Friday, June 30, 2017

Duruflé and the pursuit of beauty

Somewhere — I think in a short biography  I remember reading a remark of the composer Edward Elgar, that he thought had always really been 'a literary man': in other words, that although his gift was undoubtedly for music, he felt that literature drew on him with a more instinctive or immediate power.  Perhaps he would have supposed of himself that his talents would have reflected this, but, curiously, they did not.

I think I know what he meant.  Even if I flatter myself that my 'definite service' really does include foisting blog-posts upon the Internet and so on, it certainly doesn't involve musical composition.  So it's a funny thing that I probably listen to more music than I read works of literature.  Not that I am an inverted Elgar — but beauty flashes out at me more boldly from music than from most literature, even from most poetry, and music, slight as my actual musical competence is, informs my writing.  My hope for my aspiring verse, and to a great extent for my prose, is for it to sound musical, or more precisely for it to be beautiful for similar reasons to those for which a piece of music is beautiful.

So I find that I am easily as much in sympathy with the ideas, and simply enjoy the company of favourite composers as much as I do those of writers.  Composers, then, spark off the muse as much as poets and authors.  Do many writers, I wonder, wish they could hammer out words capable of bringing about a mood or making an utterance heard first from notes on staves?  In many cases this is too ambitious an enterprise, not least because a composer's language is not limited by borders, and a poet's is, but I don't believe it is altogether hopeless, since I believe that all beauty, along with all truth and all goodness, has one source.  So on I go thinking it over and over.

As a treat I recently bought myself a new CD of the choir of King's College, Cambridge, singing music by the French composer Maurice Duruflé, the thirtieth anniversary of whose death was last Friday (16th June).  He was the organist (titulaire) at the church of St-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, a vocation which makes itself heard in most of his compositions, written as they generally are for organ or choir and under the roof of the Catholic liturgical tradition.  

Duruflé is notable for the small volume and intricacy of his compositional output, the result of a ferocious self-criticism and scrupulous perfectionism.  He left only fourteen opus numbers, all meticulously-crafted works.  Against the insincerity and irony of much twentieth-century art he is an antidote, a quiet but determined anti-fraud who knew that the talent given to workers of beauty is precisely that, a gift, not to be thrown away or misused or squandered in pride; he knew, too, that artistic beauty is hard-won and that truth and beauty are intertwined.

But it is not only the perfectionism of the composer that appeals to me.  It has always been the mood and texture of his work.  Here, perhaps, is a clue as to why:  Frédéric Blanc, author of the CD's sleeve notes, and referring to the Requiem, speaks of the composer's blending of Gregorian plain-chant with a 'touche impressioniste'.  Duruflé was working within a tradition that he revered, but it was also, without contradiction, his tool, to be used for new purposes and new beauty.  He took the best of the old and the best of the new, working shimmering and scintillating impressionist wraiths around unambiguous, familiar Latin plainsong melodies seven centuries old.  He marshalled the full strength of the symphony orchestra even as he called for the medieval human voice.

In general I love music, and poetry, that is full and rich and resplendent  not heavy and cumbersome for the sake of it, but luminous and misty  full of details and treasures to be found, plainly the fruit of a labour of love, that can be read or heard again and again, each time with something different to pick out and savour.  (Thus I like Howells' Hymnus Paradisi and Larkin's poem Whitsun Weddings for largely the same reason)  But at the same time it can't be frothy or over-elaborated.  I think it must have a plain heart and possibly also a simple message: in other words, that a work should be easily reducible to its essentials, but also easily embellished and decorated and elaborated upon if need be, much as a church building, whether built in simplicity or in a dazzling proliferation of ornament, is always a church, neither more nor less.  I feel that there ought to be something to hold onto: for the melody, or the words, or the subject, to be ardent and disarming.  In any case, to strain and labour to enunciate the simplest message is itself, I think, to strike at a truth about man's weakness and humbleness in art, as in much else.

Duruflé does the same thing in his Prélude et Fugue sur le Nom d'Alain (Jehan Alain, organist and composer, fell in the Second World War).  Here it is, played by the German organist Lisa Hummel with skill beyond my understanding.  It is ethereal, mysterious music, but it hangs around a single theme.  The loveliest part of the Prélude in my view is the reappearance of the theme in simple sincerity, at 5'04", as if it were plainsong, but it is only that lovely because it is a reappearance, its previous iterations having been made amid an outpouring of richly-wrought lace-fine harmonies and flourishes. 

