Saturday, December 20, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Books

Fiction

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters and Cranford

Perhaps the books I've most enjoyed over the past twelve months are by a writer who bridges the disparate worlds and sensibilities of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell.

Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's greatest achievement: it follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman whose widowed father makes a sudden decision to remarry and discovers the painful truth of the proverb about repenting at leisure. With its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly, Wives and Daughters bears comparison to the work of Austen, Brontë, and George Eliot—that is to say, to some of the greatest novels ever written.

Cranford is a warm and affectionate portrait of the kind of small town in which Gaskell herself grew up. The interconnected stories about the spinsters and widows who rule Cranford society are narrated by a younger woman, Mary Smith, and describe the varying responses of the Cranford ladies to the rapidly changing mores and modes of life of the Victorian era. If you have never read Gaskell it is the perfect place to start.

Read the full post: Bridging Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Based on Brontë's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.

Read the full post: "Hunger, rebellion, and rage": Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Fanny Burney, Cecilia

Cecilia is a young woman trying to make her way through the hypocrisies, trivialities and unwritten constraints of the social world. Burney's heroines, like those of her admirer Jane Austen, are not always unblemished paragons of virtue and good sense, but instead experience uncertainty and occasionally make mistakes. Burney's books also share the same kind of clear-eyed view of the allurements and perils of the marriage market that distinguishes Austen's novels. And if one of the pleasures of reading Burney is to be immersed in the social mores of the distant 18th century, another (as it is with Austen) is to discover just how contemporary her characters can seem.

Read the full posts: Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?" and Jane Austen's favorite novelist: Fanny Burney

Biggest Disappointment: David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell is brilliant at creating narrators with distinct and highly individual voices. That focus on character is what drove his best novel to date, Cloud Atlas (2004). The Bone Clocks (Random House, 2014) starts promisingly as the story of a convincingly-voiced teenaged girl, Holly Sykes, who is running away from home after a fight with her mother. But it quickly bogs down in a science fiction/fantasy plot in which its human characters are pawns in a supernatural war between two factions of immortal beings, the Anchorites (evil) and the Horologists (good). There's talk about "the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar" and "the Psychosoterica of the Shaded Way," but it's not meant as parody—at least, I don't think so. A big chunk of the novel is taken up with the final confrontation, in which the Horologist narrator says things like "I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants." The fantasy plot ultimately renders the actions and fates of the novel's mortal characters mere background. Not many novels can leave me indifferent to the fate of humanity, but The Bone Clocks managed it.

Second Biggest Disappointment: Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

I was an early fan of Haruki Murakami's, discovering him at the time A Wild Sheep Chase was first issued in the U.S. (1989), and then seeking out his earlier novels in their Japanese English-language editions. But lately I've begun to wonder whether I wasn't really a fan of his early translator, Alfred Birnbaum. Murakami's most recent novels have been translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, seemingly in haste, because they are full of stylistic awkwardnesses (one of the things that made his last novel, 1Q84, my Biggest disappointment of 2012).

But clunky translation could be forgiven if Colorless Tsukuru were otherwise compelling; unfortunately it revisits territory covered too often before by Murakami and other writers. An emotionally withdrawn protagonist approaching middle age renews his acquaintance with each of his former friends from college to try to understand why years ago he had been abruptly ostracized from the group. There are a half-hearted invocations of many Murakami tropes: a dreamlike alternate reality, Western music (classical and jazz), a central story that involves the unraveling of a mystery. But Colorless Tsukuru lacks the conviction, originality and imaginative energy of Murakami's better work.

Nonfiction

Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Elizabeth Gaskell knew Charlotte Brontë personally, and her friendship with Charlotte gives this biography an intimacy that is rarely achieved between biographer and subject. And while it's fascinating to learn of the real-life people and events that were transmuted into Charlotte Brontë's fiction, the chief interest in Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing, as when she wrote to Ellen, "Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me....I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me."

Read the full post: "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë

Rachel Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014) is a record of the changing meanings that George Eliot's Middlemarch has held for Mead as she has reread it over the course of her life. It's also a concise and highly compelling biography of Eliot, a description of the creation and reception of Middlemarch, and a frank and moving account of Mead's life and experience as it has been reflected in and informed by the novel. My Life in Middlemarch is essential reading for lovers of Eliot's great novel, but also for those, like Mead (and myself), for whom books have been a crucial element of their "self-fashioning."

Read the full post: My Life in Middlemarch

Fanny Burney: Journals and Letters

On her 15th birthday, Fanny Burney, conscious of her father's (and her society's) disapproval of women authors, burned every scrap of her writing: poems, plays, stories, and a full-length novel. But nine months later she picked up her pen again and began writing a journal that she dedicated to Nobody:
…to whom dare I reveal…my own hopes, fears, reflections & dislikes?—Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!
Burney indeed kept the journal until the end of her life as a record of her thoughts, feelings and sensations. It was also a record of her keen observations of the literary and aristocratic worlds into which she was unwillingly thrust by the success of her first novel, Evelina. Burney's fame brought her into intimate contact with figures such as Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Queen Charlotte, in the service of whom the shy, sensitive Burney spent five miserable years as the Second Keeper of the Robes.

In the 19th century the posthumous publication of her journals eclipsed her novels. But it's not just the famous people she knew or the compelling story of her life (a late-blooming love, forced exile with her French husband during the Napoleonic Wars, her horrifying experience of a mastectomy without anaesthesia) that made her journal so popular; it is her forthright, perceptive and deeply appealing voice. In essence, the publication of the journals made Fanny Burney her own greatest character.

Biggest disappointment: Morrissey, Autobiography

Morrissey was the lead singer and lyricist for The Smiths, whose "Hatful of Hollow" album gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics: "I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, but heaven knows I'm miserable now / I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now."

In the first half of Autobiography, Morrissey writes compellingly of his youthful feelings of loneliness and desperation, his struggles to escape the dead-end future planned for him by a routinized and soul-crushing school system, and his conviction that there must be a way to stop being an observer, a fan, and take an active part in the world of pop music that was his lifeline: "I am suddenly full of sweeping ideas that even I can barely grasp, and although penniless, I am choked by the belief that something must happen. It is not enough just to 'be'....I cannot continue as a member of the audience. If only I could forget myself I might achieve" (p. 116).

Shortly afterwards Morrissey met Marr, and The Smiths were born. But after five years and four albums (plus compilations like "Hatful of Hollow"), The Smiths broke up acrimoniously. Morrissey's substantial success as a solo artist over the past quarter century has not, apparently, healed those wounds, and the second half of Autobiography devolves into score-settling, l'esprit de l'escalier, name-dropping, lengthy passages that sound like excerpts from his tour diary, and a 40-page-long blow-by-blow recounting of a royalties lawsuit brought by The Smith's former drummer Mike Joyce.

Perhaps the last word should be left to Morrissey and Marr in better days:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Opera, music and dance

Concert performances

For us 2014 was musically bookended by two brilliant countertenors. In February we saw the electrifying Philippe Jaroussky perform with the Venice Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances season. The concert was billed as a battle between the rival composers Handel and Nicola Porpora, featuring arias written for their star castrati Carestini and Farinelli. At the end of the concert I turned to my partner and said "Handel won." The real winners, of course, were all of us fortunate enough to be in the audience for Jaroussky's stunning performances of "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" from Handel's Alcina, "Scherza infida" from Handel's Ariodante, and "Alto Giove" from Porpora's Polifemo:





Jaroussky has recorded excellent albums devoted to arias written for Carestini and Farinelli.

In November we saw Andreas Scholl appear with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus in a program of Handel and Bach. In the middle of the third decade of his international career, Scholl's tone has lost little of the beauty displayed in his early recordings. He sang "Va tacit e nascosto" and "Aure, deh, per pieta" from the title role of Giulio Cesare, and an exquisite "Dove sei" from Rodelinda (the Met Live in HD broadcast of the latter was one of my Favorites of 2011). In the second half, he performed the lovely Cantata No. 170, "Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust" (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul):




Dance

The most sheerly enjoyable dance we saw in 2014 was the Mark Morris Dance Group's production of Handel's Acis and Galatea, seen in Berkeley in April. (So far we're two for two with this Handel chamber opera: we also saw a great production of it at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2011.) Morris's version used Mozart's fuller reorchestration, performed brilliantly by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Nicholas McGegan. And just as he did in the BEMF production, bass-baritone Douglas Williams stole the show as the jealous cyclops Polifemo. Some of the other singers' costumes were unflattering, but that was the only flaw in a production that brought back fond memories of Morris's version of Handel's "L'Allegro."

Opera

A great cast and Christopher Alden's clever and visually striking production at San Francisco Opera could not quite disguise the middling level of Handel's musical inspiration in Partenope (seen October 24). But the Surrealist milieu and Man Ray visual references worked beautifully as an updated setting for this story of erotic intrigue and irresolution. As the title character, Danielle De Niese was costumed as a combination of Peggy Guggenheim and Nancy Cunard, and ruled over a salon of the yearning and the lost. I don't think I will ever forget the sight of tenor Alek Shrader singing an aria through the transom window of a water closet, and I mean that in the best possible way.



Recordings

Marc-Antoine Charpentier:
Messe des morts/Litanies, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Naxos Records
Messe de Monsieur de Mauroy, Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, director: Glossa   
Miserere/Motets, La Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, director: Harmonia Mundi
Actéon, Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors: CPO

This was the year we immersed ourselves in Charpentier's sacred music, thanks mainly to the serendipitous discovery of Messe des morts (Mass for the dead) in Amoeba Music San Francisco's bargain bin. While we had long been familiar with his operas—William Christies's recording of Medée with Lorraine Hunt in the title role was one of the first Baroque operas I ever purchased, Magnificat's performance of La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers was one of our Favorites of 2011, and Actéon was one of this year's highlights)—Charpentier was largely blocked from producing works for the stage by the hostility of rival composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. By necessity Charpentier devoted most of his energies to sacred music, and this year we discovered its many beauties.


Lalla-Roukh, Opera Lafayette, Ryan Brown, director: Naxos Records.

Based on an 1817 poem by Thomas Moore, and later turned into a Bollywood movie, Lalla Roukh's story is strange indeed. As I wrote in my post on the opera, "In reviving and recording this forgotten gem, Opera Lafayette has outshone opera companies with budgets many times as large. If you enjoy the sound-world of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, Bizet's Pearl Fishers or Delibes' Lakmé, you'll find Lalla-Roukh to be a fresh new discovery with some welcome familiarities."


The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals, Delitiae Musicae, Marco Longhini, director: Naxos Records.

The Italian Renaissance prince Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover when he found them in bed together, and later was accused of madness. At the same time he was one of the greatest composers of the madrigal, and the extremes of chromaticism and dissonance developed in his music were not approached again until the 20th Century. Many thanks to the dear friend who gave this to me; I've been playing it obsessively for weeks.

Finally, I can't help but notice that three of my favorite recordings of 2014—Messe des morts, Lalla-Roukh, and The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals—were issued on the Naxos budget label. If only all record labels were this adventurous.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Bollywood and Hollywood

Classic Bollywood

Hema Malini
In our classic Bollywood viewing 2014 was the year of the young Hema Malini. Of course, we'd seen her before as the flirtatious Basanti in Sholay (Flames, 1975; dir. Ramesh Sippy), and in her charming double role as the gentle Seeta and the feisty Geeta in Seeta aur Geeta (1972; dir. Ramesh Sippy). But somehow we'd never sought out other early Hema Malini films until this year.

But Sharafat (Decency, 1970; dir. Asit Sen), Raja Jani (Dear Raja, 1972; dir. Mohan Segal), and Tere Mere Sapne (Our Dreams, 1971; dir. Vijay Anand) showed us what we'd been missing. Of these, perhaps our favorite was Tere Mere Sapne. Hema gives a heartrending portrayal of a film star who, despite all her glamour, beauty and talent, has lost her sense of herself in trying to meet other people's ever-escalating demands. "Phur ud chala" (Where is my heart flying off to?) defines star quality; Hema is dazzling:



You can read the full posts on Tere Mere Sapne and Sharafat.

Other favorite classic films

Anuradha (1960; dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee): An idealistic doctor discovers—too late?—the price his wife and family have paid for his single-minded dedication to his work.

The Chess Players (1977; dir. Satyajit Ray): While the British are threatening to take over the last independent kingdoms in 19th-century India and rebellion is looming, the ruling class spends its time enjoying wine, women, song—and chess.

Contemporary Bollywood

Ram-Leela (2013; dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali): James Baldwin wrote of film stars that "one does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be." [1] There are few people I would rather watch be right now than the two leads of Ram-Leela, Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. They simply glow in their physical perfection. And that glow is not just the sheen of the body makeup in Ranveer's shirtless scenes: Bhansali surrounds the actors' youth and beauty with gorgeous costumes, sets and lighting. The Romeo-and-Juliet-style plot involves two warring families and forbidden love, but the plot is almost beside the point: this film is all about star charisma and onscreen chemistry.



If "Nagada Sang Dhol" reminds you of "Dholi Taro Dhol Baaje" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My heart belongs to you, 1998), there's a good reason. Bhansali wrote the music for Ram-Leela, but it sounds quite a bit like the scores Ismail Darbar composed for HDDCS and Devdas (2002)—not coincidentally, the two most successful films Bhansali directed before this one. (Also not coincidentally, Deepika's playback singer is Shreya Ghosal, who also did the playback for Aishwarya Rai in Devdas.) Still, stars don't have to be original, and neither do films—they just have to be compelling. And the story of Ram and Leela's love-death was the most compelling contemporary Bollywood film we saw this year.

Classic Hollywood

Jean Arthur

This year we curated our own Jean Arthur film festival. We're still waiting to rewatch Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1947), but we saw many of her other highlights, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Talk of the Town (1942), and The More the Merrier (1943). But perhaps our favorite discoveries were two of her less heralded films.

Too Many Husbands (1940) is a gender-reversed and much more suggestive version of My Favorite Wife (1940). Vicky Lowndes (Arthur) has remarried after her first husband Bill (Fred MacMurray) vanished at sea. But when Bill is rescued after being marooned on a desert island, Vicky faces a dilemma: is she married to Bill, or to her second husband, Bill's friend and business partner Henry (Melvyn Douglas)? She's not sure, and she's not in a hurry to make a decision…

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) features Arthur as a department-store salesgirl who, together with her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings), is trying to organize her fellow clerks. The store owner, John Merrick (Charles Coburn), goes undercover to try to expose the union ringleaders—only to discover that his workers have legitimate grievances.

Contemporary Hollywood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Wes Anderson's movie about an old hotel, a priceless painting, and a murder mystery is set against the violent history of Central Europe in the 20th century. This matrushka doll of a fairy tale, with its stories within stories, is a visual and narrative delight.

Her (2013): Spike Jonze's film takes our fixation with (and anthropomorphism of) technology into a future so near it looks disturbingly like the present. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer, discovers that there's only one woman in his life who is always available, interested, and emotionally compatible: his Siri-like smartphone operating system. A depiction of our technology-enhanced isolation and anomie that's brilliant and desolating.

Documentary

Tim's Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer (2013): Penn and Teller's film follows computer graphics entrepreneur Tim Jenison's attempts to recreate a Vermeer painting using optical techniques that were plausibly available in seventeenth-century Holland. The film is fascinating, both as an exploration of the optical aids that might have been used by the Old Masters, and as a portrait of Jenison's obsession.

--

1. James Baldwin, "The Devil Finds Work," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. St. Martin's Press, 1985, p. 575.

It's worth quoting Baldwin more fully:

The distance between oneselfthe audienceand a screen performer is an absolute: a paradoxical absolute, masquerading as intimacy. No one, for example, will ever really know whether Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable—or John Waynecan, or could, really act, or not, nor does anyone care: acting is not what they are required to do. Their acting ability, so far from being what attracts their audience, can often be what drives their audience away. One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be. One does not go to see Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade: one goes to see Sam Spade, as Humphrey Bogart.
Not to belabor the point, but in Ram-Leela we are very much watching Ram as Ranveer Singh and Leela as Deepika Padukone.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bridging Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell


This year my reading list included novels by Jane Austen's influences such as Fanny Burney (Cecilia), Maria Edgeworth (Belinda), and Charlotte Lennox (The Female Quixote). This was also the year I first read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Villette. But perhaps the books I've most enjoyed over the past twelve months are by a writer who bridges the disparate worlds and sensibilities of Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell.

In 1849 Gaskell—whose first novel Mary Barton had been published the year before—wrote a fan letter to the author of Jane Eyre. That letter initiated a correspondence and friendship that continued for the rest of Brontë's short life. The two writers met in person for the first time the next year; afterwards Gaskell wrote to a acquaintance, "She and I quarrelled and differed about almost every thing,—…but we like each other heartily I think & I hope we shall ripen into friends…" [1]

Perhaps one of the things that drew them together was the similarity of their experiences. Both Gaskell and Brontë had lost their mothers at an early age; Gaskell was a year old when her mother died, while Brontë was five. Both were primarily raised by their mother's sisters in the north of England: Gaskell was sent to Knutsford, a small town near Manchester, to live with her mother's relatives, while Brontë's aunt came to Haworth, a village near Leeds, to live with the Brontë family. Both were sent to boarding schools as young girls. Both of their fathers were ministers, although Gaskell's father resigned from the church before she was born, and both were deeply religious. And both married clergymen themselves, although Brontë was unmarried when she and Gaskell first met. Perhaps these affinities are what moved Charlotte's father Patrick to ask Gaskell to write an account of Charlotte's life shortly after she died (see "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë).

That Brontë and her novels deeply impressed Gaskell is evident from novels Gaskell wrote after their friendship was established. Jessie Brown in Cranford (1851-1853), Margaret Hale in North and South (1855), and Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters (1865) are all young women caring for widowed fathers (Gaskell's father remarried when she was four; Brontë's father never did). All of these heroines defy convention, as did Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe (in Villette), and Brontë herself. Jessie Brown insists on walking behind her father's casket to his burial, though this action is viewed by some as "against...propriety" [2]; Margaret Hale involves herself in the lives of the immiserated working class of Manchester; and Molly Gibson is interested in the scientific developments of her day, and risks her own reputation to help her stepsister out of a romantic dilemma.


North and South
North and South is the Gaskell novel that perhaps most clearly brings together the influences of both Brontë and Austen. Margaret Hale is the most Brontë-like heroine in Gaskell's fiction. Like Caroline Helstone, heroine of Brontë's Shirley (1849), she falls in love with a textile mill owner at a time of labor unrest, and sympathizes with both the workers and the owner. This is a connection that Gaskell clearly intended the reader to make: the bucolic village in which Margaret and her family are living at the beginning of the novel is called Helstone. There's also an Austen connection: the fictional village of Helstone is located in Hampshire, the rural county in the south of England where Austen was born and raised.

Margaret is portrayed in terms that Gaskell might have used to describe Charlotte Brontë herself:
...her quick perceptions and over-lively imagination made her hasty, and her early isolation from sympathy had made her proud; but she had an indescribable childlike sweetness of heart, which made her manners, even in her rarely wilful moods, irresistible... [3]
Margaret's life also closely parallels of that of her author. Her father is a clergyman who leaves the church because of a crisis of conscience; Gaskell's father did the same before she was born. At age 19, Margaret must move with her family to the industrial city of Milton; on her marriage at age 22, Gaskell moved with her husband to the industrial city of Manchester. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who joins the Navy; Gaskell's brother John sailed with the East India Company's merchant fleet.

The central narrative in North and South is Margaret's slow recognition of the depth and nature of her feelings for Mr. Thornton, the (relatively) young and (relatively) progressive owner of a textile mill in Milton. Mr. Thornton is brought to recognize his love for Margaret much more quickly. In the midst of a near-riot at his mill during a strike she stands next to him to try to protect him from the crowd's wrath, and is injured. Shortly afterwards, he declares his feelings to her, but she rejects him abruptly:
'You seem to fancy that my conduct of yesterday'—again the deep carnation blush, but this time with eyes kindling in indignation rather than shame—'was a personal act between you and me; and that you may come and thank me for it, instead of perceiving, as a gentleman would—yes! a gentleman...that any woman, worthy of the name of woman, would come forward to shield, with her reverenced helplessness, a man in danger from the violence of numbers....You seem to have imagined, that I was not merely guided by womanly instinct, but'—and here the passionate tears (kept down for long—struggled with vehemently) came up into her eyes, and choked her voice—'but that I was prompted by some particular feeling for you—you! Why, there was not a man—not a poor desperate man in all that crowd—for whom I had not more sympathy—for whom I should not have done what little I could more heartily.' [4]
This is perhaps reminiscent of another independent-minded young woman's rejection of another prideful suitor:
Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said:
'You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner....I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.' [5]
Neither Mr. Thornton nor Mr. Darcy can forswear their love; and both continue to work, without perhaps a full consciousness of their own motivations, to be worthy of the heroine's affection.

Good as North and South is, it's not without flaws: Nicholas Higgins, the representative of the "deserving poor," seems a bit too virtuous to be true (he gives up drinking entirely under Margaret's influence, for example). And Mr. Thornton, who is brusque and business-oriented, does not excite this reader's sympathies to anywhere near the same degree as the heroine. We come to feel that Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy are meant for each other; but the potential union of Mr. Thornton and Margaret does not seem to have the same sense of emotional inevitability.


Cranford
Perhaps Gaskell's most delightful and charming work, Cranford was based on her experiences living with her aunt in Knutsford, a small town in Cheshire near Manchester. Cranford, located near the manufacturing town of Drumble, is governed (at least socially) by spinsters and widows. The interconnected stories that make up the novel (and which were originally published separately in Dickens' magazine Household Words) are narrated by a younger woman, Mary Smith, and describe the responses of the Cranford ladies to the rapidly changing mores and modes of life of the Victorian era.

The tone is warm and affectionate; the foibles and eccentricities of each of the Cranford ladies are acknowledged, but their underlying generosity and good-heartedness (particularly that of Miss Matty Jenkyns, who becomes the novel's central character) shine through. But not all is sweetness and light in Cranford. Gaskell's novels do not shy away from the fact of death, and several of the characters in Cranford, major and minor, pass away over the course of its 150 or so pages.

Gaskell herself wrote to John Ruskin that "It is the only one of my books that I can read again;—but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take 'Cranford' and—I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh!'" [6] The deep sympathy and tender fondness with which Cranford is written indeed inspire laughter and (even if Gaskell isn't willing to say so herself) profound enjoyment. If you have never read Gaskell it is the perfect place to start.


Wives and Daughters
If North and South is Gaskell's most Brontë-like novel, Wives and Daughters is her most Austen-esque—and her greatest achievement. It takes place entirely in the village of Hollingford (another version of Knutsford) and follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman who lives with her widowed father, the town's surgeon. There's also a Brontë connection: Molly's governess is named Miss Eyre.

When Molly's blossoming beauty attracts the ardent attention of one of his apprentices, Mr. Gibson resolves to marry again to provide Molly with a stepmother. The woman he chooses is Mrs. Kirkpatrick, the widowed former governess to the children of the local lord:
Her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accent he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect upon his nerves that a cat's purring has upon some people's. He began to think that he should be fortunate if he could win her, for his own sake. Yesterday he had looked upon her more as a possible stepmother for Molly; to-day he thought more of her as a wife for himself. [7]
Mrs. Kirkpatrick, for whom life has been a struggle since her husband's death, has her own reasons for accepting Mr. Gibson's offer:
She was looking out of the window...thinking how pleasant it would be to have a husband once more;—some one who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily-furnished drawing-room. [8]
We may be reminded of another man who chose his wife for her superficial attractions, but discovered too late how unsuited they were to one another:
Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. [9]
If Mr. Gibson's situation echoes that of Mr. Bennet, Molly's echoes that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1814). Fanny, a demure young woman, has grown up in the household of the widowed Sir Thomas Bertram, and has fallen in love with his second son Edmund. Edmund, however, becomes infatuated with the worldly Mary Crawford, and Fanny must watch their growing attachment with dismay. Molly has grown up admiring the second son of the local squire, Roger Hamley, but he is captivated by the sparkling Cynthia, Mrs. Kirkpatrick's daughter. Roger is interested in the latest scientific theories, and embarks on a lengthy African expedition. Cynthia could not be less interested in science; she only cares about gowns, jewels, and making a brilliant impression in society. The quiet Molly understands and shares Roger's interests, but he has eyes only for Cynthia's beauty. Will Roger come to his senses and recognize Molly's true worth before it's too late?

The stage is set for a fairy-tale struggle between the evil stepmother and -daughter and the virtuous heroine. Fortunately Gaskell subverts our expectations: Mrs. Kirkpatrick is not evil, only shallow; and Cynthia and Molly, despite their differences, become close. And when a figure from Cynthia's troubling past threatens her with exposure and disgrace, Molly risks her own reputation in order to save Cynthia's.

Wives and Daughters was the last work Gaskell wrote, and she left it unfinished—she died unexpectedly before completing the final chapter. But with its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly Gibson, Wives and Daughters bears comparison to the work of Austen, Brontë, and to George Eliot's Middlemarch—that is to say, to some of the greatest novels ever written.

Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns in Cranford
BBC adaptations
All three of the Gaskell novels discussed here were adapted for BBC television. I wrote briefly about two of them, Cranford (2007) and Wives and Daughters (1999), in my post on Favorites of 2011: Television. North and South (2004) features Brendan Coyle, later of Lark Rise to Candleford and Downton Abbey, and Anna Maxwell Martin, later of Bleak House (2005) and South Riding (2011). All three Gaskell adaptations are excellent. But give yourself a treat and, if you haven't already done so, read the novels first.

---

1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Penguin Classics, 1985, Appendix B, p. 561.
2. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, Oxford World's Classics, 1980, Ch. II, p. 18.
3. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, Penguin English Library, 1970, Ch. 49, p. 508.
4. Gaskell, North and South, Ch. 24, pp. 253-254.
5. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Pantheon Books, 1949, Ch. XXXIV, p. 191.
6. Quoted in Gaskell, Cranford, Introduction, p. v.
7. Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story. Penguin Classics, 2001, Ch. 10, p.105.
8. Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, Ch. 10, p. 104.
9. Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Ch. XLII, p. 233.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Prince, composer, murderer, madman: Carlo Gesualdo


The murders. On October 26, 1590, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, let it be known to his household that he was going hunting (as he often did) and would be absent from his Naples palazzo for two days. He returned secretly that evening, however, and sometime after midnight burst into his wife's bedroom with three armed servants.

There he found his wife Maria in bed with her lover, Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria. A witness heard Gesualdo order his men to kill the couple, and then the firing of two shots. As he was leaving the room with his hands "covered with blood," Gesualdo was heard to say "I do not believe she is dead!" and turned back to stab his wife's body several more times.

Gesualdo and his men then fled Naples, leaving behind a scene of carnage. Carafa had been shot in the chest and in the head at close range, and stabbed so savagely the points of the weapons gouged the floor beneath his body. Maria had "many wounds" in the head and body, and her throat was cut; her nightdress was "bathed with blood." The lovers had not just been murdered, but butchered. Immediately after the killings Gesualdo and his accomplices probably escaped to the relative safety of his family castle in the town of Gesualdo, about 60 miles east of the city. [1]

"The Pardon." As an act of penitence Gesualdo ordered the building of a Capuchin monastery near the castle, which was completed over the next few years. Behind the altar of monastery's chapel, Santa Maria delle Grazie, hangs a large painting now known as "Il pardon" (The Pardon). The upper part of the canvas depicts Christ, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, archangels and saints. In the lower part of the canvas Gesualdo himself is shown kneeling next to a fiery pit, from which angels and cherubim are helping a naked man and woman to emerge. All the figures (except Mary Magdalene, who looks at Gesualdo) are gazing imploringly at Christ, who raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing. Is Gesualdo asking for pardon? Or is he pleading for the pardon of the souls of the two lovers, who, surrounded by other sinners, had been trapped in eternal fire?


The second marriage and the first books of madrigals. In 1593 negotiations were concluded for a marriage between Gesualdo and the 32-year-old Eleonora d'Este, a cousin of Duke Alfonso II d'Este of Ferrara. That a powerful family would seek a marriage with Gesualdo just a few years after he killed his first wife demonstrates the degree to which adultery was seen as legitimate grounds for spousal violence. The alliance was advantageous to both families. Duke Alfonso was hoping for greater influence with the Pope through Carlo's uncle Alfonso, who was Dean of the College of Cardinals in Rome. Gesualdo, a self-made widower with only one son, needed more potential heirs. 

When Gesualdo arrived at Ferrara, about 70 miles southwest of Venice, for the marriage festivities in February 1594, he carried the manuscripts of his first two books of madrigals with him. These were published in May and June of that year by the printer for the house of d'Este, Vittorio Baldini. These works are highly accomplished examples of the madrigal form, as shown by the piece that opens the First Book, "Baci soave e cari" (Sweet and tender kisses):




The performers are the Czech Soloist Consort; the words are by Giovanni Battista Guarini: "Baci soavi e cari,/ cibi della mia vita/ c'hor m'involate hor mi rendete il core,/ per voi convien ch'impari/ come un'alma rapita/ non sente il duol di mort'e pur si more." (Sweet and tender kisses, sustenance of my life, first you steal, then you give back my heart: you want me to learn how a soul in rapture feels not the agony of death, yet dies.) A characteristic Gesualdo touch is the dissonance on the word "morte" (death) that occurs at around 1:50 in this performance; in his later books, the dissonance and chromaticism would become ever more extreme.

Ferrara and the third and fourth books of madrigals. With one six-month exception when he travelled back to Gesualdo without his new wife, Carlo Gesualdo stayed in Ferrara for the next two years. During this time he was in contact with musical developments at other northern Italian courts, which were renowned for their musical establishments. His third and fourth books of madrigals, published in Ferrara in 1595 and 1596, were probably composed at this time, and are more harmonically daring than his first compositions. Here is "Sospirava il mio cor" from Book 3:




The performers are Delitiae Musicae; the words are "Sospirava il mio core/ per uscir di dolore/ un sospir che dicea: 'L’anima spiro!'/ Quando la donna mia più d’un sospiro/ anch’ella sospirò che parea dire:/ 'Non morir, non morire!'" (My heart was sighing to escape its pain, a sigh that said "I give up my soul!", when my lady also breathed a sigh that seemed to say, "Do not die, do not die!")

Had Gesualdo stopped publishing music after his Fourth Book was issued, he would still be among the most famous composers of the time. He is mentioned in an essay appended to a 1607 collection of Claudio Monteverdi's music as one of the founders of the "second practice" of madrigal composition, in which the words were paramount and the expressive capabilities of music were intended to convey their meaning: a sighing fall on the word "sospira," agitated fast tempos for battle metaphors, dissonances on words such as "pain," "death," "suffering."

However, in his last two books of madrigals Gesualdo took the conventions of chromaticism and dissonance to new extremes.

Return to Gesualdo and the last compositions. In late 1596 or early 1597 Gesualdo returned, permanently, to the town of Gesualdo, and his wife Leonora and their infant son, Alfonsino, joined him in September. There were dark hints in letters and other documents that Gesualdo physically and psychologically abused his wife, and that he had taken mistresses (not unusual, it must be said, for a Renaissance prince). There were also suggestions that Leonora and her half-brother Alessandro were incestuously involved; Alessandro had also had an affair with the sister of d'Este family friend Marco Pio, who feuded with Alessandro, perhaps over the affair, and was later murdered, probably by Alessandro. Ah, the colorful lives of the Italian aristocracy...

In October 1600 the five-year-old Alfonsino became ill and died. There are accounts that after his son's death, Gesualdo was increasingly subject to dark mood swings ("melancholia," which could mean anything from poetic wistfulness to black depression), and that he asked to be beaten by teams of servants:
he was assailed and afflicted by a vast horde of demons which gave him no peace for many days on end unless ten or twelve young men, whom he kept specially for that purpose, were to beat him violently three times a day, during which operation he was wont to smile joyfully. [2]
This account should be treated skeptically since it dates from two decades after Gesualdo's death. These rumors have been widely repeated, though, and may be the origin of the idea that Gesualdo was gradually driven mad by remorse and sorrow.

In 1611 Gesualdo published his Responsoria for Holy Week as well as the fifth and sixth books of madrigals, whose dissonance and chromaticism can seem amazingly modern. Here is "Moro, lasso" from Book 6:



The performers are the Gesualdo Consort; the words are "Moro, lasso, al mio duolo/ e chi mi può dar vita,/ ahi, che m'ancide e non vuol darmi aita!/ O dolorosa sorte,/ chi dar vita i può,/ ahi, mi dà morte!" (I die, alas, in my suffering, And she who could give me life, alas, kills me and will not help me. O sorrowful fate, she who could give me life, alas, gives me death.)

In August 1613 Gesualdo's son by the murdered Maria d'Avalos, Emmanuele, died in a riding accident without leaving a male heir; and two weeks later Gesualdo himself passed away. After winding up Gesualdo's estate, his wife Leonora moved to the town of Modena to be with her family, and died in 1637 at the age of 76. The ancient family of Gesualdo died with her.

Do the late madrigals reflect Gesualdo's madness? The author of the prefaces to Gesualdo's fifth and sixth book of madrigals claimed that their appearance in print was "fifteen years from the time when they were composed." [3] This would place their composition around 1596, at the time the madrigals of the fourth book were published.

For those who see a stark stylistic disjunction between the earlier and later books of madrigals, and who are tempted to read this disjunction as evidence of Gesualdo's increasing mental affliction, these prefaces present a problem. While it's clear that they may be an attempt on Gesualdo's part to establish false precedence, there's also no reason to assume that the music contained in the fifth and sixth books was composed close to the date of publication in 1611: composers of the time often withheld music from publication for private performances, and printed collections were often "best of" compilations that included music composed over many years. Also, those who espouse the idea that Gesualdo's music reflected his growing madness have to explain how a madman would have been capable of writing the complex counterpoint and shifting harmonies of five-part madrigals.

Instead, I think we have to recognize Gesualdo as a highly innovative and self-conscious composer who was deliberately pushing the boundaries of the accepted musical practice of the time. He may also have been "assailed and afflicted by a vast horde of demons," but those demons are more likely to have interfered with his ability to compose, rather than to have inspired it.

Gesualdo's harmonic innovations were not always approved by later listeners. Charles Burney (the father of Fanny Burney) wrote in his General History of Music (1789) that Gesualdo's late style involved "harsh, crude, and licentious modulation" that is "offensive...not only repugnant...but extremely shocking and disgusting to the ear." [4] However, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gesualdo's harmonic practices seemed to prefigure modern developments in chromaticism, dissonance and atonality. Stravinsky, in his preface to Glenn Watkin's critical biography of Gesualdo, calls his music "powerful" and "revolutionary" (Stravinsky made two pilgrimages to the town of Gesualdo and one to Gesualdo's tomb in Naples). [5]

The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals. Between 2010 and 2013 the Italian ensemble Delitiae Musicae, under the direction of Marco Longhini, recorded all of Gesualdo's madrigals for the Naxos label. When the project was completed the seven CDs were issued as a boxed set.

As you can hear from the version of "Sospirava il mio core" from Book 3 included above, these are superb performances. The chosen pitch is a step lower than what many ensembles have chosen, but I very much like the lower tessitura: it gives the sound of the ensemble a depth and richness that few other groups in this repertoire can match. Longhini has also chosen to use only male voices, with countertenors taking the highest parts. This also works beautifully—the similarity in timbre allows the voices of Delitiae Musicae to blend in a very pleasing way. It's also historically justifiable: falsettists are known to have sung in sacred and secular ensembles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A choice that seems less historically justifiable to me is Longhini's decision to add continuo parts to some of the madrigals in Books I - IV. As far as I'm aware Gesualdo gave no indication that his madrigals should be performed with instruments. While the accompaniment is limited to a discreet harpsichord, in my view it's an unnecessary addition.

But the added harpsichord is a minor issue when the vocal performances are this focused and assured. Longhini's tempi are measured, and this makes the dissonances just a bit more apparent without requiring the singers to give them extra emphasis.

Many thanks to the dear friend who gave me this collection recently as a birthday present, thinking (correctly) that I would listen to it obsessively; for the last several weeks there's been at least one disc, and sometimes nothing but Gesualdo, in my CD changer. I recommend it highly.

----

1. This account is taken from the depositions of witnesses to the murders quoted in Watkins, Glenn. Gesualdo: The man and his music, Second edition. Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 15-23.

2. Quoted in Watkins, p. 83.

3. Watkins, p. 166.

4. Burney, Charles. A general history of music from the earliest ages to the present period, Volume the second, with critical and historical notes by Frank Mercer. Dover, 1957, p. 181.

5. Watkins, pp. ix-xi.