littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Mozart and Birds

In March this year, at the Adelaide Festival, I attended Barrie Kosky’s extraordinary production of The Magic Flute.

Mozart Magic flute 1.jpg

Only the front of the stage is used, and much of the action involves animation on a huge screen, the actors at times greatly elevated (singers must be getting used to singing from alarming heights — I think of Kate Miller-Heidke in the Eurovision contest). The animation is by the company 1927, and indeed we are in the realms of the silent films of the Weimar Republic.

By no means an opera buff, I don’t like recitatives and on this occasion I didn’t have to listen to any because the words were shown as intertitles, in appropriate silent movie font. I particularly loved the depiction of the Queen of the Night as a huge spider.

Mozart Magic flute 2

The hero of this opera is Papageno, the Bird Catcher, who , after being the proverbial loser, ends up with his Papagena. The opera is about love, and as reviewer Cameron Woodhead has said, it depicts love as ‘something visceral, irrational and disordered, but also an intrinsic delight’. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/opera/kosky-s-magic-flute-enchanting-and-unforgettable-20190302-p511cj.html

I loved the animation. But I was aware that the music of the Berlin Komische Oper was superb. In particular the high soprano notes of the Queen were piercing and amazing. I did feel that the novelty of the animation distracted me a little from the beauty of the music. What would Mozart think of this?

MOZART MAGIC FLUTE 3

In March, I hadn’t yet read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book, Mozart’s Starling. For three years Mozart had a pet starling, which he kept in his rooms in Vienna. Some say that he revisited the pet shop and bought the bird because it could whistle a phrase from his piano concerto no. 17 in G major. (Who composed it first, I wonder, Mozart or the starling?) Haupt tried to teach the phrase to her starling — in case it was a natural part of starling song — but was unsuccessful.

Mozart's starling 7

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a keen bird lover. Although she doesn’t describe herself as an ornithologist, she knows a lot about birds, and she cares about them. She rescued her starling, Carmen, from a building that was to be demolished. In Seattle, where she lives, starlings are reviled. They are rats with wings. They decimate crops and invade sensitive habitats.

Mozart's starling 6

In Haupt’s book, we have the parallel stories of her bird Carmen, who becomes a much-loved pet, and Mozart’s starling, ‘Star’. One thing that puzzled me, reading this book, was the matter of translation. Did Mozart call his bird ‘Star’, or the German equivalent? Also, there are long quotes in English of letters that Mozart wrote, and poems, beautifully rhyming — all quoted in English.

Mozart's starling 5

Carmen was so much a part of Haupt’s family that she sat on Haupt’s head or shoulder while Haupt was writing, frequently ‘pooping’ in her hair or on her computer keys.  Starlings are great mimics, and Carmen could imitate sounds such as the creak of floorboards.  There is interesting discussion about bird langauge and understanding, with reference to the work of Noam Chomsky. Haupt suggests that Star was similarly a pet in Mozart’s household. Haupt visited Vienna and stood in Mozart’s apartment, imagining Star there.

Mozart's starlng 2

It is said that when Star died, Mozart arranged an extravagant funeral, whereas he hadn’t managed to find the means to travel to the funeral of his own father. Through Haupt’s book I came to see Mozart as a relaxed and fun-loving man. Previously I had thought that because his life was so short and he wrote so much he must have been driven and pedantic. No, he would have loved Kosky’s production of The Magic Flute.

Mozart's starling 1

 

Release of The Sky Falls Down: an Anthology of Loss

I have a short story in an anthology, edited by Gina Mercer and Terry Whitebeach. It has just been published by Ginninderra Press. The anthology has been described as a compelling collection in which eighty-nine writers traverse their particular territory of loss and bring back travellers’ tales.

Book cover Sky Falls Down (1)
‘This beautiful collection of writings explores the landscape of loss. It will meet you where you are. You’ll find yourself reaching for particular pieces that somehow articulate how you’re feeling, even before you’ve found the words to express it yourself… May this book become both a friend and a warm companion.’ – Petrea King, Quest for Life Centre.

