"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 31, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (5)

Opus 67: Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1807–1808). One of the most popular compositions in classical music, and one of the most often played symphonies. The first movement with the all-too well-known fate-motive remains impressive in its conciseness. The symphony travels from the darkness of this first movement to the light of the exuberant finale, something that Beethoven repeated in the Ninth. First performed in Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1808, the work achieved its prodigious reputation soon afterwards.

Opus 68: Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral") (1807–1808). The first movement sings of the joy of nature and is one of the most beautiful movements Beethoven wrote. The symphony was inspired again by Haydn, this time by the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons. Despite the programmatic elements as bird song and a storm, it is not a symphonic poem and all elements are well integrated in the symphonic structure. The journey here is not from fate to victory but from repose through high spirits and stormy weather to again repose.

Opus 69: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major (1808). A lyrical sonata, as other works from this period. At the start, the cello enters softly and unaccompanied like the piano in the fourth concerto. The middle movement is an extended scherzo; a slow cantabile introduction precedes the sunny finale.

Opus 70: Two Piano Trios (1808). The first piano trios again since 1802.
No. 1: Piano Trio No. 5 in D major ("Ghost"). The first movement is characterized by a long, relaxed tune, but the modulations are quite unexpected. The second movement has a melodramatic  quality and gave the trio its nickname (Macbeth's ghosts?). The piano part is full of trills and tremolando. The finale is humorous and springs some harmonic surprises in the coda.
No. 2: Piano Trio No. 6 in E-flat major. This a sunny work with expansive themes, that has been somewhat unjustly overshadowed by its companion trio. There are four movements of which the third is a Landler.

Opus 71: Wind sextet in E-flat (1796). Again an older work, charming and delightful.

Opus 72: Fidelio, opera (c. 1803–05; Fidelio Overture composed 1814). Beethoven's only opera, on the theme of personal sacrifice and heroism. The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named "Fidelio", rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. The prisoner's chorus "O welcher Lust" embodies the ideals of the French Revolution of liberty and fraternity. In rescuing Florestan, Leonore shows what difference the bravery of one single person can make.

Opus 72a: Leonore (earlier version of Fidelio, with Leonore Overture No. 2) (1805)
Opus 72b: Leonore (earlier version of Fidelio, with Leonore Overture No. 3) (1806)
The two overtures to the opera that Beethoven considered as too symphonic. The 3rd is generally regarded as the best and is nowadays often played between both acts of the opera.

Opus 73: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major ("Emperor") (1809). Beethoven's last piano concerto is fully in the heroic mode. It is Beethoven's most popular concerto, but more conventional in form than the Fourth. The slow melody of the first movement is rapturous, as is the whole Adagio that follows.

Opus 74: String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major ("Harp") (1809). The nickname "Harp" refers to the characteristic pizzicato sections in the allegro and was not by Beethoven himself. The dramatic first movement is followed by an adagio with a principal theme of great beauty. After the c minor scherzo the quartet is concluded by a set of variations.

Opus 75: Six Songs (1809). These songs demonstrate Beethoven's growing mastery in the form. The second song, Neue Liebe, for example is through-composed and full of exuberance. The third one, Es war einmal ein König, is playful and has a very memorable melody.

Opus 76: Six variations on an original theme for piano in D major (1809). The "original theme" is the same one that Beethoven later used for the so-called "Turkish March" in The Ruins of Athens.

Opus 77: Piano Fantasia in G minor (1809). Improvisatory material leads to variations on a simple tune. The free character of the opening material suggests that its origins may go back to the composer’s own improvised performances.

Opus 78: Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major (1809). A delightful and sunny sonata consisting of only two movements. Dedicated "A Therese" (its nickname) to Countess Therese Brunsvik.

Opus 79: Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major (1809). This is a "Sonata Facile," starting with a German dance, after which follow a barcarolle-style andante and a carefree rondo.

Opus 80: "Choral Fantasy" (Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra) (1808). Usually considered as lesser Beethoven and decidedly in the popular mood. I saw a registration of the Proms where it was played to great effect. The piano starts with a fantasia, after which the orchestra joins and finally the chorus. The chorus about music as a symbol of beauty and joy also has similarities with the Finale of the Ninth Symphony.

Opus 81a: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major ("Les Adieux") (1809). The only sonata with extra-musical inspiration: the flight from Vienna of Beethoven's patron the Archduke Rudolph because of the impending French invasion of the city. Rather straightforwardly, "Farewell" is followed by "Absence" and "Reunion." Beethoven detested the French title his publisher stuck on the sonata - originally it was called "Das Lebewohl."

Opus 81b: Sextet in E-flat major (1795). An older work, but very entertaining music.

Opus 82: Four Ariettas and a Duet (1809). Five vocal works in Italian. There is a possibility this song collection has roots going back to 1801 when Beethoven was exercising his skills in setting Italian text under the guidance of Salieri.

Opus 83: Three Songs (1810). Three German songs. No. 1: "Wonne der Wehmut" is a warm-hearted, understated setting. No. 2: "Sehnsucht" has many delightful touches, such as the constantly varying accompaniment.

Opus 84: Egmont, overture and incidental music (1810). Music for a play by Goethe about the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. One of the leaders, Count Egmont, is beheaded but final victory is won. A very effective symphonic overture.

Opus 85: Oratorio: Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) (1803). Dramatic oratorio portraying the emotional turmoil of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his crucifixion. It concludes at the point of Jesus personally accepting his fate, placing the emphasis on his own decision. First performed in 1803, but only published in 1811, therefore the high opus number. The most popular part is the "Welten singen..." finale chorus.

"Summertime" by J.M. Coetzee (Best Novels)

Summertime (2009) is - as of this writing - the latest novel by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee. The writer "John Coetzee" is deceased and a fictitious biographer, Mr Vincent, has interviews with five different persons to compile materials on his life. He concentrates on the 1970s, after Coetzee returned from the United States to South Africa. Some fragments from Coetzee's notebooks are also given. Presumably, these are all rough drafts to be worked on later.

Four of the persons interviewed are women: two former lovers (Julia, with whom "John Coetzee" had a brief affair that led to the dissolution of her marriage; Sophie, a former French teacher at Capetown University), a cousin, Margot, and a Brazilian woman whose daughter was taught English by Coetzee (she accuses Coetzee of making overtures to both her and her teenage daughter). The basic theme in their stories is Coetzee's inability to build a relationship with women. He is even called autistic in his lovemaking. Coetzee is not only blasted as son, as teacher and as lover, on top of that none of the interviewed thinks he is a great writer. His views on South Africa and apartheid are also made to look problematical. The whole book is one fest of self-depreciation.

Coetzee is the most reclusive of modern writers. He doesn't see why readers should be at all interested in his private life. Isn't it, in fact, immoral to be interested in the life of one Coetzee, just because he is a famous writer? Without mentioning them, this novel is the great "anti" to our popular press with its paparazzi, TV shows where lives are publicly dissected and our tendency to seek everywhere for human interest and emotion (not to mention Facebook).

It is also post-modernism over the top. Coetzee imagines a fictional biographer, who has interviews with fictional persons, who give fictional information about a fictional writer John Coetzee – five layers of fiction! In reality, in the period described here, instead of being the loner who could not connect with others, Coetzee was married and had two sons.
Far from being a bona fide autobiography, this is an anti-autobiography, bending the facts of Coetzee's life because he doesn’t want us to pry in it. It is also a great joy to see the author at play with these materials.
I read Summertime in the Penguin edition.

July 26, 2011

"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte (Book review)

Wuthering Heights (1847) is the novel of the intense passion between the foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw (later Linton), her betrayal of him and the vengeance he visits upon the next generation. It is a novel about people who incorporate the barren wildness of the nature of the Yorkshire moors, force pitted against force. The novel is full of violence, illness and death.

