littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

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.

chopin's piano 10

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?

chopin's piano 9

 

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.

anne 8

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.

anne 4

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.

anne 9

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.

anne 3

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.

anne 1

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.

anne 2

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/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Aldiss: master of metaphor

Maybe this is a grandiose claim, and I am referring to only one book by Aldiss. But, as I read Comfort Zone, his novel published in 2013, when he would have been 88, I found that I was picking out more favourite phrases and metaphors than usual. So I decided to write something in the ‘Writing’ category of my blog, rather than a book review. As I read, I kept saying to myself, this man who at the time had been writing books for more than 60 years, really knows how to write.

I took a little while to get into this book, in which we are confined by the daily routines of an 80 year-old man living in a village on the outskirts of Oxford. But the writing is beautiful, with an underlying wit and honesty about what it’s like to be shuffling around in your eighties. At one point Aldiss finds the need to jump into the text and tell us that the main character, Justin, isn’t him. In parallel with coping with life: the end of a love affair, an adult disabled son, the need for a medley of medications, Justin works on a thesis about the evils done by religions in the world today and the suggestion that everything is governed by chance.

Some metaphors and phrases that I particularly liked are:

windows with their pouting sills (page 8)

complaint crept in like a hungry slug among lettuces
(page 32)

a woman of bustling corpulence
(page 78)

the summit of Justin’s happiness
(page 97)

[a face] alight with anger
(page 110)

his rickety old voice
(page 122)

his … voice clogged with a junket of hope and dread
(page 254)

[a] tumbledown man
(page 264)

the suited man whinnied with laughter
(page 290)

Andrew Morton: 17 Carnations, a book about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

The seventeen carnations were given to Wallis Simpson by Ribbentrop, Hitler’s special commissioner in London, with whom she may have been having an affair before she married Edward VIII who abdicated from the English throne before his coronation.

 


Edward-and-Wallis-Ribbentrop

Ribbentrop, Hitler’s special commissioner in London








Edward-and-Wallis-Wedding-photo

Wallis Simpson and the former Edward VIII


I had understood that the abdication was purely because Edward, as king, was not permitted to marry a twice-divorced woman – however, it seems, from Morton’s account, that the British government may have been pleased for an excuse to claim that Edward should not remain king as he had dangerous connections with the Nazi Party. Just before the War, Edward and Wallis visited Hitler who considered that ‘when’ the Nazis won the war and conquered Europe and England, Edward, with his Nazi sympathies, would be an ideal puppet king of England. It was also planned that, through Operation Willi, Edward would be kidnapped by the Nazis and enticed into negotiating peace with them – a ‘peace’ that inevitably would favour Nazi domination of Europe.

 

the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with Hitler

I was pleased to be made more aware of these facts, but by the time I was half way through the book I started to struggle – there were so many details, so many names and at times the book was more about Nazi spies in and around World War II than the story of Edward and Wallis. Edward and Wallis, Duke and Duchess of Windsor were not permitted to settle in England after the abdication.

 

a wedding photo

 

 

Edward was not invited to his niece’s wedding in 1947 or to her coronation in 1953 – they returned only in death, when they were buried side by side at Frogmore in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Edward comes over as very weak. Indeed maybe all of the children of George V and Mary suffered from the remote and severe upbringing provided – George VI’s stutter is well known.  

 

 

Queen Mary, Edward’s mother

 

 

I had thought that Wallis was poorly thought of purely because the royal family hated her so and referred to her as ‘that woman’. But maybe the label was deserved. After marriage to Edward it seems that she continued to have affairs and when he was dying of throat cancer and desperately wanting her by his side, there was only a nurse to look after him and Wallis was away with her lover. (This I learned from other sources, Morton doesn’t mention it.) A colourful story, but Morton’s book became rather tedious and I was glad when I’d finished it.

 

Wallis, Duchess of Windsor

MUSIC FOR ARMISTICE DAY

11th November, 2018 was the centenary of the signing of the Armistice – the armistice that ended fighting in World War I between Germany and the Allies. The Armistice came into effect at 11.11am, French time on the 11th day of the 11th month. It marked a victory for the allies and defeat, although not a formal surrender, by Germany.  The war was so brutal and so shattering for most of the Western world that 100 years on, it continues to be represented in all kinds of art forms.

The signing of the Armistice 11th November 1918

My own writing group, Elwood Writers [https://elwoodwriters.com/ ] had provided a program of short stories and poetry, which we read on the Vision Australia radio program, Cover to Cover [https://radio.visionaustralia.org/podcasts/podcast/covertocover]. It was broadcast on Sunday 11thNovember. That day I also attended two concerts.

Meat Market Centre

In the afternoon, at the Meat Market Centre, Melbourne, we heard the Australian contribution to ‘100 for 100’: a celebration of the centenary of the rebirth of a free Poland, which occurred as a result of the signing of the Armistice.

Daniel Clichy, Director and Editor-in-Chief of a publishing house that has aimed to preserve and promote Polish music over the past 100 years, explained in program notes that for this enterprise 100 works written since 1918 by Polish composers would be presented throughout the world. Concerts took place at roughly the same time in 11 venues outside of Poland: Chicago, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Lviv (Ukraine), Milan, New York, Paris,Tokyo, Vienna and Melbourne, and at 11 venues within Poland. So there we were, sitting in the Meat Market Centre, participating in this celebration of Polish freedom and culture. Programs were different in the various venues, but all concerts were of Polish music composed since 1918.


Dominik Karski

We heard Contragambilles, composed in 2014 for string quartet, by Andrzej Kwieciński (1984). Program notes suggested that, for Kwieciński, instruments and performers are melded as one whole. The piece is influenced by dances of Rameau where the composer focused on the gestures of musicians as well as sounds. For Kwieciński, the program notes tell us, ‘the noise of the bow rubbing against the strings – the very techniques of sound production become music …’.  At the very end of the piece, the violist threw away a tambourine he had been playing, the sound and gesture being anintegral part of the music. Jagoda Szmytka’s (1982) piece, Inane Prattle was written in 2013. The piece is for solo trumpet, accompanied by flute, piccolo, transverse flute, oboe, clarinets and strings, with a tape of distorted sounds of an Arab doctor describing a skin disease –the inane prattle that surrounds us in everyday life.

We also heard Kazimierz Serocki’s (1922 – 1981) Phantasmagoria for piano and percussion, composed in 1970 – 1971, Dominik Karski’s (1972) Motion + Form, composed 2003 – Karski lives in Australia, as does Dobromiła Jaskot (1981), whose piece for two flutes, Hgrrrsht, explores the borderline between flute sounds and human voice and breath. The piece included chattering teeth and tongue clicks.

 

Image by Rochelle Thompson

 

 There was also a homage to Poland’s most famous (although pre 1918) composer, Chopin – Sighs, by Marcin Stańczyk (1977). The ‘sigh’ refers to the technique (not notated by Chopin but used when performing his piano music) of slowing down the tempo according to ‘the naturalness of musical phrase and gesture’ (from the concert program) – a technique known as rubato. I have recently read Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano (Penguin Randon House, 2018), where, discussing performance of Chopin’s piano music, rubato is desribed: ‘the best rubato is like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in’ (page 263).

Rubato

Whilst the horrific slaughter of World War I will not beforgotten, it was invigorating to be a part of a celebration of a positive outcome of that war and to sense that in 22 other cities, audiences were, almost at that very moment, listening to and honouring Polish music with us.

We then moved to another concert held at the Church of All Nations in Carlton, where the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble presented a concert in remembrance of 11th November 1918. I suppose 100 years ago,festivities would have focused on victory, but this concert was one of remembering.

Otto Dix

The first item, Meditationson Der Krieg (war) was composed this year by Rohan Phillips in response to seven of fifty works created by German artist Otto Dix that captured scenes with which he was confronted as a soldier in World War I. The music was reflective and, according to program notes, almost liminal – outside of time. The next piece, for solo piano, provided a strong contrast with action and jarring rhythms. The Drumfire was Incessant, was composed in 2012 by Andrew Harrison, after reading an account of the Battle of Pozières, in which his great-great uncle was wounded. Helen Gifford composed Menin Gate, also for solo piano, in 2005. The Gate, in Belgium, is a tribute to the 350,000 allied soldiers who died in battles fought at Ypres. The program notes include Siegfried Sassoon’s reference to ‘The unheroic dead who fed the guns’.

Menin Gate

The two pieces for solo piano were followed by another by Andrew Harrison for soprano, tenor and chamber orchestra, If Not In This World, composed this year. This was like a miniature opera based on letters written by relatives of the composer: Leslie, a young farm labourer, describes his experience in the trenches while trying to placate his mother’s anxiety ending, ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, in the next’. Leslie was killed. His voice is contrasted with the authority of correspondence from the Australian War Office, and his mother’s pleading for them to find a good luck ring she had given her son. Not surprisingly, the ring is never found and she is left, a broken-hearted lonely mother. As the composer states in the program notes, ‘The end of the war did not bring closure, but opened up a gaping wound that tore at the internal fabric of society…’  The text is framed by three short instrumental ‘laments’.

The final item in the concert was a poetry reading of excerpts from Frederick Phillips’s An English Vision of Empire (1919). The poet was the grandfather of Arcko’s founder and conductor, Timothy Phillips. Frederick Phillips, like so many WWI soldiers, returned with shell-shock or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and after many years of suffering ultimately killed himself. As the program notes say, ‘His story and the poem stand as a testament to the long reaching shadow that war casts over people’s lives.’


Pozières

People left the concert quietly, probably many, like me, poignantly aware of that long reaching shadow.

More metaphors

Here are some more metaphors and phrases I’ve discovered in my reading:

Leaning forward into Bastien’s breath Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.121
The soft jolt of happiness Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.179
The moment … to act moved stiflingly closer Alan Hollinghurst: The Sparsholt Affair, p.222
Later in the night, spooned into Suzy’s back Richard Flanagan: First Person, p.43
His gaze skidding around the room Richard Flanagan: First Person, p.128
Describing musical improvisation: to cast off from the notated shores Virginia Lloyd: Girls at the Piano, p.160
That springtime fragment of a boy’s youth Michael Ondaatje: Warlight p.44
Expressionless as royalty Michael Ondaatje: Warlight p.86
The howl of a train Michael Ondaatje: Warlight p.230
My maths was rusting up Ian McEwan: Enduring Love p.76
Astonishment loosens the hinge of her jaw Ian McEwan: Enduring Love p.83
You are in love, at a point where pride and apprehension scuffle within you Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters p.238
History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters p.241
He was dying, just a whisper of himself. Germaine Greer on the death of Harry Hooton, cited in Elizabeth Kleinhenz: Germaine, p.75
Brooding like a storm Toni Jordan: The Fragments, p.20
An underlying spine of melody Toni Jordan: The Fragments, p.203

 

THE CENTENARY OF THE END OF THE GREAT WAR

For much of my life World War I has hung  in the dim past; a brown and white strip of celluloid showing huge, cumbersome guns, and soldiers marching through mud, sometimes at a pace speeded up by old movie film. People in my immediate family didn’t talk about it much, although my grandfather was there, a captain, awarded an MC, with an experience rather similar to George Sherston, aka Siegfried Sassoon (https://wordpress.com/post/jenniferbryce.net/1099). The war was too long ago to be spoken of in detail, although my mother (still alive today) was born at the end of it. There are photos of Grandad sitting in his neat, military uniform. And I realise now that some of his habits and expressions come from that time: ‘on the word one, quick march’, he would say as we set off on a walk together.

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I came to see that war a little differently when, more than 30 years after his death, I came across letters Grandad had written from the trenches. He was ‘verminous’. He asked a friend to send some warm socks (as though he were on holiday). As an officer, I regret to say, he sometimes seemed to approach the war as a kind of rugby match – one side had to win. That’s what he said to friends and family, but maybe talking like that was the only way he could cope.

