Majestic flight: hawks have been considered sacred in cultures throughout history.
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Hawk eyed: how to write about birds of prey

From sacred symbolism in ancient mythology to paeans by 20th-century naturalists, hawks and eagles have always been lauded in art and literature.

Anyone who has ever stopped to watch a hawk in flight will know that this is one of the natural world’s most elegant phenomena. In many traditions, hawks are sacred: Apollo’s messengers for the Greeks, sun symbols for the ancient Egyptians and, in the case of the Lakota Sioux, embodiments of clear vision, speed and single-minded dedication.

Yet, for all their grandeur, airborne hawks are difficult to describe. It takes the finest of naturalists to capture a sense of their wonder – those such as Edwin Way Teale, who, in one of the most affecting pieces of nature writing I have ever read, describes a field trip to eastern Pennsylvania’s “hawkways” to see how raptors from all over New England seek out the powerful updraughts that run along the Kittatinny Ridge and sail “almost without an effort – just as, for ages, their ancestors had done – mile after mile on their long journey to a winter home”.

This passage, from Teale’s all but forgotten classic The Lost Woods (1945), celebrates not just the birds’ grace and power but also their attunement to the land, in words at once elegant and unsentimental. It is painful when that celebration is overshadowed. “During the early years of the present century,” Teale writes, “and even into the 1930s, many of these birds got no farther than the cliff on which we stood. Taking advantage of the fact that the migrating hawks frequently were forced close to this observation point . . . local gunners and big-city ‘sports’ blasted away, riddling the slow-moving birds as they soared, almost helplessly, within range of their guns.” Wagon-loads of the “dead, maimed and dying” were left to rot at the foot of the cliff: “The stench of their decomposition filled the air all during the height of the migration period.”

“I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” wrote the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers – a sentiment all too typical of this uncompromising writer, whose good advice that we should “unhumanise our views a little” was all too often tainted by disgust for his fellow human beings (in one poem, he declared that he would rather be “a worm in a wild apple than a son of man”).

Like many a nature lover, Jeffers succumbed to despair as he witnessed the degradation of his homeland. It is difficult not to share that anger as we in turn register what is being done, for sport or money, or out of plain ignorance, to the land, the seas and the creatures that share them with us.

Edwin Way Teale was always a more hopeful spirit, even as he saw and criticised such crimes – he was an “appreciator” who knew that lament, elegy and protest must be tempered by out-and-out celebration of what endures. Having begun his working life as an entomologist, Teale found pleasure in the smallest details of creaturely life, from the “golden throng” of his beehives to the day-by-day changes that he eulogises in his 1953 volume Circle of the Seasons. Like his hero, the English botanist Reginald Farrer, he was always mindful of what Farrer called “those things that we all possess inviolable for ever”.

I can think of nothing more despicable than the hunters who lined up to cut down Teale’s birds at the most vulnerable point of their seasonal migration but eventually their sport was brought to an end by a group of conservationists who purchased the Kittatinny ridge-top and turned it into the world’s first hawk sanctuary.

It may be that some of those good people were the newly enlightened descendants of previous hawk-killers. Some hope remains that Jeffers’s despair can be trumped by Teale’s celebratory sense of a “timelessness” in nature, even if “all around us are the inconstant and the uncertain”.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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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