Well, I'm no more a Duruflé than I am an Elgar, but if I asked myself about my literary ambitions (or pretensions!), I would perhaps decide that I would like, one day, to write poetry as comparable to music by Duruflé's music as it would be to actual poetry by Betjeman, or Larkin, or Masefield, or Jennings.  And, by the way, one reason it is so difficult is that it all requires balance, I think: between new and old, between candour and ornament, between richness and austerity, between humility and ambition.  But we persevere because the reward is to have been allowed, by the author of all beauty, to have 'had a go' at creation, and to have seen that it is good.

Incidentally, the fact of Duruflé's having only fourteen opus numbers to his name makes it all the more baffling that this orchestral piece, the Andante et Scherzo, seems so little-known.  There are no professional recordings.  (How?!)  Here is an old recording which someone has gone to the trouble of uploading 

— and here is another rendition by the participants in a music school, the Semaine Musicale de Clairac, under the baton of Jean-Pierre Ballon, who did not beat about the bush with explanations or reasonings: 'Il a fallu le faire'.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Estuary Thoughts

Coming down England by a different line the other week, aiming south-west for Wales, I had an excuse for a journey over a stretch of railway I have long wanted to travel.  The train, bereft of most passengers at Cheltenham and after Gloucester nearly empty altogether, turned to wind on towards Newport along the far, western bank of the river Severn (the far bank from my point of view), with the Forest of Dean unseen to our right, and the widening water always somewhere, sometimes immediately, on the left.
A glimpse of Broadoak, with the A48 road and the river Severn meeting in the distance.
This stretch of Gloucestershire, between the county city and the Welsh border at Chepstow,  belongs to the corner of England that produced, in the early twentieth century, a great flourishing of art and music, and some of our greatest poets and writers.  The railway runs straight through the land of Herbert Howells, Ivor Gurney and Frederick William Harvey, three friends who came of age in that brief sunlit window of the early twentieth century that was shattered by the First World War.  Gurney, the poet and composer whose life had such a long and sad ending, was born in the city of Gloucester itself.  Howells was a son of Lydney, through which we rushed non-stop; it was this line that took him, by way of Gloucester, to the heights of his musical career.  And perhaps some of the depths, as well — it was also along here, a century before my own journey, that he had managed to leave the first score of his Piano Quartet on the train by mistake.  F. W. Harvey, too, was of this earth — not long after Gloucester, the train had skimmed past his birthplace at Minsterworth, and, a few miles downstream, cut straight through the hamlet of Broadoak, where he recorded winter's ending in his psalm-like, rhapsodic poem 'Spring 1924':

     Spring came by water to Broadoak this year,
     I saw her clear.
     Though on the earth a sprinkling
     Of snowdrops shone, the unwrinkling
     Bright curve of the Severn River
     Was of her gospel first giver [...]

In the unthinking safety of those years on the eve of the Great War, this landscape was not simply the setting but in some ways the foundation of the trio's friendship.  It was their native Gloucestershire that led them into artistic and temperamental sympathy with each other, and Gloucestershire that moved each to their arts: Howells to music, Harvey to poetry and Gurney, remarkably, to both, with equal passion.  Hence Gurney's Gloucestershire Rhapsody; hence  the melody of Howells' Chosen Tune, whose line on the staves mirrors the shape of the same hills of which Harvey exclaimed, 'Cotswold or Malvern, sun or rain! / My hills again!'.  (Harvey was incidentally a Catholic convert, though Anthony Boden's generally excellent biography does not shed much light on this aspect of his life).  So in tune were these men with each other that when Gurney and Howells heard the first performance, in Gloucester Cathedral, of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, the piece had the same effect on them: it so overwhelmed them that had to spend the whole night pacing round the city's streets in deep conversation to work it out of them.  I struggle to imagine this depth of companionship and artistic togetherness of spirit between any two people, let alone men: it seems foreign and almost incomprehensible only a century later.  Though their friendship — which is also described in a superb documentary on Gurney, The Poet who Loved the War — never failed, it was to be transformed by forces that had lain unsuspected beyond the Gloucestershire horizon, but called them out of their home county and into new lives.  Who knows how else their lives and careers would have gone on, had Gurney's mind held out, had Howells not lost his son to an ambush of meningitis in 1935, emerging from the trauma a changed man and a composer of changed music, and had the war not cost Harvey some of his prime years in a German prison camp.

The 'Sanctus' of Herbert Howells' monumental Missa Sabrinensis (Mass of the Severn)

When I came past on my incidental pilgrimage the weather was murky and damp, with the tinge of nearing dusk.  My sight was not nearly as clear as Harvey's was when he beheld spring heralded in the Severn.  But certainly visible, as we persevered towards Chepstow, was the grey expanse of river, with the tide in, cutting off this part of England from the rest and, I like to think, leaving it benignly open to Welsh influence, both in landscape and mood.  Then the train, parting company slightly with the main estuary, slowed to a pace stately enough for a fitting, dignified passage across the Wye flowing in from the north, and over the border into Wales.  (Chepstow station, not far beyond the bridge, was a riot of Welsh signage amid the drizzle).

After Chepstow the line shadows the Wye all the way to its confluence with the Severn.  Gloucestershire, on the opposite bank, has tapered away to the curious Beachley peninsula, a last stubborn sliver of England between the two rivers.  Here the white parabola of the first Severn Bridge hurtles serenely in to land from across the main estuary, which is two miles wide at this point.  The BBC's excellent Timeshift series includes a thoroughly enjoyable documentary about the construction of this bridge (Bridging the Gap: How the Severn Bridge was Built), chronicling the colossal undertaking year by year from the start of work in 1961 to the opening in 1966.   It combines superbly-chosen archive film with recent interviews of some of those actually involved: I was struck by their literate, measured speech  — engineers, workmen and locals alike — and by their boyish octogenarian grins — and by the clarity with which they explained the fairly complicated principles and mechanisms by which the bridge was made to stand.  Due time was also given to those who died in its construction: six men, which I think may still fairly be called a relatively small number for a project of this scale, not least given that it was generally the water, rather than the structure itself, that claimed their lives.  It must have taken a good deal of research and editing to put the programme together, though somebody has clearly enjoyed compiling an early Sixties sound-track to set the mood.  I have known this bridge all my life, and watching this programme I was fascinated to learn in so much detail how it was built, and by whom.

Gathering pace again, we converged with the Great Western main line as it emerges at Caldicot from the Severn Tunnel (an earlier triumph of engineering, opened in 1886) and thence ran along the flat towards Newport.   But there is something about estuaries: once in mind they will drain away only sluggishly.  The previous Sunday having been Pentecost, my thoughts drifted to someone else's memorable journey by rail, involving another river's 'level drifting breadth', which had been made on the other side of the country.  Philip Larkin's intricate and atmospheric poem 'The Whitsun Weddings' — one of my 'Desert Island' lyrics — begins, like the journey it describes, in Hull ('all windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / Of being in a hurry gone') and gathers pace alongside the Humber estuary 'where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet'.  Its description of a 'sunlit Saturday' in 1955 — when Whitsun was a known, universal holiday — when it was customary to marry on Whitsun — when it was the custom to aspire to marriage at all — stirs up in me the same momentary ache or dizziness as I feel when looking at the 1947 series of one-inch Ordnance Survey maps, at the sight of those lost expanses of untrashed, unmotorwayed England.  Yet perhaps it was all already slipping away, as slowly, massively and unstoppably as the ebb of an estuary tide.  Perhaps what moved Larkin to his symphonic utterance of sights and sounds was the urge to record and capture not only the 'frail travelling coincidence', but the whole civilisation in which it took place.  I who come later am glad he did.

Like many modern buildings in Wales, Newport's recently rebuilt station was not wearing well.  While sensible terraces of older, hardier houses climbed sturdily uphill in the distance, the station's futuristic ceilings and space-age gutters were dripping with rain and the Thunderbirdsesque roof was smudged with moss.   Hadn't they known there is no present in Wales, and no future?  There is only the past.  But that's another poet, and another country, for another time...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

That Referendum's First Anniversary

Well, here we are, a year after we found, to practically everybody's surprise, that we had voted to leave the European Union.  What a year it has been in the world of politics!  But I wish I had been able to enjoy it more.

I like to think that there is at least one justification for this blog's existence, namely that, providing posterity is favourable to the Internet, it records, hereherehere and here, that in all the land there was at least one person who actually dithered over their vote in the referendum.  Equally repelled by both official campaigns, which were both dreadful, and initially equally sympathetic with the feelings of my fellow lay voters in both camps, I resorted to taking an online survey to assist me in making a decision.  The verdict was 50% Leave and 50% Remain.

The announcement of the national result on the 24th June ought to have been an exciting moment, and initially I did find it exciting, as well as unsettling.  But generally, before and since the referendum, I have not enjoyed the national mood.   On its eve I wrote that I wanted a close result.  That was to shake us out of the apathy, or the single narrative, that lay thickly over the land.  And so we were shaken out of it, and I was glad to see how many people had not bought it.  But to have replaced it with nothing more than anger — often a blind, unthinking, vindictive anger — is a disappointment.  It ruins the fun of politics, and risks worse than that.

And I have to admit that it has often been the Remain side, particularly as represented by my own generation, that has tested my sympathy most.  Most Remainers that I sounded for their thoughts have certainly been reasonable, especially considering their disappointment — and perhaps I have not been exposed to the unpleasantness of some Brexiteers, which I don't doubt.  But others have lumped Leavers, whose view I myself agreed with exactly 50% at the critical moment, into a kind of rudimentary moral dustbin where they can be accused of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, short-sightedness and so on.  That's unreasonable criticism, I think, since it is made not merely of their political judgement but of their collective character.  

Although on paper I have more in common with the typical Remainer, I am in many ways a spiritual Leaver.  I thought, right from the start, that it would actually do us good to become more inward-looking — in the right way, in the sense of 'introspective' — in order to see the plank in the national eye, and more backward-looking, in order to understand our history better.  I am struck, for instance, by David Goodhart's idea of distinguishing between those who think of their identity in a broad, global, way, the 'Anywheres' and those who are more particular and more rooted, the 'Somewheres'.  I would place myself in the latter category, which turned out on the whole to vote to Leave.  Having lived and studied in France for a short time, I hope I need no persuading of the virtues of international friendship.  But France, and Germany, and Poland are a different places from the United Kingdom, and have different ways of doing things, and this is good.  The EU was only ever one way of co-operating with our European neighbours, and I was suspicious of the growth of a political project from an economic one, and a political project not particularly friendly towards the Church either.  

Meanwhile I found the question of sovereignty compelling, and would find it perfectly understandable to vote to Leave on the grounds of instinct or principle, providing that this instinct was sincere and just and righteous.  It is on such grounds that I know I would, for instance, without quite being able to explain why, have fiercely opposed surrendering the £ sterling and introducing the euro, if that had ever been on the cards.  So if others felt likewise in this case, I am inclined to defend them.  In fact, since the vote I have veered pro-Leave-wards far more frequently, and further at a time, than I have towards Remain, not least because of the grief the first side have got over their surprising victory.

And if sovereignty and independence were instinctive, rather than rational reasons to wish to leave, the justifications I heard from my own generation to stay in were not necessarily any more rational or less emotional.  More than once, for instance, I have heard the view expressed that the European Union was a bulwark against groups of our own people, whose chief characteristic and fault was that they were 'conservative', in all the various meanings of that term.  But that was never the purpose of the European Union.  Surely the way to influence national opinion one way or the other is to argue a case, which will stand or fall on its own merits, rather than to co-opt for one's own purposes, as if they were military apparatus, any political structure that comes to hand ?  I would make the same criticism of the tendency to argumentative emotion rather than argument among many people, particularly of my generation, and not least the tendency to identical argumentative emotions.  Witness the habit in some quarters of thinking and speaking of the Conservative party, say, as some kind of occupying force to be rooted out as soon as possible, rather than as a legitimate opponent  and I say this without any reason at all to defend the Conservatives.  It represents a lack of faith and goodwill, I think.  Worse than the anger is a kind of dogmatic homogenous mono-mindedness that is growing among young people, setting their faces against the older generation who might well know something that they don't, and setting their hearts on political solutions with a fervour not due to earthly things.

The referendum and this month's bewildering, unedifying general election have in common, I think, that many people, rightly or wrongly, have voted on principle, throwing economics and prudence to the wind.  I think, economically, that the reasons to stay in the EU are probably sound, and my suspicion is that few Leavers expected us to become wealthier by leaving.  Yet they voted for a principle all the same.  Voting on principle and instinct, then, may be an improvement on voting cynically or selfishly, but only if the principles and instincts are well-founded and firmly grounded.  Why, for instance, have so many decided so abruptly that Jeremy Corbyn is a good thing?  I've an uneasy feeling that rather a lot of people think he is actually the Messiah, in which case they have got the wrong J.C.

Still, I always tend to sympathise with ordinary voters, since I'm only one of them.  The real villainy, I regret to say, may well lurk in the media.  Their influence on the national conversation has not been helpful.  Reasoned, sober reporting is becoming rarer and the ever more tabloidesque BBC News website ever less willing to resist the temptation of the sensationalist.  (After all, it was the media's caustic invective against Benedict XVI before his visit that alerted me to his courage and goodness).  I think the media could do much more to make the conversation more grown-up: for instance, there was no obligation at all on Theresa May to take part in a televised squabble, and I think she made entirely the right decision to disregard the idea and to weather the media's fabricated, childish outcry.

And I have to admit that all this has, in turn, angered me at times.  Are we now incapable of civilised national conversation?  So when Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth  a bishop under no illusions either about the strength of the tide against churchgoers or the unassailable fastness of the hope we have — writes in a message on Twitter on the feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, 'There's something fragile about Britain at the moment,'  I agree with him.  All is not well in politics, so it is just as well that politics is not all.   Let's rediscover our national sense of humour and goodwill.