The Nation's Favourite Aria

English composer wins Radio 3 title.

BBC Radio 3's poll to find "The Nation's Favourite Aria" came to a rather unexpected conclusion last week. Knocking Mozart into second place, 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth" -- often known simply as "Dido's Lament" -- from his opera Dido and Aeneas was named the winner. Not bad for a nation once described by Mendelssohn as, "the land without music".

Launched back in May, the competition was entirely driven by listeners, who nominated their personal favourites, creating a shortlist which was then put to a final vote.

Despite nominations from an astonishing 15 of his operas (15 more than Purcell ever composed), Italian opera favourite Gisuseppe Verdi failed to break into the top ten. He was in good company however, with Bizet, Rossini, Handel and Beethoven also failing to make the grade, and even Puccini only edging into fourth place with "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca.

The shortlist was described by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph as, "quite highbrow", and is disproportionately dominated by works from the more obscure outreaches of the repertoire. Coming in at number nine is Mozart's "Ruhe sanft", taken from the early and obscure singspiel Zaide -- an unfinished work only rarely performed. Also among the top ten are arias from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila and Dvorak's Rusalka -- none of them exactly core operatic repertoire.

With a dedicated slot on Radio 3's Breakfast Show, the competition seemed to signal yet another attempt on the part of the BBC to emulate rival station ClassicFM, with its often interactive, listener-driven programming and accessible tone. Just a few months ago Radio 3 launched their first ever classical chart show, a clear response to pressure from ClassicFM's ever-growing audience figures.

Voting with their feet -- or ears -- however, Radio 3 listeners have here emphatically declined a move into populism. Keeping football anthem "Nessum Dorma" firmly out of their line-up, they have shored-up the station's reputation for highbrow obscurity with their choices, even championing the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde -- a piece that stretches the definition of "Aria" well beyond its elastic limits with its organic through-composed conception, and goes some way toward undermining the bleeding-chunk mindset of the competition itself.

At first glance the list looks like the result of audience over-compensation; a charitable interpretation might see it as the result of well-informed listeners keen to share their little-known favourites with a wider audience, while less well-disposed commentators might equally justifiably see it as a public exercise in showing-off.

Either way, Radio 3 executives take note: your audience have spoken and while they're undeniably fond of a good tune, they'd rather it didn't come from Carmen. Geek-chic has officially leapt off the catwalk and onto the airwaves. Perhaps now is a good time for the BBC to halt their ClassicFM-style makeover, and return to the earnest, challenging, good-quality programming that they do so well.

Watch top three arias here:

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear