W J Turner: “The Barrel-Organ in the Rain”

A scraping from the NS archive.

W J Turner (1884-1946) was music critic for the New Statesman between 1915 and 1940. He was also a novelist, playwright and poet. WB Yeats wrote that Turner's poetry left him “lost in admiration and astonishment”, though today it is for his outspoken and regenerative approach to music criticism that he is best remembered. Here, Turner recalls “the most poignant music impression of my life” – hearing a barrel organ in the rain beside Lake Como. I guess barrels aren’t so useless after all. - Philip Maughan

The Barrel-Organ in the Rain

It is not always in concert-halls that one has the most delightful musical experience  - hardly ever, some would even say; but I do not go so far as that. None the less, everyone who has any instinct for music will remember chance occasions when some song or instrumental air, heard, almost accidentally, at some friend's house or, in some countries happier in this respect than our own, in the street has made a vivid impression that remains in the memory long after we have completely forgotten the recitals of an Elena Gerhardt, a Paderewski or a Kreisler.

I remember when quite a boy that by some freak of fortune Paderewski came to my native town for the first time; my mother, wishing me to hear the famous pianist, procured me one seat at what appeared to me—and for our part of the world actually was—an enormous price. At any rate, I went alone, considerably affected by a consciousness that in being there at all I was rather “going the pace.” My seat was very near to the great man, and I remember how his hands trembled and how nervously he clasped his knees. I also remember being more excited by his face than by his playing. He played first of all something by Bach—very likely a prelude and fugue—and then a Beethoven sonata; the rest of his programme I have forgotten. I do not think I was in the least moved by the music, but I returned home in a state of great excitement, and with a feeling that the concert was an event in my life that ought in some way to be celebrated, and that the presence of such a great man in our town must be brought to the notice of the inmates of the house who should not be allowed to pass away into sleep that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Accordingly, I crept round to the back of the house and rummaged about in a shed until I had found—what is unknown in this country—an old kerosene tin. Taking a stick, I then marched into the house, beating the kerosene tin for all I was worth.

Now, musically, this event meant nothing, or very little, to me. I had been often far more touched by the very same music I had heard that night, played by amateurs; and although this experience of the contrast in the pleasure got from amateurs and from professionals is not true of orchestral concerts, it is especially true of singers, for I do not remember ever hearing a professional singer before I was twenty who gave me any pleasure at all. I believe this is a common experience. It is due partly to the fact that in Anglo-Saxon (and to a lesser degree one might almost include German) countries professional singers have no feeling for music whatever. They are simply the possessers of voices that have a marketable value, and they hire out their voices to concert-givers and to music publishers who need them to display their wares. They painfully acquire the minimum of technical musical knowledge necessary to enable them to sing an average ballad, or to take part in the half-dozen oratorios that are the staple musical diet of large masses of the population. They meet the average church organist on the common ground of complete insensibility and almost complete ignorance. They are far more illiterate than the ordinary dock-labourer, and their vanity has to be encountered to be believed. These wretches—I could name a lot of them if the law of libel permitted one such an artistic luxury—are even to this day, in spite of the great improvement that has taken place in England during the last ten or fifteen years, going up and down London, the provinces and the suburbs singing and spoiling the taste of the people. Their mainstay and sheet anchor is human sentimentality—the sentimentality of people who have had no opportunity to learn to appreciate finer qualities, but who, if left alone, would perhaps get out of the trough of sloppy emotionalism in which the modern urban population wallows.

For years, whatever singing I heard worth the hearing was from amateurs, and from them I heard, before I was eighteen, nearly all Schubert's songs and a great number of other German lieder, which, until I went to Germany, I had never heard from the concert platform at all. One of my most pleasurable recollections is that of going suddenly into a drawing-room where someone was singing Schubert's “Wohin.” It was one of those exquisite moments when we are by some happy combination of physical and spiritual health extraordinarily alive, and for both singer and listener the music, though familiar, had a beauty which they had never felt so intensely before. I have never heard "Wohin" sung since either in public or by an amateur, but it is one of those melodies that I can always recall at will. The singing of amateurs is, as a whole, on a far higher level than professional singing, and in speaking of amateurs I am thinking of musical amateurs, not of the people who go to ballad concerts and buy the last song about roses to take home and strum upon the piano, although I should imagine that their interpretation by their own fireside had merits unknown to, and beyond the capacity of, the professional singer to whom the song was dedicated.

In Latin countries, however, the art of singing has never been lost by the people. I believe that of all European countries Spain is the most wonderful in this respect, but I have never been there, and English musicians as a whole know very little about the academic music of Spain and practically nothing about the popular music. As for ancient Spanish music, I do not think I am far wrong in saying that it is absolutely unknown—which is hardly surprising when we consider that 70 per cent of the works of our greatest and most famous English composer, Purcell, are unknown to musicians. His Fairy Queen, for instance, which was given at Cambridge from February 9th to February 14th, with Mr Clive Carey as producer and Dr Rootham as conductor, had not been performed since 1693. There are four volumes of his harpsichord works edited by Mr William Barclay Squire—never played except by amateurs like Mrs Gordon Woodhouse—and I forget how many volumes the Purcell Society has published, all of which, however, appear to be totally ignored by the professional musicians who give concerts. However, that is by the way, and only illustrative of how immeasurably more important the amateur in music is than the concert-giving artist who is so much more in the limelight.

In Italy, of course, you may still hear plenty of good singing, even in the streets, and I daresay it would be possible to bear today, in parts of the country, many of those wonderful old Italian folk-songs which Madame Geni Sadero has spent her life collecting. Although I once walked through a large part of Central Italy it was never my good fortune to come across any old folk-songs, but I must confess that they were not the object of my tour. I do remember, however, going into an old wine-cellar with walls about fifteen feet thick in a small town in a little frequented part of the country and suddenly hearing, to my amazement, a gramophone burst forth into the waltz from The Merry Widow. The gramophone rang the death-knell of folk-song wherever it penetrated. There are musical critics—even good ones—who have a kindly word for the gramophone, but I have nothing for it but execration.

It was, however, in Italy that I received the most poignant musical impression of my life. A friend and I had arrived one day at Como, which we had never seen before. It was a most miserable day: one of those only too frequent days among the Italian lakes when the rain pours down as if it had set in for months. In utter wretchedness we walked along the comparatively deserted streets looking for a suitable restaurant, when suddenly, turning a corner, we heard a barrel-organ grinding out Lohengrin's Narration. It is a curiously beautiful melody, hilt at that moment, pouring out into the empty town among hills and buildings almost blotted from our sight with the steady, down-streaming rain, it was simply marvellous. If Richard Wagner had been there to hear it he would have wept. For it had become part of the earth; it was in some wholly inexplicable sense real—real with that reality that all good creative art has but which we cannot always feel, and that certainly we do not feel once in a hundred concerts.

6 March 1920

Barrel organists perform in Germany. Photo: Getty Images.

W J Turner (1884-1946) was a poet, novelist and music critic, who wrote for the New Statesman between 1915 and 1940.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain