J's photos oct-nov 14 024 (2)Welcome to my blogsite, and to the website for Kirkhill Associates, an arts, heritage and culture consultancy.  You can read my latest blog post below, browse past posts, download a copy of my current CV (where you’ll also find my contact details) here and check out past and current Kirkhill Associates contracts here .

Robert Livingston

Turning Digital Part 2

The post-pandemic world will be different in many ways that we can’t yet anticipate, but I can predict one personal change with a high degree of certainty: I’ll be visiting charity shops a lot less frequently.

Scouring charity shops for books, CDs and DVDs has long been one of my favourite pastimes.  Work used to mean that I got to travel a lot across Scotland, and I always tried to allow time in each destination to nip in to one or more of the local outlets.  I had certain favourites that I’d be sure not to miss: Oxfam in Oban for books; Shelter in Raeburn Place, Edinburgh for CDs. I found there was an almost Zen-like quality to getting myself into the zone where, scanning a lot of shelves quickly (before the parking ticket ran out) I could ensure that that special title leapt out at me. More recently, the very handsome boutique Highland Hospice shop in nearby Beauly has often offered temptation beyond endurance in both books and DVDs. 

But, what with turning digital, all that has changed.  And with it, an entire mindset.  The process began when I bought my first iPad back in 2013, and was able to plug Spotify into my hifi.  In the eight years since then I’ve not bought a single CD, new or second hand.  Worse than that, I’ve barely played any of the 1000+ CDs we already own, let alone the 1500+ LPs from my time as Evening Times music critic, back in the 70s. The stacks of LPs and CDs remain, taking up loads of space, and a part of me can’t bear to part with them (a) because they have so little cash value and I can’t even give them away (the LPs, anyway) and (b) because a little bit of me worries that the whole music streaming world might yet collapse (has Spotify reported an annual profit yet?).

Unlike many music fans, I’ve never been that wedded to the recording as a physical object. I’ve never had any nostalgia for the LP, being delighted to leave behind all that snap, crackle and pop, never mind the time-consuming ritual of cleaning each side before playing. And I’ve written in the previous blog about how Spotify has changed my approach to listening (I think) for the better.  

The same is true for DVDs.  We’ve never been big buyers of DVDs, not having the need to ‘own’ a film or TV series, and long having been used to recording off air to VHS tapes, then to digital recorders.  So, when we marked my becoming an OAP last October by buying a Smart TV, I felt no regret that there’s now so much realchoice available that I’ll never need to buy another DVD.  It’s not just that outlets like Netflix (via the BFIPlayer) and Amazon Prime now make it possible to have ready access to a wealth of world cinema, old and new. There’s also all the other ‘content’ that’s available.  The arrival on Freeview of Sky Arts has been a real gamechanger, presenting so many films of ballet, opera, theatre and exhibitions originally made for the ‘event cinema’ market, as well as otherwise inaccessible programmes such as the wonderful concerts of film music from the Wiener Konzerthaus under the banner ‘Hollywood in Vienna’.  

And having Youtube on the new TV allows access to an extraordinary range of new experiences, from ‘living room’ (wohnzimmer) lockdown concerts from that same Wiener Konzerthaus, to real time 4K walks through the hearts of major cities, from Bruges to Barcelona. For the first time we can enjoy the kind of ‘choice’ that was always promised as part of the deregulation of national TV, but for so long just meant more channels recycling the same content (Midsomer Murders, anyone?).

So, no heartbreak about leaving either CDs or DVDs behind, and some relief that no more storage space will be needed. But I never thought I might feel something similar about books.  I don’t know how many books we own, but a conservative estimate would be over 4,000.  It partly depends on how you count things like exhibition catalogues, or an almost 40-year run of The World of Interiors. As a child I always wanted to live in a house full of books, and since lockdown my place of work has been the room we call our library, stacked floor to ceiling with Ikea ‘Billy’ shelves. We both love books.  We have so many they are double stacked on the bookshelves and sitting in precarious piles on the floor.  

Part of me always felt, pessimistically, that one reason for building up our own library might be to prepare for the day when public libraries disappeared. Of course, even pre-Covid, that loss had become a reality for many communities, though fortunately not here in Highland.  So, when the first lockdown started, a year ago, and libraries closed, I was happy to get down to reading a large number of books that had been sitting waiting to be finished, or even started.  But by October I had run out of new ‘light’ reading—suitable genre fiction for relaxing to, especially whodunnits.  And then I made two discoveries about Kindle that changed everything.

First, I realised that, unlike the Bluefire Reader app I sometimes used on my iPad, you can set the Kindle app up to show two open pages side by side, exactly like a normal book. And then I saw that the catalogue for Kindle Unlimited included almost the whole range of British Library Crime Classics reprints.  I binged, I gorged, in the first two months I read 12 whodunits on the Kindle app.  Since October I have only finished reading one ‘real’, physical book. Everything else has been on the iPad. Part of the pleasure comes from having my iPad sit in a special keyboard, so it can perch on my lap, making reading a wholly hands free experience, so I can juggle coffee mugs, biscuits, and stroking the cat.

I’m alarmed at how quick and complete this change has been. Books as physical objects have been at the centre of my life since I first started going to the wonderful Dennistoun library when I could barely read. My shelves groan under the weight of the hefty tomes that, in those days, you were not allowed to take out on loan (such as the fabulous 10 volumes of the Thames and Hudson history of civilisations) and which as an adult I hunted down and bought second hand. I love being surrounded by them—as Virginia Woolf said, they do furnish a room.  But just as I no longer keep back copies of magazines such as the Gramophone or the London Review of Books, because I can access their archives online, do I still need to keep these thousands of books? If I ever do want reread old favourites such as, say, one of John Harvey’s Resnick novels, or Anthony Price’s spy thrillers, I can pay a small fee and download them. Just how digital, how virtual, is my future going to be?

Turning Digital Part 1

Beethoven in 1804 by Joseph Mahler

So, Ludwig, that was the year that wasn’t.  A shame that your big 250th birthday bash had to coincide with a pandemic, and a tragedy that so many concerts and other live events had to be cancelled.  But, three months into a new year, and the flood of new recordings of your works shows little sign of abating. It’s as if absolutely everybody in the classical world wanted to make their mark in your semiquincentennial year.

Almost exactly five years ago I blogged about a new set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas which had entranced me. So, it will come as no surprise that throughout 2020 I had a wonderful time comparing no less than fivecomplete new sets of the sonatas on Spotify.  Four of these, perhaps not coincidentally, were from pianists from Russia, or of Russian extraction. More telling though, is the common factor that all five pianists were men.  

There are of course many wonderful female pianists who have recorded individual sonatas but, for whatever reason, very few have committed the entire cycle of 32 sonatas to disc. One writer, back in 2019, thought that only four women had ever done so  , but I’m pleased now to prove him wrong.  Back in the early 2010s a Japanese pianist based in Berlin called Yu Kosuge recorded a complete cycle for Sony in Japan. In the past, that would have meant the recordings could only have been available in the UK as expensive and hard to get imports, but of course, in the world of streaming services, they’re just a Spotify search away (other streaming services are available). 

So here’s one answer to a common question: just how many more Beethoven recordings do we need? Well, if Yu Kosuge’s set is indeed just one of five compete sonata cycles ever recorded by women, then we clearly haven’t reached saturation point. Last year there was also an astonishing glut of new sets of the five piano concertos (six if you count, as some pianists do, the piano version of the Violin Concerto) but only two of those sets, as far as I can tell, featured female soloists and neither, to my ears was particularly distinguished. 

