Verdi and the Risorgimento: Correcting the Myth

Going to an opera in mid-19th century Italy was a raucous affair. Unlike the symphony and ballet, opera had yet to be pacified — there was none of the reverential silence we now associate with a classical concert. It could almost feel like a piazza: people applauding between songs, chatting during songs and even getting rather merry and violent. During one opera, the audience was divided between those who wanted an encore of one particular scene and those who did not (the concert hall as a kind of battleground was not unique to this event). After the burst of cheering had subsided with defeat of the encore party, a drunken soldier from the boxes demanded an encore nevertheless. As those in the orchestra seats shouted back at him, he started throwing weapons and chairs onto the stage. The audience rushed toward the exits, ladies in the boxes fainted, and after the drunk was finally arrested the theatre was half empty.

In some ways the opera was an escape from a heavily censored society. It was a place where people could gather together and collectively express feelings. But under no circumstance would they have been allowed to express anything like an overt political opinion. It is argued by some music historians, therefore, that any political messages in opera were communicated throughout a subtly coded language that the composer and his audience understood, but that evaded the censors and police. This makes it especially difficult to study the politics of the operas of the time, and has led to a great deal of overly imaginative historical interpretations.

The chief victim of these historical exaggerations is Giuseppe Verdi. His operas are often seen as the backdrop to the Risorgimento (the struggle for Italian unification in the mid-19th century). And his now beloved song, Va, Pensiero (also known as Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves), is seen ahistorically as the hymn to the revolution. The song, we are often told, is about liberating a people oppressed by foreign powers, and that its early audiences reacted with nationalist fervour. Absolute rubbish. There are indeed a number of myths about this song, almost of all them wrong. There is absolutely no evidence to show that the audience piled out onto the street enthusiastically singing the melody, as some have suggested, nor is there any evidence to suggest there was an encore. If there had been an encore, it would have doubtless been prominently reported, as encores were technically illegal. We don’t even have any record of Va, Pensiero being used politically until 1859. In fact, there are few contemporary reports of any patriotic outbursts in any opera. When it comes to Verdi, there are only 15 examples of his music being appropriated for political statements in the 1840s — this strikes me as a miserably low number.

Nevertheless, there were some attempts to politicise opera throughout the Risorgimento. Giuseppe Mazzini, a leader of the nationalist movement, had already theorised about the role opera could play in the movement. He advocated the use of choruses to represent the people, and to remove extravagance from opera and emphasise harmony. These changes largely did occur for whatever reason, but it does not appear that they resonated politically. Mazzini’s Filosfia della Musica, which expounded these revolutionary musical ideas, was from an obscure 1836 Parisian journal, and it was never circulated in Italy until 1848. Nabucco was written in 1843. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that the use of chorus in Va, Pensiero had any political intent.

You may have also heard of the nationalist slogan of the time, ‘Viva Verdi!’ If not, it’s quite ingenious: it both celebrates the operas of Verdi and the King who would lead a united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia. However, the slogan wasn’t adopted until 1859. Verdi’s operas, such that they were being used politically, had been reinterpreted somewhat imaginatively to fit a revolutionary narrative. Even then, his supposedly political operas were not his most popular. His most popular opera was actually Ernani, a non-patriotic opera. Some did come to associate Ernani with relatively liberal new Pope, Pius IX, but the opera still remained the most popular even after Pius had stood up in 1848 and opposed nationalism.

Verdi’s funeral in 1901

Over half a decade later comes the death of Verdi, right on the cusp of a new century. By this time, the struggles of the last century had been romanticised and Verdi’s music really had become a symbol of the Risorgimento. He had two funerals. The first was a small affair, but it was reported that bystanders spontaneously began singing Va, Pensiero, a heart-warming tale if true. At his second funeral — the ostentatious, public one — hundreds of thousands of people were in attendance, and you can guess which song they sang and which slogan they shouted. But it is mistaken to think that Verdi’s operas were intended to be particularly subversive, and indeed it’s all too easy to overstate their influence on making Italy.

BBC Proms 2016: Some Thoughts

There is a deliberately forgotten truth that needs rescuing from its postmodern captors: most classical music is better than most other music. It has centuries of tradition and theory on its side, years dedicated to achieving the most profound, beautiful, evocative, and intimidating music ever heard. Its use of harmony, its written tradition, and the passion of its creators and admirers sets it apart from all other music.

So, we have a new BBC Proms to celebrate this wonderful music. And I have been, of course, terribly excited for the programme announcement today. Then I see the BBC news headline: BBC Proms 2016: Strictly, Bowie and music in a car park. You couldn’t make it up. (Maybe one day the tide will turn and we’ll actually think the headline ‘BBC Proms 2016: Stravinsky, Brahms and music in a concert hall’ to be the transgressive novelty.)

There is indeed a sizeable amount of populist crap this time round. On top of the Strictly Come Dancing and David Bowie Proms, there are some other themed Proms: a gospel Prom, a two jazz Proms and what looks to be a lame Jazz-Classical hybrid. And there’s a CBeebies proms, though to reject that one feels rather cruel, like taking candy away from a baby, as it were.

Of course there’s also the motherload of gimmick, that tiresome national embarrassment that is The Last Night of the Proms. For those who blame dodecaphony for the supposed death of Classical Music, I say you’re ignoring the flag-waving exercise in cultural suicide with which we end an otherwise-excellent classical music festival.

[ETA 16/02/2017: my hostility to Last Night has lessened. I’ve no desire to go, and the programming could most certainly be improved, there must be a place for light or popular classical and for patriotic sentiment. In this sense, it is gratifying to see the music having a social function.]

We do nevertheless have some exciting concerts. There are thirteen world premieres and quite a number of UK premieres. I very much do appreciate this, and the organisers deserve much credit. But, as the Guardian laments, ‘there is an absence of big, ambitious new orchestral works, which the BBC has the resources to put on better than anyone else in the UK, and in the Proms, the perfect platform on which to do it.’ More on that in a minute.

First off, there is, suitably, a late-night tribute to Boulez. However, there are no works by Peter Maxwell Davies, former Master of the Queen’s Music who also died this year. His death was later than Boulez’s, so I can partly understand the omission. But it is nonetheless discomforting to see a prominent classical composer like him neglected while David Bowie gets a headline act.

We all know the ostensible reason for having these non-classical Proms. It isn’t because of a lack of classical music — there’s several centuries of work to choose from. And I don’t think it’s due to finance, as most of the classical concerts have little problem selling out. It’s about image. The Proms want to diversify, with the worthy ambition of trying to evangelise those who otherwise don’t like classical music. And it looks like this is set to become an even bigger part of the Proms experience. David Pickard, the Proms’ new director, has said that ‘there are areas that it would be nice to explore in the future … for instance, I accept that in world music there are probably great riches out there to be discovered.’

The trouble isn’t only that this isn’t exactly the point of the Proms; it’s that it doesn’t work. This is not bringing people into classical music. It is accommodating the Proms — a classical music festival — for non-classical tastes.

I don’t even particularly like the focus on the ‘great’ works of classical music (great as they most certainly are). If you want to attract a new audience — a younger audience, even — you need something unexpected, something very distinctive in character.

I did not fall in love with classical music a year ago because of Doctor Who-themed concerts, and neither did I fall in love with classical music because of another bleeding performance of Ravel’s Bolero or Beethoven’s 9th. I fell in love with the music when I heard striking, exciting classical works. Kalevi Aho’s Symphony No. 9, Thomas Ades’ Violin Concerto, James Macmillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (which I’m happy to say is in fact on the programme), Debussy’s Nocturnes, and so on.

When I first heard Mozart I didn’t at all understand it; when I first heard Ives I was astonished. Classical music, in my mind, was all about florid melodies, musical rigidity and an over-abundance of major keys. When I heard modern, relevant pieces — say, Steve Reich’s 9/11 remembrance piece — I became aware of just how important classical music could be to my life. Then, afterwards, I was able to go back and understand the pre-20th century works I found culturally inaccessible, and I now adore them just as much.

I know I am not the only one like this. A common misconception about classical music is that it’s old and poncey. Playing newcomers Mozart’s Jupiter or hosting a David Bowie tribute concert will not change that. You’d be much better off, for instance, replacing Verdi’s Requiem with Ligeti’s much more frightening, unique one. You could cut out Ravel’s Bolero and replace it with La Valse. Instead of the traditional Last Night, end the Proms with a massive work like Messiaen’s Turangalila. Or if we’re forced to keep the Last Night, at least start it off with something youthful and arresting such as Ades’ dance-music infused Ecstasio from Asyla, or Ives’ wildly dramatic orchestral version of his song General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.

But instead of using the diversity of classical music to draw new people in, we have pop and jazz and gospel and Strictly, as if that will somehow expand classical music’s reach.

Still, I must emphasise that there’s still a lot I look forward to. Four Henri Dutilleux works, Mahler 3 & 5, Bartok’s Bluebeard Castle (which I’ve never actually heard before), Beethoven 5 & 7,  Tchaikovsky 4, Bruckner 9, Boulez night with Elliot Carter’s Penthode too, The Sixteen, Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me Tell You, Nielsen 5, the aforementioned world premieres, and probably many other works unknown to me that I’ll fall in love with.

