Show Hide image

In midwinter, signs of new life

Alice Oswald's nature column.

All over England, in dark rainy towns, in misty flooded villages, people are flicking through seed catalogues. People with too many children, people trapped in their houses in winter – the thought of seeds is stirring them, giving them a tiny image of escape:

“All those little ones with feathery fronds like parachutes; ones that dress up in tasty flesh to be eaten and deposited elsewhere; ones like cyclamen, whose stem develops into a tightly coiled spring that brings the seed pod back to the earth. If you part the leaves, you can just see a series of springs. Oh, I love the catalogues. I can’t wait till the season comes round again.”

Seeds are simply obstructed leaves. If you bend a branch until it’s horizontal, the sap will slow to a stopping point: a comma or colon, made of leaves grown into one another and over one another and hardened. Out of this pause comes a flower, which unfolds itself in spirals, as if the leaf form, unable to keep to its line, had begun to pivot.

At the base of all this pausing and spinning, made of the same ecstatic stillness you find at the centre of a wheel, there are the seeds. They are very hard-coated and patient. Like 1920s women, saying nothing at the supper table, they hold the whole story of the leaf but their particular skill is to sit tight, waiting their turn: “Poppies, for instance – they can sit 70 years in the soil, waiting for the right conditions. Sometimes, they’re just waiting for the flash of light that comes when you’re digging.

“You know there’s always a flush of weeds when you turn the soil? That’s because there are millions of ungerminated seeds just waiting for your spade to let the light in.”

The seed saver, although she loves the catalogues, doesn’t buy many seeds. “What’s happening now is that our seeds are in the hands of about six companies and they only want varieties that have uniformity and a long shelf life. All the rest are lost. It’s phenomenally dangerous.”

She prefers to save them and swap them. “If it’s peas and beans, I let them dry on the plant. Quite early on, I select which ones I want to save and I leave a variety. I’m looking for a good bean and a random time of development. Broad beans, they have their own special, silky, floppy lining. They’re snuggled into this lovely cocoon; you can see an impression of all the beans in it, like a floppy soft bed.

“I peel it apart and sniff it and pop the seed out and pull off that rubbery grey skin and there’s the bright green bean underneath. But with tomatoes, I just wipe it on a bit of newspaper and tear it off. I remember one old boy who used to squash a tomato under his heel and just wait for it to germinate the following year. As for sweet peas, they’re so rock hard, you can’t imagine they’re going to burst into life.”

Growing pains

She shakes out a handful. They look like lead shot or plastic beads. It’s hard to define how they differ from any of these, except that a bead, once you know it is a bead, seems a finished thing, whereas a seed gives off an atmosphere of becoming. It has the look of something introverted, sealed in, held down, blindfolded, compacted – a little capsule of frustration.

“Sometimes, if you’ve sown quite thickly, the force of the seedlings raises the whole crust of the seed tray. I find that sort of thrilling, the way it pushes up the earth. It shows what power is behind it. They just want to get out; they really, really want to grow.”

Alice Oswald was in conversation with Alison Williams

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

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