Skip to content

Sustainable Palm Oil? No Thanks!

Wednesday 6th March, a calm day, thin quilting of grey cloud over the whole sky, balmy temperature after weeks of that icy east wind. My sky-blue crocuses have joined the gold ones, in a fine display, and there are a few sweet violets hiding by the wall. Not so much bird action in the garden this week, or maybe I've spent less time staring out of the window? No spawn action as yet, but it's due soon. Today for the first time I encountered a fine young frog sitting on the rim of the little pool. Didn't look much like a male or female in reproductive trim however.

Sustainable Palm Oil? It depends when you start measuring. The plantation should be easy to sustain, it's such a simple monoculture, but the rainforest that was there before will not be coming back, nor will the orang-utans. I've been working on my Palm Oil dependency for a while, concern triggered by a lasting attachment to the living world of Malaysia and Indonesia, finally ran up against the wall when I looked for Palm Oil free bar soap. It should be easy, shouldn't it? Ethical Products are all over the place. Does The Body Shop have a palm oil free product? No. Faith In Nature? No. Our neighbourhood artisan soapmakers, Bomb Cosmetics of Bournemouth No. Now, if you live in Australia or New Zealand, and you feel like ditching Palm Oil from your bathroom, you're fine. They've seen the damage, I suppose. Any amount of suppliers. What's the ethical consumer in the UK to do? Accept it just can't be done? Not necessarily. The highly visible and popular ethical brand Lush cosmetics has gone completely palm-oil free. So why don't the others? Could hazard a guess, but anyway, here's a couple of links for the curious:

I think the "Sustainable" Palm Oil scam is a scam, about the same level of trustworthy as the "Farm Assured" or (worse) "100%British" label, on supermarket meat. Can't argue with the argument that it's better than nothing, but I happen to want better than that. Sadly, I don't like Lush. When I walk into their very colourful shops I immediately taste the product, it's in my mouth. Not a good feeling. So it's back to Oliva (the only palm oil free soap I could find on the shelves in our local ethical giant Infinity Foods) until further notice.


Two (South) Korean movies in the last week. My son Gabriel tells me the Korean domestic movie industry is huge, and their mainstays are sugary family sagas and comedies; which is a relief to know. Both the ones I saw, however, were the usual thing, savagely violent, bizarre tales about tragically dysfunctional characters. The first was Breathless; Yang Ik-june, one of my movies-recorded-off-the-tv. A small-time gangster, actually debt collector, who dispenses with the mean phone calls and simply comes round and beats the living sh*t out of the unfortunate defaulters (which seems to work!), his horribly dysfunctional family past, and his unlikely friendship with a young girl, who comes from exactly the same background, who pretends she's bourgeois when she meets him, just to give herself a break. Wonderfully acted, intensely engaging, poetic but somewhat grim to look at. The other one was Stoker. I wouldn't say don't go to see Stoker, I definitely would not say it's a waste of your money, it's very stylish, as hackneyed American gothic goes, but if you're expecting a hip, exciting remake of Shadow Of A Doubt you're going to be disappointed, and if you know Park Chan-wook's work from Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance prepare to be underwhelmed. Engagement with the characters is set at zero, displays of emotion completely absent. Oh, wait. The bad guy, Matthew Goode channeling David Byrne in his Psychokiller suit, does about three different weird smirks!


Otter Country, Miriam Darlington. Lovely, engrossing. I bought this for Peter for his birthday. (Actually I ended up showering him with books, as I was ordering them off the internet to start with, and got scared when the first choices didn't turn up for a while). It's all about otters, Wales and England, and Scotland too of course. I cannot tell a lie, there's a lot of plashing going on here (very few voles, sadly),but also plenty of cold feet. It's great. Nature writing is allowed to be lyrical, and you just can't beat otters. I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up a bestseller.

Looking forward to reading Tubes, next. Which is the book that was slow to arrive. I assumed, given the writer's Wired credentials, that this would be gonzo journalism. Apparently it isn't, but still (or therefore) is highly reccommended.


Tuesday 22nd May, sunny and breezy under clear blue skies, & much warmer, said to be reaching mid-twenties before the end of the week. Suddenly the gardens are in leaf from top to toe, the Christopher rose is in bloom, the big flowerbed is thick with columbines and foxglove spikes. Feeding mealworms could become an expensive hobby, the starlings (although national population horribly in decline) are still the voracious thugs-of-the-birdtable that they always were.

A long time ago, a year ago, in Gabriel's last year at Trinity, I thought I would write here about modern composers, find out the (literary) lowdown about the authors of the music I kept hearing about, and became excited about by contagion. The Rest Is Silence (Alex Ross) kept me enthralled for weeks. Shostakovich, Stravinsky. We were to proceed backwards, through the game-changers (Ravel, Debussy), but it never happened, though I read the biographies and listened to the music. The moment had passed. What prodded me towards Schubert? It was returning to Thomas Mann, esp The Magic Mountain, a book I started and never finished when I was an undergraduate, a story that ends in the trenches, with, for our hero, the poignant tender resignation of Der Lindenbaum (the Lied that became a folksong) running through the foul din of battle.

Trouble is, there's not much of a literary lowdown to be found. All I knew was that "he was truly great, comes straight after Beethoven, & died young" & he mainly wrote songs, also piano sonatas people thought unplayable at the time, and one very famous symphony called The Unfinished (nb I come form Manchester, was often taken to Hallé orchestra concerts when young, & Sir Charles Hallé was, I now know, one of the few, an early adopter, hugely keen on the Schubert repertoire. Or I probably wouldn't even have known that much). The more you look for Schubert's music the more riches you find, but biography is thin. He was born in Vienna, of lower-middle class parentage, just before the turn of the nineteenth century, was a child when Napoleon was at the height of his powers, lived to be adolescent and young adult in the pleasure-loving and cultured capital of a small country much diminished in world (ie European) politics, and, after the excitement of the Revolutionary Wars, in the throes of a deep repression. He had friends, they drank (a lot), made merry and made music. His mother died when he was thirteen; he would have got married when he was 19, but the law said he had to prove he could support a household and that he couldn't do. He trained as a chorister, but that career ended like the careers of most boy choristers. He trained as a primary school teacher (his father was a school-master), but that didn't work out. He made a very decent name for himself (though not much of a living) as a songwriter, on the local, domestic music scene; he tried for years to forge a career in opera, but failed to gain a foothold, as everyone was mad for Rossini, while he favoured German opera & it seems he had an unfortunately short fuse besides: and he contracted syphilis when he was 26.

All the while, music was pouring out of him. He wrote one piece, he started another... Symphonies, chamber music, song-cycles, a mass of works, great and small, a whole catalogue of challenging, innovative, beautiful and powerful music. He was arguably the best ever interpreter of the Romantic school of German philosophy, not only the passion for the sublime, but the insistence that the study of interior experience is not a frivolous indulgence, but the source of all our knowledge of the world and of ourselves, that was later, rebranded as "psychology" to shape another century of European thought. But nobody really knew. When he died he'd just begun attract attention, and the line on Schubert, for long afterwards, was "what a shame, he could have written such great music". He'd already done it.

He lived in Beethoven's shadow, in the same city, without ever (it seems) having any direct contact with the great man, who died in 1827. He saw himself as the successor of the master he revered, a figure in the socially radical model Beethoven has just invented (I am no man's servant, I am Beethoven). But it was impossible, because Schubert wasn't a virtuoso performer. Far from it, he was (far as I can tell) no more than an ordinary domestic pianist. It's hard to achieve fame, when the route to celebrity is closed. Hard for him to get a proper job in the conservativbe musical establishment either: the odds and the trends, were not in his favour. What he could do was write music, all kinds of music, but this was a trap for his career, and his reputation after death. Publishing deals were awful and the demand (as even the greatest celebrities found to their cost) was for home entertainment, shortish pieces that could be played, preferably at sight, by the average ordinary music lover (comparable level of skill, ability to load an ipod with taste, ah well). So Schubert was a local hero, prolific producer of popular stuff, who struggled in vain to get published outside Vienna, and when he died, he was the tubby little man who wrote charming songs and piano duets for the masses. Which didn't sound like much of an oeuvre.

The irony is that this passionate back-bedroom fan-boy really was Beethoven's rightful heir, Beethoven and more, things Beethoven couldn't do; and how often does that happen? If he'd been taken seriously in life, his music would undoubtedly have lived in Beethoven's shadow too, and he'd have had different frustrations. As it is, Schubert's status is a controversy that never happened. There are passionate Schubertians, and he has a secure place in the repertoire, and there it lies.

