Do you like Westerns? Back in the 60s, when I was a kid, you didn’t have much choice in the matter. The schedules of the only two TV channels were dominated by long running Western series, from ‘Davy Crockett’ and ‘Wyatt Earp’ for children, to the more mature ‘dramas’ of ‘Wagon Train’ or ‘Bonanza’. Westerns then were even more ubiquitous than US cops shows today, and at least as pervasive of UK culture—especially if you were a boy under 10.
Of course, in the movies, the Western genre has led to many great peaks, and the first film I was allowed up to watch all the way through, on our black and white TV, was John Ford’s masterpiece ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’. It was a formative influence, though I was an adult before I realised the original film was in colour. And Ford’s achievement was matched by directors like Howard Hawks (‘Red River’, ‘Rio Bravo’) and Anthony Mann (the series of 50s Westerns with James Stewart, such as ‘The Man from Laramie’ and ‘The Far Country’).
But those pinnacles were atop a mountain of other Western movies, stretching all the way back to ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903. And a lot of those Westerns were ‘B’ movies. We all know what a ‘B’ Western looks like, don’t we? The good guys wear white hats and the villains black. There’s a saloon with a honky tonk piano and a good time girl with a heart of gold. There’s a dipsomaniac doctor who patches up the gunshot wounds (usually, conveniently, in the shoulder). Oh, and ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’. And the whole thing would have been filmed on the studio lot or, at best, in the nearby Hollywood hills. Well, if you think that, then you saw too many episodes of ‘Gusmoke’ as a nipper. The truth is both richer and stranger.
In recent weeks I’ve been exploring the more distant reaches of the Freeview schedules, and have come across a range of little known Westerns, none of which I have any memory of seeing before (not even on a wet Sunday afternoon), and all of which depart from the usual stereotypes in almost every respect. They range from just after the Second War until the late 60s, when the influence of spaghetti westerns was beginning to be felt in Hollywood.
The first is ‘Canyon Passage’ from 1946, starring Dana Andrews, and directed by the great (and still undervalued) Jacques Tourneur, just after his collaboration with producer Val Lewton on the great run of horror films that included ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’. ‘Canyon Passage’ is immediately unusual in opening in a downpour. This is because it’s set in Oregon, among the mining community, and Andrews plays a very untypical Western hero, a man trying to make his fortune in business, through running mule trains of supplies from the coast up to the miners. It has a detailed sense of realism. Men stick their guns in their trouser belts, rather than in tailor-made holsters. There’s a fantastic sequence of a house-raising that must have influenced both ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, and ‘Witness’. And the characters are complicated and uncliched, with no straightforward heroes, and only one outright villain, whose actions place him beyond the bounds of this emerging ‘civilisation’. It’s as rich as a novel, and the use of the unusual locations, in saturated Technicolor, is outstanding.
Coincidentally, my next example is the last film produced by Tourneur’s collaborator Val Lewton, before his early death. If, with its generous running time and big stars, ‘Canyon Passage’ is perhaps not truly a ‘B’ movie, ‘Apache Drums’ is the real deal. No big names (the lead is Stephen McNally, good enough to deserve being better known), and a taut running time of just 75 minutes. But there’s the same unusual choice of location, this time among a Welsh (!) mining community in New Mexico, so all the buildings are made of a rich orange adobe, which positively glowed in the good print that was screened. The bulk of the film tells how, after an Indian attack, the survivors of the town, and of a cavalry patrol, are besieged overnight in the adobe church by marauding Apaches. It is a genuinely original, chilling and tense half hour of screen time, which must surely have been a big influence on John Carpenter’s seminal ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, not to mention ‘Zulu’. In fact there’s one sequence, which I won’t spoil, that makes the ‘Zulu’ link certain.
‘The Last Frontier’ is from just four years later, 1955, and is one of the astonishing long run of Westerns directed by Anthony Mann that began with ‘Winchester ‘73’ in 1950 and ended with ‘Cimarron’ in 1960, just before he switched to epics and made the greatest of them all, ‘El Cid’. Mann’s Westerns are often called ‘psychological’ because the drama so often turns on flaws and quirks of character, rather than external plot devices. ‘The Last Frontier’, probably the least known of the set, is very much in this vein. Victor Mature gives a career-best performance (yes, really!) as a scout who’s been brought up as a ‘child of nature’, and Robert Preston is the career-driven Army officer who leads his command to destruction. Oregon is again the location, far from most of the normal Western stereotypes, and Mann uses the landscape as imaginatively as his namesake Michael Mann (no relation) would do on ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, a film surely indebted to this older Western
My last movie is a much later example. On the face of it, ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, (1968) starring those two Western stalwarts Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, shouldn’t really be considered a ‘B’, but the director, Jerry Thorpe, mostly worked in TV and will never be called an ‘auteur’. The film shows the influence of Sergio Leone’s then popular movies in being set in Mexico, and the high body count certainly mirrors that of the average spaghetti western. But something odd is going on: Ford, ostracised by the community as a former gunslinger, never actually shoots anyone in the course of the film. Instead the film traces the descent of Kennedy’s character, from ‘man of peace’ to ruthless killer, with pitiless detachment.
For all their differences, and the time range of over 20 years, these films have a surprising amount in common. I’ve already alluded to the unusual settings, and the complexity of the characterisation. But the biggest contradiction to the stereotypes of such films lies in the treatment of Native Americans. In all four films the ‘Indians’ are shown as being brave and resourceful, with a rich culture, a strict honour code, and legitimate (and often very explicit) grievances against the ‘white man’ . Even in ‘Day of the Evil Gun’, where the plot requires them to be both renegade and dangerous, there’s a remarkable sequence where the Apaches are shown carefully collecting their dead after a shoot-out, whereas their white opponents walk off, leaving their dead companions where they fell.
The female characters, too, are often strong, individual, and self-motivated—no mere props for the male heroes. The community in which each film is set, from mining town to cavalry fort, is lovingly realised, with a wealth of ‘bit part’ characters of real individuality. Fight scenes are often surprisingly realistic in their clumsiness, brutality, and ultimate failure to resolve anything. And all four films, short or long, tell their stories with great economy and subtlety, relying heavily on visual narrative, or on dialogue that is spare and distinctive.
If we want to find a present day equivalent to films of such richness and depth, we have to look to TV, to ‘Games of Thrones’ perhaps, or the revisionist Western series ‘Deadwood’. In Hollywood, the studio system that produced these little gems is now locked into blockbusters, sequels and franchises. So my recommendation is, study your Radio Times carefully—with a magnifying glass, if need be—as there are treasures to be found at 9.30 on the morning on 5USA, or 3.00 in the afternoon on FilmFour. And if, as I do, you record them, they make a great distraction while doing the ironing!
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 .
A recent TV interview with Clive James—dying, but still remarkably chipper—prompted me to get down to what I’d been planning to do for some time, and start re-reading his magnum opus, ‘Cultural Amnesia’. At just short of 900 pages, this could be a daunting prospect, but first time round, just after it was published in 2007, I devoured this inspiring, engrossing, infuriating book in just the three weeks of a standard library loan. Indeed, it’s partly because I raced through it so enthusiastically the first time round, that I wanted to go back for a more considered second encounter.
There are many areas of the arts in which length can be a serious drawback, especially in literature: crime novels, thrillers and SF were all much better when the novels were, on average, half the length they are now (see my earlier blog on Michael Gilbert). And that’s not just true of literature: blockbuster movies, ‘event’ exhibitions, prestige TV series, even, some might argue, operas, can all suffer from the inverse ratio that, the longer (or bigger) they are, the less effective their impact (often due to sheer exhaustion). Initiatives like ‘A Play, a Pie and a Pint’ have shown how much time-poor audiences can be attracted by something short and pithy.
But I make an exception for certain kinds of books that focus on history and culture. Here’s a list of some of those I’ve had no trouble in getting to the end of, in the last 10 years or so:
Norman Davies: ‘The Isles’ (1220 pages) and ‘Europe’ (1364 pages)
Orlando Figes: ‘A People’s Tragedy’ (922 pages; the story of the Russian revolution)
Christopher Clark: ‘The Iron Kingdom’ (777 pages; the history of Prussia)
A N Wilson: ‘The Victorians’ (738 pages)
Diarmid MacCulloch: ‘A History of Christianity’ (1216 pages, and one of my favourite books of all time)
Tony Judt: ‘Postwar’ (960 pages, a history of Europe since 1945)
Simon Schama: ‘Landscape and Memory’ (652 pages, and one that definitely repaid a second read)
Peter Watson: ‘The German Genius’ (964 pages)
Kenneth Roy: ‘The Invisible Spirit’ (542 pages; a history of Scotland, 1945-75)
Amanda Foreman: ‘A World on Fire’ (1040 pages, Britain and the American Civil War)
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: ‘Civilisations’ (636 pages)
Sorry, that can’t avoid looking a bit like boasting, but I’ve drawn up the list to make what I think is an important point. What all these books have in common–apart from the fact that they’re well written, of course—is that they are each a truly immersive experience. By the time I had finished each of these books, my mind was in quite a different place, and I would never be able to think in the same way again about, say, the history of the British Isles, Prussian ‘militarism’, or ‘Victorian values’.
