Saturday, May 20, 2017

"What have I to do now but to learn to suffer?": Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith, by George Romney, 1792 (detail)

Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, described their family as "great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so." Among the novels Austen read were those of Charlotte Smith. In Austen's The History of England, written in 1790 or -91 when she was about fifteen, she compares Queen Elizabeth I and her cavalier servente Robert Devereux to Emmeline Mowbray and Frederic Delamere, characters in Smith's first novel Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788). Emmeline is, of course, the heroine, and Delamere is her importunate, impulsive and jealous lover. [1]

History of England

Page from Jane Austen's The History of England mentioning Frederic Delamere and Emmeline;
image courtesy of The British Library

There is also evidence that Austen read other books by Charlotte Smith as well: I think I will be able to show some suggestive parallels to Celestina (1791) in particular. Indeed it would be remarkable if a "great novel-reader" and lifelong circulating library subscriber had not encountered the work of Smith, a prolific and popular writer from the mid-1780s through the first years of the 1800s.

Charlotte Turner Smith's life and hard times

Charlotte Turner was born in 1749 into a well-to-do family. But her mother died when she was three, and over the next decade while Charlotte and her siblings were being raised by her mother's sister Lucy her father ran up substantial debts.

When Charlotte was fifteen her father married a middle-aged heiress, Henrietta Meriton. Charlotte and her stepmother clashed from the first, and after six months—still ten weeks before her sixteenth birthday—Charlotte married Benjamin Smith. Benjamin's father Richard was an affluent merchant, a director of the East India Company, and the owner of plantations in Barbados—and, of course, of the slaves who worked them.

If in her marriage to Benjamin, Charlotte hoped to find happiness—or even just relief and solace—she was quickly disappointed. He was a heavy drinker, a womanizer and a spendthrift with a violent temper, and Charlotte was regularly pregnant (over two decades of marriage she would give birth to twelve children).

Richard Smith was under no illusions about his son, and when he died in 1776 he left the bulk of his wealth to his grandchildren instead. But along with Richard's second wife (Charlotte's aunt Lucy) and Charlotte herself, Benjamin was one of the will's executors. This was unwise: to cover his mounting debts he embezzled more than £10,000—a vast sum in the 18th century—from his own children's legacies. He was arrested and sent to prison in 1783, and Charlotte joined him there for much of the seven months of his imprisonment. Other relatives took control of Richard's estate, and the will was never settled in Charlotte's lifetime.

She turned to writing to try to improve the family's fortunes (and, perhaps, to insure herself of an independent income). Her Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays was published in 1784 on commission, that is, at her own risk (for an explanation of the various modes of 18th-century publishing see "Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers"). Its success (nine further editions with additional poems would be printed in her lifetime) encouraged her to continue.

Elegiac Sonnets title page

After her family spent the winter of 1784-85 in France avoiding Benjamin's creditors, Charlotte published two translations of works she encountered there: Prévost's scandalous Manon Lescaut (1785), which was withdrawn under moral censure (but reissued anonymously the following year), and a selection of Gayot de Pitaval's Les Causes Célèbres (Famous Cases), published under the title The Romance of Real Life (1787).

One of the famous cases Charlotte translated was "The Marchioness de Gange," in which the title character is unjustly accused by her jealous husband of adultery, is attacked in her bedroom by her brothers-in-law (whose sexual and monetary propositions she has refused) and is forced by them to drink poison. To escape she leaps out a second-floor window and flees to a nearby cottage, only to be pursued and stabbed multiple times—an attack that only ends when the blade of the assailant's sword breaks off in her back:
By this time the ladies were returned to the room where Madame de Gange lay weltering in blood, and, to all appearance, breathing her last. Her blood ran from her in streams; her respiration was short and laborious; but, as she was not actually dead, they thought it possible yet to assist her; and one of them went to the window, and called out for a surgeon to be immediately sent for.—On hearing which, the Abbé [one of the brothers-in-law] found their work was yet incomplete: whereupon, he rushed like a demoniac into the room, and, approaching the dying victim on the floor, snapped his pistol close to her breast; but it missed fire; and at the same instant Madame de Brunel, one of the ladies present, seized his arm and turned the pistol aside. The enraged Abbé, seeing this blow which he thought so effectual defeated, gave Madame Brunel a violent stroke with his fist, and then attempted to stun the Marchioness with the end of his pistol; but the women now all pressed round him, overwhelmed him with blows, and driving him in spite of all his efforts to the door, they thrust him out and shut it upon him. They then returned to the unhappy lady; and one of them, who knew something of surgery, staunched the blood, and took from her shoulder the end of the sword, encouraged by Madame de Gange herself, who, weak and fainting as she was, besought her to put her knee against her shoulder to force out the broken weapon.
As one scholar has written, "This is an extraordinary scene of feminine strength, rationality, resourcefulness, solidarity, goodness, and fortitude, and of masculine lust, sadism, and desperate violence." [2]

Masculine lust, sadism, and desperate violence might be an apt description of Benjamin Smith's behavior towards his wife. In a 1788 letter to her publisher Thomas Cadell, Charlotte spoke of his "more than usual brutality," his "fit[s] of fury," and his being "capable of any thing." From such a man, she wrote, "I and my family have every thing to fear." [3] When she realized more than £330 from The Romance of Real Life, she determined to leave her husband. The separation was a desperate step, because it was legally seen as desertion, and it meant that Benjamin was relieved of any responsibility to support his wife or the eight (of nine) surviving children who lived with her. (At age 17, their eldest surviving son William had joined the East India Company and shipped out for Bengal.) Charlotte had to rely on her writing to provide for herself and her children.

She wrote quickly. Over the next decade she produced ten multi-volume novels, and she also produced poetry, nonfiction, and books for young readers. I've read three of her first five novels, and it's clear why they were popular: her writing is vivid, her characters are memorable, and as in the novels of Richardson and Burney, her steadfast and virtuous heroines are subjected to harrowing and suspenseful trials before they are finally united with their true loves.

Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle 

Emmeline title page
As with many first novels, Emmeline has a number of autobiographical elements. It offers two portraits of unhappy marriages. The first is that of Mrs. C. Stafford, whose initials "C. S." are suggestive (as are the details of her early marriage to an incompatible man):
. . .possessed of every reasonable means of happiness, [Mr. Stafford] dissipated that property, which ought to have secured it's continuance, in vague and absurd projects which he neither loved or understood; and his temper growing more irritable in proportion as his difficulties encreased, he sometimes treated his wife with great harshness; and did not seem to think it necessary, even by apparent kindness and attention, to excuse or soften to her his general ill conduct, or his 'battening on the moor' of low and degrading debauchery.

Mrs. Stafford, who had been married to him at fifteen, had long been unconscious of his weakness: and when time and her own excellent understanding pressed the fatal conviction too forcibly upon her, she still, but fruitlessly, attempted to hide from others what she saw too evidently herself.

Fear for the future fate of her children, and regret to find that she had no influence over her husband, together with the knowledge of connections to which she had till a few months before been a stranger, had given to Mrs. Stafford, whose temper was naturally extremely chearful, that air of despondence, and melancholy cast of mind, which Emmeline had remarked with so much concern on their first acquaintance. [4]
Though Mrs. Stafford is courted by George Fitz-Edward, a friend of Frederic Delamere, she remains faithful to her unworthy husband; she cannot free herself from her marriage because male infidelity and violence were not grounds for divorce in the 18th century. [5]

The second portrait of an unhappy marriage is that of Lady Adelina Trelawny. Like her author she loses her mother at a young age and later sees her father remarry:
'Miss Jobson, with a tall, meagre person, a countenance bordering on the horrible, and armed with two round black eyes which she fancied beautiful, had seen her fortieth year pass. . .I was but just turned of fifteen, was full of gaiety and vivacity, and possessed those personal advantages, which, if she ever had any share of them, were long since faded. She seemed conscious that the splendour of her first appearance would be eclipsed by the unadorned simplicity of mine; and she hated me because it was not in my power to be old and ugly. Giddy as I then was, nothing but respect for my father prevented my repaying with ridicule, the supercilious style in which she usually treated me. Her vulgar manners, and awkward attempts to imitate those of people of fashion, excited my perpetual mirth; and as her dislike of me daily encreased, I am afraid I did not always conceal the contempt I felt in return.' [6]
To escape from her stepmother and comply with her father's wish to see her independently established Lady Adelina marries the first unexceptionable man who asks her:
'For my own part, I saw his follies; but none that I did not equally perceive in the conduct of other young men. Tho' I had no absolute partiality to him, I was totally indifferent to every other man. I married him, therefore; and gave away my person before I knew I had an heart.' [7]
Mr. Trelawny spends his time hunting, gambling, and traveling abroad without his wife. After years of neglect Lady Adelina falls in love with another man and conceives a child by her lover. That lover is none other than. . .Fitz-Edward. Lady Adeline decides to go into seclusion:
'After long deliberation, I saw no way to escape the disgrace which was about to overwhelm me, but hiding myself from my own family and from all the world. I determined to keep my retreat secret, even from Fitz-Edward himself; and to punish myself for my fatal attachment by tearing myself for ever from it's object.' [8]
The implicit critique of restrictive divorce laws represented by the plights of Mrs. Stafford and Lady Adelina is quite radical for its time.

The heroine Emmeline also goes through romantic trials, most of them due to her Lovelace-like lover Delamere, "whose ardent inclinations, whatever turn they took, were never to be a moment restrained." [9] The orphaned Emmeline has been raised by her uncle Lord Montreville, a second son who inherited his estate on the death of Emmeline's father. (Emmeline is believed to be illegitimate.) Delamere is Lord Montreville's son, who has fallen passionately in love with Emmeline; she cares for him as well, but only as a brother. Undeterred, he follows her wherever she goes, insists on forcing his company and attentions on her, and finally, with the aid of a confederate (Fitz-Edward again!) abducts her. Parallels to the romantic persecutions of Fanny Burney's Evelina and Cecilia, and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, are plain.

As Delamere's chaise gallops northward Emmeline falls into a high fever due to "excessive weeping. . .'extreme perturbation of spirits and great fatigue.'" [10] (Smith's female characters are frequently prostrated at moments of crisis.) Delamere, in a panic, agrees to return with her rather than follow through with his dastardly plan, and his parents (who disapprove of his love for Emmeline) force them to separate.

To paraphrase Chekhov, if in the first volume there's an orphan in a castle, in the last volume it will be revealed—spoiler alert!—that the orphan is actually the legitimate owner of the castle. On the way to this revelation (and true love with a handsome naval officer), though, there are false accusations, the unwelcome attentions of Delamere and two other suitors, misunderstandings, duels, hazardous sojourns in foreign lands, midnight pursuits, and fateful (and highly coincidental) meetings.

More spoilers: Remarkably, after temporarily losing her reason and nearly dying, the adulterous Lady Adelina is allowed a happy ending: her profligate husband conveniently dies of dissipation, and after an appropriate period of mourning Lady Adelina is able to marry Fitz-Edward. There's a happy ending for the heroine as well: after nearly 500 pages of suffering, Emmeline finds love, wealth, and, surrounded by friends, a "perfect and lasting felicity." [11]


Celestina title page
If Emmeline looks back to the novels of Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, Celestina looks forward as well to the novels of Jane Austen. Once again the heroine is an orphan raised by a wealthy family. And once again the son of the family in which the heroine was raised falls in love with her. His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby.

In Austen's novel when Marianne first meets Willoughby, "His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story. . .Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting.  His name was good. . ." [12] Austen seems to be deliberately drawing attention to Smith's novel, perhaps the "favourite story" Marianne is reminded of. But Willoughby's name is not Celestina's only pre-echo of Austen:
  • After Willoughby discovers his love for Celestina, he remonstrates with himself, "resolving to conquer a passion which a thousand circumstances made it the height of folly to indulge."

    In Pride and Prejudice Darcy prefaces his proposal to Elizabeth Bennet by "representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer." [13]
  • When Celestina is separated from Willoughby she muses, "Of the pleasure of living for a beloved object, though perhaps personally disunited for ever. . .she was fully sensible."

    In Persuasion, Anne Elliot tells Captain Harville, "All the privilege I claim for my own sex. . .is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone." In both novels the hero and heroine are separated for years by misunderstandings, but—spoiler alert!—reunited at the end. [14]
  • At the home of the Thorolds Celestina observes "the universal hurry of the household, except Mr. Thorold, who on these occasions retired to his study for the evening. . ."

    In Pride and Prejudice, to avoid the universal hurry of his household, "after tea, Mr. Bennet retired to the library, as was his custom. . ." [15]
  • In Celestina Mrs. Elphinstone's sister, "not quite fifteen," elopes with her lover Mr. Beresford and leaves behind a letter: "You shall hear of me soon; when I shall have exchanged the name of Emily Cathcart for that of your still affectionate sister, Emily Beresford."

    In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth's sister Lydia, a "well-grown girl of fifteen," elopes with her lover Mr. Wickham and leaves behind a letter: "You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham." Neither seducer, of course, has any intention of marrying. [16]
  • In both Celestina and Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby suddenly disappears from the heroine's life. In Smith's novel it is because he has received news that Celestina may be his (half-) sister. When Willoughby abandons her, "The day, and another and another, wore away, and still no letter from Willoughby arrived—the forlorn hope which she had till now fondly cherished, that he still retained a lingering preference for her in his heart, now faded away; and an almost certain conviction succeeded, that he not only quitted her for ever, but disclaimed her even as a friend."

    When in Sense and Sensibility Willoughby abandons Marianne, "No letter from Willoughby came. . .[Marianne's] mother was surprised, and Elinor again became uneasy. . .Elinor was very earnest in her application to her mother, relating all that had passed, her suspicions of Willoughby's inconstancy. . ." [17]
  • In Celestina Willoughby, under financial pressure to sell his ancestral estate, "imagined, those beautiful woods, the growth of centuries, fallen in compliance with the improving taste of a broker or warehouseman. . ."

    His "acute uneasiness" is echoed by Fanny Price's dismay at Mr. Rushworth's planned "improvements" to Sotherton in Mansfield Park: "'Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? "Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited."'"

    Fanny Price, although a poor relation rather than an orphan, is Mansfield Park's "orphan in the castle." As with Smith's heroines, Fanny is loved by a son of the wealthy family with whom she has grown into adulthood, but the family patriarch strongly opposes the match. [18]
  • In Celestina, after a long separation without contact, Willoughby, just engaged to another woman, encounters Celestina by chance in London:

    "'Celestina!' cried he—'Oh God! is it you, Celestina?' She looked at him with eyes where surprise was softened by tenderness, and tried to recover voice enough to utter more than—'Willoughby!' which the immediate emotion drew from her: but he gave her not time; for fixing his eyes on her's, all that she had been to him. . .and all that he had just agreed to be himself [to another], rushed in upon his recollection at once, and in an agony of grief, remorse, and despair, he threw her hand from him, and turn[ed] away. . ."

    In Sense and Sensibility, after a long separation without contact, Willoughby, just engaged to another woman, encounters Marianne by chance in London:

    ". . .she started up, and pronouncing his name in a tone of affection, held out her hand to him. He approached; and addressing himself rather to Elinor than Marianne, as if wishing to avoid her eye, and determined not to observe her attitude, enquired, in a hurried manner, after Mrs. Dashwood and asked how long they had been in town. . .[Marianne's] face was crimsoned over, and she exclaimed, in a voice of the greatest emotion, 'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?'

    "He could not then avoid it; but her touch seemed painful to him, and he held her hand only for a moment. During all this time he was evidently struggling for composure. . .

    "'But have you not received my notes?' cried Marianne in the wildest anxiety. 'Here is some mistake, I am sure some dreadful mistake. What can be the meaning of it? Tell me, Willoughby; for Heaven's sake tell me; what is the matter?'

    "He made no reply: his complexion changed, and all his embarrassment returned; but. . .he recovered himself again, and after saying, 'Yes, I had the pleasure of receiving the information of your arrival in town, which you were so good as to send me,' turned hastily away with a slight bow, and joined his friend." [19]
The first versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were written in the 1790s, only a few years after the publication of Celestina. But Mansfield Park and Persuasion were written two decades later. That Austen seems to be echoing passages and situations from Celestina in her later novels speaks to the great impression it must have made on her as a teenager.

The Old Manor House

Old Manor House title page

In The Female Pen B. G. MacCarthy writes of Charlotte Lennox's first novel The Life of Harriot Stuart (1750) that it is "a tale centring on the flight of the heroine from marriage with a hated suitor. There are hairbreadth 'scapes from redskins, pirates, ravishment and other perils; and there are the usual misunderstandings between the true lovers who are finally united." [20] With only minor modifications this description could also be applied to Smith's The Old Manor House (1793).

Here the orphan resides not in a castle, but in a room high in a turret in a dark Gothic mansion. And this time she is not secretly an heiress, but instead the penniless niece of the housekeeper. Despite her low-born origins the niece is improbably named Monimia (after the heroine of Thomas Otway's drama The Orphan (1680)). Mrs. Grace Rayland, owner of Rayland Hall, refuses to use this highfalutin' name and instead calls her "Mary," a choice with which at least some readers may be secretly in sympathy.

Monimia's sweetheart is Orlando, named after the knight-paladin of Ariosto's narrative poem Orlando Furioso (1532). Orlando Somerive is a second son and must make his own way in the world, since his elder brother will inherit their father's estate. Mrs. Rayland, a relative of the Somerives, has no heir and Orlando is her favorite. However, she refuses to make her intentions clear with respect to the disposition of her estate. Meanwhile, she is falling increasingly under the sway of Monimia's sinister aunt, the avaricious  Mrs. Lennard.

Orlando has grown up with Monimia as a playmate, but as they approach adulthood new feelings emerge. He begins to visit her secretly at Rayland Hall after dark to teach her to read—risking, if discovered, banishment and disinheritance. Adding to the complications of their love, Monimia's blossoming beauty is not overlooked by the neighborhood rakes (and it must be said that of Smith's swooning heroines, Monimia is among the most helpless).

In a post about Fanny Burney's Cecilia (1782), I mentioned that the title of Austen's Pride and Prejudice may have been taken from its final chapter. However, the phrase also repeatedly occurs in Charlotte Smith's work: once in Celestina, and twice in The Old Manor House.
Orlando felt. . .the greater those hazards were that he incurred for Monimia, the dearer she became to him. 'Well, Sir,' said he, 'and if Mrs Rayland's favour can be held only by the sacrifice of every honest affection, I will disclaim it. Why should she discard me for loving an amiable, beautiful girl, who—?'

'Nay, nay!' cried his father impatiently—'Why has she invincible pride, and obstinate prejudice?' [21]
In order to establish himself Orlando joins the army, only to be shipped out to America to combat the rebelling colonists in the War of Independence (a rebellion with which Smith, remarkably, is clearly in sympathy). He experiences storms at sea, shipwreck, military futility, near-death on the battlefield, and capture by natives; he is reported killed in action. When he finally makes his way homeward, he discovers with horror that it is as though he has returned from the dead. Mrs. Rayland has passed away, the grasping epicurean priest Dr. Hollybourn is the new owner of a nearly abandoned Rayland Hall, and Monimia has disappeared into the great city of London. His against-all-odds struggles to uncover Mrs. Rayland's true will, regain his inheritance and find Monimia sometimes stretch credulity, but the narrative momentum rarely slackens.

The details of the court proceedings surrounding Mrs. Rayland's wills have the ring of truth; that realism may be due to Smith's own experiences with the endless legal wrangling over her father-in-law's estate. Some have speculated that these real-life intrafamilial disputes, which dragged on for more than three decades, may have provided source material for the fictional case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1852-53).

When Richard Smith's estate was finally settled in 1813, thirty-six years after his death, it was too late for Charlotte. She died at age 57 on 28 October 1806, surviving her husband (who died in debtor's prison) by only eight months. Her final years were marked by ill health and increasing financial difficulties as her novelistic style fell out of favor.

And though Anna Barbauld reprinted The Old Manor House in her anthology The British Novelists (1810), and in her introduction praised both Emmeline and Celestina, after the 1820s all of Smith's novels went out of print and remained so for 150 years. As I hope I've been able to show, Smith was a significant precursor of Jane Austen. However, she also deserves to be more widely known as a fascinating novelist in her own right. And her stances on the rights of women, on the democratic ideals informing the revolutions in France and America, and on slavery (she was strongly anti-, despite the financial reliance on the slave economy of her husband's family) are strikingly modern.

For more on other writers who inspired Austen such as Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Lennox, and Samuel Richardson, please see other posts in the series Jane Austen's predecessors.

  1. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 18 December 1798. From R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others, Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 38-39; "Elizabeth" from The History of England, in Minor Works: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen Vol. VI, edited by R. W. Chapman. Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 147.
  2. Amy Thomas Campion, Scandalous Figures: Authorial Self in Eliza Haywood, Laurence Sterne, Charlotte Smith, and Lord Byron. Doctoral thesis, University of California Berkeley, 2010, p. 108.
  3. Quoted in Appendix D: Life, in Charlotte Smith, Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, edited by Louise Fletcher. Broadview Press, 2003, pp. 502-503.
  4. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. VII, p. 192
  5. Louise Fletcher, "Introduction," in Emmeline, p. 33.
  6. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XI, pp. 218-219. 
  7. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XI, p. 222.  
  8. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XII, p. 230.
  9. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XII, p. 230. 
  10. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. V, pp. 173 and 175.
  11. Emmeline, Vol. IV Ch. XVI, p. 476.
  12. Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Vol. I Ch. IX 
  13. Celestina, Vol. I Ch. III; Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II Ch. XI.
  14. Celestina, Vol. II Ch. II; Austen, Persuasion, Vol. II Ch. XI.
  15. Celestina, Vol. II Ch. VI; Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III Ch. XIII.
  16. Celestina, Vol. II Ch. XI; Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III Ch. V.
  17. Celestina, Vol. III Ch. X; Sense and Sensibility, Vol. I Ch. XVI and Vol. II Ch. V.
  18. Celestina, Vol. IV Ch. II; Austen, Mansfield Park, Vol. I Ch. VI.
  19. Celestina, Vol. IV Ch. III; Sense and Sensibility, Vol. II Ch. VI.
  20. B. G. MacCarthy, The Female Pen: Women Writers and Novelists 1621-1818, New York University Press, 1994, pp. 294-295. 
  21. The Old Manor House, Vol. III Ch. III

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The other Beethoven: The Beethoven string quartets part 3

Portrait of Beethoven (detail), by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

In April the Takács Quartet returned to Berkeley's Cal Performances for the final concerts and residency activities in their Beethoven string quartet cycle. (For my posts on the other events in the cycle please see "For a later age" and "Not beautiful.")

The theme for the final weekend (extending from Thursday April 6 to Sunday April 9) was "Politics and Religion." Nic Mathew, our faculty host/raconteur for the cycle, pointed out that Beethoven was a wartime composer. From the time Beethoven was a young man until he was in his mid-40s, Austria faced a succession of conflicts with revolutionary and imperial France. Vienna was twice occupied by Napoleon's army, in 1805 and 1809 (dates which correspond roughly to the times of composition of the middle quartets).

Perhaps a wartime sense of the upending of certainties informed Beethoven's restless style. That such restlessness can still be disorienting to listeners became apparent in the jam-packed back room at University Press Books during Thursday's Page & Stage Book Club discussion of first violinist Ed Dusinberre's Beethoven for a Later Age (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Someone in the audience brought up the jarring contrasts in Beethoven's music, how the mood or tempo or character of one musical idea is often instantly negated by the radically different mood or tempo or character of the next. As Mathew memorably said, in Beethoven's music sometimes "you don't know where to put your ears."

The Takacs Quartet: Geraldine Walther (viola), Edward Dusinberre (first violin), András Fejér (cello), and Károly Schranz (second violin)

Such musical contrasts became a theme of the Takács Quartet's open rehearsal the next day. Dusinberre asked the audience to listen to the fourth movement from an early quartet, Op. 18 No. 6, called "La Malinconia" ("Melancholy"), and consider whether the alternation of the tragic slow and cheerful fast sections was a negation, or a dialogue:

After the Quartet finished the movement Dusinberre asked us for our responses. One woman in the audience mentioned that after the interjection of the bright fast music, she heard the slow music becoming less dark and more serene. What fascinated me was that I'd heard exactly the reverse: it sounded to me as though over the course of the movement the fast sections had taken on a more unsettled and searching quality. Listen, for example, to the way the reintroduction of the fast theme (around 6:32 in this recording) dies out after a bar or two before it is finally re-established (around 6:50), to my ears somewhat tentatively. In some ways, perhaps, the protean character of the music enables each of us to hear the Beethoven we want to hear.

Which Beethoven do we want to hear? As Mathew pointed out in his pre-concert talk on Saturday, there are many Beethovens. The music we think of as "Beethovenian" is only one aspect of a musical style that within a single work or even a single movement, as in the example above, can be exceptionally varied.

And when we think that Beethoven's dramatic qualities are instantly recognizable, our ears can deceive us. Mathew played two brief musical examples of larger-scale works with Beethovenian opening gestures:

This is exactly the kind of music we usually expect to hear when we think of Beethoven. Only, the first excerpt is the opening of Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London," 1795, performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan). And the second is the beginning of the overture to Luigi Cherubini's opera Anacréon (1803, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan). So the musical rhetoric we think of as typical of Beethoven was actually already a part of the sound-world that shaped him as a composer: "Beethovenian" music existed independently of Beethoven.

And perhaps the "quite slow, singing and tranquil" third movement of Op. 135 (performed by the Takács on Saturday) doesn't strike us as being particularly Beethovenian. But it is this "other Beethoven" (in Mathew's phrase) that I find most compelling;

The other Beethoven is found primarily in the slow movements of the quartets: the second-movement Adagio from Op. 18 No. 1 (inspired by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet), the second movement from Op. 59 No. 2 (with the heartbeat motif), the third movement from Op. 132 (the "Hymn of Thanks" to be played "with inward feeling"), and the fifth-movement Cavatina from Op. 130 (to be played "slowly and very expressively"). And it is this Beethoven that I think I will return to again and again.

