I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Modern and eloquent

Edmund Wilson, now dead, was at one time America's best-known literary critic. He ended up fat, bald-headed, bad-tempered and given to suicidal raids on the refrigerator. Nevertheless he wrote one of the greatest appreciations of Joyce's Ulysses in the simplest of English (and, boy, how that helps).

But for once this isn't a Ulysses rant. Soon after the end of WW2 Wilson, on a visit to London, describes in his diary (a huge entertainment in its own right) his own bad temper and his dislike of poncy, inadequate, broken-down England. He speaks gloomily and apprehensively about a new opera he is about to see. And then, because honesty was always his bag, he describes his surprise and delight in what he experienced. That opera was Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes.

As always, the usual caveat. This is not a recommendation, I don't do those. Just a few observations following our first encounter - shockingly late in the day - with the work last night.

PG is a modern opera, still. At their best modern operas are able to treat subtler, more realistic themes than the classics; the price you pay is modern music. PG concerns itself with the outsider versus society: a fisherman whose erratic behaviour (and worse) puts him at odds with the people in the port where he lives. VR admitted she was almost as apprehensive as old Wilson. Both of us watched in complete silence and afterwards she said: "Parts of that were beautiful." Quite true because of (not despite) the screechy violins.

No point in saying more. Other than that the major soprano role is called Ellen Orford. God, how I envy Britten that name.


  1. Only once did I attend a modern music event. Pianist playing his own works.
    Cacaphony to my ears. Not even the drinks and delicious looking canapes served afterwords managed to stop me from rushing away.
    Don't know if I will have an occasion to give modern 'classical' sounds another try.

  2. My appreciation of Britten began with The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra when I was myself a little more than a child. Slowly, very slowly it has grown until to day I find myself envying your Peter Grimes production. I used at one time in my life to visit the Suffolk coast and Aldburgh, Peter Grimes and Britten country. You catch the Siberian wind somehow in the music, and North Sea salt. Not that I can claim to know the opera well. Orford is of course just down the coast from Aldburgh. Eric Blair took the pen name Orwell (to which he added George) from the river of that name.

  3. Ellena: The interesting thing is not that you didn't like the music but that you went to hear it in the first place - especially if you went suspecting you wouldn't like it.

    One problem about modern music is that some of us feel we are obliged to like it; that liking it is proof we have open minds, that we are intellectually alert, that music's appeal didn't end in 1899.

    And there's another problem: wanting to like such music because others - better educated in music - have found something in it. Why not us? we ask ourselves.

    The fact is there's a certain amount of agonising and a good deal of phoniness about all this. But if you look a little a deeper there are traces of agonising and phoniness in our attitudes to all types of music. We say we like a piece - say Beethoven's Eroica - but there are times when we ask ourselves why? And cannot provide an answer. We say we like the Eroica but cannot distinguish - from memory - between the different movements. Secretly we may feel ashamed about this - we feel we're betraying something that deserves our best efforts.

    So we say to ourselves, with bravado: I'm just going to like (or dislike) certain pieces of music and not ask myself any questions, just gulp it down, treat it as a wolf might treat a dead rabbit. But alas we are not wolves. we think. And we can't (shouldn't really want to) stop ourselves thinking.

    By now you may be thinking (See what I mean?) I'm trying to edge you into liking Peter Grimes or other difficult stuff. But I'm not. I could say you are better off without such things. You probably are. But there are rather horrible implications here. It could be another way of saying that your tastes are never going develop. Perhaps they won't but it's not for some (Rude!) person on the other side of the world to say that. Who knows what's going to happen to your mind a second from now?

    For what it's worth my ability to be moved by Peter Grimes dates back fifty years - to Beethoven, in fact. I read that his most difficult - yet most rewarding - pieces were those he wrote at the end of his life - the late strng quartets and, in particular, the Grosse Fuge. So I bought the GF and found it craggy, alarming, and not immediately musical, and yet I knew I was being childish. A couple more times and I started to get the hang. But the most important matter was I wanted to discover its greatness.

    Music can be two things: it can hang like wallpaper providing distant entertainment, or it can get to you, squeeze your guzzard and take you somewhere else. But it's no crime to ignore this latter possibility.

    Joe: There are some awkward parallels between music and received religion. Occasionally the question of faith (in music's eventual power to reveal itself) arises. Luckily the CD is a useful, humdrum substitute to organising an imaginary celestial choir and we can listen to the Mass in B Minor and reject the commercial.