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Stravinsky, Five Star Composer

cooler, grey skies, after a very rainy and windy weekend. I was wrong, no real change yet.

I made up my mind to find out about C20th music, because Gabriel was playing from Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, he brought the Ashkenazy recording home and I found I liked them very much. Ravel should have been next in this occasional series, but my blog was down, and now I've moved on to the Sacred Monster, whose music I only knew of through childhood exposure (ballet was unavoidably big when I was a child) to the nice ballets, Petrushka and The Firebird. And the dinosaurs, of course. So now I'm reading Stephen Walsh's two-part biography (Part I A Creative Spring) & I've been here before. I am late in the day, this is Stravinsky debunked: the new official version: Stravinsky's own version and his apostle's version, corrected by recourse to the evidence. Only unlike "Shostakovich, secret voice of suffering Russia, speaker in code, closet dissident?" Igor Stravinsky does not come out with rep repaired and his face cleaned. Hm. Stravinsky was born near Petersburg, to an urbanised gentry family, and like Shostakovich a crucial couple of decades later, brought up in that unhygenic, West-facing city of culture. His father was a (regionally) famous opera singer, bass baritone, specialising in character parts, a selfish patriarch with a nasty temper, his mother the long-suffering helpmate of a great artist, who sank into that role and never said boo; the children had a bit of a thin time. A pattern that was to be repeated. Definitely not an infant prodigy (but his father would have stepped over him like a ruck in the carpet if he'd been a young Mozart, Walsh rather thinks), he didn't really get started in music until he was past twenty. But he could sight-read, and if you're born being able to sight-read, if you can read music in full sentences instead of having to spell out the words letter by letter, without training: that means you can compose.

So, anyway, his father hustled for him and he became a protege of Rimsky-Korsakov, who was then a professor at the Petersburg Conservatoire and a decent sort of bloke, not only supported the students over their actions in the 1905 rehearsal for a revolution, he put his job on the line for them. Petersburg music was in ferment, along with the politics: Russianism, mythicism, feuds, cliques, Fiveists versus World of Art-ists, everybody denouncing everybody else as cr*p and savagely supporting their own teams. Young Igor plunged with enthusiasm into the nest of vipers, in which he was to spend his creative life, and took to it like a duck to water. In 1909 he secured, by tangled and bewildering means, a commission from Diaghilev to write the music for a scenario called The Firebird, and the rest is history. He left Russia very early (in terms of the revolution). His first great ballets were all premiered in Paris, a city he immediately recognised as the centre of his world. He spent the Great War living in Geneva (a very early attempt at producing The Soldier's Tale in Switzerland fell victim to the Spanish flu in 1918); the subsequent decades, while becoming a fantastically significant figure in Modern music, he was riccocheting between the A-list Paris art & culture world (an affair with Coco Chanel, a big love-hate thing going on with Cocteau) where he kept his long-term mistress; various rented summer dachas for the family in Switzerland, Nice and the Savoie; and punishing concert tours of the USA, England & continental Europe.

It took me a while to get into this immensely detailed account of a life, because what it recounts is so intricately muddled and so emotionally cold: but in the end I was fascinated. The feuding and the name-dropping is fairly irrisistible. What about the bloke himself? It's no secret that Stravinsky was not a very nice person: that he was, by all accounts even his own, whorish, rapacious and treacherous in art and in business. But did his flaws go beyond the normal chequered record? The most ordinary people become monsters, if subjected to a regime of fame and fortune, we've proved that pretty conclusively with our own celebrity culture. Okay, Igor was an awful, grasping person to do business with, but he did have a clueless extended emigree family to support. Okay, he kept a mistress for show and a wife at home, and expected them to accept the situation: but after all, he married young, probably repented at leisure and he didn't dump the mother of his children (not in volume one, anyway). Okay, he was routinely anti-semitic, routinely callous about sinister developments in European politics. The same could be said for many "A-listers" of the twenties and thirties. They're beating jews to death in Berlin, yeah, yeah, not my concern. The mark is going to hell: does that mean no more concert dates? MY GOD, how evil, how could they do this to mee??? But it can't be denied that Stravinsky was one of those (along with Coco Chanel by the way) who served the cause of Fascism above and beyond the call of airhead self-obsessed idiocy. There was the grovelling to Mussonlini: that wasn't just a cynical whore's reflex, it extended to his private papers. There was the I Love Nazis Clean Bill of Health document he eagerly signed, in support of Germany's regime.

But what about the composer? Wagner in Modernist drag? That gives you a good idea of his ideology and his innate conservatism, but it doesn't describe the music. I don't feel like dismissing Stravinsky as a hollow faker, Damien Hirst style (horrible thought, considering Stravinsky's status), but I did start to wonder, is this bloke, with his passion for mechanical reproduction; for special effects; for any means of making "his music" that devalues the role of the instrumentalist, conductor or vocalist, the Norman Cook of Modernism? I heard Fat Boy Slim, at the height of his fame, describe himself as a producer of music, rather than a creative artist, and maybe that's Stravinsky too. He never went back to Russia, and the Russians said this was because audiences at home would have spotted at once how much of his stuff was stolen from the living and the dead (on the other hand, prophet without honour in his own country won't accept a concert date that might turn out to be a one way ticket to Labour Camp: I won't shoot him for that.) He was the impure face of Modernism, he took up the pure "Modernism" of the opposing school when it suited him: like a magpie, like a fashionista. He re-created, re-made, transformed, stuff that existed already and that was his art: that was his thing.

In the eighteenth century the composer belonged to someone, was on the staff at the Archbishopric or whatever. In the nineteenth century (post Beethoven) composing became institutionalised, you belonged by the Musical Estabishment, the Academy, the Conservatoire. Stravinsky, predictably enough, belongs to the market. He sells himself, puffs himself and reinvents himself like a fashion line, always producing something new, so that the public will have to buy it and he can go on eating. Couture fashion, of course. This was still high culture, and though Stravinsky spent years working from hand to mouth, it was always champagne poverty, he knew where he belonged: where he and his luxury goods had to belong, to survive.

So, I'm sceptical, and so far the listening I've done hasn't dented my scepticism. It's a little like my aquaintance with The Grateful Dead. You watch Anthem To Beauty, and these guys talk up a storm, get you all excited about their musical vision. But then, as a corrective, you remind yourself what it was actually like being trapped under their feedback towers, or you dig out Aoxomoxoa. The instrumental music I've been listening to is nothing like the Sacre Du Printemps; or Wagner. It's perfectly listenable, unaggressive, just doesn't command my attention, and I'm used to reserving my top admiration for art that commands my attention whether I understand it or not. . . (Sacre du Printemps passes that test NB). Yet I get glimpses in the biography of a different Stravinsky. He knew what he was doing, say the instrumentalists he worked with; say the conductors. You look at what he's written, and it shouldn't work, and he's never written for the violin (trumpet, wind, whatever), so he's asking the impossible, but then you try it and does work, and its amazing. I find instrumentalists convincing (although, erm, god help them if they said anything negative and it got back to Igor)

His own instrument was the piano. His technique was not great, but eventually he got himself up to speed, in his own style, an emotionless and mechanically precise style. This may have been his genius, or possibly Stravinsky without much feeling to express, making a virtue of necessity.

More later. My problem now is that a lot of those dance Masterpieces of Modernism haven't had a very good time in repertoire. Of course I took up this topic just in time to miss the ENO Rite of Spring, & can you get it on DVD? Not hardly.

Buy Gold And Keep It Under The Bed

Friday 27th November, chill air in the morning after another night of rain and wind.

Is the flood weather over? Something feels different this morning. Yesterday I went down to my local branch of A Certain Very Big Building Society, to rearrange my small savings, a nice man at the counter having pointed out to me that I was getting no interest at all on any of it. Oh, right, I heard about that, I muttered, feeling caught out. I don't expect my assets to be fed turtle soup with a golden spoon (Dickens ref, can you name the novel?) but I do draw the line at putting my money out to hire for no wages whatever, that's cruel. So, anyway, I met my personal banking assistant, who suggested I try her best product, where you put your money down the saltmines for a six year stretch, and at the end it gets paid 12% guaranteed, but you could earn a lot more, as this fund is linked to major stock markets! Eerm, says I, doesn't that make rather less than 3% a year, and can't I get 3% guaranteed on a shorter term? Personal banking assistant a little taken aback, customers not supposed to be able to count. Well, yes, but you could make a lot more. Sorry, says I, diffidently, but the trouble is, I'm not one of the people who thinks the recession is over...At which, bless her, my personal banking assistant burst out laughing. "Oh God, no!" she cried. "Of course is isn't! Nothing like!"

Since you ask, I mainly ended up going for that new over-fifties deal, and that's me sorted again until the latest suite of "savings" accounts go dead. But dear reader (and if you are reading this, I bet you don't), should you have anything substantial to put aside right now take my advice, which is the advice of Bill Bonner over at The Daily Reckoning. Keep doing this until I tell you it's safe to adopt a different strategy. (Er, better if you don't let on to your neighbours, or the folk in the pub)

1Buy Gold.
2 Keep it in a sock under the mattress.

Bright Star, Three Star, Four Star, Five Star

Thursday 26th November, clear skies right now, after rain and wind.

We saw Jane Campion's Bright Star at the Dukes's, it's such a beautiful picture. Campion is a Chardin of film-makers (that's Jean-Batiste-Simeon Chardin's market girl making a guest appearence in the thumbnail, click through for the Paris WebMuseum). She recreates domestic details with such passionate, faithful intensity that every soundscape, every scene, brims with the stillness of great art, that makes you look and look, listen and listen. I liked Bright Star a lot more than I liked The Piano, which I admired with reservations years ago. I could see that the story of John Keats and Fanny Bawne was a gift to her style, period, poignant, contained and so well-documented too, and I wonder slightly if she'll ever pull off her Chardin trick in a contemporary setting. Now that would be something. But it was inspired to place the point of view in the heart of Fanny's loving family, looking outward: a subtly different trick from just making Fanny, this confident, grounded, innocent young girl, the viewpoint character. And the principals were great, and so were Fanny's family, and the jealous bounder Brown. And I loved the way Campion conveyed the cruelty of the young lovers' fate through coldness, physical cold: the saturating rain, the chill, saturated colours of spring flowers, the bitter weather of those years around the Year Without A Summer. Keats was always talking about being cold, and telling Fanny she better wrap up warmly, in his letters.

Why revert to a movie I saw weeks ago? Well, partly my blog was still missing back then, and partly I saw a review in Grazia yesterday, (high-priced classy type women's glossy), and Bright Star only got a measly three stars. Not exciting enough. The reviewer "couldn't believe" in the passion between the principals. Tuh, thinks I. Some people wouldn't know true love, young love, if it jumped up and bit them. And it's not because that lovely, touching phenomenon has vanished from the modern world, either. Far from it (young love endures, the poor nightingales have proved ephemeral). Reviewer probably doesn't know any teenagers, that's all. . . Anyway, then I started thinking about stars, because I remembered the posters and I knew that stacks of eminent movie reviewers had absolutely adored Bright Star, thought it was wonderful. A whole page of four stars, full house of all the best venues.

So why not five stars in all those little rows, to match the adjectives? Does Jane Campion just automatically get a star knocked off for being female? Surely not. Well, obviously you will tell me that there are five star movies the way there are Oscar movies, and it isn't exactly to do with quality, it's to do with star quality (to coin a phrase). It's the subject matter, the gravitas (as Movie people understand gravitas). Okay, so here's A Serious Man, the Coen brothers. A period piece, a chamber piece, a contained little drama by a duo renowned for being obsessive about their art. Five starred all over the place. What's the difference? As far as I can make out (and I'm not going to see the movie. I admired Blood Simple very much when it came out, still admire it now. I like Fargo and I liked that crazy one about the scriptwriter too. But Burn After Reading finished me. Super-rich Hollywood luvvies playing their deeply unattractive real selves and thinking they are funny. Go away) Anyway, as I was saying, far as I can work out, judging by the reviews, A Serious Man gets five stars because it bullies people. It bullies the audience into believing they have to laugh at some poor shmuck getting bullied up down and sideways, it beats them into submission and makes them do something unpleasant.

Is that the way contemporary taste works? The public and the mediafolk hand over their top admiration to playground bullies? When you look around you, you have to admit it's a point of view.

Six Degrees of Devastation?

Monday 23rd November, grey, blustery and rainy, horribly mild

Calamitous floods in Cumbria, Catastrophic Fire Warnings in South Australia, and Copenhagen admits defeat before it is even born. How can these things possibly be connected? Not at all, according to the people who script our news coverage. I read in the Independent that the Cumbrian floods "cannot be directly related to Climate Change", and fair enough, if it was an isolated weird weather event. If there wasn't all this other weird stuff, if the Arctic wasn't melting, if there weren't all these other frightening indicators. We could just sit back and enjoy the spectacle, as long as we weren't facing ruin and loss our sweet selves. But the mediafolk and the politicians have never heard of Bayes' Theorem, so they continue, defiantly, to look on the weather as a tossed coin.

Funny how the only people who seem to take the need for drastic action seriously are in Africa (and the aid organisations of course). Oh, and China, I suppose, but China's historical record on Big Interventions is not encouraging. Their efforts in that line have tended more towards making dents in their population that would frighten any other massive superpower.

Meanwhile, in my own sweet little life I'm happy because I beat the City In The Sky at last; because I've managed to put a couple of obstinate things to bed, and because I've had an invitation I like the look of for next July. Unhappy because we have fleas in the house again, despite Frontline Combi (which as pet owners will know, is the latest weapon in the endless battle). It's Ginger, not Milo. She goes somewhere and comes back hopping, and I get bitten. This is the problem with warm winters, warm worlds generally. Parasites flourish. If the warmth comes suddenly the parasites are swift to take advantage, the host species, not so opportunist in design, cannot riposte at the same speed, and they suffer badly.

Wearing Brocades In The Darkness Of Night #n. When I started my first blog, years ago, my first heading was that Genji quote. Nobody knows about this, I said (aside from Peter and Gabriel). I'm not going to publicise, even if I knew now. I'm just going to leave this occasional diary in an unlocked drawer, and if anyone reads it, I may never know. & here I am again, because that "Coming Soon" page at the old address is apparently immoveable, unchangeable. Never mind, I'll carry on. Now and then.

Must now go and cook, and listen to The Rite Of Spring. I'm currently finding out about Stravinsky, for Gabriel's sake, my attitude hampered by the fact that when I was a child ballet was part of the furniture of cultural life, Petruschka and The Firebird were things I was supposed to admire and didn't know why, not revolutionary or weird, good heavens kno. And, plus, The Rite Of Spring to me means dinosaurs. Always and irrevocably, dinosaurs.

Lest We Forget

Wednesday 11th November, cool and rainy.

The blog is back, with salvaged entries back to July. No redirects yet so this is a rather secret blog. Never mind, it's nice to have my little soapbox window open again. Lest we forget? Well, I do not wear a poppy, I did respect the 2 mins silence, in the pub on Sunday, before the Chelsea: MU match (ah well, win some lose some); as did all the assembled. I do not take kindly to being advised that I "ought to" support the war in Afghanistan, though I suppose it makes sense to those who understand, and revere the UK fallen for dying in defence of our planet destroying addictions. No Blood For Oil still seems a good plan to me. You haven't heard this story? Go on, try typing Afghanistan pipeline into a well-known search engine yourself, and pick a hit or few. You'll find allies I'd rather not have, but that's always the way. Any cause has its parasites. Click through the poppy for my source for the image.

Coincidentally, in the last entry before service was interupted, we were walking through Patching Woods, looking for chestnuts far too soon, and finding blackberries. Saturday 7th, for the first time since, we escaped for a walk in the country again. Herstmonceux this time, where the castle is, and the Science Centre with its observatory domes still rising like pallid eaudenil giant funghi above the treetops. The castle is a conference centre these days (what else?), but the woods and quiet fields are still open to the public, & here, just by the great mis-shapen beech in the photo, we found a treasure of sweet chestnuts and picked up a kilo of the plumpest, pricking our fingers and yelping as we foraged among the damp bright leaves. Whereupon we started looking out for fungi too, and made a splendid collection, from the wood margin and later from damp green pasture. The edible count went: Macrolepiota rhacodes, a parasol mushroom variant; a good handful of Fairy Rings (Marasimus oreades); two fine young Shaggy Manes (Coprinus comatus) and a heap of good old field mushrooms.

Pasta al funghi with garlic for our dinner, mushrooms and eggs for breakfast, and plenty left for Sunday supper. The fascination of foraging for food grows on us, year by year (I turned Peter on to this game, ha, I remember there was a time he wouldn't touch a puffball for fear of curling up like a hoop, vomiting blood and dying of kidney damage. Now there's no stopping him). Probably a sign of a worn out brain, more interested in dinner than anything intellectual. Sad, really. A girl that knew all Dante once (slight exaggeration) lives to revel in this exciting thought: Hey, now I can make that terrific Elizabeth David chestnut and chocolate cake for Christmas.

Reading: Band Of Gypsys, because I've finally got round to tackling the online edit. It'll be a lot more different than the first three second editions: this book suffered badly in the making, and I'll explain why later. And still La Peste, which is truly wonderful. A well deserved Nobel, that one (if Nobels can ever be well-deserved, being so daft and annoying sometimes as to tarnish the good ones)

Missing: Harper's Island! What a loss. Following: Fast Forward, though I don't really like it, it is too stupid (& not following Defying Gravity, which literally, so to speak, took stupidity to new levels); but still not out of the City in the Sky, and still not started 3rd season of The Wire.

It's been colder, today and yesterday, which is a welcome respite, but nothing yet like the respite of last year, snow and ice on Bowfell at the end of October, how great that was. And it's the eleventh month of my forever war, and I don't think I'll be home for Christmas.