Archive for August, 2016

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!

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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.