Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Stories of Henry James (4): "The Treacherous Years," 1892-1898

The years from 1890 to 1895 were difficult years for James, as he tried to make a career switch to writing plays. But he would have to conclude that the theater was not suitable for his style of work. James is simply too cerebral, too ambiguous - he couldn't write the funny one-liners that Oscar Wilde produced. Of the many plays he wrote in this period, one, The American, lasted 70 nights; the only other one that reached the theater was Guy Domville, and although this was a critical success, it was a complete failure with the public. James was even booed off the stage after the first performance. James' theatrical endeavors were, however, not wasted, for they made him pay more attention to scene and setting in his novelistic writings, instead of concentrating only on character.

[Henry James, 1897]
In 1892 Henry's sister Alice died - she had lived in England since 1884, near her brother, but not with him. She however did depend on James, especially in periods when her friend and partner Katherine Loring was away. In her last years she kept a diary about her illness.

A second tragedy happened in 1894, when Constance Fenimore Cooper killed herself in Venice. James had known this writer (who was in that period often more popular then he) since 1880 and had become quite intimate with her, even sharing a house with her in Florence in 1886, something which he kept secret. But as James always pulled back again, the friendship was a mixture of joy  and disappointment for Fenimore, and this may have triggered her suicide. James traveled to Venice to help Fenimore's sister sort out things (and presumably to destroy the intimate letters he wrote Fenimore).

The other event in this period is the move to Rye in rural Sussex, in 1896, where James first leased and later bought a beautiful 18th century town house called "Lamb House." Here James spent the remaining 20 years of his life. He had frequent visitors (the house was big enough for staying guests), and also often spent the winter in London, where he stayed at his club and later again rented a small flat. But from now on "Lamb House" became his real home.

In 1995 James wrote two novels, The Spoils of Poynton and The Awkward Age, neither of which became very popular at that time. This was different with What Maisie Knew, written in 1897. With its strong female protagonist, the novel is both lucid and morally complicated.

While pursuing his ill-fated career as a playwright, James continued to write fiction, publishing several of his best stories in this period.

The main themes are the following:
- Dispiriting tales of writers and artists. Good literature is not popular, hacks rake in all the money. Literary writers are "used" by society, but not appreciated, or even read. James also expresses a strong concern for posthumous reputation. These tales form a clear reflection of James' decreased popularity in this period, and his failure to write for the theatre. Stories include "The Private Life," The Death of the Lion, "Greville Fane," "The Next Time," "The Middle Years" and "The Figure in the Carpet." "The Real Thing" asks the question about the perfect model for art, reality or fancy?
- Stories about the theater ("Nona Vincent") or stories based on plays ("The Covering End").
- Stories in which the narrator is haunted by a sense of missed opportunities ("The Altar of the Dead")

[Henry James, 1894]

Here are the stories Henry James wrote from 1992 to 1998:

"Nona Vincent" [1892]
First publication in English Illustrated Magazine in February—March 1892. First book edition in The Real Thing and Other Tales (London and New York, 1893).
A story born from James's own theatrical endeavors. Alan Wayworth has modeled the heroine of his play on a married friend, Mrs Alsager. When the actress Violet Grey is assigned to this title role, she first fails in it, but then Mrs Alsager helps her by merely showing her what kind of person she is, and now the play becomes a success.

"The Real Thing" [1892]
First published in Black and White, 1892. First book edition in The Real Thing and Other Tales (London and New York, 1893). Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
What is the best model for pictorial art, reality or fancy? An impoverished major and his wife offer themselves as models to an artist who has to make illustrations for a novel, but although they exactly fit the characters in the book, they are not "the real thing" as models. The artist finds that a Cockney lady and an Italian fruit vendor succeed better in striking the right poses - even when modeling high-class society members. A fine account of the nature of artistic illusion.

"The Private Life" [1892]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly in April 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A story about a writer with a literally divided self, a man with two bodies. One of them goes about in public, dining, talking and making merry. The other stays in his room where he works diligently. We also meet an aristocrat who is the writer's antithesis: he is always the center of attention at social gatherings, but possesses no private self: he dissolves simply when not in the company of others. The story is also about the dichotomy in James's own life: his dedication to art and need of privacy on the one hand, and his wish to have a respected position in society on the other.

"Lord Beaupré" [1892]
First published in Macmillan’s Magazine in April—June 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
A humorous tale about the vicissitudes of a conceited young man in the London "marriage market." Lord Beaupré, a desirable catch, has jokingly suggested to his childhood friend Mary that they pretend to be engaged in order to spare him the unwanted attentions of women (and their mothers) hunting for a rich husband. Mary's scheming mother has anticipated them and spread the lie as a fact, with the idea that this may lead to a real engagement between her daughter and Lord Beaupré. But it all turns out rather differently...

"The Visits" [1892]
First published in Black and White weekly magazine in May 1892.  First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
A typical James story in that the central event can not be named and remains a mystery. An elderly lady meets Louisa, the daughter of an old friend, at a party in a country house. Something has happened to Louisa in the gardens and she is very much upset and ashamed, pleading with the lady not to tell her mother. Even so, as soon as she comes home, she takes to her bed and wastes away, unable to tell what happened to her. The elderly lady surmises that Louisa has thrown herself at a young man who has violently repulsed her.

"Sir Dominick Ferrand" [1892]
First published in Cosmopolitan magazine, July and August 1892. First book edition The real thing and other tales, New York - London, 1893.
An impecunious young writer buys a second-hand davenport writing-desk and finds compromising letters in it by a famous politician, Sir Dominick Ferrand. He contemplates selling them and is offered a good price, but at the last moment he cannot bring himself to profit from the damaged reputation of another - even though he needs the money badly. This is fortunate for he now discovers that the woman he is in love with is in fact the illegitimate daughter of Sir Dominick Ferrand. This theme echoes that of "The Aspern Papers." James himself was very worried about damage to his posthumous reputation by stray letters and several times during his life destroyed his papers.

"Greville Fane" [1892]
First published in the Illustrated London News in September 1892. First book edition The real thing and other tales, New York - London, 1893. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A light story about literary life. The narrator is asked to write an obituary of an author named Mrs Stormer, a literary hack without talent but with a prodigious output who wrote under a male pseudonym (as more women did in the 19th c., like George Eliot), as "Greville Fane." Despite her lack of talent the narrator - himself a writer - did like her as a person. He also regrets the bad behavior of her two children. After she gets her daughter married to "a title," that daughter does not want to know her unseemly mother anymore. And Greville Fane wants to make her son her successor as author, but he is just an idle pleasure seeker. After the death of Mrs Stormer, her precious children fight over the proceeds of the unpublished papers they find in her desk.

"Collaboration" [1892] 
First published in The English Illustrated Magazine, September 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
"Collaboration" occurs between a German composer and a French poet on an opera — France and Germany fought a war in 1870 and were often rivals in Europe, but will art be able to transcend national differences?

"Owen Wingrave" [1892]
First published in The Graphic, November 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
Owen Wingrave is a young Englishman of military descent who wants to get out of the family profession of being a soldier. Consequently, he is accused by his family of dishonoring his valiant name, considered as a coward and challenged to prove his courage - which he does in a fatal way by facing off with the ghost of one of his martial ancestors. Killed by heredity?

"The Wheel of Time" [1892]
First published in Cosmopolitan Magazine, Dec. 1892 and Jan. 1893. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
The wheel of time shuffles the characteristics of persons in different generations around. Fanny was in love with Maurice, but he thought her too plain and married another. Fanny has also married and now has a handsome son, Arthur. To the surprise of Maurice, who meets her again by chance after twenty years, Fanny has grown into a beautiful woman. Vera, the - in her turn - plain daughter of Maurice falls in love with Arthur, but he scorns her in the same way in which Maurice once scorned Fanny. So the circle is round...

"The Middle Years" [1893]
First published in Scribner's Magazine, May 1893. First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A middle-aged writer is not sure that he has developed his artistic abilities to the full, and worries he may have been a failure. He would like a "second chance," but that is not very probable as he has a serious illness. He meets a young doctor who has read his books and is so much affected by them that he is prepared to abandon everything to provide medical care to the writer. The author, dying, finally realizes that the most important thing is not whether there is to be another chance, but to have created works which can arouse such a strong response. "The thing is to have made somebody care."
State University of New York, New Paltz

"The Death of the Lion" [1894]
First published in The Yellow Book, April 1894. First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A satirical view of the lack of literary appreciation in fashionable society - a story about a famous novelist whom everybody knows but nobody reads. The narrator is an ardent admirer of the writer Neil Paraday, who after a life in obscurity, is written up by the press and therefore becomes a popular although not very willing guest at country houses. He is lionized by a celebrity hunter, until two other vulgarian writers appear, who in their turn win the field. The other guests, who like to hold books in their hands without reading them, have even managed to lose the manuscript of Paraday's last novel. When Paraday later falls ill, he is again wholly deserted.

"The Coxon Fund" [1894]
First published in The Yellow Book, July 1894. First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
Is Frank Saltram a con man or a holy fool? Whatever he is, he delights others with his conversation. He is such a charmer that people even pay his debts for him. A fund is set apart by a Mrs. Coxon for the care of genius, and Mr. Saltram is the first beneficiary. Under its provisions he is now so comfortable that he produces less than ever...

"The Altar of the Dead" [1895]
First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
One of James' best stories, that was amazingly enough turned down by the magazines. George Strassmore, at fifty-five, is still in love with the memory of Mary (based on James' youth love Minnie), whom he was to marry. In his mind he has set up an "altar of the dead" for her and - now that he is getting older and family and friends are falling away - he adds his new dead to it. Then he has the inspiration to set up a real altar with candles in an unused part of a church, although he is not religious in the conventional sense. After he has done so, he regularly finds an unknown woman kneeling and praying there (she is based on Fenimore Woolson). As they are both very private people, it is only over the course of many years that they start talking and become somewhat familiar with each other, as if each has found his or her follower for a private cult. But then George finds out that the woman was in love with a - now deceased - man who has betrayed him and who is his enemy - the only one for whom he has set up no candle. He still refuses to do so and that makes her stop coming to the altar. But he is haunted by her need for one candle more, a need that finally is satisfied when George dies in the church and she will set up one new candle on the Altar - one at the same time for him and for his enemy whom she loved. This story can be read in two ways: as a morally uplifting tale of love and forgiveness, but also, like "The Beast in the Jungle" as a story of lost opportunities, of a life spent waiting for nothing, as death in life.

"The Next Time" [1895]
First published in The Yellow Book, July 1895. First book edition in Embarrassments, London - New York 1896. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A story about literary life. A writer, Limbert, keeps on trying to produce bestsellers, only to find that he has written a series of literary masterpieces which bring in no money. His work for popular magazines is also refused - he just can't write in a popular vein. Despite his financial problems, he marries, and has three children, and this turns his fate into a tragedy - although he continues to write masterpieces. One theme here is the reputation of the creative artist, who is under-appreciated except by the discerning few. Another theme is the conflict between commercialism and artistic integrity. And the third theme is the traditional Jamesian one of the tension between art and domestic life - artists should remain unmarried. Ironically, the story has an introduction which takes place many years later in which a popular author asks the narrator to write a review of her work for she is tired of being only commercially successful, for once she wants to be an "exquisite failure" like Limbert.

