Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Haruki Murakami, part 1: The English Library novels

Haruki Murakami. Photo credit: Kevin Trageser / Redux. Image source: The New Yorker

Haruki Murakami was the bestselling author of six novels in Japan before any of his books were published outside of that country. But less than a decade after the U.S. publication of his third novel Hitsuji o meguru bōken as A Wild Sheep Chase in 1989, Murakami had become an international phenomenon. Today he is by far the best-known contemporary Japanese writer; his books are instant bestsellers but also receive serious critical attention. He has been a member of the visiting faculty of Princeton and Harvard, has given a lecture series at UC Berkeley, and has received an honorary degree from Yale. There is even a library dedicated to Murakami at his alma mater Waseda University.

Waseda International House of Literature (The Haruki Murakami Library). Image source: Nipponica: Discovering Japan

In this post series I'll be discussing three Murakami-related works:

  • David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami (Soft Skull, 2020), an examination of the English-language publication of Murakami's books from his first novella through his international breakthrough The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995/1997).
  • Jay Rubin's Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Harvill, 2002/Vintage 2005), a survey of Murakami's life and work up through the publication of Umibe no Kafuka (Kafka on the Shore, 2002/2005).
  • Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car (2021), the Academy-Award-winning film based on two Murakami short stories published in the collection Men Without Women (2014).

David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami begins with the reason English-language readers know Murakami today: translator Alfred Birnbaum. Birnbaum had first encountered Murakami's writing in the early 1980s while working as a translator for Japanese art and design books published by Kodansha International. After a friend urged him to read a short story collection by Murakami, Birnbaum translated several of the stories on spec. During a meeting with a Kodansha editor in the spring of 1984 Birnbaum brought out his translation of the story "Nyū Yōku tankō no higeki" ("New York Mining Disaster"), and expressed interest in translating Murakami's most recent novel Hitsuji o meguru bōken, which had won the Kodansha-associated Noma New Writer's Prize in 1982 and had become a bestseller.

Instead he was given Murakami's first two short novels, Kaze no uta o kike (Listen to the Wind's Song), published in 1979, and 1973-nen no pinbōru (1973 Pinball), published in 1980. Murakami called these his "kitchen table novels," because he wrote them at his kitchen table in his off hours from running the bar he owned with his wife. [1]

Birnbaum translated the second book first, and at the suggestion of editor Jules Young titled it Pinball, 1973. In 1985 Birnbaum's translation was published in the paperback Kodansha English Library, a series published only in Japan and intended for Japanese readers who were learning English. (Each volume contained an English-Japanese glossary at the back.)

Cover illustration: Maki Sasaki. Image source: Book Dragon

Pinball, 1973 alternates between the stories of the nameless narrator (Jay Rubin calls him "Boku," after one of the Japanese words for "I") and a college friend nicknamed the Rat, who is trying to become a writer. Both men are in their mid-20s and somewhat adrift. 

The Rat spends most of his time at J's Bar in Kobe. He's trying to work up the courage to leave a woman he's become involved with, because their relationship is apparently a barrier to his writing ambitions. (A reader may imagine that spending hours drinking in a bar every day instead of writing might be a greater barrier to getting anything done.) One day the Rat simply decides never to call the woman again, and leaves town for destinations unknown. [2]

Boku is living in Tokyo with cute twins whom he can only identify by their numbered sweatshirts (208 and 209). He embarks on a quest to find an unusual pinball machine that he used to play at a Tokyo arcade that closed down three years previously. Once Boku's quest reaches its end with a surreal encounter in an eerie pinball machine warehouse, the twins leave. Either obstacles and distractions, or muses, guides and healers for his male protagonists: early on Murakami set out the limited roles available to many of his women characters.

He also introduced some of the elements that would become recurring tropes in his fiction. On the first page we read that people tell the narrator stories "as if they were tossing rocks down a dry well"; the image of a well will recur in the later novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Norwegian Wood, and the protagonist will spend much of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at the bottom of a dry well. Also featured is the narrator's obsession with ears: in this novel, every evening after his bath the twins would "sit one on each side of me and simultaneously clean both my ears. The two of them were positively great at cleaning ears." If this sounds vaguely sexual, that suspicion will be borne out in his later books.

Pinball, 1973 also displayed Murakami's tendency to present banalities or truisms as insights:

". . . .if a person would just make an effort, there's something to be learned from everything. From even the most ordinary, commonplace things, there's always something you can learn." (p. 96)

The past and the present, we might say, "go like this." The future is a "maybe." Yet when we look back on the darkness that obscures the path that brought us this far, we only come up with another indefinite "maybe." The only thing we perceive with any clarity is the present moment, and even that just passes by. (p. 177)

Pinball, 1973 went on to multiple printings: my copy purchased in the early 1990s is the eighth. On the strength of its success Birnbaum published two more Murakami translations in the English Library: Kaze no uta o kike as Hear the Wind Sing in 1987, and the multimillion-selling blockbuster Noruwei no mori (1987), Murakami's fifth novel, as Norwegian Wood in 1989.

Cover illustration: Maki Sasaki. Image source:

The second novel of Murakami's to be translated into English was the first work of fiction he wrote. The novel is about the unnamed narrator's struggles to write the very book we are reading. The narrator (again, following Rubin, we'll call him Boku) looks back from 1979 on his friendship a decade previously with his college buddy the Rat. Although the Rat has ambitions to be a writer, he spends most of his time drinking beer with Boku in J's Bar. Both of them attend university in Tokyo, and are home in Kobe for the summer. The novel is set in August 1970, three years before the action of Pinball, 1973, and just months after the militant Japanese student protest movement was violently suppressed by the police. Boku has a broken tooth sustained in a police confrontation, but both he and the Rat have become disillusioned with political action, or, really, any kind of action at all.

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Rubin offers a revised translation of the first chapter of Hear the Wing Sing. [3] Comparing Birnbaum's and Rubin's translations points up some characteristic differences in their approaches. In the following passage I've placed Rubin's revisions in parentheses following Birnbaum's version:

". . .when it came to getting something into writing, I was always overcome with despair. The range of my ability was just too limited. Even if I could write, say, about elephants (an elephant), I probably couldn't have written a thing about elephant trainers (the elephant's keeper). So it went (That kind of thing).

For eight years I was caught in (went on wrestling with) that dilemma—and eight years is a long time. . .Now I think I'm ready to talk (Now I'm ready to tell). . .Still, it's awfully hard to tell things honestly. The more honest I try to be, the more the right words recede into the distance (sink into the darkness).

I don't mean to rationalize (I'm not making excuses), but at least this writing is my present best (the best I can do for now). There's nothing more to say. And yet I find myself thinking that if everything goes well, sometime way ahead, years, maybe decades, (even decades) from now, I might discover at last that these efforts have been my salvation (discover myself saved). Then lo, at that point, the elephants will return to the plains and I will set forth a vision in words more beautiful (And then, at that time, the elephant will return to the plain, and I shall begin to tell the tale of the world in words more beautiful than these). (Hear the Wing Sing, pp. 5-6|Rubin, pp. 41-42) [4]

I don't read Japanese, so I can't judge these translations by their fidelity to the original. But I do have some thoughts about tone.