If you would like to purchase a copy, it is available through Ginninderra Press: https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/

The editors, Gina Mercer and Terry Whitebeach are trying to raise money so that the contributors can be paid. They are doing this through crowdfunding. To contribute or find out more, please visit: https://australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/anthology-of-loss/.

All writers need to be paid — some of these contributors are particularly in need, having survived horrific experiences such as bushfires, some are asylum seekers and refugees.

Release of Jennifer Bryce’s novel, Lily Campbell’s Secret.

Sorrowing woman leaning on table in front of photo of her husband

It’s 1913, and Lily’s comfortable middle-class Melbourne life is completely upended when she falls in love. As she sits in the hall of her private school, portraits of past headmistresses frowning at her, she realises the ‘glaring, unalterable fact’ that she is pregnant, the father a young stablehand called Bert. Her parents disown her: the first of many wrenching challenges she must face. She marries Bert and they have a few happy months together in rural Woodend, where their daughter is born. When the war starts, Bert volunteers and Lily is thrown very much on her own resources. After Bert returns home, Lily has to face the most momentous decision of her life.

Lily’s role as mother, musician, wife and lover, leads her to confront issues of patriarchy, nationalism, love… and the value of a human life.

In Jennifer Bryce’s ‘Australian Gothic’ novel, the suppressed grand passions of her long-suffering heroine are finally resolved in a way that is both shocking and completely natural.

— Irina Dunn, Director, Australian Writers’ Network

Original and compelling. A vivid sense of period; a breathtaking finale.

Virginia Duigan

 

The Launch is happening soon

The novel is to be launched by Toni Jordan (https://www.textpublishing.com.au/authors/tonijordan),  in Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) at Readings Bookshop, Carlton, (309 Lygon Street) on Thursday 13th June, 6 pm.

Readings bookshop

 

Published by Rightword Enterprises, the novel is available from Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Lily-Campbells-Secret-Jennifer-Bryce-ebook/dp/B07QXM6HLX/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=JENNIFER+BRYCE&qid=1556328182&s=books&sr=1-4 ), Book Depository, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, and will be available from bookstores shortly (RRP $A25.00).

In case you need some encouragement to buy, here is the opening of the novel:

There was no escape. I would have to tell my parents. The glaring, unalterable fact wouldn’t go away. ‘Mother and Father, I’m in love …’, ‘Mother and Father, I’ve met a young man …’, ‘Mother and Father, I know you’ll find this difficult, but …’. Nothing seemed right. I was sitting on my favourite bench under the magnolia in the public gardens opposite the house where I’d lived for all of my seventeen years. I supposed Mother thought I’d gone to the gardens to read, but I couldn’t possibly concentrate on a book today. I looked across to our solid grey stone villa. The roses in their neat rows were coming into flower and our Chinese vegetable man was at the tradesmen’s entrance with his scales balanced over his shoulders. Shirley, our maid, was sweeping the verandah.

When I’d missed ‘the curse’ for a second time, I started going to the library after school, where I read Everyday Human Biology, over and over, desperately searching for some other explanation. But the book stated with stark authority that if, after menstruating regularly for a year or more, a woman misses more than two cycles, the reason is most likely that she is ‘gravid’. I looked up the meaning of the word and it meant ‘pregnant, with child’. I was as bad as Primrose Macfarlane, who had been expelled from school for a reason too terrible to divulge to us girls. She was called to the Head Mistress’s office, then later a prefect came and collected her things. We never saw Primrose again, but there were hushed whisperings and proclamations of self-righteous disapproval from girls who, days before, had been her friends. Now there might be whisperings about me – although fortunately school would finish for ever in a few weeks.

Earlier in the afternoon, out walking with Dorcas, I had seen a woman pushing a perambulator. In less than nine months’ time I would be pushing a perambulator. A baby was growing inside me – a baby that would be mine, and mine to care for. I’d never even held a baby and I’d certainly never imagined what it would be like to be a mother. Dorcas had urged me to tell my parents.

Tonight I was going to do it. Gripped with dread, I walked through the shadowy front gate, along the rose-lined gravel drive, up the stone steps, through the door and down the passage to the room where my execution would take place.

We took our places as usual at the long mahogany dining table: Mother, Father and I. The laughing cavalier in the painting gazed at me with his penetrating eyes; he knew what I’d done, he knew what would happen – he was laughing at me. The crystal, the silver, the harlequin cruet set were in place on the appliquéd table-cloth, and all this was scrutinised by an aloof audience of empty high-backed dining chairs placed around the walls, waiting.

We ate our soup in silence and Shirley cleared the bowls. I would do it while Shirley was out of the room. I wiped my mouth with my serviette and uttered the words I’d practised.

‘I’ve met a young man I would like to marry.’

‘Oh?’ said Father. ‘This is a very surprising turn of events. You keep pestering us about going to university. Now you want to marry …’

‘You are too young, Lillian, dear, you need to meet more young men to be sure that you find someone suitable.’ Mother straightened her back and toyed with her silverware.

‘I’ve met other young men at dances and … I’m sure …’

‘What school did he go to? How do we know that he’s the right young man for you?’

‘I don’t know, Mother …’

‘Oh? Where did you meet him?’

‘When I stayed with cousin Constance, I …’

‘Oh, well, Aunt Mildred would only allow a respectable young man …’

‘Yes Mother …’

‘We’re not expecting you to marry until after your twenty-first birthday, Lillian. You really are too young.’

The grandfather clock in the hall chimed the quarter hour. Shirley returned, wheeling in the roast for Father to carve. Father stood up and brandished the sharpening steel, holding his usual command over the meat. Maybe I could tell them tomorrow? I looked down at the table-cloth: what would Dorcas do? She would tell them now.

‘Mother, I love him … and …’

‘Love, dear. You may think it’s love, but you’re only seventeen. It’s probably just a passing fancy…’

‘I do love him, Mother and …’

‘Now, don’t be rash, Lillian dear …’

‘… he works in the stables at Aunt Mildred’s …’ The room began to spin. I couldn’t hear what Mother said next because my ears were humming, but she put her serviette down firmly on her side plate and stared at me. Say it now: ‘I think I’m expecting a baby!’

Father’s steel clattered onto the carving dish. A fly buzzed around the uncut meat. No one brushed it away. Mother made a spluttering sound then she was choking. Father bent towards me, lowering his voice, ‘Did I hear you correctly, Lillian? My daughter … with child?’

I could bear it no longer and ran to my room.

I flung myself onto my bed and wept into the pillow.

I don’t know how long I lay there, but after some time I could hear footsteps thumping down the passage, my door burst open, the ornaments on my mantelpiece rattled as Mother thundered in. She stood over me.

‘Lillian. Have you been with a young man?’

‘Yes, Mother.’

‘How could you? After all we have done for you …’

She shouted at me and I tried to block out what she said, but I took in ‘disgrace’ and ‘guttersnipe’. Then she stormed out. There was silence. Sometime later I heard her sobbing in the passage outside my room. I pulled the bedclothes right over my head.

 

 

More information from this website at: jenniferbryce.net/my-novel/

 

 

 

 

THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS

Pat Barker is recognised for her perceptive writing about war. Indeed, some time ago I wrote a post about her World War I novel, Regeneration.

https://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/308.

SILENCE OF GIRLS 1

The Silence of the Girls goes much further back in history — to the time of the Trojan Wars. It has been labelled a feminist Iliad. Mainly through the eyes of Briseis, we experience the cost of war to women — women who survive as slaves when men destroy their cities and kill their brothers, fathers and children.

SILENCE OF GIRLS Briseis Given Back to Achilles, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens: Briseis is given to Achilles 

Pat Barker has taken what we know of that time and looked at it through a different lens — how would the women have felt when, for example, they witness the teenage daughter of Priam and Hecuba being gagged and killed as a sacrifice? How did Briseis feel when she was handed over as an ‘award’ to Achilles after his army had sacked her city, Lyrnessus? Briseis says, ‘I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers’.

The characters in this book speak in 21st century English, and the women, particularly Briseis have an assurance that one might not expect of someone kept in subjugation. At first I balked at the language. For example, Nestor and Achilles are talking: ‘Nestor smiled and shook his head. “You won’t leave. Whatever else you are, you’re not a deserter.”

“I don’t see it as desertion. This isn’t my war.”

“You were keen enough to get into it.”

“I was seventeen.” Achilles leant forward. “Look, what he did today was totally outrageous, everybody knew it, and there wasn’t one voice raised against it.”

“Mine was. Then, and later.”

“So now I just think: Fuck it. He wants Troy, he can take Troy — without me. Except we both know he can’t.”‘

I realised, firstly, that we have no idea how people spoke then, so why try to make something up? And then, more importantly, it seemed that the use of 21st century English provides a sense of universality. This is a book about women and war — women’s relationships with men, not particularly about Ancient Greece. One of the most poignant parts of the book is where, debilitated by age and unarmed, Priam makes his way alone through the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the mutilated body of his son Hector. Briseis makes sure that Hector’s body is covered with a linen sheet and, in spite of the inhumanely savage way the son’s body has been treated, in Priam’s presence, there is a kind of reverence and respect for the father’s wishes, even though he is the enemy. These things are timeless.

silence of girls Tiepolo Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon

Tiepolo: Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Film Festival: Non Fiction

 

non fiction 4

This film, directed by Olivier Assayas will have special appeal to writers. There are animated discussions about the nature of fiction, the future of print media — everyone huddled over wine and finger food. I felt very much at home!

Near the end of the film there is a reference to words from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: Everything must change so that everything can stay the same. And indeed, this can be seen as the main premise of the film — most significantly as a response to discussions about the future of literature, but also as an underpinning to the lives of the main characters in the film. Should the publishing company focus on E-Books and audiobooks? There is an amusing suggestion that Juliette Binoche would be a good person to read a particular audiobook: Binoche plays the part of Selena in the film.

non fiction 2

Leonard , played by Vincent Macaigne

The film opens with writer Leonard discussing his latest book with his publisher. He has published several books — Leonard describes his writing as ‘auto-fiction’ — but his critics say it is actually autobiography — a case of blurring the line between fact and fiction, because each book is about one of Leonard’s affairs — and we, the audience, discover that his latest affair is with Selena, the wife of his publisher. Unaware of this, the publisher tells Leonard that, on this occasion, he won’t offer Leonard a contract.

non fiction 3

Leonard with Selena

Leonard is a lovable, seemingly naive character. When Selena breaks off the affair, Leonard tries to tell his wife, who isn’t particularly interested. At the end of the film, we are on tenterhooks when Leonard and his wife have a beach-house lunch with Selena and her publisher husband. Will the truth about Leonard and Selena’s relationship slip out? It comes close when Leonard, in his naive way, admits that he’s been to the house before — he must have gone there on some occasion with Selena. All is well — and the countryside, a remote beach, is beautiful. On the way home, Leonard and his wife take a break (they are on a motor scooter) and, lying under a beautiful coastal pine tree, his wife tells him she is pregnant. Leonard seems stunned, but ultimately delighted. His writing will probably take a new direction. And near the end of the film there is mention of a ‘spike’ in the sale of print books in the US.

 

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra

On Saturday, 9th March, there was a sublime orchestral concert in the Adelaide Town Hall.

MCO 1

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has its roots in the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, founded by conductor Claudio Abbado in 1997. Members of the orchestra share a vision of being a free, democratic and international ensemble that unites to tour across Europe and the world. The present Mahler Chamber Orchestra was founded 21 years ago by the musicians themselves. It is an orchestra of 45 soloists from over 20 nations.

MCO 2

In this concert, there were two symphonies : Schubert’s 3rd – not well known, and Bruckner’s  Symphony No. 4 (‘The Romantic’). The Schubert symphony was written when the composer was only 17, and it was not published during his short life time — he died at the age of 31.

mahler 5 schubert

Franz Schubert

During the allegro section of the first movement I became aware of superb clarinet playing: the principal clarinet plays a solo over syncopated strings — at first it is extremely soft and gradually it develops to a full orchestral sound. Whilst beautifully controlled, the clarinet was played in an almost ‘folksy’ style — singing above the strings and the player himself was far from sedate, moving as much as possible in the confines of an orchestral chair. During the playful minuet movement of this symphony the players smiled at each other.

mahler 9 vincente alberola

Vincente Alberola, principal clarinet player

This orchestra’s sound is characterised by a chamber music style of ensemble playing from alert and independent musical personalities. The words of the concert program were borne out. The players ‘bring a palpable collective musical intelligence and evenness of skill to whatever they play’. The orchestra was conducted by Daniel Harding.

mahler 7 daniel harding

Daniel Harding

Still only in his forties, Harding is renowned as an opera conductor at La Scala, Milan and he also conducts the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. I was particularly drawn to the superb blending of the woodwind, and I have never before heard such precise and beautiful pizzicato.

Mahler Jaan Bossier 2

Jaan Bossier, clarinet

Influenced, perhaps, by his opera experience, and speaking about the Bruckner, Harding talks of the ‘choirs’ of instruments in the orchestra: brass, strings and woodwinds.  (Limelight Magazine, March 2019). He aims for these ‘choirs’ to be more ‘equal’ rather than, say, brass dominating in the fortissimo sections. Of the Bruckner, he has said that it is  full of Austrian folk music – not just ‘monumentalism’. (Limelight Magazine,March 2019).

mahler 6 bruckner

Anton Bruckner

When a piece of music, particularly a symphony, is based on some form of narrative it can be said to have a ‘program’. Symphony No. 4, which the composer himself labelled as ‘The Romantic’ is believed to follow a program:  ‘Mediaeval city—Daybreak—Morning calls sound from the city towers—the gates open—On proud horses the knights burst out into the open, the magic of nature envelops them—forest murmurs —  bird song —and so the Romantic picture develops further…’ (Williamson, John 2004, The Cambridge Companion to Bruckner, C.U.P., p.110). The symphony opens with a beautiful horn solo over shimmering strings, and throughout the symphony,  particularly the 3rd movement, there is much suggestion of a rollicking hunt of nineteenth century landed gentry. In the 3rd movement came the cleanest, clearest pizzicato I have ever heard — the entire string section — violins, violas, ‘celli and basses — playing as one.

mahler mizuho yoshi-smith oboe

Mizuho Yoshi-Smith, principal oboe

At the end of the concert, after much applause, the members of the orchestra hugged each other. I recall that members of the Berlin Philharmonic did this after their concert in Sydney many years ago: confirmation that they are a team who love performing together.

MCO 3

Adelaide Town Hall, venue for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra concert

 

 

 

 

 

Adelaide Writers’ Week 2019

I am at present at Adelaide Writers’ Week, sitting (almost) on the banks of the Torrens. My writing group, Elwood Writers, is here and we will keep you posted on the events we attend. https://elwoodwriters.com/2019/03/04/elwood-writers-at-adelaide-writers-week-2019-the-first-day/

A DVOŘÁK MARATHON

A marathon is usually associated with running. It is believed that Pheidippides ran as a messenger from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to report victory over the Persians, and a marathon race has been included in the modern Olympic Games (since 1896). On Sunday 24th February, the people of Melbourne were able to sit through a complete day of concerts of Dvořák’s music — there was nothing exhausting or gruelling about the experience for this member of the audience. The day of music-making, described as the Dvořák Marathon, raised money and increased memberships of community radio station 3MBS https://3mbs.org.au/ 

DVORAK 3MBS

For the past six years, 3MBS has held ‘Marathons’ — each year a different composer has been featured: Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart — in 2018 it was the Bach family. Performers donate their time.

