CLAUDE DEBUSSY MEETS EDGAR ALLAN POE: THE OPERA OF ‘THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER’

Of all the composers who have been inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the canon of classical music and opera, by far the most important is Claude Debussy (1862-1918), immortalised as the composer of works such as ‘La Mer’, ‘Clair de lune’ and ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ and of the opera ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. However, the French composer’s (unfinished) operatic adaptations of Poe remain a relatively little-known part of his opus.

Matters have now been improved by the recent release of the double CD ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas’ (Göttinger Symphony Orchestra/Christoph-Matias Mueller, Pan Classics PC10342, 2016) – see Andrew Clements, ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas – an unfinished double bill heard at last’, The Guardian, 8 June 2016 – https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/08/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-review-an-unfinished-double-bill-heard-at-last; and: http://www.mdt.co.uk/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-mueller-pan-classics-2cds.html.

Debussy Usher CD cover

Both operas were left unfinished by Debussy on his death. He worked on ‘Le diable dans le beffroi’ (based on Poe’s comic story ‘The Devil in the Belfry’) from 1902 to 1912, and on ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ (based on the far better-known ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’) from 1908 to 1917. For both, Debussy prepared his own libretto, taking as starting-point the celebrated translations into French of Charles Baudelaire (the booklet of the new release includes both librettos, in the original French and also in English and German translation). In the case of ‘Usher’, Debussy’s sketches amount to about half of the projected score. He intended to finish both projects, and his unrealised hope was that they would be premiered together as a double bill at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The two recordings that make up this release have necessarily been completed by hands other than Debussy’s. The first completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’, by Carolyn Abbate, was performed at Yale University in 1977. A second completion, by Juan Allende-Blin, received its premiere two years later in Berlin; a recording of that version was released by EMI in 1984, with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georges Prêtre. For the new release, the task has fallen, for both works, to the British ‘creative musicologist’ Robert Orledge, whose work thus marks the third completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ and the first-ever of ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’.

Of these two Poe/Debussy works, while ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’ is clearly of interest for students of the minor Poe tale it springs from, ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ is by far the more important, and the rest of this post will focus on that recording.

The opera as completed lasts 55 minutes. It is divided into a brief orchestral prelude and two acts. Act 1 begins with Madeline singing the first stanza of ‘The Haunted Palace’ offstage, and continues as Roderick’s friend enters and converses with the doctor (who plays a greater role than in the original). The rest is compressed into the second act.

There are various significant departures from the original. Roderick evokes his mother’s death and confesses he has tried in vain to escape the house. He imagines himself pursued by sinister black-winged birds that suggest Poe’s raven. None of this of course is in the original, and conversely there is no mention of Roderick’s painting activities, or of his music other than ‘The Haunted Palace’. Of his favourite books, only one (Pomponius Mela) is mentioned, though ‘The Mad Trist’ plays the same role as in the original, albeit with the protagonist renamed Sir Ulrich. In Act 2, the narrative shifts rapidly from Roderick’s first appearance and account of his malady, to Madeline’s interment, announced to the visitor by the doctor. The closing scene follows the original quite closely, from the storm through to the return of Madeline and the dénouement, with Roderick’s despairing words, ‘Insensé! Je vous dis qu’elle est maintenant derrière la porte!’ (‘Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!’) taken unaltered from Baudelaire.

Despite the departures, the opera as conceived by Debussy and completed by Orledge may be considered a musical and interpretive success. The music sounds like Debussy (indeed like ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’), and both vocals and orchestration manage to communicate the strangeness, suspense and drama of Poe’s famous tale. ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ may be enjoyed as a valuable reading of and commentary on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. On the operatic stage as on the pages of the book, Roderick Usher perishes – but once again, translated to another medium, Poe the protean genius lives!

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: THE DEFENCE OF FREE SPEECH IN THE INTERNET AGE

Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, London: Atlantic Books, 2016, ISBN (e-book) 978-1-78239-031-2; also available as hardback and paperback –

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Free-Speech-Principles-Connected-World/dp/1848870922/?ie=UTF8&tag=tgabooks-21

Garton Ash cover

Timothy Garton Ash is a reputed academic (holding the position of Professor of European Studies at Oxford University) and writer and journalist, as well as being a distinguished commentator on George Orwell. The last-named role is particularly befitting for his new book, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, which proves to be a publication of vital importance thanks to its epic coverage of an issue now rendered white-hot by globalisation.

This book is long (the print edition runs to 512 pages), and eminently of our time not only in its subject-matter but in its status as part of what the author calls our ‘connected world’. It does not come standalone: the lengthy notes section is replete with links, and the book is also explicitly tied to a website by the name of ‘Free Speech Debate’ (www.freespeechdebate.com), a multinational and multilingual online platform of which Garton Ash himself is the director.

We live in paradoxical times. Internet technology offers individuals and groups, subject only to access to communications facilities and to general and IT literacy, a totally unprecedented freedom to express opinions and disseminate creative works. At the same time, there is massive pressure worldwide, both political and ideological, for limits to be imposed on that same freedom, both online and offline. This pressure may take the form of, for example, systematic state censorship (Russia and China), religiously motivated restrictions (the Islamic world), or, in British and American universities, demands by militant students for ‘safe spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and general protection from the expression of opinions other than their own.

The whole issue is a minefield, and Garton Ash does his best to navigate it, between affirming necessary general principles and examining particular cases in the requisite detail. He does so from a point of view which is avowedly liberal but does not seek to unilaterally impose a purely ‘Western’ concept of free speech (many of the cases he cites are not from the West at all). As he puts it, ‘This book lays out an argument for, and invites a conversation about, free speech in our new cosmopolis’. He is convinced that the answer to the problems he raises is ‘more and better free speech’, and advocates an attitude of ‘robust civility’ as the way forward. The ‘ten principles’ of the subtitle relate to: lifeblood (free speech as constitutive of humanity), [the rejection of] violence, knowledge, [the responsible practice of] journalism, diversity, [freedom of] religion [but also from religious censorship], privacy, [opposition to] [state] secrecy, ‘icebergs’ [a metaphor for issues of internet governance], and courage. This may seem a rather complex list, but it is still in evolution and subject to change on the website, and, as Garton Ash shows in riveting detail, the issues themselves are nothing if not complex.

On the level of detail, the book is notable both for what it does and does not home in on. Some may be surprised that Garton Ash refrains from detailed commentary on ins and outs of either the ‘Rushdie affair’ or the Charlie Hebdo killings – one could argue, justifiably since many others have already gone over those issues, central as they are, with the finest of combs. Meanwhile, though, the author sheds particularly useful light on other subjects as varied as the controversy over the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ videoclip, the nuts and bolts of China’s day-to-day controls over internet use and its army of censors, and the distinctively American but globally influential First Amendment tradition. On the latter point, the 45 words of the actual amendment text are at no point quoted as such, and here, one might argue, an opportunity has been missed to push home the oft-ignored point that the First Amendment covers not only freedom of speech but other liberties including freedom of religion, and that the chances of it ever being repealed are therefore slim in the extreme. As the book unfolds, the reader encounters a mass of data, both challenging and fascinating: we learn, for instance, that in 2011 a 75-year-old woman scavenging for firewood in a village in Georgia accidentally damaged a cable and brought down the entire internet in most of neighbouring Armenia for twelve hours, yet the woman herself had never heard of the internet – an episode emblematic of that very coexistence in today’s world of the ancient and the hypermodern that underlies many of the problems that Garton Ash raises.

I would be pleased if I felt I could predict that this book will become a modern classic, the latter-day equivalent of a founding text such as John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’. However, that is unlikely to happen, since large swathes of its subject-matter are – by definition, and in the internet age inevitably – ephemeral and time-bound. A second edition would have to be substantially rewritten and would have to take account of technologies that do not yet exist. However, the larger project is by its nature ongoing, and when this book has exhausted its useful life the impassioned debate on its issues will still be in course.

Not all will sympathise with the author’s stance, and pro-censorship responses are to be expected as well as expressions of support – although, will hostile reviewers in the West actually go so far as to walk their talk and have their review censored by a suitable theocrat or relativist before they upload it? I would meanwhile suggest that Garton Ash’s opus should be considered required reading for anyone interested in free speech, but would also advise reading it sooner rather than later, before we are engulfed in new controversies whose contours we have yet to discern.

 

PORTUGAL AND THE ‘NEW HARRY POTTER’

The heat is on in the Potter world, with the play in two parts ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ due to open in London today, 30 July 2016, and the ‘book of the play’ (a co-production of J.K. Rowling and scriptwriter Jack Thorne) going on sale the day after.

Joanne Rowling thus continues Harry’s story into his later life as an adult and parent, without breaking the letter of her promise that the seventh Potter book would be the last, as this is a stage play and thus belongs to a different genre.

For those who read Portuguese, on 23 July 2016 the Lisbon weekly ‘Expresso’ published an interesting article linking the launch with J.K. Rowling’s seminal (pre-Harry) time in Portugal, when she lived in Porto as an English teacher.

I am pleased and grateful to note that this article refers to a publication of mine on the same subject from 2003. Indeed, this is the second time ‘Expresso’ mentions that article, the first time having been in 2009. I believe I may mention this second citation, as times change and neither the Potter world nor the Muggle world are as they were in 2009! What is cited from my piece is the connection I suggested between the name Salazar Slytherin and the Portuguese dictator António Salazar: and as we know from the Potter books and from the world around us, dictatorship and totalitarianism in general are, alas, not going to disappear tomorrow …

**

Details and url for the ‘Expresso’ article:

Rui Duarte Silva, ‘Porto vai ter mimos para a geração Potter [‘Porto to flatter the Potter generation’], ‘Expresso’, 23 July 2016

http://expresso.sapo.pt/sociedade/2016-07-23-O-Porto-vai-ter-mimos-para-a-geracao-Potter

and for my own text:

‘An English Teacher in Porto: In Search of Joanne Rowling’, ‘Lingua Franca’ (Brussels), Vol. 6, No. 1, 2003, pp. 4-8; on-line with photos at:

http://yatrarollason.info/files/ROWLINGPORTOEN.pdf

FESTIVAL DEL FLAMENCO/FLAMENCO FESTIVAL, ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE (LUXEMBURGO/LUXEMBOURG)

Quizás no suficientemente conocido en el universo del flamenco es el festival anual que se celebra cada primavera en Esch-sur-Alzette, segunda ciudad de Luxemburgo. Este evento, que acaba de cumplir once ediciones, lo organizan el Círculo Cultural Español Antonio Machado y el lugar de espectáculos Kulturfabrik, conjuntamente con el Instituto Andaluz del Flamenco: dura una semana entera (este año del 27 de mayo al 4 de junio), y combina espectáculos protagonizados por grandes figuras del flamenco actual (canción, baile y guitarra) con talleres prácticos dados por los mismos artistas. Hace varios años que sigo el festival, y este año tuve el placer de ver y escuchar a la bailaora La Lupi, la cantaora Rocío Bazán y el guitarrista Curro de María. Es un logro traer a artistas de tanta calidad a una localidad sin nexo obvio con el flamenco o con España, y así se demuestra que en el mundo de la cultura, la determinación y la creatividad pueden desembocar en resultados sorprendentes …

Flamenco festival programme 2016

Perhaps not sufficiently known in the world of flamenco is the annual festival which takes place every spring in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second city. Now into its 11th edition and organised by the Círculo Cultural Español Antonio Machado and the Kulturfabrik cultural venue in conjunction with the Instituto Andaluz del Flamenco, the festival lasts a full week (this year from 27 May to 4 June) and combines spectacles with flamenco’s finest contemporary names in song, dance and guitar with practical workshops given by the artists themselves. I have been following this event for several years, and this time round was pleased to witness the bailaora La Lupi, the cantaora Rocío Bazán and the guitarist Curro de María. To being artists of this quality to a locality which has no obvious connection with flamenco or Spain is an achievement, and shows that in the arts world, determination and creativity can bring surprising results!

J.K. ROWLING’S SPEECH AT PEN AMERICA LITERARY GALA 2016: A CHALLENGE FOR ALBUS DUMBLEDORE?

As noted earlier on this blog (21 February 2016), J.K. Rowling was the main invited speaker at this year’s PEN America Literary Gala in New York, held on 16 May 2016,at which she received the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for 2016 (see: https://pen.org/2016-PEN-gala#sthash.oYyNL4BI.dpuf). Her chosen theme was one of today’s most burning topics, namely freedom of speech – an issue on which, as we saw last year over the Charlie Hebdo killings, some PEN members have shown attitudes best described as ambivalent.

Rowling, by contrast, is crystal-clear on the issue. In her speech (https://pen.org/2016-pen-literary-gala-parker-rowling), she declared: ‘The tides of populism and nationalism currently sweeping many developed countries have been accompanied by demands that unwelcome and inconvenient voices be removed from public discourse. “Mainstream media” has become a term of abuse in some quarters. It seems that unless a commentator or television channel or a newspaper reflects exactly the complainant’s worldview, it must be guilty of bias or corruption. Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me—a moderate and a liberal—most uncomfortable’. She concluded pleading for ‘plurality, tolerance, and the importance of rational discourse’ and expressing the wish that PEN continue to ‘fight for … the freedoms on which a liberal society rests and without which no literature can have value’.

We may conclude that Albus Dumbledore should allow Lord Voldemort to speak, however much he might abhor the latter’s views – arguably a bold position in today’s intolerant times.

This is not the first time Rowling has spoken at a major American event. The slim volume ‘Very Good Lives’, published by Little, Brown in 2015,

JKR Very Good Lives cover

contains her speech at a Harvard ‘commencement’ (graduation ceremony) held in 2008. There too she defends the freedom of the imagination. The world can only be the better-off for such interventions from a writer whose works have given so much pleasure, to children and adults alike.

GREIL MARCUS: ‘THREE SONGS, THREE SINGERS, THREE NATIONS’

The writings of America’s foremost popular music critic, Greil Marcus, never disappoint. The latest offering from the author of ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Invisible Republic’, ‘Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations’, beautifully produced as a slim hardback by Harvard University Press (2015), brings together a trio of lectures given in 2013, their venue what Bob Dylan, way back on his first album in 1962, called ‘the green pastures of Harvard University’.  The three talks took place under the rubric of the ‘William E. Massey Sr Lectures in the History of American Civilisation 2013’.

Greil Marcus

Of the ‘three singers’, one is, indeed, that very same Bob Dylan on whom the author has written eloquently on numerous occasions. The other two are old-time folk performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and the lesser-known woman blues singer Geeshie Wiley. The three songs are Wylie’s ‘Last Kind Words Blues’, Lunsford’s ‘I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground’ (a song Marcus has visited before) and, from the Dylan canon, ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, his tale of rural despair released in 1964 on ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’.

Marcus gets inside each of the songs – the words, the singers, the historical and musical contexts – with his inimitable grace and empathy. These are the readings of one who understands American popular music from the inside, a keeper of the flame who, it is only to be hoped, will have his successors to maintain that flame alive for the future. If those who heard him at Harvard in 2013 truly listened to the speaker, and then went to the songs and listened to them too, then hope there may be!

‘GLOBAL POE’: EDGAR ALLAN POE AT THE AMERICAN COMPARATIVE LITERATURE ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE, HARVARD 2016

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of attending the Edgar Allan Poe component of the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) held from 17 to 20 March 2016 within the august precincts of Harvard University.

ACLA 2016 programme cover Harvard seal Harvard Yard

The location was particularly appropriate as Poe was born in 1809 in Boston, just across the Charles River from Harvard’s city of Cambridge (and for his recently erected statue in his city of birth, see my post, also on this blog, from 27 March 2016). The Poe element of the conference consisted of two workshops or streams, ‘Global Poe’ and ‘Global Poe II’, which both took place in the charming late-nineteenth century setting of Harvard’s Sever Hall. That Poe’s global dimension should have been chosen as key theme for the workshops reflects the recent publication (2014) of the collective volume ‘Translated Poe’ (again see this blog, 29 October 2014), one of whose co-editors, Professor Emron Esplin of Brigham Young University, Utah, was the organiser of the conference streams, and to which I myself contributed a chapter on Poe translated in Mexico.

Chris Sever1 HarvardSever1 HarvardSever2

The two streams brought together a total of 16 scholars of multiple provenances. The diversity of facets of Poe’s life and work discussed, united by the common thread of the comparative dimension (international or transdisciplinary), was remarkable.

The transnational element in Poe begins with his childhood time in Great Britain, and this aspect was illuminated by Hal Poe (himself a relative), in a paper focusing on Poe’s experiences there, and especially in London. Next in line is logically France, the country of his work’s earliest substantial adoption thanks to the advocacy of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney focused on Poe’s French connection with a paper on his ‘imaginary Paris’. In the Spanish-speaking world, the two great Argentinians Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar have played a signal role in diffusing Poe’s work, and Emron Esplin’s contribution offered fresh insights on Poe’s reception in Argentina.  Brazil, too, has been fertile ground for Poe’s influence, and Fabiana Vilaço illuminatingly analysed his detective fiction from a Brazilian critical perspective. Another literature marked by Poe’s imprint is that of Russia, and Nikita Allgire’s paper thus compared works by the American author and Nikolai Gogol. Further afield, the Japanese connection was represented in two papers, via Kazuo Ishuguro and other writers in the similarities expounded by Yuji Kato, and via Edogawa Rampo, the Japanese writer who took his name from Poe, in J. Scott Miller’s discussion. A comparative dimension was also suggested between Poe and literature in Arabic by Hicham Mahdjoub Araibi, who pointed up the similarities between Poe and the Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran, author of ‘The Prophet’.

Other speakers placed Poe in relation to authors from more than one culture. Abigail Ray Alexander brought together a number of different strands relating to the murder theme, linking Poe variously to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jules Verne, and Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, while Sonya Isaak connected Poe’s practice of ‘marginalia’ to similar endeavours by Coleridge and Baudelaire.

The comparative dimension also fanned out to include cross-disciplinary connections. Jenny Webb examined Poe’s work from the viewpoint of theology; and several speakers linked Poe to aspects of diverse sciences or pseudo-sciences. Karen Weiser compared the nineteenth-century British poet and botanist Erasmus Darwin; Pedro Madeira investigated Poe’s use of the mesmeric theories of his day; Slawomir Studniarz analysed Poe’s metrics from the viewpoint of phonosemantic theory; and Stephen Rachman proposed a link with the modern-day practice of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response).

My own paper (Christopher Rollason: ‘Edgar Allan Poe in Montevideo in 1919’), focused on ‘El cuervo y otros poemas’ (‘The Raven and Other Poems’), a volume of renderings of poems by Poe into Spanish by various Latin American translators, with a prologue signed by the major Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and published in Uruguay in 1919. The paper examines the backgrounds of the contributors to the volume and analyses prologue and translations from a pan-American viewpoint (with particular attention to the version of ‘The Raven’ by Venezuela’s Juan Antonio Pérez Bonalde). It is available on-line at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/PoeinMontevideo1919.pdf.

paperel-cuervo-y-otros-poemasPoe Harvard handout

Plurality was the watchword of the two workshops, and was evidenced in the range of the papers themselves and the multiplicity of fellow scholars’ responses in the lively debates that ensued from them. Though Poe remains best-known for his tales of terror and detection, the diversity of genres he wrote in is remarkable. His status as iconic American writer can obscure the fact that his work has also benefited over time from an extraordinary global projection. There are many Edgar Allan Poes, and not all of them are American. Like his own raven perched on the bust of Pallas, Poe will never leave us, and it is to be hoped that this highly stimulating ACLA event will bear fruit in new and exciting transfrontier collaboration projects among ever better-informed Poe scholars.

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