The question here is whether this work – and other works on the same elevated artistic level (the few that exist) – would have been possible without the awe-inspiring presence of deep-rooted religious faith. Or could nature and her mightiest representatives, whether mountains or distant stars, have prompted the same sublime music without the presence of a deity? Please discuss. My view, for what it’s worth, is that it wouldn’t have been possible.
The American poet Louise Glück (born 1943) doesn’t waste words, but neither does she economise to the extent that we suspect that words might be missing. As a poet she passes on the all-to-common option of ‘adjectival pebble-dashing’ and instead cuts to the chase with precision-tooled imagery that draws you in. Straight from the off, in ‘Parable’, she’s inviting us to divest ourselves of worldly goods ‘in order that our souls not be distracted’ and there’s the shock tactic in the cover poem where the drilling of her aunt’s sowing machine ‘vanished’ –
You have no idea how shocking it is
to a small child when
something continuous stops
In ‘Utopia’ a child needs to board a train. But is it the right train? Yes, ‘because it is the right time,’ is the answer. The time comes to disembark, and the strange sound of a foreign language prevails, ‘something more like a moan or a cry’.
But most affecting of all, another poem that seems to allude to Glück’s Jewish roots (and the baggage that any Jew in his/her mid-seventies will carry) is ‘A Foreshortened Journey,’ where, at a train station, a little girl spots, on the staircase, what she assumes is a dead man. Her grandmother is reassuring. ‘We must let him sleep,’ she says, ‘we must walk quietly by.’ We’re told that he’s at that stage in life where although deciding to stop makes him an obstacle to others, he – and we – must not give up hope. The child wonders whether they will see him when they return. Then she kneels by his side and says the Jewish prayer for the dead. She will not be there to sing it at the right time, to soothe him in his terrors, but – and in this is the really heart-breaking gist of the poem –
When you hear this again, she said, perhaps the words will be less intimidat-
ing, if you remember how you first heard them, in the voice of a little girl
Of course my paraphrase does little justice to the complete poem, a mini-masterpiece and extremely moving. As is the entire book.
Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), 71 pp
Carcanet ISBN 978 1 84777 479 8 £9.95
12 Rules for Life: An antidote to Chaos. [Allen Lane, 2018, £20.00]
Unsurprisingly, the idea of tackling a book that has lobsters, the shire of Tolkien’s hobbits and the stumbling stability of chaos crop up in its earliest pages had me scratching my head, eyebrows raised, rather than eager to turn to the next page.
Here is a book that brooks no compromise but rather wipes the slate clean, lifts you shoulder high and has you confront the big issues that we all have to face but too often shade our eyes from: self-respect, responsible child rearing (no soft-soaping with Peterson, nor damaging over-protectiveness), education, sharing, setting your house in order before criticising the world, the pursuit of what is meaningful, truthfulness, having the humility in the face of people who may well know more than you do, and verbal precision. Also crucial to Peterson’s enterprise is a dry-eyed and mercifully objective take on the value and limitations of science, as well as on gender and its attendant complications, and narcissism. Most interesting though is his attitude to religion, which passes on the anti-God-squad dogma that has become so fashionable nowadays and instead takes an informed, objective and compassionate look at the great sacred texts but without ever promoting the idea of single-denominational worship. Peterson’s mode of prayer, such as it is, resides in the open air, under the stars, rather than within the walls of a church or a temple. The texts he calls on include Plato, Genesis, Lao Tzu, the Sermon on the Mount, Goethe, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot, always in a useful and revealing context. I read the heart-breaking account of his daughter’s battle with severe polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and her heroic attitude to the trials, often excruciatingly painful, that recovery involved with tears running down my cheeks. As I read I listened to the uplifting conclusion to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, setting Goethe’s text (from Faust, Part Two), ‘all that passes away is merely a likeness; the inadequacy of earth finds fulfilment …’ I know that this will sound hopelessly sentimental to some but It was as if Peterson and Mahler had somehow found each other, Mahler’s unique brand of humanism having nearly always escaped a precise lens. Here it has found one. And that’s not all. For years I’ve cherished the idea of setting a children’s story to the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. As I imagine it, in the early stages of the movement, a child contemplates nature, alone. Then, as the music gradually becomes more animated, he’s joined by a group of mates who rush, helter-skelter, to the edge of a sky-high ridge beyond which lies a blinding light. It’s a place that many have wondered about but as yet no one has had the courage to tackle its heights. This is where Peterson comes in: these fearless kids summon that courage, and up they run. When they get to the top Mahler provides the devastating soundtrack with his full-orchestra ‘Gates of Heaven’ outburst. What have they seen? The physical manifestation of J M W Turner’s dying words, ‘the sun is God’.
