Organic intellectuals

The airwaves are filled with nostalgic recollections of dead visionary musicians

As part of April’s cross-network Handel explosion, Professor Ellen T Harris examined the activities of the composer in London, where he lived from the age of 38 until his death in 1759, on Brook Street in Mayfair, next door to Jimi Hendrix (The Essay – The Great and the Good Mr Handel, 15 April, 11pm, Radio 3).

“Very little survives about his personal life,” sighed Harris, regretfully. All we know for sure is that he liked to hang out with his friends Henry and Goupy and took spa breaks in July to Tunbridge Wells, where he would phantasmiga the local ladies for hours with his organ (“Mr Handel was in the best temper in the world! He accompanied all the sopranos from seven until eleven!”).

There was some talk of a crush on an Italian cardinal while in his twenties, but it seems for the most part that Handel liked English women. Always nice to hear of a guy actively fond of knickers soaking in the bidet. As Jonathan Keates pointed out in last week’s NS, the composer was mind-bogglingly prolific, and wrote things in a flash. Messiah, for example, took only three weeks, and most of that was colouring-in. Really, I couldn’t rate this programme more highly.

Moments later, over on 6 Music, Midge Ure presented a brilliant documentary about Thin Lizzy (The Thin Lizzy Story, 16 April, midnight). Featuring Phil Lynott’s mother and various colleagues, it got to the bottom of how the two founding members of the band initially came together (they were literally the only two people on drugs in Ireland in 1969), and featured lovely rambly interviews with musos recalling the Day.

“So, for financial reasons,” said one, firmly in first-name mode, “Brian was pulling out and Ted was looking for a new partner, and Ted came into the office and said can you suggest some dates because I want to bring Billy in on this and possibly even Rod’s manager, and I said I wasn’t terribly happy about that, so I said well I’d like to get involved actually, and he sort of said oh yeah OK, and then I saw Michael and realised I owed him 40p for the drinks, and he was like . . .”

There was also some discussion of Lynott’s supposed landscape-of-Irish-storytelling thing, subtly implying he was a Blake-like mystic of the type never to have a haircut during an eclipse, et cetera, which I kind of took sensitive objection to. As far as I’m concerned Lynott’s lyrics are perfectly, 100 per cent comprehensible and all the better for it. “I’m a rocker. I’m a roller, too. I get my records in a rock and roll store.” I mean, case closed. I like to know where I am with songwriters.

Plus, I hate getting the lyrics wrong. I’m not the fastest girl in the universe and all, but you know that Kurt Cobain line: “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”? Well, I thought he was saying “Dorito”. For ten years I thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a song about a packet of crisps.

Whereas every single thing that Phil Lynott says rings simple and true. “He told her that he loved her/And he took all of her silver.” That totally happened to me, Phil, and pretty recently too. “He was a vagabond.” Definitely. And a cocksucker. But you’re really helping me through it, Phil. Phil?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?

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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