Rubin's narrator is earnest and describes his situation with more than a touch of post-adolescent melodrama: the right words "sink into the darkness," in the future he "may discover myself saved," and then he will "tell the tale of the world." Birnbaum's narrator is more self-mocking: in "So it went" there's the echo of Kurt Vonnegut's fatalistic "So it goes" from Slaughterhouse-Five, words "recede into the distance" instead of "sink into the darkness," and "Then lo, at that point," deflates the pomposity of his talk of salvation through a self-ridiculing awareness of how Biblical he's begun to sound.

Rubin's narrator grandiosely says he will "tell the tale of the world"; Birnbaum's will "set forth a vision"—undercutting himself with more of that ironic pseudo-Biblical diction, and making no claims to universality. Finally, Rubin's narrator is "wrestling" with his dilemma, while Birnbaum's is "caught" in his, a word that seems better to capture the narrator's detachment and passivity. Birnbaum's translation is sometimes clunky—"sometime way ahead, years, maybe decades, from now" has a lot of commas over the course of a very few words. And there would seem to be a significant difference (which I can't resolve) between an elephant trainer and an elephant keeper (Ted Goosens' later translation also uses "trainer"). But to my mind's ear Rubin's translation is no less clunky—"discover myself saved" as an example—and his choices makes the narrator sound as though he's lacking the ironic self-awareness of Birnbaum's.

Image source: Raptis Rare Books

As Birnbaum finished his translation of Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami published his fifth novel, Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood) in September 1987. [5] It became a massive bestseller, selling millions of copies over the next 15 months. Birnbaum's editor Jules Young requested that he translate it immediately for the English Library. 

Birnbaum was unenthusiastic. He found that the novel was "missing the humor and surreal aspects I liked" and was "a bit sentimental," and he had already started translating A Wild Sheep Chase. But he did not have the luxury of turning down a job, and so he agreed to do both. I think Birnbaum's hesitations were justified. If Norwegian Wood had been the first Murakami novel I read, I doubt that I would have been interested in reading any of his other fiction.

This time Murakami's narrator has a name—Tōru Watanabe—and is once again looking back at his college-age self from Murakami's age at the time of writing (38). The novel takes place against the distant background of the Japanese student movement of the late 1960s. In the foreground are the love troubles of the young Tōru, who has come from his home town of Kobe to attend university in Tokyo (again, like Murakami himself).

Tōru is torn between two women. The first is Naoko, the former girlfriend of Tōru's best friend in high school, Kizuki. Death seems to surround her: both Naoko's sister and Kizuki committed suicide, and she herself has dark thoughts that have resulted in her leaving college to go to a sanatorium-like retreat in the mountains. The second woman in Tōru's life is the lively, outgoing, un- (or less-) complicated Midori, who makes overtures to Tōru even though she already has a boyfriend. Yes, it's a woman who represents the death drive versus a woman who represents the life force.

Complicating matters is Naoko's roommate at the sanatorium, a 39-year-old woman named Reiko, who pours out her life story to the sympathetic Tōru. That story involves her experiences as a musician, wife and mother, until her lesbian seduction (recounted at multi-page length and in explicit detail) by a beautiful but malevolent 13-year-old (!) student.  Reiko's marriage and career are destroyed, and she has a breakdown that brings her to the sanatorium. [6]

Rubin calls Reiko's tale "a compelling, heartbreaking story" that has the reader "hanging on every word" (p. 4). Another perspective might be that her story indulges in tiresome clichés about predatory lesbians, and provides prurient details for the titillation of both Tōru and the reader.

Reiko's friendship with Tōru ultimately leads her to leave the illusory safety of the sanatorium to go stay with Tōru in Tokyo. The (literal) seductions of lesbianism are, of course, vanquished by a night of passionate (unprotected, intergenerational and semi-incestuous) sex with the straight hero. [7]

It's been a while since I've read Norwegian Wood, but I don't think I'm exaggerating its schematic and stereotypical qualities. But despite (or perhaps because of) those qualities it made Murakami the most successful novelist in Japan.

Given Murakami's subsequent international fame, it's curious that Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973, and Norwegian Wood were available in English in Japan a least a decade before they were published in any English-speaking country. (Norwegian Wood was published in the U.S. in a new translation by Rubin in 1999, and the first two novels were published in new translations by Ted Goosens in 2015.) But perhaps this was a wise choice on the part of Kodansha. I bought all three English Library titles as imports at the Kinokuniya Bookstore in San Francisco's Japantown after reading the U.S. edition of A Wild Sheep Chase shortly after it came out. I recall being disappointed in each of them. The two short novels seemed slight, and Norwegian Wood seemed conventional in the worst senses, in comparison to the first Murakami novel published in the U.S.: A Wild Sheep Chase. [8]

Next time: Murakami's first U.S. publications: A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

  1. This is often described as a "jazz bar," but it didn't feature live bands; Murakami played jazz records as background music.
  2. In A Wild Sheep Chase, the third novel in the so-called "Rat Trilogy" and which takes place half a decade later, Boku will go in search of the Rat.
  3. In the foreword to the U.S. publication of the first two novellas (in a new translation by Ted Goosens), Murakami reports that his breakthrough into writing was to compose the opening passages of Hear the Wind Sing in English after the manner of the American writers he was currently reading, such as Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. He then "translated" the passages back into Japanese. In the early 1980s Murakami had begun to translate American fiction into Japanese, and the boku-hero of Pinball, 1973 has set up an English translation agency with the Rat.
  4. It's interesting that this passage describes the narrator's inability to write about an elephant keeper. The disappearance of an elephant and his keeper will be the central event in Murakami's later short story "The Elephant Vanishes," and elephants will turn up in several of Murakami's other stories and novels. Again, an apparently casual or random reference turns out to be a recurring motif.
  5. "Noruwei no mori"—literally, "A Forest in Norway"—is, according to Rubin, "the standard Japanese mistranslation of The Beatles' song 'Norwegian Wood'," which features repeatedly in the novel. (p. 149)
  6. I don't recall the disturbing detail of the student's age in Birnbaum's translation, but it is definitely present in Rubin's later retranslation. Bisexual or lesbian characters also recur in Murakami's fiction.
  7. The apparently irresistible sexual magnetism of Murakami's protagonists, who are frequently provided with semi-autobiographical characteristics, is another frequent feature of his fiction.  In 1Q84 (2009/2011), a beautiful bisexual assassin has a deep sexual attraction to middle-aged men with receding hairlines; in 2009 Murakami turned 60.
  8. I was so disappointed in Norwegian Wood that I sold my two-volume red and green English Library copy to a used bookstore. I probably got $5 for both volumes. These days copies of the two-volume English Library edition, even in later printings, are selling for hundreds of dollars; signed first printings go for thousands.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Good Fairy

Margaret Sullavan as a dazzling usherette in The Good Fairy (1935)

Preston Sturges-scripted films often feature the comic confusions that result when unexpected good fortune suddenly descends on the protagonist:

  • In Easy Living (1937), that descent is literal: a fur coat flung out of the window of his penthouse apartment by exasperated banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) lands on the head of secretary Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) on the street below. He insists that she keep the coat, which leads to the widespread assumption that she is Ball's mistress. Unemployment, a stock market plunge, and a night in a luxury hotel suite with the banker's handsome son quickly follow.
  • In Remember the Night (1940), seasonally sentimental New York district attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) offers to take shoplifting defendant Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) home to Indiana for Christmas. An arrest for trespassing, arson, a flight from justice, and a blossoming but impossible love will result.
  • In The Palm Beach Story (1942), Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) are behind on the rent and unable to interest investors in Tom's new inventions (for good reason). Enter the Texas Wienie King (Robert Dudley), who gives Gerry the money to bid Tom farewell with a good conscience and head to Palm Beach in search of a rich new husband. By the time the soft-hearted Wienie King gives Tom the money to follow her, Gerry has already hooked multimillionaire mark J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). Gerry introduces the inconvenient Tom to her new Florida friends as her brother. Meanwhile, J.D.'s man-eating sister Maude (Mary Astor) takes a keen interest in Gerry's tall, handsome supposed sibling. Romantic misunderstandings reign.

These films demonstrate that generous impulses can have unintended consequences, and playing the good fairy can sometimes backfire. Which is the theme of The Good Fairy (1935), an early version of Sturges' much-revisited plot.

Raised in an orphanage, the naïve and good-hearted Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan) loves to regale the younger girls there with fairy tales.

Her fantasies are interrupted when the manager of the Dreampalast movie theater, Maurice Schlapkohl (Alan Hale), comes to the orphanage looking to hire an usherette, and Lu is chosen. [1]

The head of the orphanage, Dr. Schultz (Beulah Bondi), is concerned about the usherettes' uniforms, providing an opportunity for some of Sturges' trademark risqué dialogue:

Schlapkohl: They wear gorgeous uniforms. I designed them myself. A big hussar's hat, a little cloak, and pants—
Dr. Schultz (alarmed): Pants?
Schlapkohl: —with stripes. Very effective.
Dr. Schultz: I dare say. Ah, the pants, I mean, they're not too tight?
Schlapkohl: That depends entirely on the girl—the pants are all the same size.

Alan Hale (Schlapkohl), Margaret Sullavan (Lu), and Beulah Bondi (Dr. Schultz) at the moment of choice

Given that The Good Fairy went into production the fall of 1934, just a few months after the new Production Code Administration was established in July, it's surprising how suggestive the dialogue and situations remain. Sturges' script had come back from Joseph Breen's office covered in red ink. In the first draft, Dr. Schultz warns Lu as she leaves for her first day as an usherette, "A young girl must be careful in her relations with men." Breen flagged the line for elimination because "relations" could mean sexual relations. In the final film version the line becomes "A young girl cannot be too careful in her dealings with the male gender." "Dealings," of course, suggests that there might be monetary or other sorts of exchanges involved in women's interactions with men. It went right past Breen. As cut dialogue from another scene in Sturges' first draft had it, "How much would a girl have to give for a fur coat?" "Her all."

Leaving the theater after her first night of work (and having changed out of her uniform) Lu is accosted by a wolfish stage-door Johnny (Cesar Romero). To escape his clutches she claims that she's married, and grabs the arm of an exiting customer, Detlaf (Reginald Owen).

Margaret Sullavan (Lu) and Reginald Owen (Detlaf)

At first Detlaf has no idea who she is, or why she's calling him "darling":

Detlaf: What are you talking about? Who are you?
Lu: Don't you remember? I'm the girl that pointed out the way with the electric wand.
Detlaf: Oh yes, sure. I didn't recognize you without your pants.

Over sandwiches and beer Detlaf tells her about his job as a waiter, and offers her a ticket to a ball at the fancy hotel restaurant where he works.  

In a dazzling borrowed dress the next night Lu attends the ball, and catches the eye of multimillionaire businessman Konrad (Frank Morgan). Konrad, old enough to be Lu's father, invites her to supper in a private dining room (immediately adjacent, no doubt, to a bedroom). But Detlaf's repeated appearances continually thwart Konrad's attempted seduction. In a final attempt to keep Konrad at bay, Lu finally plays the "I'm married" card. To her surprise this doesn't deter Konrad: he offers to hire her husband. Konrad assumes that Lu realizes that her acquiescence will be a condition of her husband's employment, but Lu is so unworldly that she doesn't understand Konrad's implied contract.

Frank Morgan (Konrad) and Margaret Sullavan (Lu)

It's hard to say how old Lu is supposed to be. In the Ferenc Molnar play on which The Good Fairy is (very) loosely based, Lu is 25 (Sullavan's actual age during shooting) and not nearly as naïve. But Sullavan is given pigtails (at least in the early scenes) and directed by William Wyler to act much younger than her true age. If Lu is supposed to be 17 or 18, it makes Konrad's proposition even more eyebrow-raising.

To play the role of her husband Lu picks a name at random out of the phone book: Dr. Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), an honest, and so impoverished, lawyer. When Konrad sweeps in, offers him a job and orders his ancient desk and chair to be replaced by sleek modern furniture, Sporum thinks he's finally being rewarded for his integrity. Disillusionment will soon follow.

Margaret Sullavan (Lu) and Herbert Marshall (Dr. Sporum)

Apart from the wide-eyed performance of Sullavan, the main appeal of The Good Fairy is the chance to see familiar actors in an unfamiliar context. Morgan's Konrad seems like a dry run for his Wizard of Oz four years later: he has some of the same mannerisms and even utters some of the same lines, such as "Well, well, well..." It adds to the creepiness of Konrad's attempted sexual coercion, as though the Wizard was lusting after Dorothy. Sullavan would be reunited with Morgan in Shop Around the Corner (1940); that film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who had also directed Marshall in Trouble in Paradise (1932). Beulah Bondi would return in the Sturges-written Remember the Night, and Eric Blore, who plays the sozzled Dr. Metz, the Minister of Art & Culture, is familiar as a member of the stock company of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. [2]

With its operetta-light plot, The Good Fairy—charming as it is—doesn't quite rise to the level of any of those other films. It is, though, a testament to the beauty of Sullavan, whose dazzling smile and big blue eyes (reading as light gray, of course, in black and white) are photographed by Wyler in loving, emotion-filled closeups. Sullavan brings depth to Lu, who, delighted as she is by the wonders of the big city,

also discovers that all is not happiness and light.

Those loving, emotion-filled closeups turned out to be literal: in the middle of filming Sullavan and Wyler (seven years her senior) flew to Arizona to be married, and were back on set the next day. The marriage was Wyler's first and Sullavan's second (her first husband had been Henry Fonda), and lasted only two years. But The Good Fairy remains Wyler's valentine to the captivating actress.

  1. Incidentally, names Ginglebusher and Schlapkohl are not in the original Ferenc Molnar play on which The Good Fairy is based. They are Sturges', um, inspiration.
  2. Sturges, of course, would go on to write and direct The Lady Eve (1940), and Wyler would later direct The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Roman Holiday (1953).

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Shipwreck, mutiny and murder: The Wager

Cover of The Wager by David Grann

Cover of David Grann's The Wager (Doubleday, 2023), featuring "Ships in distress in a storm" (detail) by Peter Monamy (c. 1720-30), courtesy of Tate Britain. Cover image source: David Grann

The Anson expedition

Navigation during most of the age of sail was an approximate and error-prone business. It relied on inaccurate maps; dead reckoning using estimates of the ship's direction and speed using the position of the sun, a knotted rope and an hourglass; determination of latitude by the positions of the stars; and guesses about the vagaries of weather, wind, and currents. Clouds could mask the sun and stars, or a fierce storm could blow a ship hundreds of miles off course, not to mention pushing it onto rocks and shoals if it was near land, or sinking it outright.

Among the most hazardous seas in the world are those of Drake Passage/Mar de Hoces around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Wind and water are funneled between the southern tip of Patagonia and the northward-reaching Antarctic Peninsula, creating powerful currents, towering waves, and gale-force winds. Storms are frequent, with driving rain, sleet or snow falling more than 250 days out of the year. As if all that weren't enough, vessels must also avoid the many icebergs that dot the passage.

As told in David Grann's The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder (Doubleday, 2023), in March 1741 Commodore George Anson's fleet of six British warships, plus an unarmed supply ship, approached Cape Horn. War had been declared by Britain against Spain in October 1739—the so-called War of Jenkins' Ear, named after the appendage of a British captain allegedly sliced off by a Spanish coast guard officer searching Jenkins' ship for smuggled goods in 1731. Anson's fleet had been ordered into the Pacific to raid coastal towns and disrupt shipments of silver to Spain (500 soldiers were on board for the purpose). Afterwards the fleet was to continue sailing north to Acapulco to capture a treasure galleon that sailed between Mexico and the Philippines twice a year. Clearly money and trade, and not Jenkins' ear, were the real causes of the war.

Portrait of George Anson, 1st Baron Anson, by Thomas Hudson, before 1748. Image source: National Maritime Museum

But Anson's fleet experienced a run of bad luck even before it reached Drake Passage. There had been months of delays before the fleet could sail. The ships required repair or refitting, and crews needed to be recruited, or impressed (i.e., kidnapped) into service. The fleet didn't sail from Portsmouth until mid-September 1740, and it made slow progress. It took three full months (including a one-week stopover on the Portuguese-held island of Madeira) to sail the roughly 5000 nautical miles to Santa Catarina (St. Catherine) Island and its ominously named town Desterro ("banishment"; it is now named Florianópolis) just off the the southern coast of Brazil.

From Santa Caterina Island, Anson intended to sail around Cape Horn into the Pacific during the Southern Hemisphere summer. But typhus ("ship fever") spread by body lice had been sweeping through the crews, killing around 150 men out of the 1800-odd on board all the ships. The fleet stayed berthed at Santa Caterina for a month, in part so that the ships could be fumigated. When the fleet departed in mid-January, there were further delays: a mast on the sloop HMS Tryal was damaged in a storm, forcing the fleet to put in at Port St. Julian further down the coast for repairs. Meanwhile the HMS Pearl was separated during the storm from the rest of the ships, was nearly captured by a pursuing Spanish naval squadron, and barely made it back to rejoin the fleet.

With all the delays the fleet did not pass through Le Maire Strait into Drake Passage until early March, as the fall storm season was approaching.

A view of the Streights Le Maire between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Land, from A voyage round the world in the years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV [1740-44] by George Anson, Esq., Fifth Edition, 1749. Image source: HathiTrust

The crews were battling to make headway against furious waves, wind and sleet of the Cape when another disaster struck: scurvy, a debilitating disease caused by a lack of fruit, vegetables, and other sources of Vitamin C in the diet. The fleet's ships struggled to find enough men able to stand watch.

After five weeks of slow progress against the violence of the elements, the fleet became scattered. Two of the warships, HMS Pearl and HMS Severn, having lost sight of the other ships and with barely enough healthy men to operate the sails, turned around and headed back to the Atlantic. Before entering Drake Passage, Anson had set three rendezvous points off the coast of Chile with his captains in case their ships were separated. His flagship HMS Centurion did not reach the first rendezvous point, Socorro Island, until 8 May, two months after passing through Le Maire Strait. Its average speed on the roughly 1200-nautical-mile journey was less than one knot; the typical speed for Royal Navy ships at the time was around 3 knots. [1]

A few days before arriving at Socorro Island, the Centurion had sailed into a bay. A chart later published in Anson's account of the voyage noted "A Harbour where the Victualler belonging to Comm[odo]re Anson's Squadron anchor'd and found Refreshments." The "harbour" was the Golfo de Penas, and the refreshments may have been seal meat and fresh water. After taking on these supplies the Centurion sailed further north to Socorro, where it remained for two weeks, waiting for the other ships to arrive. None did.

Detail of chart showing the route taken by the Centurion. Noted on the chart is "A Harbour where the Victualler belonging to Comm[odo]re. Anson's Squadron anchor'd and found Refreshments," now known as the Golfo de Penas. "I[sle]. of Nostra Sig[nor]a de Socoro" and "Isles of Chiloe" are also identified. From A voyage round the world in the years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV [1740-44] by George Anson, Esq., Fifth Edition, 1749. Image source: HathiTrust

The shipwreck of the Wager

One of those missing ships was HMS Wager, named after First Lord of the Admiralty Charles Wager. It was the first command of its captain, David Cheap, who had been promoted to the position during the voyage; at its start he had been first lieutenant on the Centurion.

Portrait of David Cheap by Allan Ramsay, c. 1748 (detail). Image source: The Guardian

Like the other ships, the Wager had been battered by the unrelenting storms. Being struck by large waves caused wooden hulls to flex and leak. The Wager's mizzenmast had been snapped by high winds, and many of the crew were too sick to stand watch.

Nonetheless it had managed to make it into the Pacific and was sailing northeast towards the rendezvous. But caught in another storm, the ship was pushed eastward towards the coast. When one of the sailors spotted land off the bow as the ship was being driven before the wind, the peril of their situation became immediately apparent. Captain Cheap ordered the Wager to turn completely around and sail south and west against the wind and away from land.

But it was too late. The ship had been driven into the Golfo de Penas (variously translated as the Gulf of Sorrows, Gulf of Tears, or Gulf of Punishment). There was land on three sides of the ship, and as they sailed southwest they were unknowingly heading straight for it. As later described by the Wager's 17-year-old midshipman John Byron, "the weather, from being exceeding tempestuous, blowing now a perfect hurricane, and right in upon the shore, rendered our endeavours (for we were now only twelve hands fit for duty) intirely fruitless." [2]

HMS Wager in extremis by Charles Brooking, 1744. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

On the heaving deck, Cheap fell through an open hatch and injured his left shoulder. He was carried to the surgeon's cabin and given a knockout dose of opium. If he had remained conscious it probably wouldn't have mattered. As Byron later wrote,

The night came on, dreadful beyond description. . .

In the morning, about four o'clock, the ship struck [a rock]. The shock we received upon this occasion, though very great, being not unlike a blow of a heavy sea, such as in the series of preceding storms we had often experienced, was taken for the same; but we were soon undeceived by her striking again more violently than before, which laid her upon her beam ends [i.e. listing far over to one side], the sea making a fair breach over her. . .

In this dreadful situation she lay for some little time, every soul on board looking upon the present minute as his last; for there was nothing to be seen but breakers all around us. However, a mountainous sea hove her off from thence; but she presently struck again, and broke her tiller. [3]

Now virtually unsteerable, the ship smashed into more rocks until it finally ran aground:

We now run in between an opening of the breakers, steering by the sheets and braces, when providentially we stuck fast between two great rocks; that to windward sheltering us in some measure from the violence of the sea. We immediately cut away the main and foremast; but the ship kept beating in such a manner, that we imagined she could hold together but a very little while. [4]

The hull was breached and water poured into the hold. Wedged between two rocks, though, the ship didn't completely sink, and its upper deck remained mostly above water.

At dawn the survivors crowded on deck saw that they were close to an island, but the rocks and breakers were dangerous and few of them could swim. Launching the four boats carried by the Wager—in descending order of size, a longboat, a cutter, a barge and a yawl—required lifting them over the gunwale. The longboat was trapped under debris, but using the other three boats the ship's junior officers eventually managed to get all the survivors ferried to the beach. It wasn't easy, because some of the crew on board decided that the moment had come to get blind drunk. In Byron's words,

The scene was now greatly changed; for many who but a few minutes before had shewn the strongest signs of despair, and were on their knees praying for mercy, imagining they were now not in that immediate danger, grew very riotous, broke, open every chest and box that was at hand, stove in the heads of casks of brandy and wine as they were born up to the hatch-ways, and got so drunk, that several of them were drowned on board, and lay floating about the decks for some days after. . .The boatswain and some of the people would not leave the ship so long as there was any liquor to be got at. [5]

Close to 150 men survived the wreck, returning to the wreckage of the ship over the next few days to salvage supplies and the longboat.

Frontispiece of The narrative of the Honorable John Byron, Second Edition (1768). Image source:

But stranded on an uninhabited island with little food, the starving castaways soon formed into three factions: one, mainly consisting of the officers under Captain Cheap, continued to regard him as captain, and supported his plan to try to continue the mission by using the boats to reach the first rendezvous point at Socorro Island 200 nautical miles north. A second and much larger faction, led by the gunner John Bulkeley and including the boatswain John King, opposed Cheap: they wanted to sail south, navigate through the Strait of Magellan to the Atlantic Ocean, and try to make it back to Brazil (and ultimately Britain). A third faction, the seceders, moved away from the main group and set up their own camp a couple of miles away, occasionally stealing into the main camp to pilfer food, gunpowder, and other supplies. In the meantime the carpenter John Cummins worked to extend the damaged longboat so that it could hold more men and fitted it with masts and a deck, turning it into a schooner.

The mutiny

After five months, more than a third of the men on the island had died. Not all had starved: internecine squabbling had occasionally erupted in violence. Cheap had struck King with his cane and shot another man, the midshipman Henry Cozens, in the head for disobedience; Cozens took two weeks to die. Meanwhile a member of the seceders was found stabbed to death. The longboat was now ready, and it was clear that if the survivors didn't make it off the island soon, they would all die there. But Cheap persisted in his pointless plan to try to reach the uninhabited Socorro Island, where after all the time that had passed it was unlikely they would meet up with the rest of the fleet, and might find themselves stranded in the same situation. 

Faced with Cheap's intransigence, in early October Bulkeley led a mutiny. The first idea was to arrest Cheap and take him back to England as a prisoner to put him on trial for Cozens' murder. But the difficulties of this plan soon became apparent, and instead Cheap and two of his allies were left behind, along with the seven of the seceders and the smallest and most damaged boat, the yawl. The remaining 81 men crowded into the three larger boats: 59 in the longboat, which was now christened the Speedwell, 12 in the cutter and 10 in the barge, a boat with 5 pairs of oars. The mutineers also took most of the remaining food and water.

Bulkeley's plan was for this makeshift flotilla to sail towards the Strait of Magellan, about 300 nautical miles to the south. But almost immediately it encountered a storm, and a sail on the Speedwell was torn. The boats had to put into what is now called Speedwell Bay, just a mile west of the castaway's camp, to wait out the storm and repair the sail. Bulkeley sent 10 volunteers in the barge back to the camp they'd just left to gather up additional canvas (sailcloth had been used to make tents, most of which were now abandoned). But two of the volunteers, Byron and midshipman Alexander Campbell, had second thoughts about the mutiny. They decided to rejoin Cheap's group, and convinced the other 8 men to do so as well.

The voyage of the Speedwell

Bulkeley's group, now with only two boats, sailed on. The Speedwell was so overloaded with men and supplies that its stern cleared the water by inches. And while it was possible to shelter from the elements under the deck, there wasn't enough room to lie down full length anywhere on board. The keel was deep enough that the boat couldn't get too close to shore without the danger of running aground or striking a rock. The smaller cutter had a shallower draft, and so it could be sent to shore on foraging expeditions. But one night in early November after most of the cutter's crew had climbed into the Speedwell to try to sleep, the rope tying the cutter to the Speedwell broke, and the cutter was swept away with a man on board. 

Now the Speedwell, jammed with 70 men, was even more crowded, and there was no way for men to go ashore other than to swim. The boat wallowed so low in the water that 11 men decided to take their chances on land and swam to shore (in Grann's account, probably based on Bulkeley's; more likely, as with Cheap's decision to remain on Wager Island, it was a forced choice). The Speedwell continued sailing.

On 10 November the Speedwell found the mouth of the strait. But just as it was about to enter in rough seas a wave struck the boat, swamping it. It heeled so far over that it lay on its side, with water pouring in. With men clinging desperately to anything they could hold onto, the boat miraculously righted itself and was able to make it into the strait, where the winds and water were calmer than in the open ocean.

Detail of chart showing the Strait of Magellan. From A voyage round the world in the years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV [1740-44] by George Anson, Esq., Fifth Edition, 1749. Image source: HathiTrust

The boat had escaped disaster, barely, but the situation remained dire. The men were starving and the strait, with many branching channels, was difficult to navigate. On 24 November, after sailing southeast in the strait for two weeks, the men became disoriented and unsure if they had truly found the right passage. It was decided to turn back—a costly decision, as eventually they realized that they had been following the correct route all along. Meanwhile, men had begun to die, their bodies dumped unceremoniously into the water to make more room for the survivors on board. The Speedwell turned around again, and headed back through the strait.

Finally, on the night of 10-11 December they sailed through a dangerously narrow passage in the dark. The next morning they found themselves in a broad bay facing Cape Virgenes, or the Cape of the Virgins (named after the 11,000 virgin martyrs of St. Ursula). Nearly 10 months earlier the fleet had passed it heading south on its way to Le Maire Strait.

Ten months previously: Cape Virgin Mary at the north entrance of Magellans Streights, from A voyage round the world in the years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV by George Anson, Esq., Fifth Edition, 1749. Image source: HathiTrust

Somehow after two months in the jury-rigged longboat, navigating by guess, the men had made it 600 nautical miles to the eastern mouth of the strait and the Atlantic Ocean.

But their situation was still perilous: they were virtually out of food and water, and any parties sent ashore to forage would risk capture, because the coast of Patagonia was held by the Spanish. The nearest neutral territory was the port of Rio Grande in Brazil, 1800 nautical miles north. They had come a long way, but had three times as far still to go. They set sail up the coast.

About a week later they sailed into a small bay, Puerto Deseado (Port Desire), where there was a seal rookery. The water was shallow and the men were able to wade ashore and slaughter a number of seals. While this was apparently their salvation, gorging themselves on seal meat and blubber after being on starvation rations for months sickened the crew, and two men died.

Further up the coast a few weeks later, the seal meat having run out, it was decided that another hunting party would be sent ashore at Freshwater Bay, near what is now Mar del Plata, Argentina. This time the water was not shallow; the men who went ashore had to swim through breakers, and one drowned. Guns were sent after them lashed to empty barrels. The men shot some seals and a horse, which turned out to be branded. Concerned about being discovered, six of the men swam back to the Speedwell. No sooner had they made it to the boat than a storm blew up and drove it away from land. The rest of the foraging party, eight men, were left stranded on shore. That night the Speedwell's rudder broke, making it difficult to steer. It was decided that returning for the men on shore was too dangerous, and so the Speedwell sailed on.

On 28 January 1742 the boat limped into the port of Rio Grande with what remained of its crew, just 30 gaunt and haggard survivors from the 150 men who had been shipwrecked on Wager Island 259 days earlier.

Detail of chart showing the Strait of Magellan, Port Desire, and Rio Grande. From A voyage round the world in the years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV by George Anson, Esq., Fifth Edition, 1749. Image source: HathiTrust

Now the men faced another peril: a possible trial for mutiny. Accusations and recriminations flew, and attempts were made to steal and destroy Bulkeley's log from the journey. A ship's officer, Lieutenant Robert Baynes, sailed for England in March in an attempt to exculpate himself and cast blame on the others. Months later Bulkeley and Cummins followed; on their arrival in Portsmouth they were promptly arrested and imprisoned. Released two weeks later, they awaited trial.

Bulkeley had managed to keep his journal, and wrote out a version of events that highlighted Cheap's erratic decisionmaking and violence, and claimed that the captain had decided of his own free will to remain on the island. Bulkeley expanded these notes into a book-length manuscript, which was published six months after his return and was so popular that it went into a second printing. Bulkeley seemed to have won in the court of public opinion, at least for the moment. But the story was far from over.

The fate of the men on Wager Island

After Byron, Campbell, and the other sailors on the barge rejoined Cheap's group on Wager Island, Cheap revived the plan to try to sail to the first rendezvous point. Joined by the surviving members of the third faction, the group consisted of 19 men in all. In mid-December 1741 they packed all their supplies and themselves into the barge and yawl, and began sailing north. But only an hour into the journey a storm broke and waves began to swamp the boats. To lighten their load, the famished men tossed most of their supplies, including their precious food, overboard.

After sheltering on land overnight, they pressed on, and about two weeks after leaving Wager Island they tried to pass the headland that marked the north entrance of the Gulf of Punishment. But the winds and waves were so strong they could not beat around it, being pushed back into the gulf at every attempt. Exhausted, they landed on the leeward side of the cape and shot a seal, on which they feasted. But that night high winds and waves overturned the yawl at anchor and it sank, drowning one of the two men aboard. 

Now the 18 surviving men had only the barge, which couldn't hold that many. Four marines were chosen to remain behind. They were given guns and a frying pan. The 14 men in the barge made another attempt to round the cape, but were beaten back yet again. At this point it was clear to them all that it was fruitless to continue. They returned to the beach where they had left the marines, but apart from an abandoned gun—an ominous indication of the fate of the marines—there was no sign of them. The men in the barge decided to return to Wager Island.

In early March, shortly after their return to their old camp (Grann says "a few days"), men in canoes landed on Wager Island. They identified themselves as members of a tribe from the north, the Chono. They agreed to guide the men to Chiloé Island, which was located about 100 miles north of Socorro Island, and was occupied by the Spanish. In exchange the stranded men agreed to give the Chono the barge once they'd arrived at their destination.

They rowed out again, following the coast. But when most of the group had gone ashore to forage for food, six of the castaways rowed off in the barge, leaving the rest behind. The remainder, guided by the Chono tribesmen, continued in the canoes and overland on foot. It took several months, but four of the castaways finally reached Chiloé Island: Byron, Campbell, the marine lieutenant Thomas Hamilton, and Cheap.

After spending a few days recuperating from the voyage in an indigenous village they were seized by Spanish soldiers and became prisoners of war. They were eventually sent to a jail in Valparaiso on the mainland, and then on to Santiago, where they were paroled, but unable to leave. Two years later, with hostilities between Britain and Spain damped down, the countries agreed on a prisoner exchange. Once word reached Santiago, the men were told that they were free to go, and given passage on a ship headed for Spain. (Campbell instead decided to travel overland to Buenos Aires, a hazardous journey, and embark from there.) In April 1745 (according to Grann) they landed at Dover, and headed to London to confront Bulkeley and the other mutineers.

Amazingly, they were not the last survivors of the Wager to make it back to England. And the story of the fate of the Centurion and the rest of the Anson expedition in the Pacific is also astonishing. In The Wager, David Grann relates this multi-stranded, harrowing and sometimes gruesome narrative vividly and (odd though it sounds) entertainingly. 

For the taste of some, perhaps too vividly and entertainingly: direct speech is reported ("Rouse out, you sleepers! Rouse out!" (p. 27)), other imaginary details are described ("Bulkeley. . .felt a shiver of recognition" (p. 194)), and free indirect style is liberally applied ("Cheap wanted to make one final attempt to round the cape. They were so close, and if they made it he was sure that his plan would succeed" (p. 190)).

If this sort of extrapolation—or fictionalized departure—from the sources drives you nuts, you'd be well advised to avoid The Wager. The same is true if small inconsistencies are bothersome. To take just a few examples:

  • The Speedwell enters the Strait of Magellan with 59 men on board: the 81 who left Wager Island, minus the 10 who rejoined Cheap, the man lost in the cutter and the 11 sent to shore. After two weeks in the strait, "they were dying. Among the casualties was a sixteen-year-old-boy named George Bateman. 'This poor creature starved, perished, and died a skeleton,' Bulkeley wrote. . .One twelve-year-old. . .boy's misery ended only when 'heaven sent death to his relief'" (pp. 183-84). With at least two dead, there are now at most 57 men on board. But a few pages later, "Bulkeley and the fifty-eight other castaways on the Speedwell were back on course" (p. 192).
  • At Freshwater Bay, "the boatswain, King, the carpenter, Cummins, and another man. . .leapt into the water. Galvanized by the sight, eleven others, including John Duck, the free Black seaman, and Midshipman Isaac Morris, followed. One marine. . .drowned within twenty feet of the beach" (p. 191). So fourteen men leave the boat, and thirteen make it to shore. A few hours later, "Cummins, King, and four others swam back to the boat. . .But a squall drove the Speedwell out to sea, and eight men, including Duck and Morris, were left stranded on land" (p. 196). Shouldn't that be seven men? Or did fifteen men, and not fourteen, leap into the water?
  • When Cheap and the other castaways left behind on Wager Island make their attempt to reach the first rendezvous point in mid-December 1741, it takes them nine days to reach the northern headland of the Golfo de Penas. "A few days later" (Day 14?) they make their first attempt to row around the cape. Beaten back, a couple of days later they make a second attempt, which also fails. The yawl sinks overnight, and the decision is made to leave the four marines behind. Grann's description is a bit vague, but by my count we've reached Day 18 or thereabouts. The next sentence reads, "Six weeks after Cheap and his party fled Wager Island, they reached the cape for the third time" (p. 190). We've jumped from Day 18 to Day 42 with no explanation. If the beach where the marines were abandoned was a few hours' sailing from the headland (as is strongly implied), why does it take the men in the barge 24 days, or more than three weeks, to reach it once more?
  • After the abandonment of the marines and the third failed attempt to row around the cape, fourteen men return to Wager Island in the barge. "Days after" their return several Chono tribesmen arrive. "At that time, Cheap, Byron, and Hamilton were stranded with ten other castaways" (p. 222); nothing is mentioned about the fourteenth man. In early March all the survivors depart the island with their guides. Soon after six of the men steal the barge and sail away. Grann writes of the men left behind, "During the journey, a castaway died, leaving only 'five poor souls'" (p. 223). If thirteen castaways left Wager Island, six men stole the barge, and one man died, shouldn't six "poor souls" remain? Or did only twelve men leave Wager Island? In which case, why is Grann silent about the fates of the other two men?

These are the kinds of small errors and omissions that used to be caught by copy editors. But copy editors don't seem to exist any more, even at large publishing houses like Doubleday.

Coda: John Byron, The Narrative, and his grandson

On returning to England, John Byron was considered a hero and, at 23, was given command of his own ship, the frigate HMS Syren. In 1748 he married his cousin Sophia Trevanion; although Byron was often at sea, Sophia gave birth to nine children, of whom six survived infancy. 

Portrait of Captain John Byron by Joshua Reynolds, 1748. Image source: Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

John Byron commanded the expedition that laid claim to the Falkland Islands for Britain, and he circumnavigated the globe in the frigate Dolphin, which had a copper-sheathed hull that increased its speed and seaworthiness. (The Dolphin returned to England in May 1766, 22 months after its departure—the fastest circumnavigation at that time.) In 1768 Byron published The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron (Commodore in a Late Expedition round the World), Containing an Account of the Great Distresses Suffered by Himself and his Companions on the Coast of Patagonia, from the Year 1740, till their Arrival in England, 1746, containing a detailed description of the wreck of the Wager. Having risen to the rank of Vice Admiral of the White, Byron died in April 1786 at the age of 62.

His eldest son John, known as Jack (or "Mad Jack") had a far less disciplined character. As an army officer in 1778 at age 21 he seduced Amelia, Lady Carmathen, a beautiful and wealthy 23-year-old mother of three; a few months later they ran off together. Amelia was divorced by her husband on 31 May 1779; heavily pregnant, she married Jack Byron just over a week later on 9 June, and gave birth to a daughter a month later. Only one of their children survived infancy: Augusta, born in 1783. 

Amelia died in January 1784; she was only 29. A year later in Bath, Jack met, courted and married the 20-year-old Scottish heiress Catherine Gordon. In 1788 she gave birth to a son, George Gordon, who later became the renowned poet Lord Byron (and, it is believed, had a daughter, Elizabeth, with his half-sister Augusta).

Portrait of Byron at age 24 by Thomas Phillips, 1812. Image source: Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

In Don Juan, Canto the Second (1819), Byron writes a mock-epic shipwreck scene that draws many details from his grandfather's account of the Wager disaster, including:

The broken tiller:

At one o'clock the wind with sudden shift
    Threw the ship right into the trough of the sea,
Which struck her aft, and made an awkward rift,
    Started the stern-post, also shatter'd the
Whole of her stern-frame, and, ere she could lift
    Herself from out her present jeopardy,
The rudder tore away: 'twas time to sound
The pumps, and there were four feet water found. [6]

The ship nearly capsizing:

. . .The wind blew fresh again: as it grew late
    A squall came on, and while some guns broke loose,
A gust—which all descriptive power transcends—
Laid with one blast the ship on her beam ends.

There she lay motionless, and seem'd upset;
    The water left the hold, and wash'd the decks,
And made a scene men do not soon forget. . . [7]

The masts being taken down:

Immediately the masts were cut away,
    Both main and mizen; first the mizen went,
The main-mast follow'd: but the ship still lay
    Like a mere log, and baffled our intent.
Foremast and bowsprit were cut down, and they
    Eased her at last (although we never meant
To part with all till every hope was blighted). . . [8]

And the unruly crew breaking into the stores of liquor:

. . .even the able seaman, deeming his
    Days nearly o’er, might be disposed to riot,
As upon such occasions tars will ask
For grog, and sometimes drink rum from the cask.
. . .the crew, who, ere they sunk,
Thought it would be becoming to die drunk. [9]

Eight decades after John Byron's horrific near-fatal experience, from which he emerged only through almost superhuman endurance and the resilience of youth, it would become satirical grist for his grandson's greatest poem.

  1. Morgan Kelly and Cormac Ó Gráda, "Speed under sail during the early industrial revolution (c. 1750–1830)." The Economic History Review 72 (2019), pp. 459–480.
  2. John Byron, The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron (Commodore in a Late Expedition round the World), Containing an Account of the Great Distresses Suffered by Himself and his Companions on the Coast of Patagonia, from the Year 1740, till their Arrival in England, 1746 (1768), p. 9.
  3. John Byron, pp. 9–11.
  4. John Byron, p. 14.
  5. John Byron, pp. 15–16.
  6. [George Gordon, Lord Byron,] Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza XVII:
  7. Don Juan, Canto II, Stanzas XXX and XXXI:
  8. Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza XXXII: 
  9. Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza XXXIII, XXXIV, and XXXV:

Friday, July 21, 2023

In memoriam: Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett passed away today. He was a New York guy, but has become indelibly associated with my city thanks to his 1962 recording of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." I can add nothing to the many tributes he has received, so I thought instead that I would share my favorite rendition of this song. It features the hula dancers of Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu and the spectacular scenery of San Francisco in, of all things, an extended promo for a public television sponsor:

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Music in London and Boston

Amanda Forsythe (Éolie) and Karina Gauvin (Circé) in Henri Desmarest's Circé, centerpiece opera of the Boston Early Music Festival (seen 11 June 2023). Photo credit: Kathy Wittman. Image source:

My partner and I have just returned from a monthlong trip to London and Boston, and I thought I'd offer a report on some of the musical performances we attended. In chronological order:


Michael Spyres with Il Pomo d'Oro conducted by Francesco Corti: "Tenore Assoluto," Wigmore Hall, 21 May 2023

Michael Spyres at Wigmore Hall

Michael Spyres at Wigmore Hall, 21 May 2023. Image source: Conessi all'Opera

Italian operas in the 1700s were dominated by the castrati, men with voices in the soprano or alto range. Tenors were often entirely absent, or relegated to minor roles. But for this program, drawn from his recent album Contra-Tenor, Michael Spyres uncovered bravura tenor arias from operas by major Baroque composers such as Handel, Vivaldi, Porpora and Hasse, as well as by some lesser-known figures such as Galuppi, Latilla, Sarro, and Mazzoni. His accompanists were the virtuoso period-instrument chamber orchestra Il Pomo d'Oro led by harpsichordist Francesco Corti.

Spyres' voice is astonishing. He calls himself a "baritenor," and indeed has a remarkably wide range; he also has the vocal flexibility to execute rapid coloratura passages. But this concert, in which Spyres sang one fiery vocal showpiece after another, was almost too much of a good thing. For me the highlight of the evening was Spyres' first encore, "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" (I have lost my Eurydice) from Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice (1774), his French-language adaptation of Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). For this listener Spyres' moving and lyrical performance of this aria provided a grateful respite from the spectacular fireworks that preceded it.

Lay Vicars of Westminster Abbey, First Evensong of Trinity Sunday, Westminster Abbey, 3 June 2023

The quire of Westminster Abbey looking west towards the quire screen and the nave beyond. We were seated in the back row of the right-hand stalls in the section nearest the screen but within a few feet of the choir stalls in the center. Image source: Westminster Abbey

The twelve male Lay Vicars of the Westminster Abbey Choir performed the music for this Evensong service, which we chose because of the composers represented: Hildegard of Bingen, William Byrd, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and Ivo Vento.

It was a privilege to hear this glorious Medieval and Renaissance music in this stunning Gothic cathedral in the context of a service. The Lay Vicars were split, with six singers on our side of the quire and six opposite. Aided by the reverberation of the vast cathedral, their sound was surprisingly full and rich, and "Laus trinitate" in particular was awe-inspiring. (We heard both a rehearsal of this work while we were waiting to enter the quire, and its performance during the service.)