Yu Kosuge’s piano sonatas, however, are in a different class entirely.  And although I haven’t listened to all the sonatas yet, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, for me, her recordings surpass all the five new sets from men that I’ve listened to.  And yes, that includes the Gramophone Artist of the Year, Igor Levit. Yu Kosuge has it all: technique (that goes without saying), a sure sense of architecture and form; passion, pacing, and above all, humour.  She brings just the right level of fantasy and imagination to performances that are intended for repeat listening. I really hope that, some day, when the concert halls have returned to some kind of normality, I get to hear her play live. 

But why isn’t she better known? Why are the CD versions of her Beethoven recordings only available on Amazon UK as imports at extortionate prices? Perhaps she’s the kind of dedicated musician who shuns the limelight.  Or maybe it’s just because she’s a woman.

Even more startling is the fact that, as far as I can tell, no female conductor has ever recorded a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. I believe I read once that there are something like 150 complete symphony cycles on record, and a huge number of those are readily available as record labels try to make as much income as possible from their archives.  And there are many female conductors well up to the task: Marin Alsop, Simone Young and Jane Glover among the older generation, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla among the rising stars.  So, what’s the problem?

Well, I’m glad to say that one female conductor has taken up the challenge, and Estonian-born Kristiina Poska has embarked on what may very well be the first ever recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies with a female conductor. Ok, it’s with an orchestra most of us will never have heard of, the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, and on an equally obscure label, Fuga Libera. But at least, thanks to Spotify, it’s readily accessible for all to hear, and I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed the first disc in the series: refreshing, intelligent, and no sense that I wasn’t listening to one of the world’s top rank orchestras.  Roll on the next instalment!

But, in all other respects, as the dust gradually settles down from the anniversary year that wasn’t, is it time to call a moratorium on further new Beethoven recordings for, say, a decade? Here’s why I don’t think so. The idea of owning, and listening to, only one recording of a major work (or a handful if you can afford different versions) is less than a century old, from when the first complete recordings of symphonies, sonatas and concertos started to emerge.  Now perhaps it’s time to think about how really odd it is to be able to repeat a single performance endlessly, to get to know every nuance, to analyse every key stroke or bar of music, to wait in anguish for that click or scratch, if you’re listening to vinyl. To replace a sense of adventure with one of cosy familiarity.

For me, Spotify has been wonderfully liberating. Every time I choose to listen to a favourite piece, I can select a different performance, hear a different perspective, find something in the music that I’d never spotted or appreciated before.  And in this past year, with no live concerts to go to, that has been a real boon. Even something as familiar, as jaded, you might say, as Beethoven’s Fifth or the Moonlight Sonata, can be fresh, surprising, and engaging if you’re listening to a performance or recording that’s new to you. As I write this I’m listening to Bruckner’s Third Symphony from a complete set recorded by the Korean Symphony Orchestra, no less, conducted by Hun-Joung Lim.  It’s terrific.  Perhaps not up to the Berlin Phil, but full of the excitement and energy of discovery. Here in the West, the death of classical music is regularly, and prematurely, announced.  In the East, they’ve barely got started.

The Robin Hood Effect

Boys of my age (mid-60s)—and many girls as well, I’m sure—will have very happy memories of those dramas shown regularly (endlessly!) on ITV in the children’s slot in the 1950s and early 60s. Before the rise of SF with Gerry Anderson and Dr Who, we pre-teens were all immersed in historical dramas: Sir Francis Drake, The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Buccaneers, William Tell, Sword of Freedom, and many others.

Now, thanks to the marvel that is Talking Pictures TV, we’ve got a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of those seminal series, and to see how the reality lives up to our rose-tinted memories.  And the result, I have to say, is surprising.

Just looking at the titles, you might have thought that these series would play into a ‘loss of Empire/Englishism/proto-Brexit’ agenda, like the earlier Boy’s Own Paper and the novels of John Buchan and G A Henty.  And inevitably, any historical dramas made at that time can’t wholly escape such elements. But there was something much more interesting, much more subversive, going on.

Almost all the series I’ve named above were produced by the same company, or by people who had worked with that company: Sapphire Films. And Sapphire Films was created by a very remarkable woman: Hannah Weinstein (who seems to be no relation to the other cinematic Weinsteins).  This is where fact becomes stranger than fiction: Hannah Weinstein set the company up with funds from the Hollywood branch of the American Communist Party (and you thought the Coen’s ‘Hail Caesar’ was a fantasy….), and created ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ specifically to make work for no less than 22 left-wing writers blacklisted by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. One can only assume that arch-media capitalist Lew Grade had no idea of this background when he agreed to back the series! Especially as all the writers (who included some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Ring Lardner Jr, who would go on to write the original ‘Mash’ movie) were either anonymous or pseudonymous.

Robin Hood is of course the perfect vehicle for communitarian/anti-authoritarian/anti-capitalist views, but several of the other series also embody similar values.  William Tell, with its much more serious tone of jeopardy and echoes of wartime Resistance movements, is even more explicitly rebellious. In its first few episodes The Buccaneers did a 180 degree about-turn, from being about the historical King’s representative, come to bring the buccaneers back to the flag, to focusing on free-wheeling, devil-may-care Buccaneer captain, Dan Tempest, played by the wonderful Robert Shaw.  Even Sir Francis Drake is about a man prepared to go against authority and break the rules for what he believes in, a man his enemies consider a mere pirate.

There’s another fascinating aspect that several of these series have in common: very strong female role models.  Queen Elizabeth is played (brilliantly, by Jean Kent) as a powerful and commanding figure easily able to dominate the courtiers jostling for her favours and undaunted by the threats of (male) enemies.  Maid Marian can match Robin in archery and horse riding and is often shown as more emotionally mature than the overgrown public schoolboy that Richard Greene portrays.  And William Tell’s wife Helga similarly can take just as many physical risks as Tell himself, and often ends up having to save him from the consequences of his own rashness.

These three series, as well, are surprisingly rich in historical detail.  Though playing fast and loose with chronology, Sir Francis Drake has episodes about merchant venturers, the disastrous Roanoke colony, the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots and her Catholicism, and much more. William Tell has a lot to say about the power politics of the Holy Roman Empire. Robin Hood explores quite serious themes about witchcraft hysteria, an oppressive aristocracy, and corrupt officials. Compared with the a-historical nonsense produced in recent years for adults—the Tudors, Great, all those Roman epics—these Sapphire Films and their offshoots did quite a good job of giving their young audiences a grounding in history.

Above all, they don’t condescend to those young audiences. Of course, there’s no sex, though some of the violence (especially in William Tell) can still be surprising. And there are touches of farcical humour that help to keep younger viewers entertained.  But they tell strong stories efficiently (in less than 25 minutes an episode, leaving time for the adverts) and don’t shy away from themes that would normally play out in ‘grown up’ dramas.  I found the same, recently, when rewatching another favourite of my childhood, the BBC adaptation of the Further Adventures of the Three Musketeers, with the peerless Joss Ackland. This gripping drama immersed itself in the power politics of the infant Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin, and the Fronde insurrection, with few concessions to the youth of its target audience.

And, now that I’ve had the chance to relive these childhood influences, what effect do I think they had?  Did it matter that I was—as some might say—being fed left-wing propaganda? Well, for my entire working life I’ve relished leading small, distinctive and somewhat off-the-wall teams, made up of strong and characterful individuals.  I’ve shied away from working for large, bureaucratic organisations, and when I’ve done so, have tried to recreate that team ethos within them.  Though no radical, I’m a natural non-conformist, equally sceptical of authority and crowds, and unwilling to accept orthodoxies.  And I married a very strong woman who has been a wonderful life partner (and I do have a beard that resembles that of Sir Francis Drake…). So, thank you, Hannah Weinstein, you laid the foundations for a pretty good life, and it’s time we recognised and honoured your achievement.

Ways of Seeing

Poster by Snowball Design

My love of silent films began in my teens, when I stumbled upon Lotte Eisner’s masterpiece ‘The Haunted Screen’ in my local library.  An account of German cinema from the end of the First War to the rise of Hitler, it was filled with evocative stills from titles such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, ‘Nosferatu’, and ‘Der Golem’. I couldn’t wait to see the entire films, but in the days before VHS tapes, let alone Youtube, that was almost impossible. Later, studying film at University, I had the immense pleasure of running a 16mm print of Murnau’s astonishing version of ‘Faust’ (1926), all by and for myself.

Then in 1980 came Kevin Brownlow’s landmark TV series ‘Hollywood’ with its evocative Carl Davis score, and James Mason’s impeccable narration.  For the first time we saw extracts from the great titles of the silent era as they were meant to be seen, carefully restored, run at the correct speed, and dazzlingly coloured.  Just as ‘silent’ films were never actually shown in silence, so ‘black and white’ films in the silent era were often gorgeously and laboriously hand-coloured.

So I’m a great fan of any effort to show silent films as they should really be seen, not just with an added music track, but with live musicians playing alongside the projected images.  Fortunately this is becoming an increasingly common experience, whether it be the great Neil Brand channelling the fleapit pianists of the 1910s and 20s, or specially composed contemporary scores. It’s especially interesting when such live music brings to life a film that was largely forgotten outside the specialist circles of film historians.  That was true, a few years ago, of a tour of the last great Soviet silent film, ‘Salt for Svanetia’, accompanied in lively fashion by Moishe’s Bagel.  And it’s currently true of the tour by ‘A Kind of Seeing’ (Shona Thomson) of the 1915 Italian drama, ‘Assunta Spina’, superbly accompanied by the Edinburgh-based South Italian folk band, The Badwills.

When we experienced this film/music combo at Eden Court last weekend I was thrilled—a remarkable film brought back to life by very sympathetic music-making.  But talking to a very knowledgeable film fan afterwards, I was surprised to find he didn’t share my enthusiasm—too stagy, too static, ‘they should have known better by 1915’.

This set me thinking, and this is where I have to get a bit technical, so bear with me.  The standard narrative of how feature films developed as a story-telling medium goes something like this: D W Griffiths invented the key elements of film narrative–the close-up, which encourages empathy, and rapid cutting between two different scenes, which builds tension (most infamously in the Ku Klux Klan ‘rescue’ in ‘Birth of a Nation’, made, like ‘Assunta Spina’, in 1915).  Then in the 1920s, along came Eisenstein, who invented montage to stimulate emotional and intellectual responses (think of the Odessa Steps sequence in ‘Battleship Potemkin’).

This narrative puts editing at the very heart of movie-making, even if editors rarely get the acclaim they deserve (it was wonderful to see Thelma Schoonmaker getting her Lifetime BAFTA last month).  And it does seem that, more and more, editing is what makes a picture, even on TV. I found myself, a while ago, comparing the editing styles of two contemporary cop series, the Swedish version of ‘Wallander’, and the Italian series about ‘Inspector Montalbano’.  The cool, austere, reserved Swedish world was, surprisingly, created with very rapid cutting, with whole series of shots lasting little more than two or three seconds each, while the volatile, theatrical Sicilians were portrayed in long, leisurely shots often lasting a minute or more.

But there are other ways to tell a story on film. I’ve an obsession with directors who work in very long takes, organising the action before the camera, rather than later in the editing suite. Of course, in the days of celluloid film, this was very difficult to achieve.  In ‘Rope’ Alfred Hitchcock used all sorts of visual tricks to suggest that the entire film had been shot, in real time, in a single take, when in fact reels of film lasted only ten minutes. The result was a noble failure. Now, digital makes almost anything possible, and several films have now, in reality, been shot in a single take, with all the action devised in advance to display before the unblinking eye of the digital camera.  The first, and probably still the most extreme example, was Alexander Sokurov’s ‘Russian Ark’(2002) in which the hand held camera prowls the length of the immense Hermitage Museum, as a cast of hundreds replays centuries of the building’s history in front of it.

But even before that, one contemporary film-maker who made the most dazzling use of very long takes was the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos.  His films can be hard to find, and for a non-Greek they can be difficult to watch, as they are immersed in the details of Greece’s tragic recent history.  A good place to start is ‘Ulysses’ Gaze’(1995), not least because it stars Harvey Keitel! There is one scene especially where a static camera is placed to look straight into the entrance hall of a middle class Greek house while, in an unbroken sequence of about 10 minutes, a huge cast of characters suggest three decades of history by their comings and goings, their changes of clothes, their sense of panic or euphoria.

And that brings me back, at last, to ‘Assunta Spina’.  Yes, in one way my friend was right: made the same year as ‘Birth of a Nation’, compared with that film it betrays its origins as a stage play all too readily. But, as a way of telling a narrative on film, I found the end result fascinating, in several ways.  First, the static camera, never cutting to close-ups, rarely even to mid-shots, relied instead, as much later in Angelopoulos’s films, on a careful, meticulous organising of the action before the camera.  In the court room scenes in which Assunta’s lover is tried for attacking her in a fit of jealousy, crowds of extras, all individual personalities, are orchestrated to convey a remarkable feel of ‘authenticity’.

And another result of the stage origins is that the film image uses depth of field in a way that Orson Welles would make famous in Citizen Kane, a full quarter of a century later. That is, we have to scan the entire screen to work out what’s happening—the crucial action might be set well back in the frame, such as when, at a birthday party, a clutch of party-goers disperses to reveal, leaning on a balustrade yards behind the oblivious Assunta, the man who will ruin her life.

And the stage actors go through reams of dialogue from the original play with hardly a single inter-title, though such is the familiarity of the basic scenario, and the vivid (hammy?) nature of the acting, that the viewer is never in any doubt as to what’s being said.  Silent Hollywood films of this period, and later, can be hard for us to watch today because the inter-titles are so frequent, and stay on screen for so long (audiences weren’t always so used to reading in those days), that the momentum of the action can be fatally disrupted.  Not in ‘Assunta Spina’, where the paucity of intertitles allows long scenes to run uninterrupted.

Finally, this use of the static camera results in one extraordinary effect of which, I’m sure, Hitchcock himself would have been proud.  Assunta’s man (Lover 1) is in prison for scarring her for life.  It is Christmas Eve, and Assunta is at home, preparing a meal for her new protector (Lover 2). Suddenly, in bursts Lover 1—he has been released six months early. He still loves her, thinks the meal is set out for him, wants to get back together.  Assunta, and we, the audience, know that Lover 2 will return at any moment.  As Assunta and Lover 1 argue with increasing passion, at the back of the set there is a glass door, and beyond it a view of the street. We can barely focus our attention on the fierce melodrama being played out by the two protagonists in the foreground, because we cannot take our eyes off that glass door, through which, we know, Nemesis—Lover 2—is bound to appear. That is, we are watching a void, and doing so with ever increasing tension, an effect wonderfully ratcheted up by the music of The Badwills.

Now, I’m quite prepared to accept that ‘Assunta Spina’, which it is now generally recognised was co-directed by its star, the magnetic Francesca Bertini, is an accidental masterpiece: that Bertini and her colleagues had no idea of creating visual effects that would anticipate much later masterpieces, indeed that these effects may not have struck any viewer at the time, but only seem remarkable viewed through the lens of film history.  But accidental masterpieces are still masterpieces—think of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. And sometimes it helps to go back to the origins of film, and to think about how the triumph of the Hollywood version of film language was not inevitable, and that there can be other ‘ways of seeing’.



Aimez Vous Brahms?…or Bach?…or Beethoven?

Susan Tomes

I don’t do rock and pop.  If that sounds snobbish, it’s not meant to.  It’s just that I was thoroughly bitten by the classical music bug long before my teenage hormones started to kick in.  Mind you, up till I was 10, our gramophone could only play 78s.  My favourite slabs of shellac were the Grasshopper’s Dance, Ghost Riders in the Sky, and the last five minutes of the ‘1812’ Overture (we didn’t have the rest).  Then, one glorious day, a second-hand ‘radiogram’ was purchased and we could finally play LPs–which had, after all, been around for the last 18 years or so. My parents were not ‘early adopters’.

So, at last, I could listen to entire symphonies and concertos: Beethoven’s 5th, Dvorak’s New World, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. I was in rapture.  Up till then I’d listened to pretty well anything that was going on the radio.  I loved Alan (Fluff) Freeman’s’ ‘Pick of the Pops’, and especially Jack Jackson’s wonderfully surreal ‘Radio Roundup’. Once we’d got our radiogram I even bought a Beatles single.  But, gradually, I became driven mad by the boring, incessant rhythmic repetitions of the drums in most pop singles.  It was a kind of torture.

Two further factors then conspired to push me further towards classical music.  The BBC Light Programme (which also included all my favourite comedies), the Home Service, and the Third Programme (a wonderful intellectual challenge to a precocious kid) were replaced in 1967 by Radios 1 to 4. And, not long afterwards, my father bought me my first open-reel tape recorder.  Now I could augment my pathetically small collection of LPs with anything I cared to record from the rich and varied output of the new Radio 3.

The result was that, from roughly 1967 to 1973, I stopped listening to pop and rock music altogether. Later, I would come to realise that I had missed out on probably the richest and most exciting period in the history of popular music, but at the time I didn’t care. Once at University, friends would introduce me to jazz/funk crossover, and prog rock, both of which I loved. But pop music remained, and has remained, almost entirely alien.  So, for me, one of the supposedly fundamental reasons why we care about music just doesn’t apply: nostalgia.  When I listen to my favourite piece of music, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the only nostalgic memory it conjures for me is my excitement at first getting to know the work itself, in performances by Boulez and Barbirolli, not anything else about my life at the time (which was probably very boring, anyway).

So I have always had a fierce interest in how and why music affects us so powerfully, and over the years I’ve read many books and articles on the subject. But only recently I’ve come to realise that most of these studies and explorations relate to the effect of music as a whole, and most of that is therefore irrelevant to me as someone, so to speak, deaf to popular music.  What fascinates and obsesses me is, what is so special and powerful about classical music?  This was brought home to me forcefully earlier this month, when we attended six concerts in three days at the superb Lammermuir Festival. The music-making was outstanding, but why was it affecting me so powerfully?

In the last few weeks I’ve read four books which have brought me about as close as, at this time, I think we can come to answering that question. They’re by, respectively, a composer, a performer, a music educator, and finally a listener who, like me, has minimal experience of actually playing music.

The first is ‘Experiencing Music’ by the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe, who is of the generation that links Carl Nielsen to Paul Ruders.  I’ve long thought him as one of the greatest composers of the 20thCentury, his cycles symphonies and string quartets easily the equal of those of his near-contemporary Shostakovich. I was very excited, therefore, to find out that some of his writings about music had been published in English, back in the early 1970s.  A few minutes on the wonderful Abe Books website, and a copy was on its way to me. Holmboe, just like his music, is wonderfully clear, unfussy and honest about what it’s like to be a composer, and his is the best account I’ve ever read of the mental processes involved in imagining and creating something like a symphony.

Next, the educator.  Back in the 60s and 70s, ‘Talking About Music’ was a staple of the BBC Radio airwaves, and a wonderful introduction, for me, to many aspects of classical music. It was presented by composer, pianist and conductor Antony Hopkins, who had one of the great radio voices, and a marvellously lucid way of explaining even music as challenging as that of Michael Tippett.  So I was delighted to come across a copy of his 1979 book ‘Understanding Music’, which is probably the best ever introduction to classical music for the music lover, but non-performer.  Even after more than 50 years of loving classical music, I learned a lot from it.

The ‘listener’ in this group of writers is none other than Armando Iannucci, whose ‘Hear me out—all my music’ was published just last year. I’ve been a huge fan of his since we saw his two-man show with David Schneider on the Fringe many years ago, and his ‘The Death of Stalin’ was my film of 2017. Iannucci is a few years younger than me, but nonetheless he went to some of the same SNO concerts as me in the 70s, and borrowed records from the same Glasgow Library. And we even love some of the same pieces—especially Mahler’s Sixth (as Berg said: ‘despite Beethoven’s Pastoral, the only Sixth’). Iannucci may not have brought me closer to understanding whyclassical music affects us both so strongly, but it was reassuring to find someone so ‘cool’ who shared so many of my feelings about the subject!

But the best of all these books was the last, that by the performer. Susan Tomes is an Edinburgh pianist who has spent the bulk of her career playing chamber music with two very successful groups, Domus, and the Florestan Trio.  She’s written a number of books, but I’ve so far only read the most recent: ‘Sleeping in Temples’, and I’ve never read anything so wise, so humane and so insightful about the life and mental states of a classical musician. Really, anyone setting out on a career in classical music should read this book. It will be a vade mecum for them for years to come.

Ultimately, Tomes doesn’t answer the question of why classical music can affect us so powerfully, but she is very eloquent on its importance, and she comes up with two definitions that I find really helpful. First, she talks about the enormous value and importance of what she calls ‘long form’ music—music that takes half an hour or more to perform, and listen to–as opposed to a three minute pop song.  She believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the effort involved in appreciating ‘long form’ music is of vital importance in our wider life experiences. And then she proposes moving away from the traditional opposition between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ (or, as she writes, ‘heavy’) music, and instead proposes taking an analogy from Gaelic music, where the Piobaireachd is known as the ‘big music’ and everything else is the ‘small music’.

For Susan Tomes, classical music is the ‘big music’, and pop music is the ‘small music’, and for all the current global domination of the latter, she believes that, with movements like ‘slow food’ and ‘slow towns’, the ‘big music’ may be set for a resurgence. I hope she’s right.

So, do I have my own ideas about why classical music can be so powerful? Of course I do, though they have (as yet) little or no scientific basis. I believe that classical music—and other forms of complex, ‘long form’ music such as jazz, or Indian classical music—meshes with our brains at a deep, subconscious level. I believe that this happens even for those many music-lovers (like my late mother) who think they love classical music just for the big tunes and the emotional sweep, and can’t listen to anything more challenging than Shostakovich.  I believe that this effect works on us even when (as I’ve often been guilty of doing) listening to classical music while reading. For me, it’s the only drug I’m truly, irrevocably, addicted to.


© Robert Livingston October 2018



Culture in Carlops

Allan Ramsay Hotel

I’ve spent a large part of my career driving the length and breadth of Scotland. That means I know an awful lot of Scotland’s towns and villages only by what I’ve glimpsed from the car while driving through them, on the way to my ultimate destination—which would have been Dumfries, Kilmarnock, Selkirk, Crieff, you name it.  That’s particularly true of places on the many roads radiating out of Edinburgh.  So, a few weeks ago, when we were looking for somewhere to stay the night before attending a friend’s birthday lunch in Balerno, I was rather pleased when Booking.com suggested the Allan Ramsay Hotel in Carlops. Carlops is a tiny village on the A702, which is the scenic route from Edinburgh to Dumfries, so I’d driven past the hotel many times, but never stopped there.

It was a risk of course: not all former 18thcentury coaching inns are havens of hospitality and good food; many are barely hanging on, or dependent chiefly on the patronage of a few hard-drinking locals. But the Allan Ramsay turned out to be a total delight.  The present landlords only took the place on about three years ago (which makes it doubly unfair that Tripadvisor still carries negative reviews from the previous regime, back in 2014!). And in that time they’ve worked wonders.  The bedroom was plain, but comfy: freshly decorated and scrupulously clean.  The public areas were welcoming and unfussy, and the dinner really outstanding—good enough that it should encourage Edinburghers to drive out from the city just for the evening; in fact, good enough to persuade us that we should return soon for a long weekend.

So many hotels and hostelries across the country have acquired recent names that promote a spurious connection with the past.  Our local used to have the good historical name of the ‘Bogroy’, but has for several years been known by the bogus moniker of ‘The Old North Inn’.  Years ago, on a pilgrimage to Lerici, where Shelley was living when he drowned, I was depressed to be confronted with the Hotel Byron, the Restaurant di Poeti, and much, much more of the same. But the Allan Ramsay Hotel has borne that name since it was built in 1792, and so may be a very early example—perhaps the first in Scotland—of cashing in on cultural tourism.

Now, we have to get something straight first.  This is not the Allan Ramsay we all know, the fabulous portraitist whose images of Hume and Rousseau have immortalised those literary giants.  This is his dad. Who, in his own way, is just as important a figure in Scottish history and culture. Here are just some of his achievements:

  • Champion of the Scots language
  • Collector of ancient Scots verse and song
  • Founder of the first circulating library in Britain
  • Founder of the first theatre in Edinburgh
  • Author of the first Scottish opera, The Gentle Shepherd

It’s probably no exaggeration to say, without Ramsay père, there would have been no Burns, no Scott, no Hogg, at least not as we know them. The new landlords of the eponymous hotel knew nothing of this when they took it on, but they decided to find out.  The result was an ongoing connection with Glasgow University, and a grant from the ‘Pub is the Hub’ scheme to properly document Ramsay, father and son, in the hotel itself, and to launch an annual Allan Ramsay festival, the third manifestation of which takes place this October.

But why Carlops?  Why this tiny village, with a history chiefly of weaving and mining, when Ramsay was actually born many miles away in Leadhills and spent most of his life in Edinburgh?  The answer lies in Ramsay’s most famous work,The Gentle ShepherdAmong Ramsay’s aristocratic friends and supporters were two local lairds, Alexander Pennecuik of Newhall and that redoubtable Enlightenment figure, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik.  Because Ramsay spent much time at those two estates, the setting of his poem/play is very specifically the area round Carlops.

Fine, but Ramsay died in 1758—why name a new hotel after him more than 30 years later? Because his fame did not die with him. A new edition of The Gentle Shepherd was published in 1788 with the famous illustrations by David Allan.  Another edition followed in 1808, which included a map of all the locations around Carlops mentioned in the poem. So close was the association between play and village that, in the early 1800s, the villagers of Carlops performed The Gentle Shepherd annually on Hansel Monday (the first Monday in January), and charabancs would bring folk out from the city to enjoy the performance.  Weather permitting, they could then follow various trails to the sites named in the poem, marked out with stone panels bearing the relevant lines.

So why has Ramsay fallen into obscurity?  Even in the middle of the 19thcentury he was still famous enough to merit a larger than life-size statue in Princes Street, looking across to his former home in what is now Ramsay Gardens (yes, that’s where it got its name). Judith and I knew about the painter son because we were both trained as art historians. I knew next to nothing about the father before our overnight stay in Carlops.

It confirms something I’ve long suspected: that Scotland (and perhaps this is true of all small countries) only has room in its collective memory for a very few iconic figures. So Burns, but not Fergusson, Scott but not Galt or (except for enthusiasts like me) Hogg. Mackintosh, but not Greek Thomson or Lorimer. This is not just a historic problem. Sir James MacMillan may deserve his international fame as a composer, but is he really that much better, or more significant, than his much less widely acclaimed near-contemporaries, Edward McGuire and Alasdair Nicolson, or indeed that marvellous composer who is celebrating her 90thbirthday this year, Thea Musgrave?

So three cheers for the Allan Ramsay Hotel, doing its bit to restore Ramsay the poet to his proper place in the Scottish pantheon.  It probably helps that two fine contemporary poets, Gerda Stevenson and Aonghas MacNeacail, live in Carlops, and, of course, the village’s location, as one of the entry points to the Pentland Hills Regional Park, makes it doubly attractive as a place to spend a short break. We’ll certainly be back.



Building a Nation (Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity, Part 4)

Wartburg Castle

The Bachhaus in Eisenach describes itself as the world’s first Bach museum. Ironically, it’s not the house old J S was born in, and he seems to have been keen to leave Eisenach early and reluctant to ever go back.  Perhaps with good reason: even today, it’s the one town we visited in the former GDR that is still obviously suffering economically, and the one place on our travels where we didn’t feel welcome, but did feel ripped off. However, we’d come not for Bach, or for Eisenach itself, but for the Wartburg, perched on a rock high above the town.

‘The weight of history’ is a phrase that kept occurring to us on this tour, but in few places was it as palpable as in this extraordinary confection of a medieval castle.  This is where the 13thcentury contests of Minnesingers were held that form the basis of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and many other legends. St Elizabeth of Hungary (and Thuringia) was chatelaine here, and was canonised just four years after her death in 1231.  Luther hid out here, disguised as ‘Junker Jorg’ and wrote much of his translation of the New Testament while under cover, and you can see the cell where he worked, purportedly original. Which is more than can be said for his so-called cell in the Augustiner Monastery in Erfurt, which has been rebuilt at least twice. And in 1817, exactly 300 years after Luther kicked off the Reformation, German students held a fraternity meeting in the Wartburg, a meeting which is seen in retrospect as an important milestone on the road to German unity, thus making the castle today a pilgrimage site for certain right wing nationalist groups as well as for Protestants from all over the world.

So it’s no wonder that Goethe (yes, him again) proposed that this slumbering giant should be reawakened as a museum, though it was Carl Alexander of Weimar, the grandson of Goethe’s employer, who eventually took on the task of the castle’s restoration. The result is an extraordinary challenge to our notions of ‘authenticity’.  From the outside the Wartburg looks like every child’s dream of a medieval castle (and it inspired Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein), and at its core is one of the most important secular Romanesque buildings to survive in Northern Europe.  But Carl Alexander’s architect Hugo von Ritgen turned the interior into a delirious dream of what the 19th Century thought a medieval castle should look like.  The end result no doubt disappoints many visitors seeking an ‘authentic’ medieval experience—one TripAdvisor comment calls it ‘disappointing kitschy neo-classical’—but for anyone with an interest in the myths of nation-building, the impact is thrilling and overwhelming. This is ‘bildung’ on the scale, not of an individual, but of an entire emergent nation (see Part 3). This is the image of a fantastical, colourful, German history that Nazi ideology would so distort, and one has to work hard to get past that distortion, and to appreciate the idealism and the optimism with which something like the Wartburg was created.

Even the GDR co-opted the Wartburg in a new phase of nation-building, as in 1967 the castle was the site of celebrations of: the GDR’s national jubilee, the 900th anniversary of the castle’s (legendary) founding, the 450th anniversary of the start of Luther’s Reformation, and the 150th anniversary of that primal student gathering in 1817. Phew!


At the heart of Luther’s Reformation is the idea of the individual’s unmediated relationship with God. If we had any doubt that this focus on the individual was already deeply rooted in German history and culture, it would have been swept away by our next visit, to Naumburg Cathedral. Here I have to make a confession:  I have been wanting to visit Naumburg for almost fifty years, ever since I first made the acquaintance of a very special lady, the Countess Uta.  Naumburg Cathedral is unique in German art.  When the church was rebuilt in the early 13thcentury, it was decided that the west choir (an unusual feature of certain German churches) should be dedicated to the 12 ‘founders’ of the original church, and that they should be commemorated in 12 lifesize and almost freestanding stone sculptures. These are among the first and the most impressive portraits of named individuals in all of medieval art, and the greatest of all is that of Uta, wife of the Margrave Ekkehard.  When Umberto Eco was asked which woman from art he would like to have dinner with, he immediately chose Uta. Her beauty has haunted me for much of my life and, I can tell you, the reality does not disappoint.

Ekkehard and Uta, Naumburg Cathedral

Except, this is not a portrait.  At the time these twelve sculptures were executed, their subjects had been dead for about 150 years. If they are based on living individuals, and it’s hard to believe they’re not, then those individuals were entirely different people. And it seems that the touches of paint—on eyes, cheeks and lips—which are so important in giving life to Uta’s beauty, may be largely or wholly the result of various restorations from the 17thto the 19thcentury.

And Uta, like the Wartburg, suffered from being co-opted into Nazi ideology, promoted as an ideal of Aryan womanhood—restrained and demure—in contrast to her sister-in-law across the choir, Reglindis, whose inappropriate smiling (I kid you not) was thought to be due to her inferior Polish ancestry. So many layers to strip away, as the 19thcentury ‘restorers’ stripped away the Baroque trappings of the Cathedral to get back to its medieval core. In all those layers, is there such a thing as an ‘authentic’ Uta?  Naumburg, by the way, is a wholly delightful town, worth at least a day of anyone’s time.


And so our epic tour came to an end, as we returned to the German city we know best, Munich, and, by happy coincidence, to a major exhibition which somehow epitomised all the conflicting ideas and issues that we’d been exposed to on this holiday-cum-pilgrimage through German history and culture. Munich’s Kunsthalle is a remarkable temporary exhibition space in the middle of an upmarket shopping mall, rather is if the Royal Scottish Academy were relocated to inside Harvey Nick’s. And the exhibitions it mounts are no less remarkable. Du Bist Faust explored the impact of Goethe’s two-part epic on two centuries of art and music, moving step by step through the familiar story, and in doing so showing how quickly Goethe’s ‘authentic’ philosophical vision had been simplified (many would say cheapened) by such manifestations as Gounod’s opera Faust(for a long time known in German-speaking regions as Marguerite to distance it from the great original). And showing also how Goethe ensured that the late-Medieval legend of the learned doctor who made a pact with the devil would become an inescapable metaphor for the human condition.

Du Bist Faust with Livingstons

Perhaps Faust is the greatest, most ‘authentic’ of all German myths, because it subsumes all the others and touches so deeply on something within all of us. Can it be coincidence that the historical Faust—if there really was such a man—was a near-contemporary of Luther? Is Faust’s disgust with a lifetime of learning actually a rejection of the whole concept of bildung, and is his pact with Mephistopheles—the spirit of negation—a black mirror of that striving for a secular perfection? And if the drive towards German unity in the 19thcentury was a kind of national bildung, was the subsequent failure of the Weimar Republic and the collapse into totalitarianism, a kind of Faustian pact? Is any quest for perfection, for utopia, for authenticity, doomed to be perverted into its dark opposite?

Goethe’s Faust Part 2 ends with a ‘Chorus Mysticus’ (in Philip Wayne’s translation for Penguin):

All things corruptible
Are but a parable;
Earth’s insufficiency
Here finds fulfilment;
Here the ineffable
Wins life through love;
Eternal Womanhood
Leads us above.

But what if ‘Earth’s insufficiency’ is all there is? Returning home to a garden rampant with three week’s untamed Spring growth, we were drawn more to the final words of another great European masterpiece, Voltaire’s Candide: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’.

The Art of Becoming (Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity, Part 3)

Erfurt Town Centre

And so we crossed from Austria to Germany, leaving behind the family tragedies of the Habsburgs, and also the gemütlich sentimentality of Mozart in Salzburg, and entering the heady and high-minded world of Luther, Bach, Goethe and Schiller, and the double-edged question of German unity. We were about to spend a week in Erfurt, capital of Thuringia, which region, though once part of the GDR, is at the very heart of Germany, both geographically and culturally. And we were about to steep ourselves in a philosophical milieu that is best summed up in the single, untranslatable term, bildung.

‘Bildung’ is defined by Peter Watson, in his exhaustive (and exhausting) study, The German Genius as referring to ‘the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfilment through education and knowledge, in effect a secular search for perfection’. The term is not widely known in English circles, except in the form bildungsroman, applied to a novel, like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which depicts the growth of an individual. It came as no surprise to learn that the first bildungsroman was written by Goethe, whose pervasiveness in German culture has no match in English, unless you combined Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Ruskin into one.


Erfurt is about the size of Aberdeen and, having been spared the worst ravages of Allied bombing, is, like Bamberg and Regensburg, a lively working city which just happens to have a centre made up largely of buildings dating back to the Renaissance and earlier. And, as noted in Part 1, most of those old buildings have been restored to the point where they look ‘as good as new’. There are few cars, lots of trams, bicycles and pedestrians, and a mix of river, canals, trees, and characterful old streets that reminded us of Bruges (though with many fewer tourists!).  Our Munich friends were surprised that we could spend as much as a week there (as if we’d said to a Londoner that we’d spent a week in Doncaster), but it is a welcoming and endearing town and an ideal centre for touring the fascinating region of Thuringia and beyond.

Erfurt’s sense of its own centrality in German history and culture is amply demonstrated by the impressive series of 19thcentury murals in the Rathaus (Town Hall). In the main council chamber these depict, as you would expect, scenes from the city’s history, ranging from the more or less accurate to the downright apocryphal, but in the grand staircase fantasy had been allowed free rein. Here the murals tell the story of Faust (the original legend with its gory end, not Goethe’s version), an equally dubious tale about a local count, and the fantasy version of the life of Tannhäuser (a historical figure) which Wagner retold.  Even the murals of Luther’s life include scenes with no documented basis.  I was reminded of the famous lines from The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!’.


I’m fascinated by the world of German theatres and opera houses, and Erfurt has a particularly fine example, which opened in just 2003.  We were very fortunate that on our first night in the city we caught the final performance of a studio production of Cavalli’s opera La Calisto.  Opera lovers of our generation will have happy memories of a famous 1970s Glyndebourne/Peter Hall production of this delightful opera, starring Janet Baker, no less. But that Raymond Leppard arrangement was on the grandest and most sumptuous scale.  Erfurt’s production was no doubt closer to the 17thcentury original: eight singers, and an instrumental ensemble of just 14. But this was no dry effort at authenticity: alongside the violins, viols, harpsichord, and cornetto that Cavalli might have expected were a batch of modern wind and brass instruments, creating a wonderfully rich sonority at key points.  And the production wittily merged Greek and Thuringian themes: for example, the satyr whose antics spark the plot was one half goat-leg and horns, one half dirty lederhosen, while Pan had combined his Mediterranean attributes with those of the thoroughly German folk figure of Rübezahl. It was a truly wonderful production and performance, well nigh flawless, and a tribute to the standards that even the second rank of German opera companies can achieve. ‘Historically informed’? Certainly. ‘Authentic’? To the spirit of the original, I have no doubt.


Our first excursion from Erfurt was just 15 minutes on the train, to Weimar. This truly is the cultural centre of Germany.  Bach first made his name here, Goethe, Schiller and Herder all worked together here, and later Liszt made it his base of operations for many years.  And of course this small provincial town was where the first attempt at a German Republic was proclaimed in 1919, and where, in the same year, the Bauhaus was founded.  That’s a lot of history to bear for a town that, even today, has fewer than 70,000 inhabitants.

Goethe’s House, Weimar

On our previous trip, a few years ago, we had visited Goethe’s house: an eerie experience, as there are no labels or captions, and no electric light, and the excellent audio guide persuades you that a member of Goethe’s family might turn the corner at any moment. This time we visited the corresponding Schiller house, and had a very similar enthralling, and enlightening, experience, even though a much greater proportion of the contents were not linked to Schiller’s family, but only generally to his time.  One gets the sense that the importance, in Germany, of these two great writers lies almost as much in their lives as in their works, as exemplars of fulfilment through bildung. I was reminded strongly of the conventions of hagiography, as if Goethe and Schiller were being given the status of secular saints, a process which always carries the danger of smoothing out the wrinkles of their lives as lived, and making them seem, ultimately, something more—or less—than human.

This cross-over from sacred to secular was evident throughout Thuringia in the treatment of Luther, especially as we were encountering a great deal of the hangover from the 2017 quincentenary of his 95 theses. Such anniversaries—and not just in Germany—show just how much we are still in thrall to the ‘Great Man’ theory of history popularised by Carlyle (think of the recent success of Darkest Hour!).  There is no more extreme example of this than the Walhalla hall of fame created by Ludwig I of Bavaria, which we had viewed from the Danube on our visit to Regensburg some years ago. It contains 191 busts commemorating ‘politicians, sovereigns, scientists and artists of the German tongue’, only 12 of them women. In the wake of the defeat of Napoleon, the creation of the Walhalla was seen as a crucial demonstration of a shared German heritage, and an important step towards German national unity. On our next excursion we were about to encounter another such demonstration, on a similarly grand scale, but that’s for the next part of this blog.

The Joys of Serendipity (Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity, Part 2)

In the Kapuzinergruft

Although I’m obsessive about planning flights, trains, and hotels, once we’ve arrived, as far as possible, we allow serendipity to rule our holidays.  Unexpected discoveries are always the best.  So it was with our arrival in Vienna this month.  Just before our flight took off, I scanned Google Maps to see what sites might be worth visiting within walking distance of our hotel, and that’s how I found the Hofmobiliendepot or, in English, the Imperial Furniture Collection. As Judith is a retired furniture restorer, this was a no-brainer. But I wasn’t expecting one of the most enthralling, and ultimately moving, museums we’ve ever visited.

Surprise number one was the fact that, of the numerous Habsburg palaces across the middle of Europe, only the Hofburg in Vienna was permanently furnished.  All the rest were equipped as and when needed from the furnishings kept in the Hofmobiliendepot.Visits by the Emperor and members of his family and court would be preceded by convoys of up to 100 carts, carrying everything from wardrobes to candelabra, from beds to mirrors.

So, the first part of this fascinating museum told this story, and gave a vivid impression of what the store must have been like in its heyday (and if the prospect of twenty different designs of spittoon case doesn’t intrigue you, perhaps this part of the collection isn’t for you!). But it then moved quickly into a different gear, with a series of displays of items related directly to the lives and surroundings of individual Habsburgs.

The story of Franz Joseph 1, longest-reigning Habsburg Emperor, and third-longest reigning monarch in European history, is one of a succession of hammer-blow tragedies.  His brother Maximillian embarked on an abortive project as Emperor of Mexico and was executed by Republicans.  His son Rudolf committed suicide in the scandal known as ‘Mayerling’.  His beloved Empress Elizabeth, known to all as Sisi, was stabbed to death by an anarchist. The shooting of his nephew, and heir presumptive, Franz Ferdinand, triggered the First World War, and the dissolution of the Empire that Franz Joseph had spent his long life trying to preserve.  It’s impossible to stand before the objects and furnishings that these people used on a daily basis, and not be moved by the associations.

For Austrians, of course, those associations are very much more powerful, but not for purely historical reasons.  There can hardly be a single Austrian alive today who has not been exposed to the trilogy of ‘Sissi’ films made in the 1950s, and an annual Christmas feature on Austrian television to this day.  Romy Schneider, herself a deeply tragic figure, launched her career playing the Empress ‘Sissi’ (note the extra ‘s’, a nod to those typical movie disclaimers that ‘any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental’), and most commentators date the cult of the real-life ‘Sisi’ (with one ‘s’) to the advent of those films.

This is directly relevant to the Hofmobiliendepot.  The film-makers couldn’t always get access to palaces like Schönbrunn, which otherwise had to be recreated in the studio, but they could borrow furniture and props from the Hofmobiliendepot, and clever displays in the museum show the actual pieces alongside clips from the films in which they were used to create a sense of ‘authenticity’. So when Austrian visitors now view these objects in the Museum, are they being moved more by the associations with their original users, or by the memories of their appearances in the films that they’ve known since their childhoods?

The Hofmobiliendepot is not averse to tugging the heartstrings directly. There is an extraordinary shrine to Maximillian, built around the coffin in which his body was brought back to Vienna from Mexico, which is guarded by the elaborate helmets and swords of his Imperial Guard, and accompanied by his own stylish white sombrero—just what he is shown wearing in the reproduction of the famous Manet painting of the execution displayed behind the coffin. And here my own reactions are equally complicated: Maximillian is a leading character, played with great conviction by George Macready, in one of my own favourite films, Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz.

The serendipity effect continued on our second day in Vienna. Enjoying our favourite holiday roles as flaneurs (not entirely aimless wandering of city streets), we found ourselves close to the Kapuzinergruft, the Capuchin Crypt, in which most of the Habsburgs were buried from 1632 onwards.  Actually, ‘buried’ is not quite the term, as the various monarchs and their relatives are entombed in individual sarcophagi, some unbelievably elaborate (the lid alone of that of Maria Theresa and her husband weighs 1700 kilos), others austerely plain (starting with that of Maria Theresa’s son Joseph II, he of the famous ‘Too many notes, Herr Mozart’ quote).

On previous trips to Vienna I had shied away from this ‘visitor attraction’, expecting it to be rather kitsch and touristy (like all those bewigged touts trying to sell concert tickets at every major tourist site).  I could not have been more wrong. The Kapuzinergruft is resolutely low key, under-stated, and defiantly anti-tourist. Without a decent knowledge of Habsburg history, or a good guide, the visitor will get little more than a mild frisson from these serried ranks of tombs: 107 separate sarcophagi including 12 emperors and 18 empresses.

The climax is the second-to-last room dedicated solely to Franz Joseph, his murdered wife, and his suicidal son. We found this space, and its simple austerity, almost unbearably moving: the weight of history, so to speak, was pressing on us.  And on many other visitors, it seemed, as there was a plethora of small and touching tributes at the feet of the coffins, from flowers to children’s drawings. I’ve never been to Queen Victoria’s tomb at Frogmore, but I don’t imagine it receives similar spontaneous tributes.

But what, exactly, are these tributes to? To the memory of one of the last Imperial dynasties of Europe, and an empire that, by its end, had become impossibly sclerotic (read Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March!), or to the characters made familiar by those endlessly repeated ‘Sissi’ films?

And I couldn’t avoid one sneaking, and impertinent, suspicion: could we really take it on trust that the actual bodies were resting in these imposing sarcophagi?  After all, forensic investigations had just disproved the long-held belief that The Old Fox, Lord Lovat, was buried in the crypt of the mausoleum in the village where we live!  I was reminded of the wonderful sculptures of Harris-based artist Steve Dilworth.  He makes beautifully fashioned objects that purport to contain eggs, bird skeletons, even Hebridean air! When asked for proof that one of his sculptures did in fact contain a bird, he replied ‘Destroy it, and see!’. With Dilworth’s sculptures, as with the Kapuzinergruft our reactions have to be rooted in a trust in others, not in any objective proof—and of course, in our own willingness to believe.


Authentic Myths and the Myth of Authenticity: Part 1

Erfurt from the tower of St Aegidius

One of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan is the Ise Grand Shrine, in the Mie prefecture, near Kyoto. It was built in 2013.

This apparent paradox is due to the tradition that the shrine is completely rebuilt every 20 years, using exactly the same techniques and materials with which it was first constructed. The current manifestation is the 62ndsuch building on the site. Equally paradoxically, this practice both symbolises Shinto belief in the impermanence of all things, and yet also seeks to ensure the continuation of age-old crafts and construction techniques.

I had been reading about this, and many other similar examples in South East Asia, just before we started on an ambitious 17 day tour across eight cities and towns in Austria and Germany, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the idea of ‘authenticity’ was very much on my mind as we plunged into the heady worlds of the Hapsburgs, of Luther, of Goethe and Schiller, and of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and the GDR.

I’ve always liked the paradox known as my grandfather’s axe: my father replaced the handle, and I replaced the head, but this is still my grandfather’s axe. Looking it up, I was surprised to find that the concept has a history that goes all the way back to Plutarch, who told it of Theseus’s ship, preserved by the Athenians, yet with every element gradually replaced over time: was it, or was it not, still the ship in which Theseus had sailed from Crete?

After the Second World War, the shattered cities of Europe and Asia faced a crucial set of decisions: rebuild, reconstruct, or build anew?  In Britain, almost overwhelmingly, the decision was to build anew—to replace bombed out city centres with modernist developments; Exeter is one of the most extreme examples. In many towns and cities, indeed, the planners went far beyond the Luftwaffe in removing old buildings and replacing them with a new architectural language.  Ironically, this approach was almost certainly hugely influenced by the pre-war influx to the UK of a host of European modernist architects, fleeing Fascism. It’s not the purpose of this blog to explore how far such decisions have contributed, two generations on, to the pervasive decline of the British town centre.

In much of the rest of Europe, however, and especially in those countries which formed the Soviet bloc, the decision was to rebuild. From Warsaw to Nuremberg, from Dresden to Munich, immense effort went into recreating the pre-war cityscape, using photographs, drawings, paintings, plans and, where at all possible, actual fragments of the destroyed originals.

In different contexts, approaches also differed.  In Munich, patterns of brickwork in the exterior walls of the Alte Pinakothek Gallery show what survived and what had to be rebuilt. In Erfurt’s Predigerkirche thousands of tiny fragments of medieval stained glass were brought together from bombed churches across the city and refashioned into a set of dazzlingly beautiful abstract choir windows. In Warsaw, as Dan Cruikshank fascinatingly revealed in a documentary a couple of years back, the post-war reconstruction work is now itself sufficiently old as to demonstrate a passage of time that could as well be two hundred and fifty years, as fifty.

But what of those towns which had largely escaped the ravages of Allied bombers, or the steam-roller of the Red Army? When I visited Cracow in 1994, just five years after the fall of Communism, it was like stepping back in time to what much of Europe must have looked like before the Second War. But these surviving old buildings are like Theseus’s ship: they cannot survive without ongoing repair and replacement. And so, in cities like Bamberg and Regensburg, which we visited a few years ago, and Erfurt and Naumburg which we saw on this trip, there have been huge programmes of renovation and restoration, often funded by the EU.  The result is disconcerting.  These historical survivals, gleaming with paint and gilding, now look as good as new. In fact, they look newer than those wholly reconstructed buildings which were erected 50 or 60 years ago. If, In Cracow, I felt I was going back to the 1930s, the aim in these restorations is to go back to the 1630s, or even earlier.

To a Brit, this approach is troubling.  We like our old buildings to look old.  The more worn the timbers, the more lopsided the structure, the more faded the plasterwork, the better. Faithful restorations, such as of the Great Hall at Stirling Castle, may strike us as garish, perhaps even a bit kitsch.  And yet, over time, we have whole-heartedly adopted the approach of our European neighbours.  Now, if a Hampton Court or an Uppark is damaged or destroyed by fire, the original will be meticulously recreated.

It can seem, therefore, as if this is now a universal norm.  If we can ‘preserve’ Theseus’s ship by gradually replacing all its elements, we’ll do so.  But if, through some terrible accident, the ship is destroyed, we will faithfully recreate it.  But this approach is in fact far from universal. China, for example, has a completely different philosophy.  For a culture that celebrates 3500 years of continuous history, China has remarkably few historic buildings, apart, of course, from the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace. This is because, for many centuries, ‘heritage’, in China has been represented through texts, through continuity of practices (the infamous Civil Service exam system), and through personal expressions such as calligraphy, painting and ceramics. As one historian put it, ‘the Chinese civilisation did not lodge its history in buildings…the only truly enduring embodiments of the eternal human moments are the literary ones’.

Ideas of architectural ‘authenticity’, therefore, unavoidably shaped our reactions to the different cities and towns, familiar and unfamiliar, which we visited on our tour. But much wider and more diverse themes of myth and authenticity also seemed to present themselves wherever we looked, right from our very first day in Vienna, and that’s what I’ll turn to in the next part of this blog.