Saturday, 11 January 2020

Chopin and George Sand in Valldemossa

They came here on 15 December 1838 because they'd been kicked out of their lodgings near Palma. News had spread of Chopin's tuberculosis - a condition which Sand, his lover and devoted carer, refused to believe - and when the rains came, water had poured into the sick room. The 14th century charterhouse in Valldemossa had recently been de-monked and turned over to the authorities during the civil war which had left Mallorca in turmoil; it would offer them isolation, peace and a better climate in the Tramuntana mountains.

The Mallorcan sojourn was not going so well, and Sand's anti-clerical stance, along with the fact that she dressed herself and her daughter in men's/boys clothes and smoked cigars, alienated them from the local populace. Chopin's worsening condition and the wretched weather meant they left after 59 days in Valldemossa. Sand's account of a very mixed time,  A Winter in Mallorca, has been pilloried for her high-handedness and mockery of the island people, but I love its spirit and energy. Discussing the destroyed Dominican Monastery in Palma, she rails against the horrors of the Inquisition carried out there, and she is scathing about the Catholic cult of Valldemossa's holy girl Catalina Tomás, whose chapel we came across when we walked around the lower town (the plaques marking the stations of the cross around it are on houses in showcase condition, though we saw no-one apart from a couple of old ladies visiting the shrine and a singular cat - see lower down).

At no time has the Roman Church refused to honour in the Heavenly Kingdom the humblest children of the people, but times have come where she has condemned and rejected those of her apostles who try to improved their existence in this earthly kingdom. The pagesa [peasant girl] Catalina was obedient, poor, chaste and humble; but the Valldemossan pagès have profited so little from her example, and understood so little of her life, that one day they tried to stone my children, for they regarded as desecration the fact that my son was sketching the ruin of the Charterhouse. They behaved exactly like the Church, with one hand they kindled the auto-da-fé pyres, and with the other hand they burned incense before the effigies of her saints.

George's 15-year-old son Maurice has left very flavoursome pictorial documents of that time - there's a reproduction of one in the cell-museum which I hadn't seen before, of Chopin, mama and the children being informed by the Valldemossa priest about the nature of snow (as if we didn't know, Maurice wryly adds).

Having read tales of rival claims to 'the Chopin/Sand cell' from the monastery proper and Chopinesque competition, I was dubious about the gaudy claims outside to the 'real' lodgings, for which you have to pay separately. But it seems that 'Celda No. 4' is the right one, and since it had the Pleyel piano shipped from France which arrived rather late in their sojourn there, it had to be seen. And I was glad I took the plunge. What they don't publicise is the beauty of the garden terrace and one of those views which, Sand wrote, 'completely overwhelm one, for it leaves nothing to be desired and nothing to the imagination. All that a poet or painter might dream of, Nature has created here'.

The 'cell' is not as austere as you might imagine, even though Chopin compared his room to a tall, upright coffin with vaulting. Approached - the entrance is along from the cloister gateway -

via a lugubrious passageway

and heralded with various letterings - I've cut out the gaudy gold proclamation above here -

it's a suite of three rooms, all with windows and doors giving out on to the terrace.

There are facsimiles of Chopin's manuscript for the Preludes and original letters concerning the procurement and delivery of the Pleyel, and yes, there is the piano itself.

Until it arrived, Chopin allegedly played and composed on a specially constructed Mallorcan pianino, which if Paul Kildea is correct in his recent book on the subject, passed into the hands of Wanda Landowska. What he composed on which piano is never going to be known, but it is certain that some of his darkest inspirations were penned there, spooked as he so seriously was by his surroundings: the central juggernaut of  the D flat major Prelude, nicknamed "Raindrop" because of its incessant A flats turning into G sharps in the middle section; the wild outburst which shatters the trotting composure of the F minor Ballade; and the C sharp minor Scherzo.

We got to Valldemossa in little more than half an hour on a morning bus from Palma. Our host at the Bar-Ristorante es Roquessar in the main square told us that the week before Christmas was unnaturally quiet this year, and that there was no point in staying open of an evening. This was the equal-first-best meal we had in Mallorca - alongside those in our Palma regular, l' ambigú - and we spent longer than planned just sitting watching the sporadic activity in the square (a kid playing delightedly with the leaves dancing in the wind, a couple that swept through photographing everything, an ugly and persistent cat with a very odd meow). Mostly, though, it was deserted. This is the view across to the restaurant from the entrance to the cell-museum.

J wasn't going to see the cell, but once I'd been I insisted he did, which gave me another 20 minutes sitting in the late afternoon sun.

After that we wandered down to the lower part of town,

conversed with a very leonine cat by the chapel to Catalina.

peered down various alleys giving views to the verdant hills beyond

and I took a bigger loop around because I wanted to see the monastery terraces from below (hence the lead picture here). The next day was marked out for Deia, 20 minutes further on by bus, and that offered wonders of another sort, to be chronicled anon.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Weill in the 1930s: Silver Lake and Deadly Sins

In a departure from the usual format for my Opera in Depth terms at Pushkin House - two operas over ten Monday afternoons, one in the case of the major Wagners - I split the autumn three ways, and revelled in each work, despite preliminary misgivings. So we had four Mondays on Handel's Agrippina, four on Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice - and two on Weill's Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake), to link with English Touring Opera's valiant production - musically excellent, production wise not so much; but in any case only two students went.... (Pictured above: David Webb as Severin and Ronald Samm as Olim in the ETO production, image by Richard Hubert Smith)

Despite that, we all had a vital time with Weill; I often forget how close he is to my heart, not least because of the happy time spent under Dr Roger Savage's direction in the Edinburgh University Opera Club's triple bill  of The Lindbergh Flight, The Yea-sayer, in which I was one of the trio of students, and The Seven Deadly Sins in the Auden/Kallman translation, in which I played Pop to basso profundo Adrian Johnson's Mom. Our 'sons' were tenors Bill Anderson and Matthew Lloyd. Here we are mulling over the designs for our 'little house in Louisiana', gradually assembled piece by piece as daughter Anna sends home money, having subdued each of the 'sins' in the eyes of the capitalistic bourgeoisie, otherwise human virtues.

Since I just dredged up these pictures, here's a tableau from the penultimate, 'Avarice', scene. Liz Harley was our Anna I, a dancer called Viv (whose surname I'm afraid I forget) Anna II.

The more I listen to Seven Deadlies, as we called it then, the more I'm convinced it's Weill's most perfect score - and possibly Brecht's most succinct and ingenious text with him, though the Mahagonny myth is one of the latter's great and timeless creations. Now that we see how the love of money and power still dictates all, the less we are likely to see Brecht/Weill as just a Zeitgeisty thing (of then, I mean, but maybe the 1930s are rhyming with the 2010s/20s, if not replaying in detail).

All the aspects of 7DS are there in Weill's music for Georg Kaiser's play The Silver Lake: A Winter's Tale (allegedly very long indeed, the spoken text much cut for ETO), and musically there isn't a duff number. The dry, bleached choral writing for 's monologue, in which he decides to help the robber he shot, if only he had money (a Lottery Agent obliges), is fine in place, but it kills the opera Der Burgschaft stone dead; I listened to the first act on CD, and couldn't go on. Whereas the music of The Silver Lake couldn't have a more lively argument than it gets from Markus Stenz, the London Sinfonietta and a top notch cast on this recording.

The technique in Sins and Silver Lake, though, is to keep the hit song style alive in alternation with the 'serious' side of Weill as Busoni's pupil; he may have made the same mistake in thinking Die Burgschaft the best of him as Sullivan did in wanting to write 'serious' opera when his collaborations with Gilbert were sheer perfection. Not that Silbersee is without its serious side. Nor is it just an historical curiosity, the last flourish of what would become labelled by the Nazis 'Entartete Musik,' 'degenerate music'. Famously, since Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany at the end of Germany, Berlin was considered too risky as a location so simultaneous premieres took place on 8 February 1933 in Leipzig, Magdeburg and Erfurt; the second Magdeburg performance was disrupted by Nazi supporters. The rest is horrible history, starting with the Reichstag fire on 27 February. Weill fled Berlin less than a month later, and landed in Paris, where, reunited with Brecht, he worked on his 'ballet chanté' Die sieben Todsünden (to give SDS its hybrid title - the text was first performed in German), before moving on to America with Lotte Lenya in 1935.

There is a remarkable Silbersee document of the highest artistic quality: Ernst Busch (pictured above later, in the 1940s), who created the role of Severin, the hungry man who steals a pineapple, in Magdeburg, recorded two songs with the full orchestration conducted by Maurice de Abravanel, in advance of the premiere; they were the last to be made of Weill's music in Germany for many years. Both are on YouTube but seemingly not embeddable, so I'll provide links instead. The A side is a march-like protest song from early in Act One, 'Der Bäcker backt ums Morgenrot' , while on the B-side Busch steps in for the roles of greedy Baron Laur and Frau von Luber in the 'Totentanz' (Dance of Death) that turns into 'Das Lied von Schlaraffenland'.

In the first class, I set the scene for Der Silbersee, starting with the 'Tango Angèle', the first 78rpm gramophone record of specially-composed music to be incorporated into an opera, the one act comedy with Kaiser Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken), recorded in 1928, then taking an oblique look at some of the intervening hits. In the second class, lacking any DVD of Der Silbersee, I first of all found all the corresponding styles in Seven Deadly Sins in snippet form and placed them alongside their Silbesee parallels, before screening Laurent Pelly's perhaps over-joky but never boring production in collaboration with choreographer Laura Scozzi for the Paris Opera and Ballet; Anne Sofie von Otter is so good in this, though I'm afraid there are no subtitles.

In four days' time, we're back at Pushkin House with 2020's Wagner Ring instalment - ten Monday afternoons on Siegfried. Here's the flyer; if you think you might be interested in joining, click to enlarge and absorb the details.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Solstitial sunrises from a Palma balcony

We lucked out, as they say, with this view from an apartment recommended by our friend Sophie Sarin (currently in tougher climes back in Mali) via her Swedish diplomat friend from Bamako, Eva. It was enough at first to wake when the sun was already bright

and the coast opposite clear

but after an early lifting of the shutters to reveal a sunrise, 7.30am rising became a must. Praise be to the solstice for making such a daily revelation possible - sunrises are usually for me a rare and unforgettable occurrence, like getting up at 4.30am in Göttingen to head out for a clavichord recital by the Seeburger See with the sun beyond the windows rising through the willows. Given variable weather, with only a smattering of rain when Storm Elsa was supposed to be at her height (it was about 9pm and I was on the way back from a free recital of Fauré's piano music in the fabulous Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró (more on which in a future post), no one morning was quite the same as the other. Even on a day when a Mallorcan version of the haar hung low, there was a hint of blurry sun before it closed in,

 There was red sky in the morning on the day of the Elsa warning

after which the sunny weather returned for the solstice days: first heralded by a different kind of red, a rosy-fingered dawn

then as an orb rising from haze

while the next day, Helios made a simple ascent at its most majestic.

The fishing boat on the left seemed to account for the gulls circling before the levee

while I was more hard-pressed to account for the swarms above the terraces of olive trees in Deia - easier to make out in the first picture below than in the second; some of them look like skuas, others black-headed gulls.

In our own garden - well-kept, but they need to ditch the noisy, smelly leaf-blowers - the denizens were mainly blackbirds, collared doves and the very occasional butterfly (I think this is a Wall Brown, Lassiomata megera, but someone else may know different).

while down on the rocky seafront, cormorants dried their wings,

poised and skimmed. We could just have been idle, but there was too much to see in the mountains and the wonderful city on our doorstep, where one of the greatest cathedrals in the world had its sandstone facade further deepened by the sun setting opposite.

More on that wonder, on Chopin and George Sand in Valldemossa and Robert Graves in Deia, in future posts. It's nice to be back for quiet interstitial days, full of such vivid impressions and having gleaned such warmth, as well as respite from the sight of our Prime Monster, over 10 days.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Good Chance conviviality in Dalston

So now's the time to forge closer ties with organisations within the UK that can make a difference, in line with the 'political re-wilding' George Monbiot writes about here. This breaking of bread - and what bread (chef Dina Mousawi, more on whom anon, pictured below) - a fortnight ago wasn't exactly a seasonal celebration, but better than any pre-Xmas event of a similar kind I've attended. Rarely met so many friendly and engaging folk as at this perfectly orchestrated fundraiser at the Ridley Road Social Club (a splendid venue, for a start, which clearly does good lunches and feels immediately welcoming).

Good Chance started out creating a safe and vibrant performance space for refugees in the form of a dome within the Calais Jungle. They'll be taking the same to Sheffield, where I hope they'll hook up with some musical friends of mine. The venture has expanded not only to mounting a much-acclaimed production about the Jungle experience, now in New York, and visiting more troubled zones where the GCers might make a difference. I got to talk to the charismatic Stephen Daldry. He's been down on the Mexican side of the border, where he found out how Honduran refugees are looked down upon by the locals: each 'tribal' group has the potential to hate another, but with a bit of work they can come to understand and welcome. He said the big problem, he'd learned from a very famous New Best Friend, was going to be climate-change related; in several years' time we'll see the new wave.

Above is J's (and now I hope my) friend Philip Cowell, Good Chance's Development Manager and one of the friendly circulators, while in the top picture you can also see second from the right one of the Co-Directors, Joe Robertson. All images taken by Aymen Mahamednor, courtesy of Good Chance. I was seated, as you can see from the top photo, next to Majid Adin from Mashad in Iran, a very talented artist who worked on this excellent short film to Elton John's 'Rocket Man' (thanks, of course, to Daldry's connections).

The food was superb, courtesy of Dina, Creative Director of Good Chance,  who's also produced a Syrian cook book - she is from Iraq, but her collaborator was born in Damascus, and they spoke to many women for the recipes.

I was pleased to see my all-time favourite starter dip, what I call muhammara, in the early pages, and so far  I've produced chicken in turmeric yogurt: needs fine tuning, but will be a good regular. At the feast, the turmeric cakes with pistachio were a special treat.

Dina charmingly introduced the speeches and the film, and then there was music from Sounds of Refuge's John Falsetto and Mohamed Sarrar.

It's a long time since I've been to a social gathering where so many people - in this case the regular team - were so adept at going round the room and talking to others. They all gave off such positive and friendly vibes. Time to do more.