When he'd recovered from the acute phase of the disease his health was poorish, but okay, for the last five years of his life. In October 1828, when he was thirty one, he was taken ill at a dinner party. A few weeks' later he was dead. His sudden death is held to be a puzzle, but given the many forms syphilis can take, and given the horrific, grotesque long-drawn out torture it could and can inflict on the way to killing you (in the absence of antibiotics), I don't see any mystery, and you could say he got off lightly. The sublime, unbearable sadness of his late and greatest music, the intense poignancy in the happiest, is also held by some to be a puzzle, since what, in his uneventful, modest, lower-middle-class biography prepares one for such intensity? Well, I don't know. He knew his own worth (and he was dead right). He knew he'd contracted a shameful, hideous disease that was going to kill him by inches; that all his hopes were blighted, his chances of love and happiness destroyed. He "lived with death as a constant companion for five years", and came to terms with this dark angel, faithful friend, in the language of a composer of genius. What does his class background, and failure to play before the Crowned Heads of Europe have to do with it?

(The portrait at the top of this entry is the standard model. The one on the right at the bottom is a disputed sketch of Schubert at 16. See here (scroll down the comments, until you get to the informed response, which is the long one). Who can tell? I've looked at the two faces side by side, I think it could well be him).

His last sonata, in B flat (D960) is my favourite piece of music.

File beside John Keats.

The biography I read was: Schubert, John Reed, Master Musicians series; OUP; series edited by Stanley Sadie. It's really more of a Schubertian handbook, best on dates and the catalogue, and critical examples. I'm not convinced there isn't a literary biography (debunking, revisionist or otherwise), and I have my eye on one, ( but I've no idea if I'll get round to it.

Der Leiermann (linked through the keynote portrait) is sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; piano, Alfred Brendel.

The Elms: This Anomalous Region I Live In

Tuesday 14th June, clear blue morning after a wet (good!) stubbornly cold (have they really broken the Gulf Stream? #file under fantasists, be careful what you wish for) and ominously windy weekend... a handful of swifts hawking high over the valley.

Apparently two of the great elms in Preston Park fell in the strong winds on Friday night, which does not mean we had a hurricane here, it probably means the trees were on the way out anyway. I can hope they'd reached their natural span (and therefore not infectious, just sadly cannot ever be replaced), but on the way to the station on Thursday, up to London for Gabriel's final recital at Trinity, we spotted this ringed tree from the bus. It's that dreaded time of year again. I went to have a closer look yesterday, and saw what the Dutch Elm Disease watch calls "flagging", which doesn't mean exactly what you think, it means a visible flag of dry dead leaves, on an otherwise okay-looking tree, showing up brown in the green of early summer foliage. This means the tree must be felled, as it is a danger to its neighbours, and there is no treatment, no cure. It's awfully sad. It hurts, and I'm not alone in feeling this way. I've seen people, just any old people in my part of Brighton, where the remaining elms round the Level are such an icon, touch a condemned elm, and just stand there, poor thing, so sorry. When I was taking this photo, same thing happened, just another passer-by, so sorry. Everything must go. What would be my perfect world? It's gone, and I'm afraid its not coming back. It was the one where we could look at the trees, at the natural world, and think I'm ephemeral, you are forever.

There's a site where you can sign up to be a Dutch Elm Disease Volunteer. I've done that, even though I'm guessing it only means walking around in this last, failing refuge, and spotting another doomed tree, but I don't expect to be called. It'll be like the time ESSC asked for lookerers to watch the sheep on our bits of urban downland. They'll be snowed under.

Gabriel's recital was lovely. The boy done reasonably good, he felt and we felt. Lot of beer and white wine, with the young people and Philip Fowke, their teacher: sunshine and showers, roses on the walls of the Brewery Garden, and so long, the Old Naval College, the River, the glittering towers of the Isle of Dogs. The everlasting period-setting film crew invasions (If it wasn't Little Dorrit it was Johnny Depp.)

A Links round up seems to be called for, looking at my inbox:

Writers, if you didn't like the Google Book Settlement and cheered at its apparent defeat, you should check this out, from the indefatigable Gill Spraggs who is still on the case. All is not well.

Fairytale enthusiasts, on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles Kath Langrish is starting another round of her "Fairytale Reflections" from a posse of illustrious authors (and eventually Ann Halam). Terri Windling kicking off.

&the BartoBar crew have captured Al Reynolds this time

Not going to bother telling you about 38% and Health Reform. That one seems to be over.

I thought there were more but never mind. Enough, for now.

Stravinsky (Stephen Walsh) postscript:

Tuesday 2nd February, no frost, grey rain.

For completism.

I read the second tome of Stephen Walsh's Stravinsky biography (Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934–1971) in December when I had the flu. The massiveness of the book was a friend to me, when the misery of flu was making time pass very slowly, and I'll remember it fondly for that reason.

Whoever said (commenting on my first Stravinsky post), that biographies of artists/musicians are a bit of a pitfall she was dead right, but I'm always curious, it's the History of Ideas student in me. On the whole, I learned a little about Modernism, both brands, and that was interesting (and thanks for the Penderecky tip greywyvern, but I'm not really a convert. I'll dip in and out of Modernism, same as Jazz, but it's not for me). Stravinsky himself becomes more human as he gets older, sheds first the Enfant Terrible and then the HardNosed Marketplace Artist persona. He said, in the end "All artists are carried on the shoulder of tradition", (and went on to reference the St Christopher and the Christ Child legend, which kind of positions Stravinsky as the Christ, ha!; but never mind). He refused, withering the suggestion with scorn, to "interview" Shostakovich, when he visited the USA. "What's the point in talking to him? He is not free!", which shows more sense than other expats tactlessly trying to get the man to denounce the Soviet State.

I listened to a lot of Stravinsky, liked some of it very much (probably, apart from The Rite Of Spring, the least-Stravinskyish works: couldn't get on with the Sacred music at all), & the biography gave me the entry, because I'm the slave of words. But every biographer has a thesis, of course they do or it wouldn't be a book it'd be a list of dates. In Ian MacDonald's dramatic "secret dissident" reading of Shostakovich's career, it's about Soviet history and music-politics and relates directly to the music. Stephen Walsh's big idea is the unmasking of a third party: not Stravinsky, for all his faults, but Robert Craft, Stravinsky's amanuensis, companion, secretary, substitute son. Stravinsky, a "bad, hard-hearted father", who demanded his children's devotion and treated them like chattels, got his come-uppance when he fell into the clutches of a "son", maybe neither bad nor hard-hearted, who worked the old man into the ground, alienated him from his (first) family and treated him like property. . . You can't call this inadmissable, because nobody disputes that Craft did take over Stravinsky's papers. He controlled the composer's post-mortem reputation. If he suppressed, edited, deleted, "interpreted" anything he didn't like, that's got to be fascinating, also very annoying, for any biographer who comes after, and detects the traces. I'm not sure it's all that fascinating for someone trying to place the composer in his times. But you can read Craft's immensely detailed refutation here, if you're really interested.

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.


Tuesday 26th May. Rain.

[The New Shostakovich, Ian MacDonald, revised and with notes by Raymond Clarke, Random House 2006]

(Draft: Less later)

Shostakovich was born in Petrograd in 1906. His family were middleclass, educated, mildly revolutionary in sympathy; connections were more actively anti-Tsarist political. In 1917 he was in the crowds who saw Lenin arrive at the Finland station and was caught up in the euphoria (long afterward he denied this, but I bet it's true. Ten years old, with his family background. Why wouldn't he have been excited?). He was a child prodigy, his first symphony premiered in Leningrad in 1926 to instant acclaim, and recognition that here was an extraordinary, world-class talent. In the early thirties he wrote an opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, about an "ordinary Russian family, they beat and poison one another. . .", with a free and defiant rural Soviet heroine (whose principles Shostakovich seems genuinely to have embraced) whose genius is that she breaks free from the petty oppression of bullies, and slaughters her male chauvinist oppressors. In 1936, in the opening phase of the Stalinist purges, he received a severe reprimand from the Party for this anarchic work, at a time when reprimand was a whisker away from a sentence of death; or "disappearence" avant le lettre. His response was his Fifth Symphony, subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Response To Just Criticism", which passed the censor, and was acclaimed world wide despite strange inconsistences in texture and tone; but was in fact a coded message, that the Russian people understood if no one else did. In the slow movement, the premiere audience heard the ticking away of midnight vigils, waiting for the Secret Police to knock on the door, they heard the suppression of their fear and grief, the deadening pervasive torment of constant suspicion, and when the bombastic, blaring final movement took over they all knew very well that this was not triumphalism but daring and bitter satire. They broke down in tears. They gave the composer a rapturous ovation. (Personality cult style success, to the extent of a highly dangerous standing ovation, was to greet many of Shostakovich's works).