No war historian, I started to think about World War I as the beginning of modern warfare. There were still battlefields, as there were at Waterloo or Trafalgar, or even the Wars of the Roses, but the enemy (and presumably the allies) did unsportsmanly things, like throwing bombs at the other side’s latrines. There were planes; fragile bird-like things, but they could bomb cities and kill civilians.

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Fighting was no longer confined to a battlefield. Horrific numbers of soldiers were killed. My English teacher’s fiancé was killed in World War I – and this was typical. There were so many unmarried women of that generation because, due to the casualties, there was a disproportionate number of women left in the world. In spite of the ministrations of devoted nurses – many miles away from home for the first time in their lives – young men died terrible, often lonely deaths, without pain killers and without drugs to stop infection.

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Young men from Australia and New Zealand went off to see the world ‘for free’, and they’d be home by Christmas. To volunteer was noble, doing your bit for your country. But these callow youths were soon squelching around in putrid trenches and standing next to friends whose guts were ripped out by grenades. They weren’t home for Christmas.

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‘Lest we forget’ … But will we? Technological developments of the time created not only horrific weapons of destruction, but the camera. Soldiers had their own box brownies and could snap scenes to remind us of the pitiless horror they experienced. Because of these amateur snapshots we know far more of the detail of what fighting that war was like than we do about, say, the Battle of Waterloo or even the American Civil War. The ‘war to end all wars’ certainly didn’t achieve that objective. Was anything learned as a consequence of that war? The world today is certainly not a more peaceful place.

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One way of helping us to experience what that war was like, so long ago, is the excellent ‘The Great War Exhibition’ that I visited while I was in Wellington, New Zealand. There are displays of all kinds of weapons, recreations of a recruiting office, a double-decker London bus like the 900 that were used as ambulances and to transport troops, and a shorthorn reconnaissance aircraft with its original engine hangs above us.

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There were two things in this exhibition that were outstanding. The first was a ‘Trench Experience’, where a group of no more than 6 at a time was taken on a guided tour of a trench, reconstructed to resemble Quinn’s Post trench at Gallipoli. Although it wasn’t damp, most other features were present: the noise, the narrow walls, uneven surface, and an attempt to recreate the smells (although I thought perhaps they had been toned down a bit). We were led through these winding passages and at each turn we would come across a soldier or group of soldiers acting as they would have – eating (cans of fly-infested bully beef), cleaning their weapons, preparing for attack … and then, near the end, there was an attack.

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These very realistic three-dimensional scenes were created by up-to-date digital film and a technique called Pepper’s Ghost, which uses foil to give an illusion of ghostliness. The soldiers spoke directly to us, and when the final attack came, they had ‘arranged for our evacuation’. Some members of the group I was with found the experience quite claustrophobic – and we were only in there for about 15 minutes!

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The other feature of the exhibition that I found quite exceptional were the photographs – so many, all taken by soldiers at the time, mainly with their box brownie cameras, bought on the way, in Egypt. Sir Peter Jackson (famous for his direction of Lord of the Rings) had the photos painstakingly digitally colourised by his team at Weta Digital. As he says, the troops saw the war in colour.

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Sir Peter Jackson at the exhibition

There were also displays of descriptions written by soldiers at the time – mainly taken from letters. I noticed a tendency for those in higher ranks to focus on the successful outcomes, it was those in the lower ranks who wrote of the vermin, the pain and the hunger. World War I is no longer a drab, crackling old movie for me.

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11th November 2018 will be the centenary of the end of the terrible war that didn’t end all wars. There will be all kinds of commemorations. My writing group, Elwood Writers, (Elwoodwriters.com) has been asked to present a program for the Vision Australia Radio program Cover to Cover. We will be reading pieces we have written; fiction, poetry and memoir. The program goes to air on Friday at 8 pm (AEST) and on Sunday at 1.30 pm (AEST). Locally the station is found at 1179AM, also on VAR digital (https://radio.visionaustralia.org/podcasts/podcast/covertocover).

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