Hungarian nationalism in Liverpool (2), or, Further Plaques of Liverpool

It seems the Hungarian Consulate on Rodney Street in Liverpool is still going. With words and coat of arms beautifully rendered in relief on brass, the plaque has a permanence that indicates the Consulate is going nowhere. Further confirmation that the Hungarian Consulate has not been replaced by the German is given by the panel for the doorbells adjacent to the entrance, an intercom-system box whose highly polished surface is undermined by the strips of card on which names and titles are hastily recorded in thick black marker pen. ‘Sweet Smiles’, another of 35 Rodney Street’s occupants, puts the honorary consulates in their place.

In the dark, which is when I first noticed any difference, the yellow announced the presence of the German Consulate loud and clear.

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By contrast, the sign of the Hungarian Consulate blends in sensitively with the brick, with the effect that it is barely noticeable at night. The brick itself looks like one of those wallpapers fashionable these days emblazoned with simulacra instead of the patterns more recognisable as wallpaper design. Perhaps this appearance of falseness has something do with the vulnerability that age brings. In a certain light the facade becomes a shimmering patina on the point of melting.

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This very real brick was the first to be laid on what was to become known as Rodney Street. An example of the bricks-and-mortar development of the city, but equally of urban evolution coterminous with the exponential increase of private ownership as well. The building in which the German and Hungarian Consulates are housed was built at the instigation of William Roscoe, slave abolitionist and philanthropist, who leased it to residents. The plaque below the German Consulate sign reads:

BUILT C. 1783-1784

35 RODNEY STREET

FIRST HOUSE TO BE ERECTED

ON RODNEY STREET ON A SITE

LEASED BY WILLIAM ROSCOE

I expect the terms of this lease were along the lines of private property rather than rental, i.e. that the leaser became its owner for a fixed term. Given the prestige of the street and the burgeoning life of Liverpool as a space of wealth accumulated by largely nefarious means it is unlikely that the building’s residents were renters in the sense dominant today. (I may have to write yet another post to correct this misunderstanding of capitalist property relations in the C18, but I would like to retain the speculative register for now. And yes: pun intended there.)

It struck me on reading the plaque on 35 Rodney Street that Roscoe had a significant part to play in the origins of what was to become, on account of the doctors who lived there, the ‘Harley Street of the North’. (One such doctor was William Henry Duncan, who revolutionised sanitation for Liverpool’s poor, helping them fight against the infectious diseases afflicting the city’s slums.) It is therefore ironic that it is not Roscoe after whom the street he helped to build is named but George Brydges Rodney; not, in other words, the slave abolitionist but the slave trader. Rodney was commemorated in all likelihood for his successes as a naval officer, from the American War of Independence to his victory over the French in the Battle of Saintes in 1782 (source: Wikipedia, I’m afraid). Or was he? Rodney Street was laid out in 1783-4, whereas Rodney himself died in 1792. The act of commemoration through street-naming therefore roughly coincided the death of the one being commemorated. By this time Rodney would have symbolised much more than his naval exploits. In the context of the slave-trading city, he was one of the men who contributed to its wealth and ‘greatness’. Roscoe’s contributions were also financial, but he failed to chime with the reigning ideology of his time. Anecdotal evidence of gangs attempting to drown abolitionists in the Mersey strongly suggests that this counter-ideology was not welcome in Liverpool. The force of Roscoe’s humanitarian impulses would eventually prevail as the status quo; for much of the city’s history, though, progressive ideas threatened the continuing dominance of a port that believed accumulating capital on the backs of enslaved peoples was all for the good.

In present-day Liverpool, Roscoe is mentioned far more than Rodney, who is invoked only to the extent that the street that bares his name is uttered. Immortality lives or dies, so to speak, by the force of repetition: an individual is commemorated inasmuch as their name trips off the tongue, perpetuity guaranteed until the street is renamed or the earth gets sucked into the sun.

Roscoe is mentioned more than Rodney in the fuller context of historical reference. But this requires attention, whereas immortality is achieved by mere passing reference, ‘Rodney’ popping into the mind once the eponymous street enters into consciousness. Situated behind Rodney Street, however, is Roscoe Street, a literal thoroughfare formed mostly by the backs of Rodney Street and the block stretching from St Luke’s (officially unofficially the ‘Bombed-Out’) Church to Upper Duke Street. The benevolent humanitarian appears to have been shunned in favour of the courageous ex-officer-cum-slave-trader. The sordid hierarchies of remembrance. A politics of history would caution against renaming Rodney Street since such a process of erasure ultimately distorts our image of the past. In the city, proper names are history’s shifting tectonic plates. Every step revivifies the dead.

Few buildings on Roscoe Street were created as addresses in their own right; instead the street seems to be comprised of the stables and other ‘out-buildings’ that would have supported the life of the townhouses beyond it. As capitalist property relations in the twenty-first century squeeze renters and even willing owners farcically into ever smaller units, the spaces in which horse-and-carriages were stored and only tradesmen would go now pass for home. Double gates and such like have been replaced by ‘front’ doors with numbers, the bracing energy of horses launching out onto a literal thoroughfare replaced by residents stepping out onto ‘our street’. An important part of the city’s infrastructure, if you like, and in the style of the back-end of anywhere, Roscoe Street has become just another short-cut for hurtling taxis, ambulating addicts, and as is the everywhere in Liverpool, students. The small node in the city network at the intersection of Leece Street next to the site of the ‘Bombed-Out Church’ is charged with competing rights of passage: belligerent taxis failing to slow down or even indicate their direction of travel for the quick-footed but loose-witted pedestrians moving downstream from Hope Street to Bold Street. In the fluctuating economies of human and vehicular movement in the city, Roscoe the historical figure doesn’t get a look in as both jostle for dominance over public space. At the controlled crossing only a block away, however, walker and driver alike can engage in the act of waiting, observing the grand dimensions of a street and taking note of a name.

Hungarian nationalism in Liverpool

A coincidence makes me want to scream, but I was on my way home alone and so thought better of it. I screamed internally, and filtered this through some texts.

I had left a concert and was walking downhill to the bus stop. The routes to my bus stops vary, but I decided to swerve the barbarism of a Saturday night in Liverpool, going down Brownlow Hill towards Lime Street Station, a relatively unpeopled route. I would then cross to St George’s Hall and go further downhill via William Brown Street. The bus stop I’d chosen was on Victoria Street near the Birkenhead (officially ‘Queensway’) Tunnel.

Although I had spent the evening listening to music in the Leggate Theatre of the University of Liverpool’s Victoria Museum (the building designed by Alfred Waterhouse that gave rise to the idea of the ‘Redbrick University’), I immediately plugged in my iPod. The piece I had chosen for my journey home was Bartók’s Cantata Profana (A kilenc csodaszarvas; The 9 Enchanted Stags) (1930), a relatively short but powerful work for chorus, soloists and orchestra. This choice may not have been all that random; amongst the LPs I had bought earlier in the day in a basement vinyl store on Bold Street was a set of Bartók’s Piano Concertos (No. 1, 1926; No. 2, 1930-1; No. 3, 1945) and Rhapsody Op. 1 (1904) in the legendary recording from the late 1950s by Géza Anda, Ferenc Fricsay and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. A Hungarian cultural document if ever there was one, with the exception of the accompanying German orchestra. The vinyl store had opened a couple of years ago but I had never ventured down. It was only at the instigation of a friend of a friend who was visiting the city and who wanted to browse the retro clothes shop sharing the same premises that I ended up there at all. In any case, it was only until recently that I had started to buy vinyl, after the person I live with acquired one of those portable record players that have a vintage appearance but in which USBs can be used.

The requirements and challenges of Cantata Profana‘s scoring mean it is seldom performed, and similarly there are few recordings; by far the most impressive, though, is Pierre Boulez’s with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with the tenor John Aler and baritone John Tomlinson. Cantata Profana‘s difficulties lie in the polyphony of the choral writing, and in the example at least of the tenor solo a vocal style pushed to the limit of its tessitura. Singing in the original Hungarian heightens such challenges, which must place even the very best amateur symphonic choirs somewhat outside their German and Italian comfort zones. Bartók is no less demanding on his large orchestral forces – instrumentally this music is far from an easy ride, especially for the brass. Rhythmic syncopations and harmonic density combine to create a sheer mass of sound that, in this recording at least, is awesome. The subject matter as well as the style is Hungarian, a simple parable of rural youth but couched in a highly evolved modernist language that bears the unmistakable signature of its composer.

Hungarian/Bartók: impossible to wrench the one from the other. Arguably Hungarian and Modernism are natural bedfellows too: from Liszt (yes, Liszt: he made it all happen by establishing Budapest’s Academy of Music) and Bartók to Ligeti, Eötvös, and Kurtág, Hungary has been the bedrock for the advancement of music for quite some time.

The ‘night music’ episodes across Bartók’s oeuvre are especially characteristic with regard to the question of his signature. ‘I devoted myself with especial love to conducting the slow movements of Bartók’s masterworks’ Fricsay is quoted in an essay on the conductor included in the Piano Concertos recording:

These movements evoke the darkness which we can only sense but cannot know. Ominous, bodily or ghostly shadows emerge for brief moments. Hallucinations afflict man in his isolation. This is music of despair, and dread of what is to come. The darkness of the world’s mysterious night is captured in sound for ever.

I took the path marked out in the grass rather than the paved version as it was a large area to traverse and I didn’t want to waste time. I walked along a desire path, an unofficial cut created by the repeated tramping of pedestrians who refuse to follow the preordained route. It was dry, hard mud, almost as regular as the pavement. When does a desire path cease being such? Should we desire otherwise, mark out our own way through the terrain, subverting subversion? There’s never anything truly desirous about desire paths, formed as they are by the socially conservative impulse to give authority a taste of its own medicine. Desire paths end up controlling others as much as the authorities control us. They should be singular but end up meeting authority on its own terms, only at more peculiar angles. A truly singular desire path, on the other hand (on the other foot), would seek to form impressions on untrodden grass each and every time, pedestrians zigzagging space in defiance of the linear.