Short books can of course also have a similar impact. Richard Holloway’s ‘Godless Morality’ is a slim 164 pages, but I don’t think anyone with an open mind could get to the last page without having that mind altered in significant ways. But that’s a work of ethics and philosophy. When we’re talking about history, or cultural history, there is something about the accumulation of significant details, about being drawn into a complex web of themes, narratives, personalities and events, about living intensely with the subject, for the weeks (or even months) that it takes to navigate through such long books, that is essential to the process of true learning, the kind of learning that changes minds.
Of course, no-one is going to retain all the detail contained in any of these books, not even after a second, third or fourth reading. But what I find is, that the knowledge that that detail exists, that these complex webs of connections have been mapped, that the author’s conclusions—should they choose to come to any—have been arrived at only after years of living with and sifting through this mass of material, is essential to the process of absorption and understanding.
In the age of the sound bite (or byte), of the shared item on Facebook, of 15 minute TED talks, this is not, perhaps, a popular view. But maybe it’s a necessary one. I didn’t know, when I started any of the books listed above, how reading them was going to change my view of their subjects, or of the wider world. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t pick them up with the intention of reinforcing already entrenched views. In many cases, these books surprised me (as a convinced atheist, perhaps most of all ‘A History of Christianity’) and often encouraged me to read further, or to enter into debates less dogmatically. Take Norman Davies ‘The Isles’, for example. His policy of referring to the British Isles, and their constituent nations and regions, only by the names by which they were known during the particular period he is writing about (eg Britannia, Alba, even made-up names for prehistoric eras) is such a forceful demonstration of the contingent nature of history that I’ve never thought the same way about nation states since. As Davies’ other great book, ‘Vanished Kingdoms’, forcefully demonstrates, nation-building has never been a teleological process.
It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who first famously said that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Perhaps if British and UK politicians had had the chance to read William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of a King’ (608 pages) they would have thought twice about once again becoming ensnared in the troubled history of Afghanistan but, sadly, that book was published too late to make that possible. But even if it had been around to influence the policymakers, back in 2001, would any of them have thought to read it? John Major’s favourite bedtime reading is apparently Trollope, and if that includes the devastating critique of society in ‘The Way We Live Now’, then that’s no bad thing, but I don’t see many of our present leaders, or their advisors, as serious readers.
But, just maybe, instead of investing the 80 hours it takes to watch the five seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’, we put a similar time into a bit of serious reading, we might be better placed to challenge the policy-makers in terms they’d find hard to ignore. Which brings us back to Clive James, who pondered the book that became ‘Cultural Amnesia’ over a forty year period, as a defence of Humanism, and a celebration of diversity of thought. If he can spare forty years to write it, perhaps we can spare as many hours to read it.
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
Today is the day I mark, as Dylan Thomas might have put it, my 60th year to heaven, so it seems an appropriate time to resume this much neglected blog. As it happens, the exigencies of schedules mean that Judith and I have already celebrated my unbirthday last weekend, with a trip south that included the essential Pitlochry experience: seeing two different plays on the same day with the same cast.
Now I’m sure that for many people the name ‘Pitlochry Festival Theatre’ conjures up an image of a theatrical world that is self-consciously conservative, safe and bland. In the past, that could at times be true. Ten years ago we saw a production of WS Gilbert’s ‘Engaged’ at Pitlochry which nudged the audience so often that you’d have thought the director was Eric Idle in Python persona. It was as if the production was making a point that this play was creaky and old-fashioned, but wasn’t that fun? Particularly uncomfortable were the crassly caricatured portrayals of Gilbert’s already stereotyped Scottish characters.
On the face of it, our choice of plays last week might have served only to confirm that this historic impression was still valid. What could James Bridie and JM Barrie possibly offer contemporary audiences beyond a certain curiosity value, or a measure of nostalgia for the days of the ‘well-made’ play? That was, in fact, my reason for wanting to see them—how would they sit in the company of such modern equivalents, in the Pitlochry season, as Stephen Greenhorn’s classic ‘Passing Places’ or Liz Lochhead’s ‘Perfect Days’? The result was a very pleasant surprise—we found both plays thoroughly gripping from beginning to end, helped in no small measure by direction, and acting, which played them absolutely straight, with not a hint of a collusive wink to the audience. The humour in them was the humour put there by the writers, not a modern gloss by the director. Certainly, both productions were among the most satisfying theatrical experiences we’ve had in a long time.
In fact, Barrie’s ‘The Admirable Crichton’ has received almost uniform critical praise for both play and production, with several writers noting how it is a necessary corrective to the current culture of ‘Downton Abbey’ rose-tinted sentimentality. I’d only add that it’s nothing like the anodyne Kenneth More film version, and that it’s always good to be reminded of how acid and dark a writer Barrie could be. After all, one of his early novels, ‘Better Dead’, was based on the premise of bumping off prominent figures in society to make room for new blood. But I was surprised that many critics, while praising the production of ‘Mr Bolfry’, wrote the play itself off as outdated and with little to say to a contemporary audience. Really? This is a play, set during a war, which confronts the dualities of faith and reason, doubt and certainty, societal norms and individual freedoms. How can that not be resonant? One only needs to imagine a production in Tehran, Baghdad or Jerusalem to discard any idea of the play being irrelevant. But, even close to home, it seems that those metropolitan critics need to get out more, and discover more of the hold which the Free Church still has in some quarters of the Highlands and Islands, or, much more alarmingly, the current resurgence of extreme evangelism in some rural communities in Wales.
The last time—the only other time—I’d seen a James Bridie play was in 1976, when the Royal Lyceum staged ‘The Anatomist’, based on the Burke and Hare story. Now that was creaky, the whole production being built around Tom Fleming’s star turn as Dr Knox. But this production of ‘Mr Bolfry’ was a different matter altogether: a truly ensemble cast which could readily absorb Dougal Lee’s rip-roaring turn as the devilish Bolfry, an imaginative set, and a production which took great care in getting the period detail right, without swamping the play in nostalgia. A large matinee audience sat with intent concentration throughout, with barely a smothered cough, and not a snore, to be heard. Bridie delights in intellectual argument, but those arguments arise out of his individual characters, who are not simply mouthpieces for Bride himself. And the play comes to no easy conclusion—unlike the plays of some of Bridie’s more polemical modern day counterparts, such as David Hare—but ends, instead, like ‘The Admirable Crichton’, on an uneasily unresolved note, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions.
This is the month of the second ‘Luminate’, set up by Creative Scotland to be Scotland’s ‘creative ageing festival’. I suppose, as I enter my seventh decade, I should be taking an interest in such an event, but the concept of ‘creative ageing’ is as abhorrent to me as SAGA holidays or adverts for stair lifts. In fact, I think there’s a paradox at work here. Even while an initiative like ‘Luminate’ is seeking to promote and showcase the ‘growing evidence of the importance of creative activities to our wellbeing as we age’, there’s widespread concern about ‘ageing’ audiences for the ‘mainstream’ arts. Well, it’s true that, even on the verge of 60, I was in the youngest 5% of the audience for those Pitlochry plays, but the important point is that they were very well attended. A mid-week matinee at the start of October was more than two-thirds full, while the evening performance was almost sold out. And, as I’ve implied, these large audiences were for plays that offered plenty to think and talk about afterwards. But you won’t find Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the ‘Luminate’ programme.
Anyway, I’ve a suspicion that the anxiety about ageing audiences is often misplaced. The following night we were at a sold-out performance in the Usher Hall by the RSNO, and the age range present was pretty well comprehensive, even in the more expensive stalls seats. Up in the Gallery, there were many young people. And this was for no lightweight programme with big name soloists. The orchestra’s own outstanding lead cellist played the Elgar Concerto superbly, and the second half was taken up with Bruckner’s mighty 7th Symphony. The same spread of ages then was evident at a truly exceptional concert the following evening in St Giles, given by the Vox Coelestis choir. Again, no obvious favourites in the highly imaginative programme.
I suppose I worry about fragmentation. About concentrating on the benefits for older people (or children, for that matter) of participating in the arts, when we ought to be shouting about how everyone can benefit from such participation. About implying that some kinds of participation are ‘better’ or more appropriate than others—taking part in a dance class rather than going to Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for example. Though to be fair, the Luminate programme is so broad church that you wonder about the criteria for inclusion. Once we start talking about ‘Arts for older people’, or ‘Arts for young people’, or for those with special needs, or from minority ethnic backgrounds, we both start to erect unnecessary barriers, and we imply a certain benign paternalism, a conferring of benefits ‘de haut en bas’ that makes me feel rather queasy. James Bridie, were he still around, could write a great play about it. After all, his son did go on to head up the Scottish Arts Council!
Last night YouTube made me really angry. I don’t mean that I was offended by being presented with some fratboy inanity, the cavorting of a former child star, or the rantings of a deluded fanatic. No, what got me enraged was a symphony written in 1938.
It’s one of the more surprising facets of YouTube that it has become a repository for recordings of thousands of works by obscure classical composers. And by ‘obscure’ I mean really obscure. I’ve been hunting down lesser known composers since the late 60s—marking programmes in Radio Times (usually at odd hours in the afternoons or late at night), setting up timed recordings and, more recently, sampling some of the rarities offered by Naxos and other adventurous CD labels. Despite that, what I’ve found on YouTube is a host of composers whose very names—never mind their music—were completely unknown to me.
Needless to say most of this music has never made it onto CD, and so can’t be found on sites like Spotify. Dedicated enthusiasts are posting these recordings on YouTube, sourced, presumably, mostly from radio broadcasts around the world, or in some cases from old LPs that were never digitally transferred. Ah, the nostalgic sound of a stylus settling into a vinyl groove, immediately followed by a pervasive hiss and the occasional click…
Most of the music, it has to be said, rarely rises above the pleasantly competent, but every now and then I hear something that really makes me sit up. For fellow enthusiasts of obscurity, let me drop the names of: Vaino Raitia, Nikolai Peiko, Alessandro Solbiati, and Yngve Sköld. Believe me, they’re all worth hearing.
Last night, I had YouTube running in the background while I was doing something else, and I found that my attention was being caught by a really distinctive piece of music: spiky, witty, energetic, with a sharp edge to it that was really engaging. I went over to see what was playing: the Second Symphony by Elsa Barraine. That’s right, Elsa. Unlike the list of men in the previous paragraph, this was a female composer that I’d never heard of.
Thank goodness for Wikipedia, as I doubt if I would have found much on Elsa Barraine in more conventional works of reference. Her story is a remarkable one, and her present day neglect is certainly not due to her having lived a quiet or cloistered life. She was a pupil of Paul Dukas (of Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame), who also taught Messiaen, with whom Barraine became lifelong friends. On either side of the war she worked in radio, and during the war was active in the French Resistance, a particularly brave move as she may have had Jewish ancestry. In 1972 the French Ministry of Culture named her Director of Music, giving her charge of all French national lyric theatres. She died in 1999 at the age of 89.
So why is it that this excellent Second Symphony, written when she was just 28, seems to be the sole composition by her that is in any way accessible? (There is also a YouTube recording of a short organ prelude, but it’s an amateur film and the sound is poor). Even then, given the apparent audience noise, this seems to be a radio transfer, not a commercial recording. Given the quality of the work—one comment on the site rightly compares it to Martinu or Roussel—it surely deserves to be better known. And while it’s true that there are such things as ‘one work’ composers (think of Reznicek’s five minutes of delight, Donna Diana, long time favourite of BBC’s ‘These you have loved’, and then try his tediously pompous symphonies!) I don’t somehow think Barraine falls into that category. Nor is her style old-fashioned—the language of this symphony is directly comparable with pieces being written in the 30s by Honegger, Milhaud or Prokofiev.
So that’s why I’m angry: the only reason, it would seem, for the neglect of Elsa Barraine is her gender. That seems particularly odd for a French female composer, because France has a longer and more illustrious list of women composers than almost any other country, from Louise Farrenc in the mid 19th century through Germaine Tailleferre and Cecile Chaminade to the great Boulanger sisters. But that list seems to end with the Second World War, and I can think of no post-war French female composer to stand alongside those from Britain, Finland, the US, and Russia. Perhaps by living so long, Barraine ended up eclipsed by her male contemporaries such as Messiaen and Dutilleux, even if she was an almost exact contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex!
So thank goodness for YouTube and Wikipedia, which have introduced me to this remarkable woman. Here’s hoping those dedicated hunters after musical truffles will unearth some more examples of her work!
© Robert Livingston
Ps French music fans will recognise that the title comes from Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande