John Plant, composer

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Words and music

Posted by John Plant on September 6, 2016 at 5:50 PM

My friend John Barnstead, discussing Julian Barnes' new novel about Shostakovich on Facebook, said something so precious and precise about what should happen when a composer sets words to music, that I can only add a fervent Amen. After quoting Pushkin's poem in Russian, he very kindly appended John Fennell's prose translation, so I shall follow suit.


'Barnes really does have the kind of fine, unobtrusive control of language, allusion, and narrative voice that is one of the signs of a master craftsman. Where I find he falls short of mastery is in his use of aphoristic language, "для констатации факта," as it were, when the facts asserted are in fact not facts at all, and run contrary to what we know of Shostakovich as an artist, e.g. (on the same page) "Let Power have the words, because words cannot stain music. Music escapes from words; that is its purpose, and its majesty." No way José, folks. It's not an escape: music doesn't *escape* words; words *release* music the way the prisoner dreams of releasing the eagle in Pushkin's poem "Узник" ' (J.A.B)--


The Prisoner (Pushkin, trans. J. Fennell)

I sit behind bars in a damp prison My sad companion, a young eagle reared in captivity, flaps its wings and pecks at its bloody food beneath my window.


It pecks, then stops, and looks in through the window as though it shared the same thought as I. It calls me with its look and its cry and would say 'Let us fly away!


'We are free birds: it is time, my brother, it is time! Thither, where the mountain shines white behind the cloud, thither, where the expanses of the sea are blue, thither, where only the wind roams - and I!'

After reading John's inspired words and Pushkin's poem, I was haunted by the appropriately soaring key phrase from Janacek's Dostoevsky opera, From the House of the Dead: Orel car lesu! The eagle, king of the forest!

The prisoners free the caged eagle just as the hero is released from prison.


And this brings me, circuitously, to a mild rant. The current issue of Diapason, an indispensable French monthly devoted to 'l'amour du classique' contains a stimulating debate on operatic staging. Christian Merlin is encouraged by stagings whose 'dramaturgical viewpoint is so strong that a plot which we considered superficial suddenly begins to speak to us,' such as Tcherniakov's staging of Verdi's Il trovatore - which is transformed into 'a role-playing game for idle members of the bourgeoisie.'

That anyone could experience Il trovatore as superficial takes my breath away; that a work of such intense, committed passion and vitality could somehow be improved by turning it into a role-playing game is beyond my grasp.


I do not wish to place any limits on a director's imagination. Even the most outrageous transpositions of time and space in the work of Peter Sellars are clearly inspired by a profound love and knowledge of score. The same applies to many inspired radical stagings by Katie Mitchell, David McVicar, Harry Kupfer and others. I am objecting to the kind of reductionism whose purpose seems to be to disenchant the listener, to persuade us that what we thought was beauty, passion and truth was in reality a cheap, empty, lifeless husk. Brünnhilde and Waltraute can eat corn flakes in their trailer park, whose entrance is posted with warning signs: 'Transcendence Forbidden.'

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