At the Proms: Stockhausen and Wagner

Jeffrey Skidmore and Daniel Barenboim rise to the formidable challenge of staging Stockhausen and Wagner at The Proms.

Prom 11 – Stockhausen (Jeffrey Skidmore)
Prom 15 –Wagner (Daniel Barenboim)
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7
 
As musical ghouls-under-the-bed go, it doesn’t get scarier than Wagner (too long) and Stockhausen (too complicated). Yet if ever there’s been a time to face those fears, it was last month at the BBC Proms. Music-making of exceptional, ecstatic virtuosity made urgent what is too often academic, dissolving terrors and challenging us to find difficulty amid so much joy.
 
There’s an elegant symmetry in how Wagner’s Ring and Stockhausen’s Licht have ended up in dialogue at this year’s Proms. Both monumental opera cycles, composed over almost 30 years, span the gamut of human experience and emotion, not to mention many hours. The Proms are a festival made for larger-than-life works. Even as the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustics can so bafflingly defeat a musical classic, they can also amplify a problem piece, generating a spatial drama that can’t be matched anywhere else.
 
This was certainly true of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” on 19 July. An early foray into electronic music, the work was projected (rather than performed) from a mixing desk at the centre of the hall by the composer’s protégée Kathinka Pasveer, while the stage remained empty. To make the stolid, Victorian hulk of this venue disquieting is almost impossible, but as the ghostly sound of choristers from Cologne Cathedral, recorded in the 1950s, echoed from empty galleries all around us, the sense of the uncanny was palpable in the physical vibrations of the speakers set up around the hall to transmit Stockhausen’s soundscape. Immersed in the voices of trebles who are no longer boys, we felt a dated technological exercise become something altogether richer.
 
This was just the warm-up for “Welt-Parlament” – the opening scene of Mittwoch, one of the seven operas that make up Licht. Last year, it was performed complete with actual helicopters and camels (each opera has a web of associated symbols, including elements – air, in this case – and animals) in Birmingham. The extract staged at the Royal Albert Hall maintained its energy in concert.
 
In a high tower, a UN-type assembly debated the nature of love in surreal, often deliberately incomprehensible fashion. The excellent Ex Cathedra choir’s voices, divorced from humanity by the use of microphones, did battle with the hollow babble of metro - nomes. The sound was less about melody or harmony than it was a woven texture, through which moments of lyricism occasionally burst (the tenors’ odd paean to love, a solo soprano’s pirouetting coloratura). It was music at the edge of its definition but, under Jeffrey Skidmore’s understated direction, the choir and soloists found both beauty and wit among the abstraction.
 
There is nothing abstract about Wagner’s Ring cycle, an epic folk narrative spread across four nights of opera. The composer’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art”) is in direct conflict with a semi-staging such as Justin Way’s but, with this cast, the drama’s all in the music.
 
Whatever his weaknesses, Daniel Barenboim is among the finest living Wagnerians. With a hand-picked cast and the Staats - kapelle Berlin orchestra, he is perhaps the finest. At the performance of Die Walküre on 23 July, the orchestra’s strings swelled thickly and its brass had a sheen, even at fortissimo, to rival the glint of the Nibelungen gold. Barenboim paced their arcs of emotion with absolute mastery, allowing momentum to build as Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) tumbled forwards into their incestuous love and pulling back during the tender conflict between Bryn Terfel’s Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme),whom he must condemn to the flames.
 
Terfel, Kampe and Eric Halfvarson (as the warrior Hunding) all found humanity in a tale that can too easily remain distant among the gods – but the night was Stemme’s. Bounding onstage with her terrifying “Hojo- to-ho”, this was a Valkyrie who needed no winged helmet to announce her identity. The echo of her battle cry will linger long after the Proms season has ended – a whoop of triumph at having vanquished so many musical demons.
It doesn't get much scarier than Wagner and Stockhausen. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage