Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

The Rest Is Noise 10: Politics and Spirituality

To the South Bank for the tenth study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival based on the fabulous book about twentieth century classical music by Alex Ross. This weekend it investigated the widespread revival of religious or ‘spiritual’ compositions by composers behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ ie in Russia and East Europe, in the 1970s and 80s.

Full disclosure

I was aware of the most famous of these composers – the Estonian Arvo Pärt, the Poles Penderecki and Gorécki – and came to learn more. But I had several reservations before I even arrived:

a) To adapt a quote – when I hear the word ‘spirituality’ I reach for my Luger. Most of the people I’ve ever heard talking about spirituality lack the moral discipline and intellectual consistency which one can at least admire in practising Christians, let alone practising Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus etc – and instead are sappy, post-religious Westerners describing their own vague feelings of uplift and wonderfulness. The phrase “I’m a very spiritual person” usually boils down to”I’m a very special person – my feelings are finer, my sensibility is nobler, my soul is superior, to the ordinary unthinking masses”. As one speaker said, this vague sense of reverence for something bigger than us, Nature, the Universe, God, whatever, was some time ago labelled New Age religion.

b) The rise of ‘spiritual’ music among Eastern composers is often described as a special and unique phenomenon which I find odd because most composers in history have been Christian and written religious music. Until the end of the 19th century this was taken for granted. But even in the twentieth century, Mahler is deeply religious, so is Schoenberg, so is Stravinsky. Even in supposedly atheist Britain, in the supposedly atheist 20th century, Vaughan Williams writes Christian-ish music, Benjamin Britten is an Anglican, John Tavener, James MacMillan, John Rutter write devout religious music. Even Stockhausen became dottily mystical in later life, Ligeti wrote his Requiem etc.

Ie classical music composers writing religious music is the norm not the exception. Therefore what makes this group stand out must be the type of religious music they create, and I think it is the return of Gorécki and Pärt in particular to very simple, repetitive, harmonic music which makes their music so very palatable and acceptable to a music-hungry, serious music audience which, for a generation, had been offered only the very challenging sounds of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio, Ligeti, Xenakis et al and, at home, the perplexities of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle et al.

Example: Gorécki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Some speakers speculated that the soulful, mournful music of Pärt and Gorécki speaks to deep longings in the human soul etc, and a great deal of speculative discourse can be and has been generated on this premise. But I believe their popularity stems from a different cause. As one speaker pointed out, Gorécki’s third symphony became a surprise bestseller in the early 1990s giving fuel to the ‘Westerners need religion’ argument – but then undermined it by explaining that the bestselling Dawn Upshaw recording (1992) had been produced and packaged by the commercially savvy Elektra-Nonesuch label and heavily promoted by the new Classic FM radio station (launched in September 1992 and looking for sounds and names to associate with its new brand).

“The recording climbed to number 6 on the mainstream UK album charts, stayed at the top of the US classical charts for 38 weeks, and in the chart as a whole for 138 weeks. The Zinman/Upshaw recording has sold over a million copies and probably counts as the best selling contemporary classical record of all time.”

When asked why it was so phenomenally popular, Gorécki speculated: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music… Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.” (Wikipedia)

He, and the many, many commentators on this music, this period and these composers, like to think that what they needed was more religion in their lives, that what the people who bought the CD were missing was a bit of Polish Catholicism or – to be a bit more sympathetic – a sense of something larger than our petty worldly concerns, something transcendent, something to feed our longing for the numinous, the lasting and meaningful etc etc.

I take the jaundiced view that, if the million-plus purchasers of the Dawn Upshaw were looking for anything, it was a fashionable piece of music on the cool new CD format which could be played safely in the background of a hundred thousand dinner parties. What they were missing was not a new devotion to the Virgin Mary; they were looking for something new and fashionable which you could actually listen to with pleasure, that you could play in the car and the kitchen.

