Take me to your Lieder

Words and Music

I hadn’t expected to find myself blogging at the end of my little period of purdah, behind the writing screen, closed off from twitter and the world.

I finished last Tuesday my filming for DOORS OPEN, the Ian Rankin art-theft thriller whose adaptation we’re making for ITV and since then I’ve been sitting at a desk, trying not to look too hard out of the window.

You may have heard the view-halloos and cries and squeals of pleasure and delight on Sunday evening as I stabbed my finger down onto the send button and pushed my little libretto far away into the inbox of my collaborator, the real talent in our little opera team, who has been patiently awaiting my words for a long time.

It has been a fabulous experience, quite unlike anything I’ve ever done, although I had been given the burdensome but wonderfully exciting duty of translating Schikaneder’s original Magic Flute libretto from German into English for Ken Branagh’s cinematic production of Mozart’s last and most mysterious full-length opera some years ago. That experience, taking out the words that Mozart had set to music and trying to replace them with English equivalents, taught me one thing that I am anxious to share with an expectant world. Mozart knew what he was doing. Ho, yes. The man, as Control or Smiley might say, was Good, George. Damned good. He knew his tradecraft.

This more recent task, an adaptation of an E. M. Forster short story, has been more invigorating: much less weight is on our shoulders since it this a new opera and we don’t have the best part of 300 years to betray. My collaborator, Louis Mander, is a young, preposterously talented composer, and I am an old… well there you are. Spring turned to October and eventually, as I started turning scarlet and gold and found myself decaying into November, I at last managed to deliver. I exaggerate for effect. Forgive me, all those who write in the moment I say something to denigrate myself.

But more of that as and when. Many a slip twixt wicket-keeper and gully.

Unhappy news

I’m writing because, what with all my recent concentrated deadline fury, the death of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau two days ago quite passed me by. I know of course that he had to die some time, but I never thought it would be soon. Heavens, he had reached his 87th year and had every right to leave the party. It is just that I can’t remember a time when his voice hasn’t been a part of my life and the idea of his not being on the planet is going to take a bit of getting used to.

When did I first hear that miraculous instrument? My father often had him playing on his gramophone or wireless set. It must have been around the age of seven or eight when I first became fascinated with this tenor who wasn’t quite a baritone and this baritone who wasn’t quite a tenor. He was one of a simply remarkable generation of German musicians who straddled the war years (much to their subsequent discomfort and distress all round as Furtwüngler and von Karajan inter alia discovered) and who quite simply transformed the way music was recorded in studios.

Ronnie Harwood, one of our finest playwrights (awarded an Oscar© for The Pianist of course) wrote a marvellous pair of plays about that whole issue, including the relationship between “Aryan” Richard Strauß and Jewish Stefan Zweig – whose inexplicably brilliant novel Beware of Pity I am reading just now at the suggestion of my mother. It is a flawless and quite inexplicably moving story. I say inexplicable because you never catch Zweig attempting to engage or enrage. He casts you as the protagonist of the story and you fall short. Rather as Balzac made us do with Rastignac and Dickens with Pip. Anyway, that’s a side-issue and a coincidence.

EMI and Decca

That generation of singers, conductors and musicians came mostly from a Germany and Austria that had, almost along the way, revolutionised the recording industry. When the first American engineers arrived in Munich and Berlin and saw what BASF/AEG and their reel-to-reel machines were able to do with music and radio, it resulted, I would suggest, in a bigger step change than that from tape cassettes to CD or CD to MP3 (indeed we all know many who would regard those last two step changes as step changes in the wrong direction. Vinyl or reel-to-reel for them: and tube/valve amplifiers too while we’re at it.) The modern age of stereophonic High Fidelity, or HiFI as it was known, had arrived. Voices and (in the case of opera) cast and creatures could be “placed” in studio stereo stages, instruments could be “desked” in knew ways that smote the musical world much inn the way that the first cleanings of the old masters did at around the same time. When played back, people found a new direct engagement with music that had for hundreds of years before only been heard live in bandstands and concert halls and subsequently on hissing 78 RPM shellac discs. I love concert halls, I love 78s – but this truly was something extraordinary.

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