach was J S Bach’s birthplace

Revelations

Selma Gokcen and Kenneth Cooper, Bach Revealed: A Player’s Guide to the Solo Cello Suites by J.S. Bach, Volume One – Suites I and III BWV 1007–1008, reviewed by Joseph Spooner

Judging by the designations given to musical events, it is not uncommon for composers to be ‘revealed’, even when that composer’s works are staples of concert life and their author has been the focus of intense intellectual endeavour for decades. Beethoven has been ‘revealed’ more than once recently. Such events, of course, perform important functions: engaging audiences who are already interested in Classical Music, but inviting them to listen differently, and engaging those who are interested in Classical Music, but feel alienated by standard presentations of it. The revelation to which Gokcen and Cooper aspire could not be more different, aiming as it does to understand Bach’s suites for solo cello –a cornerstone of the repertoire – at a profound level. An exercise of this sort might seemingly be the preserve of such groups, but the subtitle, A Player’s Guide, indicates the work’s intended audience; other groups may however be also be drawn to this– those interested in Bach who are able to read music, analysts, etc. This is certainly not an edition as it is commonly understood, even though it has been termed such in the foreword to Bach Revealed by several of those commending the project. No comparisons with editions can or should be offered, but mention should be made of the splendid Urtext package published by Bärenreiter, which reproduces all the original sources and provides the materials for any performer to create their own edition.

In his introduction, Cooper states that the work’s overarching aim is ‘to discover the dance rhythm within [the dances’ ornamentation]’, so that we do not end up ‘hearing (or playing) continuous melody without any sort of internal rhythm’. This is a natural aspiration for any performer or teacher of the suites in the dance movements. Cooper goes on to provides useful notes on the structure of the suites and the Baroque dance forms they feature, as well as brief notes on performance practice; the introductory material in the Urtext is comparable, though rather wider in scope on performance practice. Both works agree on the necessity for understanding the nature of the dance forms, though approach the matter in (stimulatingly) different ways. The sequence of dances in each of Bach’s cello suites is prefaced with a prelude, but both Bach Revealed and the Urtext are somewhat short on the nature of this purely instrumental form that raises a set of issues very different from those associated with the dances.

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Speke for England

Richard Burton in Arabic attire, credit Wikipedia

Speke for England

River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, Candice Millard, Swift Books, 2023, pp349, reviewed by William Hartley                      

Two Victorian explorers risking their lives and wrecking their health in search of geography’s Holy Grail. If that wasn’t challenging enough, then add the fact that they were incompatible and knew it. This was the situation when Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke set out to find the source of the Nile.

Burton has been well served by biographers (at least a dozen). He was a man of striking appearance and author Candice Millard raises the possibility that Bram Stoker used him as the model for Dracula. In contrast, Speke has vanished into obscurity. There is a third party in the story and posterity has been done a service by Millard in shining a spotlight upon him. It’s appropriate that he too should appear on the book’s cover, since in telling us some of his story, she has reminded readers that these Victorian feats of exploration couldn’t have taken place without the army of anonymous bearers and guides who accompanied them.

The two men had ventured into Africa before, originally in Somalia. It should have been sufficient warning that they were not compatible; Speke seems to have felt that he was better equipped to be in charge. For his part, Burton was disdainful of the other man’s lack of interest in the people and cultures they encountered. It all went horribly wrong. During a fight with tribesmen on a beach near Berbera in 1855, Burton took a spear through the face from cheek to cheek. Somehow doctors and dentists patched up the wreckage. Not to be left out, Speke picked up eleven stab wounds.

River of the Gods concentrates on the relationship between the two men, dominated as it was by the search for the source of the Nile. The author has brought Speke out of Burton’s shadow, revealing someone who bore grudges and resented the older man’s fame and charisma. Striking a balance between the two must have been difficult since Burton has much more to offer a biographer. He was an ethnographer, a polyglot who spoke at least twenty five languages and could so assimilate himself into an alien culture that he entered Mecca posing as a pilgrim. Speke preferred slaughtering the local wildlife.

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