The 1990s were not an era of notable spiritual revival in Britain; they were a further step in the post-Thatcher rise of a narcissistic consumerist culture and it is no coincidence that the tremendously simplified, slow and repetitive music of Pärt, Gorécki and John Tavener could be easily packaged and sold to the Classic FM classes (cf the popularity of Tavener’s Song to Athene after it was played at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997). My point is: the buyers and listeners aren’t hungering after religion; they are hungering after accessible music with more depth and seriousness than the pap provided by X Factor and Beyoncé.

This service is provided by the wonderful new music of Gorécki et al but to say composers writing religious music is unusual ignores the history of Western classical music; to say it is special in the Eastern bloc is to overlook the deepseated religious traditions of Poland and Russia; to say it was unusual under Communism is obviously untrue, since this whole weekend is devoted to the fact that the 70s and 80s in the communist bloc are entirely characterised by religious music – what is unusual is to find a decent atheist composer: were there any? Schnittke?

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As usual Saturday and Sunday were packed with lectures, workshops and film screenings on all aspects of the dominant theme, all leading up to an evening performance of key works from the topic or era. I only went to Saturday as Sunday’s events seemed to be mainly about the political background in Britain, which I lived through and don’t need reminding of.

Timetable for the Politics and Spirituality weekend

Saturday 2 November

1. Opening Lecture: Catherine Merridale

Like many if not most of the speakers at these events, Catherine, Professor of Contemporary History at University of London, author of Ivan’s War, was plugging a new book, in her case Red Fortress. She gave an elegant and insightful talk, packed with information and anecdote, and making one overriding point: The twentieth century was one of mind-boggling violence for Russia. At least 27 million Russians died in the Great Patriotic War, maybe 60 million Russians in all died in the Great War, Revolution, Civil War, various famines, Stalin’s pogroms and Terrors, then the Nazi war, then more terror until well into the 50s and the Gulags still overflowing in the 60s and 70s. Merridale’s point is that all the grief and guilt at these horrors was swept under the carpet. the populace had to smile and smile. In 1964 Brezhnev came to power determined to make Russia the most successful nation in the world, happy, smiling faces, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music on every radio. After the initial efforts to destroy it the communists came to an uneasy truce with the Orthodox church and then, later, came to be proud of its Russian-ness, and so the churches with their gold and icons and incense remained one of the few places Russians experienced a genuine, not staged, sense of community and where they could express their deep feelings of loss and tragedy. In this context, for a composer to write religious music was a daring act of rebellion against the State authorities, to risk the loss of his income and career, but at the same time an opportunity to connect with the great subterranean feelings of the people.

Only casually, at the end of the talk, did Merridale mention that the special conditions which gave rise to the dissidents and the samizdat press and the impulse to write religious music have all gone now. The USSR ceased to exist at the end of 1991. We have had 21 years of the jolly Russian Federation. Church attendance in Russia is now the lowest of any European country. 4% compared to 41% of American citizens, 15% of French citizens, 10% of UK citizens. (Source: Wikipedia). So much for the Russians having something to show the decadent west about religion and spirituality.

Merriday said now when she goes back to Moscow, the people she discussed Dostoyevsky and spirituality with as a student are now millionaire property developers or selling armoured cars to mafia bosses.

And so, talking about the special ‘spiritual’ quality, character or culture of Eastern Europe is itself a nostalgic exercise, it is already looking back at a long-vanished era. They are more atheistically materialistic than we are.

2. Gubaidulina: String Quartets 3 & 4

In the Purcell Room, Sofia Gubaidulina was presented and sat onstage to be interviewed: I didn’t pick up on the religious motivation for her work but heard her talk about specific technical problems to do with trying to create contrasting sounds – plucking versus bowing in the third quartet – and the challenge of using a pre-recorded tape of the material for the players to play against in the 4th quartet and of working with film projection which led to comparisons with Skriabin who also requested that colour projections be played at concerts as part of the work. But the programme note and the Wikipedia entry are very eloquent about her deliberate religious intentions for her music, its association with transcendence and spiritual values etc.

I didn’t have the slightest religious feeling while listening to it, I was impressed by the way she’d manage to get new sounds, new sonorities and combinations, out of a very old format. I liked.

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 3

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 4

3. Listen To This Professor Jonathan Cross played clips from half a dozen pieces which are featuring in this part of the festival:

  • Henri Gorécki Third Symphony: the listener relaxes in an aural bubble bath of long, slow, repeated and hushed phrases. Religious it may be intended to be – that 90% of Poland’s Jews were exterminated, that 6 million Poles died in WWII, we may learn – that the extended grief over these holocausts required deeper outlet than the communist authorities permitted in their workers’ paradise we may be told – and that this work includes the prayer of an 18 year old woman on the wall of her Gestapo prison cell we may shudder to read – but a reassuringly accessible aural comfort blanket is what this music actually provides.
  • Arvo Pärt In Memoriam Benjamin Britten from his most popular period, the 1970s the period of tintinabulation ie experiments with bells and bell-like sonorities encountered in church rituals. Professor Cross explained how three sets of strings – violas, violins, double basses – played the same descending scale of A minor but at different speeds to create the overlapping patters, recreating the overtones and partial notes of a ringing bell.
  • Shostakovitch’s Fifteenth Symphony his final symphony and a very puzzling use of motifs from other composers including Wagner and the William Tell overture. But it ends on strange syncopated fade out.
  • Galina Ustvolskaya A pupil of Shostakovitch and, I learn from Wikipedia, very close to him; he proposed marriage to her at least once, and asked her opinion of  his later scores. She developed her own unique sound characterised by percussion.
  • Cornelius Cardew was an English radical composer who rejected the entire concept of bourgeois music and composition and founded the Scratch orchestra where nobody could play particularly well and there was no hierarchy or leadership. He set the works of Confucius in an open-ended score called the Great Learning.
  • Louis Andriessen was also a political radical. His work De Staat sets words of Plato about an ideal society.
  • Stockhausen’s Tierkreis is based on the numerology of the Zodiac and can be performed by a wide variety of instrumentations. Prof Cross played a version recorded by the composer’s son, the trumpeter Marcus Stockhausen.

4. Music and Spirituality in Eastern Europe Professor Adrian Thomas gave an academic and authoritative review of mostly Polish composers. He took from Robert Scholl a grid comparing and contrasting Modernity versus The Spiritual, with modernity having attributes like rational, worldly, monetary, calculating and The Spiritual ones like supernatural, transcendent, timeless etc. But in a tough-minded way he concluded that the Spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean religious, the sacred, the holy: it can just mean NOT worldly. It is anything which escapes us from the mundane.

He pointed out the deepness of religion, of Catholicism, to the Poles and the tremendous impact the election of Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, in 1978. All Polish composers have written at least on religious work. Also the Poles were among the earliest of the Soviet satellites to cast off the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’, as early as the 1950s.

  • Lutoslawski said his cello concerto dramatises the fight of the individual (the cello) against the oppressive collective state (the orchestra); it is designed to end in an other worldly transcendence.
  • Gorécki Thomas played the early work ‘Elementi’ (1963), an abrasive early piece. On YouTube there’s a tape of Professor Thomas introducing ‘Elementi’.
  • Wojciech Kilar – I had never heard of him before.
  • Penderecki – I was interested to learn that P has been criticised for not really being spiritual, but writing about politics and remembrance. I heard the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima back in school 30 years ago. I learned along the way that it was originally a purely experimental piece with the title 8’37” but renaming it after Hiroshima helped make it and Penderecki famous and, according to some critics, he has been living off that reputation ever since. I was lucky enough to see it earlier this year conducted by the composer and it really was one of the few genuinely hair-raisingly dramatic experiences I’ve had in the concert hall.

Prof Thomas took some time to explain the lives and aims of the two Russian women composers I’ve learned about today:

  • Galina Ustvolskaya She wrote only 20 or so pieces including four symphonies, number 4 being as short as 6 minutes.
  • Gubaidulina is Russian and unshamedly spiritual in intent: “there is no more serious purpose in writing music than the spiritual”.

Prof Thomas then mentioned two younger Polish composers of whom I have never heard and played some intriguing excerpts. Must find out more about them…

5. Alain de Botton – consumerism and spirituality

Popular philosopher of everyday life, bestselling author (see his dedicated Amazon page), radio and TV presenter, de Botton is fearsomely clever and articulate. speaks in captivating paradoxes, bristling with counter-intuitive insights. As the author of Religion for Atheists he disbelieves that this supposedly ‘spiritual’ music is playing to religious impulses in us.

De Botton started by saying our modern society is very odd in historical terms: we have narrowed the meaning of our lives down to just two concerns: Love and Work. We must succeed in both but rarely do, giving rise to permanent anxiety and envy, the invention of the Self Help culture. With the decline of religion there is no-one to turn to with our deeper concerns and worries, isolating us, destroying community, setting us against each other leading to an atomised society of alienated consumers always hoping that the next purchase will make us happy and content, failing to understand that the entire system is designed to make us feel restless and buy more books, more dvds, bigger TVs, more clothes, go on expensive holidays etc. The TV and media bombard us with ‘news’ which keeps us anxious and depressed and cynical, rendering us incapable of the kind of peaceful deep reflection into our own lives which is psychologically required and which is available in all pre-technological societies.

Therefore he sees the music we’ve been learning about and listening to as fulfilling not a religious but a deep psychological need in human nature, a need to feel something bigger than us, transcendent, enduring, lasting. This music – which at its most calm in Gorécki and Pärt is a kind of pastiche of medieval music Gregorian chant, but with modern twists and tics – provides an immediately obvious calm and clear and accepting environment in which to be more calm and contemplative.

There was then a question and answer session with the audience and, as so often, the Q&As made things simpler and clearer: AdB returned to the idea of art being therapy, art offering us the consolations previously offered by religion, artists as the new priests etc. This struck me as very old – AdB had mentioned that the notion that Culture could replace dying Christian belief was first floated by Matthew Arnold in the 1870s; the Symbolists and other fin-de-siecle movements took it for granted that art was the new religion in the 1890s; Yeats talks about it freely, all before the First World War.

But it’s just not true. Most 20th century Art hasn’t been very consoling, especially the music, but neither the visual arts or architecture. If something terrible happened to me I wouldn’t go to a Damien Hirst exhibition to help me cope. And if I needed some music it would probably be the reassuring pop and rock music of my youth to cheer me up.

A theory of reception

What the weekend lacked, for me, was a Marxist view of the way this product is produced and consumed; how it is packaged and sold, to who, and how, and why. No doubt Pärt and Gorécki and Tavener are very devout religious believers. But almost none of their fans and listeners are. We are something else and we like and listen to this music for completely non-religious reasons and simply attributing their popularity to suppressed religious feelings isn’t enough.

It is the unspiritual aspect of this spiritual music, how it has been produced, packaged and sold in the godless West, which I would have liked to see analysed and explained a bit more deeply.

Thanks to the South Bank

Still – an enormous Thank You to Jude Kelly and the many staff at the South Bank who have organised and administrated this superb year-long festival – hopefully thousands of other people have found it as stimulating and informative as I have and have come away bristling with questions and ideas and criticisms and compliments about subjects and musics and composers we didn’t even know existed beforehand.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

The Rest Is Noise 8: Post-War World

To the South Bank for the eighth study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival; this weekend it’s the Post-War World ie the radical avant-garde music created in Europe immediately after World War II, focusing on composers from the Darmstadt School and especially on Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. As usual Saturday and Sunday kicked off at 10am and each day was packed with lectures, workshops, film screenings leading up to an evening performance of key works.

Saturday 5 October

Breakfast with Stockhausen Enthusiastic animateur Fraser Trainer gave us a thorough backgrounding in the birth of electronic music. In 1945 music was a vacuum in Europe. Key composers had fled to America – Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith. Strauss was old and discredited. From the gap emerged an angry young generation determined to turn their back on the traditions of Romanticism and nationalism which had brought Europe to destruction. Stockhausen was drafted, aged 16, to ambulance duty where he saw horrors. The electronic manipulation of sound was just beginning, pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in Paris. Radio was improving its technology. Long playing records were introduced in 1948. Stockhausen in particular took to this brave new technological environment and immersed himself in the physics of sound, using the new devices to investigate the properties of frequency, phase and amplitude, as well as the overtones created by the human voice – analysing the colour components of every noise the human voice can make, defining every element and then cunningly combining them in new and completely abstract ways. An early result was Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), which took over a year to create note by note, phrase by phrase, effect by effect. He recorded a 12 year old choir boy singing phrases from the book of Daniel, then manipulated them to be broadcast through 5 loudspeakers.

Fraser’s assistant got a volunteer from the audience to say a few words and then used her laptop music editing program to quickly create the kind of sound affects it took Stockhausen and his engineers weeks to create 60 years ago.

Donald Sassoon – from the War to the Wall Despite his name Donald turned out to be Italian, smooth, witty, charming, he took us on an entertaining tour of post war popular culture (top grossing films, James Bond novels etc), comparing Western with Eastern cultural products: his conclusion was that, whatever politicians and newspapers blared about the Cold War, on the level of popular culture both Eastern and Western popular culture largely ignored the Cold War; in fact popular narratives often shared the same shapes of lone heroes overcoming either i) the Nazis (everyone’s favourite baddies) ii) the bureaucracy; fighting the system. Suggestive thought that at bottom both sides of the iron Curtain were experiencing the same Rise of Managerial Bureaucracy.

Robert Worby – the Birth of Electronic Music By far the best presentation of the day, composer, writer and Radio 3 broadcaster Worby went back to basics: he showed just one slide which listed the physical characteristics of sound: Pitch (described by physicists as sine waves). Duration. Volume (described by physicists as amplitude). Timbre (also known in music jargon as ‘colour’). Location. Stockhausen et al set out to investigate the physical properties and combinatorial possibilities of each of these elements.

Worby explained there is a lack of vocabulary to describe these scientific elements of music; the old Italian words derive from the Renaissance; Romantic critics added vague impressionist terms; the terminology of physics is hard to manage without being an actual physicist. Anyway, sounds are not things; all sounds are processes over time.

In Paris Pierre Schaefer went out and recorded trains and street noise then manipulated them in a primitive studio, creating Musique concrète. In Germany, in the studios of Cologne Radio, Stockhausen experimented with isolating pure sine waves and then treating, combining, distorting them etc.

At this abstract level, melody is pitch mediated by duration. Stockhausen himself told Worby that, of course, you can make a ‘melody’ by varying location, as you can by varying all the other 4 elements of noise. At a stroke this explains the thinking behind Gruppen, where three orchestras play from different locations around the auditorium.

Worby did a great job of easing his audience into the world of music as seen by physicists and scientists and making us realise that, suddenly seen from this perspective, the possibilities for experimentation are endless.

Jonathan Meades – Le Corbusier and Niemayer Typifying the arrogance of most of the architects I’ve met, interviewed or read about, this lecture wasn’t at all about Le Corbusier but seemed to be Meades’ defence of Brutalist architecture made from concrete. I learned that a lot of the design and aesthetic went back to the Nazi defences along coastal France against Allied invasion. Meades referred to lots of buildings and housing estates and so on but didn’t explain the history or background of any of them and didn’t show pictures of any of them, so I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about until after he’d finished speaking and opened it up to questions from the floor when suddenly we were shown a loop of a dozen or so buildings on a screen but, typically, still with no explanation of what they were. As he proceeded Meades began to criticise more and more things, English Heritage for failing to save Brutalist buildings which have been demolished, modern architecture for its infantile colours, spineless developers, the childishness of our entire culture where adults read Harry Potter.

By the end I knew nothing whatsoever more about Le Corbu. In Lily Allen’s words, Meades was having “a little whine and a moan”. I wish I’d gone to see Tom Service playing and discussing extracts from Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis et al which was on at the same time slot.

Meades was promoting his new book, Museum Without Walls, which this talk comprehensively put me off reading. Jeremy Clarkson for arty types. Meades’ “talk” was introduced by young Owen Hatherley whose made a name with his architecture criticism, which is collected into several recent books including A New Kind of Bleak. His “chairing” of the talk left a bit to be desired. His idea of starting the audience Q&A was to mutter, “You lot”. I’ve toyed with buying his books but, flicking through the opening chapters in Foyles, I realised his texts also amount to one long moan. Why become an architecture critic if you think so much modern architecture is ****?

Fear of Music: Why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen My heart always sinks when I see ‘panel discussion’. People in the arts are all pretty much the same, middle class, middle aged, white and polite so they tend to end up agreeing and being nice about everything and this panel was a good example. It was based on a recent book (as so many of these sessions are) by David Stubbs, Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen. Every time he was getting into his stride he was interrupted by the moderator who went to another speaker. Maybe it would have been better as a one-man presentation with musical examples.

But some ideas struggled through:

a) Pop versus the avant-garde music

  • Accessibility: people consume pop music in a million ways, via TV shows, adverts, in films, on TV, their ipods, the internet etc. Stockhausen is hard to access. Not least because it is
  • Expensive: Stockhausen’s CDs are published by his own company and generally cost £15. Not much is on YouTube. Let alone Maderna, Nono, Xenakis.
  • Ubiquity: and you can listen to pop music in the car, at home, in the kitchen, in clubs and pubs and cinemas, almost everywhere (whether you want to or not). Modernist music – Stockhausen, Boulez – is best heard live, but it is very rarely performed anywhere. You have to really search it out to find it. It is expensive to attend. And it is in forbidding and offputting concert halls.

b) Rothko versus Stockhausen

  • Convenience: you can go to Tate Modern any day of the week, at any time that suits you, with anyone you fancy eg with kids, stroll around and wander into the Rothko room and spend as little or as long as you like, ie a few seconds, a minute if you want to. But these concert pieces can only be seen extremely rarely, in a concert hall setting, and at a time and place and date not of your choosing.
  • Ubiquity of the image: images bombard us all day long, on TV, on billboards and hoardings, in magazines and newspapers and on the internet. We are used to assimilating all kinds of weird and wonderful images in split seconds. But this music is a process which takes time. In our day and age not many people are prepared or able to invest the time required.

Electronic Music Hub Concert In a small dingy concrete room underneath the Purcell Rooms there was a concert by Royal College of Music students. This was very, very good:

  • Nono – La Fabbrica Illuminata – performed by soprano Josephine Goddard
  • Alvarez – Temazcal – maracas performed by Alun McNeil-Watson
  • Reich – New York Countrpoint – clarinet performed by Benjamin Mellfont

Evening Concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall:


Sunday 6 October

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, Helmut Lachenmann and Christopher Fox in conversation. Smooth, polite, urbane Mr Fox gave a very good introduction to the Darmstadt International School of Music. (Odd that there wasn’t a simple lecture/presentation on this central subject all weekend.) Maderna and Nono go in 1950, Stockhausen in 1951, Boulez in 1952. Only in 1957 does Nono refer to there being a ‘Darmstadt school’ as a style or movement. A landmark concert in 1956 of Stockhausen’s Gesang and Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso. 1958 John Cage visited.

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono is a central figure. She is Schoenberg’s daughter and she married Luigi Nono one of the central figures of the 1950s avant-garde. Brought up in her father’s Los Angeles exile she was relaxed and American and funny. Two things she said struck me: 1. it would be nice if people booed for once at a music concert; nowadays everyone is so polite and open-minded and there is no edge, no controversy, no vision or excitement. 2. The music of her father and Berg and Webern was about passion and emotion. At Darmstadt and beyond it was treated as if it was physics. Only in recent years, she said, as orchestras have become completely familiar with it, has some of the emotion and expressiveness come out which was always meant to be there.

Helmut Lachenmann is a composer from that period, a little younger the the Big Names. His German accent was thick so it was hard to hear a lot of what he said, but he a) really doesn’t like the book, the Rest Is Noise, which he thought was superficial and inaccurate – he was angry that Maderna isn’t even mentioned in it; b) he’s unhappy at the generally negative image of Darmstadt in the UK aUS, the Anglo-Saxon world: he emphasises that it wasn’t a monolithic dictatorship, there was all kinds of experimentation going on; and that all of them were united in wanting to escape from Magic Music. he recalled being a boy at the end of the War and listening to a broadcast by Goebels frothing with Nazi lies which was rounded off by a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For them, the entire tradition was contaminated and they were trying to create a genuinely new world.

Lachenmann’s positive vision was rather dented by a comment from the floor by someone who had attended new music festivals in Scandinavia in the 50s and compared the open, relaxed atmosphere of these with arriving at Darmstadt to find an atmosphere of tension, competition and criticism, backstabbing and rivalry. Ho hum.

Ian Buruma: Year Zero Also promoting his new book, Year Zero: A History of 1945, Buruma was brilliant. A mild-mannered, urbane man who radiated intelligence and knowledge, he chose a few themes from the book to expand:

  • People rarely study what happens after wars end. Peace in 1945 really meant chaos and confusion. It led to brutal civil war in Greece which could also easily have broken out in Italy or France. In each country the right wing had sided with the Nazis, the resistance tended to be left wing, and neither side forgot. France was saved by de Gaulle who combined right wing politics with impeccable resistance credentials, thus squaring the circle. In one sense civil wars never really go away and that explains the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece.
  • Very widespread violence against women who had collaborated. Buruma sees this as a way  for guilty men who failed to resist, taking out their resentment, and also restoring the status quo ante.
  • We can now see the end of the USSR in 1989 leading to the death of Social Democracy across Europe, the triumph of neo-Liberal economics and cultural worldview, the unravelling of the post-war consensus and the end of the optimism which fueled the avant garde.

Lunchtime Concert: Music of Change by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble

  • Cage – Second Construction
  • Xenakis – Okho
  • Xenakis – Psappha
  • Cage – Credo in US

Lots of drumming.

Black Mountain College: by Alyce Mahon, scholar Peter Jaeger and poet Tim Atkins. This was a very good panel: Alyce gave a good history of the idealist and utopian Black Mountain college, set up in 1933 to educate without the traditional gap between teachers and students, no hierarchy, minimal fees, no payment to the tutors who got room and board, an experiment in arts education which was forced to close in 1957, set up as a kind of Bauhaus for the States. Cage and Cunningham arrived in 1948. In 1951 there was the first ever ‘happening’. In the same month Cage’s 4’33” was a homage to the influence of Rauschenberg with his all-white paintings. Cage’s music, Cunningham’s dance, Rauschenberg and de Kooning painting, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley poetry.

Jaeger was promoting  his book, John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics, and was wonderfully calm, lucid, intelligent and informative. He compared some of Cage’s works and saying with Zen teachings and koans. Cage said 1950s avant garde was a reincarnation of 1910s Dada; that new music was about Time not melody and that Beethoven had dulled music by obsessing about Melody and harmony, taking German music down a dead end. A very informative and civilised and well-organised session.

When asked about the influence of Olsen and Creeley’s Open or open Notation verse on English poetry, enthusiastic and tremendously knowledgeable poet Tim Atkins said, well it hasn’t really arrived here yet. Like so much 20th century art, it has just passed by an England dominated by its public school elite who continue to like traditional games, traditional values and traditional art.

Introduction to Adorno: Elise ? and Nick Lezard At university back in the 80s, because I had studied German, I sought out and read Benjamin and Adorno (and Bloch and Lukaczs) who weren’t on my English syllabus and weren’t taught. For a season Minima Moralia was my constant companion. Theodor Adorno is immersed in the German philosophical tradition whose colossus is Hegel and after Hegel, Marx. Only if you have a feel for this tradition as well as the phenomenology of the 30s and 40s, for the bitter infighting between post-Hegelians and Marxists in those stricken decades, can you get a sense of how embattled Adorno felt when he fled Germany and settled in California.

In his native land the battle for Culture was literal – degenerate artists were being executed, banned, exiled – and the Great German Musical Tradition  had undergone the sweeping revolution of Schoenberg’s twelve tone system. For Adorno the High Culture of his childhood, the Seriousness of Art which led to Schoenberg in music and Kandinsky in Art, all this was under threat, was a matter of life and death. Only by committing to the highest standards, to the most difficult and recondite Literature and Music, could artists and those who love Art possibly escape the flood of totalitarian propaganda, military marches, the dreck of jazz and pop music which was flooding the world.

Coming to California then was a profound shock. People were cruising round in big cars, having barbeques, surfing, making brainless movies about love and big musicals. America represented the death of High Culture because it provided consumers with vast floods of brainless pap. Hence Adorno’s fierce abreaction in books like Minima Moralia (a collection of aphorisms and short essays) and The Culture Industry. Typical quote: “Already for many people it is an impertinence to say ‘I'” by which he means that most people are just robots, their brains filled with the mindless newsprint, cartoons, pop music and rubbish movies churned out by the Culture Industry which is itself just an aspect of the complete triumph of consumer capitalism.

Unfortunately, none of the power, the depth, the totality of Adorno’s critique of the way consumer capitalism has curdled and corrupted our most fundamental being came over in this presentation. Adorno isn’t an author you read. He is a complete reassessment of the culture we live in and our own personal values. Nick Lezard said he thought we could still really use Adorno as a mirror to our times, and he cited the X Factor as an example. This is vastly too shallow and obvious. Adorno is saying that to the depths of our souls all of us are slaves to the shallow lying garbage of the Culture Industry. Almost none of us can have an original thought, can escape our slavery and that escape is only possible via the most severe, intense, difficult and demanding Art, which for him was Schoenberg’s Serialism. For Adorno, in the 1940s, it was all over, the Soul of the West was corrupted beyond redemption. In which case, here and now in 2013, it must be even more all over.

But it isn’t. The fundamental flaw in Adorno’s position is his False Model of Culture: it is based entirely on the strict High Art of his childhood: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, it is the German tradition or nothing.

But of course there are thousands of traditions. At the same time Offenbach was writing his comedies and Gilbert & Sullivan theirs. As well as Schoenberg the world contained Poulenc and Vaughan Williams and Satie. My break with Adorno came when I read his criticism of Jazz which he thought embodied and continued negro slavery with its limited rhythms, its limited instrumentation and the soloist trapped within hackneyed chord sequences.

Putting down Adorno’s book, you walk away into a world full of beauty, of blue skies and flowers and the joyful sounds of all kinds of pop and rock and disco music, of musicals and world music and jazz and Burt Bacharach, let alone the thousands of types of art which blend and merge into advertising or magazine design, posters and internet layouts or apps or games.

The world is wonderfully big and rich and strange and so are the thousands of artistic and musical traditions which we can now experience more than any previous generations in human history. Adorno’s work is an intellectual and emotional and aesthetic dead end, a document from a terrible period of history shaped and constricted by the very totalitarianism impulses he was trying to escape.

Evening Concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Martyn Brabbins, the London Sinfonietta & Royal Academy of Music musicians

  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen
  • Luigi Nono: Canti per 13
  • Interval
  • Luigi Nono: Polifonica – monodia – ritmica
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen

Stockhausen said the concert halls hadn’t been built to properly perform his music and this was sadly true as the three orchestras performing Gruppen were located on the stage along the flanks of the hall under the boxes ie only those in the expensive Stalls seats got the full ‘in-the-round’ experience. The rest of us, the majority, in the auditorium heard the music all coming from in front of us. Ho hum. Deploying such large forces for a piece which is only twenty minutes has led to the tradition of always performing it twice in concerts, at the beginning and end.

All of these pieces benefit hugely from being heard live where you can see the effort it takes to create and co ordinate the music and where you get the full aural impact.

You can listen to almost all the sessions I list here as South Bank podcasts and make your own mind up.

Karlheinz Stockhausen en surimpression de la partition d'une de ses composition, Strasbourg, 1980 (Wikimedia Commons)

Karlheinz Stockhausen en surimpression de la partition d’une de ses composition, Strasbourg, 1980 (Wikimedia Commons)

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