Years ago, during the vinyl era, an old friend bemoaned the long-gone days of 78s when putting a record on the turntable was a sacred ritual: you’d play a disc containing, say, two Chopin Nocturnes (one either side), settle to enjoy the first, then pause to turn the disc over and play the other. It took time. You attended to what you were listening to and there was a certain magic in watching the playing arm journey across the disc surface in pursuit of the miraculous sounds that were emerging from the speaker (or even the ‘tone arm’ if it was a genuine 78 player). Of course when vinyl was the principal music ‘carrier’ (I’ll omit tape for the sake of focusing my point) no-one imagined that a few years hence CDs topping the 80-minute mark would enable us to put on a disc and either attend to what was on it, or not, according to our mood. My question therefore is, have we lost the knack of listening with awe? Did the effort needed to play 78s, 45s and lps help us (even make us) concentrate on what we were listening to? Is some sort of education process necessary to reclaim the value of quality home listening? Do you still play vinyl/shellac yourself – or do you think that those who do are caught in some sort of generational time warp. Your views would be welcome.
Back in 1994 I interviewed that superb Beethoven interpreter the pianist Richard Goode who said to me, regarding great music, that ‘it has the potential to express powers that lie outside of context, of period, language, translation, to reach something more basic. Moral idealism, for example, which might, through music, be translated into a universal language – without the particulars.’ And without the conceptual limitations and misunderstandings engendered by mere words [as I added at the time]. These words struck me afresh when I finished listening to Murray Perahia’s new recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Deutsche Grammophon 479 8353), possibly the most moving account of this cripplingly difficult work ever committed to disc, the Sonata’s kernel – a heart-wrenching Adagio sostenuto – approximating a pained confessional in the way that only Artur Schnabel back in the 1930s managed, and then within the context of a performance that although profoundly well-intentioned was technically flawed elsewhere. For me Perahia inhabits the same elevated plane as Schnabel, Backhaus, Charles Rosen, Brendel, Yvonne Loriod and indeed Goode himself, though for me he climbs just a rung or two further up the celestial ladder. It’s a combination of control and unfettered spontaneity. Quite magnificent.
In the booklet interview with Jessica Duchen, Perahia claims that ‘often Beethoven experiences music as a liberation, reaching towards many things, even making you a better human being.’ Now this is very interesting. Think about it for a moment. Does Beethoven have a moral agenda here? In the fiery opening movement he sets out his main thesis, then there’s a discursive scherzo, the soul-bearing adagio and a vast fugal finale [played by Perahia with sovereign technical command) that surges forwards and brooks no compromise but reaches CLOSURE. That’s it! CLOSURE. The same with the Fifth Symphony – argument, nobility/repose, proud declamation, fierce assertion, triumph and … again, CLOSURE. Quite aside from the presence of chemistry and neuroscience in our make-up, what about the emotional impact of what’s happening, the element of therapy or even counselling that is syphoned through the music? The fact that we’re emboldened after listening to it is surely significant.
And there’s the curative aspect of music, too. Years ago I felt terribly ill and lay on my bed listening to Schumann’s 4th, a particular recording – Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the point beyond the scherzo where Schumann cues a hushed transition that eventually catapults us into the fast finale, the rush of adrenalin suddenly helped me recover. It was a physical happening – one I will never forget. Views, please?
… any aspects of recordings, repertoire, artists, reissues, critical responses or broadcasting, especially Cowan’s Classics on classicfm.com Make yourselves known and we can enter into dialogue. Hope to hear from you.