Art in fiction: ‘high’ and ‘low’ art?

Extract from Jane Davis's series on art in fiction
Extract from Jane Davis’s series on art in fiction

Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.

My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia?  Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.

For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.

Happy reading!

 

A riveting ‘Kokoschka’s Doll’

The Art of Love: Alma Mahler’s Life and Music: Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, Anton von Webern, D. Matthews.  Arranged by David Matthews (‘Erntelied’ co-arranged with Colin Matthews), with linking texts by Barry Millington. Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano). Counterpoise ensemble: Fenella Humphreys (violin), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Kyle Horch (saxophone/clarinet), Iain Farrington (piano).

Kokoschka’s Doll: John Casken (composer), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Counterpoise ensemble (as above), text by John Casken and Barry Millington.  Cheltenham Music Festival, 9 July 2017.

256px-portrait_of_alma_mahler_by_oskar_kokoschka2c_19122c_oil_on_canvas_-_national_museum_of_modern_art2c_tokyo_-_dsc06553

Portrait of Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1912

At its best, a work of art – be it music, literature or a visual art – in two or more parts yields an entity greater than its components.  Think Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Joyce’s Dubliners.  That is the case of this programme (see here for further references) in two parts.  We are taken through the first from Alma Mahler’s point of view, and through the second from Oskar Kokoschka’s.  The two were lovers from 1912 to 1915, but stayed in touch for nearly four decades thereafter.  The programme was performed in London and at the Cheltenham, Deal and Buxton Festivals.  It amply deserves to be reprised and shown more widely.

The project invites reflection on several themes: gender roles in the past and today; forms of objectification; the extent to which the psychology of historical figures can be known…  The ‘Composers in Conversation’ discussion which preceded the performance touched on some of these, but could easily encompass others, such is the wealth of material that has flowed into the finished work.

The connecting thread of The Art of Love is Alma Mahler’s turbulent sentimental history, from her relationship with the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky, to her marriages to Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel, and a string of love affairs.  However, its scope is broader and more ambitious: it takes in a whole era of European history, as well as digging deeper into Alma’s personal one to hint at some of the roots of her highly contradictory character.  She could be infamously cruel and unlovable but was loved by several men; she made constant anti-Semitic remarks, but Zemlinsky, Mahler and Werfel were Jewish; her compositions for voice and piano were sophisticated and innovative, but after the death of Gustav Mahler, who had made the cessation of her composing activity a precondition of their marriage, she did not resume it…

The works in The Art of Love give a sense of the fluidity and ferment of the cultural, and specifically musical, world around Alma Mahler.  Among them are three of her songs – two arranged for the Counterpoise ensemble by David Matthews and one by David and Colin Matthews.  Other pieces hold close associations with Alma.  For example, the song ‘Selige Stunde’ was composed by Zemlinsky when he was in love with her; it contains what he called her ‘beloved chord’.  Of Gustav Mahler’s pieces, here arranged by David Matthews, both the ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No. 5 and ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ were written for Alma.  Counterpoise premiere here an unpublished Trio movement by Anton von Webern – whose portrait Kokoschka painted – with a continuation by David Matthews in a style redolent of Berg’s Romantic lyricism (Berg was part of Vienna’s tight-knit cultural and intellectual circles, too; Wozzek is dedicated to Alma, and his Violin Concerto to the memory of her daughter Manon Gropius, who died at the age of eighteen).  Wagner features with two excerpts: from ‘Isolde’s Liebestod’, Liszt’s piano transcription from Tristan und Isolde; and ‘Träume’ (arr. D. Matthews), one of the Wesendonck Lieder.  Wagner was Alma Mahler’s favourite composer.  The ‘Liebestod’ played a role at the inception of her relationships with both Zemlinsky and Kokoschka, while Tristan und Isolde was a great conducting success in New York for Gustav Mahler. Vienna opera house c. 1900

The Opera, Vienna, c. 1900

The four members of Counterpoise are top instrumentalists who have set themselves the purpose of crossing musical and artistic genres.  They explore the possibilities of merging music, narrative and the visual arts.  This new project vindicates that vision.  The combination of violin, piano, trumpet and saxophone or clarinet is uncommon; it’s exciting to hear such a superlatively rendered balance of their sounds, as well as the beauty of the solo sections, such as the violin’s in the ‘Adagietto’ or the trumpet’s in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’.  Mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus rises with assurance to the challenge of the songs’ diverse styles, and gives us a believable Alma in the connecting spoken text by scholar and critic Barry Millington: it’s a sharp portrayal of a woman feisty and insecure, ambitious and unsatisfied, hurting and hurtful.

Kokoschka’s Doll is a melodrama for small ensemble and voice, composed for Counterpoise by John Casken, with text by him and Barry Millington.  Counterpoise and Casken have collaborated previously on Deadly Pleasures, a work for narrator and ensemble.  Sir John Tomlinson sings the part of Kokoschka and speaks the text, drawn largely from the painter’s correspondence and memoirs.  The celebrated bass’ stage presence or vocal technique requires no introduction.  Here, with a minimal set for backdrop, he passionately and movingly inhabits the character of the painter, who in old age recollects his relationship with Alma, from the moment they fell in love to that in which he destroyed the life-size fetish of her – the eponymous ‘doll’ of the title – he had commissioned.  He alternately praises his ‘Angel’ and ‘Goddess’, cries out his loneliness, rants in despair…  The shifting landscapes and mental states are reflected in the powerful instrumental and vocal score and spoken text.

The work is rich in associations set off by Casken’s deployment of subtle musical and literary allusions.  Echoes of music heard in The Art of Love – Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’, Alma and Gustav Mahler’s work… – are introduced, evoking memories of past moments, places and people.  Kokoschka’s recollection of the moment he nearly perished in the trenches of World War One is accompanied by music on the trumpet: is it a call to battle? Or an echo of Mahler’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’? Or a reference to the Apocalypse striking the world?  Perhaps all of these?  Repeated mention of Kokoschka’s play, Orpheus and Eurydice, connects the painter’s narrative of his relationship with Alma to the doll: he orders it in order to ‘bring back’ his lover from ‘the Underworld’, where she is a prisoner of Hades/the dead Gustav (years later, the play will be set to music by Ernst Krenek, who has married Alma and Gustav’s daughter Anna).  Kokoschka’s frenzied calls for ‘More champagne!’, at the party which puts an end to the doll and to his dream of Alma’s return, are reminiscent of the unstoppable life-energy of ‘Fin ch’ han dal vino’.  Whether deliberately so or not, it’s a final reminder of Vienna’s centrality to cultural, and especially musical, history.

This is one of those rare productions I would watch again soon, in order to fully savour its richness.  I look forward to further performances in 2018.

 

Image credits:

Portrait of Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1912, oil on canvas – National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo – DSC06553.JPG.  Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Das Wiener Opernhaus an der Ringstraße between 1890 and 1900.  Photochrom print (color photo lithograph) from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Photochrom Prints Collection. Photographs in this collection were published before 1923 and are therefore in the public domain

 

 

Poetry and Song – Paul Muldoon and Johannes Brahms

 

What connects the names of a present-day poet and of a nineteenth-century composer?  The answer is: their insights into the setting of words to music.  The connection transpired by chance: a statement by Paul Muldoon at the recent launch of his book of song lyrics, Sadie and the Sadists (Eyewear Publishing), at Rough Trade East; and a quote I read while carrying out research into a Brahms song cycle, Die Schöne Magelone, prior to reviewing a memorable performance of it by Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber at Wigmore Hall.  Only eleven days separated the book launch and the music recital.  The remarks made by Muldoon and Brahms were nearly one hundred and forty years apart and yet arrestingly similar.

It started with a question for Muldoon from the audience: how does the process of writing poems differ for him from that of drafting song lyrics?  His answer was that a stand-alone poem has to be perfected to say exclusively in words all it aims to communicate, while the writing of lyrics requires leaving ‘space’ for expression through music.  Muldoon is one of the most celebrated poets in the English language (his accolades include the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the T.S. Eliot Prize, professorships at Oxford and Princeton…), and an admirably approachable and engaging person.  He isn’t afraid of experimentation, and has written lyrics for music composed and performed by various artists (loosely affiliated under the banner of ‘Rogue Oliphant’) across diverse genres, from folk to punk rock.  He says that, as a poet, words come to him before the music, of which he mostly suggests the broad genre and type of beat.

A few days after Muldoon’s talk, whilst researching Die Schöne Magelone I discovered that Brahms’ criterion for selecting poems to turn into songs was that they should leave room for music to enhance them; if they did not, he sometimes altered the original texts.  Although he (like Schubert, Schumann and others) did turn poems by the likes of Goethe, Heine and Rückert into Lieder, he found that many of Goethe’s, for example, could be ‘so perfect in themselves that no music can improve them’.  He sought out poems that, above all, evoked a mood and emotions; he read them aloud repeatedly, until the form, rhythm and meter of a song emerged.  Lieder were ‘art songs’ (‘Kunstlieder’): interpreting them properly requires flawless vocal technique, and the accompaniment is equally complex.  However, at a purely melodic level they often have a ‘singability’ which betrays their roots in ‘Volkslieder’ – popular music – and which for a time made them a common focus of amateur performance and entertainment in bourgeois homes.  As the late Eric Sams pointed out, Brahms was ‘so steeped in that [‘volkstümliches Kunstlied’] tradition, that his songs became not only popular music but ‘folksong’ in his own lifetime, like ‘Wiegenlied’.’  It’s a reminder that fluidity and exchange between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture at their best can be mutually fruitful, but also that poetry and music have accompanied each other for thousands of years before Brahms.

 

How appropriate and wonderful, therefore, not only that a great poet should be presenting his book of song lyrics – and at Rough Trade – but also that his remarks should echo those of a great composer: it’s not that lyrics are lesser creations than poems, but that, when they are also poetry, they differ in exactly the way Muldoon and Brahms highlighted, for the fusion of music and word to yield a powerful experience.

Of course, not everyone starts with the words.  Paul Simon famously begins with the music, for which he writes verses which could be, and often are, regarded as poetry – though he is adamant they are lyrics and not poems because of the key role played by the music’s rhythm: ‘They’re meant to be sung’.  As an English Lit graduate, his talent and skill for both music and words may merge in the creative process he humbly describes as ‘a mystery’, resulting in their widespread perception as ‘poetry’, whether the texts are labelled ‘lyrics’ or ‘poems’: what’s striking is that the boundary is sufficiently blurred to give rise to the issue of defining it.  After all, only last year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.  His June 2017 acceptance speech ends with Homer’s verse: ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.’  And what to say of Leonard Cohen?  He was a poet and a novelist before becoming a singer.  His book, Stranger Music (Jonathan Cape), consists both of poems and lyrics, inviting reflection on their similarities and differences.

Months ago, at a Royal College of Music vocal masterclass, the baritone Sir Thomas Allen advised young singers to nurture a lifelong habit of reciting poetry aloud, to guard against prioritising beauty of sound over the interpretation of the words.  It’s such a fine balance.  Whether the song is by Brahms or Cohen, text and music have been sensitively chosen, shaped and polished into an integrated entity which transcends its constituent parts, to reach us with a power both ancient and new.

Image credits:

Photo of Paul Muldoon by the author. All rights reserved.

Johannes Brahms around 1866. Author unknown.  Reproduced under Public Domain license.

Sadie and the Sadists book cover: design and typeset by Edwin Smet; photograph by Alija (Getty Images).  Reproduced by kind permission of Eyewear Publishing.

Die Schöne Magelone, Volksbücher Nr. 5, von Gotthard Oswald Marbach (Leipzig, 1838-1849). Illustration by Ludwig Richter.

Image of author’s review of Die Schöne Magelone from Seen And Heard International website.

Alcaeus and Sappho, Brygos painter, Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily). Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.  Reproduced under Public Domain license.

What can writers learn from a composer?

There’s a lot to be said for taking on assignments out of your comfort zone.  The task of reviewing Janáček’s Jenůfa was one such for me, as I’m more familiar with the Italian and German repertoires than with the Czech one.  I had seen other Janáček operas, but not this one.  So off I trotted to the Royal College of Music Library.  What I discovered there about Jenůfa and Janáček’s subsequent operas was so riveting that I ended up spending days reading through the books available – far from enough, for sure, to make a Janáček expert, but plenty to spur me to share those exciting discoveries with fellow-writers.

Leos Janacek ca. 1890

Leos Janáček, ca. 1890

I had come across Milan Kundera’s admiration of this composer years ago in his The Art of the Novel and Encounter essays, but understood it better only after my RCM Library research – as there are helpful parallels between Janáček’s compositional process and aspects of literary fiction.  So what might Janáček (b. 1854 – d. 1928) teach us as writers?  Here are a few thoughts.  If you have more, please feel welcome to add them in the comments section below or here.

  1. Let go of ‘automatisms’

Experiment freely, especially in the early stages of your project: seek the form which will do justice to your vision of that particular novel or short story.  Trusting our intuition about key writing decisions (e.g. structure, point of view, voice) may not come easily, but over-reliance on the “dos and don’ts” of technique can work against a story’s emotional power.  For example, deciding which word is or isn’t earning its place in a sentence will depend on a narrator/character’s personality, back story, state of mind…  Janáček had mastered traditional composition but realized some of its rules would have detracted from the emotional truth of the drama.  Similarly, he had studied local folk music for decades, but the Moravian dances in the opera are his own invention, the fruit of his ‘absorption’ of the raw material.

  1. A well-chosen motif enriches the reading experience

From the opening bars of Jenůfa, the xylophone provides the recurring motif of the mill’s waterwheel: does it signify time ticking by? Or the inexorability of events? Or the flowing of each character’s actions into one tragedy?  Maybe any or all of these.  It’s a reminder that motifs ideally have two qualities: yes, they offer some insights into the story; but their plurality of meaning reflects the ambiguities of existence lived in the present without the benefit of hindsight.  By inviting questions more than providing answers, they engage readers, creating private space for their own perspectives and interpretations.

  1. The individuality of each character’s speech is all-important

We’ve all heard about paying heed to the individuality of each character’s speech, both direct and indirect, but Janáček went to extraordinary lengths to achieve that effect in Jenůfa and subsequent operas.  He was one of the first composers to use a libretto in prose (his own, derived from a play by Gabriela Preissová) and not in verse.  In the text and music, he strived to capture reality: by creating the impression (by mimicking, not replicating – see the section on “speech melody” in the review of Grange Park Opera’s recent Jenůfa) of the impact of characters’ emotional states on their utterances, moment by moment; by prioritising dramatic truth over melodic beauty.  He was unafraid of the resulting contrasts and contradictions within and between characters.  The outcome is an intensely believable evolution of his protagonists and their relationships.  The process and its effects illustrate every writer’s balancing act between the attractions of euphony and the ‘truth’ of characters who at times might demand ‘ugliness’ of expression.

Seen And Heard International

  1. Local can mean universal

Jenůfa demonstrates the enduring validity of the mantra that the more locally rooted a story is, the more universal it feels.  That’s because of the specificity of the ‘framework’ within which the characters move: it enables authors to dramatize situations arising out of the tension between the community (e.g. conditions and belief system) and individuals’ inner worlds.

  1. Let themes emerge by themselves

Jenůfa is ‘about’ many things.  Different productions may highlight one of them but don’t cancel out the others.  By and large, any opera, play, novel, short story… which engages with one universal theme is inevitably engaging with other themes too, due to their interconnectedness and complexity.  Trust them to emerge of their own accord.  The reasons for this are set out nowhere better than in Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist and David Lodge’s The Practice of Writing: they both explain why ‘you discover what it is you have to say in the process of saying it’ – and why, in any event, it will be ‘read by different readers in a bewildering variety of ways’ (Lodge, ‘The Novel as Communication’, in The Practice of Writing).

  1. The order in which characters appear isn’t a given

Time and again, authors say the suggestion from a writing colleague, agent or editor to alter the order of scenes or chapters made a vital difference to the final manuscript.  That opportunity is most obviously open when the story is not recounted in strict chronological sequence.  It’s not as easy to remember that the order in which characters make their entrance is flexible even in stories told in that sequence – and how greatly it matters.  Jenůfa exemplifies it: in the original play, the mayor and his family appear early on; Janáček’s decision not to show them until the opera’s final act – even though he has mentioned them earlier on – heightens the contrast between the central couple’s hard-earned depth of understanding and the shallowness of the community’s moral conventions, personified by the mayor’s wife and daughter.  In other words, the tension between the external ‘framework’ and the internal worlds not only is sustained, but rises to a high pitch until shortly before the curtain’s close.

If this post has piqued your curiosity about Janáček and Jenůfa, DVDs of several productions are available online.  In the UK, Jenůfa is currently being performed at Grange Park Opera (until 8 July 2017).

Image credits:

Leos Janáček ca. 1890, author unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Image of review of Janáček’s Jenůfa from Seen and Heard International website.