Monday, March 28, 2011

John Steane, 1928 - 2011

Anyone who has ever tried to write about music, and particularly singing, in a way that is both meaningful and free of technical language knows how incredibly difficult it is. John Steane was brilliant at it, as he proved over many decades of writing about music: first as the author of the never-surpassed The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record, 1900-1970 (Scribners, 1974), then as a columnist for Gramophone, Opera Now and other publications. He had deep knowledge, boundless enthusiasm, and unassuming eloquence at his command. Most of all, though, he conveyed the emotional power and distinct individuality of the human voice, and made his readers want to listen with the same keen intelligence and warm appreciation.

Here is a small sample of his work, from a post I never quite got around to writing about words in opera (and Indian film songs). It is from his "Aria" feature in the May/June 2008 issue of Opera Now; he's writing about Lensky's "Kuda, kuda vy udalis" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin:

"Rather in the spirit of that famous child who is supposed to have expressed a preference for radio over television on the grounds that 'the picture is better,' I find much to be said for opera in a foreign language. In Italy, for example, I'm told that opera might be more popular among the young were it to be sung in English so that the embarrassing words would not be quite so mercilessly intelligible. To us, poor Lensky's solo before the fatal duel on the early winter's morning is beautiful and intensely moving in Russian, German, Italian or French. But oh, how banal the words sound in English translation. And not just the words. The ideas seem trite and the emotions sentimental. Not that we require originality from Lensky in his predicament, still less literary polish (even though he is a poet by profession, and creation of Pushkin). It is that these formalized expressions don't ring true, and the more clearly we hear and understand the words the less conviction they carry as the real utterance of real individual in these dire circumstances."

I have to interrupt here to say that my objection to English words is somewhat different. I don't require the words to simulate "the real utterance of a real individual," but rather that the words help convey the emotional truth of that character in that moment. Heightened expression is fine with me; overwrought or thuddingly obvious expression isn't.

Back to J.S.:

"The music is a different matter altogether. The sad melody we have heard in the prelude played over by the cello perfectly embodies our pity for the young man. As elegiac phrases gather urgency, so our compassion is intensified, and when the climax is reached, with the aria's single fortissimo, the heart opens in sympathy. Then, when Tchaikovsky brings back the opening phrases as in a musical coda, the effect is of more than formal artistic satifaction: rather the forlorn reiteration of an unanswerable question and the sorrowful acceptance of a young life lost.

"It is music that, as we say, 'speaks' to us. We don't want to rob Lensky of language—we want to hear his voice, but at the same time to have the freedom of illusion which spares us the banality of:

"Shall I survive the day's dawning?
I vainly try to read its warning.
It shrouds itself in mystery:
No matter, this is fate's decree."

This insight—that opera communicates on levels that transcend the literal meaning of the words—is one that I remind myself of every time I find myself squinting at supertitles rather than really listening. John Steane always listened, with deep attention, and had the ability to express what he was hearing with a rare generosity of spirit.

Here is a link to the obituary published today in the Guardian UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/mar/28/john-steane-obituary

Update 29 March 2011: I wrote this post last night as soon as I heard the dismaying news about John Steane's death (he died on March 17, but his Guardian obituary was published yesterday). This morning I took The Grand Tradition off my shelf and looked at its author biography (probably written by Steane himself): "John Steane is best known for his work in the field of Elizabethan literature. He has written a critical study of Marlowe, and edited plays by Jonson and Dekker, as well as the major works of Nashe and Marlowe's complete plays. He has also written a book on Tennyson. His life-long amateur interest, of which this book is the culmination, has been in singing and the gramophone." Lovely, and characteristic of his unfeigned modesty, that the "amateur interest" in music (which has resulted in the 600+ pages we're holding) is only mentioned in the last sentence. Unmentioned entirely are the decades he spent as a beloved teacher of English at Merchant Taylors' School.

You can find a partial list of his published works at WorldCat; it excludes the many entries he wrote for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the New Grove Dictionary of Opera (now both part of Oxford Music Online), and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. And, of course, it excludes perhaps his most widely-read works: his many articles and columns for music magazines.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Who owns Kafka?

Who owns, or should be able to own, the work of a great artist? A trunk filled with unpublished work by Franz Kafka has sparked a court case that, as the philosopher Judith Butler reports in the current London Review of Books, raises a host of questions about national identity, cultural heritage, the commodification of art, and the meaning of ownership, whether individual or collective.

The facts are both straightforward, and, as with everything to do with Kafka, extraordinarily convoluted. Born in Prague to Jewish parents during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka spoke and wrote in German. After publishing a number of short stories and novellas, he died in 1924 leaving no will, but only a letter to his friend Max Brod:

Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me (in my bookcase, linen-cupboard, and my desk both at home and in the office, or anywhere else where anything may have got to and meets your eye), in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, to be burned unread; also all writings and sketches which you or others may possess; and ask those others for them in my name. Letters which they do not want to hand over to you, they should at least promise faithfully to burn themselves.
Of course, Brod did not burn Kafka's work, but instead immediately began editing and arranging for the publication of his novels Der Prozess (The Trial, 1925), Das Schloss (The Castle, 1926), and Amerika (originally entitled Der Verschollene, or The Disappearance, 1927); a collection of short stories, parables, and other pieces, Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer (The Great Wall of China, 1931); and an edition of his Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Works, 1935-37).

Brod, a longtime Zionist, emigrated to Palestine in 1939, carrying the Kafka manuscripts with him. He later edited editions of Kafka's diaries and letters, but refused to allow other scholars to have access to the manuscripts, or to place them in a library, museum or archive. However, as war loomed during the 1956 Suez Crisis, Brod sent the bulk of the manuscripts to safekeeping in a Swiss bank vault. After lengthy negotiations involving Brod, Kafka's publisher Salman Schocken, Kafka's niece and heir Marianne Steiner (daughter of Kafka's sister Valerie), and literary scholar Malcolm Pasley, the manuscripts were transferred in 1961 to the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

However, Brod still retained the manuscript of Der Prozess (which Kafka had given him in 1920) and an unknown quantity of unpublished material. On his death in 1968 these manuscripts were bequeathed to his secretary (and, apparently, lover) Esther Hoffe. In 1988, she put the manuscript of Der Prozess up for auction at Sotheby's, where it sold for $1.98 million. Herbert Tenschert, the West German book dealer who placed the winning bid on behalf of the Deutsche Literaturarchiv Marbach, was quoted after the auction as saying "This is perhaps the most important work in 20th-century German literature, and Germany had to have it." Kafka would surely have appreciated the multiple ironies: not only was he not German, but this wasn't the first time a German government had expressed keen interest in his work: the Nazis had seized 20 of his notebooks and a cache of letters from his lover Dora Diamant in Berlin in 1933, and probably burned them.

Kafka's work has now become a nexus of competing national, cultural, ethnic, and mercenary claims. Esther Hoffe's daughters, Eva and Ruth, have now inherited the remaining Kafka manuscripts, which they want to sell—by weight, without an inventory or any other kind of assessment. However, several parties are suing to contest the Hoffe sisters' claims to the manuscripts: the National Library of Israel asserts that the Kafka manuscripts are "cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people," and so belong in its collection (Kafka wrote in a 1914 diary entry, "What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself..."). The Deutsche Literaturarchiv Marbach is also in court, suggesting that the remainder of the manuscripts ought to be reunited with Der Prozess in its collection. This isn't the first time that competing claims have been made about Kafka's work; Butler quotes a letter Kafka wrote in 1916 to Felice Bauer:
And incidentally, won't you tell me what I really am; in the last Neue Rundschau...the writer says: "There is something fundamentally German about K's narrative art." In Max's article on the other hand: "K's stories are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time." A difficult case. Am I a circus rider on two horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.

Further recommended reading: David Mairowitz and R. Crumb's Kafka (Fantagraphics Books, 2007). The latest edition of this book, valuable especially for Crumb's haunting illustrations of Kafka's life and works.