The final work performed by the Takács to complete the cycle was a reprise of Op. 130, which they had performed in the first concert in the series—but this time with the original ending, the Grosse Fuge (later published separately as Op. 133). It was easy to hear why—given the Grosse Fuge's sheer length and often agitated character—Beethoven's publisher requested a different ending. Parts of the Grosse Fuge sound as though they could have been written today. Such a concluding movement must have astonished Beethoven's contemporary audiences, because it is still astonishing in a later age:

During the open rehearsal Dusinberre mentioned in response to a question that knowing that this long, knotty movement was looming at the end of the Cavatina was likely to shade the Quartet's approach to the preceding music. And indeed when the Cavatina was performed on Sunday afternoon for the second time in the cycle, it seemed marginally less moving than it did in my memory of its first performance in the fall. Perhaps that was due to the power of Dusinberre's suggestion, to the enhancements and embellishments of memory, or to my greater familiarity with the music. But some of the other people with whom I've been attending the concerts mentioned a similar feeling, and it would be remarkable if even world-class musicians such as the Takács were utterly unaffected during the Cavatina by the prospect of Op. 133.

If so, the only reason I could ever be grateful for the boisterous replacement ending that was played in the fall would be if it enabled a maximally profound Cavatina. In fact, I felt that both endings marred the Cavatina's hushed mood: I think Beethoven, a radical in so many things, should have taken the unprecedented step of ending Op. 130 with the slow movement.

Final thoughts on the cycle: Remaking Beethoven

Summing up such a richly rewarding experience in a few words isn't really possible, for two reasons. The first is that every concert, as well as every pre-concert talk, open rehearsal, panel discussion, master class, symposium, and post-concert conversation presented multiple moments of intellectual and emotional engagement as well as points for reflection and reconsideration.

The second is that this is music that resists any final conclusions, because it is so multifarious and encompasses such a broad range of feeling and expression. To seek some final coherence or unity is to look for a quality that Beethoven himself seems to have delighted in confounding. The quartets have to be accepted for their difficulties and incongruities as well as their profound beauties. And each new encounter with this music will be a different experience; as the the opening theme of the residency had it, performers and audiences together actively participate in its remaking each time.

Very special thanks to Cal Performances' Director of Artistic Literacy Sabrina Klein and to Executive and Artistic Director Matias Tarnolpolsky for designing, organizing and implementing such a meaning-filled series of residency activities surrounding the concerts, and to Professor Nicholas Mathew of the UC Berkeley Department of Music for being such a brilliant and engaging host throughout. And my deep gratitude to the musicians of the Takács Quartet, who were unfailingly generous with their time and energy, and extraordinarily insightful on and off the stage.

Other posts in this series:

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Mamta (A Mother's Love, 1966), directed by Asit Sen, story by Nihan Rajan Gupta after his novel Uttar Falguni, dialogues by Krishen Chander and Pandit Bushan, music by Roshan, lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri

Suchitra Sen as Pannabai in Mamta

I have a huge soft spot for many classic Bollywood narrative devices:
  • tragic courtesans, as in Amar Prem (1972)
  • forbidden love, as in Parineeta (1953)
  • maternal self-sacrifice, as in Sharafat (1972, also directed by Asit Sen)
  • children in danger, as in Brahmachari (1968)
  • reunions between long-separated lovers, as in Veer-Zaara (2004)
  • reunions between long-separated parents and children, as in Aradhana (1968)
  • double roles, as in Seeta aur Geeta (1972)
  • courtroom scenes, as in Awara (1957)
Mamta manages to combine every single one of these devices, and (as do so many tragic courtesan films) adds great music as a bonus.

Pannabai (Suchitra Sen) is a renowned dancer who entertains men every night in Lucknow's pleasure quarter. One afternoon a drunken man asks for her not as Pannabai, but as Devyani. She tells him he's mistaken:

I am Pannabai, a courtesan

The man is Rakhal (a very creepy Kalipada Chakravarty)—the abusive husband from whom Devyani fled several years ago. She'd thought she was safe from him, but:

Who has ever got rid of anybody in this world?

Pannabai does not yet know how true those words will prove to be.

Rakhal has discovered Devyani's new identity, and demands money, or else:

I will sue you for restoration of conjugal rights

While Pannabai/Devyani is getting the blackmail money for Rakhal, her daughter Suparna wanders in to see the stranger. A mistake:

Come to me. Want a toffee?

Devyani returns in time to save Suparna from Rakhal, but realizes that she must send her to a place where he can never reach her: Mother Mary's convent school in Calcutta. (The subtitles have "Mother [or Madam] Marlin," but that seems like a mishearing.) At first Pannabai is refused; her profession is too scandalous. She pleads with Mother Mary:

Madam Marlin, I was not a courtesan always

Backstory time! We learn that as a young woman Devyani fell in love with a poor law student, Manish (Ashok Kumar). He went to London to study law for three years, and the lovers pledged themselves to one another: they would marry on his return.

While Manish is abroad, though, Devyani's father Ghishta (Chaman Puri) becomes heavily indebted to a moneylender: Rakhal. The predatory Rakhal has noticed that Ghishta has a beautiful young daughter, and offers him a way to clear his otherwise crushing debt:

Either pay my money, or get Devyani married to me

Her father doesn't want to ask Devyani to marry Rakhal to clear his debt. But she is so dutiful she doesn't need her father to implore her to rescue him. First she goes to Manish's mother to ask for a loan, only to be rejected:

I was against this alliance since the very beginning

Devyani feels she has no choice:

To save my poor father from debt, I forgot Manish, I forgot myself

She marries Rakhal. On the wedding night he is drunk and cruel:

If you act stubborn, even I will use force

She steels herself to "tolerate every atrocity":

Thereafter, every night was darker than the first

But when Rakhal tries to force her to sleep with other men (who have clearly paid him for the privilege), a pregnant Devyani realizes she must escape.

She flees on the train to Lucknow, but, despairing, tries to commit suicide. The woman sharing her berth prevents her from throwing herself off the train, and once she's able to calm Devyani down, explains who she is: Meenabai (Chhaya Devi), the owner of a house of (men's) pleasure. She offers Devyani a home and a means of supporting herself and her soon-to-be-born child. Devyani, by now used to tough decisions, accepts. Devyani dies, and Pannabai is born:


And now, Pannabai tells Mother Mary, she wants to save the daughter she has raised from her dissolute father, "and from myself." Mother Mary is moved by her story; on Pannabai's promise to have no contact with her daughter, Suparna is accepted into the convent school.

Shortly afterwards Pannabai is leaving a shop when she encounters someone from her past:


It's Manish, returned from London and now a famous barrister. After exchanging a few pained words with him, she jumps into a taxi and speeds off.

A friend of Manish expresses his amazement that he accosted a "cheap woman" in a department store, and fills him in about Pannabai's profession. When Manish angrily expresses disbelief, his friend offers to prove it by hiring Pannabai to perform for him.

That night, almost as soon as Pannabai walks in she realizes whose house she has entered. An anguished Manish conceals himself behind a curtain in another room, but Pannabai knows exactly who is listening. "I had to swallow all kinds of venom to survive; I have borne every humiliation," she sings. "Don't spurn me."

The subtitles on the version I quoted above are a bit less decorous than the ones on the embedded/linked video; Suchitra Sen's playback singer on "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" ("The one who dwells forever in my heart") and the other songs in this post is Lata Mangeshkar.

When Manish's friend tries to pay her for her performance, Pannabai disdainfully refuses the proferred money. Manish follows her home to find out what happened while he was in London. Trapped by the curfew, Manish must remain at Pannabai's. In Suparna's now-empty room over the long night, Devyani tells her story.

As dawn breaks, a devastated Manish asks her to come home with him:

You are still Devyani for me

But she realizes this is impossible: Manish would be bringing home Devyani, but the world would assume he is consorting with Pannabai.

My life has been ruined. Why should I ruin your life?

Instead, she begs him to look after Suparna. Manish readily agrees to become Suparna's guardian, and to help realize Pannabai's dreams for her:

Maybe she becomes a barrister like you one day

This is only the first hour of the film.

As the years pass and Suparna becomes a young woman, Pannabai's dream will come true—with unforeseen consequences. While studying law in London Suparna (Suchitra Sen in a double role) has met a classmate, Indraneel (Dharmendra), and love has begun to blossom. But Rakhal returns and threatens Pannabai with exposure. If Pannabai's identity is revealed, she fears that her dreams for Suparna—a professional career, a respectable home, and the love of a good man—will be utterly shattered. And a mother's love can never allow that to happen. . .

Mamta has some fairly radical-for-their-time propositions to offer: that children's destinies should not be determined by their parents' status, that women should have the same opportunities as men to enter professional life, that romantic but non-sexual friendships are possible between men and women, and that we should not judge criminal acts before understanding the extremity that may have led to them. That we still can't take these propositions entirely for granted says something about how much further we still have to go.

Suchitra Sen's excellent performances as Devyani/Pannabai and Suparna are the main reason to watch Mamta. She makes us feel all of Pannabai's pathos and all of Suparna's joy and hope. And although she was in her mid-30s, she convincingly embodies her characters at every age from late teens to mid-40s. Both she and Chakravarty were reprising their roles from Asit Sen's Bengali version, Uttar Falguni (1963), which (together with Suchitra Sen's other Bengali films) is now at the top of my to-view list. Although Ashok Kumar as a young law student is a bit of a stretch, he excels at expressing the range of emotions—from bitterness to self-accusation to deep affection—experienced by the older Manish, as "Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein" shows.

To end the post, two songs from the film that are so brief they seem almost like throwaways, but which are freighted with emotion:

"Chhupaa lo yoon dil mein pyaar mera" (Hide my love in your heart): (song ends at 10:10)
the male playback singer is Hemant Kumar)

"Hum Gavanwa Na Jaibe Ho":

For another perspective please see Dusted Off's review. Mamta can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My city of ruins

Howard Street, Baltimore (Google Street View)

Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves,
The boarded-up windows,
The empty streets
While my brother's down on his knees
My city of ruins

—"My City of Ruins," Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
I recently had occasion to travel back to Baltimore, a city I knew in my late teens and early twenties. I was staying in Mount Vernon, a neighborhood of wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings. And please don't misunderstand me: I like wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings.

I was attending a conference that was being held at the Baltimore Convention Center in the Inner Harbor, an area of high-rise office buildings, malls, chain restaurants and chain hotels. To get there I walked down Howard Street from Madison to Pratt Street, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. In making that journey every morning and returning every evening, I was brought face to face with the effects of decades of racist urban planning and economic and political choices that have kicked those who are no longer considered useful into the gutter.

Block after block of Howard Street is lined with abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses. Some of these photos are taken from Google Street View, but most are mine:

Howard Street at Franklin, east side

Howard Street between Franklin and Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016; 
the central building has since been reduced to a pile of rubble. 
There are four more empty buildings to the left out of the frame.)

Howard Street at Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016)

Howard Street between Mulberry and Saratoga, east side
(The sign on the empty building to the left advertises beepers and VCRs; it must date back two decades or more.)

Howard Street at Saratoga, east side

Howard Street at Clay, east side

Howard Street at Fayette, west side

The entrance to the former Marble Bar, 306 W. Franklin Street between Howard and Eutaw

Baltimore has always been a gritty, struggling city. But I don't remember this level of devastation even after the massive urban disinvestment of the 1970s. The core of the city has been hollowed out. My city's in ruins.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Not beautiful: The Beethoven string quartets part 2

Portrait of Beethoven by Willibrod Josef Maehler (detail), 1815

The Takács Quartet returned to Berkeley in early March for the middle two concerts of their Beethoven quartet series. (For my previous post on the first two concerts in the series, see "For a later age.")

The Takacs Quartet: Károly Schranz (second violin), András Fejér (cello), Geraldine Walther (viola), and Edward Dusinberre (first violin). Photo: Keith Saunders,

Once again the concerts were introduced by a series of residency events. This time they included an open rehearsal; a panel discussion led by UC Berkeley faculty member Nic Mathew and featuring first violinist Edward Dusinberre and visiting scholars Mary Hunter and Mark Ferraguto; and pre-performance conversations between Mathew and each of the visiting scholars. The theme for the weekend's concerts was "When Old Media Were New Media," or as the Cal Performances residency events program had it, "the role of audiences, institutions and technologies in shaping our experience of this music."

One of the key new modes of experiencing the Beethoven string quartets was the public string quartet concert itself. Before Beethoven, string quartets were often played at home by groups featuring skilled aristocratic amateurs, with an audience of an invited group of friends. (A recent book about the Mozart string quartets was entitled Mozart's Music of Friends.) After Beethoven, string quartets were increasingly performed in concert halls by professional musicians with an audience of paying ticketholders.

The shift from amateur to professional performance is epitomized by the Op. 59 "Razumovsky" quartets. They were commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Habsberg court in Vienna, who was an avid and talented violinist. Beethoven delivered three quartets based on Russian musical themes, but they were too difficult for their patron to play. [1]

Portrait of Count Andreas Razumovsky, by Johann Baptist Lampi (detail), ca. 1806

Razumovsky had to hire the professional Schuppanzigh Quartet (named for its first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh) for the first performance in 1807. That performance was received with bewilderment.
Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven violin quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs.  They are profound in conception and admirably written, but not generally comprehensible. . . [2]
"Not generally comprehensible." Even fifteen years later this same journal would state that Op. 59 No. 2 involved "bizarre sounds."

Among the "bizarre sounds" may have been the first violin part in the second, slow movement, which is marked "Molto adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento" (Very slow, with a great deal of feeling). At around the 1:37 mark in the 2002 recording by the Takács Quartet the first violin starts playing a two-note figure that sounds like a heartbeat, as Mary Hunter pointed out:

It's unusual for the first violin to play a part that is so clearly intended as an accompaniment to what the other musicians are playing. It must have made those first listeners wonder whether the players had inadvertently switched parts.

The Op. 59 No. 2 quartet was performed by the Takács during the Sunday afternoon concert. In the panel discussion on Friday night, a page of the first violinist Edward Dusinberre's part for this quartet was projected onscreen. Over one of the measures (around 6:05 in the recording), he had written the words "not beautiful."

I had an opportunity to ask Dusinberre what he was warning himself against in that passage; he replied that as a student his training had emphasized producing a beautiful sound. As a professional musician, he had to learn to use beauty when it's appropriate, "and not just ladle it on." Beethoven's direction to play "with a great deal of feeling," in Dusinberre's view, meant that in these measures he should maintain a certain rigor and precision.

That precision is especially needed in the slow movement of Beethoven's Op. 132. This nearly 20-minute-long adagio was described by Beethoven on the score as "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit" (Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Deity). Beethoven had become seriously ill while working on Op. 132, and had miraculously recovered. The Holy Song of Thanks consists of five parts, alternating Molto adagio (very slow) with Andante (moderately slow). In inexpert hands this lengthy slow movement could easily bog down or become static; the Takács were able to maintain forward momentum while remaining emotionally expressive and playing in perfect unison.

In concert, this movement simply stopped time.

In the pre-performance conversation on Saturday night with Mary Hunter, Nic Mathew quoted someone as saying that "If you don't like the early quartets, that's Beethoven's fault; if you don't like the later quartets, that's your fault." Of course, it's never your "fault" if you don't like a work of art. As modern and postmodern (and whatever comes after postmodern) art have shown, the history of art is not a slow but steady march of progress from the worthy but primitive forms of the past to the increasing perfection of today.

But it is your mistake if you dismiss a work without trying to understand its historical context and the artist's aims and methods. We live in a world that has been musically shaped by the middle and late Beethoven quartets; when they were first performed, of course, they were unprecedented. In his day Beethoven was seen as revolutionary, and the residency events that Cal Performances has sponsored around the Takács Quartet's Beethoven cycle are designed in part to try to help us recapture that sense of radical innovation. For me they have immeasurably enriched the experience of these difficult works. I'm very much looking forward to the next (and, alas, final) concerts in the series.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Mark Ferraguto, a panelist in the Friday night discussion and a participant in the Sunday pre-performance conversation, believes that he has identified the "missing" Russian theme in Op. 59 No. 3; see "Beethoven à la moujik: Russianness and Learned Style in the 'Razumovsky' String Quartets." Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 67 No. 1, Spring 2014, pp. 77-124. DOI: 10.1525/jams.2014.67.1.77
  2. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 27 February 1807.