Our man at the front

The First Casualty

Phillip Knightley <em>Prion, 526pp, £12</em>

ISBN 1853753769

Philip Knightley's updated history of the reporting of war is not, for the most part, the familiar record of heroism and bravado, but a relentless indictment of professional cowardice and collusion with censorship. The popular image of the rugged battlefield reporter emerged in the second half of the 19th century. Armed with letters of passage, solid gold coins and a brace of pistols, these mavericks were present in every theatre from Khartoum to Little Big Horn. For the British, in particular, journalism became one of the adventuring professions of the imperial era. No major conflict occurred anywhere in the world during this period unobserved by a representative of the Times. When trains and steamers were unavailable, camels, canoes or huskies would transport our man to the scene. Americans were equally inventive in their methods. One helped to initiate the Spanish-American war, while another would start his own small wars in Africa so he could report on them. Many of these men had aspired to a military career of their own and had taken to war reporting as a second choice. The officer class with whom they had to liaise, however, often regarded them as rougher than the common soldiery and little more than a curse that had to be endured.

Knightley professes some sympathy with the officers' view. Most correspondents of the period showed little humanity and no historical perspective. From 1914, war correspondents would no longer be reporting solely on the miseries of foreigners. News-papermen needed little encouragement to collude with the propaganda effort of the authorities at this time; but what journalists gained in political power and prestige as a result, they lost in public respect. Honourable exceptions to the rule included Rupert Murdoch's father, who attempted to smuggle an uncensored despatch out of Gallipoli before he was betrayed to the authorities by the Guardian's correspondent.

Contemporary war reporting, however, most provokes the Knightley's ire. After the collaboration of editors with the authorities during the Gulf war and the Kosovo campaign, the media have shown that they are as ready as ever to put national interest before truth. In Knightley, they face a dogged and skilful representative of the Pilger school of journalism. For the general reader, Knightley provides balance in a genre that is more used to hagiography.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs

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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