A Piano For Every Household

Every person, every home — every family — is improved by having a piano.

We face a crisis of the family. Dad and Mum sit in front of the television or stare down at their tablets, while the children, if by some miracle they’re in the same room, are on their phones proving to the world that Karl Marx was right: the history of civilisation really does owe everything to human’s possessing opposable thumbs.

Imagine each member of the family sitting round the piano making music together. Mum on the piano perhaps, Dad dutifully performing his role as page-turner, while the kids sing out their parts enthusiastically. Imagine the glee with which the kids would shout, ‘My go! My go!’ And imagine as Dad or Mum sit down with their child at the piano, and impart a generation of culture and learning to their son or daughter. Is there a more intimate family bond than this?

But this isn’t to say such a measure would only benefit families. A piano would bring joy to the lonely, immersing them in a limitlessly beautiful world. Surely they’d be less likely to turn to alcohol, or to trawl through the dank underworlds of the internet. They’d press onto one of those weighted keys and hear in response a sound that reverberates around the room. Then add a second note and it would be almost like watching colour stream into the atmosphere. From then on, they’re hooked, and their lives instantly improved.

So let’s run through the numbers. It would cost £39 billion to handout pianos priced at £1500 to each household in the UK. From the little I know, good quality upright pianos cost at least this amount — and my goodness don’t ask how much grand pianos cost. But without a profit motive and with the advantage of a state monopoly, the low bar of £1500 might be possible.

£39 billion would hardly be the total expenditure either. Households could opt out of the scheme, and any households that already own an acoustic piano could feasibly be prevented from being handed a second one by the government. So, out of the 26,473,000 households in the UK, let us remove 20%. That leaves 21,178,400 households, or £32 billion total expenditure. (A billion, I might add, is 1,000,000,000, in accordance to government figures; the old UK billion, a much larger sum, is all but extinct.)

To put this into perspective, we currently spend £39 billion per year on debt interest (a figure it is in fact quite possible to lower), £34 billion on ‘housing and environment’ (some portion of which could perhaps be cut), and a whopping £240 billion on social protection.

And most notably, we spend £145 billion on the NHS. In this area a government handout of pianos could pay for itself. Imagine a less-stressed, less-alcoholic, less-nicotine addicted populace — that would probably cut £32 billion from the NHS budget alone.

And of course, we wouldn’t have to spend £32 billion every year. Once all households have a piano, maintenance costs and supply costs for new households would be comparably low. I imagine it would fewer than a billion pounds. That would make it less than 0.013% of the total expenditure.

In other words, a government handout of pianos is quite doable and damn good value for money.

Next step: petition the government. I’ve filled out everything over at the official UK Government and Parliament petition site and got the five necessary signatures to jumpstart the petition. But apparently, as is always the case with any government scheme, I have to wait a week until it is fully processed. I will keep you updated. (Fingers crossed that the name ‘Slugging A. Vampire’ doesn’t set off any red flags.)

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

Perhaps it’s a bias I have, but I while I don’t mind atonal music being melody-less, I struggle with tonal music that doesn’t even have fragments of a melody. Such music is among the most minimal in minimalism, and tends to test even a patient person like myself. Become Ocean suffers from exactly this problem.

Some background: John Luther Adams is a minimalist composer (or post-minimalist or, God forbid, neoconservative post-minimalist — it’s easy to lose track). I am not, I must admit, all that familiar with his work. In an attempt to better acquaint myself, I sat down tonight and listened to Become Ocean, an award-winning work and perhaps his most discussed.

In the work, Adams has created a vast ocean that’s entirely lifeless. A 40 minute palindrome, the harp plucks away arpeggios, and on all other instruments the notes seem to last never less than a breve, with the occasional crescendoing, tidal chords overwhelming it all. In some ways a vast empty ocean is all the more apocalyptic. Indeed, he is quite likely making a political statement about rising sea levels and the loss of ocean life, as he is well known to be a passionate environmentalist. But listening to the music I was overcome less by fear or sadness than by boredom.

Had I written it (and yes, that’s a big ‘if’), I might have included half-melodic, half-textural snatches of sea life. Maybe that’s too much of a ‘simple gesture’, but the piece otherwise feels so empty.  Or alternatively I would have truncated the last two-thirds and compacted the first third. I don’t think shortening the piece would at all detract from its subtle, inter-weaving musical patterns; if anything it would draw attention to them. Compared to Debussy’s much dynamic (and indeed shorter, yet more substantive) musical depiction of the ocean, La Mer, which came over a century earlier, I must say my instinct is to think of Become Ocean as an over-hyped step back.

I was really hoping to find something compelling within its vastness. Maybe you will like it much more than me:

A Tale of Two Words

Shepherd’s Pie or Cottage Pie? I’m currently reading Philip Hensher’s marvellous novel, The Northern Clemency, and just reached a passage where a daughter explains to her mother the difference between Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie, and I was oddly intrigued.

There is an excellent post from the blog Culinary Craftiness on this exact dispute. The author of the post, Melissa, confirms that ‘Cottage [Pie] used minced beef while Shepherd’s [Pie] used minced mutton (lamb).’ But more interesting is that ‘in the former, sliced potatoes were layered on top which made it look like the shingles on a cottage; the latter used mashed potatoes spread on top.  In the original recipes found in very old cookbooks, the mashed potatoes also lined the bottom of the dish for a crust they called a coffyn.’ She then includes a fascinating recipe from 1747 for those interested:

To Make a very fine Sweet lamb or Veal Pye.
Season your Lamb with Salt, Pepper, Cloves, Mace and Nutmeg, all beat fine, to your Palate. Cut your Lamb, or Veal, into little Pieces, make a good Puff-paste Crust, lay it into your Dish, then lay in your Meat, strew on it some stoned Raisins and Currans clean washed, and some Sugar; then lay on it some Forced-meat Balls made sweet, and in the Summer some Artichoke-bottoms boiled, and scalded Grapes in the Winter. Boil Spanish Potatoes cut in Pieces, candied Citron, candied Orange, and Lemon-peel, and three or four large Blades of Mace; put Butter on the Top, close up your Pye, and bake it. Have ready against it comes out of the Oven a Caudle [thick drink] made thus: Take a Pint of White Wine, and mix in the Yolks of three Eggs, stir it well together over the Fire, one way, all the time till it is thick; then take it off, stir in Sugar enough to sweeten it, and squeeze in the Juice of a Lemon; pour it hot into your Pye, and close it up again. Send it hot to table.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy, Hannah Glasse [London:1747] Chapter VIII, “Of Pies.”

Sweetened by sugar twice and with a puff-paste crust, it seems much less healthy than the Shepherd’s Pies — sorry, Cottage Pies — I’m used to.

This reminds me of another long-running linguistic dispute: duck tape or duct tape? My guess is that most people, though ignoring the glottal stop and pronouncing it ‘ductape’, would nevertheless say the correct word is duct tape. Wrong!

Duck tape was invented during the Second Worlds War with the use of something called duck cloth, whatever that is. At some point after the war, many started to erroneously call it duct tape as it became commonly used in air ducts. So I implore each of you to restore the correct and much more pronounceable ‘duck tape’.

Go Slug a Vampire

“First of all, welcome. Whether our journey together lasts for years or just for one day, I can’t tell you how excited I am to take this first step with you.”

Ah, there is nothing like beginning with a Frasier quote. In that episode (Season 11, Episode 7) Frasier returns to private practise after years of ‘pop-psychiatry’, as his brother had dismissively called it, at KACL radio. But as is inevitable for Frasier, his first day is a disaster, with the optimism of the above quote soon turning to dejection. In the course of one twenty-minute episode a father-son technique for adjusting one’s trousers nearly turns into sexual assault, a patient reminds Frasier of his bizarre coital exclamation of ‘M’Lady!’, and then the poor doctor ends up getting punched in the eye by the lover of his brother’s ex-wife.

Now, I sincerely doubt my first day will be that chaotic, if at all eventful. Not least because I, unlike Frasier, have neither a brother nor a sex life. I nevertheless look forward to the journey, lonely as it may be.

It’s not my first blog. Every year or so I start one or two, and they tend to just last for one day. But this time — I promise — is different. I actually have a plan.

Or rather, I have deliberately avoided a plan. None of those lofty ambitions or claims to specialness that always come before a fall. Just a vehicle for writing that will hopefully evolve organically, defining itself by accident and within the narrowness of my interests. And if that’s vague, who cares: no one reads the very first post anyway.

For now, however, I leave you with Charles Ives’ Slugging A Vampire, after which I named this blog. It relates to his hatred of ‘yellow journalism’, an old form of journalism based on sensationalism and profit interest alone. (Of course we have nothing at all like that now.) And in its short 30 second length, it packs such a furious musical punch that I’m tempted to describe it as proto-grindcore. Typically, Ives was nearly a century ahead of everyone else.