Dvorak 1

Antonin Dvořák

Czech composer, Antonin Dvořák (1841 – 1904) is well known for works such as his symphony From the New World and his ‘cello concerto. This whole day of concerts visited some of these favourites but also gave an opportunity to hear lesser known works such as the opening item, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, which is a meditation on the anguish of Mary at the cross: ‘The grieving mother stood beside the cross, crying while her son was hanging’. This grief is all the more poignant when we learn that Dvořák wrote this work at the time of the death of his infant daughter Josefa. Within a year, two other of Dvořák’s children would die in infancy. The work was first performed in Prague in 1880. It was first performed in Melbourne in 1885 by the Royal Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra and indeed, this long-standing group gave the performance last Sunday  (presumably no members from the Australian premiere performance took part).

Much of Dvořák’s music is infused with elements of his Bohemian background — often what seem to be reminiscences rather than direct quotations of melodies. For example, the idea of ‘Dumky’, a diminutive of the term ‘duma’ — a lament of captive people, brooding and introspective. In the second concert of the day, Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor was performed (piano, violin and ‘cello). It is known as the ‘Dumky’ trio and the music critic Daniel Felsenfeld had said that the listener is taken to ‘some dizzying, heavy places to be able to be both brooding and yet somehow, through it all, a little lighthearted’. Most of the six movements move through changes in tempo, such as moderate slowness to playfulness.

I won’t describe every piece of music performed throughout the day — I was swept up by the mood of Slavonic dances, played in piano duet form. I hadn’t known that Dvořák  wrote organ music — preludes and fugues. These were performed and several showed a clear influence of Bach.

Dvorak America

Dvořák was a professor at the Prague conservatory. In 1892 he moved to America for three years where he was director of the National Conservatory of Music in America, based in New York. Some of the music he wrote at this time is influenced by Negro sprituals. This is where he wrote his Symphony From the New World, his ‘cello concerto and the  popular ‘American’ string quartet (No. 12 in F major). This latter was written when on vacation in Iowa and when listening to it I realised that I was experiencing some of the most joyful music I have ever heard; a pure joy, no bitter sweetness, an expression that transcended personal griefs, such as the deaths of three children. At the time I thought that some of the rhythms in the faster movements derived from the regular hoof beats of  horses that may have carried the Dvořák family through the Iowa countryside, but I later learned that Dvořák  loved locomotives. Maybe it is the rhythm of a steam train.

Dvorak in America

The Dvořák  family in America — Antonin Dvořák  on the far right

DVORAK PIANO QUINTET

A sense of springtime and joy flows through the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major although this work incorporates elements of the Slavic dumky and Bohemian dance rhythms — it is thought to have been a reassessment by Dvořák of his first piano quintet, which he destroyed after its first performance. For me, a large part of the delight in listening to this work was the superb playing of Elizabeth Sellars and Wilma Smith (violins), Caroline Henbest (viola), Chris Howlett (‘cello) and in particular, Stephen McIntyre (piano). I doubt that I have ever heard more sensitive piano work — the piano melted into the strings and yet also stood out with the brilliant, crisp technique required for the Bohemian furiant and the frenetic energy and sharp swings of mood in the final movement.  It was a true quintet, not a piano accompanying four string instruments.

DVORAK STEPHEN MCINTYRE

Stephen McIntyre

It was also a joy to hear young virtuoso Christian Li and Laurence Matheson perform the Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G Major. Li was born in 2007. He has already won the prestigious Junior First Prize at the 2018 Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition in Geneva, 2018. Although a little older, Laurence Matheson has won a string of awards, including the Director’s Prize of the Australian National Academy of Music. Together they gave a beautiful performance of the Sonatina, which was first performed by Dvořák’s children. According to program notes, inspiration for part of the slow movement came to the composer when he was hiking at Minnehaha Falls in Minnesota. With no paper to hand, he scrawled the tune on his shirt cuff.

DVORAK CHRISTIAN LI

Christian Li and Laurence Matheson

My final joy for the day was a performance of the Serenade for Wind Instruments, ‘Cello and Double Bass. This is one of my favourite pieces of chamber music — I like the tempering of the ‘wind band’ sound by the lower strings and also I have happy memories of playing this work myself many years ago, so I am intimately familiar with every note. It is a fairly early work, having been written in 1878 after hearing a performance of Mozart’s ‘Gran Partita’ Serenade. Is the imperious first movement a bit smug? We are swept away by dance movements and lilting melodies. A contrabassoon was included in this performace.  Dvořák made it an optional addition, because the huge instrument can be hard to come by. It certainly adds a fuller dimension to the bass line. Several days later, I still have this music running through my mind.

dvorak contrabassoon 4

Dvorak 2

Chopin’s Piano

 

chopin's piano 2

At school I was taught that you shouldn’t describe something by saying what it is not. Nevertheless, I think that this opening paragraph from the Spectator review of Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano sums up the book admirably:

It is not a biography, nor a work of musicology. As an extended historical essay it is patchy and selective. It is partly about pianos and pianism, but would disappoint serious students of that genre. It is not quite a detective story — though there are, towards the end, elements of a hunter on the track of his prey. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/07/chopins-piano-is-an-eclectic-trip-through-19th-century-romanticism/

chopin's piano 4

Frederic Chopin

I started this book cautiously, because Chopin is not one of my favourite composers — probably because I am not a pianist and the vast body of his work was for piano. The ‘detective element’ is tracing the journey of a small Bauza pianino that Chopin took with him to Majorca in 1838 — a wintery sojourn spent in an abandoned monastery with George Sand and her children. On this little piano he completed the composition of his 24 Preludes. Apparently the only music he took with him to play was Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues.

chopin's piano 1

Barely one third of the way through the book, Chopin is dead. This is clearly not a biography. Kildea starts to examine the influence that Chopin’s preludes had on later 19th Century composers. To what extent did they influence Debussy’s Preludes?  There is a consideration of different interpretations of Chopin’s Preludes — descriptions of Chopin’s playing; slow, romantic, with much rubato (rubato concerns rhythm, the beats in a bar, it is later — on page 263 — described brilliantly as ‘like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in’). In the early 20th century Albert Cortot made recordings — much faster tempo, less romantic.

chopin's piano 6 cortot

I was fascinated to consider the impact on music of the Steinway grand piano — first built at the end of the 19th Century. With an entirely new way of stringing, so that the strings are like a harp lying horizontally, there can be consistency of tone and a strengthening of volume. The sound of such an instrument is able to fill a modern day concert hall, which was not the case with earlier instruments. In my mind, piano concerts moved from the intimacy and stuffy gentility of the salon to the more democratic accessibility of the concert hall.

chopin's piano 7

Wanda Landowska

In 1913, pianist and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959) purchased the Bauza pianino that had belonged to Chopin. And the book becomes a biography of Landowska. She is famous for having made the first recording of Bach’s complete Goldberg Variations. Although she had been baptised Roman Catholic, Landowska came from a Jewish family and thus had to flee Nazi Germany — at first to France, where her home was ultimately ransacked — many valuable sets of teaching notes and other possessions were never retrieved. Landowska herself was safe and escaped to the USA via Portugal.

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It is thought that after the war the Bauza was sent to the USA along with other instruments of Landowska’s, but Kildea has not as yet been able to trace it. He seems confident that one day it will turn up!

The book is subtitled ‘A Journey Through Romanticism’, and this is certainly one of its many strands. There is indeed an underlying suggestion that romantic music, by crossing national boundaries, has a unifying role. I am not convinced that its role is any more powerful than other art forms in general. I particularly enjoyed thinking about how styles of performance and interpretation are influenced by things like the design of a piano. If Chopin had had a Steinway with him in the little paddle boat that took him to Majorca rather than the diminutive Bauza, what of the 24 Preludes?

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The Favourite

Five years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing The James Plays, by Rona Munro, at the Edinburgh Festival. These plays depict the lives and times of three generations of royalty in 15th Century Scotland. As I watched these plays, I became aware of the power and influence of women in the Scottish court at that time. (I’m aware of the fact that these plays are written by a woman!) Up until then I had thought that, with some notable exceptions (Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria), women played a fairly submissive role in the shaping of history until the first waves of Women’s Liberation  — the Suffragettes in the early 20th Century. I was wrong. Consider  the influence of many of Shakespeare’s women characters: Goneril obessessed with overthrowing King Lear, and Lady Macbeth goading her husband into grasping power.

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Queen Anne

The film The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lathimos does not aim to be an exact depiction of the times of Queen Anne (who reigned in early 18th Century Britain), but it does help us to imagine what it might have been like to be in her position in those days. Lathimos underlines this intended lack of historical fastidiousness by playing around with some of the court dancing and having costumes that are almost right, but not made of contemporary fabrics. Most of the music has a degree of authenticity (Queen Anne loved the music of Handel) — and incidentally there is glorious singing by Angela Hicks.

Anne was married to a Danish prince, but the film opens after he had died and Anne (played by Olivia Colman), who would have then been considered ‘middle aged’, is a sickly and in many ways lonely woman, tormented by the memories of her 17 children whom she lost through miscarriages or early childhood death. In the film, these children are cleverly represented by 17 ‘cute’ rabbits, kept in her bedchamber. When Anne plays with her rabbits she becomes playful and maternal — but overall she is a troubled woman.

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Olivia Colman as Queen Anne

Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough, Rachel Weisz) did play a significant role as an advisor to Queen Anne.  In the film, when out of the eye of officialdom, Anne and Sarah at first behave like the childhood friends they were. Sarah, pushing Anne in her wheelchair, asks if she wants to go fast, and they race back to her chambers. Clearly, they confide in all kinds of things and Sarah is in a position to influence Anne in making political decisions; Sarah aligning with the Whigs whereas Anne, when she is well enough to concern herself, is more disposed towards the Tories.

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Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

In the film Anne and Sarah’s relationship is sexual. This seems quite plausible — the lonely queen — Sarah probably now the only person to whom she is close. However, when Abigail Masham, a new servant, comes on the scene, Anne is clearly attracted to her. Sometimes it is Abigail who is invited to the royal bedchamber.  Jealousy flares. In the film, Abigail is shown as scheming. Through her relationship with Anne she marries a nobleman and from her fallen state (she is a cousin of the Duchess) she resumes a position in keeping with her previous status.

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Abigail, the butt of Sarah’s jealousy

We might at first have sympathy for Abigail. She is intelligent. She is not cut out for scrubbing floors … But one time, in the Queen’s chamber, when the rabbits have been released to play, we see Abigail press her foot destructively on a rabbit at her side. Anne, feeling unwell at the time, does not notice.

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Abigail after resuming her upper class status

History suggests that Anne and Sarah fell out over political differences. This is mentioned in the film, but far stronger are the jealousies of a lesbian love triangle.

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The ending of the film is by no means definitive. This is apparently typical of other movies directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. There is a shot that merges  images of Anne, Sarah, Abigail and the rabbits — maybe Anne’s state of mind?

I found the film interesting as a study of the possible inner life of the lonely, tormented Queen Anne. It is also a reminder of the influence that could be wielded by women at that time. As one reviewer says, ‘ The male politicians stand around in their peacock finery trying to exploit what opportunities they can find, but it is the women who hold all the cards and are not afraid to deal them.’ https://www.historyextra.com/period/stuart/real-history-the-favourite-film-queen-anne-olivia-colman-hannah-greig/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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