Book Review: Conducted tour by Bernard Levin

(Sceptre [Hodder and Stoughton] 1982)

Do dreams come true? Perhaps once in a lifetime. As a writer and broadcaster with a special interest in music, Bernard Levin's dream did come true in 1908 when he was asked by the BBC to present a series of talks on European Music Festivals. Levin hesitated but one minim before accepting the commission. This onerous duty demanded a full six months of his life, accompanied by Arianna Stassinopoulos (now Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, "Queen of the Republican Party" since moving to Washington) during which they had to endure some of the best hospitality that the BBC's money could buy.

Levin's lifetime journey through music seems remarkably similar to my own. An early love of Beethoven, whose hold gradually weakened; a passion for Wagner which only gradually slips away so that you no longer feel that you just need to hear the Ring one more time but merely like to be reminded of it occasionally. In my case these were replaced by the astringency of Sibelius and the terror of Shostakovich which did not happen to Levin who found Mozart and Schubert instead. He once declared that " all life is a progress towards Mozart" I have reached Haydn with much pleasure so maybe Mozart will come; but at present I regard him as the culmination and end of a developmental style rather than an inspirational force.

Levin started attending Festivals in 1947 with the first Edinburgh Festival; the first International Music Festival to be held after the War allowing Rudolf Bing an unlimited choice. Levin was able to hear the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter with Elizabeth Schumann and Kathleen Ferrier. The ad hoc piano quartet was to die for: Artur Schnabel, piano, Joseph Szigeti, violin, William Primrose, viola and Pierre Fournier, cello. Fidelio and Macbeth were presented by the Glyndebourne Company who had the pick of the European singers because so many Opera Houses had been destroyed during the war; Sadlers Wells presented Sleeping Beauty and the Old Vic did Richard II. Levin's second festival was Salzburg the following year and he was not able to divest himself of the habit thereafter. Furthermore Levin makes the point that many of the European Festivals are in outstandingly pleasant places: Salzburg, Florence, Edinburgh, Aix-en-Provence, Lucerne, Bath, Verona, Aldeburgh and Granada.

There now exists a profusion of Music Festivals - even for this country the list is daunting because, as every Town Hall mandarin knows, Festivals are good for business. Levin estimated that even 15 years ago the total number of European music festivals ran into four figures. In his choice he tried to take in festivals with different ideals and atmospheres. Salzburg, Edinburgh and Bayreuth chose themselves, but he also included some tiny festivals such as Wexford, Aldeburgh and Hohenems (a fortnight devoted to Schubert). His tour started in March at Adelaide. This is not a European Festival of course, but he had been personally invited by the Director, Christopher Hunt.

Each Festival visited earns a separate chapter in the book - which is not really a book about music at all but a travelogue with musical reminiscences. Because each chapter exists in its own right there is little I can do to paraphrase it other than to tediously produce a list. In any case, it is the astute observations and refreshing style that make this book such a compulsive read - and these would be lost. A few extracts would better give a flavour:

"Bayreuth can boast that it has the most knowledgeable audiences in the world, and so it does. But this is because there is nothing to be got out of Wagner but Wagner. Nobody comes to the Wagner festival to be seen by friends or photographers, to show off a new fur coat or starlet. The Festival imposes single-mindedness on its visitors; but they come single-minded in the first place. The truth is that nobody would sit in the most uncomfortable theatre in the world from tea-time to bedtime without being interested, to the point of addiction, in what was to be heard and seen there.... The next shock consists of the extraordinary subfusc in which the auditorium is decorated. The dominant colour is grey - walls, buttresses, curtain; the floor is uncarpeted, the globe-lights undecorated, and only a touch of blue and dull gold in the ceiling relieves the monotony that greets the eye. A worst surprise is the discomfort of the seats. These are of brutally hard wood, entirely uncushioned, and the backs of them are apparently designed to sever the spinal column of anyone daring to tilt even a few degrees out of the vertical.

It is a phenomenon the great oddness of which does not seem to me to have been sufficiently remarked. There is no composer whose music pleases everybody; but those who find themselves disliking Mozart, Puccini, Bach or Ravel are content simply to stay away from performances of their work. In the case of Wagner, and of him alone, the dislike becomes positive; I have often encountered and antipathy so strong that it seems to take the form of a desire to prohibit Wagner's music altogether."

The Aldeburgh Festival:

"I feel at home here after less than a week. The sea-scented air is like crisp white wine, and the fresh flowers on Benjamin Britten's grave shine in the moonlight before the simple black basalt slab that is his headstone. The atmosphere of happiness mingled with music has seeped into the very stones of this lovely unspoiled village; in leaving it I feel as though I have lost my passport. And I am bond for London too, where we do lock our doors, and our cars, and our hearts. Aldeburgh is a place to leave looking over your shoulder, and so I fancy that I can detect - and take away with me - something of the essence and spirit of this Festival and the things that make it what it is: history, and the vast sky, and those floral tributes to its musical begetter, and the ripening cornfields, and the mewing gulls, and the radiance of Janet Baker... and the roof of Blythburgh Church, and the lapping sea; and the Englishness of England."

Semiramide at the Aix Festival:

"The staging is sufficiently ridiculous to satisfy even those left wanting more absurdity than the plot can provide. The set is entirely white, so are the costumes, so is the cast - faces, hands and even hair; most of them, in addition, are encased in bizarre white sandwich-boards with plaster mouldings, looking partly like Edwardian mantelpieces and partly like blanched playing-cards. Caballé, who the programme reveals, has recently been made a member of the Order of the Golden Grasshopper, has a touch of gold on her costume, and Horne a scarlet cloak, but everything and everyone is spectral"

Levin's reportage rises to a fulfilling climax in the final chapter with his visit to Spontini's La Vestale at Wexford, rounding off this delightful book.

"But I can remember at once that 1979 was The Year of the Missing Lemon Juice. The Theatre Royal in Wexford holds 440; it was completely full that night, so there are, allowing for a few who have already died (it is not true, though it might well have been, that some died of laughter at the time), hardly more than four hundred people who now share, to the end of their lives, an experience from which the rest of the world, now and for ever, is excluded. When the last of us dies, the experience will die with us, for although it is already enshrined in legend, no one who was not an eye witness will ever really understand what we felt. Certainly I am aware that these words cannot convey more than the facts, and the facts, as so often and most particularly in this case, are only part, and a small part, too, of the whole truth. But I must try.

The opera that night was La Vestale, by Spontini. It has been described as 'a poor man's Norma', since it tells, in music and drama much inferior to Bellini's, of a vestal virgin who betrays her charge for love. It was revived for Maria Callas, but otherwise figures rarely in the repertoire of the world's leading opera houses. But it is part of Wexford's business to revive operas which other opera houses and festivals unjustly neglect, and I have been repeatedly surprised in a most pleasant manner to discover much of interest and pleasure in some of them; Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys, for instance, or Prokofiev's The Gambler, or Bizet's Les Pecheurs des Perles.........

Well, in 1979 it was La Vestale. The set for Act I of the opera consisted of a platform laid over the stage, raised about a foot at the back and sloping evenly to the footlights. This was meant to represent the interior of the Temple where burned the sacred flame, and had therefore to look like marble; the designer had achieved a convincing alternative by covering the raised stage in Formica. But the Formica was slippery; to avoid the risk of a performer taking a tumble, designer and stage manager had between them discovered that an ample sprinkling of lemon juice would make the surface sufficiently sticky to provide a secure foothold. The story now forks; down one road, there lies the belief that the member of the stage staff whose duty it was to sprinkle the lifesaving liquid, and who had done so without fail at rehearsal and at the earlier performances (this was the last one of the Festival), had simply forgotten. Down the other branch in the road is a much more attractive rumour: that the theatre charlady, inspecting the premises in the afternoon, had seen to her horror and indignation that the stage was covered in the remains of some spilt liquid, and, inspired by professional pride, had thereupon set to and given it a good scrub and polish all over. The roads now join again, for apart from the superior charm of the second version, it makes no difference what the explanation was. What matters is what happened.

What happened began to happen very early. The hero of the opera strides on to the stage immediately after the curtain has gone up. The hero strode; and instantly fell flat on his back. There was a murmur of sympathy and concern from the audience for his embarrassment and for the possibility that he might have been hurt; it was the last such sound that was to be heard that night, and it was very soon to be replaced by sounds of a very different nature.

The hero got to his feet, with considerable difficulty, and, having slid some way down the stage in falling, proceeded to stride up-stage to where he should have been in the first place; he had, of course, gone on singing throughout, for the music had not stopped. Striding up-stage, however, was plainly more difficult than he had reckoned on, for every time he took a step and tried to follow it with another, the foot with which he had taken the first proceeded to slide down-stage again, swiftly followed by its companion; he may not have known it, but he was giving a perfect demonstration of what is called marcher sur place, a graceful manoeuvre normally used in mime, and seen at its best in the work of Marcel Marceau.

Finding progress uphill difficult, indeed impossible, the hero wisely decided to abandon the attempt and stay where he was, singing bravely on, no doubt calculating that, since the stage was brightly lit, the next character to enter would notice him and adjust his own movements accordingly. So it proved, in a sense at least, for the next character to enter was the hero's trusted friend and confidant, who, seeing his hero further down-stage than he was supposed to be, loyally decided to join him there. Truth to tell, he had little choice, for from the moment he had stepped on to the stage he had begun to slide downhill, arms semaphoring, like Scrooge's clerk on the way home to his Christmas dinner. His downhill progress was arrested by his fetching up against his friend with a thud; this, as it happened, was not altogether inappropriate, as the opera called for them to embrace in friendly greeting at that point. It did not, however, call for them, locked in each other's arms and propelled by the impetus of the friend's descent, to careen helplessly further down- stage with the evident intention of going straight into the orchestra pit with vocal accompaniment - for the hero's aria had, on the arrival of his companion, been transformed into a duet.

On the brink of ultimate disaster they managed to arrest their joint progress to destruction and, working their way along the edge of the stage like mountaineers seeking a route round an unbridgeable crevasse, most gallantly began, with infinite pain and by a form of progress most aptly described in the title of Lenin's famous pamphlet, Four Steps Forward, Three Steps Back, to climb up the terrible hill. It speedily became clear that this hazardous ascent was not being made simply from a desire to retain dramatic credibility; it had a much more practical object. The only structure breaking the otherwise all too smooth surface of the stage was a marble pillar, a yard or so high, on which there burned the sacred flame of the rite. This pillar was embedded firmly in the stage, and it had obviously occurred to both mountaineers at once that if they could only reach it it would provide a secure base for their subsequent operations, since if they held on to it for dear life they would at any rate be safe from any further danger of sliding downhill and/or breaking their necks. It was soon borne in upon them that they had undertaken a labour of truly Sisyphean proportions, and would have been most heartily pardoned by the audience if they had abandoned the librettist's words at this point, and fitted to the music instead the old moral verse: The heights by great men reached and kept, Were not attained by sudden flight; But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upwards in the night.

By this time the audience - all 440 of us - were in a state of such abandon with laughter that several of us felt that if this were to continue a moment longer we would be in danger of doing ourselves a serious internal mischief, little did we know that the fun was just beginning, for shortly after Mallory and Irvine reached their longed-for goal, the chorus entered, and instantly flung themselves en masse into a very freely choreographed version of Les Patineurs, albeit to the wrong music. The heroine herself, the priestess Giulia, with a survival instinct strong enough to suggest that she would be the one to get close to should any reader of these lines happen to be shipwrecked along with the Wexford opera company, skated into the wings and kicked her shoes off and then, finding on her return that this had hardly improved matters, skated back to the wings and removed her tights as well. Now, however, the singing never having stopped for a moment, the chorus had come to the same conclusion as had the hero and his friend, namely that holding on to the holy pillar was the only way to remain upright and more or less immobile. The trouble with this conclusion was that there was only one such pillar on the stage, and it was a small one; as the cast crowded round it, it seemed that there would be some very unseemly brawling among those seeking a hand-hold, a foothold, even a bare finger-hold, on this tiny island of security in the terrible sea of impermanence. By an instinctive understanding of the principles of co-operation, however, they decided the matter without bloodshed; those nearest the pillar clutched it, those next nearest clutched the clutchers, those farther away still clutched those, and so on until, in a kind of daisy- chain that snaked across the stage, everybody was accommodated.

The condition of the audience was now one of fully extended hysteria, which was having the most extraordinary effect - itself intensifying the audience's condition - on the orchestra. At Wexford, the orchestra pit runs under the stage; only a single row of players - those at the edge of the pit nearest the audience, together, of course, with the conductor -could see what was happening on the stage. The rest realized that something out of the ordinary was going on up there, and would have been singularly dull of wit if they had not, for many members of the audience were now slumped on the floor weeping helplessly in the agony of their mirth, and although the orchestra at Wexford cannot see the stage, it can certainly see the auditorium.

Theologians tell us that the delights of the next world are eternal. Perhaps; but what is certain is that all earthly ones, alas, are temporary, and duly, after giving us a glimpse of the more enduring joy of Heaven that must have strengthened the devout in their faith and caused instant conversion among many of the unbelievers, the entertainment came to an end when the first act of the opera did so, amid such cheering as I had never before heard in an opera house, and can never hope to hear again. In the interval before Act II, a member of the production staff walked back and forth across the stage, sprinkling it with the precious nectar, and we knew that our happiness was at an end. But he who, after such happiness, would have demanded more, would be greedy indeed, and most of us were content to know that, for one crowded half-hour, we on honeydew had fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise".

This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society

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