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Reviewed: A History of Syria with Dan Snow

In the air tonight.

A History of Syria with Dan Snow

It’s irritating the way modern television documentaries feel they have to carry the name of the presenter in their title. I mean, when Life on Earth screened in 1979, it wasn’t called Life on Earth with David Attenborough. Such nervousness! Do commissioning editors honestly think we’ll get interested in a subject just because a certain historian is attached to it? Unless you’re talking about an auteur like Jonathan Meades, surely most people go for subject first and presenter second.

But even in this context A History of Syria with Dan Snow (11 March, 9pm) struck me as a more than usually weird title. For one thing, since when has Snow been any kind of an expert on the Middle East? For another, I’m afraid that it called This Morning with Richard and Judy irresistibly to mind, which was wholly inappropriate in the circumstances. Early on, when this thought first invaded my brain, Snow was explaining the Sunni-Shia schism. But all I could think about was what would have been happening if Richard Madeley had been in his shoes. I had the feeling that he would have been enthusiastically wearing a keffiyeh and aviator sunglasses.

I’m in two minds about the film itself. It was an excellent idea to look at Syria’s history in depth – William Hague, among others, could really do with a primer – and the way Snow connected the present turmoil with the past, and in particular with colonial power, was incisive and wholly right. Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, learned an awful lot from the French, whose rule in the country was brutal but effective. There was a powerful moment when Snow interviewed the daughter of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who had led a glorious uprising against the French in 1925. The present revolution, she said, is simply an extension of what her father started all those years ago. As you will gather, people in Syria have long memories.

Snow was good, too, on the Alawites, for years a persecuted minority who dared not leave their strongholds in the coastal mountains, but now the heterodox Shia sect that rules Syria so ruthlessly. The story of Alawite power is a remarkable one, given there is a strand of Sunni thought that considers them more heretical than either Christians or Jews, and Snow delineated it extremely thoughtfully. In Syria, your enemy’s enemy is your friend. This is how it worked during French rule – it was the French who gave the Alawites their first stepladder to power; a leg-up motivated by their mutual loathing of the Sunni majority – and this is how it tends to work now. The idea that the present struggle is a war that can be “won” by one side or another is ludicrous.

But for all that this was incredibly interesting, the clock was ticking and we were always on the surface as a result. It’s impossible to deal with a country’s history from Constantine the Great to the 21st century in an hour, particularly if you’re going to devote the last quarter to a little light war reporting (Snow went to meet Syrian rebels on a remote hillside; he also spoke to some victims of the civil war, now refugees in Lebanon).

There were some peculiar talking heads, too, once we got to the present. I was baffled by the American academic who revealed that when he met Assad, the president told him that one of his biggest mistakes on coming to power was to let it be known he liked the music of Phil Collins. Apparently, this led everyone to believe that he was a liberal, who would permit reforms. Hmm. Personally, I think the chinless Syrian leader has made bigger mistakes – if that is the right word – than this. Besides, do you know any liberals who like Phil Collins? On the other hand, it did set me thinking. Perhaps this was what was in Tony Blair’s mind when he welcomed Assad and his “desert rose” (copyright: American Vogue), Asma, to No 10 in 2002. Isn’t soft rock Blair’s thing? Did the Downing Street stereo pump out “Sussudio” and “Easy Lover” as the power couples dined?

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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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