Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Songs of Protest in East Germany

On an Overgrown Path mentions the Lincoln Center concert of Music from the Other Germany which took place earlier this week. One should not forget that there was also a tradition of popular protest song in the German Democratic Republic, a theme explored by David Robb’s edited collection, Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s.

In the GDR the political song was not the commercial industry it was in the West, but nonetheless enjoyed a similar popularity due to its ambiguous position as either treasured revolutionary heritage or forbidden fruit in a climate of censorship. Indeed it was such a controversial force that the expatriation of the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976 caused a political scandal that many deem to have heralded the beginning of the end of the GDR.

After the euphoria of the Aufbau years, it is clear - at least from the 1970s onwards - that the theme of the stagnation and the betrayal of the revolutionary tradition takes precedence. This is continually stressed in the work of critical Liedermacher such as Biermann and Karls Enkel. Both of these take the theme of the Spanish Civil War - an event that had inspired the most utopian of political songs - to express their preoccupations with the GDR’s failure to progress toward utopia.

My own favourite among the West Germans is Konstantin Wecker. As Annette Blühdorn writes in her chapter, Wecker was never bound to Marxist philosophy, belonging somewhere between the idealism of the 1968 movement and postmodernism. Wecker believes in progress and sees songs as a means of enlightenment, but is sceptical of theories and of the ability of songs to change society. Rather he advocates a general form of resistance against ideological control and social conformity. This is evident in songs dealing with witch hunts against Andersdenkenden and songs written from the perspectives of social outsiders. In the last two decades he has supported the anti-globalization and the peace movement, his song “Sage Nein!” voicing his opposition to American military involvement in Iraq.

David Robb’s rather unusual first-hand experience performing semi-professionally in the GDR folk scene in the 1980s enables him to provide an insider’s view of the contradictions political singers encountered there. While his own chapter on the GDR examines literary and musical developments from the late 1970s onwards, it also describes the dilemma of many singers having to conform with a system in order to attain a public platform from which to criticize it. Robb offers a case study of the group Karls Enkel and its struggle to maintain artistic and political autonomy in the face of pressure from the notorious Stasi secret police.

Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s is published in hardcover by Camden House and may be ordered from all good booksellers.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Berkeley and Berners

Peter Dickinson, biographer of Berkeley and Berners, compares their aristocratic muses in this piece written for the Lennox Berkeley Society Journal. He and the Society have kindly allowed us to reproduce the piece here:

In The Music of Lennox Berkeley I mentioned that Berkeley had told me that he was introduced to his principal publisher, J. and W. Chester, by Berners. Berkeley thought it was ‘probably in 1933’ that he went to dinner at Berners’ London house, 3 Halkin Street, SW1. Nadia Boulanger was there too, and it is likely that Berkeley, who idolised her, was invited as her most significant British student. Berners would have known Boulanger from his visits to Paris, when he met all the composers grouped as Les Six in the early 1920s.

France was important to both composers. Berners’ scores were published with French titles and his opera Le Carosse du Saint Sacrement was produced in Paris in 1924 – so far not in England. Poulenc admired the opera, and became good friends with Berkeley when the younger English composer arrived in Paris in 1926. Twenty years later Berkeley dedicated his Five [de le Mare] Songs to Poulenc and his friend and collaborator, the baritone Pierre Bernac; following Poulenc’s death he set Apollinaire’s Automne in his memory and in 1978 he orchestrated Poulenc’s Flute Sonata.

Twenty years older than Berkeley, Berners had very little formal musical tuition, but, like Berkeley, he came to maturity abroad. After leaving Eton early, he spent time in France and Germany preparing for the diplomatic service. (His memoirs, The Chateau de Résenlieu and Dresden, dealing with the years around 1900, tell this early part of his life story in inimitable fashion.) After that he studied in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent, but failed to obtain a Foreign Office post until he went to Constantinople in 1911. Two years later, in Rome, he started composing seriously, under the spell of the Italian Futurists and composers such as Alfredo Casella and Gian Francesco Malipiero. Stravinsky was a personal friend and held Berners’ music in high regard. Berners also knew Diaghilev, whose designers Michel Larionov and Natalia Gontcharowa illustrated some of his sheet music published, at his own expense, by Chester around 1920.

Berkeley was first published by Chester in 1934 (Sonata No 2 for violin and piano; Polka, Op 5) but, unlike Berners, he then had several other publishers – Boosey & Hawkes, Schott and OUP – before becoming exclusive to Chester after 1940. The light blue covers to his sheet music – not the dark blue that might be expected for an Oxford man – were a Berkeley trademark for many years.

But what of their music? Berners had an obsession with waltzes, and Berkeley too has examples in the last movement of the Sonatina for violin and piano, Op 17; the second movement of the Concerto for Two Pianos, Op 30; and the late Palm Court Waltz, Op 81. But waltzes are nothing like as pervasive in Berkeley as in the Berners ballet scores or the earlier Valses Bourgeoises for piano duet. Berkeley would have known of Berners as a British modernist in the 1920s who, like him, turned his back on the British musical scene by living and working abroad.

Both composers were affected by Stravinsky. The works dating from the period of The Rite of Spring form the basis of Berners’ earliest avant-garde style, and Berkeley’s Paris reports for the Monthly Musical Record indicate how much he himself admired Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, especially the Symphony of Psalms.

Berners, however, diversified his creative life in the 1930s by painting and writing memoirs and novels. Berkeley, in his few articles and reviews, wrote stylishly, but, unlike Berners, he was a composer pur sang. In later life he told me he didn’t want to stop composing because he didn’t know what else he could do!

Knowing of Berkeley’s ancestry, reviewers have often used the term ‘aristocratic’ to describe his music. If by this they mean ‘fastidious’ and ‘poised’ – like the music of Mozart –then fair enough. Berners’ work was similarly ‘aristocratic’ in that he approached everything he did with dedication, and with what Lord David Cecil has called a ‘graceful, easy understated accomplishment’. Additionally, both composers wrote film scores.

But finally the comparison breaks down. Berkeley was modest to the point of self-effacement, while Berners defined himself with a high degree of eccentricity, and relished celebrity. Even more crucially, the spiritual dimension so central to Berkeley and his work was missing in Berners, who thought religion was simply a talent he didn’t possess. These are differences more profound than the patrician breeding they shared - Berners as a real peer, and Berkeley who just missed it.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Discovering Ivor

When I first became aware of Ivor Gurney in 1983, I never thought that one day I would write his biography. At the time I was only interested in him because he had been part of Gerald Finzi’s life. In 1982 I had founded the Finzi Society of America to promote wider interest in Finzi’s music and life there. The following year I wrote a brief article about Gurney and Finzi for my newsletter. I didn’t think much more about Gurney after that. To me he was little more than a footnote and Marion Scott was like a leaf on the wind, seen one minute then blown away and forgotten!

In 1984 I attended the Summer Weekend of English Music, a Finzi event held at Oxford, where I met Joy Finzi for the first time. Over dinner one night, my life was about to change in ways I could not imagine. Joy had read my article and started talking about Gurney and his family without any prompting from me. She told me about the work she and Gerald had done to preserve Gurney’s legacy and a little about some of the people involved. I don’t remember the details because they faded into the background when she launched into a description of the tailor’s shop run by Gurney’s brother Ronald in Gloucester. With her artist’s eye for detail and her poet’s sensibility for atmosphere, she described how the opening and closing of the door sent a breeze into the shop’s dark interior that lifted the corners of bolts of cloth giving them the illusion of ‘bats fluttering about’. It was an image I would never forget.

After our first meeting, Joy and I corresponded regularly and I would see her when I visited England. Inevitably she would turn to Gurney in her letters and in conversation. We never discussed Finzi. Was I being directed to look more deeply at Gurney, I began to wonder?

I decided that perhaps there was more to him than I realised so I re-read Michael Hurd’s biography, bought P.J. Kavanagh’s excellent edition of Gurney’s poetry, found a few recordings (LPs in those days) and enjoyed getting to know Gurney better.

When I was in England in 1988, Joy insisted on taking me on her own tour of ‘Gurney Country’. We set off on a dismal wet and windy September morning, coincidently the thirty-second anniversary of Gerald Finzi's death. As we headed west the rain stopped, leaving the landscape cloaked in a lingering white mist. I could see only hints of what lay in the shrouded distances. When we neared Gloucestershire, the sun broke through almost as if on cue. With Joy as my guide, I saw for the first time Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire: the Cotswolds, Birdlip Hill, the city of Gloucester with its cathedral so central to Gurney's early life, and finally at the end of the day, the Parish Church of St. Matthew at Twigworth where Joy, tired by now, sent me off alone in search of Gurney's grave in the overgrown cemetery. I remember well the abandonment and neglect that then pervaded the church building, bordering on eerie with its cold stone façade and unkempt grounds. I felt unsettled. It was not a place of comfort.

Outside the church grounds I saw sheep grazing in a field and beyond that the pale blue line of the Cotswolds. Then I turned and saw May Hill with its distinctive cap of trees and I felt that Gurney was at least lying between the hills he loved. The grave itself was overgrown with grass and weeds, the marker pitted and covered with lichen. It was not what Marion Scott had in mind when she wrote to Gerald Finzi that ‘there is something tranquillising now in the thought of him lying at peace in Twigworth Churchyard’ in ‘an oak coffin lined with elm and cushioned with white satin’, after a burial that ‘befitted a poet’.

Joy Finzi's tour had come to a bittersweet climax. When we reached the motorway, rainbows began arching over the landscape. Sometimes we seemed to drive into them. They were all around us. Marion Scott, a metaphysician, would have interpreted them as a ‘sign’. Maybe they were, I don’t know, but by the time we returned to Joy’s home, I knew that Ivor Gurney was going to be in my life for a long time. - Pamela Blevins

Pamela Blevins' dual biography of Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott is available now from all good booksellers - you can read an extract here. For more information about Gerald Finzi, read Diana McVeagh's acclaimed biography and visit this website.
The Clock of the Years, compiled and edited by Rolf Jordan, is an anthology of writings by and about Gerald and Joy Finzi.