In the Critics this week

David Priestland on popular history, Anthony Horowitz interviewed and Sarah Churchwell on Henry James.

In the Critics section of the New Statesman this week, historian David Priestland argues that “the struggle to interpret our history has been won by a complacent liberalism”. He warns that this “is a triumph with serious consequences.” A new form of Whig history has developed, practiced both by those on the centre-right and centre-left, in which “history is seen as a battle between liberalism and totalitarianism.” Andrew Marr’s BBC series History of the World is representative of this trend in that it “assumes, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that “there is no such thing as society””.

In Books, Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reviews James Mann’s The Obamians “which seeks to paint a portrait of the 44th president’s foreign policy through the prism of his relationships with his closest advisers.” Mann explains how Obama and his “Obamians” wish to develop a doctrine of “low-cost leadership”, the “apotheosis” of which is Libya: “The conflict revealed [Obama’s] willingness to use force and his commitment to humanitarian goals and multilateralism.” Leonard sees Mann building the book up “to a description of a 'pivot to Asia' that could be the beginning of a new era of bipolarity.” If this is so, Obama could come to be seen as “playing a similar role to that played by Harry S Truman in the early stages of the cold war. In that case – like his predecessor – Obama may yet have a doctrine named after him”.

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to children’s author Anthony Horowitz who has just published Oblivion, the last book in the Power of Five series. Horowitz tells Derbyshire that the book was written in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal. As a result, “the three main characters are heavily influenced by the Murdochs.” The author explains that the danger of broaching big issues such as this in children’s literature “is that you forget that your first duty is to entertain, to write books that are page-turners”.

Also in Books: Sarah Churchwell reviews Michael Gorra’s book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece; Talitha Stevenson reviews Songs of Innocence: the Story of British Childhood by Fran Abrams; and Andrew Adonis looks at Douglas Carswell’s The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy; PLUS: “The Descent”, a poem by Emily Berry.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke on A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss; Ryan Gilbey gives his verdict on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and the US cut of Stanley Kunbrick’s The Shining; Rachel Haliburton on a London-bound production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya; Kate Mossman reviews the album Gonwards by Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge; and Antonia Quirke denounces the BBC’s cuts to its arts programming. PLUS: The Madness of Crowds by Will Self.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis