Friday, August 9, 2013

Wagner gets a Brownie point, Tchaikovsky gets a load more, Brahms – well, who was Brahms except, apparently, the third B? - and me, well I’m still wondering just how English I am

It’s was off to St Endellion last night for the penultimate concert of the St Endellion Summer Festival with the aunt with whom I stay when I bugger off to Bordeaux for concerts. On the bill - ‘bill’ sounds horribly plebeian for an evening of 19th-century classical music, and on reflection I should probably use the far more respectable ‘programme’, but I’m in a contrary mood, so ‘bill’ it will remain, and at the end of the day both mean the same thing and are only distinguished by snobbery and attitude - were Brahms, Wagner and Tchaikovsky.

 Of Brahms, who I understand is regarded as the third B in the Three Bs, the two others being Bach and Beethoven, I haven’t actually heard very much, but I must say what I heard yesterday, Gesang der Parzen (and I, too, had to look up ‘Parzen’), was very much to my taste. (As for Brahms being the third B, I must admit that I can’t quite see it, but that is probably because, as I say, I haven’t heard a great deal of his music, but that also because for me a little 19th-century romanticism goes quite a long way).

Next came the Wagner, and I was intrigued. The flip thing for me to write here (and being about as deep as a saucer of water I really cannot resist writing it) is that I haven’t heard a lot of Wagner because I just haven’t got the time. My other quip, used here once before but as the man said ‘if they liked it once, they’ll like it twice, is that Wagner became very affluent in his later years because he was the first composer to insist on being paid by the hour. In short, Wagner doesn’t grab me very much at all. Beecham once said (I think it was Beecham) that ‘Wagner has his moments, about one every 15 minutes’, and that sums it up rather well.

When you go to hear and see a Wagner opera, you are well advised to take a change of clothes and leave a forwarding address. Apart from that the chap, as far as I am concerned, more or less invented bombast, which is perhaps why he went down a storm with the National Socialists and, more recently, the Americans. But I was intrigued, for the bill (aka programme) didn’t promise two days of Germanic sword and sorcery but Lieder, to be more precise, the Wesendonck Lieder, five of them. And, dear reader, I liked them.

I had previously heard musicologists being rather positive about Wagner, about how he was a innovator and, as one said recently, was (something along the lines of) the interface between classical music and modernism. Well, I know next to nothing about music in that deeper, technical sense, but is seems Wagner came up with chords and harmonies which were quite startling to then contemporary ears. But being a crypto-liberal despite my reactionary pose I was prepared to give good ’ole Richard the benefit of doubt. And I’m pleased to say he came up trumps, with his Lieder having sometimes a delicacy I never suspected the old sod was capable off.

After the interval (and £3 glass of bloody awful red plonk my aunt and I had to share because neither of us had brought enough dosh with us to buy two - I had had £8 on me, she had nothing, and I had previously blown £5 of those £8 on a glossy programme. It’s a measure of how much the St Endellion Festival has embraced the 21st century that in days gone by you had to put up with a blackboard with that night’s bill chalked up on it in rather illegible handwriting. One year they did experiment with a chap all togged up as an ‘olde worlde’ town cryer, including bell, who spent an hour or so walking around the church announcing that night’s programme, but it didn’t go down well with the more refined sort who thought it all a bit infra-dig) came Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and very glad I am, too, that I heard it in live performance.

Many, many, many folk are horribly sniffy about Tchaikovsky but I can’t see why and it is nothing but a bad reflection on them. Years ago when I was living in Berlin and attending a German school, I would arrive home at just before 2pm, have my lunch and then go upstairs to do my homework and tune into AFN to Don Ameche’s Pop Concert whose theme tune was Tchaikosky First Piano Concerto, and if that isn’t enough to turn most 11/12 year-old lads onto classical music, I don’t know what is. I still like it, and get beyond those crashing opening chords it does get very moving.

The opening bars of the Fourth Symphony are, I’m sure, pretty familiar to many, rather like the faces of actors we have seen in many a film but can’t quite place. Well, yesterday I placed it and listened to the lot. Because I had booked late and there were few tickets still available, we sat at the side of St Endellion parish church right next to the orchestra. I was - literally (yes, Pete, literally, about a foot and a half from the string section (or at least the outer reaches of the string section) and it was great. Perhaps the balance of instruments wasn’t what it might have been - the French horns, who play quite a prominent part in the opening, were barely ten feet away and loud - but it was a revelation, for example, to hear how the strings interacted. And that third movement, the ‘pizzicato’ movement. It should persuade anyone with a soul that for all his angst and troubles - Tchaikovsky never came to terms with being gay and drank far too much - the lad was basically good-hearted, good-natured and would surely have been good company. I like to think that laughing came to him rather easily, and I don’t mean laughing in a spiteful way. It is no surprise to me that he got on well with his brothers and inspired affection in his friends. He’s the kind of guy - make that gay - whose real tragedy, one he shares with Oscar Wilde, was that he wasn’t born 150 years later when his sexuality would have been of no consequence.

. . .

Just before writing this entry, I looked up (inevitably on Wikipedia) further details of Wagner’s life, and where I like to think I should very much have enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s company, Richard, despite my rather grudging praise above, was what we call in the trade ‘a cunt’. Make that self-centred cunt. There is this curious belief that ‘the artist’ has to be a bastard to be good. Well, bollocks to that. Certainly, an ‘artist’ must be single-minded where his work is concerned, but when it comes to the rest of his or her life where being just an ordinary Joe or Jane is concerned he and she are just like the rest of us and are obliged to treat the rest of us with respect. Wagner, it seems, didn’t. I’m not going to go into his anti-semitism because for the purpose of what I want to say that is not pertinent (in as far as there are just as many Jewish cunts as there are Gentile cunts). When he was still an aspiring composer Giacomo Meyerbier, which should really just be Meyer Bier as the Giacomo was assumed for professional reasons, championed him. In return Wagner later shat on Meyer Bier.

He hitched up with Minna Planer and treated her like dirt, putting his own career well before hers, though I rather suspect she was just as much a pain in the arse as he was. I like the story when, after many rows and many partings, they finally got married, they even had a stant-up row in front of the minister who was about to marry them. Later, patronised, in the best sense, by a businessman Otto von Wesendonck, he went on (if some are to be believed) to have an affair with the chaps wife. Then there’s the flight from Riga across the Russian border with Minna and her daughter Nathalie, the horrendous trip to London, the years of poverty in Paris, the participation in the Dresden revolution and what came later and it seems to me Wagner had a life crying out to be made into a - good, that’s important - mini series. If it wasn’t for the hours and hours and hours of bombastic music. But I must say I’m glad I discovered the Wesendonck Lieder.

. . .

One last point. If anyone wanted to capture the essence of a certain kind of English middle-class life, visit a St Endellion festival. Very few of the fok there are under 40, most of over 50 and many over 60, almost all have grey or white hair and beards, including many of the women, and most of the cars are quite young. I hate to be snooty (well, actually, I don’t, I like it) but it is everything Labour hate. I, too, now have white hair and at the moment a very trimmed beard, but I still feel like an outsider.

Last night I was wondering why, and I came up with this explanation: I was born in Britain to an English father and a German mother, but more or less brought up as a German child, even wearing Lederhosen at primary school, which was quite something in the early Fifties, just eight or nine years after World War II ended. Then, in 1959, we move to Berlin where I attended German schools, but again felt like an outsider, the English kid who spoke perfect German (though sadly no more) and, as all kids do at that age, wanted to be like everyone else. Then it was back to England, to boarding school, where again I felt the outsider (my nicknames were first Preggers, because I wasn’t the slimmest, then Kraut and Jackboots). In time, of course, as we all do, or all of us try to do, in my case reasonably successfully, I made a virtue out of a vice and began to celebrate being an outsider.

So at St Endellion I might well have resembled the masses, but I still looked on. And feel able to make rather condescending comments about it all now. For the record, I don’t feel ‘English’, but nor do I feel ‘German’. I speak English without an accent and, given a few weeks in Germany to get back in swing, I would speak German like a German in that Germans would think me German. But what I am, Lord knows. My younger brother, now 55, can’t remember Germany, but was brought up in France from the age of seven to 12. My sister, who was also brought up in France, married a German when she was 22 and has, more or less, lived there ever since. I don’t know how either feels. My older brother is mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, so what he feels will depend on the day you talk to him. He also watches an awful lot of bollocks TV but is twice as bright as me. Make of that what you will.

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