The bands are talented, but the music is terrible. Photo: Getty
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Proms 2014: Remembering WWI with anthems for doomed youth

Disciplined it might be, but military music is awful. Luckily, there's greater depth to this season than a first glance suggests.

BBC Proms 2014
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

Like many things now considered to be quintessentially English, what we think of as military music – ceremonial oompah-ing in red coats – didn’t come into being until the mid-19th century. During the Crimean war, a musical celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday descended into chaos when about 20 different military bands, lacking any overall direction, all launched into “God Save the Queen” at a different pitch and tempo. The result was a distinctly unpatriotic cacophony: a cousin of the queen was so appalled that he went on to create a system of centralised training for military musicians so henceforth they would always march to the same tune.

Disciplined it might be, but there is no escaping that military music is awful. It’s no accident that the presenters on Classic FM regularly exhort housewives to use it as motivation to get the dusting done. The musicians are often outstanding – anyone who has been to a do at a barracks will have heard the tootling, crashing morass transform itself into a tight jazz ensemble as soon as the drinks are poured – and being in a military band is, unfortunately, one of the few ways left for a musician to make a reliable income. Ordinarily, with very little effort it’s possible to give military music a wide berth. This year, though, its unrelenting tedium is threatening to intrude, as it is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

In poetry, the Great War has a well-known trajectory: from the initially patriotic pastorals of Rupert Brooke to Wilfred Owen’s blasted swamps. In classical music, the narrative is not so straightforward, partly because martial music yields so little of broader cultural value. The Proms are taking the war as one of the major themes this year and although the obvious stuff is there – music from War Horse and the Military Wives Choir (3 August) – there are some intriguing choices, too.

Favourites such as Britten’s War Requiem (21 August) and contemporary commissions from the likes of Sally Beamish (1 August) and the late John Tavener (4 August) sit alongside relatively unknown works by composers who went to war, some never to return. Three composers who lost their lives in the trenches – Rudi Stephan, Frederick Kelly and George Butterworth – are featured this season (17 August). When you know that Stephan, a young German from Hesse, died on the Eastern Front in 1915 aged just 28, it’s all too easy to find a doomed, elegiac quality in his Music for Orchestra. The slow tempo, the Mahler-esque flourishes, the achingly beautiful woodwind solos – although written in 1912, the piece seems to gesture towards the turmoil to come.

Frederick Kelly’s offering is more overtly connected with the conflict: he is said to have begun composing his Elegy for Strings, in Memoriam Rupert Brooke on a hospital ship in 1915 as the poet lay dying nearby (Kelly died at the Somme the following year). But it is Butterworth’s 1912 piece Six Songs from “A Shropshire Lad” that typifies the music we associate with the war. By using these A E Housman poems, he was joining an English composing tradition – including Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland – of harking back to a non-existent English Eden of folk music, rural pleasures and honest toil. Although Housman was writing in the aftermath of the Boer war, lines such as “The lads that will die in their glory and never be old” have a new resonance in this context.

The English pastoral is present in so much of this First World War music, both a reaction to and an evasion of the horrors of the conflict. Also featured in the season is A Pastoral Symphony (17 August) by Vaughan Williams, begun in 1916. One of his lesser-known works, it has now been re-evaluated as a “war requiem”. The shadow of death intrudes upon its idyllic landscape with subtle dissonances and a swelling sense of sorrow. The haunting trumpet cadenza in the second movement was inspired by a bugler the composer heard practising, who kept playing a seventh instead of a true octave. Even the pastoral can fall short of the ideal.

Englishness is a major topic for the Proms. One of the featured composers is the 20th century’s William Walton who, although he moved between styles and genres during his long career, has always remained resolutely English in the minds of critics. Indeed, just days before the post-imperial flag-waving of the Last Night, Walton’s Viola Concerto will be the centrepiece of a Prom devoted entirely to English music (10 September). Not all of the pieces that night are easy choices: Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 4 in F Minor is notably severe. Yet the message is clear – in a year of martial commemorations, when Scotland is voting on independence and politicians are shying away from Englishness as something toxic, English music is still something worth listening to. 

The Proms run until 13 September

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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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