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.
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.
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;
Here finds fulfilment;
Here the ineffable
Wins life through love;
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Are you a Wittertainee? I mean, of course, do you listen to Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast from BBC 5 Live? I’ve been a devotee of the Church of Wittertainment (as their fans are known) for many years (hello to Jason Isaacs, by the way), long enough to remember way back when they first launched the renowned Wittertainment Code of Conduct for cinemas.
This started out as Mark Kermode’s and Simon Mayo’s not very serious response to the many emails from listeners about the increasing prevalence of bad behaviour in cinemas, but it quickly became something really quite significant. Our Screen Machine mobile cinema has a copy posted by the entrance, and a few years ago I was delighted to find a copy in a similarly prominent position in one of Berlin’s top cinemas. The Code starts obviously enough with prohibitions on talking during the film, or using your mobile phone, eating noisy food, or kicking the seat in front. But some items get a bit more esoteric, including: ‘No shoe removal: You are not in your own front room. Nor are you in Japan (unless you are, in which case, carry on).‘
That crack about Japan came back to me during our recent, and first, holiday in Lisbon, where we experienced not one, but two disconcerting examples of audience behaviour, and were left wondering whether each was considered in any way normal in Portugal, and , whether, therefore, we would have been wrong to make a fuss. In one case we did, in the other we didn’t. Was either decision correct? What is the etiquette when forming part of a foreign audience? When in Japan, should you take your shoes off (regardless of any resulting pungent odour)?
This all started a couple of months ago when, having booked our flights and hotel for Lisbon, I did what I always do on these occasions and searched for what concerts might be available while we were there. To my great excitement I found that the most exciting young pianist of the moment, Igor Levit, was going to make his Portuguese debut during our stay. Not only that, but he was going to be playing two of the works from his latest recording which had just won The Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year Award. And to put the icing on the cake, the concert was in the Fundação Gulbenkian, just a short walk from our hotel.
As you can imagine, by the time we actually got to the concert hall, my anticipation was intense. The Gulbenkian concert hall is a lovely wood panelled space, seating, I guess, about 1200, and it was almost full, which was impressive for the demandingly intellectual programme on offer. We settled down to enjoy the immense hour-long journey that is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and quickly appreciated that the hall’s acoustic was perfect for a solo piano. Unfortunately, it was also perfect for making clearly audible something much less uplifting: the utter barrage of coughing that broke out as soon as Levit’s fingers touched the keys, and which then persisted throughout the whole work. It was rare to get more than ten seconds of cough-free music. And it wasn’t just a few very sick individuals. Coughs resounded from every part of the auditorium. Several would go off at once. It was like trying to listen to a concert in the middle of a zoo, or the Gunfight at OK Corral (except that only lasted a few seconds…).
We really felt for Igor Levit. How he maintained his concentration, playing this Everest of the piano repertoire from memory, was a marvel to behold. As we discussed at the interval, if nothing else such behaviour (no one ever seemed to try to stifle their cough) seemed incredibly insulting to such a great artist. Yet at the interval the audience had given him a standing ovation! Perhaps that was just all the non-coughers acknowledging the scale of his achievement….
After the interval things did get better, partly because Frederick Rzewski’s equally monumental ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ is a more torrential, acoustically overwhelming work than the Beethoven, and partly because some of the worst coughers seemed to have chosen to leave at the interval rather than expose themselves to a late 20th century masterpiece. But it was still much noisier than the average Moscow winter audience on old Soviet Radio relays from the 60s. I had thought of saying something to a member of staff at the interval, but in the end got cold feet—we were outsiders, after all. Perhaps this was normal, in Lisbon, in December.
Two evenings later we were at a free recital in the ornate Palàcio Foz in the centre of Lisbon, performed by the Trio Cremeloque, and taking a fascinatingly different approach to familiar Piano Trios of Beethoven and Haydn, with the usual violin and cello replaced by an oboe and bassoon. It was one of a regular series of free concerts, and the hall was packed. And even as the musicians started playing, several in the audience (all Portuguese) were busily photographing them on their phones. The middle aged man next to Judith even starting videoing the concert. This was too much. Judith gave him a sharp slap on the arm and he desisted—at least until the encore when the camera was out again, his raised arm blocking the view of those around him. Yet in between he had seemed intensely focused on the music. Once again the very fine musicians were given a standing ovation—which raised another unanswered question—are standing ovations the norm in Lisbon, rather than the very rare exception that they are in douce Edinburgh?
Lisboans, we found, are immensely welcoming, courteous and helpful people, and it was a delight to spend time among them. Indeed it is their very reticence and laid back character—certainly when compared with their counterparts in Madrid!—that made these two experiences seem, by contrast, so very odd. But maybe they would find the reverential behaviour of the average British classical music audience oddly cold and uninvolved. A mystery to solve—as if we needed an excuse to return to the delights of Lisbon!
Mind you, sometimes you can really get it wrong. Many years ago we went to a choral concert in Italy. We arrived, we thought, well before the advertised start time, only to find the Choir already on stage, singing away lustily. But the Italian audience was behaving atrociously: chatting loudly, moving about, even eating in some cases. We were stunned. Surely even Italians, we thought, couldn’t be this badly behaved as an audience. But then, after ten minutes or so, the choir all filed off stage. It turned out they were just doing their warm up. A few minutes later they returned in more formal manner, and their performance was then listened to in complete and attentive silence. And no one, as far as I could tell, took their shoes off.
© Robert Livingston December 2016
Last Monday I went to the Royal Opera House. I didn’t dress up, and I had one of the best seats in the house for the princely sum of £12.50. And I didn’t even have to leave Edinburgh. I was, of course, at a screening of ‘event cinema’, in this case, a new production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’.
The venue was the Odeon in Lothian Road. One of the interesting aspects of the continuing growth of ‘event cinema’—live or ‘encore’ relays of music, dance, drama and the visual arts—is that it’s in no way confined to arthouse cinemas and arts venues; the multiplexes have come on board in a big way. ‘Norma’ was already sold out at the Cameo Cinema, just a couple of hundred yards from the Odeon, and a pioneer in event cinema programming. So it’s not surprising that there were about 50 of us in the auditorium at the Odeon, which I would have thought would have been a good audience for any screening there on a Monday evening. But ‘Norma’ was also showing across town at the Vue Omni and, for all I know, at some or all of the edge-of-town multiplexes as well.
The staff at the Odeon are clearly keen to build an audience for these screenings. We were handed a programme by an usher as our tickets were checked, and told ‘you’re in for a dramatic evening!’ (which was true), and another member of staff, armed with a microphone, gave us a warm welcome before the relay started, and encouraged us to come back for future screenings. At the interval a trolley was rolled out with, alongside the usual ice creams, mini-bottles of Prosecco. Bless.
I’m always surprised to find that there are both cinema-goers and arts aficionados who not only have never been to an ‘event cinema’ screening, but are not even sure what it’s like. I still get asked, for example, if it’s just a single, static camera. So, for any readers who’re in that category, let me sum up my experience.
First, the seats are extremely comfortable and the sightlines are excellent. The HD projection is crystal clear and the sound is remarkably full and convincing. The subtitles are easily readable but small enough to be ignored. The introductions and the interval chats range from the cringingly gushing to the genuinely informative, especially when conductor Antonio Pappano is talking about the music.
The key aspect, of course, is the camerawork. Relays like this can use between 6 and 8 different cameras, and the director is usually working from a carefully crafted shooting script based on close prior observation, and where possible full camera rehearsals. The occasionally fluffed camera movement reminds you that this is still, to some extent, being caught ‘on the wing’, but most of the time the camerawork is fluent and unobtrusive. But it does two crucial things. It inevitably offers us an interpretation of the performance because it is the director’s choice as to what we see at any given moment; our eyes are not free to roam across the full stage picture. For some, that is the medium’s chief drawback. But it also means that our attention is drawn to details, actions, expressions that would be easily missed by—or perhaps even not fully visible to—those in the audience at the actual performance.
What this really means is that a cinema relay of a performance is not a replacement of that performance, it is something sui generis. I was thrilled and excited by ‘Norma’. The singing was magnificent, the staging was intriguing, and the filming drew me into the heart of the action and of the passionate, life or death emotions. I genuinely believe that I could not have enjoyed the experience more had I been sitting in the Royal Opera House itself. I might have enjoyed it as much, but for different reasons. I would have been stimulated by the atmosphere (though perhaps put off by the sense that some, at least, in the audience were there more for social than musical reasons), and I would have felt a special auditory thrill in response to such superb singing, but I might have had a restricted view, a neighbour with irritating habits, and a slight feeling of discomfort from being dressed up for the occasion. As several writers have already noted, ‘event cinema’ is becoming an artform of its own. I’ve elsewhere compared it to the early days of television, when viewers had to become used to the idea that this was neither a film in a box nor radio with pictures, but something else.
In the case of ‘Norma’, there is one additional intriguing aspect. Almost uniformly the London critics disliked the production, and indeed it was apparently booed on the opening night. Now, it’s certainly not a conventional production: the Catalan director Alex Ollé has replaced the Druidism of the original with a fanatical modern sect that is very like, but not identical to, aspects of the Catholic Church. The ‘sacred grove’ of the original is made up of a forest of hundreds of crucifixes. The High Priestess Norma is dressed like a modern day bishop—something that will be more shocking in the director’s home country than in Anglican circles! The critics seem to have found this shift confusing, wrong-headed or excessive.
Now, for me and for the friends I was with, in the cinema in Edinburgh, the production was almost completely comprehensible and persuasive, and was much more dramatically pointed than would have been a faithful evocation of the world of 1st century AD Gaul. Was this because we had had the advantage of hearing the stage director explain his approach, and of seeing how the camera director presented that vision to us? In that respect, were we actually better off than the audience in the Royal Opera House?
Event Cinema is not going to go away: rather, it’s going to continue to grow. At many venues the entire New York Met season of relays sells out within days of being announced. For many smaller venues, especially outside the cities, it has become both a financial lifeline and a valuable way of expanding the cultural offering to their communities. The big national companies that so far dominate the scene say that they’ve seen no drop off in attendances at their live performances as a result, rather the reverse. Cinemas say that they’re attracting a new audience, one that doesn’t come to the normal film programme, and that was certainly the case in the Odeon last Monday. Yet it’s not without its critics. Those who are keen to promote films outside the Multiplex mainstream understandably feel threatened by event cinema. After all, if your programming choice is between an obscure foreign language film, and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’, which is going to make you more money and, more important, which is going to please a larger audience?
And there is (pardon the pun) a very large elephant in the room. At present there is absolutely no Scottish content being offered through ‘event cinema’ routes. Across Scotland, many audiences are becoming more familiar with the work of the New York Met, or the National Theatre in London, than with the work of the Scottish companies they pay for through their taxes. The scenario is perhaps a bit like the early days of the Edinburgh Festival, which was criticised for bringing in foreign companies and artforms at the expense of homegrown Scottish culture, because at that time there was no equivalent showcase for that culture, at least until Hamish Henderson and others laid the foundations for what became the Fringe. Maybe we need a similar initiative now, so that audiences in, say, Thurso, can have the choice between the Royal Opera, and Scottish Opera.
© Robert Livingston September 2016
What are we listening to when we listen to music? That may seem tautological, but bear with me. The question was prompted by listening (courtesy of Spotify) to a remarkable recording of the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven, performed by the South African-born, London-based pianist, Daniel-Ben Pienaar, hitherto unknown to me.
Though I’d grown up with the named sonatas like the Moonlight, which my mother used to play, I only got to know all 32 Beethoven sonatas—the so called ‘New Testament’ of the piano—back in 1990, when our friend Gustav Fenyo performed complete cycles in a series of concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Gustav has always seemed to me an under-appreciated musician, and his playing, especially of those sonatas I’d not previously encountered, was a revelation. Across those 32 incredible works he revealed an imagination and an energy at work that has few parallels in any art form in history.
More recently I’ve been enjoying Paul Lewis’s complete recording, for its clarity, its sense of structure, and its intense musicality, but I only had to listen to one of Pienaar’s performances to know that this was music making in a different league.
A great deal of ink has been spilt, in the world of classical music, on the subject of interpretation. There are those who favour the approach of, to take an extreme example, a Glenn Gould, who so impresses his own vision on a score that it effectively becomes ‘Gould’s Beethoven’, or Bach, or whoever. At the other extreme is a pianist like Alfred Brendel, famed for his fidelity to the score, and the modesty of his own personality, musically speaking that is. Daniel-Ben Pienaar fits neither of these stereotypes. There is nothing remotely objective about his playing, but nor is it wilfully idiosyncratic. For me, it’s like cleaning an Old Master—as if he’s stripped away layers of accretion to reveal what Beethoven originally intended. A dangerous claim, of course, and perhaps a foolish one.
So I began to think about why his performances were affecting me so strongly. It was Goethe who apparently first called architecture ‘frozen music’, but, according to some sources online, the full quote should be ‘music is liquid architecture, and architecture is frozen music’. The first part of that statement is what I want to focus on. As we listen to music we experience it as flow, as duration in time. But, in something like a Beethoven sonata, we also—if we already know it—hold in our heads our awareness of its overall structure—its architecture—or else, we come to understand that structure retrospectively.
The best performers, and, I would argue, the best listeners, need to hold this contradiction in balance, to understand and experience the music as simultaneously flow and architecture. This is what I think Pienaar does consummately. Listening to the variation movement at the end of Op 109, one of the ‘late’ sonatas, it seemed to me that Pienaar was unfolding the music as a fine jazz pianist develops an improvisation—like Keith Jarrett’s famous ‘Köln Concert’—and, like Jarrett, even as he gave the impression of spontaneously discovering the music’s direction, so he was all the time holding in his head that crucial sense of its destination. Beethoven, after all, was famed in his lifetime above all for his improvisations at the keyboard.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to Western classical music, it’s equally true of jazz like Keith Jarrett’s, or of non-western traditions like Indian ragas. And this is where, finally, we come to Erwin Schrödinger and his infamous thought experiment, involving putting a cat in jeopardy. Schrödinger was attempting to illustrate the paradox that an electron can be simultaneously thought of as both a wave and a particle, and so you can never be certain, at the same time, of both its location and its velocity. He envisaged putting a cat in a box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter records an emitted particle, it smashes the bottle and the cat dies. As quantum theory claims that we only ‘collapse’ a particle into a specific state by observing it, we’re faced with the paradox that we only know if the cat is alive or dead by opening the box and that, until that point, it could be said to be both alive and dead.
So, a truly gifted musician will resolve that paradox. He or she will be able to present the music—from a composer’s score, or as they improvise it–as both flow and architecture, or, to pursue the metaphor, as both wave and particle. When that resolution is achieved we, the listeners, may have an extraordinarily heightened experience; as when, even on a recording, the last movement of Op 109 can reduce me to tears. This is why, of course, it’s so important for those presenting new and/or unfamiliar music to tell audiences how long it’s going to last. How we respond to music we don’t know will be entirely different according to whether we expect it to last five or fifty minutes. Imagine being sat down to a Bruckner symphony without knowing what was coming.
I think this also applies to other artforms. A couple of weeks ago I saw the latest double bill from the wonderful Scottish Dance Theatre. I was very glad indeed that the programme gave the durations for both works. The incidental gestures, interactions, and set pieces all fell beautifully into place as I anticipated them moving towards each work’s conclusion. Flow and architecture. This is perhaps the main reason why I find e-readers so unsatisfactory. There’s something very pleasurable about glancing at a book and seeing from the location of the bookmark how far you’ve gone, and how much pleasure—or effort—still awaits you. A digital notification that you’re on ‘page 92 of 483’ just doesn’t do it for me, not least because they’re not real pages!
On the other hand, too great a familiarity with duration and structure can be a drawback. If the average TV cop drama is always an hour long (give or take adverts) then you always know when the villain is about to be unmasked. You may experience the pleasure of anticipation, but not the greater stimulus of complete surprise.
So, to come back to where I started: what I think I’m listening to, when I listen to Pienaar’s Beethoven, is an extraordinarily sensitive response to that crucial need to hold flow and architecture in balance. Or, to use a quote attributed to another great German thinker, Gottfried Leibnitz: ‘Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting’.
© Robert Livingston, March 2015