Thoughts about desire paths and the Hungarian language jostled for attention as Cantata Profana streamed down my ears. Not anything specific about Hungarian, it has to be said. I don’t speak the language, knowing few of its words and even less about its grammar. It just occurred to me – it always does, actually – listening to Cantata Profana how important it is that the text is sung in Hungarian. The language lends itself to Bartók’s sound world, his approach to rhythm inextricable from the patterns and emphases of his mother tongue. (Bartók of course undertook ethnographic research on the musical culture of his own nation. A photograph of the composer surrounded by villagers as he operates a recording device is often reproduced to confirm the influence of non-classical sources on the language of classical music in the twentieth century.)

And so, for me at least, the Hungarian language remains the great unknown. But Bartók opens the door for us, even in his purely instrumental writing. Hungarians, as well as fluent Hungarian speakers, might elucidate Bartók’s String Quartets in ways monoglots can only imagine: something to do with accent and attack, vowel sounds detectable in particular sonorities. It is unlike any language (Bartók’s music and his mother tongue). It’s as if it has been transplanted from elsewhere, somehow at odds with its European context. (The same is said about Finnish.) All this tempts considerations about national identity: Was Bartók a nationalist? I have never sought to find out, avoiding the moment that changes everything when you are forced to recognise something unpalatable about the cultural figure you revere. In any case, I have always assumed that his intellectual and artistic respect for the Hungarian language would transcend crude forms of nationalism. His music – art in its entirety – seems to suggest that if we are rooted, we are so in the language and forms that hold the promise of equal respect for all languages. Yet, as Paul Griffiths writes in the liner notes to Boulez’s Deutsche Grammophon recording: [Bartók’s] whole life as a musician – as composer, pianist, and folklorist – was dedicated to the pursuit of the authentic, the natural, the unsullied: hence, for instance, his enthusiasm for the modal tunes he found in remote villages and not for the “debased” music of the towns.’ This puts a rather different spin on any interpretation of that infamous of urban parables The Miraculous Mandarin (1919), Bartók’s most popular work and one in which the image of the city is far from unsullied. What counts for ‘authentic’ and ‘natural’ in this seedy urban setting is its irredeemable criminality. They just can’t help themselves, it’s all their fault. Ironically, the composer mined possibly his richest seam at thoughts of such a fallen world: The Miraculous Mandarin sits alongside Stravinsky’s Rite as one of the twentieth century’s masterworks.

The composer who produced The Miraculous Mandarin and Cantata Profana also penned Kossuth (1903), a symphonic poem depicting the exploits of the leader of Hungarian independence. Paradoxically, Bartók’s language in this overtly nationalist work reflects the kind of cosmopolitanism rooted in the cultural traditions of Central European cities: namely that of Richard Strauss, whose influence on Kossuth‘s post-Romantic style is impossible to deny. But this music is not the most sophisticated example of the composer’s output. It seems Bartók had not yet discovered his own idiom at the time he was clearly reflecting on what it meant to be Hungarian.

I know Kossuth but rarely listen to it. It may have something to do with the convenience of the iPod and the levels of laziness this device encourages around uploading other recordings from your collection, but Cantata Profana and The Wooden Prince, along with Four Orchestral Pieces, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the String Quartets, have pride of place. Out of all the works listed here, Cantata Profana is accessed more often than the others: this is likely to do with its duration, concision, palette of moods and colours, rhythmic vitality and lyrical fluency. All of this in under twenty minutes. Bartók for the bus.

I neared Lime Street Station. Lord Nelson Street, which runs uphill from the Station, is narrow and tight, inevitably awash with taxis and tourists. For the most part (or at least on one side) the street’s pre-twentieth century origins remain intact. A budget hotel and offices for Network Rail, on the left, are architectural excrescences that ruin the balance of the street. A once handsomely proportioned thoroughfare has been skewed by developments whose elevations fail to run flush with the pavement. I approached Trafalgar Warehouse, lying somewhere in the middle. The hotel opposite – its abject ugliness, the way in which the architects have attempted to relieve a purely functional exterior constructed from unattractive materials by setting it at a fussy angle to the street – overwhelms the nineteenth century building’s expansive dimensions. Trafalgar Warehouse contains valuable lessons in how to merge the functional with the aesthetic, as even a short walk around Liverpool will prove across many examples of the language of warehouse architecture.

I have walked up and down Lord Nelson Street many times but not regularly enough to notice small additions to any of its buildings. This time I noticed. Located next to the main entrance of Trafalgar Warehouse was the following:

THIS PLAQUE COMMEMORATES

KOSSUTH LAJOS/LOUIS

LEADER OF THE FIGHT FOR HUNGARIAN

INDEPENDENCE 1848-49.

HE MADE IMPASSIONED SPEECHES IN THE

“GRAND CONCERT HALL”, HERE,

ON 14-15 APRIL 1856.