Hildegard of Bingen, "Laus trinitati," performed at the Abbaye de Silvacane, Provence, France:

Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet: George Frideric Handel, Dettingen Te Deum and Coronation Anthems, St. James's Catholic Church, 6 June 2023

Le Concert Spirituel and Hervé Niquet at St. James's Roman Catholic Church, 6 June 2023

Le Concert Spirituel and Hervé Niquet at St. James's Roman Catholic Church, 6 June 2023. Photo credit: Matt Crossick/PA Wire

This concert was definitely an Event. It opened with a fanfare followed by baritone Roderick Williams singing "God Save the King," in honor of the special guest sitting in the front row, King Charles III. The Dettingen Te Deum and the four Coronation Anthems are monumental Baroque, featuring trumpets, drums, and massed choruses. Conductor Hervé Niquet varied the dynamics, especially in the fourth Coronation Anthem "Zadok the Priest," which had a softer entrance of the full instrumental and vocal forces than is usually heard, building to full volume (and pounding tympani) on the final choruses of "God save the King! Long live the King!" BBC Radio 3 recorded the full concert, and it is available for listening through Thursday 6 July.

The opening of Dettingen Te Deum ("We praise thee, O God") performed by Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel:


Stile Antico, "Breaking the Habit: Music for and by Renaissance Women," Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 9 June 2023

Stile Antico at Emmanuel Church

Stile Antico at Emmanuel Church, 2023-06-09. Image source: @stileantico

The theme of this year's Boston Early Music Festival was "A Celebration of Women," and in this program the a cappella vocal group Stile Antico performed music composed by, commissioned by, written for, or referring to Renaissance women.

Whatever the rationale for its inclusion, the music was performed with both astonishing precision and great beauty. The program introduced us to many composers we'd not heard before, including the nuns Raffaella Alleotti, Sulpitia Cesis, and Leonora d’Este; the Habsburg regent Margaret of Austria; and the madrigalist Maddalena Casulana, who wrote and published music "to show to the world the foolish error of men who so greatly believe themselves to be the [sole] masters of high intellect gifts that these gifts cannot, it seems to them, be equally common among women." The concert was also well-structured, with different members of Stile Antico stepping forward to give brief spoken introductions to each grouping of works, and so preventing us all from floating away on the waves of gorgeous polyphony.

Stile Antico performing William Byrd's "O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth":

Francesca Caccini: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina’s island, 1625). Mireille Lebel (Alcina), Colin Balzer (Ruggiero), Cecilia Duarte (Melissa), other soloists and chorus with the BEMF Chamber Orchestra, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors, New England Conservatory Jordan Hall, 10 June 2023

Colin Balzer (Ruggiero) and Mireille Lebel (Alcina) in Francesca Caccini's Alcina, NEC Jordan Hall, 10 June 2023. Photo credit: Kathy Wittman. Image source:

Francesca Caccini's Alcina is the first known opera composed by a woman, and it's remarkable that its music still exists (most of the rest of Francesca's many works are lost). Francesca was not only a composer but a multi-instrumentalist and a singer, who at age 13 probably made her public singing debut in Jacopo Peri's Euridice (1600)—the first (surviving) opera.

The story of Alcina is taken by librettist Ferdinando Saracinelli from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532), the same source used more than a century later for Handel's opera Alcina (1735). The knightly hero Ruggiero has been seduced by the beautiful sorceress Alcina into tarrying with her on her magic island in a haze of sensual pleasure. The sorceress Melissa, in male disguise, arrives and tries to recall Ruggiero to a sense of his martial duties. Ultimately Melissa prevails, and Alcina's enchantments of Ruggiero, and of her numerous former lovers who have been turned into the lush vegetation of her island, are broken.

Alcina was cast from strength (most of the performers also sang the next day in the centerpiece opera Circé) and benefited from longtime BEMF stage director Gilbert Blin's intelligent staging, choreographer Melinda Sullivan's expressive movement, and designer Anna Watkins' effective costumes (particularly striking when the chorus, portraying the enchanted former lovers, was decked out with leaves and branches). 

If you have an interest in Monteverdi's operas or other vocal works from the first half of the 17th century, the sound-world of Alcina will not be unfamiliar. Let's hope that a BEMF recording is in the pipeline; Huelgas Ensemble's recording was one of my Favorites of 2020, and the BEMF performers offer every promise of surpassing it. For more on Alcina, please see my review of Magnificat's 2009 puppet-opera performance.

An excerpt from Act II of the 2018 BEMF production in which Melissa brings Ruggiero to recommit to his knightly purpose:

Henri Desmarest: Circé (1694). Karina Gauvin (Circé), Aaron Sheehan (Ulisse), Teresa Wakim (Astérie), Jesse Blumberg (Elphenor), Amanda Forsythe (Éolie), Douglas Williams (Polite), other soloists, chorus, and the BEMF Dance Company, accompanied by the BEMF Orchestra, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors. Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 11 June 2023

Circe at the Majestic Theatre

Circé at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre (seen 11 June 2023). Photo credit: Kathy Wittman. Image source:

Another magic island, another sorceress, and another waylaid hero. Circé's libretto (or livret) by Louise-Geneviève Gillot de Saintonge is based on an episode from Book Ten of Homer's Odyssey. Sailing home from the Trojan War, Ulysses and a handful of surviving men, "worn out and sick at heart" (in Robert Fitzgerald's translation) seek respite on the island of the goddess Circe. In Gillot de Saintonge's retelling, Circé falls in love with Ulisse and turns his men into swine to prevent him from leaving the island and continuing home. Ulisse convinces Circé that he returns her love, and persuades her to restore his men to human form. But Circé learns that Ulisse really loves Éolie, daughter of the wind god Éole, and sends demons to attack her. Protected by the gods' messenger Mercure, Éolie frees Ulisse and escapes the island with him and his men; in rage and sorrow, Circé destroys her island's anchorage, forever isolating her from the human world.

Circé was a spectacular triumph for the BEMF performers and production team. French Baroque operas involve a rich instrumental palette, multiple dance interludes, and a large role for the chorus. Circé was a hugely ambitious undertaking, and the BEMF forces rose to the challenge superbly. Every element—the outstanding cast, the large orchestra (directed by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs and led by concertmaster Robert Mealy), the staging (directed by Gilbert Blin), the dances (choreographed by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière and Pierre-François Dollé and directed by Melinda Sullivan), the sets (designed by the apparently indefatigable Blin), the lighting (designed by Kelly Martin), and the lavish costumes (designed by Jérôme Kaplan)—combined to stunning effect.

You can experience the musical riches of this work in the just-released BEMF recording, which features the lush-voiced Lucille Richardot as Circé. Richardot was originally scheduled to portray the goddess in the staged opera, but a family health emergency prevented her from doing so. It is a testament to the deep relationships Kathleen Fay has forged over 36 years as BEMF's director that the acclaimed Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin generously agreed to step in and take on the role in the Festival performances.

From the BEMF recording, a taste of Circé's exquisite music: Acte Troisième, Scène Troisième, “Prélude pour le Sommeil—Ah! que le sommeil est charmant” (Prelude to sleep—Ah! How pleasant is sleep). Performed by Kyle Stegall (Un Songe agréable), Jason McStoots (Phantase), and Michael Galvin (Phaebetor) with the BEMF Orchestra & Chorus directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs: