Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dr. Browne's Nose

   'Just one sniff and you'd wish you were one huge nose!'

'Delectable odours and abominable scents' - Olfactory study and imagery in Sir Thomas Browne's writings.

Evidence can be found in the collected writings of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) that each and every one of the  seventeenth century Norwich physician's five senses were well-developed and refined, yet restrained. In an age of few pleasures his 'Notes on the cookery of the Ancients'  with its passionate utterance-

'I wish we knew more clearly the condiments of the ancients, their sauces, flavours, digestives, tasties, slices, cold meats, and all kinds of pickles. Yet I do not know whether they would have surpassed salted sturgeons’ eggs, anchovy sauce, or our royal pickles. [1] 

suggests he enjoyed the sensory pleasure of taste, whilst Browne's fathering of eleven children hints of his being not totally immune to the most basic pleasures derived from the sense of touch.

Of the higher senses, the innate musicality of Browne's prose, in particular the discourse Urn-Burial (1658), with its 'vast undulations of  sound'  and 'full organ-stops' along with the hymn-like final paragraphs of  The Garden of Cyrus, testify to a good ear for rhythm and harmony, fundamentals of music-making; Browne's frank declaration -

I can look a whole day with delight at a handsome picture, though it be but of an horse'. [2]

appreciation of the beautiful in art and nature, usage original optical imagery in his prose along with his many perspicacious botanical observations, are each evidence of a highly-developed visual sensibility.   

As with each of his other senses, there's evidence that Browne's olfactory sense was acute.  In Browne's major writings various references to smell occur, either in a medical capacity as a physician and early scientist, or in the form of olfactory imagery. 

Browne's era was one in which primitive sanitation, numerous diseases and variable personal hygiene standards thrived. For these reasons,  like many others, he was highly appreciative of fragrances. It is difficult for us today to imagine  the intensity of the various malodorous smells of his day. Many of the smells of Browne's era are now long lost to the sanitized and relative odourlessness of modern life. 

Its worthwhile reminding ourselves of a few basic biological facts. The nose is a sensory organ constantly exposed to the environment; its 50 million receptors are the only part of the brain which are not encased within the skull. The nose constantly receives impressions, many of which are involuntarily. Smell is capable of awakening and unlocking long forgotten memories of specific places, times and feelings. Smell can also evoke extremely strong feelings, ranging from disgust and repugnance to well-being and euphoria. The role of pheromones in sexual attraction is now well recorded, while the nose's 'intuitive deductive' capacity was of paramount importance to early man in distinguishing between edible food and warning away from poisonous substances. But although the nose is capable of differentiating between thousands of different smells, the sense of smell remains the least understood of all the senses, in particular its relationship to emotion and memory. There is no theory yet which can entirely explain olfactory perception.

One of the earliest studies on smell was by the Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BCE) who wrote a tract entitled 'On Odours'. Olfactory descriptions abound in the Deipnosophistae or 'Banquet of the philosophers' by Athenaeus (circa 200 CE), a favourite read of Browne's by all accounts [3] whilst the Latin word 'Sagacious', originally meant not only clever but also possessing a keen sense of smell.

Although smell, or  more accurately, scent was extensively used in the rituals of religious worship in the ancient world, early Christians and later those of a Puritan persuasion, associated perfumes and highly scented fragrances with the Roman Empire which had persecuted their religion, so they often censored and disapproved of the usage of incense in ritual worship and personal use.

Renaissance Scholars and poets were aware that olfactory imagery was employed in Classical Greek and Roman literature in order to describe beauty, ugliness, moral worth and virtue. Olfactory imagery can be found in the writings of many English literary figures including Shakespeare, along with Browne's contemporaries, Milton, Donne, Herbert and Herrick.

In the twentieth century the power of smell has been explored by writers such as Marcel Proust, and more recently by Patrick Suskind in his novel Perfume (1985). The artist Guy Bleus (born 1950) is credited as one of the first to systematically use scents in the plastic arts. In 1978 he wrote the olfactory manifesto The Thrill of Working with Odours in which he deplored the lack of interest in scents in the visual arts. Since then he has exhibited smell paintings, mailed perfumed objects and made aromatic installations; he also created spray performances in which he sprayed a mist of fragrance over his audience.

Browne's first usage of olfactory imagery can be found in his spiritual testament Religio Medici (1643), in this particular case in order to illustrate a paradox of the human condition, the conflict between the emotions and reason, a subject not without relevance in much current-day political debate. 

'In all disputes, so much as there is of passion, so much there is of nothing to the purpose, for then reason like a bad hound spends upon a false sent, and forsakes the question first started. [4]

In his quirky encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) Browne  makes one of the earliest modern scientific observations on smell. He notes that every man may have a proper and peculiar savour; that the sense of smell is acuter in dogs than man, and that the Greek philosopher Theophrastus recorded Alexander the Great to be sweet-smelling. After speculating upon how diet and ill-health may make some people smell unpleasant, the learned physician vigorously attacks  a common belief of his era that any single Nation of people can smell bad, in particular, the anti-semitic slander. Using two of the three determinators to ascertain truth, namely Reason and Experience, Browne argues that such a belief is irrational and a harmful prejudice. [5]

It was the Renaissance alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) who urged the medical practitioner to enquire into the properties of Nature, thus when a Spermaceti whale was reported beached upon the Norfolk coast, Browne duly set off from Norwich to investigate it. In a famous descriptive chapter, which incidentally influenced the American author Herman Melville's description of a whale in 'Moby Dick', Browne wrote of the putrefying Spermaceti carcass-

'But had we found a better account and tolerable Anatomy, of that prominent jowle of the Spermaceti Whale , then questary operation, or the stench of the last cast upon our shoar, permitted, we might have perhaps discovered some handsome order in those Net-like seases and sockets, made like honey-combs, containing that medicall matter'. [6]

Browne's scientific investigation however was thwarted by 'insufferable fetour denying that enquiry', the creature's 'abominable scent'  agitating the physician's olfactory sensibility. Browne concludes his chapter upon the Spermaceti whale with learned humour, thus-

And yet if, as Paracelsus encourageth, Ordure makes the best Musk, and from the most fetid substances may be drawn the most odoriferous Essences; all that had not Vespasian's Nose, might boldly swear, here was a subject fit for such extractions. [7]

Browne's allusion to Vespasian's nose [8] originates from an anecdote recorded in Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars. When Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, complained to his father of a tax he'd imposed upon public Urinals Vespasian showed Titus a coin from the first day's tax, then asked him, 'Does it smell bad my son?' Titus replied, 'No father!' To which Vespasian allegedly retorted, 'That's odd it comes straight from the Urinal!'

Its also in Pseudodoxia Epidemica  that an early reference by Browne to plastic surgery upon the nose occurs in the passing remark- 'we might abate the Art of Taliacotius, and the new in-arching of Noses'. [9] 

This remark is explained thus - 'An early form of plastic surgery, as it were: surgical grafting, especially of noses. Such operations were fairly common and quite successful'. [10]

Smell, or more precisely, fragrance is quite naturally featured in The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in which Dr. Browne lyrically exclaims-

...whereto agreeth the doctrine of Theophrastus. Arise O North-wind, and blow thou South upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out; For the North-wind closing the pores, and shutting up the effluviums, when the South doth after open and relax them; the Aromatical gums do drop, and sweet odours fly actively from them. [11]

Numerous botanical observations are placed at the heart and central chapter of The Garden of Cyrus - including an observation indicative of Browne's appreciation of the olfactory sense -

'That the richest odour of plants, surpasseth that of Animals may seem of some doubt, since animal-musk, seems to excel the vegetable, and we find so noble a scent in the Tulip-Fly, and Goat-Beetle'. [12]

The Garden of Cyrus concludes with what has been described as one of the most eloquent expressions of the simple medical fact that the sense of smell is diminished in sleep-

'Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours'; [13]

Finally, late in his life, Browne wrote a highly unusual work entitled Museum Clausum, (circa 1675) an inventory of lost, rumoured and imagined books, pictures and objects conjured from the learned philosopher-physician's rich and fertile imagination. One particular object listed in miscellaneous tract 13 suggests that Browne recognised and identified smell's ability to alter and raise consciousness, anticipating modern-day alternative medicine such as aromatherapy even.

Browne's allusion to 'both the Indies' is alluded to by his contemporary, the alchemist Thomas Vaughan (1621-1665) when writing-

'He who journeys through this great and wide sea may touch at both Indies.' [14]

The 'union of the Indies' is a lesser-known symbol of totality in alchemy which is commented upon by the psychologist C.G.Jung thus  -

'As I have explained elsewhere, it leads to the four quarters, here indicated by the two Indies - East, West, - and by the turning of the compass to the north'. [15]

Accompanied by a slightly modified quotation by the Roman poet Catullus, Browne's 'Antiquities and Rarities of several sorts' includes the bizarre curio of - 

18. A transcendent Perfume made of the richest Odorates of both the Indies, kept in a Box made of the Muschie Stone of Niarienburg, with this Inscription -

Deos rogato Totum ut te faciant, Fabulle, Nasum.

Just one sniff, Fabullus, and you'd wish you were one huge nose ! [16]

 *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *       *    *    *      

This post is dedicated to the eminent Brunonian scholar Dr. Kevin Killeen with thanks for his illuminating talk on Thomas Browne, 'the cusp of Life and Death' delivered at the Chapel, Park Lane, Norwich on June 27th, 2018.


[1]   Link to Notes on cookery of the ancients
[2] Religio Medici Part 2 Section 11
[3] Several books by Theophrastus are listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Dr. Browne and his son Edward's libraries, as is Athenaeus whom Browne writes of in his Latin essay (translated) 'From a Reading of Athenaeus'
[4] R.M. Part 2 Section 3
[5] P.E. book 4 chapter 10
[6] P.E. book 3 chapter 26
[7] Ibid.
[8] In Religio Medici Browne states, 'What a βατροχομυομαχία, and hot skirmish is betwixt S. and T. in Lucian?' (R.M. Part 2 Section 3) The new edition of Browne's Selected Writings edited Kevin Killeen (OUP 2013) corrects the misprint  in C.A. Patrides  Major Works Penguin 1977  from 'Note' to  'nose'.
[9]  P.E. Book 3 chapter 9
[10]  James Eason, webmaster of the excellent University of Chicago Browne online site.
[11] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 4
[12] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 3
[13] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 5
[14] quoted by Jung in 'Aion' Cw vol. 9 ii para. 206
[15] Ibid.
[16] Museum Clausum (1686)

See also

Carl Jung and Browne

Browne on Art and Paintings

Saturday, April 14, 2018

'Walk through Walls' - Rodulfo's Yarmouth Collection

Within a few years of relocating his home and studio the visionary artist Peter Rodulfo (b.1958) has assembled an extraordinary portfolio of artwork which focuses upon the architecture and landmarks, street-life and social activities of Great Yarmouth. Rodulfo's Yarmouth Collection was exhibited at Skippings Gallery in Great Yarmouth  from April 14th until the 20th April 2018.

The Yarmouth Collection takes as its springboard observations made by the artist on walks throughout the town. Rodulfo's paintings depict the coastal town in both well-known and little-known guises. The walls which the artist invites the viewer to walk through are those of indifference and inattentiveness to one's everyday environment. Viewing the many gems of Rodulfo's Yarmouth Collection one not only acquires a new awareness of the sights and attractions of Great Yarmouth but also a deepened appreciation of the technical brilliance, wide stylistic diversity and protean imagination which the artist now commands, Rodulfo himself stating -‘Looking is like a language. The best art doesn't need a dictionary, but for general usage a context is needed’.

The attractions and architectural treasures of Great Yarmouth are the context of the Yarmouth Collection - its Marketplace, Regent Road, King Street, the Star hotel, St. George's Park, the Hippodrome Circus, Atlantis Tower, Nelson's Monument, Britannia and Wellington Piers all feature in the Yarmouth Collection.

The chequered fortunes of what geographically speaking was once little more than a narrow peninsula of shingle sandwiched between the North Sea and the River Yare, is clearly visible in Great Yarmouth’s  varied architecture. On  South Quay there's a 13th c.Tollhouse and  a 17th-century Merchant's House, as well as Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings. Behind South Quay there’s a maze of alleys and lanes known as "The Rows" while Yarmouth’s medieval wall is the second most complete Medieval town wall in the country. With eleven of  its eighteen original turrets still standing, its more extant than nearby Norwich's surviving medieval city walls.  

Rodulfo shares with fellow leading member of North Sea Magical Realism, Mark Burrell (b. 1957) an interest in the interaction between architecture and social activities; the townscape of Burrell’s hometown of Lowestoft  is often the setting of his luminescent paintings. As with Burrell however, its the overall ambience and mood of a location rather than meticulously reproducing architectural detail which interests Rodulfo. 

An ambiguous, even unsettling atmosphere is evoked in Approach to the Pleasure-Beach (below).  In equal measure of light and dark, cheer and gloom, an overcrowded boat is seen ferrying people to a Pleasure-Beach, some of which resembles the Bolton bros. fun-fair. With its sombre sky and churning water along with overcrowded boat, the viewer is left to wonder about the lengths people will go to in their pursuit of pleasure. The painting's background includes Yarmouth's 'Golden Mile' complete with the Atlantis Tower, Waterways boating-lake, windmill and approaching train.

Portraiture of Yarmouth’s leading cultural figures also occurs in the Yarmouth Collection. The proprietor of the Hippodrome Circus, Peter Jay, along with his bearded and bespectacled son Jack Jay, the current Ringmaster, can be seen mingling among the performing clowns and trapeze artists of The Day the Clowns Left (77 x 61 cm ) (below) as well as a pair of giraffes who rubberneck into the frame.

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome was built in 1903 by the legendary Circus showman George Gilbert. Its Britain's only surviving total circus building, one of only three in the world. The painting's title alludes to the fact that clowns are to be dropped from the performing artists of the Hippodrome Circus, because they are now considered to be too scary for a family audience.

Another leading figure in Yarmouth's cultural life, the artist John Kiki, a founding member of the 'Yarmouth six’ art-group is portrayed in On the Corner (below) with its grinning coffee-cup faces, vertical word COLUMBIA and surly-looking seagull peering from behind it.  John Kiki can be seen standing beside a yellow van in the lower right corner of the canvas, while in the lower left  corner stands a hill-top Greek village, a visual reference to Yarmouth’s long-established Cypriot-Greek community.

Rodulfo’s Quayside view of Yarmouth (below) far from either a pastiche or homage to Jan Vermeer’s famous View of Delft (1661) simply highlights an intuitive artistic perception - that Vermeer’s Delft and Yarmouth town share distinctive qualities of light, as well as cloud formations; both towns being situated on low land encompassed by water with a  full hemisphere of sky above (major contributing factors for Norfolk’s famed sunsets).

The skilful reproduction of cloud and sky reflected in the river Yare in Quayside view of Yarmouth is of particular note. The artist  himself stating of this  quayside view -

'I just thought the view is beautiful, but most people would walk by without a glance, as I am sure Vermeer’s contemporaries did, when walking past his view of Delft'.

Great Yarmouth itself is no back-water in British art history. Almost every major artist of the Norwich School of Painters which flourished exactly two centuries ago has an association with Yarmouth. Many Norwich School artists visited Yarmouth in order to paint beach and marine subjects; others, such as J.S.Cotman, resided in the Town attempting to make a precarious living, other Norwich School artists such as Joseph Stannard embarked from Yarmouth in order to view major art-collections such as the ‘Golden Age’ Dutch masters on display in Amsterdam; later in his short life the tubercular Stannard was sent to Yarmouth by family and friends in hope that the salubrious sea-air would restore his health. For many years John Crome visited Yarmouth weekly as an art- teacher, he also sailed from the sea-port in order to view the art-treasures newly on display in Paris which had been plundered by Napoleon in his military victories.

Another allusion to European art-styles occurs in a painting which features two of Yarmouth's tallest landmarks, the Britannia Monument (44 metres in height) and the Atlantis Tower (56 metres in height). A naval Admiral's hat, a crane stacking container cargo, seagull and traffic cone can also be seen in this relatively small painting sized 36 x  49 cm. (Top of this post). 

The Britannia Monument is a tribute to Lord Nelson (1758-1805) which was completed in 1819, some 24 years before the completion of Nelson's Column in London. The Monument shows Britannia standing atop a globe, holding an olive branch in her right hand and a trident in her left. Originally planned to mark Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile, its installation was delayed due to insufficient fundraising which resulted in it not being completed until after the Naval hero's death. Now surrounded by an industrial estate, Rodulfo links the monument's current environ to the settings of the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico (1888 -1978) who greatly influenced the Surrealists and whose paintings often included arcades and towers, stating- 'When thinking of monumental surrealism of course De Chirico springs to mind’. This being the primary reason why the painting references the  distinctive style of the Italian metaphysical artist.

In Yarmouth Market Place (148 x 117 cm)(below) the vibrancy of one of England's oldest and largest marketplaces is represented through swirling activity and a cheerful and pleasing tonal palette. Market produce of fruit and vegetables, flowers and clothes, along with  gangways and shoppers, are all depicted in what may be termed Rodulfo's multi-layered perspective. Gate-crashing into the picture are two seagulls, near ubiquitous to Yarmouth town, one humorous, the other slightly threatening. They also contribute to the general hustle and bustle of Yarmouth Market Place, and can be seen in various other paintings of Peter Rodulfo's wholly original Yarmouth Collection.

'Rainy Bank Holiday' (with Atlantis Tower)

Friday, March 02, 2018

Shostakovich's String Quartets

The intimacy and privacy of the String quartet became a favoured medium for the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). His cycle of fifteen String Quartets  may be considered equal in profundity, wit and technical brilliance to Beethoven's String Quartets.

