Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Walk in Revolutionary Paris: Part Two

I won't be posting anything during the rest of the week as I am off to Istanbul on a study trip with some students tomorrow and will be there all week.  In the meantime: This is the second part of a walk through revolutionary Paris. Part One appeared Friday.

The most famous victims of the French Revolution were the Royal family, and in January 1793 King Louis XVI was beheaded and his wife Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine in October of the same year. The Royal couple had managed to survive, more or less intact, the first couple of years after the outbreak of revolution in 1789.  But in August 1792 that ended with the Storming of the Tuileries.  The royal family barely escaped with their lives as their palace in Paris was ransacked and their soldiers of the Swiss Guard were massacred. The Tuileries Palace used to stand in the huge park of the same name that today adorns Paris just outside the Louvre. But if you look hard enough you can find maps of the old palace and discover where exactly it once stood.  The photo below shows two students giving a presentation on the storming of the palace, and where they are standing would once upon a time have been directly outside the main entrance.

From this point on in the revolution, the monarchs and their children were most decidely prisoners.  Many tourists visit the Conciergerie, where the queen spent her last night.  But the entire family was imprisoned for many months in a place called the Temple, and it was here that the king spent his final night. My students and I sought out the site where the Temple once stood. We first spotted the Cafe La Tour du Temple, pictured below, so we knew we were close.

Eventually we discovered the place where the Temple once stood, originally the headquarters of the medieval Knights Templar.  The outline of the former building has been painted on the street. In the photo below you can see two students give a presentation on the fate of the royal family. The blue paint on the ground marks the tower in which the family was held. It is an uncanny feeling, to be standing where they once stood, despite the absence of the building itself. It demands an important quality of the history student, historical imagination.

The wonderful Museum Carnavalet, the Museum of the History of Paris, has a delightful collection of artifacts from the revolution, the largest such collection in the world. A small room is dedicated to the royal family, including the miniature billiard table and furniture in the photo below. These belonged to the young child prince while he was imprisoned along with the rest of his family in the Temple.

And here are three lockets containing hair of the unfortunate king, queen and their young son.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Walk in Revolutionary Paris: Part One

A well known historical anecdote (but which defies attribution to any definite source) goes: upon being asked for his opinion regarding the significance of the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai replied “It is too early to tell”. Some events in history are such upheavals that it takes centuries before we can offer an adequate assessment of their significance.

Every year I start a course on Modern History with a unit on the French Revolution. From August until October I meet my class, usually about ten students, three or four times a week and we study this earth shattering event. In early October we finish our unit by taking the train to Paris for a four day study trip. It is one of my rituals of the academic year, Paris in the autumn. We stay at my regular, small hotel, in the centre of the Latin Quarter. Each student takes a site strongly linked to the revolution and prepares a 15 minute presentation. We plot a route ahead of time and during the next three days we walk the length and breadth of Paris, and the students give their presentations, creating a self-guided walking tour to Revolutionary Paris. Of course we stop at many cafes en route.

The revolution proper was preceded by the Tennis Court Oath in June 1789, a revolutionary act in itself, when the representatives of the Third Estate, or commoners, declared that they no longer represented just their Estate, but all people of France. The moment was immortalized by David’s famous painting The Tennis Court Oath – I usually get permission from the museum to have a student give a presentation on this event while standing next to the actual painting.

           The Tennis Court Oath by David

Most people associate the revolution with the fall of the Bastille. A student gives a presentation on the Place de la Bastille, noisy and heavily trafficked today; then we walk to a nearby museum to view these souvenirs hewn from the Bastille itself. The next photo shows a model of what the Bastille looked like. But it is a model with a difference, being made from a block of stone from the Bastille itself. Such models became bestselling souvenirs in the late 18th century, a must have for any truly ardent revolutionary.

This is followed by a presentation on The Rights of Man and Citizen, which was declared by the revolutionaries in August 1789. This photo shows a student giving a presentation on the influence of the declaration as she stands next to the original.

Outside the huge Pantheon, where the heros of the revolution are buried, a student gives a presentation on the architectural symbolism of the revolution.

Then we go inside the building and visit the crypt, where some of the heros of the revolution are buried. A student gives a presentation on the Enlightenment as we stand between the remains of Voltaire and Rousseau.

       Voltaire's Grave

       Rousseau's Grave

Some years ago I discovered the house where the radical leader Robespierre lived throughout most of the revolution. It was in this house that he was arrested, to be beheaded the following day, a stone’s throw from the house. Despite being the most powerful man in France during the years 1793-’94, Robespierre maintained a simple way of life and he lived in a rented room in a carpenter’s house. We stand in the courtyard of the house while a student gives an analysis of the importance of Robespierre’s role in the revolution. This student is sitting on a staircase that leads from the courtyard directly to Robespierre’s room.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

(S)Hell in Nigeria

Amnesty International bought a page of The Financial Times last week in order to carry the above advertisement.  On May 18th the annual shareholders meeting of Royal Dutch Shell was due to take place in London.  The oil giant's profits were 9.8 billion dollars, which must make for happy shareholders (though not happy workers - they have announced that they will sack 6,000). However, Shell's behaviour in the Niger Delta has been criticised by environmentalists and human rights activists for years.  The people in this area of Nigeria live in a region which is an ecological disatster. Every year they cope with Shell's oil spills that compare with the famous BP spill that is currently causing so much outrage off the Louisiana coast. But Shell's assault on the environment takes place among the world's poorest people, far from the world's media.

The plan was that on May 18th Amnesty's advertisment would appear in a number of British newspapers, reminding the shareholders of their responsibilty.  At 4:58 p.m. on May 17th The Financial Times called Amnesty headquarters in London to say that they had changed their minds and were refusing to run the advert. Of course this has resulted in more publicity for Amnesty's Niger Delta campaign and has clearly revealed the cynicism of The Financial Times.  For more information on how the Niger Delta has become (S)Hell on Earth try visiting Amnesty's campaign website

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Death of Marat

The above painting is world famous, David's The Death of Marat.  It is a fine example of revolutionary iconography - the radical Marat, in death, has become a secular martyr. Some commentators have pointed out the similarity to Michealangelo's Pieta - Marat's serene face and his wounds remind us of the Christ who has died in order to save us.  The note in Marat's hand, given to him by his killer, Charlotte Corday, renforces David's  message that Marat, the revolutionary saint, died in the service of others.

Some years ago, with some students of mine, I decided to try to find the room in Paris where the actual murder of Marat took place. I located the place where Charlotte Corday bought the knife that would become the murder weapon. It was at this spot, in the Palais Royal. (Three of my students served as models.)

Later we stopped at the building which once housed Marat's newspaper, the notorious The People's Friend , infamous for publishing his calls for more heads of aristocrats.  It looks innocent enough today and gives no outward sign of its past.

Then we crossed the road to find the site where radical faction, the Cordeliers Club, used to meet in a former church.  It was here that Danton and Marat would meet their comrades. (My friend, the artist Paul Smith served as model.)

And then, just a few steps further along the former rue de Cordeliers, I pushed open a huge door and entered a courtyard.  It was here that Marat once lived and once died.  I had to wait for a break in the proceedings, but then I entered the space that housed the friend of the people.  And this is what it looks like:

Alas, no bath to be seen - instead, an interactive whiteboard.  No upstairs either, Marat's room has vanished.  But it was at this spot that Charlotte Corday killed Marat in his bath.  He had once been a surgeon, dedicated to saving people's lives.  He died a revolutionary who sent many to their deaths.  Perhaps, therefore, it is not simply ironic, but also just, that the place where he was killed has become a lecture hall of the College of Medicine at the University of Paris.

See also my post on Vik Muniz's Modern Marat.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Beauty Industry

It is funny how art historians and philosophers have so much to say about beauty while historians generally have ignored those companies who promise to make us all beautiful by producing and selling to us things like body lotions, deodorants, shampoos, perfumes, nail varnish and toothpaste. Harvard University's Geoffrey Jones has rectified this with his Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry.   My review of his book was published online by History Today yesterday and you can read it here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dada is Born: Part Three

This is part three of a three part essay on the birth of Dada.  Part two appeared yesterday, part one the day before yesterday.

Ironically, homelessness on Zürich’s bourgeois west bank turned out to be a distinctly upwardly mobile move.  Within a few months the group had opened a “Galerie Dada” above the famous chocolate shop and café, Sprüngli, just off the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse and near the heart of Zürich’s banking world, the Paradeplatz.  Under the leadership of Tristan Tzara, who combined creative spontaneity with shrewd product identity management skills, (in today's business speak we would call him "innovative") programmes were published, press notices issued, invitations distributed and entrance ticket prices raised.  In the words of Hennings: “It had all become quite distinguished”.  The views and actions of the Dada artists were still notorious, but were becoming profitable too. Huelsenbeck commented that Galerie Dada was “a manicure salon of the fine arts, characterized by tea-drinking old ladies trying to revive their vanishing sexual powers with the help of ‘something mad’”. He returned to Germany in disgust.

By this time Ball and Hennings had already left the movement that they had inadvertently founded.  Just a few weeks after the famous get together in the Zunfthaus zur Waag Ball wrote in his diary:  “My manifesto on the first public dada evening (in the Waag Hall) was a thinly disguised break with my friends.  They felt it too. (,,..) When things are finished, I cannot spend any more time with them.  That is how I am”.  Ball had referred to Dada becoming a tendency, a movement, something he abhorred.  He had created Cabaret Voltaire as an oasis for subjective, even mystical explorations, but found himself part of a movement increasingly dominated by Tzara.  Ball’s focus on the Word had always been spiritual.  His admiration for Kandinsky was greatly due to the fact that he considered the Russian to be a priest rather than an artist. Ball’s only lecture at the Galerie Dada had been on Kandinsky’s search for the spiritual in art.  The editor of the English edition of Ball’s diary, John Elderfied, described Dadaism as it came to be known, as “aesthetic anarchism”, but Ball’s Dadaism as “aesthetic mysticism”.

Ball and Hennings settled in Ticino, in the southern, Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.  There they lived and continued to work, mixing with vegetarian artists and neo-pagans, cultivating a deep friendship with Herman Hesse and converting to Catholicism. Poverty continued to be their companion.  Hugo Ball wrote of medieval Christians: “They tried to obtain the gold of the soul not the gold of the purse.”  Likewise, on the eve of Dada’s international success, Ball had turned his back on “the gold of the purse”.  The Magic Bishop died and was buried, far from any artistic metropolis, in Ticino, in 1927.  He was 41 years old.  He is buried in the beautiful Saint Abbondio graveyard.  In 1948 Emmy Hennings joined him there.  In 1962 another friend was laid to rest in a nearby plot, Hermann Hesse.

The Swiss writer Friedrich Glauser, described Hugo Ball as “a person of such purity that only comes along once every hundred years”.
         The Ball-Hemmings plot, Saint Abbondio Cemetery

Tristan Tzara happily took over the leadership of Zürich's Dada until the rowdy, eighth Soirée in Zunfthaus zur Kaufleuten in 1919, when the respectable audience, outraged by Dadaist provocations, stormed the stage.  Then Dada left Zürich.  Like avant-garde missionaries, Arp set up Dada in Cologne where Max Ernst, who would gain fame as a Surrealist,  was converted; Huelsenbeck brought the movement to Berlin and Georges Grosz became a devotee; Tzara, together with Francis Picabia (freshly returned from New York), led a very active Dada brigade in Paris that, with the help of Max Ernst and André Breton, eventually metamorphosed into Surrealism and, from there, into the mainstream.

Zürich is not the sort of place that wears its history on its sleeve.  The town that gave birth to Dada doesn’t exactly advertise the fact.  The Zunfthaus zur Waag still serves hearty Swiss fare to bankers and tourists but bears no memorial to the events of July 14th 1914; Café Terrasse is an upmarket restaurant where few diners stop to reflect that Lenin once played chess here while Tzara ‘invented’ the term; Zunfthaus zur Kaufleuten has been recommended by The Financial Times as one of the hottest party places in Europe (I'm not sure how reliable a guide The Financial Times is for parties), but the final Soirée has been long forgotten; though Joyce immortalised Café Pfauen (Café Peacock) in his last novel Finningans Wake, as “Peacockstown”, he too has been all but forgotten by Zürich and Cafe Pfauen underwent a renovation last year and in the process lost its name. The inventor of modern dance, Rudolph Laban, has been all but erased from the city's history.  As for Ball and Hennings, their many humble abodes in the Niederdorf still stand, but not one carries as much as a plaque.  But not all has been forgotten – with the financial help of Nicolas Hayek of Swatch watch manufacturers, Cabaret Voltaire was reopened in 2004 as a café and exhibition space.  It isn’t quite as wild as in the old days though. 
             Where it all started: inside Cabaret Voltaire today

If the world is fortunate enough to reach the year 2016, then we can be sure that those who fell in Verdun and at the Sommes will be remembered in official commemorations, and rightfully so.  But so too the birth of Dada will be acknowledged, though perhaps on a smaller scale, with publications, exhibitions, the inevitable academic conferences.  And as they both recede further into the past, who can say which will be forgotten, and which remembered - the war involving millions across the globe, or the art movement created by a handful on the banks of the Limmat?

For Further Reading
Hans Arp, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, tr. H. Richter, (London, 1956); Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, tr. A. Raimes, (Berkely, 1996);  Brigitte Pichon and Karl Riha (eds), Dada Zurich: A Clown’s Game From Nothing, (New York, 1996); Erdmute Wenzel White, The Magic Bishop: Hugo Ball, Dada Poet, (Columbia, S.C., 1998).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dada is Born: Part Two

This is part two of an essay on the birth of Dada.  Part one appeared yesterday.  I will post part three tomorrow.
The evening of March 31st in Cabaret Voltaire saw the first ever performance of “simultaneous poems” when three unrelated texts were chanted at the same time in three different languages, Huelsenbeck in German, Tzara in French and Janco in English.  As if the audience had not been baffled enough, this was followed by Tzara and Huelsenbeck’s ‘Chants Nègres’, in which they recited African poetry, in their versions of the original languages, to the uncomprehending audience, accompanied by Huelsenbeck’s rhythmic drumming.  The next couple of months saw a number of ‘Dances Nègres’, involving violent contortions of the limbs by dancers dressed in bright costumes of geometric forms and Janco’s astonishing cubist masks. African “primitiveness” had become a weapon to be used in a full frontal assault on the enemy – the imperial western tradition of beauty and reason.

                                Tristan Tzara
In April Tzara convinced the others that they should produce a regular journal.  On April 18th Ball noted in his diary “My proposal to call it ‘Dada’ is accepted (…) Dada is ‘yes, yes’ in Rumanian, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘hobby horse’ in French.  For Germans it is a sign of foolish naiveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.”  This is the first ever mention of the word “Dada”.  Most agree with Ball that it was he, together with Huelsenbeck, discovered the word by plunging a knife into a German-French dictionary, though Tzara would later claim that it was he alone who had invented the word in Café de la Terrasse.  Ball later added in his diary, “What we call dada is (…) the death warrant of posturing morality”.

In May most of Ball’s energy was taken up with editing the one and only edition of the journal Cabaret Voltaire. In June 500 copies were printed by an anarchist printer, Julius Heubeger. As well as contributions from Zürich’s Dadaists, it included work from a number of the leading lights of the European avant-garde - Picasso, Marinetti, Kandinsky, and Guillaume Apollinaire.  The editor’s notes included the statement that the work should not be interpreted along national lines and that the editor emphatically rejected the “German Mentality”.  There followed a list of contributors with their nationalities – Spanish, Russian, French, Rumanian, Italian.  Last was Emmy Hennings’ name:  her nationality was listed as “Homeless” (“Heimatlos”). This at a time when patriots of various nationalities were urging their compatriots to ever greater feats of human slaughtering.

In late June 1916 Ball recited the first of his famous ‘sound poems’. While Kandinsky had recently abolished images from his art, and consequently had invented abstract painting, Ball now abolished language from his poetry. It was an attempt to reach to the depth of primitive being and utter mantra like, pre-articulate, magical sounds. Clad in a cylindrical costume that he had made himself out of shiny, blue cardboard, he appeared like an obelisk with wings and claws and a shaman’s hat.  The costume was so heavy he had to be carried onto the stage.  He began the poem that opens with the lines:

                                    gadji beri bimba
                                    glandridi laula lonni cadori

           Dada's Magic Bishop - Hugo Ball

Gradually his chanting took on “the ancient cadences of the priesterly lamentations” in the style of “the mass hymns that fill the Catholic churches of the Orient and Occident with sorrow”.  That evening he recorded in his diary how, for a moment “it seemed as if there were a pale, bewildered face in my cubist mask, that half-frightened, half-curious face of a ten year old boy, trembling and hanging avidly on the priest’s words in the requiems and high masses in his home parish.  Then the electric lights went out, as I had ordered, and bathed in sweat, I was lowered off the stage like a magic bishop.”