"Glasses" [1896]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1896. First book edition in Embarrassments, London - New York 1896.
Orphan Flora Saunt has the most beautiful face (and eyes) in the world and she has many admirers, such as Lord Iffield and Geoffrey Dawling. The narrator, a painter who becomes famous thanks to creating her portrait, notices that she sometimes stealthily uses thick glasses, like his aunt. She is about to marry Iffield, but her myopia which is getting worse as she does not regularly wear the glasses, costs her the love of the lord. Then much later the painter sees her in a box at the opera, comes to her and finds her blind, but with Dawling, now her husband, ever at hand, and her beauty as great as ever. At times she even sweeps the house with her opera glasses. James admired Maupassant and this story has a twist like those of the great French story writer. The tale is filled with images of sight, looking and appearance, with people staring through spectacles, telescopes and opera glasses.

"The Figure in the Carpet" [1896]
First published in Cosmopolis, January and February 1896. First book edition in Embarrassments, London - New York 1896. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A puzzle of literary interpretation. Is it a satire of literary criticism or just a literary joke? We never hear what is the illusive design or purpose that underlies the fiction of Hugh Vereker (and perhaps James himself!). A critic writes an article on Vereker; the author tells him there is an intention in his work that people do not divine. Meanwhile another critic discovers the secret, but dies before revealing it to anyone except his wife; who in turn dies without disclosing it to her second husband. The first critic, who is telling the story, is left with no real clue and only one consolation — his rival critic is now also fiercely wondering what Vereker is all about. In the first interpretation above (satire of literary criticism) James takes revenge on critics who are too lazy to study his novels in depth and only try to advance their own career by prying information from others. Criticism was blind and didn't care for the secrets in his art - his "figure in the carpet." The second interpretation, that of a literary joke, would be based on the possibility that Vereker only claims there is a hidden meaning in his work in order to tease the critics and send them on a wild goose chase (i.e. in reality there is no hidden meaning). This interpretation would be supported by the serial deaths of the persons who claim to have found the solution. A biographical interpretation associates the story with the suicide of James' friend Fenimore Woolson, whose death was to James a secret of human relations, a mystery shut up forever.

"The Way It Came" ("The Friends of the Friends") [1896]
First published in Chapman's Magazine of Fiction in May, 1896, and reprinted the same year in the story collection Embarrassments. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work as "The Friends of the Friends" (1907-09).
A man falls in love with the ghost of a woman he never met (calling to mind Turgenev's final story, Clara Militch). A man and a woman, two friends of the (female) narrator, both have had the experience of seeing an image of a parent at the moment of that parent's dying far away. The narrator therefore thinks these two "sensitive" people should meet, but various accidents prevent their coming together. Then the narrator herself becomes engaged to the man. She once more tries to bring the two together, but at the last moment becomes afraid it will damage her own engagement to the man, and again no meeting takes place. That evening the woman comes to the man, remains speechless with him for a time, goes home, and dies. The narrator realizes that they love each other and that in death the woman returns to the man nightly. She breaks her engagement; the man lingers some years, then goes to join his dead love.

"The Turn of the Screw" [1898]
First published in Collier's Weekly, 12 installments from January to April 1898. First book edition in The Two Magics, London and New York, 1898. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
This suspenseful story is so famous it needs little introduction. It is an ambiguous tale in which a governess tells about her first post in a remote country house. She was in charge of two children who appeared to be haunted by former employees, a governess and butler. She thinks they keep re-appearing to try to get the children to join them in the other world. The children seem very clever in getting away from their new governess and meeting their tempters. We see the story through the eyes of the new governess, whose reliability as a narrator is questionable. Isn't she imagining things? Where does that leave her morally when one of the children dies?

"Covering End" [1898]
First published in The Two Magics, London - New York, 1898.
A story made out of a play, something which is still quite obvious. The play in question was a one act play called Summersoft, a light comedy written in 1895. In 1907, James again re-converted the story into a three act play called The High Bid, which even saw some performances. An American lady, who knows more about English culture than the English themselves, is interested in Covering End, an ancient country mansion that is heavily mortgaged. The greedy and vainglorious mortgagee wants to marry off his daughter to the impoverished heir - but the American lady has other designs...
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center

"In the Cage" [1898]
First published in book form in both England and America in 1898. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
A young female telegraph operator who sits in a wire cage in the post office (she also dispenses stamps and change) whiles away the time by guessing the "stories" of her customers - especially their love affairs, in so far as she gets hints from their telegrams. A frequent visitor is a handsome playboy type, the Captain, who seems involved in a rather passionate affair and she falls herself in love with him, even following him to sit together in the park. But she knows it can not be - the social gap is too large. So in the end she marries Mr. Mudge, a grocer, who had been patiently wooing her...

"John Delavoy" [1898]
First published in Cosmopolis of Jan-Feb 1898; first book edition in The Soft Side, London & New York, 1900.
Another story of the literary life, dealing with the relationship between an author (the narrator) and a vulgar magazine editor. The narrator writes an article about deceased author John Delavoy and the sister of the author provides a rare portrait to publish with the essay. The magazine editor, however, doesn't want a serious essay (heavy literature does not fit the magazine) and rejects the article. To the dismay of both the sister and the article writer only the portrait is published with some innocuous, light ramblings by one of the editors. The critic publishes his study in another magazine, but it attracts no particular attention.
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center

"The Given Case" [1898]
First published in Collier's Weekly, Dec. - Jan 1899; first book edition in The Soft Side, London & New York, 1900.
A case of two symmetrical relationships: Barton Reeve is in love with a married woman, Mrs Kate Despard, who is estranged from her husband. Philip Mackern is infatuated with Miss Hamer, who is engaged to a government officer serving in India. Both women have encouraged their lovers but later pull back. Each of the men appeals to the other's lover for help. Finally, the social dilemmas, though similar, are solved in very different ways by both women.

The best stories among the above are in my view:
  • The Turn of the Screw
  • The Altar of the Dead
  • The Figure in the Carpet
  • The Real Thing
  • The Death of the Lion

If you prefer to read the stories in book form, the recommended edition is that of the Complete Stories of Henry James, in five volumes, in The Library of America. Collections of stories are also available, for example in two volumes in Everyman's Library, or in Penguin Classics.

The definitive biography on James has been written by Leon Edel, The Life of Henry James, in five volumes (1955-1972). There is also a shortened version: Henry James, A Life (1985) - which still runs to above 700 pages.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen

We continue our survey of cult symphonies with works by the English composer Havergal Brian and Dutchman Matthijs Vermeulen.

[Havergal Brian, 1897]

1. Havergal Brian, Symphony No 1 in D minor "Gothic" [1919-27]
  • The English composer Havergal Brian (1876-1972) lived a very long life during which he was mostly neglected by the musical establishment. He is known for two things: the large number of symphonies he wrote, mostly at a very high age - the total count is 32, of which 21 pieces were written after his eightieth birthday; and the fact that his first symphony, "The Gothic," is one of the longest symphonies ever composed, if not the longest (at least, according to the Guinness Book of Records), clocking in at between 100 and 110 minutes of music. It is a choral symphony like Beethoven's Ninth and Mahler's Eighth and massive forces are necessary to perform it: at a minimum 750, ideally over 800. These consist of four vocal soloists, two double choruses totaling about 500 voices plus a children’s choir, four brass bands, and a super-sized Mahlerian orchestra. Of course, great time span and numerous performers do not spell intrinsic greatness - but in the case of Brian's Gothic these gargantuan dimensions were indeed necessary to express the ideas of the composer. This is all the more so as Brian was not an extravagant but rather a very concise composer. His later symphonies last only between 10 and 20 minutes, Brian only composed essence and no fillers. The symphony consists of three purely orchestral movements followed by a gigantic setting of the Te Deum and it was the vision that demanded the enormous size. Musically, too, the symphony's scope is very broad, ranging from evocations of Gregorian chant to near-atonality and tone clusters. The choral writing is extremely difficult and a hard nut to crack for even the best choirs. But except in the climaxes, this work is no juggernaut of sound. It is unexpectedly delicate, Brian uses his immense forces with artistic restraint: he has the choir often sing a capella, and there is even a 90 second xylophone solo. 
  • What was Brian's vision? "Gothic" as Brian uses the term here, points to the Gothic style in architecture, to ages in which the great cathedrals of Northern Europe were built. Brian saw these huge stone edifices as symbols of Western culture, as monuments to the struggle of the human spirit against immense odds. Such a struggle had just taken place: the Great War, which had shaken Western values by its cruel violence and unbelievable death toll. Brian, however, reaffirms the idealistic Western tradition in the vast choral movements of the symphony - the Te Deum is meant in a secular rather than religious way. On the other hand, in the orchestral movements Brian reflects on the horrors of the war. Take for example the start of the first movement which its violent timpani attack propelling the music forward, or the brutal, raw march in the second movement. But war and peace go together, there are also moments of great beauty such as the passage for solo violin near the end of the first movement. 
  • Brian attached a quotation from Goethe's Faust to the symphony, that "those who strive with all their might will be redeemed," something which also seems to refer to his own situation. How can one strive more than by writing such a huge symphony? It is incredible that Brian had the energy to write this massive symphony at age 51, after a life of almost total neglect. Havergal Brian had a working class background and was self-taught in music. As an ardent fan of contemporary English composers he attended many music festivals and so became the friend of his near-contemporary composer Granville Bantock (1868–1946). His first success as a composer came in 1907 when his First English Suite was performed at the Proms by Henry Wood. Unfortunately, also due to vicissitudes in his personal life, Brian could not maintain this success and he fell again into oblivion. He had to work as a copyist to make both ends meet and finally became assistant editor of a musical magazine, a position he would keep until his retirement age. In the 1920s he turned to composing symphonies, with great tenacity, for the first of these was only performed in the early 1950s. The Gothic Symphony saw an amateur performance in 1961 and the first professional performance followed in 1966 under Sir Adrian Boult, when Brian was already ninety years of age!
  • Brian's music is not easy on the listener, and even today many critics just don't get it. Brian offers solutions to musical problems that are different from the mainstream - something he has in common with other "eccentric" "cult" composers, who all found their own, individually new solutions. Brian uses traditional (late-Romantic) idioms in a wholly nontraditional way, thereby severely undercutting the expectations of the listener. He places harmonic opulence at the side of lean polyphony, he combines types of music that are mutually inimical, he elides transitions, suddenly switching from one mood to the next. His music is often extremely violent, but that is paired with sudden patches of peaceful and soft music. In other words, he continually pulls the rug away under the feet of the listener. Such music would benefit by a long performance tradition - after all the performers have to pull all those heterogeneous elements together - , but unfortunately today's so-called "top orchestras" prefer to sleepwalk through the zillionth performance of Beethoven's Fifth instead of having the courage to tackle something new.
  • Havergal Brian Society website.
  • Performance listened to: Martyn Brabbins with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra on Hyperion.
[Matthijs Vermeulen, 1920]

2. Matthijs Vermeulen, Symphony No. 6 "Les Minutes Heureuses" [1956-58]
  • The Dutch composer Matthijs Vermeulen (1888-1967) had - like Havergal Brian - a working class background. Born in the southern part of the Netherlands, he initially wanted to become a priest, but when he heard the 16th c. polyphonic masters in his seminary, he discovered that his true calling was music. In Amsterdam, he received for two years free lessons from conservatory director Daniël de Lange, but due to financial constraints, he never followed a formal musical education. In 1909 he started working as a musical journalist, standing out for his clear style and advocacy of contemporary composers like Debussy, Mahler and the Dutchman Diepenbrock. As a journalist, he soon became a musical authority. In 1914 he completed his First Symphony but as he had a difficult relationship with the Dutch musical establishment in the person of Willem Mengelberg (in his newspaper reviews, Vermeulen criticized Dutch concert life as too much German-oriented, Vermeulen pleaded for a more French orientation), he could not get it performed (until 50 years later, when it was programmed by Bernard Haitink). As he saw no perspective in The Netherlands, in 1921 he moved with his family to France, but also there his music could not find its way into the concert hall. From 1926 to 1940 he worked as the French correspondent for a Dutch colonial newspaper from Indonesia, writing on every possible topic except music. Finally, in 1939 his Third Symphony was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum, inspiring Vermeulen to write two more symphonies during the dark war years. These years also brought heavy personal loss (his son was killed by the Germans). In 1946 Vermeulen returned to The Netherlands where he again became active as musical journalist (he was the best musical journalist Holland has ever known, but of course, that constant journalism also was a waste of his talent). He now continued composing his small but fine oeuvre, where symphonies stand in the central position. Vermeulen wrote a total of seven. Besides that he wrote chamber music: two cello sonatas, a violin sonata and several songs. His difficult music never became popular and his audience remained limited to a small cult following.
  • Vermeulen's musical style, besides being atonal and contrapuntal, was in the first place based on the technique of poly-melodicism, the simultaneous combination of several melodic lines. Frequently Vermeulen spins long melismas into continuous melodies, in a free rhythm of flowing lines. Vermeulen saw this multi-voiced, polymelodic way of composition in a political light: for him it was the true expression of freedom, all individuals being able to freely express and develop themselves, without infringing upon the freedom of others to do the same. Vermeulen's music is filled with vitality and power, often leading to an obsessive, march-like propulsion. 
  • The Sixth Symphony carries the subtitle "Les Minutes Heureuses," after a poem by Baudelaire, "I know the art of evoking happy minutes." On top of that, the symphony has been composed on the notes la do re, or L'adore, "the adored one." Adoration is the basis of being human and also of music. The arc the music follows is both a crescendo and a spiral. The three movements are played without interruption. The calm first movement ends with an apotheosis of la-do-re in the brass. The second movement is an Andante amoroso with a beautiful melody in the cor anglais, interspersed with brass and percussion fanfares. The last movement is fast and is propulsed upwards towards a big climax. 
  • Vermeulen website, also in English.
  • Recording listened to: Residentie Orchestra The Hague conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky on Chandos (with symphonies 2 & 7)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Susanna and the Elders" by Artemisia Gentileschi (Stories behind paintings)

Susanna and the Elders (Suzanna e i Vecchioni), painted in 1610 by Artemisia Gentileschi. The painting is now in the Graf von Schonborn Kunstsammlungen, Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany.

[Susanna and the Elders, Gentileschi's first work 1610 - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656) was an Italian Baroque painter, the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, and one of the most fascinating painters of her generation. Her private history was marked by a disastrous incident: in 1611 Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, a painter who had been hired by her father to tutor her. Together with her father, she pressed charges against Tassi even though this meant she had to undergo a demeaning gynecological examination and was tortured using thumbscrews. After a seven-month trial, the rapist got off with a conviction of one year which he never had to serve. Fortunately, Artemisia Gentileschi went on to become one of the best painters of her time - she painted many strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible; perhaps her most famous painting is Judith Beheading Holofernes, showing the decapitation of Holofernes in a scene of horrific blood-letting. Although her private history long overshadowed her achievements as an artist, today she is in the first place seen as the great artist she was.

Susanna and the Elders is Artemisia Gentileschi's first signed work, painted when she was only seventeen. Made before her own traumatic experience, but at a time when she may already have been suffering from sexual harassment by Tassi, it shows Suzanna sexually accosted by the two Elders when she is about to take a bath, a popular Biblical theme in painting, as it made some gratuitous nudity possible - typically, Gentileschi was the only one to paint the scene from a female point of view and rather bring out the fear and repulsion that Suzanna felt.

What do we see?
Suzanna is about to step into her bath (in her garden). She is already undressed and has one foot in the water. Two lecherous Elders are secretly observing her from behind a wall (in the picture uncomfortably close to Suzanna) - the finger on the lips of the right-hand figure points to secrecy - perhaps they are also commenting to each other in a whisper on her charms. Suzanna sits in a posture of fright: she has turned her head away and tries to push something back with her outstretched hands, as if a great danger is approaching from that side.

The background
  • The story of Susanna or Shoshana is included in the Book of Daniel, although in the Protestant tradition it is considered as an apocryphal chapter in that book. It is set during the captivity of the Jewish tribes in Babylon. Susanna, a fair Hebrew wife (whose husband is apparently temporarily away from home), was secretly desired by two Elders of the community, who plotted together to seduce her. When Suzanna took a bath in her garden, having sent her attendants away, the lecherous voyeurs hid themselves and secretly observed her. When she made her way back to her house, they emerged and threatened that, unless she gave in to their desires and had sex with them, they would publicly accuse her of adultery - the penalty for which was death. But Suzanna spurned their vile proposal and refused to be blackmailed. The "pious" Elders duly made their false accusation, claiming that they had caught Suzanna while she was having a tryst with a young man in her garden. Suzanna was charged and condemned to die, but at the last minute the youthful Daniel - the future prophet - interrupted the proceedings, demanding that the Elders should be questioned to prevent the death of an innocent. The two men were separately questioned about the details of what they saw - and they disagreed about the sort of tree under which Susanna supposedly met her lover. Thus Susanna's innocence was established and instead the false accusers were put to death.
  • From about 1470, Susanna was the subject of paintings by many artists, including Lorenzo Lotto, Guido Reni, Rubens, Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Tiepolo. The story of Suzanna was in 1749 made into an oratorio by Handel.
  • Besides having the important distinction of being painted from the point of view of Suzanna (and not showing her as flirtatious as many male artists did), Artemisia Gentileschi's rendering of the famous sexual harassment story is characterized by advanced color and construction, as well as anatomical accuracy. It is a very accomplished work, especially for such a young painter. Suzanna is depicted as vulnerable in her nudity, and shocked by the vile demands of these "pillars of society." In contrast, the two men loom large and menacingly over her, in a dangerous conspiracy trying to wreck her life. Psychologically, the painting exactly hits the mark. 
  • What we also realize now, is that this is a composite painting showing various parts of the story at one and the same time: the fright of Suzanna, her outstretched hands pushing something back, belong to a later scene - it is the shock she feels when the men make their mean proposal.
  • Some further biographical facts about Artemisia Gentileschi: her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was also a painter and she first studied with him in Rome. Her rapist, Agostini Tassi, was a landscape painter and the reason she became his pupil was to learn drawing in perspective. After the long legal proceedings were over, Artemisia married an artist from Florence (not out of interest in the man, but to show society she was "respectable"). She lived in Florence from 1614 to 1620 and enjoyed huge success as a painter. After the marriage broke up, she returned to Rome. In 1630 she went to Naples and in 1637 she traveled to London to the court of of Charles I, where her father had become court painter. Her father died however in 1639 and by 1642 Artemisia had also left England. In 1649 we again hear about her in Naples. She probably died in that city during the great plague of 1656.
  • Artemisia Gentileschi has been called "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting." The characters in her paintings intentionally lack stereotypical feminine traits, and are instead bold and defiant, probably because Artemisia was well aware of how female artists were viewed by society. For the same reason she often treated violent subject matter. She fought with determination against the prejudices towards women painters and was able to introduce herself into the circle of the most respected painters of her time, aptly using the weapon of her personality and her artistic qualities.
  • Because Artemisia returned again and again to violent subject matter as Judith and Holofernes, a "repressed-vengeance" theory has been postulated. Indeed, when viewing the painting below, made in 1611-1612, it is difficult not to imagine that Artemisia was cutting off the head of her tormentor Tassi, nice and slow... Or was she using her fame from the rape trial to cater to a niche market of sexually-charged, female-dominant art for male patrons (as the Wikipedia article on Artemisia Gentileschi puts it)? This is a cruel painting - see how cool Judith remains, as if she is just carving up a chicken:

[Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

Friday, October 4, 2013

Graves in Kyoto's shopping arcades (Seiganji)

Kyoto, the old capital, is full of graves. When you walk through Shinkyogoku, the popular shopping street between Shijo and Sanjo that is almost a Harajuku look-alike, you are in the midst of a huge graveyard. Nobody notices, young people are on shopping sprees as if there were no other things in the world.

I learned the truth by looking over walls, and by staying in the business hotels on Kawaramachi Street, where you look down on the many small temples from your room. Then you get a very different view of the area: an endless graveyard with a snake of oblivious youth and abandon slithering through it...

[Tomb of Izumi Shikibu in Seishin-in Temple]

One of the most famous graves here is that of Izumi Shikibu, a woman court poet and diarist who lived around the year 1000. Izumi Shikibu lived a life of love and passion that earned her the nickname "The Floating Lady." So she must still feel at home here, in Kyoto's entertainment center and perhaps she likes the sounds of youth passing by. But nobody stops for her anymore and her grave is stone cold.

The major temple in this area is Seiganji, now standing somewhat forlorn in Shinkyogoku, Kyoto's busy shopping street. But the gate and doors of the main hall are always wide open and from the street passersby can greet the large Amida Buddha seated in the hall.

[The welcoming entrance of Seiganji]

Although the graves remain, Seiganji has lost most of its land. It used to be a huge temple that even claims to have been founded in the late 7th c. Under the influence of Honen it turned to Pure Land Buddhism, as testified by its Amida statue. It only came to this location in last quarter of the 16th c., due to the redesign of Kyoto by Hideyoshi. One of Hideyoshi's concubines sponsored the temple, which then had many halls and even a pagoda. The area around Seiganji became a “town in front of the temple gate" where boisterous temple markets were held and that is how it spent the Edo-period.

The infamous Tenmei fire of 1788 claimed most of the temple buildings, including its original main statue, and modernisation did the rest. In the early Meiji-period, Kyoto Governor Makimura Masanao wanted to revitalize the city which had lost the Emperor, and he did this by creating a modern entertainment district with cinemas and theaters. That was Shinkyogoku and Seiganji gradually was dwarfed into oblivion.

[Wishes written on fans]

It is interesting to note that Seiganji did already have a link with entertainment. The most famous abbot of Seiganji was Anrakuan Sakuden (1554 – 1642), the man credited as being the earliest Rakugo comic story teller. His stories have been preserved in the aptly named compilation Sobering Laughter - apparently he started using comic stories while preaching, in order to keep his audience from falling asleep.

[The Fan Grave]

Thanks to the artistic impulse of Sakuden, the temple became popular with performers and artists who wanted to advance in their profession. The Fan Grave was built as a monument to the remembrance of Sakuden - the fan is the only implement used by Rakugo storytellers - and instead of the usual wooden votive planks, at Seiganji people write their wish on fans. And that is a form of elegance that very well fits the area...

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard

This post starts a small series about unique symphonies from the 20th c., written by composers who were considered as "eccentrics"  and sometimes even "outsiders."  It was Stravinsky who once asked the question: "Is it possible to link a musician like Scriabin to any tradition? Where did he come from? Who are his predecessors?" Inspired by this question, I have looked for symphonies by Scriabin and other 20th c. eccentric and intriguing composers. In this post and following ones I plan to write about Rued Langgaard, Jon Leifs, Alan Pettersson, Matthijs Vermeulen, Havergal Brian, Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen, Alexander Tcherepnin, Charles Koechlin, Alan Hovhaness and others. What were they, mystics or madmen? Visionaries or imposters? Bring on the mavericks and listen to the answer in their music!


1. Alexander Scriabin, Symphony No 3 in C minor Op. 43 "Le Divin Poème" [1904]
  • The Russian composer and pianist Scriabin (1872-1915) was a sort of solipsist, Nietsche's Übermensch in a sickly body. He considered himself as God and proved it by being born on the same day as Jesus, and by managing to die during Easter. He embraced Helen Blavatsky's Theosophy, because it agreed with ideas he had already developed for himself. He was an aristocrat with a sound musical education who went off in a never before explored dissonant direction. Although famous during his lifetime, he was soon forgotten after his too early death as the Soviets didn't like him. He wrote a sonata called "Black Mass," but also one called "White Mass." In works as "Poem of Ecstasy," he introduced sexual orgasms in music. He devised a color system for musical keys based on the circle of fifths, in which C is bright red, a form of synesthesia. In his "Poem of Fire" he used a specially developed color organ, that projected colored light on a screen in the concert hall rather than making sound. His music was increasingly dominated by "mystic chords" and grew more and more dissonant. At the time of his death, he worked on a final, apocalyptic masterpiece, "Mysterium." This multimedia work that also included a light show and the scattering of perfumes, would have to be performed at the Himalayas, after which "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts would herald the birth of a new world." Scriabin saw music as a synthesized art form that could put humans in touch with a spiritual realm.
  • Scriabin in the first place wrote for his own instrument, the piano. There are preludes and etudes, an early piano concerto, but the greatest achievement here are the ten sonatas. He also wrote five symphonies, including the Divine Poem (1903), the Poem of Ecstasy (1907), and the Poem of Fire or Prometheus (1909). 
  • The Third Symphony which I have selected here, is a sort of Fin-de-siecle Gothic "soul drama," written for vast orchestral forces. It came into being at a happy time in Scriabin's life when he had left his teaching post in Moscow and was free for creative composition, but also a time he was reading Nietsche and Marx, abandoned his wife and children for a young mistress and moved to Switzerland for new inspiration (this was in the summer of 1903). The subject matter of the symphony is the development of the human spirit towards the divine. Man's Ego consists of a "divine part" and "slavish part" and these continually struggle with each other, until they finally attain unity and bliss and so true freedom. The symphony consists of three parts, linked without pause: (1) Luttes ("Struggles"), a mysterious and tragic Allegro in "red" c minor; (2) Voluptés ("Delights"), a sublime Lento in "white-blue" E major; and (3) Jeu divin ("Divine Play"), a radiantly joyful Allegro in "red" C major. The work starts with a short prologue (Lento) which introduces the three "leading motives " of the symphony : "Divine Grandeur" (an unforgettable motif in the low brass), "The Summons to Man" (an ascending trumpet call) and the " Fear to approach, suggestive of Flight" (literally "flighty" strings). These are combined throughout the work with the various subjects, and indeed some of the subjects are derived from them; the climax is reached in the "Ego theme" of the finale. And of course, if you prefer to regard all these metaphysics as so much hot air, you can also enjoy Scriabin's music on a purely abstract level!
  • Website of the Scriabin Society of America
  • Recording listened to: The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi on Chandos.

    [Ives as businessman]
2. Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4 [1910-1916]
  • The composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) was completely out of sync with his time. His music was too modern for the ears of his contemporaries and remained largely ignored. Even professional musicians did not understand him - when he showed them his scores, they would respond by either laughter or anger! Ives was the ultimate outsider - although he was already a professional organist at age 14 and trained in music at Yale, he decided to pursue a career in business due to lack of musical perspective. Ives went into insurance in New York and was so successful that he managed to establish his own company. He became a radical in suit and tie. Of course, this meant a dual career, for Ives composed in the evenings and weekends, creating a sizable oeuvre that often had no chance to leave his desk drawer. Indeed, most of his works went unperformed until a decade before his death, when the world finally caught up with him - in 1947, his Third Symphony was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, although it had already been written between 1908 and 1910! And today, Ives is considered as the greatest, truly American composer who ever lived...
  • Ives was born as the son of a bandmaster in a small Connecticut town. His life was full of music and he early learned to play the piano and organ. His music is permeated with the marches and hymn tunes he heard in his youth. What especially impressed him was the sound produced by two town bands marching up against each other and mingling their music in dissonance. It was even better when at the same time a hymn sung in a nearby church was mixed into the cacophony! Ives was so impressed by this phenomenon, that as a boy he already wrote bi-tonal pieces and experimented with multi-rhythm - two elements that would become the main stage of his mature work, together with the mixing of popular music with serious music. Perceptually, Ives was influenced by the New England transcendentalist writers Emerson and Thoreau.
  • Charles Ives wrote 5 symphonies, 3 orchestral sets (in fact, also a kind of symphonies), 4 violin sonatas, 2 piano sonatas, 2 string quartets, works for organ and hundreds of songs. He wrote most of his music in the 1900s and 1910s, after 1918 when his health deteriorated he wrote very little and after 1926 he wrote no new music at all anymore. The irony about Ives is that the rural, patriotic America he so nostalgically recreated in his music, had no use whatsoever for that same music.
  • The first modernist works Ives wrote were Central Park in the Dark, where one hears strains of music from bars and music halls mingle, and The Unanswered Question, a dialogue for a questioning trumpet and answering strings, with the final question about the meaning if life remaining unanswered. Ives left behind material for an unfinished "Universe Symphony," which reminds me of the largely unwritten Mysterium by Scriabin - two huge works that tried to encompass the whole world, but took on more than their composers (or in fact anyone) could bear. 
  • Perhaps the most remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives completed was his Fourth Symphony (1910–16). The list of forces required to perform the work is extraordinary and eccentric in the sense that although six trumpets are called for, one of them only plays one note in the whole piece; and a whole choir has to join and sit on stage during the length of the symphony, while it only sees 30 seconds of action at the beginning and again at the end. For a certain part of the work, a second conductor is necessary. No wonder this symphony, although considered as the culmination of Ives' musical achievement, is seldom performed. The first complete performance was given in 1965, more than a decade after Ives' death. The symphony starts with a prelude that asks questions to which the succeeding movements try to provide answers - in the style of The Unanswered Question. It also contains a hymn, "Watchman, tell us the night." The second movement is a riotous multiphony quoting dozens of well-known American tunes, an Allegretto inspired by a story of Hawthorne. Ives himself described the third movement, a fugue, as "an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism." The final movement, Largo maestoso, is a sort of struggle between dissonance and traditional tonal music, taking up earlier motifs and building to a tremendous climax (with the choir) after which the piece ends quietly with just the percussion playing as if from a distance. Ives said this "had something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience."
  • Website of the Charles Ives Society
  • Recording listened to: Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon.
[Rued Langgaard]

3. Rued Langgaard, Symphony No. 6 "Det Himmelrivende" [1919-20]
  • Rued Langgaard (1893 - 1952) was a late-Romantic Danish eccentric composer and organist. We have heard the same story in the case of Ives: his music was so unconventional that it went often unperformed until more than a decade after his death - not because he was radically avant-garde, but because he was so completely "different." Langgaard was not appreciated by his contemporaries and came into conflict with the powers that be of Danish music - in the person of Carl Nielsen - , losing any chance of being performed. Langaard only late in life managed to land his first fixed job, as church organist in the small old town of Ribe. At the time of his death he was already completely forgotten, but since the 1970s, Langaard has been rediscovered as an "ecstatic outsider" and is now considered as an important and visionary composer. 
  • Langaard has more than 400 works to his name, including 16 symphonies, the Music of the Spheres150 songs, works for piano, organ, and an opera entitled The Antichrist. Langaard saw music as a fight between good and evil and the 6th symphony, with the title "The Heaven Storming" is the embodiment of such a cosmic conflict. Langgaard's music is visionary, extreme and bizarre. 
  • The Sixth Symphony of 1919-1920 is one of Langaard's strongest works. The subtitle means "The Heaven Storming." Here Langgaard releases the forces of good and evil, light and dark, and God and Satan against each other. This Christian-based contrasting of "good and evil" is not my worldview, I rather think in shades of grey, but it makes for good drama. The apocalyptic symphony is in one continuous movement that takes the form of variations on a theme. That theme permeates the whole symphony and has two different shapes, a pure, light one, and a dark, chromatic one. Langaard displays absolute technical mastery of the orchestra and invokes the enormous power of the brass to drive "the storming armies of evil under the canopy of heaven." One of the most astonishing symphonies I know. 
  • Rued Langgaard website. 
  • Recording listened to: The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi on Chandos (with symphonies 4 & 5)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"The Nightmare" by Henri Fuseli (Stories behind paintings)

The Nightmare is a Gothic painting made in 1781 by the Swiss-English artist Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

[Henri Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781) - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

This painting has been called "an icon of horror" since it was first exhibited in 1782. It is a haunting image that leaves a lasting impression on those who view it.

What do we see?

A young woman, dressed in a white nightgown, the color of purity, is lying on her bed. Her head and arms are hanging limply down, making it obvious that this is no normal sleep, but rather a state bordering on unconsciousness, perhaps even paralysis. Her mouth is slightly open. We see her exposed white neck, and her long blond hair that also hangs down. On the bedside table sits - besides a book and a mirror - an empty flask - was there a potion inside she has imbibed?

On the woman's stomach squats a foul imp, or demonic incubus, staring at the viewer with his bulbous eyes, as if he has been interrupted in some devious plan. Behind the bed is a red curtain - the color of passion - and through a slit in that curtain, a ferocious horse glares with white-hot eyeballs at the supine woman. A horse can be a mare, and a mare at night is literally a nightmare!  Or not? Contemporary critics were shocked by the overt sexuality of the painting.

  • Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741 – 1825) was a Swiss painter who spent most of his life in England. He first visited England in 1765 and settled down for good in 1779 after a decade long art pilgrimage to Italy in the 1770s. Fuseli became a member of the Royal Academy and had a long and successful career. He also knew Mary Wollstonecraft, of Gothic Frankenstein-fame, whose portrait he painted. But he married another of his models, Sophia Rawlins. He left 200 paintings and 800 drawings, often based on Shakespeare, Milton and Greek mythology, and infused with a grotesque humor.
  • A few years after settling down in England, The Nightmare made Fuseli famous when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. Fuseli made several versions of it. The painting has often been parodied.
  • No, the "mare" in "nightmare" has nothing to do with a female horse! "Nightmare" comes from the Old English "maere," which means goblin or incubus. The word nightmare was coined around 1300 and referred to an evil spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation, in other words a bad dream caused by an incubus. In the 19th c. the term achieved its present meaning of "a bad dream" in general. 
  • An incubus is a male demon that has sexual intercourse with sleeping women - the word stems from the Latin verb "incubare" which means "to lie upon" (the female variant of this same demon was called "succubus"). Folk tradition believed that such intercourse might result in the deterioration of health, or even death. In the painting, the incubus not only sits on top of the woman, but he also weighs down upon her with the oppression caused by a bad dream.
  • One hypothesis has it that Fuseli painted this strange work to give vent to feelings of frustrated love. While traveling through Europe, Fuseli fell in love with one Anna Landholdt. However, her father forbade their marriage, upon which Anna promptly married someone else. Was it Fuseli's anger that led him to depict his lost love lying unconscious on her bed, while he, as an incubus, squats on top of her, poisoning her sleep?
  • The wild and excited horse bursting through the curtains can be the mount of the incubus, but it can also be a symbol for sexual passion - perhaps the passion Fuseli still felt for the lover who had jilted him.
  • Of course, this painting does not loose any of its interest when we leave out the autobiographical interpretation and see it as a generalized Gothic vision of irrepressible, causeless horror.