Although sometimes evoking a Kafkaesque atmosphere of anxiety, dread and fear induced by life in the Totalitarian era of Stalin, (Shostakovich on a number of occasions was under extreme pressure to conform to Communist Party aesthetics), nevertheless the composer managed to preserve the highest degree of artistic integrity in his String Quartets in which the 'Other Shostakovich', someone quite separate from the 'Official' State War hero and composer of the patriotic  Leningrad' Symphony, are  featured.

As Alex Ross notes-

'The 'other Shostakovich' was a gnomic, cryptic, secretly impassioned figure who spoke through chamber music (twelve string quartets from 1948 on) .... The string quartet became his favourite medium: it gave him the freedom to write labyrinthine narratives full of blankly winding fugues, near-motionless funeral marches, wry displays of foolish jollity, off-kilter genre exercise, and stretches of deliberate blandness. One of the composer's favourite modes might be called "dance on the gallows" - a galumphing, almost polka-like number that suggests a solitary figure facing death with inexplicable glee'.[1]

'Like the Second and Third Quartets, the Fifth begins with a sonata form movement with exposition repeat. In its virile Beethovian energy, this magnificent movement resembles the first movement of the Second Quartet, with a sense of militant resistance, which had not appeared in Shostakovich's music since that work eight years earlier, though the second subject is a graceful waltz. Segueing to its central slow movement, the quartet retreats into an icy muted B minor. ....this threnody for crushed aspirations and deformed lives also recalls the 'ghost music' of the Third Quartet'.

In contrast to Beethoven's expanding the canvas for a String Quartet, Shostakovich in his 7th String quartet (1960) telescopes the format, returning to the length of an early Haydn String Quartet.  Lasting little more than 12 minutes, the length of many single movements of a Beethoven Late quartet. It includes acerbic wit and fiercely contrasting dynamics, along with an enigmatic opening phrase.

Known in the USSR as the 'Dresden' quartet, the Eighth Quartet was composed in three days during the composer's visit to the ruined city of Dresden in July 1960...Shostakovich had supposedly been so shocked by the devastation he saw that poured out his feelings in music, inscribing the work 'In memory of the victims of fascism and war'. .....the composer told friends that, far from concerning the dead of Dresden - victims not of fascism but of Western democracy working to Soviet military request - the quartet was actually a musical autobiography. 'Everything in the quartet ais as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these ? The Eight is an autobiographical  quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: "Exhausted by the hardships of prison".

Alex Ross notes -  'The personal motto D S C H, which sounded so pseudo-triumphantly in the finale of the Tenth Symphony, is woven into almost every page of the Eight Quartet. It appears alongside quotations, from previous Shostakovich works, including the Tenth Symphony, Lady Macbeth, and the First Symphony, not to mention Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, Siegfried's Funeral Music from Gotterdammerung, and the revolutionary song "Tormented by Grievous Bondage". .....The final pages of the score trail resemble in a curious way, the mad scene in Peter Grimes , in which the fisherman is reduced to singing his own name : "Grimes! Grimes ! Grimes!". It is the ultimate moment of self-alienation' [3]

Shostakovich and Britten

During the 1960's Shostakovich became a friend of  the composer Benjamin Britten (b. Lowestoft 1913-76). Both composers shared a liking for the music of Gustav Mahler,  both worked within the framework of Western tonality and respected each other's work sufficiently to quote each other in their respective compositions. The theme of the Outsider in society is prominent in both men's music, not least in Shostakovich's later string quartets. Both composers also died tragically prematurely. 

In his highly recommended book on 20th century music and its relationship to politics, 'The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century', the musicologist Alex Ross provides the historical details on the two composers friendship thus-

'In September 1960, when Dmitri Shostakovich came to London to hear his Cello Concerto played by Mstislav Rostropovich, he was introduced to Benjamin Britten. In the following years Britten and Pears made several visits to Russia and the friendship between the two composers blossomed when Britten and Pears traveled to A Soviet composer's colony in Armenia, where Rostropovich and Shostakovich were staying.

Ross notes -'Despite obvious differences in temperament- Britten was warm and affectionate with those whom he trusted, Shostakovich nervous to the end - the two quickly found sympathy with each other, and their connection may have gone as deep as any relationship in either man.

Britten had long admired Shostakovich's music, as the Lady Macbeth-like Passacaglia in Peter Grimes shows. Shostakovich, for his part, knew little of Britten's music before the summer of 1963, when he was sent the recording and score of the War Requiem. He promptly announced that he had encountered one of the "great works of the human spirit". In person he once said to Britten, "You great composer; I little composer". Britten's psychological landscape, with its undulating contours of fear and guilt, its fault lines and crevasses, its wan redeeming light, made Shostakovich feel at home.

Both men seem almost to have been born with a feeling of being cornered. Even in works of their teenage years, they appear to be experiencing spasms of existential dread. They were grown men with the souls of gifted, frightened children. They were like the soldiers in Wilfred Owens poem, meeting at the end of a profound, dull tunnel.

In 1969 Shostakovich capped the friendship by placing Britten's name on the title page of his Fourteenth Symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich with Benjamin Britten

Alex Ross summarises Shostakovich's String quartets thus -

'The creations of Shostakovich's sixties, a time of increasingly deteriorating health, form a group of their own,....Here, turning away from confrontation with the State and dogged by the possibility of sudden death following his first heart attack in 1966, he focused with growing austerity on eternal and universal subjects: time, love, betrayal, truth, morality and mortality. Withdrawn and cryptic, these compositions are often compared with Beethoven's own late period. ......It  is as if  the composer has seen too much evil, suffered too much duplicity. His withdrawal from the world in his late works seems at least partly to have been founded on a growing mistrust of humanity per se. From those who knew him it seems that Shostakovich's philosophy, at its simplest, was to value the individual and fear the crowd, the heartless collective. Like Britten, he ponders in old age a kind of Noh theatre of moral parable, chiseling away the superfluous to expose the essential human beneath, bereft of its camouflage of vanity and pretence.....The desolate psychological terrain of Shostakovich's late-period music overlaps everywhere with that of Britten's. [5]

Another reviewer of Shostakovich's String Quartets states- 'The quartets are neither minor in their scope or ambition. They all have something to say about the nature of human existence and folly, collectively or as individuals. There are brief moments, more perhaps towards the later quartets, where bitterness and dark intimations of mortality give way to a peaceful acceptance.  There are no happy endings, only surrender to the inevitable, alone in the knowledge of the truth of what we are and what we have been'. [6]

 It's been suggested  that Shostakovich, faced with close scrutiny from Officials, adopted the role of the yurodivy or holy fool in his relations with the government; this persona features in his String Quartets. Austere, increasingly terse and morose, they also bear witness to the intense emotional strain the composer endured throughout his life in compliance with the Soviet authorities. Far from being exclusively expressions of the Russian Soul, they're recognisable as giving voice to the loss of Faith, alienation and existential angst suffered by many in the West in the twentieth century.


[1] The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century  Alex Ross 2007 Farrar Straus and Giroux
[2]The New Shostakovich Ian MacDonald Pimlico 2006
[3] The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century  Alex Ross 2007 Farrar Straus and Giroux
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Anonymous Amazon reviewer.

The most detailed and scholarly online writings, far surpassing my effort, on each and every one of Shostakovich's Fifteen String Quartets can be found here. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Beethoven's String Quartets

The String Quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) are ranked amongst the greatest of the genre. Frequently technically innovative in structure, experimental in harmony with poignant  melodies and sharp wit, Beethoven's late quartets in particular express not only world-weariness and resignation but also serenity and transcendence. As such they are considered to be amongst the most enigmatic and mysterious of all music within the Western classical tradition.

Its worthwhile reminding ourselves of basics. A string quartet is a musical ensemble  consisting of four string players – two violin players, a viola player and a cellist. A prominent combination in chamber ensembles in classical music, most major composers from the mid 18th century onwards, wrote string quartets. The String Quartet was developed into its current form by the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1737-1809) whose quartets in the 1750s established the genre.

Ever since Haydn's day the string quartet has been considered a prestigious form which challenges the composer's art. With four parts to play with, a composer has enough lines to fashion a full argument, but none to spare for padding. The closely related characters of the four instruments combined cover a wide compass of pitch. The writer of string quartets must concentrate on the bare bones of musical logic. Thus, in many ways the string quartet is pre-eminently the dialectical form of instrumental music, and the one best suited to the activity of logical disputation and philosophical enquiry. [1]

The literary figure, polymath and contemporary of Beethoven, Wolfgang von  Goethe (1749-1832) explains the appeal of the string quartet thus-

"If I were in Berlin, I should rarely miss the Moser Quartet performances. Of all types of instrumental music, I have always been able to follow these best. You listen to four sensible persons conversing, you profit from their discourse, and you get to know the individual character of the instruments" [2]

Beethoven's early string quartets were composed between the summer or autumn of 1798 and the summer of 1800. They are clearly born of the tradition of his great predecessors, yet they already strain towards new directions. Succinct themes capable of extensive development; endlessly imaginative melodic manipulation; startling dynamic contrasts; complete, sometimes radical, formal mastery are all evident in Beethoven's first set of six quartets, Op. 18. [3]

The opening movement of the C minor quartet no. 4 of the set of  opus 18  displays much of the tension and angst of a minor key Mozart quartet, along with an indebtedness to Haydn's development of the quartet, as well as some distinctly Beethovian dramatic moments.

Of Beethoven's Middle quartets, the most important are the three so-called Razumovsky Quartets opus 59. (7, 8 and 9) named after the Russian prince who commissioned them. Dating from 1806 a contemporary music journal described the Razumovsky quartets as-

" long and difficult...profound and excellently wrought but not easily intelligible - except perhaps for the third, whose originality, melody and harmonic power will surely win over every educated music lover" [4]

In the Razumovsky quartets, along with his 3rd symphony, the Eroica Symphony in E flat major ,opus 55 (first performed April 1805) Beethoven breaks free from Classical form and convention towards Romanticism with the accent on feeling, self-expression and extended form. Its of these three quartets that Beethoven allegedly replied to an uncomprehending violinist, "Not for you, but for a later age".

The second movement of the E major String Quartet (no. 3 of opus 59) is often likened to music of hymnic transcendence. Beethoven's pupil, Carl Czerny relates it was conceived whilst the composer gazed at the night sky in contemplation of  'the music of the spheres'.

The New Grove Beethoven informs us that-

After completing the Ninth Symphony in early 1824 Beethoven spent the two and a half years that remained to him writing with increasing ease and exclusively in the medium of the string quartet. The five late string quartets contain Beethoven's greatest music, or so at least many listeners in the 20th century have come to feel. The first of the five, op. 127 in E flat of 1823-24, shows all the important characteristics of this unique body of music. It opens with another lyrical sonata form containing themes in two different tempos; the Maestoso theme melts into a faster one, wonderfully tender and intimate. [5]

The composition of  the A minor quartet op. 132 was interrupted by a serious illness in April 1825. An extraordinary 'Hymn of thanksgiving in the Lydian mode' forms its central movement in which the composer gives Thanks for the restoration of his health.

In the Quartet in B flat op. 130, the confrontation of themes in different tempos gives the opening movement an elusive, even whimsical feeling. A deliberate dissociation is intensified by the succession of five more movements, often in remote keys, with something of the effect of 'character pieces' in a Baroque suite. The feverish little Presto is followed by movements labelled by Beethoven Poco scherzando, Alla danza tedesca and Cavatina......[6]

The movement entitled Cavatina sees Beethoven at his most expressive with a heartfelt Welt abschied (Farewell to the World).

No discussion of Beethoven's Late String quartets can be complete without acknowledgement of the observations of Theodor W. Adorno (1903-69). Although the eminent philosopher and musicologist  himself found it impossible to complete a book upon Beethoven's String Quartets, nevertheless  he perceptively articulates defining qualities of Beethoven's late string quartets in the scattered fragments of his writings,thus -

There is in them something like a paring away of the sensuous, a spiritualization, as if the whole world of sensuous appearance were reduced in advance to the appearance of something spiritual.... It can be said that in the latest Beethoven the fabric, the interweaving of voices to form something harmonically rounded, is deliberately cut back. In Beethoven's late style there is altogether something like a tendency towards dissociation, decay, dissolution, but not in the sense of a process of composition which no longer holds things together: the disassociation and disintegration themselves become artist means, and works which have brought to a rounded conclusion take on through these means, despite their roundness, something spiritually fragmentary.  Thus, in the works which are typical of the true late style of Beethoven, the closed acoustic surface which is otherwise so characteristic of the sound of the string quartet with its perfect balance, disintegrates. [7]

Beethoven's String Quartet cycle may be considered unparalleled in scope, inventiveness and emotional depth until the String Quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). The Soviet-era composer's String Quartets match Beethoven's in technical brilliance and profundity  in many ways and therefore invite comparison; however, Beethoven's String Quartets stand independently in their own right, as monuments to the revolutionary genius of the Romantic composer.


[1] Wikipedia
[2] Goethe 1829 Correspondence
[3] Beethoven String Quartets  Vol.1  Basil Lam BBC Music Guides 1975
[4] Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 
[5] The New Grove Beethoven  ed. Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson pub. W W Norton & Co 1983
[6] Beethoven String Quartets Vol. 2. Basil Lam BBC Music Guides 1975
[7] Theodor W. Adorno Philosophy of Music: Fragments and Texts pub. Polity Press. 1998 New Ed 2002

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Kazuo lshiguro

A Happy Birthday to Kazuo Ishiguro (b. Nov. 8th 1954, Nagasaki) recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I'm not particularly well-qualified to share any observations upon Ishiguro’s novels, having only read his An Artist of the floating world (1986) some thirty years ago, and once again recently, his Never Let me Go a couple of years ago and The Remains of the day more recently.

Ishiguro completed his MA in Creative writing at the University of East Anglia in 1980, my Alma Mater, and I remember meeting the co-founders of UEA's prestigious creative writing course, the novelists Angus Wilson (1913-1991) and Malcolm Bradbury ( 1932 - 2000) way back in the 1970's. 

The jacket-notes for what is Ishiguro's only Japan-centred novel An artist of the floating world  describes the novel thus-

1948: Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War II, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated painter Masuji Ono fills his days attending to his garden, his two grown daughters and his grandson, and his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet lantern-lit bars. His should be a tranquil retirement. But as his memories return to the past - to a life and a career deeply touched by the rise of Japanese militarism - a dark shadow begins to grow over his serenity. 

But of greater interest to myself is the postscript dated January 2016  to mark the occasion of his novel's 30th anniversary, in which Ishiguro states-

‘An Artist’ was written between 1981 and 1985, years of crucial, often fractious and bitter transition in Britain. The governments of Margaret Thatcher had brought an end to the post-war political consensus about the welfare state and the desirability of a ‘mixed’ economy (in which key assets and industries are owned publically as well as privately). there was an overt and strident programme to transform the country from one based on manufacturing and heavy industries, with large organised workforces, into a predominantly service-based economy with a fragmented, flexible, non-unionised labour pool. It was the era of the miners’ strike, the Wapping dispute, CND marches, the Falklands War, IRA terrorism, an economic theory - ‘monetarism’ - that characterised deep cuts to public services as the necessary medicine to heal a sick economy. .... This novel.....was shaped by the Britain in which I was then living: the pressures on people in every walk of life to take political sides; the rigid certainties, shading into self-righteousness and sinister aggression, of ardent, often youthful factions; the agonising about the ‘role of the artist’ in a time of political change. And for me personally: the nagging sense of how difficult it is to see clearly above the dogmatic fervours of one’s day; and the fear that time and history would show that for all one’s good intentions, one had backed a wrong, shameful, even evil cause, and wasted one’s best years and talents to it.  - London, January 2016

And in fact its often been commented upon that Britain and Japan share a number of cultural and socio-economic characteristics; both are heavily industrialised island nations which once pursued Imperial ambitions, both once possessed a formidable and large naval force, both are also nations which to the present-day have rigidly defined social hierarchies.

In his dystopian science-fiction novel Never Let Me Go (2005) the English county of Norfolk, where Ishiguro 'discovered' his vocation as a novelist, is described as a place where everything which is lost ends up -

“You see, because [Norfolk is] stuck out here on the east, on this hump jutting into the sea, it's not on the way to anywhere. People going north and south, they bypass it altogether. For that reason, it's a peaceful corner of England, rather nice. But it's also something of a lost corner.'

"Someone claimed after the lesson that Miss Emily had said Norfolk was England's 'lost corner' because that was where all the lost property found in the country ended up".

"Ruth said one evening, looking out at the sunset, that, 'when we lost something precious, and we'd looked and looked and still couldn't find it, then we didn't have to be completely heartbroken. We still had that last bit of comfort, thinking one day, when we were grown up, and we were free to travel the country, we could always go and find it again in Norfolk." - Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

In what is perhaps Ishiguro's most well-known novel, The Remains of the Day (1989)  which has been described as P.G.Wodehouse meets Kafka, Ishiguro explores psychological characteristics often associated with the English nation, the famous 'stiff upper lip' of emotional repression and inarticulateness; of individuals who are unable to express themselves adequately, a particularly English tragedy, often enhanced and facilitated through an inflexible and detrimental to equality, hierarchical class-system which refuses to die an honorable death. 

Written in a  fluid, intimate and masterful prose style, distinctive characteristics of Ishiguro's prose, The Remains of the Day depicts England in the 1930's in which the class system dominates people's lives. It also describes how through political naivete the British upper-class were blind to the dangers of fascism spreading throughout mainland Europe, a political awareness which remains unlearnt in sectors of British society to the present-day, as Ishiguro himself states in an article on the result of the ill-conceived British referendum on membership to the European Union [1] as well as in interview on BBC television.

In the excellent Merchant-Ivory film adaption of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1993) the magical chemistry between the actors Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson makes no small contribution in  portraying the fatal psychological inadequacy of the English, an inability of emotional expressiveness, aided and abetted by their obsession with status and social class. These factors blight what ought to have been a healthy love affair between the two central characters of Ishiguro's brilliant novel.