PLAQUE UNVEILED BY

H. E. KRISTOF SZALAY-BOBROVNICZKY,

AMBASSADOR OF HUNGARY

2017

A sharp intake of breath as I read, stunned, Cantata Profana continuing to play. The urge to scream overwhelmed me which, as I said earlier, I had to suppress. The plaque must have been unveiled only recently, as the year indicates. (I am writing this at the end of March 2017, in fact on the very day British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 and Britain’s exit from the European Union.) I’d heard nothing in the media about the ceremony for this plaque, which is surprising given the uniqueness of the individual and occasion being commemorated. Why Liverpool? Kossuth was speaking in Liverpool seven years after the fight for Hungarian independence, which means in all likelihood he was engaged on some sort of speaking tour during which he would have related his picaresque experiences to an audience who might have considered him a celebrity. But ‘impassioned speeches’ implies (or we may reliably infer) that his appearance was ideological, at the very least polemical. Kossuth’s visit to Liverpool is the kind of charged event given passing reference in the memoirs of famous writers, an incidental moment in the intellectual and cultural life of a city whose significance grows as history lurches on.

In Liverpool, the most recent Pevsner Architectural Guide to the city, Joseph Sharples notes in relation to Lord Nelson Street the ‘early C19 terrace, and at Nos. 17-19 the former Socialist Hall of Science, c. 1840, subsequently used as a concert hall’ (Yale University Press, 2004). ‘Socialist Hall of Science’ is a bit of a mouthful for the stag and hen weekend crowd, and so the building’s current owners have opted instead for ‘Trafalgar Warehouse’, a name more redolent of NYC lofts than the dubious back passageway adjacent to Liverpool’s rail terminus. Still, even the vodka-soaked hordes cannot erase through their aggressive jollity the tide of history lapping at their bloodstained heels. The ambience of Lord Nelson Street sets the spectral compass ticking frenetically like the eyelids of revellers who have indulged in way too much nitrous oxide for their own good. The present is in abeyance, fended off by the ghosts of Kossuth and Socialist orators of time past.

Cantata Profana was drawing to an end as I stood transfixed by the plaque, imagining the concert hall pulsing to the insistent rhythms of Hungary’s national hero making his impassioned case for independence. And then the hubbub afterwards as the mesmerised crowd spilled into the bulging artery of Lord Nelson Street with its incessant comings-and-goings, darting into the dense maze of a city not yet voided by air war and postwar planners. That was a long time to come. What was to come of Kossuth? Aside from getting wasted in Liverpool’s public houses, that is… (Only a venerable Liverpool lock-in could serve as a fitting toast to a figure whose name in time would invoke myth as well as history.) Did the city fathers pass comment on the presence in their midst of this clarion call for another nation’s sovereignty? Occasions of this kind must have been fairly frequent in those days, when the only assurance of success for a world-historical cause in the absence of today’s media saturation was to take to the road and speak directly to the people. (Once upon a time there was a people of which to speak and to whom one could speak as one. Since then capitalism has done its fissiparous work.) What motivated these early Scousers to attend that evening at the Socialist Hall of Science? As a global port city, Liverpool was certainly ethnically diverse, but against its dominant image as a refuge for the Irish and Jews, I have never heard mention of any Hungarian community settling on the banks of the Mersey. Still, until recently a Hungarian consulate nestled quietly on Rodney Street in an elegant townhouse. Hungarian Scousers?

Was an invested interest in the future of Hungary as an independent nation even necessary to entice revolutionaries (or zealots) of other kinds? Revolutionary desire is contagious. Undoubtedly Kossuth’s words rung like clashing cymbals in the ears of those hungry for an alternative world. Perhaps a smattering of fascists were amongst the crowd in the concert hall that evening; Scouse families who, given time and favourable historical conditions, would flood St George’s Plateau and William Brown Street in the following century as members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Different century, different nationalisms. But who can legislate for the manifold ways in which passion is channelled? Great orators are dangerous; Kossuth must have electrified Liverpool’s leaden air.

The soft, understated notes on the timpani that end Cantata Profana sounded as I crossed Lime Street to St George’s Hall. But my body resounded to a different energy, one in which fear and enthralment mingled in the shadow of an unanticipated event. Coincidence is a singular event, the dynamic force by which the body is arrested by collisions of time and space. Each and every time we encounter the coincidental, such coordinates are reconfigured. Lord Nelson Street is uncanny. I had traipsed across a portal, and the dead were yearning for me to join them.

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‘Reading can be freefall’

The words in the title are from Anne’s Carson’s Float, which I received in today’s mail. I forgot this publication is not perfect-bound: ‘A collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various’, as it says above ‘Reading can be freefall’, a laconic blurb if ever there was one for a text whose very format almost dispenses with such publishing conventions. There are no gushing blurbs from any admirers – Anne Carson does not need them! The price (£16.99) floats in the top right-hand corner above ‘Float’. Cover design is by Cassandra J. Pappas (Cassandra? Really? ‘Cassandra Float Can’ is the title of one of the chapbooks. Carson teaches classics and likes to weave classical literature through her work.) Call this card the title page. It tries its hardest not to be one. If anything it’s a paratext, although one dislodged from the normal order of things as in a perfect-bound publication where paratexts have a fixed abode (either side – before and after – the text itself). Despite its structural dislocation, this paratext is even more of one insofar as the author seems to insert herself where the legal declarations otherwise assert her identity as the author. Carson floats through the legal stuff. (I’m sure she’ll detest punning iterations of her titular word. She’s fond of verbs, but I expect not the way others use them, or at least not the way mere mortals use them.)

Boxes of booklets are becoming quite a thing. (‘Booklets’ are now called ‘chapbooks’, whose differentiation from ‘booklet’ or ‘leaflet’ I’m not clear about at the time of writing.) It’s not the first time Carson has made demands like this on her publisher. Nox is also contained in a box, but instead of separate chapbooks the reader is made to wrestle with an unwieldy concertina format. Recently I referred to Nox in an essay on lyric subjectivity in the context of Anne Michaels’ Correspondences, which is formatted likewise. Float is more reminiscent, however, of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a novel whose content is distributed across a number of ‘fuller’ booklets (fuller than Carson’s chapbooks, that is, neither quite attaining the quality of ‘larger’). Such formats generate alternative forms of desire, reconfiguring expectations and the text itself alike. Is ‘freefall’ what happens when we succumb to desire during reading? Reading is freefall: I’ve not read Float yet so I’m not sure what this means and where. Is freefall a consequence of throwing the chapbooks in the air to see how they land and reading accordingly? A physical gesture turned figure for the reading process and back again? Reading can be freefall. Only if you want to be? Resist the temptation to order the text in the way you always knew how to. You’re a new reader now. Welcome to the world of alternative formats.

The company from whom I ordered Float included a bookmark in my package. But how am I meant to use this?! There’s a quote from J. K. Rowling that I’m sure Carson would enjoy (I don’t think so really. Has Carson read Rowling, dya think? I haven’t, and probably never will): ‘Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.’

I think I prefer the dangers of the freefall.

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Otto Klemperer and slowness

I am listening to Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I think I just heard him cough. Someone coughed. Anyway, my main reason for writing is that for a while now I’ve been perplexed by Klemperer’s tempi. Klemperer is slow. What is it really a consequence of old age? Look at images of Klemperer: they show a gaunt someone hanging on until the bitter end. Klemperer is exactly the kind of musician who can only take it slow because life is slow for him. This is not ageism – I don’t think the same about Haitink or Blomstedt. Klemperer has the look of every emaciated, Giacometti-like grandfather who wore the kind of spectacles hipsters love wearing with either slicked-back hair or beards.

I mention all this because it builds an image of the artist that his recordings corroborate. Listening to his Beethoven I imagine this is where the reputation of the composer as a ponderous, stodgy, overly-portentous figure originates. Bad publicity for Beethoven as much as hose and doublet has been for Shakespeare in convincing their detractors that these artists are everyone’s contemporaries and always will be. By all accounts Klemperer was far from the kind of conservative figure most readily associate with the qualities of performance I highlight above. The story of his life intrigues me. But in a way his approach to speed, pace, and pulse intrigue me more: why so slow?

There are good reasons for taking things slowly in music. Tempi are relative. No two performances are ever the same. Slowness works best to accentuate transitional passages in order to give a bolder sense of the architecture. Slowness opens textures out, as if placing detail under the ear’s microscope all the better for us to hear things elided by swifter performances. The relation, for example, between the climaxes and intervening sections in the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony is crucial to making this 35-minute span coherent. It requires a certain kind of musical intelligence and an iron hand to navigate music whose tempo may sound right from the off to be fixed – a funereal tread, as always with Mahler, bound up in the image of nature –  but which soon confounds our expectations as its mood and language evolves. How conductors set the pace for the hectic central climax, for example, determines how we view Mahler’s architectural conception of the climax. Performances differ greatly in this regard, slowing the tempo down as the build-up begins or building up to its hectic polyphony by changing gear suddenly with a tempo that refuses to hold back from the brink.

You don’t have to listen to many of Klemperer’s performances to grasp his reputation for slowness. I’m listening to the final movement of Beethoven’s Seventh as I write: ‘an apotheosis of the dance’ as someone (Goethe?) described it, but Klemperer is so studied in his approach that there is little to which the body could take. Where most conductors – pointing towards a modern sensibility perhaps? – rev things up as if pushing the music over the edge, Klemperer pulls the brakes. Why? Surely his virtuosic players can articulate vividly at high speed? This is the Philharmonia after all…

Taking the music as slowly as he does seems to stifle the possibilities of attack that make a performance musical in the first place. Of course Klemperer’s music-making is of the highest order, but is it the most exciting – not on the surface level of speed and volume of sound but in terms of the necessity for differentiation within the overall sound world, to distinguish one iteration from another in order to prevent repetition of figures from sounding stock-in-trade or one-dimensional. Is consistency Klemperer’s virtue?

I’m not claiming this is the effect Klemperer’s interpretation of the text has on the performance. But his slowness is problematic for me. I’m surely not the only one to think so. Any help?

On becoming a Bruckner bore

My piano teacher had always listened patiently to me going on about what were at the time my first musical, not to mention life, experiences. As much as she tried to keep me focussed on the keyboard, it was sometimes difficult to stop me chatting away. One day I told her I had been listening to Bruckner. I must have bordered on the effusive, for she raised her eyebrows: “Don’t become a Bruckner bore”, she said, with more than a little irony, and quite possibly worry, about my increasing alienation from the modern world. I laughed then as a teenager and it continues to make me laugh now, this put-down, which betrays not so much ignorance as knowledge of what a premature obsession is capable of driving a teenager towards.

It’s time for me come out of the closet: I think I’m becoming a Bruckner bore. Sad to say that my piano teacher’s worry was not unwarranted, however, for the process of turning away from the world and losing myself in art is something I have not got over – quite the contrary, actually: if anything I have become more immersed than ever. This is no bad thing in terms of the yield of pleasure from listening to Bruckner.

But what if you don’t want to return to the world? It only encourages a potentially unresolvable disenchantment.

Certainly I am obsessed. I have lost count how many times I’ve listened to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. I own his ‘farewell’ performance of the same piece with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which only just edges ahead of the Vienna Philharmonic as a more characterful and nuanced account but with equally refined playing, as is to be expected from both orchestras. I listen to his Vienna Philharmonic recording more often because the Concertgebouw version is on DVD only and so cannot be accessed when I’m out and about. Which, yes, believe it or not, happens: I move about the world, that is, taking buses and wading through the city’s streets, with Bruckner streaming down my ears. Not a natural companion for transitory journeys you might think, although I have listened to Bruckner on my laptop in the back of car during a longish trek through Wales. (On that occasion it was Mariss Jansons’ recording of the Sixth Symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which, it has to be said along with the composer himself, is a ‘saucy’ work, although with tracts of undeniable grandeur. The work fitted North Wales’ precipitous coastal landscape well.)

It has taken some time for me to become a Bruckner bore. It’s as if you have to go through an apprenticeship as a listener. My encounters with the great Austrian’s music have been sporadic over the years, except in the case of the Eighth Symphony, which I grew to appreciate courtesy of the late Pierre Boulez’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. And even this encounter had more to do with an interest in hearing what the high modernist had to say about the work of a composer at whom the musical world would never have guessed Boulez would have glanced, let alone been interested in recording for posterity on both DVD and CD. But there it is: a reading of Bruckner’s most languorous symphonic testament steered by a conductor with no time to waste and lacking the romanticist tendencies of conductors who pompously invest in some idea of the ‘Germanic soul’. I think what Boulez admired was Bruckner’s musical architecture, his (inimitable) approach to harmony, the purity of the orchestration, perhaps even the power of those awe-inspiring climaxes, or more particularly still textural density set against the clarity of harmonic resolution. Similarly, Harnoncourt’s approach to Bruckner seems to focus on sonority and architecture, although unlike Boulez I think he stresses the music’s tendency towards communion, which in Harnoncourt’s practice returns us to Mozart. But as a pathbreaking exponent of the period instrument revolution, Bruckner is as much a left field choice of composer for Harnoncourt as he was for Boulez, only from the other end of music history. For me, Harnoncourt draws out the potential for authentic performance in Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, reducing the vibrato of the strings in the first movement for a clearer, more direct sound. What Harnoncourt and Boulez emphatically do not do, to my ears at least, is to extrapolate romanticism from instrumental sound: avoiding vibrato for the romanticist sake of it is therefore key to their way of thinking.

Of course Bruckner was not a modernist. His name rarely features in accounts of which composers advanced musical language, which is not the case for Wagner, whom Bruckner revered. Curiously, Alban Berg mentioned Mahler’s, not Bruckner’s, Ninth Symphony as a formative influence on his Three Orchestral Pieces, despite both Ninths pushing form and expression to the outer limits. Arguably, Mahler’s symphonic writing serves as the blueprint for Shostakovich’s symphonies in terms of its structural and expressive range. (It is intriguing, however, how certain passages of the Seventh Symphony remind me of Shostakovich.) Viewing Bruckner’s music through a modernist lens is surely not entirely misplaced. Moments of stasis and suspension allow the music to dwell in time and to revel in the potential and limits of sonority. The work of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, and Webern generally) comes to mind. Dissonances that pin the listener against the wall, as in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, together with passages of exposed instrumental writing, evoke the image of crisis that was taken to its logical conclusion by twentieth-century modernism (think about the full orchestral hammer blow tutti that ends Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces).

The Austrian idiom Bruckner references does not so much date him as locate his work in a time and place distant from that of the listener. Yet any ‘folksy’ or rural idiom – ‘oom-pah-oom-pah’ – sits seamlessly alongside the timeless quality of those moments of stasis. You might say this equates to some kind of ‘loveable eccentricity’. I am surely not alone in having felt a tinge of embarrassment upon hearing for the first time some of the Scherzo and Trio movements. But what is this eccentricity? Bruckner called the Sixth Symphony saucy, which is one way of characterising those jaunty rhythms, present in other Scherzos too, evoking someone discretely moving their shoulder in time to the music. Perhaps Bruckner oft-quoted childlike innocence might help to unlock this eccentricity. It remains a relative mystery.

When Mahler acerbically manipulates the rural idiom in his ‘Landler’ movements, subjecting non-art music to the vicissitudes of high-art irony, Bruckner has none of it. The idiom is articulated innocently; it is moulded smoothly into the otherwise classical framework of the composer’s fully individuated voice. Despite Bruckner’s relative lack of irony, his magnifying of Austrian classicism (Mozart referenced folk music too) is compelling. It fails to undermine the overall effect of the work, a metaphorical journey ranged across four movements culminating in an ethereal or awe-inspiring climax. (The irony here is that while the extant Ninth Symphony is the exception to the four-movement plan, some are likely to argue that it offers the most supreme metaphorical journey of all the symphonies.) You would have to be a rock for it not to speak powerfully to your life experience. And so, as in the case of any nineteenth-century composer, Bruckner’s music is idiomatic because nature and landscape cannot be expunged from the the work of art as an allegory of life itself.

One of the greatest obstacles to any listener overcoming their aversion to Bruckner is time. Duration works on micro and macro levels in the symphonies, from the span of the entire work to the themes. Bruckner invites the listener to adjust to the demands of duration. Perhaps the best example of duration working on the micro level of theme is first subject of the Seventh Symphony played by the cellos. Since opening themes lack the accumulated impact of climaxes, it is difficult to understand the pleasure gained in the time it takes for them to unfold. What bars the listener from embracing Bruckner in this instance is their habit of mind. Break the constituent elements down to discover how the music is being shaped and you will soon forget the pressure of time. The tremolando in the violins preceding the first theme in the Seventh Symphony is key to this process of understanding Bruckner’s approach. Feel this tremor as if it is the air you breath and the music’s emergence will occur completely naturally; it is, of course, what makes possible the expression of the first subject on the cellos. Similarly, the opening of the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies, in which French horn solos float above string tremolandos, create a form of tension that powerfully evokes landscape, the delicacy of the strings like sound meeting air, as it were. The effect is somewhat reversed at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, where a slow pizzicato in the double basses precede a string figure that builds in layers like tracts of air.

You can see where my piano teacher was coming from: the music has hardly started and a paragraph has gone by in which the first notes of a symphony are described. Bruckner bores are incorrigible. He changes your habit of mind. This last phrase is crucial: the mind that receives a thing by way of habit grows accustomed to that thing, developing new ways of receiving, thinking, and feeling. In this way, there is a strong if unexpected parallel between Bruckner’s music and mindfulness. I should say that I am not nearly as informed about mindfulness as I am about music, nor have I read about or practised mindfulness for anything like the time I have dedicated to the symphonies. The temptation to draw parallels between apparently incongruous things is hard to resist. Indulge me when I say that Bruckner’s durational forms require a mental attitude dependent on the state of being fully present. Bruckner and mindfulness: an intriguing thought, and one that might unlock the resistant listener in coming to terms with music that feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. In other words, I have grown accustomed to being present with music, dwelling in the time of a single note which can be longer than it is in actuality. Bruckner turns the listener over from the actual to the mystery of what lies behind and beyond.

Bruckner recordings I have been living with:

Symphony No. 3, Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Symphony No. 5, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Wiener Philharmoniker

Symphony No. 5, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Symphonies No. 6 & 7, Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Symphony No. 8, Pierre Boulez and the Wiener Philharmoniker

Symphony No. 9, Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

 

 

 

 

 

 

BBC Proms goes Pete Tong

What’s all the fuss about the Ibiza Prom? First, it’s a late night Prom, and late night Proms have traditionally (or as recent tradition goes) ventured into other areas of musical endeavour. Second, terms like classical and non-classical for some are increasingly moribund. Music is either good or bad, although the usefulness of these terms is also debatable. Hovering above all of this is of course the slippery question of taste. Third, what’s wrong with experimentation? But perhaps a fourth point needs some attention: the Ibiza Prom, or ‘Late Night With Radio 1’ as its official title goes, appears to be more about the changing fortunes of Radio 1 itself. The problem is with declining interest in Radio 1, not the Proms, and this classical music festival is in the unlikely situation of breathing life into a pop music station.

Leaving this last issue aside, some of the statements made about negative responses to the Ibiza Prom reignite perennial issues in classical music. Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong, the ‘curator’ of the event, has said that, “Just to stay stuck in the past or stay stuck within rigid guidelines, whatever you’re doing, you’ll struggle over a longer period of time”. This poses a problem unique to classical music, for if the past was abandoned we would be abandoning the works on which the history of western music was built – the music that by definition is classical precisely because it transcends history. And since there is a strong case that classical music in the globalised world should no longer be hidebound by the designation of ‘western’ other than to alert listeners to its historical trajectory, the oppressive association between classical music and the past deployed to make unfair claims about its ir/relevance is correspondingly redundant.

Tong’s statement needs some unpacking. What, for instance, does he mean when he says ‘to stay stuck in the past’, with or without ‘rigid guidelines’? (I assumes he accepts the occasional need for rigid bar lines…)

The overriding reason why classical music has endured is as a result of the way in which a score is brought organically to life each time it is performed, irrespective of whether the performer has adopted a revisionist or modernising approach to the text. Past, present, and future seem to dissolve during a performance. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Prom last week under Andris Nelsons, a gripping account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, proved just this point and then some. Such concerts boldly highlight the undiminished vitality of the Proms and classical music.

Tong is not suggesting we stop listening to Beethoven. He is saying that something different needs to be offered by the Proms to revitalise it and, by implication I think, the entire classical music industry, to ensure its survival. What we should be doing is opening up experiences like the CBSO performance to new audiences, playing that sets the score ablaze as if for the first time. The methodologies for doing this are likely to be as varied as the Proms itself.

Still, Tong’s concern is surely wasted on this 120-year-old festival! Nevertheless, a number of thoughts are provoked by the Ibiza Prom. Perhaps the most glaring of all is the idea that classical music is a dead tradition. Contemporary classical music has always had problems relating to audiences; or, rather, audiences have experienced difficulty for whatever reason accessing new works. Some works that were spurned by audiences around the time of their premiere are undergoing late recognition. Minds are opening, hearts are being won.

Contemporary classical music is far from insular or locked in narcissistic relation to the past or its own kind. Think of Thomas Ades, who reimagined the orchestra as a techno machine in Asyla, the third movement of which is entitled (a little ironically, I think) ‘Ecstasio’. It topped the bill on Simon Rattle’s inaugural concert as principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002. A prime example, in other words, of one of the most distinguished cultural organisations in the world embracing alternatives. Examples of cross-pollination between classical music and other art forms – beyond, that is, the tawdry enterprise of ‘crossover’ – abound. You can say what you like, but the evidence will strike you down: contemporary classical music is far from dead.

Then there is the thought of classical music and audience development. The image comes to mind of a sea of grey hair in auditoriums listening to their tenth subscription concert. I’m not of that age group but I’ve felt increasingly offended for my elders. They attend concerts week-in, week-out, come rain or shine, and respond genuinely with considerable force in celebration of the music and performers. Yet they’re treated like superannuated members of society.

If classical music is to have a future, more young people need to get hooked before they too become grey or more pressingly before orchestras become a thing of the past. Funny that nobody ever says we need older people at raves. Rave culture doesn’t need older people in the way that classical music needs the young. Audience development is a box-ticking, stereotype-colluding ideology that for good or ill is primarily about financial sustainability. Ethical considerations about exclusion and alienation, certainly in popular discourse, come second.

It seems to me that more than other art forms, classical music addresses exclusion and alienation by reaching out to the younger and the youngest, putting instruments in their hands and inspiration in their hearts and minds. True, this is keyed to government funding criteria, but not always. Philanthropic or business-based funding still exists, even in the UK, for which there may be different criteria than those related to the subsidy regime. Clearly philanthropists and businesses trust the classical music world with their money. They’re not wrong. As a classical music geek, I benefit from their investment and commitment.

The fact remains that orchestras and the wider classical music world put their concern about education and social life into sustainable practice. Orchestras are rooted in their communities, often inextricable from the identity of cities. One cultural notion of the city might demand less the existence of a cathedral than a thriving orchestra. It’s precisely the sustainability they offer to city life – the regularity of concerts, the sense of annual renewal at the announcement of the next season, international relations through touring and guest artists – that somewhat proves the cliché of the beating heart.

If orchestras and the festivals that celebrate them are under threat it is not due to declining audience figures but to philistine governments and austerity. Events such as the Ibiza Prom may be one way of introducing the Proms to new audiences. Or the Ibiza Prom might just introduce that audience to the Ibiza Prom. It’s not snobby or superior to suggest that, for the people who go to Ibiza, the world of Bach and Bruckner is and always will be massively irrelevant. That’s fine. It’s a matter of taste. Supposing some Ibiza veterans (some of whom will form a burgeoning crowd of greying heads) attend the Ibiza Prom and subsequently try one of the more conventional Proms. I can’t deny the likelihood of this happening, though I am pretty much convinced it will be very low indeed. I hope this harsh conviction is proved wrong. But at the end of the day, the Ibiza Prom is self-defeating because it has taken up a slot that could have been occupied by other, maybe alternative, classical practitioners who view working with the past a liberating rather than limiting force. It’s a risky business working with the past. Riskier, that is, than anticipating the future.

Late Nate with Radio 1 is on at 22:15 Wednesday 29 july 2015. Ninety-odd other concerts are also taking place around this one.

‘The Jewel Without a Crown’, or, Down with Super-Libraries!

It’s been a while. I’m sorry. Attic Fantasist is glad to be back.

A friend, The Dead Letter Office, has just published a piece on Liverpool Central Library specifically and Super Libraries generally called ‘The Jewel Without a Crown’, namely a dazzling Super Library downtown that lacks smaller jewels to make a library crown uptown in subtopia and beyond. We’re talking Private Finance Initiative, swingeing savage barbaric cuts, Costa Coffee, empty shelves, denuded public lives.

Fans of or those interested in an earlier post on libraries here will be similarly interested if not fans again.

Hope to see you all soon. Take care.