                Hugo Ball in Cabaret Voltaire

But magic or not, Cabaret Voltaire was not selling enough beer and sausage to satisfy the philistine restaurant owner, and the Dadaists found themselves evicted out of their Niederdorf home.  On July 14th 1916, round about the time that British cavalry were attacking German forces at the Somme in one of the war’s most pointless exercises, the artists arrived in the stately Zunfthaus zur Waag, on the more respectable west bank of the River Limmat. It was the first of what would eventually become eight public “Dada Soirées”.  The event was well publicized beforehand and reviewed in a number of newspapers during the next few days, including the respectable Neue Zurcher Zeitung. The evening was the usual combination of Hennings’ poetry, Huelsenbeck’s  Chants Négres, acoustic experiments on the piano from Swiss musician Hans Heussers, expressive dancers from Rudolph Laban's newly opened school, Arp’s abstract collages, Ball’s sound poems, Taueber's puppets, Tzara’s simultaneous poetry – this time with four voices, and, to close, a grotesque comical dance with Janco’s cubist masks.  Each of the core members read out a manifesto.  Ball’s Dada manifesto included: 

“Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words.  Au, oi, uh.  One shouldn’t let too many words out.  A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of the filth that clings to this accursed language as if put there by stockbroker’s hands, hands worn smooth by coins.  I want the word where it ends and begins.  Dada is the heart of words.  Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing in itself. (…) The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance”. 

Holding court in his favourite café in Zurich, Café Pfauen, an Irish writer by the name of James Joyce, who was working on a book called Ulysses, might have agreed with such deliberations.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dada is Born: Part One

Here is part one of an essay on the birth of Dada.  I'll upload part two tomorrow.

        Zunfhaus zur Waag (photo: Marco  Zanoli)

The grand guildhouse Zunfthaus zur Waag doesn’t look like a likely site for staging a revolution. It stands on the Münsterhof, a prestigious medieval square just a stone’s throw from the financial heart of Zürich.  On July 14th 1916 a collection of young poets, writers and artists came together here to enjoy an evening of music, poetry, painting, and dance with fantastic masks and costumes.  While in other corners of Europe the dying world of the 19th century was being dismembered in the bloodiest battles ever seen, in this quiet Swiss backwater the crazy, playful world of Dadaism had burst forth, and, for better or for worse, the anti-art of conceptual art was born.

Dada was to a large degree the child of the German poet Hugo Ball, and his partner Emmy Hennings. Born in Germany in 1886 Ball had become absorbed by the ideas of Nietzsche while at university. Leaving before finishing his dissertation, he threw himself into the world of avant-garde theater in Munich and Berlin.  In 1913 he met Hennings at the famous Café Simplicissimus.  She was a singer and dancer and, a year older than Ball, more experienced in many ways.  She had a child from a previous marriage and a string of ex-lovers in the German art world; she had traveled in Eastern Europe and had done a term in prison.  She used drugs and introduced Ball to the delights of narcotics.

When war broke out in 1914 Ball had volunteered for the army but was turned down on medical grounds.  He then traveled to Belgium and witnessed the carnage inflicted upon men by mechanized warfare.  What he saw appalled him and he and Hennings began to actively oppose the war.  In 1915 they arrived in Zurich on false passports.

Zürich during the war had become a haven for international revolutionaries, pacifists, artists, writers and contraband criminals. The city's foreign population included James Joyce, Stefan Zweig and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Like most migrants, Ball and Hennings lived and worked in the warren of alleys that make up the Niederdorf quarter of the city.  This was an area where no self respecting Swiss burgher would want to be seen, notorious as a cesspool of alcoholism, drug addiction, indecency, crime and venereal diseases.  Seven out of every ten buildings housed a bar or club where dancing girls, unusual animals, dwarfs, fat ladies and other “freaks” were on offer. The couple moved every few months, constantly pursued by a gnawing poverty. At one point Ball was imprisoned for twelve days for having a false passport. By August 1915 the couple had become destitute, sleeping rough and forced to scavenge for food.  Then Ball found employment as a pianist with a vaudeville troupe in Basel while Hennings worked in the Niederdorf quarter as a singer and dancer in a variety show.  According to Zürich police records, she subsidized her morphine habit with prostitution.

In early 1916 Ball returned to Zürich and in February he rented a small room adjacent to a restaurant in a dark alleyway, Spiegelgasse 1.  (Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin moved into a room a few yards further up at Spiegelgasse 14 in mid-February).  On February 5th they opened this space as a new club for young artists and performers.  They called it Cabaret Voltaire.  From February until July this dark premises hosted loud, smoke-filled evenings of noise music, simultaneous poems, mystical incantations, Russian balalaika bands, songs in Danish, verses in Rumanian and bizarre dances in grotesque masks and outlandish costumes. The works of friends – Arp, Picasso, Modigliani, Marinetti, and Macke, decorated the walls. Ball and Hennings were joined, as ‘core’ members of the group by 20 year old Tristan Tzara, a confident and witty Rumanian poet, 21 year old Marcel Janco, a quiet, friendly Rumanian who made paintings, posters and cubist masks, Richard Huelsenbeck, a 24 old argumentative German doctor and poet with an interest in the rhythms of music and language, 29 year old Hans Arp, from Strasbourg, a talented visual artist of some reputation and 27 year old Sophie Taeuber, an innovative local artist, set designer and dancer. Arp has left us a description of what it was like:

“Total pandemonium.  The people around us were shouting, laughing and gesticulating…. Tzara is wriggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer.  Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping.  Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing splits.  Heulsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost”.

           Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

According to Ball, what they were doing was “reminding the world, across the war and other fatherlands, of those few independent spirits that live for other ideals.”  What those ideals were exactly was hard to capture in words.  Tzara wrote: “I am against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.  To complete oneself, to perfect oneself in one’s littleness, to fill the vessel with one’s individuality, to have the courage to fight for and against thought, the mystery of bread”.  Certainly the Dadaists valued spontaneity over reason, anarchy over order, freedom over harmony.

Ball and Hennings were convinced pacifists by this time. All of the Dadaist shared a repulsion of the war.  As Arp expressed it:  “Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zürich devoted ourselves to the arts.  While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.” In late February the German army commenced its attack on the French at Verdun, a battle that would kill 700,000. A few nights later Hugo Ball sat at the piano in Cabaret Voltaire, surrounded by friends from most of the warring nations and played Debussy’s “Berceuse Heroique”. The French composer had written this work to honour the people of Belgium for their heroic resistance to the Germans in 1914. Now Ball, a German national, could not have defined himself more clearly as an opponent of German nationalism.

To be continued....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Radu Lupu in the Tonhalle, Zurich

Talking or writing about music is difficult. Describing a painting is one thing, but how does one even start to describe a Beethoven piano sonata? Frank Zappa is reported to have said, or was it Elvis Costello: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Regardless of who said it, and it might even have been Frank Lloyd Wright, or Martin Mull (Martin who?) or even Clara Schumann, it does summarise the difficulty adequately.

Writing on music tends to be either overly technical or a list of similes. Very few can manage to do it well. Alas, I am inept. And this is a pity, because on Sunday night I experienced a musical evening that was unforgettable – indeed the music resonated so deeply that hours after the concert it still wouldn’t leave my mind and kept me awake. Unfortunately I can’t describe architecture very well by dancing and I cannot share the music by writing about it.

The recital was by the great Romanian pianist, Radu Lupu, performing Janacek, Beethoven and Schubert in Zurich’s Tonhalle. During Lupu’s interpretation of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata I felt he was close to unfolding a sound picture that would manifest a truth, but one which does not lend itself to translation into words. Perhaps for this reason Lupu plays the piano, and seldom if ever gives interviews. He sat before the magnificent grand piano looking utterly relaxed, his fingers barely touching the keys, like an ancient Hindu sage sending out messages of wisdom encrypted in music. Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B Flat is one of my favourite pieces of music. Radu Lupu seemed to play it, not with his fingers, but with his being. There was an extraordinary lack of intensity in his approach; instead, with little outward demonstration of effort, he offered the lightness of the Zen master. He was in such command of his instrument that, ironically, the effect was that Radu Lupu himself was erased and the music alone was revealed.

At the end of the concert he bowed, and left the stage, returned, bowed, and left again. As the applause grew louder he returned to the stage, bowed, sat before the piano and immediately began to play again – the first of two encores. The second encore was one of Schubert’s Impromptus, but though I recognized the first, or at least seemed to, I couldn’t quite place it, and have failed to identify it since. To call it incredibly beautiful would be an understatement. It was perfect.

If any reader happened to be at the concert and knows which piece it was, I would love to know.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich

I was pleased to see an article from Hugh Canning in The Times last week praising Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra.  While criticising the pervasive tendency of ranking the best orchestras of the world, as if they are in some sort of beauty contest, he does claim that: "Among the historic symphonic ensembles of Europe, the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zürich is perhaps the one whose profile has risen most spectacularly in the past decade or so."  This is in no small measure due to the leadership of the orchestra's conductor and musical director David Zinman.  He is perhaps most famous for what some, including myself, consider to be THE classical musical recording of the 1990s - Gorecki's Third Symphony, conducted by Zinman, played by the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw. The languorously beautiful but heartbreakingly sad melodies, combined with Upshaw's voice, with its depth of feeling, have made this a bestseller. Since then Zinman has raised the Tonhalle Orchestra's reputation worldwide.  Their recordings of all of Beethoven's symphonies have sold more than a million copies and this year will see the completion of their releases on CD of all of Mahler's symphonies - the 8th has just been released.  Last month Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra performed all of Brahms' symphonies live in the Tonhalle (Brahms himself once conducted the Tonalle Orchestra) and these live concerts were recorded for release in the near future. As well as becoming a major player in the world of classical CDs, Zinman and his orchestra are in high demand all over the world at major festivals, such as the Royal Proms last year.

A couple of months ago my wife and I attended a concert at the Tonhalle of Wagner's Act One of Die Walkure.  Zinman and his orchestra were in tremendous form and even Esther, most definitely NOT a Wagner fan (in an act of great selflessness, she had bought the tickets as a gift for me), was bowled over.  But I was worried as Zinman is 74 years old and his contract ends this year.  I was pleased to read that he has just signed a new contract, which will keep him at the helm until the tender age of 79.  Surely that is a clear demonstration of a man who loves his work.  It makes me wonder, will I still want my day job if I live to 79?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On no! Heidi's Daddy was a German

Well, it seems like disaster has well and truly hit Switzerland this time. Heidi may have had a German father! This will certainly provide more fodder for the anti-German antics of the leading Swiss xenophobic political party, the Swiss People's Party (SVP). Riding high after their successful campaign to ban minarets, the SVP turned their sights on the growing German population in Switzerland, focusing especially on Zurich's universities. They have tried to initiate a campaign that would lead to placing a ceiling on the number of Germans who may be employed as lecturers and professors (despite the fact that there aren't many unemployed Swiss professors).  And now, irony would have it, it is a German scholar at the University of Zurich who has discovered a story published in German by a German author fifty years before Johanna Spryi's novel Heidi appeared, which bears a remarkable resemblence to the world famous Swiss novel.  But no, surely the Germans can't rob the Swiss even of this; after all, as one commentator said: "Heidi is Switzerland and Switzerland is Heidi." It has been a year of disasters for poor Switzerland - a diplomatic war with Libya in which Ghaddafi kidnapped Swiss citizens and continues to humiliate the Swiss government; the great UBS bank, biggest of the big, loses billions while its criminal behavior in the US gets compared to that of the mafia; the banning of minarets calls up a storm of protest from around the world.  Poor misunderstood Switzerland.  But at least we had Heidi.  Now they are stealing her from us.
         Birthplace of Johanna Spyri in Hirzel (Photo: Adrian Michael)