But he walked the line, and despite a couple of further minatory brushes with the authorities he remained for his entire career the Composer Laureate of the Soviet Union, Stalin's Poster Boy, saying what he had to say, when interviewed by Western journalists on cultural trips abroad. When the pressure became too great he'd write music he knew he could never publish and put it away, and then turn in another bland innocuous socialist realism movie score. In 1975 he died of lung cancer, in an odor of Soviet sanctity. In 1979, someone called Solomon Volkov produced a work called "Testimony", published in New York, which he claimed was Shostakovich's secret autobiography, that turned everything on its head and revealed a suppressed, passionate dissident. "Testimony" has had a chequered history. Naturally Western music critics, of whatever political persuasion, didn't like being told they'd been fooled into accepting satire as pure music: naturally Communist and even some Left Wing intellectuals were furious at the slur on Russian culture. But though the authenticity of the "autobiography" has been convincingly rubbished, the "New Shostakovich" is now almost universally accepted as the real composer. Maxim Shostakovich (once he was free to speak without endangering lives of family members) has said of Testimony, "this is a book about my father, not by my father, but it gives a true picture of his life". . .

Many musicologists, even so, were unable to believe Shostakovich had devoted his towering abilities to such a weird, secret life. What? One of the greatest composers of the C20 (probably, possibly, the greatest, and he distorted every single line of his music with the secret message "STALIN STINKS". It's not possible! We know Beethoven had a crush on Napoleon and then repented of it, in public, but it was only part of the music. Shostakovich's first priority has to have been self-expression. Deep down, all great artists are selfless egotists (to coin a phrase), they don't traduce themselves. . . Glasnost came along, and the staggering extent of Stalin's Terror was finally, by degrees, revealed. "Testimony" was no longer implausible. And yet, by the way, you'll still find furious Communists, denouncing the New Shostakovich idea all over the net, check it out.

The New Shostakovich was a shock to the system. My music student son has been taught the New Shostakovich line (I checked); me, I was just curious. Long ago, I'd dismissed the man as one of the C20 Big Composers whose work was just never going to interest me. A wannabe Art of Noise merchant, prevented by politics from embracing Modernism, but making up for it with blaring, crude and clumsy dissonance in a Classic mode. Then Gabriel started playing the Preludes and Fugues (Op 87, 1950-51), beautiful, complex, serene and challenging. I loved them, and that made me wonder. . . I never read a biography that left me so interested, and yet so unsatisfied as this one. I immediately decided I'd better read Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror". R. Conquest is a pickle: a complete nutcase on the subject of how he would rule the world (a ginormous Superstate called the Anglosphere, in case you don't know: which would run the entire world, with the President of the USA as CEO, and the Queen of England as, well, Our Queen, God bless her). Also a superb investigative historian, who told the truth about Stalin forty years ago, and has since Glasnost revised and filled out the picture. "The Great Terror" is not for the fainthearted, it's a relentless, endless mass of grim facts and forgettable names, but it did give me insights on the Shostakovich enigma.

My parents (my father died recently, aged 98) were there at the time. They were Manchester Socialists in thirties, forties, fifties, they had no illusions about the Show Trials, and didn't pass any illusions on. Anyway, by the time I left school. I'd read 1984, I'd read Animal Farm. Darkness At Noon was required reading, alongside the Communist Manifesto, at my alma mater. Yet they walked, and taught me by example I suppose, the art of walking a complicated line, the art of being a Socialist, and voting the way you ought, while knowing that your leaders were to some extent corrupt (it's the nature of the beast); that the Great Socialist State over the water was a hellhole; and that many daft idealist local plans (such as the National Health Service without means testing), were bound to end in disaster. But there's a lot in Conquest that I didn't know, particularly the chunks of transcript from the Great Trials, the weirdly moving public confessions of Great Men who had finally been caught in the maw of their own hellish system. Some of them, between the stirrup and the ground, actually appear to have come to their senses under torture. They confessed, with unsettling conviction, to the "invented" crime of decades of secret sabotage; they confessed to wrecking their country.

Shostakovich didn't choose the role he played. If he'd known what was coming he'd surely have fled, but he was genuinely a socialist artist, and then it was 1930 and it was too late. So he walked a line, staying alive, never revealing his true feelings about the regime; trying not to denounce anyone, much. Same as most people of his class. But he was Shostakovich, so he allowed himself to remain a Great Soviet Artist, Stalin's pet composer, so that he could go on writing music, and being heard, at the global level he knew that he deserved; that the world deserved. No wonder he had a real breakdown when he was finally coerced into becoming a Party Member (1960); a fate than many another secret dissident had accepted with resignation. He'd survived for so long, hanging onto his selfless egotism, with honour as he believed, but in the end they beat him. They made him "sell out".

So what about the music? It hasn't changed, it's still weirdly inconsistent, sombre one minute, gruesomely jovial the next. It's still mostly programme music, not pure music, and "full of quotations" (and I think that's not coerced in either case). But surely music that can't be heard right without knowledge of a particular, isolated historical context is doomed to die? Hm. All art has historical context, and somehow the Illiad gets by. And Stalin's Russia was hardly an isolated phenomenon. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Rwanda, Bosnia. . . And the Western Powers, who let Stalin's Russia happen because, cut the humanitarian crap, Hitler was more of a threat to "our" territories? Do you remember that secret WWII Allied pact to sacrifice Poland, to get themselves a following wind, that I fictionalised with the imaginary codeword Iphegenia in Band of Gypsys? I didn't make it up.

In the C20, Big Music moved to Russia. . . I didn't used to believe that. Movie scores, ballets, Rach2 okay, but what about the Modernists? What about Benjamin Britten? I think I'm going to have to change my mind. Listen to the Fifth. Listen to the music of the C20, the difficult, grievous, harsh, immortal music of the century when "we" reached our peak.

Instant Judgement on Robert Schumann

Friday March 27th, sun surfacing through overcast, after a chilly night Reading Clio Grey, of whom more later, and The Iliad, where I've reached the Battle By The River, Hector hasn't got long left now. Watching a lot of movies as I've been feeling poorly, Mildred Pierce, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Fifth Element (again).

Improving my musical knowledge (down to Gabriel of course, he starts playing the music, I start wondering, what was that guy like? What did his life and times have to do with his composition?): this week's composer is Schumann. Reminds me of Bruce Sterling, a bit (sorry, Bruce, I know you're not mad). Esp. the selfless early career, putting passionate criticism and the Good Of The Genre before his own art, and not even realising it. The not-in-the-best-of-tempers manifestos against moribund convention, the revolutionary brotherhood of correct thought, to which you could get elected without your knowledge. Also the reckless mixing of media. Music written to illustrate details in a novel (Papillons) which of course everyone cool will get, because of course everyone cool knows the novel off by heart just like Robert does. I ended up not really liking most of what we have on CD, because it's too puzzling, too literary, and I haven't any desire to read the Wertheroid novels. They've vanished, and I bet it's with good reason.

The story about disabling his hand is less extreme than I thought, in fact my arbitrarily chosen biographer gave the distinct impression that it was a good excuse to stay out of the virtuoso bloodbath. Shame about the story of that ultra-romantic marriage, it really doesn't stand up. Oh Clara, you are my equal in all things, we are twin souls, we are beyond convention! Ah, at last you are mine! No, you can't go on tour. Didn't I say I need you to stay at home and bring up twenty kids. . ? He wrecked her career for as long as he was able (an uphill job, as Clara Wiek was incredibly talented, ditto hardworking, already famous & knew how to work a crowd), and though she submitted, though she became the fierce champion of his faltering genius, picking fights left right and centre, I don't think she forgave him. Not until he was safely on the way out. . . She didn't visit him much in that horrible aslyum. Where he certainly didn't deserve to end up, whatever it was that was wrong with him. All right, he jumped in the river, okay he'd been admitting to psychotic symptoms, but all the heroes of those turgid novels "admit" to psychotic symptoms, they never stop: how can your soul be in torment without a few waking nightmares?, it's de rigeur And in the end, when nobody would listen, he starved himself to death. Nasty way to go.

NB, my research for this entry, such as it was, involved reading Robert Schumann his life and work by Ronald Taylor, probably not the best place to start, a pedestrian biography and not great on musical analysis; but it was in the library! And listening to these two disks. Richter is as a God, I am reliably told, but I like Jonathan Biss.

Richter, playing Schubert's Wanderer and Schumann Papillons & Fantasie 17

Jonathan Biss, Fantasie 17 etc

He championed Chopin, when nobody understood what Chopin really was (cannons disguised by flowers is a Schumann quote), he railed against mediocrity, he had his faults but he was okay. I ought to listen to more, esp. the songs, and Kindersznesen (not for children; about being a child). Next in this series, Shostakovich: closet dissident or pillar of Stalinism?

Really, I'm practising having categories, after all these years: see if I can be a proper blogger.