In its own times the book met with mixed reviews because of its unremitting darkness and weirdness, but in the 20th c. it became a hard and fast classic. In the Guardian it was even polled as the U.K.'s favorite love story - although I should say that the main theme is revenge and that it rather is a family novel (showing the decline of the Earnshaws and Lintons, and their fusion under the angry hand of Heathcliff) than a novel about love. Heathcliff and Catherine are at first more like brother and sister and Heathcliff's later passion seems to spring more from pride and self-love than a sweeter feeling.

It is not so strange that this novel with its violent acts and violent speech had to wait until the 20th c. to be loved. Heathcliff, too, is the kind of cruel beast without humaneness and compassion whom we know all too well from 20th c. history and fiction.

How come a pastor's daughter in a corner of England thought this all up in the mid 19th century?
Wuthering Heights is about large passions, but the style is rather bland and neutral. In contrast to Jane Eyre, the story is mainly told by bystanders and outsiders, like the long-time servant Nelly Dean and the tenant Mr Lockwood. The first three chapters do excellent work in setting the atmosphere and then we readers, too, are waiting for the story of Nelly Dean. But as it is difficult to feel sympathy for any of the characters in this family tragedy, you watch it like a storm on the heath, fascinated but strangely uninvolved.
I read Wuthering Heights in the Penguin edition. It is also available on Gutenberg. Librivox recording of the novel. 
Interesting website about Wuthering Heights.

July 24, 2011

"A Pale View of Hills" by Kazuo Ishiguro (Book review)

Kazuo Ishiguro's haunting debut novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), is narrated by a Japanese widow, Etsuko, living in England, looking back over her life in post-war Nagasaki in the light of the recent suicide of one of her daughters.

She thinks back to one hot summer in Nagasaki just after the war, with cicadas droning in the trees. Etsuko has befriended Sachiko and her little daughter Mariko, living nearby in a sort of shack and fallen down from better times. When rumors of infanticide spread in the neighborhood, the pregnant Etsuko feels very disturbed. There are surprising similarities between Mariko and Etsuko's deceased daughter and the story eventually takes on a macabre shade. Etsuko's and Sachiko's lives seem to flow together. Past and present become fused, too.

The reminiscences are just as confused as a hazy, hot summer day. Everything flows together and we all are guilty, seems to be the message of this sad story on the theme of loss.

The narrative is subtle  and suggestive as we would expect from a Japanese author. But Kazuo Ishiguro is not Japanese, at least not anymore. He was born in 1954 in Nagasaki but grew up in England (since 1960) and now is a British citizen. Ishiguro writes a beautiful English style, concise and pared-down. Since this first novel, he has built up a small, but very fine oeuvre.

July 23, 2011

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan (Best Novellas)

On Chesil Beach gives a detailed description of the wedding night of Florence and Edward, in a small hotel on the Dorset coast (Chesil Beach). The story is told in real-time (as in McEwan's Saturday), with two large flashbacks to fill in the background of the two protagonists.

It is 1962, still before the sexual revolution. Brought up in old-fashioned morality, Florence and Edward have so far barely touched each other.

They have very different backgrounds and come to this night with different expectations. She is from a wealthy and intellectual family - her father an industrialist, her mother a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford - , he is from a more sober background (his father is a schoolmaster) with a mentally disturbed mother and the family house run to seed. She is musically gifted and plays semi-professionally first violin in a string quartet, something she wants to continue after her marriage. He is a bit of a floater, rather inconsequential, although he has a certain interest in history.

On the wedding night they have dinner in their room and then quickly retire to the bedroom. Edward is almost too eager to finally sleep with his beloved Florence. He looks greatly forward to this Big Moment. But Florence is awkward and timid and would rather put things off. She feels repulsed by the idea of sexual intimacy, and is also afraid she can't satisfy Edward's rather obvious needs. She has read a terrible medical guidebook, which only makes her feel nauseous.

Of course, between the sheets things go utterly wrong. This is one wedding night that really becomes a life-changing experience! When they later quarrel on the deserted beach, each of them says exactly the wrong things and matters go from bad to worse. Edward doesn't stop Florence when she threatens to leave...

In the last pages we learn that Florence later becomes a famous professional violin player, but remains unmarried. Edwards drifts aimlessly through life, without any steadiness in his relations. He deeply regrets that he didn't show more patience and kindness, there on Chesil beach...
A brilliantly written novella, precise, concise and subtle. A lesser writer would probably have turned this awkward sexual comedy into a broad farce, in McEwan's hands it has become a masterpiece - highlighting the failure of communication between two human beings.

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

July 22, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (4)

Opus 51: Two Rondos for Piano (1797). No. 1: Rondo in C major. No. 2: Rondo in G major. Again two earlier works, the first one Moderato e grazioso, offers a principal theme in characteristic singing style, the second one Andante cantabile e grazioso, contains an E major episode of some brilliance. This all shows how productive Beethoven was in the 1790s!

Opus 52: Eight Songs (1804–1805). These are uncomplicated "Lieder", ranging from the sentimental to the humorous. (No. 1: "Urians Reise um die Welt," No. 2: "Feuerfab," No. 3: "Das Liedchen von der Ruhe," No. 4: "Maigesang," No. 5: "Mollys Abschied," No. 6: "Die Liebe," No. 7: "Marmotte," No. 8: "Das Blümchen Wunderhold").

Opus 53: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major ("Waldstein") (1803). Beethoven knew Count Waldstein from Bonn and the count helped Beethoven with his network in Vienna when the composer moved there in 1792. Eleven years later, Beethoven paid the count back with the dedication of his most revolutionary sonata to date. The sonata was the first written by Beethoven for the new Erard piano with its extended range. As the sonata was considered too long by contemporaries, Beethoven replaced the slow movement (now known as the Andante Faviori) with an introduction to the finale. The last movement has an unforgettable melody.

Opus 54: Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major (1804). A small work wedged in between the giants of the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas. It is quite unconventional, in only two movements, neither of which is in sonata form. Called "bizar" by Beethoven's contemporaries, the sonata is cryptically concise, starting with a rondo in the tempo of a minuet and ending with a superfast molto perpetuo.

Opus 55: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major ("Eroica") (1805). Little need be said about this monumental work, one of the most superb creations in the whole of symphonic literature.
Website on the Eroica, Program Note NPR Music, A Symphonic Revolution (interactive website of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra), Beethoven's Eroica.

Opus 56: Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano in C major (1804–1805). Often considered one of Beethoven's lesser works, this is in fact a very pleasing concert, harking back to the Sinfonia Concertante as practiced by Stamitz, Salieri, Mozart and Haydn. The first movement is expansive but also has the clarity of chamber-music. The finale is a virtuoso Rondo alla Polacca.

Opus 57: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor ("Appassionata") (1805–1806). Beethoven's most violent musical utterance. The first movement is unrelenting in its onslaught. There are again startling changes in tone and dynamics. After a brief break in the andante, a set of four variations, follows the finale which gives us more passionate violence of the perpetuum mobile kind, ending in a gesture of defiance.
Here is an extended discussion of this sonata.

Opus 58: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major (1805–1806). A novelty at the start is the presentation of the theme by the solo piano, instead of the conventional purely orchestral introduction. On top of that, this is not a bravura opening, but a hushed statement which sets the mood for the whole movement. The andante is a dialogue between piano and orchestra, The cantabile piano is set against gruff string passages as if to to test the power of poetry to tame harsh reality. The rondo finale is cheerful and dancing. This concerto is special because its expressive depth and structural breadth are not created with grand gestures. It is all very soft-spoken, but determined, as if machismo has been transcended here. There are only few of the usual military elements (which would again play a large part in the fifth concerto) - as if Beethoven has met Mozart. My favorite Beethoven piano concerto.

Opus 59: Three String Quartets ("Rasumovsky," for their dedication to the Russian ambassador) (1806). These are real symphonic quartets, clocking in at about 45 minutes and at least one-third longer than the op. 18 quartets and technically very difficult.  To pay homage to his patron, who was a colorful figure in Viennese cultural life, Beethoven weaved a Russian theme into each quartet.
No. 1: String Quartet No. 7 in F major. Spacious and majestic, a strange blend of serenity and inner force. The middle of the first movement is a calm fugato. "Fate does not knock at the door here, but stares through the window." (Robert Simpson) The adventurous second movement is a scherzo that continually changes shape "as shadow and sunlight flickering over a vast plain." (Marx) This is followed by an elegiac andante and bright finale on the above-mentioned Russian melody.
No. 2: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor. The initial allegro in e-minor is fierce and strong. this is followed by a hymnlike slow movement. This time it is the scherzo that has the Russian theme, used rather harshly. the finale again ends in the minor key.
No. 3: String Quartet No. 9 in C major. An exercise in shape-shifting, with various melodies flitting through, but no stability of sonata-form.

Opus 60: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major (1806). A classical symphony in the Haydn mode, very different from its two neighbors, without tragedy, but fresh and spontaneous. The first movement starts with a slow introduction in which all themes can be heard and ends with a coda that is a real culmination. There is no tragedy, but rather classical pose in this symphony.

Opus 61: Violin Concerto in D major (1806). The meditative violin concerto is one of Beethoven's most beautiful musical utterances. I used to have an old mono record of Jascha Heifetz with Charles Munch and still think fondly about that interpretation. Like the fourth piano concerto this is a concerto without bravura, although the technical difficulties for the solo player are immense - reason the first performance wiht a soloist who had had no chance to rehearse, was a disaster. Therefore Beethoven also made a piano version.
(Opus 61a: Piano Transcription of Violin Concerto Opus 61).

Opus 62: Coriolan Overture (1807). Together with Egmont, Beethoven's best concert overture. The main theme represents Coriolanus' resolve to invade Rome, while a more tender theme stands for the pleadings of his mother to desist. Coriolan eventually gives in to his mother, but as there also is no way back for him, he commits suicide.

We skip two arrangements, Opus 63: Arrangement of String Quintet (Opus 4) for Piano Trio (1806) and Opus 64: Arrangement of String Trio (Opus 3) for Piano and Cello (1807).

Next is a single aria, dating from 10 years before: Opus 65: Aria: "Ah perfido!" (1796). Also Opus 66: 12 Variations for cello & piano in F major on Mozart's "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" (1796) is a ten year old work.

Conclusion:This is a great slice of Beethoven's oeuvre, containing the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas and the third symphony. It also covers 1806, a dark year as Vienna was occupied by the forces of Napoleon, but also the period that gave birth to meditative and for once non-militaristic music as the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony. Beethoven also continued writing string quartets, with the difficult and enigmatic Razumowsky quartets Op 59.

July 21, 2011

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte (Book review)

The story of Jane Eyre, told in the first person, starts at Gateshead where she is a 9 year old orphan who fights the mistreatment by her heartless aunt. Next she is sent to Lowood, a charity school with a harsh regime under a hypocritical minister. The little rebel manages to survive on a starvation diet, but her friend Helen Burns dies in her arms of tuberculosis. This leads to reforms in the school regime and in the end Jane becomes one of the teachers. Her natural independence and spirit have been strengthened by these childhood experiences.

She then obtains a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she asserts her equality with her sardonic employer, the patrician Rochester. She loves and is loved by him, but at the wedding it is revealed that he is already married - he has locked up his lunatic wife in the attic of the Hall. Jane is forced to make a choice by the discovery of this secret - and flees from Thornfield.

Starving and reduced to begging, she is taken in at Moor House. The two young ladies and their brother, a vicar, who live there, even turn out to be family of Jane. Next Jane inherits a fortune, but shares it with her newly found family. Relations with her nephew, St John, turn bad when he wants to marry her and take her to India as a missionary's wife and assistant. Jane escapes this deadly marriage (St John is anyway already "married to his church") and returns to Thornfield which she finds as a burned-out ruin. Rochester, blinded and mutilated, lives at a nearby farm, Ferndean, and as his wife has perished in the fire she started, he now is a free man. "Reader, I married him."

You do not usually think of classics as page-turners and often read them more as duty than pleasure. Not so Jane Eyre. To my surprise it read like a piece of modern fiction, and an extremely well-written one at that. What a passion! No wonder this book caused a storm, even though being published under a pseudonym, to hide that the author was a woman. The book was subtitled "An autobiography," as if this were a real account of the burning passions hidden in the country houses of northern England. Most of all, people were scandalized: a young, plain governess falls in love with her Byronic employer, attracted by his dark mien, his violence and his power. He answers her feelings and they are even on the point of marrying, when the truth she was unaware of comes out: he already has a mad wife locked-up in the attic. That accounts for the ghostly shreaks and laughter she heard sometimes at night...

This is a sublime book because it is about freedom, equality and human dignity. Jane Eyre fights for equality, not only as a woman, but as a human being (the only black spot in the eye of Charlotte Bronte are the British colonies, which still have to wait a century for that same equality and freedom). Jane struggles successfully to find the place in the world that she deserves and does so with great passion. That is a message important in all times, for all people.
Librivox recording of the novel. Jane Eyre on Gutenberg. I read Jane Eyre in the Penguin edition.

"Vivement Dimanche" ("Confidentially Yours", 1983) by Truffaut (Film review)

One early morning real estate agent Julien Vercel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is duck hunting in the wetlands of Southern France when another hunter in the same area is shot point blank in the face. Vercel sees an abandoned car which he recognizes as belonging to one Claude Massoulier. He touches the car to put off the lights and that same morning the police visit his office. The authorities soon discover that Vercel's wife was Massoulier's mistress and so Vercel becomes the prime suspect - even the more so after his wife is that same evening battered to death in their bedroom. But one person believes Vercel is innocent: his secretary, Barbara Becker (Fanny Ardent), and she starts her own amateur investigation while Vercel hides in the cellar below his office...

This is Truffaut's last film before his untimely death at age 52. It is a conscious homage to Hitchcock, shot on purpose in black and white, and at the same time a vehicle for Fanny Ardent, the actress with whom he shared his life at that time. The story was taken from an American pulp thriller (The Long Saturday Night by Charles Williams) - Truffaut used more pulp stories in his films, for example in Shoot the Pianist and in The Bride Wore Black.

The story is fluffy and improbable, but the glamorous Fanny Ardent carries the film. She is a woman in a world of men, and dark-haired in a world where blondes are popular. There are several conscious references to Hitchcock, such as legs passing in the street seen from below through a cellar window. A diffidence with Hitchcock is that where the elder master disliked women and usually cast icy and mean blondes, Truffaut admired women.

The film is humorous rather than dark - I would not call this a film-noir, although it plays with some noir elements. It lacks the femme fatale, the hero does not fall into a trap which only gets worse, and the ending is optimistic. It is a fun film perfect in its genre.

July 20, 2011

"Solar" by Ian McEwan (Book review)

Solar is the story of the middle-aged, rotund Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him and who now only lives to show off his pride, devour enormous quantities of food and drink, and make love to as many women as is humanly possible. Stealing the research papers of one of his post-docs, he next passes himself off as the savior of mankind from the global warming disaster, by planning to make solar energy cheaply available via "artificial photosynthesis." But at the moment of his greatest triumph, reality is about to catch up with him...

Talking about ecological issues, Beard is a living example of the greed of modern society. He devours mountains of expensive food and slobbers away whole rivers of wine and whiskey (this all shows of course in his figure). He is a serial adulterer. Besides Gluttony and Lust, he is guilty of all other cardinal sins one can think of.

But this mountain of greed is also strangely likable. Everything Beard does tends to go wrong in a funny way (and sometimes rights itself again like a Daruma-doll). Solar therefore is enormously entertaining. Strangely enough, that is what many reviewers seem to regard as a negative point (they talk about "set pieces"), as if the comic novel were not a genre, too.

But Solar is more than only a humorous novel. Although it is not politically motivated (and all the better for it!) and does not take sides in the discussion about global warming, it gives off a clear warning signal: not only is Beard typical of the greed of modern mankind, he is also self-destructive, and it remains to be seen whether his scientific powers will be enough to save him. So it is with the real world.

Solar makes you laugh, but also sets you thinking.

July 17, 2011

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen (Book Review)

Where Emma is perhaps Jane Austen's most mature and wise novel, Pride and Prejudice is full of youthful sprightliness. It is carefree and witty and justifiably Austen's most popular creation. We follow the courtships of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters. The focus is on Lizzie's locking horns with Mr Darcy. Darcy is a proud and ancient landowner and he treats Elizabeth at first with the blind prejudice based on his status. But she can’t be impressed by such prejudices that are not based on the intrinsic value of human beings. Her sharp tongue and ironic repartees help her in the war of words which finally leads to mutual attraction. She also overcomes her own prejudice, which was based on a wrong first impression.

Pride and Prejudice is a book full of sunshine. Like everything Jane Austen wrote, it is very eighteenth century. The novel is infused with the optimism of the Enlightenment, with the rationalism of Locke and Hume. For the arch-romantic Charlotte Bronte it was all too neat, too well-ordered. But if you like the music of Joseph Haydn, you will also love Jane Austen's books. Just like Haydn, Austen is optimistic and bright, but there is a deeper thought hidden below the surface.

Being an earlier work, Pride and Prejudice is not perfect. Where all events in Emma are so natural that the book almost could have been a biography, in Pride and Prejudice novelistic coincidence still plays a role, for example when Elizabeth takes a holiday tour that by chance brings her to the area where Darcy has his castle. She visits that castle and of course, whom else does she meet but Mr Darcy – etc., etc. But the novel is so much fun that we gladly overlook such small defects.
Pride and Prejudice on Gutenberg. Librivox recording of the novel. I read the Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice.

"Emma" by Jane Austen (Book Review)

Austen was the first novelist to put the reader via internal dialogues inside the head of her characters. Her heroines come to life in a most natural way and we share their longings, worries, and deliberations. Austen also makes us a little bit wiser than her characters, so that we can laugh at their follies. Emma, perhaps her most “human” novel, is a good example. The snobbish but sympathetic Emma is wrong about almost everything. She likes to meddle in other person's lives and tries to couple her youthful protegee Harriet Smith with a young clergyman. She fails miserably: the parson declares his highly unwelcome love for Emma herself.

Emma is not only wrong about others, she also doesn’t know her own feelings. In fact she is in love without knowing it. When Harriet Smith after several Emma-induced disappointments, lets her eye fall on Mr Knightley, Emma is suddenly aware that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself! This is one of the most beautiful recognitions of love in literature. Of course, after that Emma stumbles on to happiness. Harriet Smith returns to her first love – a gentleman farmer initially disapproved by Emma for her because his station in life was too low.

That puts the finger on one sore spot in Jane Austen: servants and other persons of a status lower than the small gentry to which she herself belonged, are about as important as the furniture and get the same treatment. They are never introduced as speaking characters in her novels. England was a harsh class society.

That is also true for Jane Austen herself, and women in a similar position. The lower gentry did not own land and the only occupations open to them were the clergy, medicine and the army. But these were closed to women. A woman like Jane Austen could only hope to make an advantageous marriage in order to secure her status and way of life. Otherwise she would be dependent on other family members (as Jane Austen indeed was). This explains the importance of courtship and marriage in Jane Austen's novels.
Emma on Gutenberg. Librivox recording of the novel. I read Emma in the Penguin edition.

July 16, 2011

"The Kelly's and the O'Kelly's" by Anthony Trollope (Book review)

Trollope's second novel - and again an Irish novel - The Kellys and the O'Kellys (1848) sold just 140 copies when first published. Yet this is real Trollope, with all the hallmarks of future greatness.

It is the story of two young men, Francis O'Kelly, Lord Ballindine, and his distant relation and tenant, Martin Kelly. Both are in love. Lord Ballindine's engagement to Fanny Wyndham, a wealthy heiress, has been broken off, because her guardian Lord Cashel is machinating to marry her to his dissipated son Lord Kilcullen, but the two have not given up on each other.

Martin Kelly plans to marry Anty Lynch, an old maid who is his neighbor, at first for her money (she is a bit weak-minded, it appears), but in the course of the story the two really fall in love. The problem is her worthless brother Barry who is in earnest after her money and tries to have her locked up in a mental asylum and even murder her.

Both suitors will of course be successful, but what is more interesting is Trollope's grasp of social relationships, human character, and the competing demands of desire and conscience. Trollope's Ireland is also perfectly sensed - a pity that readers in England were not very much interested at that time.

The description of character and social comedy is more important than the love stories. Lord Ballindine and Fanny Wyndham only meet again in the last chapter, and their whole conversation consists of "My own Fanny!" and "Dear Frank!"

Get the novel on Gutenberg. 
Also read this enthusiastic review in the Guardian.

"Hide and Seek" by Wilkie Collins (Book review)

Collins' third novel Hide and Seek (1854) is a big step down from his second, Basil. After that novel for and about adults, with deep psychological insights, Collins befriended Dickens and apparently came under the spell of the famous man. Dickens usually writes about children - mistreated children, poor children, or at the other end of the unrealistic scale, angelic children. It is the kind of manipulative Victorian literature that I can't stand. To make it palatable for the masses, the author (Dickens and in this case also Collins) pours a whole pot of treacle over it.

Hide and Seek is about Madonna (Mary) a deaf-mute (!) girl whose origin is a mystery (!) but who has been lovingly (!) taken into the house of struggling (!) minor painter Valentine and his wife Lavinia, who is an invalid (!) - both ladies are of course angels (!). The only clue to Madonna's original identity is a hair bracelet that Valentine keeps carefully hidden - he is not interested in discovering the truth about her as he doesn't want to be parted from her. Next we have Zack, a wild boy with a very religious sermonizing father (and of course a loving, angelic mother!) who is friends with Valentine and Madonna and wants to become a painter to get away from the office where his father has placed him. During a wild night on the town, Zack meets Mat Marksman, a trapper a la Fennimore Cooper, with a skull cap instead of his original scalp, just arrived back home from the wild Americas. Mat is looking for his sister who twenty-three years ago was ostracized and kicked out of the family (while he was already away across the ocean) because of an extra-marital pregnancy. Without coincidences we have no novels: of course Madonna is later revealed to be the daughter of Mat's dead sister. Mat searches for the guy who has the dishonor of that sister on his consciousness in order to take revenge and who else is the man in question... but the sermonizing father of Zack. Without coincidences we have no novels! Zack is therefore the half-brother of Madonna. Good they found this out in time, otherwise we would have had a story that would not have been fit for children.

In other words, this is the low-end of Victorian fiction. Like in Dickens, the writing is full of caricatures as well. One redeeming point is the description of Valentine's dedication to art, even with little talent, and his atelier - Collins' father had been a painter and also Collins himself had taken up the brush before the pen. The second attraction is that Collins hated preachers and their shamming and liked to make them into villains.

Get a copy on Gutenberg.

Listening to the complete Beethoven (3)

Opus 25: Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola in D major (1801), This seven part work again harks back to 18th c. serenade music, such as in the Entrata march and the two minuets. The emotional heart is the andante, a set of variations, but on the whole this is a rather slight work.

Something entirely different is Opus 26: the Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major (1801). The structure of the sonata is unconventional in that the piece opens with a slow movement in the format of a theme and variations. After a scherzo follows a funeral march (played by a brass band at Beethoven's own funeral). The sonata closes with a joyful rondo. Beethoven wrote this work out of a sense of competition when the piano virtuoso Cramer visited Vienna. It sets off a new phase of experimentation, now also with form. A memorable sonata.

Experiments with form continue in Opus 27: Two Piano Sonatas (1801) "in the form of a fantasia." The Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major is the more conventional of the two, although all four movements are connected in one continuous flow. It is full of ideas and like its companion starts with simple and intimate music. The Piano Sonata No. 14 in c-sharp minor is the famous "Moonlight" - this time starting with a real slow movement, where the melody seems to rise up out of the chordal mass. This well-known movement is followed by an elfin dance and a volcanic eruption in the finale.

Opus 28: the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major (1801) reverts to the classical four-movement model. It has an easy-going manner. The emotional core is the andante, which sounds like a solitary walk. The rustic finale with a droning bass has given the sonata the nickname "Pastoral," but that was not a choice of Beethoven himself.

Opus 29: String Quintet in C major (1801). This Beethoven's only original contribution to the string quintet genre, an expansive work with lots of sonority, but in my view falling short of the string quartets op. 18. (String quintets were popular as arrangements of other works as well. Beethoven himself arranged his octet for wind and his third piano trio for this medium; others made string quintet versions of Beethoven's Septet and First Symphony).

Opus 30: Three Violin Sonatas (1803). The Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major is a gracious work, neatly sharing its elegant melodies between the two instruments.The finale is a theme with variations. The Violin Sonata No. 7 in c minor is the largest and most serious of the set, as already indicated by the key. It is in four movements and starts with a mysterious, questioning theme followed by militaristic rumblings. The next adagio possesses great poise and beauty and the fine finale ends uncompromisingly in the minor. The Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major is charming, sturdy and deceptively simple.

Opus 31: Three Piano Sonatas (1802). Although these sonatas share the same opus number, they are very different in character. The Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major is a bright and serene piece. Interesting is the limping melody in the first movement. Sonata No. 17 in d minor with the nickname "Tempest" is indeed volatile and tempestuous, although there is no connection with Shakespeare's play. Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major ("Hunt" was not Beethoven's name) is a relaxed and sunny work, with a scherzo and a minuet as the two middle movements instead of a slow movement. The last movement has a swinging rhythm.

Opus 32: Song – An die Hoffnung (1805). First setting of Tiedge's "Urania," an appeal to hope not unlike Schiller's "Ode to Joy." This was the first vocal work in Beethoven's opus catalogue.

Opus 33: Seven Bagatelles for piano (1802). Beethoven's first larger work for amateurs and the first of three such groups he wrote. The name "bagatelle" originated with Couperin. These are indeed graceful little works.

Opus 34: Six variations on an original theme for piano in F major (1802). These variations are in "a new manner" as Beethoven himself indicated, being all in different keys. Opus 35: Fifteen variations and a fugue for piano on an original theme in E-flat major ("Eroica Variations") (1802). Here, too, we have different keys for all variations. The theme is more memorable than in op. 34 and the work more expansive, too.

Opus 36: Symphony No. 2 in D major (1803). Another symphony in the late-Haydn mold. In comparison with the first symphony, there is a striking brusqueness and almost grotesque humor. The first movement has a great nervous energy. The Larghetto is a relaxing interlude, the Scherzo is full of dynamic contrasts and the finale brings an explosive conclusion to the work.

Opus 37: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (1803). This concerto consolidates the achievements of the first two piano concertos. It is rather "classicizing," especially in the first movement with its orchestral introduction. It became the model for Hummel, Weber and others until Chopin. The most extraordinary movement is the Largo, played almost wholly with the dampers raised, and in character very much like a nocturne.

We skip opus 38: Piano Trio in E-flat major, as this is an arrangement of the Septet, Opus 20.

Opus 39: Two Preludes through all twelve major keys for piano (1789) - two fourteen year old student exercises that Beethoven managed to sell when he was in need for money.

Opus 40: Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in G major (1802). Simple and sweet music. Begins with double stops for the solo violin and ends with an energetic tutti.

We can also skip Opus 41: Serenade for Piano and Flute or Violin in D major (1803), as this is an arrangement of the flute trio op 25, and Opus 42: Notturno for Viola and Piano in D major (1803), an arrangement of the serenade for string trio op. 8. It is even doubtful whether Beethoven made these arrangements himself.

Opus 43: The Creatures of Prometheus, overture and ballet music (1801). Theater music, consisting of an overture and 17 short pieces of ballet music. Beethoven considered Prometheus' self-sacrifice (the god stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans) as the highest form of heroic action and would reuse the melody from the last part of the ballet to greater effect in the Eroica Symphony. I found this ballet music rather down to earth.

Opus 44: Piano Trio No. 10 (Variations on an original theme in E-flat major) (1792). Again an old work sold when Beethoven needed money. In the early 90s Beethoven wrote many similar sets of variations.

Opus 45: Three Marches for Piano, 4 hands (1803). Light music as Beethoven wrote in the early 90s when he produced this type of music for wind band.

Opus 46: Song – Adelaide (1795). This second song with an opus number is a weighty work, both as regards the piano part that sometimes overbalances the text and the dramatic singing which reminds more of the opera house than the drawing room. Apparently, the poet, Friedrich Matthison, was not amused.

Opus 47: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major ("Kreutzer") (1802). A great sonata (also literally, as it last 40 minutes) with a very demanding violin part and broad emotional scope, from the furious first movement to the meditative second and exuberant third. It is almost like a violin concert.

Opus 48: Six Songs (1802). A series of sacred songs on texts by Gellert dating from 1757 and already set by C.P.E. Bach (No. 1: "Bitten," No. 2: "Die Liebe des Nächsten," No. 3: "Vom Tode," No. 4: "Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur," No. 5: "Gottes Macht und Vorsehung," No. 6: "Bußlied"). Beethoven was inspired by the unity of mankind that speaks from these songs. His renderings are remarkably contained.

Opus 49: Two Piano Sonatas (1792). Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor. Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major. Again two older works, written about the same time as the first piano sonatas op. 2. It is possible that Beethoven never wanted to publish these sweet and uncomplicated pieces, but apparently his brother offered them to a publisher without Beethoven's knowledge (to make money on the sly?).

Opus 50: Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F major (1798). A simple and poetic Adagio Cantabile. More virtuoso and lyrical than the Romance Op. 40.

Conclusion: What struck me in this part of Beethoven's opus, related to the early 1800s, is the amount of recycling of older work (as in the piano sonatas op 49, the variations for piano trio, the two preludes etc.) and the composition of more popular works for a larger group of consumers (the flute trio, the bagatelles, the ballet music for Prometheus, the marches for piano) and the fact that we have also two arrangements of own work. Beethoven now was famous enough to be able to sell some old or inferior work for good money and who can blame him for it?

But there are lots of great works among these opus numbers, too, such as the third piano concerto, the second symphony, the Kreutzer Sonata and the many piano sonatas (except op 49) where Beethoven expands his experiments to include the form of the sonata.

"La Ronde" (“Merry-Go-Round”, 1950) by Max Ophuls (Movie review)

A sort of Master of Ceremonies (Anton Walbrook), standing next to a Merry-Go-Round, sings to a beautiful waltz melody how love keeps going round and round. We are in the Vienna of about 1900. Yes, he will show us, he says, and there comes already our first hero, a soldier.

While the MC steps back, from the shadows arises a woman, a prostitute (Simone Signoret). She accosts the soldier and promises him a freebie. The military man has little time but doesn't say no to this unexpected windfall, so the woman takes him down the stairs under the bridge. That is the first short story of this "ode to carnal knowledge."

The second story follows the same soldier on his day off, when he spends some intimate moments on a bench with his girlfriend, a parlor maid. Soon the Master of Ceremonies introduces us already to story three (no complaint about speed in this movie!), which follows the parlor maid to her place of employment with a bourgeois family. The parents are out of town, so the son tries to seduce the maid, with quick results - or did she seduce him? Next story, and now the same son has furtively rented a small apartment where he has invited a married woman (Danielle Darrieux), who arrives doubly veiled for she is taking a big risk. And our dear young man is so nervous to give an excellent performance with this experienced woman that, well, things don't go as intended... a clue is that at the very same moment the Merry-Go-Round runs out of steam.

Her husband, a rich industrialist, by the way, is just about to seduce a young girl in the private room of a discrete restaurant. This doesn't mean they are even, for double morality was still going strong in the Europe of 1900. And so on, and so forth, we still get the escapades of a poet, an actress and a count (Gerard Philipe). The snake bites its own tail when the count meets the prostitute from the first story. We see how love transcends the boundaries of class, both common soldier and count visit the same prostitute. But isn't this what keeps the earth spinning?

La Ronde (“Merry-Go-Round”) is a beautiful, whimsical film made in 1950 by Max Ophuls (1902-1957), the first European film made by this German director after a 10-year sojourn in the U.S. It is a film with light irony, but no sarcasm. We are all weak, so let's smile about life, instead of setting strict rules for others. The Master of Ceremonies shows understanding and forgiveness for the foibles of humankind. It is a light film in the positive sense of the word: a film that for a few moments takes the burden of life from our shoulders and makes us feel featherlight ourselves. But there is also a bittersweet note, as all romantic illusions of love are shown to be false. At the same time, it is a nostalgic film about European elegance that had been swept away by two terrible wars.

Note: La Ronde was based on a play (Reigen) by German author Arthur Schnitzler (see my post on Schnitzler's novella Dream Story). Though written in 1900, the play could not be performed until 1920 – and even then Schnitzler was attacked as a pornographer. Of course, there is nothing that could not be publicly said or shown today in either play or film. Ophuls plays with the censorship issue by having his master of ceremonies literally cut a certain love scene from the film. Even so, the film was censored the first time it was shown in the U.S. That was in 1950, when murder, suicide and all kinds of violence were already normal cinematic fare. Why is violence in our warped society more acceptable than lovemaking?

Some interesting things:
  • When husband and wife lie in bed, they each have a gaslight above their head that is operated by a string. A nice 19th c. detail.
  • The industrialist drives what must have been one of the first cars, as it is operated by pokes and not yet a steering wheel.
  • Max Ophuls would go on to make Le Plaisir, Lola Montes and The Earrings of Madame de. He died at the still young age of 54. His real name was Max Oppenheimer.
  • The waltz music was composed by the then 80-year old Oscar Strauss.
  • The film was remade in 1964 by Roger Vadim.
Other films by Ophuls discussed in this blog: LiebeleiLetter from an Unknown Woman - Caught - The Earrings of Madame De... - Le Plaisir.
La Ronde is available in the Criterion Collection.
(revised August 2014)

July 15, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (2)

Op 12 consists of the first three violin sonatas (in D, A and Es), dating from 1798. They were dedicated to Salieri and became very popular, being often arranged for other instruments. The first movement of Sonata 1 is full of invention and contrasts. The sonata ends with a captivating rondo. The second sonata is witty and simple and has a very relaxed finale. The third sonata possesses an expansive first movement with a brilliant piano part and especially shines in the poetic adagio.

Op 13 is the Pathetique Sonata in c minor from 1799 (Piano Sonata No. 8), the first work in this list that sounds utterly familiar - when you have listened to Beethoven for a long time, like me. The experiments in piano playing here pay off, it a most solid achievement, from the dramatic grave introduction and orchestral texture of the ensuing allegro, to the deceptively simple adagio cantabile and finally the straightforward rondo that recaptures the drama that went before in the sforzando chords of the coda. "Pathetique" means "suffering" and this was the period that Beethoven for the first time learned about his oncoming deafness although at the time he was happily settled in Vienna.

Op 14 consists of two more piano sonatas from 1799, both in three movements. Piano sonata No 9 in E has a lyrical character and is modest in comparison with Op. 13. The second movement is a menuet. The tenth sonata in G is another soothingly lyrical endeavor. The last movement is a pastoral scherzo.That is not to say these sonatas are simplistic, on the contrary, Beethoven as usual plays with meter and rhythm and indulges in sudden contrasts.

With Op 15 and the Piano Concerto No 1 in C (first performed in 1798, although written in the years before that) the orchestra makes its first entry in our opus list. It is joyful work, true to its key of C major. After a singing largo, the concert closes with a dancing - even swinging -  rondo. A suitable vehicle for Beethoven's own bravura.

Op 16 is the Quintet for Piano and Winds in Es (1796). The violent contrasts and emotional directness again characterize it as typically Beethoven, although it is in the first place full of charm, a last echo from the 18th c. It ends with a spirited, jesting rondo.

The Op 17 Horn Sonata (1800) in F was written for the famous horn player Giovanni Punto. It fully explores the chromatic range of the instrument and is also full of good humor and warmth.

Op 18 consists of the first six string quartets (1800) dedicated to prince Lobkowitz.
No 1 in F - what a powerful and dynamic work! What a beautiful lyrical second movement! I thought I knew something about the string quartets of Beethoven, but this quartet sounded like new to me. I immediately played it again.
In contrast, No 2 in G has a jovial character, "as if making compliments," it was said in the 19th c. Its atmosphere is that of an 18th c entertainment.
No 3 in D was in fact the first quartet Beethoven wrote of this series. Beethoven's signature is again evident in the dynamic contrasts, the harmonic modulations, the contrast between broad melodies and short motives, between humor and drama.
No 4 in c minor is almost orchestral, with clusters of secondary voices. There is no adagio, the second movement is a scherzo and the third a minuet. The finale is a cheerful presto.
No 5 in A pays tribute to Mozart's K464, also in A Major, for example by having a minuet in the second position.The slow movement is a theme and variations.
No 6 in B Flat starts with a dance-like allegro, then follows a solemn adagio, a rhythmical scherzo and finally a delicate finale called "La Malinconia" (Melancholy) by Beethoven himself. The melancholy melody is in the introductory adagio, but returns a few times, until it is chased away by a vigorous prestissimo.

Op 19, the Piano Concerto No 2 in B Flat (1796), was written earlier than the Concerto no 1 and was a concerto with which Beethoven kept tinkering during the 90s. because it cost Beethoven such a lot of trouble, it is usually considered as less inspiring than the first concerto, but I found it very pleasant music.

Op 20 Septet in E Flat (1799). A confident and cheerful work that became so popular that Beethoven himself started to dislike it. Fresh and exuberant, the septet is more substantial than 18th c. serenade music and became a model for similar works in the 19th c.

Op 21 Symphony No 1 (1800) was composed in the up-to-date manner of Haydn's London symphonies. The first movement is an allegro con brio. This followed by a tuneful and charming (but not very profound) andante, and a minuet. The finale starts on an original note, with a slow introduction, after which a carefree theme emerges with full ebullience.

Op 22 Piano Sonata No 11 (1800) is the crown on Beethoven's "grand" piano sonatas, a work he was himself proud of. The first movement is quite experimental, as it is a play with motives rather than having a real melody. We have to wait for this until the second movement which is also in sonata form. Then follows a minuet and the work closes with a typical Viennese rondo.

Op 23 and 24 are two more violin sonatas (Violin Sonatas 4 and 5, 1801). They were composed at the same time, despite the different opus numbers and difference in character. The fourth sonata in a minor is rather austere and starts - surprisingly - with a presto. This is followed by a second movement that is both andante and scherzo. The last movement ends in the minor key.The Sonata No 5 in F is much more expansive and has been nicknamed "Spring Sonata" because of the lyrical, springlike melody in the first movement. It sounds like a homecoming after a long journey.

Summerizing: we had 5 piano sonatas among which the famous Pathetique. We also had five violin sonatas, ending at the high pinnacle of the Spring Sonata. The Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments was harking back to Mozart and the Septet from 1799 was still based in the 18th century, too - but it also created a new form of serenade music which would be taken up by Schubert and many other composers in the 19th c. When hearing the horn sonata I regretted that Beethoven did not compose any concertos for this instrument like Mozart did. We also had the first two piano concertos, vehicles for Beethoven's own virtuosity, but certainly not to be neglected, and the first symphony. I particularly like the sound of wind instruments in the Beethoven orchestra. And we had those fantastic six string quartets...

"Basil" by Wilkie Collins (Book review)

Basil was Wilkie Collins' second novel (1852) - after a best forgotten attempt to copy Bulwer-Lytton in a historical narrative - and his first so-called "sensation novel." The concise work is set squarely in the present time and would be his best novel of the whole decade. It is the story of a secret and unconsummated marriage, followed by an act of adultery that shocked Collin's contemporaries. The protagonist has to struggle with insanity and other horrors. The  atmosphere of the novel is passionate and at times sensual enough to engage modern readers.

The narrator Basil is the second son from an ancient aristocratic family. Besides a father, whose pride in his lineage borders on the fanatical, Basil has a devoted younger sister, Clara, and an elder brother, Ralph, who likes to sow wild oats but is basically good in character.

Basil wants to be a writer and therefore likes to observe people. One day, he boards a London omnibus for that purpose and falls instantly and hopelessly in love with the young woman sitting opposite him. He stalks the dark beauty, seeks out her address, her name (Margaret Sherwin) and other particulars; and by bribing the servants he also finds a chance to speak to her. At the same time he knows this is an impossible situation: she is the daughter of a linen draper and totally unacceptable to his father as his wife.

But nothing can stop Basil, his infatuation borders on madness, so strong is the sexual spell under which he has fallen. He writes a letter to the mercantile father, meets him, gets permission to marry Margaret... a girl he hasn't talked to for more than five minutes and whose character must be a mystery to him. This may seem unrealistic, but it can be explained from the character of Basil. He is honest and serious and this is his first love - he wants to act honorably (as his practical brother later tells him, he should have seduced the girl...).

A deal is struck: he is to marry Margaret immediately, in a private ceremony, but may not consummate the marriage for another year because she is till too young (17, although she is physically well-developed). So a strange life starts for Basil: every evening he visits Margaret in the presence of her mother, but he is not allowed to see her alone or touch her. At the same time, he keeps his marriage a secret from his family, knowing that Margaret is unsuitable as his wife. But he is acting rather strange all the time and this leads to strained relations with his father. His sister Clara, who symbolizes the "good girl" in the novel tries to help him, but he doesn't take her into his confidence.

Basil now also comes to notice certain peculiarities in Margaret's character - she is vain and materialistic, and in fact only interested in his wealth and status. This unreal situation is further complicated when Mr Sherwin's head clerk, the sinister Robert Mannion, returns from a long business trip to France. There seems to be some mystery between Margaret and Mannion and at the end of his celibate year, just the day before his marriage will become real, Basil follows Margaret and Mannion to a seedy hotel where they make love while Basil listens outside their door. Basil looses control of himself: when the secret pair comes out of the hotel, the infuriated Basil attacks Mannion and almost kills him. Mannion is terribly disfigured for life. Practical brother Ralph helps Basil (who goes almost insane at this stage) straighten things out with Sherwin, but his father will never see him again after learning about the secret marriage. Margaret elopes with Mannion, but when she visits her lover in hospital, she catches typhus and dies.

But the story is not yet over, for Mannion is also an old enemy of Basil's father and bent on destructing Basil. He follows him through the country, never granting Basil peace, and finally on the wild coast of Cornwall, in a howling storm, follows a fight on life and death. The ending is a bit melodramatic, but basically this is a realistic novel displaying a keen psychological insight. And what is best of all: there is no Victorian or other moralizing, in fact the novel is quite ambiguous.

Get Basil from Gutenberg

July 14, 2011

"The Macdermots Of Ballycloran" by Anthony Trollope (Book review)

Anthony Trollope's first novel (1844) is set in Ireland, a country he got to know well thanks to his work as postal surveyor. Trollope (1815-1882) lived in Ireland from 1841 to 1851 and his marriage also took place in Ireland. He enjoyed his work and the freedom it afforded and could live well on the income it provided. So it seems quite logical that he would pour his love for land and people into his first novel.

The idea for the book came to him after seeing a ruined estate in Drumsna - the novel describes how the clan of the Macdermots (a senile father, Larry, a well-meaning but ignorant son Thady and a vaporous daughter, Feemy) meets it end. It is a tragic book, rare for Trollope, and the gentry is financially not much better off than the peasants. There is a lot of mud in these pages. But it is a lively book, with good dialogue, and the story gradually broadens. It certainly keeps hold of the interest of the reader with its illegal whiskey distillers, a smart captain hunting the distillers who plays the lover to Feemy, a false attorney after the Macdermot property, an elopement and a murder... yes it is a dramatic story, but this first effort is so good that it almost manages to be vintage Trollope.

Get a copy from Gutenberg.

July 12, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (1)

Some time ago, I started to digitize my CD collection to loss-less MP3s using the excellent EAC program. I thought it would be nice to have a back-up when CDs are getting older and also saw it as a chance to hear my entire collection in chronological order and take stock of what I have. I would try to listen to what I don't have from other sources and see what I still wanted to add to my collection.

The big question was: where to start? I was going to do this by composer. Should I start with Bach or even earlier? By chance, I got a ride in the car of a colleague who all the time was playing a compilation of Beethoven works. I hadn't been listening to Beethoven for quite some time, although he was my favorite composer when I was a teenager. So I decided to start with Beethoven, first with the uncollected works (WoO, Anh. and Hess) and then the opus numbers from opus 1.

Why would Beethoven be popular with young persons? He can be loud (when I was a teenager, I liked loud and fast music like the Fifth), full of action and with a positive belief in life. Beethoven was a man of the Enlightenment and of the French revolution. He believed in the equality of all people. This rationality can be heard in his music. And perhaps in tune with the times, when armies were constantly on the march, his music has something military (or militaristic) as well. Symbolically, you can see that as the Struggle of Life. Perhaps we should call it heroic.

Later, in my 20s, I also learned to appreciate his chamber music. There was a technical reason for this. I had acquired an old-fashioned tape recorder (with those large reels) that I used to tape music from the radio. Due to the quality of the mono recorder, the only music that I could tape with reasonable quality was chamber music: violin and cello sonatas, piano trios and piano quartets, string quartets. That is how I started to listen to and appreciate chamber music - including works by Beethoven.

When in the late 80s I changed from records to CDs (and had done away with the tape recorder) I bought both Beethoven orchestral works (often in new versions played on authentic instruments) and his chamber and instrumental works. My black spot was and is (in general, not only with Beethoven) vocal music. There is a reason for this. The best music for me is abstract music. Words are too concrete and distract from the music, I find.

Let's start our Beethoven survey. There is a useful list of his works on Wikipedia.

Opus 1 consists of three piano trios from 1795. Beethoven was 25 at the time and these works are the compositions of a confident and fully formed composer. There is nothing immature about them. the best of the three is the third trio in c minor - real vintage Beethoven. Why would Beethoven start with piano trios? The piano trio was a new genre (started by Mozart and Haydn) but well suited to Beethoven who at that time tried to win fame as a pianist. For a piano concerto you needed a whole orchestra, but a trio with only violin and cello was easy to bring together and could perform also in private residences. Also among the WoO works of an earlier date are works for piano trio and piano quartet. There is a great seriousness about these works, from the weighty slow movements to the finales, which are real climaxes instead of the throw-away rondos of that period.

Next come the first three piano sonatas (op 2 from 1796), like the trios in four movements and very virtuoso. I have them on pianoforte which is the best way to play these early sonatas. I also remember from my piano study days, that they are fun to play. Although the third sonata is the weightiest of the three, I am most fond of the second one.

Opus 3 is a string trio from 1794. As string trios went at that time, this lovingly modeled work has the character of a serenade and is in 6 parts. Like Mozart's K563 with which its vies in length and wight, this is scored for violin, viola and cello.

We will skip Opus 4 as it is a string quintet version of the wind octet, but instead listen to the wind octet which despite its high (and posthumous) opus number (103) dates from 1792. It is tuneful table music for the court of the Elector in Bonn.

Next we arrive at the two cello sonatas opus 5 (1796). These were written during a sojourn in Berlin for the chief cellist of King Frederic Wilhelm II. With these works, Beethoven stands at the cradle of the cello sonata. I have performances on authentic instruments by Anthony Pleeth (cello) and Melvyn Tan (piano), but have the feeling that they hold back too much - or perhaps that is the drawback of the instruments they use. Both sonatas themselves are also a bit archaic: in two movements, with an adagio introduction before the first movement that is by far the weightiest.

Op 6 consists of the only piano sonata for four hands that Beethoven wrote. It dates from 1797 and is in two easy movements - clearly a work for a pupil, but still entertaining enough.

Op 7 contains Beethoven's fourth piano sonata and is at almost half an hour much more substantial than the previous item. The sonata has been called "Grand Sonata" and consists of four movements. It is also from 1797 and was dedicated to Beethoven's gifted pupil Countess Babette Keglevich. It is a virtuoso sonata, with fast repeated note patterns and therefore lots of momentum. The last movement is uncharacteristically songful. With its rapid mood changes, this a very interesting sonata.

Op 8 (1797) is again a serenade for string trio, a delightful and in length quite substantial piece of light music. It starts and ends with a march with five movements in-between. In spirit it still belongs to the 18th c. and only the brooding adagio twice interrupted by a scherzo foreshadows the new age. The fifth movement is a Polacca.

Op 9 contains three string trios, the last works Beethoven wrote for this combination of instruments (1798). Here we have no light music anymore, Beethoven changes the mood to four movement serious trios like the piano trios. Thematic imagination is impressive, coupled with a pervasive sense of developmental variation. Perhaps Beethoven felt the constraints of the genre, too - thanks to the presence of the piano, a piano trio can be more forceful and a string quartet has more color and melodic lines thanks to the added presence of one more violin.

Op 10 consists of three piano sonatas (Nos 5 to 7), all dating from 1798. All three sonatas are rather angular and experimental. Sonata no 5 in c minor is tragic and heroic at the same time, all in a concise form. The first movement is full of nervous energy, with large contrasts in volume. After a quiet adagio, the last movement is a prestissimo. Sonata No. 6 is more bright and melodious, although here too the first movement is plagued by storms. The second movement has the character of a Bagatelle. Sonata No. 7 is the longest, in four movements. It starts with a presto; the second movement, largo, is a tragic slow movement of great beauty.

Op 11 is again a piano trio ("Gassenhauer"), this time a single one, written in 1798. The first voice can be either a clarinet or violin. It is a charming and melodious work; the clarinet immediately suggests serenade music.

In these first works we see a Beethoven with still one leg in the serenading 18th c. (String trios Op 3 and op 8, Gassenhauer Trio, piano sonata op 6, the two cello sonatas) and another already confidently placed in the 19th c.  (Piano Trios op 1, String Trios Op 9, the piano sonatas).

To be continued... next are the violin sonatas op. 12.

July 11, 2011

"Tales of All Countries" by Anthony Trollope (Book Review)

The British Victorian author Anthony Trollope is in the first place famous for his novels. What is relatively unknown is that he also wrote quite a lot of memorable short stories. Like his novels, many of these are available on Gutenberg.org in formats that can be read in popular e-book readers as the Kindle. The first collection (in three volumes) is called "Stories of All Countries." We will look at the stories in alphabetic order.

Aaron Trow. A story set in Bermuda where an English convict, Aaron Trow, has escaped prison. He breaks into the isolated cottage of Anastasia Bergen, and has her provide food. She is terrified but hopes that her fiance, Caleb Morton, will come to save her...

Chateau of Prince Polignac. An English widow, Ms. Thompson, is living with her younger daughter in a hotel in Le Puy, while her elder daughter has been placed in a boarding school in the same town. A courteous and sympathetic Frenchman, who looks like a banker, wins her affection and declares his love on a sightseeing trip to the Castle of Polignac. But he is not a banker at all...

Courtship of Susan Bell. A widow with two marriageable daughters takes in lodgers. One is a young man, a railroad engineer who makes love to the youngest daughter by offering her his beautiful drawings. But his position is not permanent...

George Walker at Suez. An Englishman travels for his health in Egypt and in Suez is mistaken for an important dignitary. When the real official arrives and he is left behind, he decides to make the excursion for which he was invited.

House of Heine Brothers. A British young man joins the Heine Brothers bank in Munich. He falls in love with the daughter of one of the partners and it takes some time to win her practical German heart. But then she shows who is in charge...

John Bull on the Guadalquivir. A young and rather boyish Englishmen is betrothed to the daughter of the Spanish business relation of his father. He finds her rather cold ("mature" is in fact the case). He travels to Spain to meet her and on the way behaves insolently towards a Spanish man in fancy clothes (of course a bull fighter!), even pulling off a button from his suit. Later this gentleman appears to be the aristocratic friend of his future wife, but she helps him save his face. This story not only nicely lays the cultural differences bare, but also the difference between the maturity of women and the boyishness of men.

La Mere Bauche. Madame Bauche is an innkeeper in the Pyrenees. She has a son Albert, and has also taken in an orphan, Marie. When they are of age, Albert and Marie fall in love. Madame Bauche does not like that and she tries to force Marie to marry an elderly retired officer with a wooden leg - with dramatic results, for once.

Man Who Kept His Money in a Box. The narrator, Mr Robinson, comes in Swiss and Italy across the family Greene, consisting of Mr Greene, who is afraid of robbers and carries his money and his wife's jewels in a box; Mrs Greene; and a daughter of whom Mr Robinson is a bit enamored. He therefore helps them out with the language which they don't speak and also helps looking for the box when it disappears... It is found in an unexpected place.

Miss Sarah Jack of Spanish Town, Jamaica. An impoverished young sugar planter falls in love with the coquettish and flirting Marion Leslie. Their relation does not seem to go anywhere, until hus aunt, Miss Sarah Jack helps out...

Mistletoe Bough. A mistletoe is hung in Thwaite hall for Christmas, complicating the life of the young daughter Elizabeth who is afraid someone will take advantage of this.

Mrs. General Talboys. In an artistic circle of British expatriates in Rome, Mrs. Talboys has the highest word with her liberal or even libertarian ideas. But when a young sculptor tries to make love to her she feels insulted.

O'conners of Castle Connor. The narrator Mr Green meets the O'Conners during a fox hunt and is invited to their castle. There are several pretty daughters and a promised dance, but Green's dancing shoes are still at the inn. As he has only heavy boots, he borrows the shoes of one of the servants...

Parson's Daughter of Oxney Colne. Parson's daughter Patty from Dartmoor is made love to by the mighty Captain John Broughton. But when she notices he has reservations about their marriage as she has no money and a lower status than he, she herself breaks off the relationship.

Relics of General Chasse. In the castle of Antwerp. a rotund English clergyman as a joke tries on the uniform of the Dutch General Chasse. Disturbed by other visitors, he hides, leaving his own clerical clothes behind. A group of ladies finds these, and thinking they belonged to General Chasse, cut them up as relics to make pin cushions from. A farce.

Returning Home. A British expatriate starts on the journey home from Costa Rica to old England. On the way to the coast, he and his wife meet with disaster and in the end, he stays in Costa Rica.

Ride Across Palestine. The narrator travels alone in Palestine and welcomes the companionship of a young man, who looks rather feminine. Later they are overtaken by an angry elderly man who accuses him of abducting his daughter...

Unprotected Female at the Pyramids. A young and emancipated Englishwomen who travels alone in Egypt tries to join the party of Mr Damer and his family. Breathless, on the top of the Great Pyramid, Mr Damer is forced to refuse her as his wife and daughter harbor a dislike to her rather overbearing manner.

What to say about this volume of short stories? They are varied, ranging from drama to farce and profit from the exotic settings. Trollope traveled much and was a keen observer. He has a fine eye for cultural differences.

What are the best stories? My own favorites are: The Man Who Kept His Money in a Box, John  Bull of Guadalquivir and Chateau of Prince Polignac - and I should probably also add A Ride Through Palestine.