Musical Politicians

The BBC Music Magazine must be one of the last of its kind in existence. The only other is Gramophone. When I was in America I looked out for any equivalents, and all they had were these two British magazines.

In the latest issue of the BBC mag, Richard Morrison wrote an article titled ‘Do talented musicians really make cultured and benign politicians?’ This is the BBC, so we don’t actually get an answer. (Mine would be an emphatic No!) His article is nonetheless a fun diversion, looking at the sometimes surprising musicality of our political leaders.

Nixon visiting the Trumans

The article was prompted by the election of Emmanuel Macron, who it would seem is an accomplished pianist, and whose few comments on the subject show genuine musical sensitivity. This isn’t that rare in a world leader. Both Nixon and Truman were capable pianists too. Nixon was even kind enough to call Truman ‘certainly the most distinguished and accomplished pianist ever to be president’. (There’s also a rather charming video on YouTube of Nixon playing his own little composition alongside ’15 Democratic violinists’.)

But do these politicians’ talents for music make them better politicians? Goodness, no. These three are perhaps the most world-changing political leaders from twentieth century: Lenin, Hitler and Sayyid Qutb. And what do they all have in common? Yep, you guessed it: they were all classical music fans — and I use ‘fan’ in the proper sense of ‘fanatic’.

Musicians and composers themselves often show appalling political judgement. So many flirted with communism and, yes, fascism. However, a delightful exception is Verdi. He may have supported nationalist revolution, but he was on the whole somewhat conservative. The Italian politician he effectively worshipped was Cavour, easily the least radical of Italy’s ‘founding fathers’. Following the Italian Unification, Verdi was actually elected to parliament and later appointed to the Senate. But he rarely attended, and made essentially no political contribution. Dare I say, that’s my favourite kind of politician!

I am scratching my head trying to think of contemporary musician-politicians besides President Macron. The only name that comes to mind is Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush. She is a very capable pianist. There’s an excellent interview with Rice about her playing. The instrument obviously means a lot to her, and she’s something of a Brahmsian, it would seem. I am not overly fond of her politics, I must say, but one is struck here by her elegance and culture, so unlike most modern elites. Peter Robinson, as usual, does an excellent job interviewing her.

Of course there is always Anthony ‘Tony’ Blair who relished the opportunity to be photographed with a guitar in hand. It was none other than the mischievous Roger Scruton who once remarked that ‘the electric guitar owes much of its immense appeal to the obvious fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a dildo’. Here’s ‘Tony’ with his, erm, guitar:


You know, I owned — in fact I still own — that exact guitar. The Fender Stratocaster HSS, identifiable by the humbucker (the two pickups joined together). I was, I’m ashamed to say, something of a Blair admirer in my younger years. Did I unconsciously mimic him? I shudder to think.

One of the most interesting recent uses of classical music as a political statement was by Russia. After Russia helped the Syrian army retake the historic city of Palmyra, Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra in city’s Roman Theatre. The first piece, starting at 11:55, is Bach’s majestic Chaconne in D Minor.


A New Beethoven Cycle

Yes, yet another Beethoven symphony cycle. But this one’s a real corker.

It’s a three-year project with Thomas Ades conducting the Britten Sinfonia, and with each concert pairing one or two Beethoven symphonies with a work by Irish composer Gerald Barry, whose music Ades has long been a champion of. Barry is most famously the man who made The Importance of Being Earnest, and more recently Alice in Wonderland, into operas.

So what does Barry have to do with Beethoven? Well, first off Barry has written a remarkable musical setting of Beethoven’s ‘immortal beloved’ letter. This song, simply titled Beethoven, was paired with Symphonies 1 and 2. It is almost operatic in its scope, lasting nearly twenty minutes and spanning two-days, from 6 July to 7 July [ETA: that is, in 1812]. Starting with Beethoven gives the following two symphonies a stronger personality. Rather than suffering through a talk where we hear about Beethoven’s intemperate character and, yet again, his deafness, we are introduced to the man musically, by a setting of this peculiar letter. Barry’s Beethoven is stiff and detached, in contrast to sometimes angular and jumpy, but usually very beautiful music. The highlight is doubtless the end, when a chorale-like section begins and Beethoven tries to pour his heart out. An extract:

No one else can ever possess my heart – never – never – Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves. And yet my life in Vienna is now a wretched life -Your love makes me at once the happiest and unhappiest of men

But the delivery is so idiosyncratic. ‘Never’ is almost barked. ‘Oh God’ is exclaimed with anger. Yet the next line is sung almost monotone and in an unchanging quaver rhythm. This Beethoven is quite incapable of expressing emotions in a normal way. He then rushes the end of the letter so he can get to the post office in time, by which time the audience were wholly convinced by the work, touched even, and greeted it with a warm laugh and much applause.

Musically, melodic simplicity and surprise link Barry and Beethoven. Barry’s Alice opera, for instance, is full of fundamental musical elements (arpeggios, simple motifs) that have been made much more interesting than they ought to be. Just as Beethoven’s Eroica symphony opens with a major triad that, on paper, ought to be boring.

The Beethoven itself was taut and exciting, full of quick tempi and controlled explosions. It sounds like we won’t be in for the sluggish interpretation so many conductors give the seconds movements of Symphonies 3 and 7. And goodness, the Seventh Symphony will be an absolute blast!

I was not especially familiar with the first two symphonies, quite unfairly presuming them to be half-way points between Mozart and Haydn and what would, with Eroica, become the Beethoven we know. But the Beethoven of symphonies 3-9 is there in much more than embryonic form. At the end of the first movement of the Second Symphony, I was trying to rearrange my open mouth to utter a ‘wow’, but my neighbour beat me to it.

Rather than me trying uselessly to describe its content, have a listen. The BBC have a recording of the Barbican performance up online for 30 days:

Ich glaub mich knutscht ein Elch! Wagner and Video Games?

If there’s one thing the human race loves to guiltily watch, it is figurative car crashes, those ill-fated attempts to do something that should probably have never been attempted in the first place. Well, you would think when computer games take on the subject of classical music the smell of tarmac wouldn’t be far behind. In actual fact, I could only find one such game — and yes, it is spectacularly bad. But the rest were… tolerable, even clever.

Although I’m a few years into adulthood now, I have yet to put away all childish things. A long-standing hobby is playing adventure games, a largely extinct genre in which the player progresses through the story by solving puzzles. In the evolution of adventure games there are two main types. Text adventures originated in the late 1970s and were games in which the player could type basic commands into the parser, e.g. >go north or >pick up the key, and the game would react in prose. (And on a 1980s machine, the computational effort required would mean the player might have to wait several seconds or more, as the computer wheezed and groaned, for the text to splurt out.) Text adventures virtually died out in the late 1980s, but a thriving underground community resurrected the genre and is still to this day creating brilliant games.

Screenshot of Infocom’s 1987 title Bureaucracy, a game as frustrating and miserably funny as the title would suggest

In the transition from mainstream to underground, the slightly-pretentious term ‘interactive fiction’ (IF) replaced ‘text adventure’. Among these works of IF, there have indeed been a few based on classical music. One game, The Art of the Fugue, rather ingeniously takes the idea of a fugue and turns it into a logic game where your commands are performed by four actors, but each one delayed a turn. So if you type >press button, the first actor will press the button in turn one, the second actor will press the button in turn two, and so on. The point is to synchronise harmoniously the entrance of all these delayed commands — hence its subtitle, Interactive Studies in Counterpoint. The other game is titled Augmented Fourth, referring to the particularly dissonant interval sometimes known as the ‘devil’s note’. You can imagine, then, the kind of bumbling adventure it is, with one reviewer describing it as ‘a light fantasy romp about a luckless (and talentless) musician who ends up chucked in an oubliette after offending the King.’

Déjà Vu (1984), one ofthe first point and click adventure games

As text adventures lost their commercial standing in the late 1980s, graphical adventure games took over. The most common method of interaction was using your mouse to perform actions — examine, pick up, move etc — from which the rather plain nickname ‘point and click’ adventures is derived. They were, at the time, among the most commercially successful computer games, a fact today’s gamers, brought up on manic violence and quick-trigger reflexes, would struggle to understand. They were slow games in which you could well spend more time thinking than playing, and almost never dealt in grotesque violence. When Doom and other first-person shooters came along in the mid-1990s, gamers lost the taste for mental challenge and stories (however simple) and decided they’d rather just kick space aliens to death.

One of the first graphical adventure games to include music in its premise was LucasArt’s 1990 game Loom. In Loom, playing certain little motifs on your wooden distaff will cast a spell. For example, the ‘open’ spell is ECED. More notes are unlocked as you play, and you have to use your puzzle-solving skills to uncover new motifs. It seems slightly primitive now, but it was really quite innovative for 1990, back when games didn’t even have voice-overs and you’d be lucky to have a computer that had even one megabyte of RAM.

Screenshot of Loom

Adventure games could be very ambitious, and quite often overambitious — especially, funnily enough, just before they went extinct. An incredible plot idea attempted in two different games was to make use of Wagner’s operas. One tried to present his Ring cycle in video game format, and the other invented a whole mythology based on a fictional, long-lost Wagner opera.

Point and click adventure games have a reputation for being abstruse and unnecessarily long. So whatever smart aleck came up with the 1999 point and click game Ring: The Legend of the Nibelungen may have discovered the perfect meeting of subject and medium, a sort of perverse Gesamtkunstwerk — a Wagner opera depicted not only through music and visuals but also through player interaction. I doubt, however, anyone would enjoy this game unless they delight in the debasement of Wagner’s work.

Here’s the spectacularly fantastical and ambitious intro video:

This was not someone simply cribbing Wagner. It was a labour of love, and all the more tragic for it. The IGN review concluded thus: ‘Cryo’s latest point-and-stare adventure game will want to make you cry — oh, and how!’

The game looks pretty good for its time — though the graphics begin to fall apart when the players moves, admittedly somewhat of a problem for a video game — and it’s hard to fault a Wagner soundtrack, compressed though it is. But it’s a chopped up version of the story, and the gameplay is nearly non-existent. Expect mostly to be watching lengthy computer animations and wishing you were at the opera instead. Actually, don’t expect anything: don’t bother playing it, not even out of morbid curiosity.

The most surprising thing about the game is that they actually made a sequel.

Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time Wagner was incorporated into a video game. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within is a game I really, really like. Sure, a lot of the acting is hammy, the CGI hasn’t aged well, and much of the story is ludicrous. But goddammit, it’s kitsch at its best!

The game is set in contemporary Bavaria, once the land of Wagner’s patron ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II. Author and schattenjager (supernatural hunter) Gabriel Knight is investigating a werewolf murder there. The game is quite unlike any other: in one chapter you spend almost the entire time visiting Neuschwanstein castle (which was in fact built partly as a homage to Wagner) and reading a slightly-altered history of King Ludwig II and Bavaria laid out in quite some detail. (If that wasn’t enough, you also get to visit the Wagner museum in Bayreuth.)

Screenshot 2017-05-27 16.52.57.png
Neuschwanstein castle as seen in the game

It isn’t spoiling much to say that the game ends up centred around the mysterious madness of King Ludwig II and a long-lost but now recovered (fictional) Wagner opera, Der Fluch des Engelhart (The Curse of Engelhart), which has its premiere in the game. (How werewolfism fits in you’ll have to find out yourself.) The game uses Full-Motion Video, which means it features real actors, so the actual opera scene is visually quite impressive, especially for 1995. The music is not. Not at all. But the whole scene is wonderfully ballsy, and I love it for that (spoiler warning: absolutely do not watch the second half in the unlikely event that you intend to play the game):

Gabriel Knight 3 came along four years later in 1999, and is widely (and unfairly) blamed for adventure gaming’s demise. In many ways it was a great game, but mention the cat-moustache, or in its long form, the cat-hair-tape-syrup-moustache puzzle to any adventure game fan and the look of dejection they’ll give you will be unbearable.

Why not end with some real Wagner, the Lohengrin prelude. The picture is, of course, the Neuschwanstein castle.