Fifty-five Dress Rehearsals for Death

I am proud to announce that my website has just been awarded the Polish Music Critics ‚Kropka’ Award – given for the text published almost a year ago, just after the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Today marks the 73. anniversary of this event, one of the most remarkable acts of resistance in World War II. Hereby I repost my essay in English, to perpetuate the memory of all children perished in the Holocaust.


In November 1941, Heinrich Himmler issued a command to close the Austrian fortress in Terezín – which two years previously had found itself within the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, occupied by the Third Reich – and transform it into a Jewish ghetto, with the transition camp already active since 1940 integrated into the defensive wall system. Nazi propaganda presented Theresienstadt as a model ghetto, the pattern for a modern Jewish settlement – indeed, a ‘family camp’ (Familienlager). Rumors spreading to the effect that the city was serving as a gigantic concentration camp were denied in every possible way. When a transport of about 500 Jews from Denmark arrived in Terezín and activists from the Danish Red Cross categorically demanded an inspection, the Germans agreed to it and proceeded to quickly ‘clean up’ the ghetto. They painted some of the rooms, sealed others off from the guests, arranged a few extra transports to Auschwitz in order to – at least for the moment – limit overpopulation; after that, they took up closer supervision of the inhabitants’ cultural activity. There was no need to encourage anyone to take part in the latter – at that time, the ghetto’s residents included the elite of Jewish political, cultural and academic life.

The Danes left Terezín completely satisfied, having discerned no improprieties in the camp’s management. The Germans continued the momentum: they instructed one of the prisoners, Kurt Gerron, who ran the Karussell cabaret there, to make a propaganda film about the life of the local Jewish community. They assured Gerron that not a hair would fall from his head. The filming lasted eleven days and ended in mid-September 1944. The promise was not kept: both the director and most of the endeavor’s participants captured on film were taken away to Auschwitz and gassed. The first showing of the edited material, intended for high-ranking state officials and SS members, took place in April of the next year. In succeeding weeks, the film reached the hands of representatives of several international humanitarian organizations. On 3 May, the camp found itself under the control of the Red Cross; five days later, the Red Army entered the fortress. The propaganda ‘document’ was almost completely destroyed. About 20 minutes of the film survived – among others, shots from a performance of Pavel Haas’ Studie for string instruments under the baton of Karel Ančerl; fragments from a performance of the Ghetto Swingers jazz band; and the final scenes from Hans Krása’s children’s opera Brundibár.

Krása was the son of a Czech lawyer and a German Jewish woman. A violinist, pianist and composer educated in Prague and Berlin (a student of, among others, Zemlinsky and Roussell), he composed this little 40-minute work in 1938, in collaboration with librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, for a competition of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education. The results were never announced: the German army entered Prague a few months before the competition’s expected adjudication. In 1941, Krása placed the notated materials in the hands of the Jewish war orphans’ home on Belgická street in the Vinohrady district of Prague, where in the winter of 1942, the première of Brundibár took place under the baton of Rudolph Freudenfeld, with simple scenery and costumes designed by František Zelenka, and with Gideon Klein at the piano, along with a violinist and percussionist whose names I have not managed to find. The composer did not take part in this event: arrested on 10 August 1942, he ended up in Theresienstadt, where he became the ‘music man’ as part of the camp’s Freizeitgestaltung, the organization of his co-prisoners’ free time. Soon thereafter, nearly all of the creators and performers of the Prague show joined him there. Freudenfeld managed to smuggle in a piano reduction in his baggage, on the basis of which Krása re-orchestrated the opera, adapting it to the resources of the local instrumental ensemble.


Hans Krása listens to a concert conducted by Ančerl; Theresienstadt, 1943.

The story of Aninka and Pepíček – a pair of siblings orphaned by their father who have to get fresh milk for their sick mother, but have no money, so they follow in the footsteps of the street organ-grinder Brundibár (a big, fat Bumblebee) and try to earn money for their purchases by singing – is basically a quite simple and in principle universal tale of the victory of good over evil. Inspired by Hansel and Gretel and The Town Musicians of Bremen of the Brothers Grimm, compared in a somewhat exaggerated manner by later interpreters with Aristophanes’ pacifist Lysistrata, it took on entirely new meanings in Theresienstadt and grew to the stature of a symbol of the vicissitudes of Jewish life. The mustachioed organ-grinder, who at first chases away the competitors, then tries to rob them, became a figure of the hated Hitler. The brave sparrow, the clever cat, the wise dog and the band of city children – these served as a metaphor for a close-knit community that effectively faces violence and restores the old world order. The realizers introduced characteristic corrections into the libretto: the condition for joining the group of intrepid defenders of good became courage and love of justice – in the place of the original love of homeland and obedience to parents. Brundibár was played in Terezín fifty-five times. Real fights broke out over tickets to the shows. The child performers of the lead roles enjoyed great respect among their peers.

The young viewers sought to forget themselves in the theater, grabbed the simple, tuneful melodies from out in the audience, fed themselves with the delusive hope that in this resounding allegory, there lay at least some small grain of truth. Meanwhile, new faces were continually appearing in the 40-person choir, because previous performers had fallen victim to illness, chronic malnutrition, departed from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and to Trostinets (near Minsk) in transports from which there was no return. They cheered their heroes: the peerless Honza Treichlinger in the title role, Pinta Mühlstein and Greta Hofmeister in the roles of Pepíček and Aninka. However ghastly this may sound, they waited their turn, knowing that at any moment, they might join the ranks of the decimated choir or join the elite group of soloists in Brundibár.


After a showing of Brundibár. In the middle, Honza Treichlinger, creator of the title role; at his left hand, Ela Stein-Weissberger (the Cat)

Some managed to escape from this hell. Ela Stein-Weissberger, performer of the role of the Cat in all (or nearly all, as some witnesses claim) of the shows in Terezín, lived to see the camp liberated; she emigrated to Israel, then to New York, where she lives to this day and actively takes part in post-war attempts to revive Brundibár and sustain the memory of her fellow child performers in the opera. Little Rafi Herz-Sommer, creator of the role of the Sparrow, was barely eight years old at the moment when the Theresienstadt camp was liberated. His father, ’cellist Leopold Sommer, had died a year previously at Dachau. In 1945, the orphaned boy returned to Prague with his mother, pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, with whom he emigrated to Jerusalem four years later. He finally settled in England and gained renown as Raphaël Sommer, a ’cello virtuoso, distinguished pedagogue and organizer of musical life. He died in 2001 – his mother survived him by thirteen years and died a few months after her 110th birthday, as the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world.

Honza Treichlinger was not so lucky. He died at Auschwitz along with most of the children’s choir members, the show’s stage director Emil Saudek and the aforementioned Kurt Gerron. Hans Krása left Theresienstadt in the same transport as three other composer friends: Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, the latter of whom had accompanied the performers of the world première in the Vinohrady district of Prague. All except for Klein were gassed in the second half of October 1944. Klein died in January of the next year, not having lived to see the end of the war.

Someone will say that the memory of them all lives on in the score of Brundibár. Their death was, however, terrible, futile and senseless. The only comfort is the hope that participation in the Terezín shows anesthetized them to that death, alleviated the premonition of their end. Velimir Khlebnikov wrote about suns that die by fading away; grass that dies by drying out; horses that die by quietly drawing their last breath; and people that die by singing songs. The children at Theresienstadt died singing a song about friendship that overthrows tyrants.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski.

The Silence of the Mermaids

Before the Glasgow première of Rusalka, the local press announced the grand return of Dvořák’s masterpiece after over half a century’s absence from the stages of Scotland. This is a somewhat misleading statement, because Scottish experiences are limited to five shows – and those, given by the ensemble of the National Theatre in Prague as part of a grand review of Czech operas at the Edinburgh Festival in 1964. Aside from Rusalka, the Scots also encountered Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová for the first time. The remaining works, From the House of the Dead by the latter composer, along with Smetana’s Dalibor and Cikker’s Resurrection, were completely unknown in the British Isles. Forasmuch as Janáček’s legacy – in large measure thanks to the later efforts of Sir Charles Mackerras – gained a broad audience of British fans and set forth from there to conquer stages all over the world, Rusalka – which was, after all, composed at the same time as Jenůfa – finally gained universal recognition only less than 20 years ago; and even so, it is not a frequent guest in the repertoire of the great opera houses. This is partly by virtue of the staggering technical difficulties presented to the performers in the lead roles; but above all, on account of the gap between the relatively conservative score and the extremely Modernist libretto abounding in symbols and hidden meanings. Stage directors unaware of these riches either present the opera in the spirit of a naïve, though gloomy fairytale for adults, or attempt to set the conflict outlined in it in a contemporary context, which results in a stylization of the title character as a prostitute kidnapped from a bordello, or as the repressed victim of a pedophile.

Meanwhile, Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto – aside from its numerous references to Andersen, Friedrich Fouqué and the Melusine legends – also draws inspiration from the fairytale-naturalistic plays of Hauptmann and the late, symbolist œuvre of Ibsen. Kvapil had already touched upon the clash of two world orders previously, in his own dramas. He was a superb stage director, one of the pioneers of Czech Modernist theatre. His Rusalka, brilliantly constructed in the linguistic and dramaturgical planes, is a masterpiece unto itself, betraying an odd kinship with the œuvre of Oscar Wilde. It is a fairytale about lovers imprisoned not between reality and the realm of magic, but rather between life and death. It is a tale of the futility of all kind of sacrifices, always made at the wrong time – a pessimistic and decadent tale, but one not devoid of the grotesque or of black humor. In other words, it displays the literary face of Eastern European Modernism, cut by the blade of plebeian wit and reflected in the dark depths of a fairytale lake.

After previous experience with the theatre of Antony McDonald, who is also – and perhaps above all – a stage designer sensitive to and conscious of tradition, I had no doubt that his concept would get to the bottom of this grim story. I did not expect, however, that it would do so with such power. The director has introduced a few important changes to the Grange Park Opera staging (2008) now being revived in Glasgow; but even back then, he garnered praise for his faithfulness to the text and the perspicacity with which he transferred the content of the score and libretto to the stage without imposing new meanings upon them. I was convinced of the rightness of these compliments already during the overture, which was illustrated with a Terry Gilliam-style collage animation. The ‘upside-down mermaid’ lying at the bottom of the lake, a creature with the head of a fish and the legs and bare loins of a woman, came straight from Magritte’s canvas entitled L’Invention collective. The Surrealist painting from 1934 clearly reflects what is most important in Rusalka: the reversal of the fairytale order of things. Let us prepare for the tale of a water nymph who, to her own undoing, allows herself to be beguiled by a human being.


Anne Sophie Duprels as Rusalka, Peter Wedd as The Prince. Photo: James Glossop.

In his stagings, McDonald likes to allude to the context in which a work was written. This time, he passed his vision through a filter of Modernist aesthetics. The forest of tilted tree trunks and the lake suggested by black, immobile waves emerging from a trapdoor is inevitably associated with German Expressionism, but also with the legendary Prague stage designs of Vlastislav Hofman from the 1920s. The gloomy draperies, the antlers hung beneath the ceiling around the ballroom, and even the characteristic chairs in Act II are, as it were, taken straight from his later designs for Ostrovsky’s The Forest at the National Theatre. The Prince’s retinue parades about in Austrian hunting costumes; the ladies at the wedding-that-never-happened have Klimt-like hairstyles. The drastic transformation of Rusalka the Mermaid into a woman takes place at the home of Ježibaba – we figure out the details for ourselves from the shadows crawling over the walls and the bucket of blood poured afterwards into the lake. The protagonist loses her power of speech and her fish tail; she does not, however, completely lose her previous identity. The image of a fish’s body torments her at every step: in the witch’s dress, laced up in a manner resembling a fish’s spine; in the Foreign Princess’ bright red creation that makes her look like a salmon swimming upstream to the spawning ground; in the ghostly pictures from the Prince’s kitchen, where the servants dress absolutely real mackerels, gutting them in bloody gloves.

The rest plays out in a sphere of precisely-polished theatrical symbols. The doctor called to attend to Rusalka is astounded to discover that the patient lacks knee reflexes. The Prince places his hand on her forehead several times – in a reversed gesture of parental care for a feverish child. While preparing for the wedding, Rusalka spends too much time enjoying a bath in the tab, and when dragged out of the water, she stretches out like a fish caught on a hook. Covered with a veil, she falls into a panic and struggles as if in a net. The artificiality of the human world finds clear reflection in the famous polonaise – danced with wine glasses, napkins and soup spoons by the guests gathered at the table; and the sincerity of the wood sprites’ world, in their lascivious, carefree and… sprightly dances (choreographed by Lucy Burge), which are not interrupted even by Rusalka’s tragedy.

What makes the greatest impression, however, is the final duet. It appears that McDonald was aware of a strange – though perhaps only superficial – flaw in Kvapil’s libretto. By what miracle does the Prince hear Rusalka, since Ježibaba has not removed the curse from her? It may be that he actually doesn’t hear her at all. Perhaps he only carries on with his mad monologue and, unable to wait for a response, answers himself. Rusalka – now dressed in white and in a snow-white wig – keeps her distance from the Prince. Finally, she gives up and, with a facial expression of which the Snow Queen herself would be proud, kisses him violently on the lips. The Prince goes limp, falls to the ground, assuring her that he is dying a happy man; but even at such a moment, he will not know the passionate embrace of his chosen lady. The phenomenally-arranged stage lighting (Wolfgang Goebbel) sucks the rest of the blood out of both of them. The demon of death departs.


Peter Wedd as The Prince. Photo: James Glossop.

Stuart Stratford, named artistic director of the Scottish Opera nearly a year ago, has only now decided to prepare a production under his own baton. The conductor, who after studying at Cambridge with David Parry spent three years honing his craft under the watchful eye of the legendary Ilya Musin in St. Petersburg, has a superb feel for the Slavic opera idiom. One could even say that at moments, he feels it too well – delighting in the velvety sound of the strings and the subtle, slightly hazy sound of the wind instruments, he sometimes dragged the tempi excessively, putting the singers’ capabilities to a difficult test. We should remember, however, that in the fragments in which the orchestra’s work plays a momentous role – for instance, in the famous ‘duet’ of the Prince and Rusalka at the end of Act I, where Dvořák threw the entire weight of the title character’s muteness onto the shoulders of the instrumentalists, but especially in the opera’s cathartic finale, with the frustrated yearning motif played in retrograde by fortissimo brass – the brilliantly skillful accumulation and release of tension was impressive. Stratford has a very vivid sonic imagination and is able to convey his intentions to the orchestra, which in the case of a work sparkling with such a rich harmonic language is inestimable.


Lucy Mae Lowndes, Federica Esposito and Emma Laister as Dancing Dryads. Photo: James Glossop.

Another advantage of the Scottish Rusalka is the superb cast, although I am sorry to have to admit that its weakest link turned out to be the performer of the title role. Anne Sophie Duprels has the perfect look for this role, her acting technique is also impressive, but her otherwise pretty soprano voice is decidedly too ‘thin’, and her attempts to artificially darken her voice – without sufficient support – resulted in problems with intonation and excessive vibrato, particularly severe in the famous aria ‘Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém’. The ladies who played Ježibaba and the Foreign Princess came out decidedly better. The experienced and technically splendid Leah-Marian Jones  created a witch bordering on caricature, without violating the rules of good taste. Natalya Romaniw in the part of the calculating seductress displayed all the values of a powerful and yet clear, rounded soprano voice. In a class unto himself was Sir Willard White (Vodník) – one of the most distinguished bass-baritones of the 20th century, now 70 years old, who from act to act built a clearer and clearer, more and more tragic characterization of Rusalka’s father – the most human of the non-human protagonists of this drama. Also deserving of favorable mention are singers cast in supporting roles, especially Julian Hubbard (the Gamekeeper), who is departing from the baritone repertoire in the direction of tenor roles – the young singer has not only a charming voice and quite nice technique, but also an extraordinary sense of humor. The great revelation, however, was Peter Wedd. Throughout last season, he consistently worked on the depth of sound and volume essential for the role of Tristan; thus, I was initially concerned about whether he would be able to keep his now fully-Wagnerian voice under control in the role of the Prince – a heroic role, but one requiring a large dose of lyricism and, above all, a large range. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be groundless. Wedd has a feel for Dvořák’s peculiarly ‘Slavic’ phrasing, and his breathing technique works perfectly: he does not attack the high notes, but rather draws them out gradually, according to the logic of the musical process. His greatest asset is a secure, golden middle range, from which he fluidly, almost imperceptibly moves into other registers. One has to be a first-rate artist to sing this role at all – Wedd has polished it in its tiniest details, chiseling the individual sentences like a woodcarver. Hearing his ‘umírám ve tvém objetí’, not a few of his professional colleagues would turn green with envy.

The Scottish Opera’s latest production is yet more evidence that masterpieces do not need reformers – rather wise, humble servants. Sometimes it is worthwhile to go outside the bounds of one’s own ego and find more interesting things in the score itself.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Odešli… Jdi také…

Jenufa, pierwsza w pełni dojrzała opera Janaczka, powstająca w dramatycznych okolicznościach życia kompozytora, wciąż bywa interpretowana i reżyserowana jako dramat przebaczenia i odkupienia, którego bohaterowie przechodzą gruntowną przemianę duchową i pod wpływem tragicznych wydarzeń odkrywają moc prawdziwej miłości. Wnikliwsza analiza partytury w połączeniu z librettem odsłania jednak inną prawdę: to przede wszystkim historia o zasadach funkcjonowania zamkniętej, fanatycznej wspólnoty, i o rozpaczliwych wysiłkach dwóch kobiet, które próbują uchronić ją przed rozpadem, utrwalając tym samym odwieczny, krzywdzący porządek rzeczy.

Z przyjemnością informuję, że mój esej „Wcale nie odeszli – o wewnętrznej dynamice postaci w Jenufie Janaczka” ukazał się właśnie w zbiorze studiów i szkiców Miraże identyfikacji. Libretto w operze XX i XXI wieku pod redakcją Aliny Borkowskiej-Rychlewskiej i Elżbiety Nowickiej (Poznań, PTPN, 2016).



Jenůfa, Leoš Janáček’s first fully mature opera, was written at a dramatic stage of the composer’s life. The opera is usually interpreted and directed as a drama of forgiveness and redemption, whose protagonists undergo a complete spiritual transformation, and, under the influence of tragic developments, discover the power of genuine love. However, a more in-depth analysis of the opera score and the libretto reveals a different story, one of the rules of existence of a closed, fanatical community and the desperate efforts of two women trying to protect the community from disintegration, at the same time re-establishing the timeless, unfair order of things.

I am happy to announce that my essay „They have not gone at all: the internal dynamics of the protagonists of Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa” has just been published in Alina Borkowska-Rychlewska, Elżbieta Nowicka (ed.), Miraże identyfikacji. Libretto w operze XX i XXI wieku [Mirages of Identity: Libretto in Opera of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries] (Poznań, PTPN, 2016).

Deep Graves and Red Clay

Two outsiders. Two victims of persecution whose lots in life became entwined for the long term. A Gentile and a Jew who shared inspirations in a much greater degree than one would suppose on the basis of their complicated lots in life. This month marks a 20th anniversary of the death of an outstanding Polish-Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who was a fast friend of Dmitri Shostakovich. The newest album released by Stowarzyszenie Muzyki Polskiej (Association of Polish Music) features soprano Elżbieta Szmytka and pianist Grzegorz Biegas performing Weinberg’s Jewish Songs op. 13 and 17, as well as Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata in B minor. Here is my text originally published in the programme book accompanying the aforementioned CD.



Elżbieta Szmytka and Grzegorz Biegas during the recording session at NOSPR, Katowice. Photo: Paweł Orski.

When the Axis army struck the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Dmitri Shostakovich had been working at Leningrad Conservatory for four years already, trying to regain his position after a period of great terror and dramatic conflicts with Stalinist censorship which had ended in, among other things, the withdrawal of his Symphony no. 4. In a surge of patriotic feelings, he had volunteered to take part in the Great Patriotic War, but was not accepted on account of a vision defect. Building of fortifications around Leningrad was begun, evacuations of the privileged were launched. Shostakovich remained in the city. He joined the fire brigade and took shifts standing watch on the roof of the Conservatory. In September, the Germans crossed the Moscow-Leningrad train line. Over 2.5 million civilians were stuck in the Siege of Leningrad. A month later, the composer decided to evacuate. He managed to get to Moscow, from whence he was transferred by train to Kuibyshev, where he finished work on the Leningrad Symphony. In the spring of 1943, he returned to Moscow.
In September 1939, the 20-year-old Mieczysław Weinberg escaped Warsaw to the East, as did many other Polish Jews. His father, mother and sister died in 1943 at the Trawniki concentration camp during Operation Harvest Festival, carried out at Himmler’s command. That same year, Weinberg ended his nomadic life. After two years in Minsk, Belarus, as well as evacuation to Tashkent, he settled for the rest of his life in Moscow – at the urging and thanks to the support of Shostakovich, who had been enchanted with the young composer’s Symphony no. 1. They took up residence in the same neighborhood. They became friends. They were bound by a commonality of spirit, morality and aesthetic principles.
Shostakovich wrote his Sonata in B minor just before moving from Kuibyshev to Moscow, in the first few months of 1943. After a lengthy pause in composition for piano, he was clearly struggling with the material: he created a heterogeneous work, in the first movement dramatic, revealing his mastery in use of counterpoint; in the second, restrained and clearly tending towards Neoclassicism; in the third, full of emotion, bringing to mind associations with the finale of Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor. It is a music of conflict, considerably closer in language to the Leningrad Symphony (or the ‘wartime’ sonatas of Prokofiev) than to the Sonata op. 12, written 17 years earlier. That one had been written in a spirit of Russian Modernism; this one fits rather into a continuation of German Romanticism’s legacy. His contemporaries were disappointed by it. Today, it is striking as a testimony of those days when ‘it was difficult to live’ for Shostakovich; but at the same time, it is intriguing as a herald of the mature works of the middle period of his œuvre.
Weinberg’s two song cycles, the so-called Children’s Songs op. 13 and the Jewish Songs op. 17, are linked by a very peculiar bridge. The first were written while he was still in Tashkent, in 1943, to texts by Isaac Leib Peretz, a classic of Jewish literature who came from a Sephardic family that had settled in Zamość. The background for the second cycle is a set of poems by Shmuel Halkin, one of the leading figures in Yiddish literature in the Soviet Union, an author basically unknown in Poland. For the most part, the Children’s Songs convey an impression of simplicity and cheerfulness of mood. The subject of the songs from op. 17 is the drama of the Patriotic War. More careful analysis, however, reveals an intense connection between them: both cycles are basically a protest against war – the one perceived naïvely through a child’s eyes, and the one experienced deeply by an adult. The culminating points of the two opuses are the penultimate songs: ‘Der yesoymes brivele’, the letter of an orphan to his dead mother; and ‘Tife griber, royte leym’ – the story of the mass executions of Jews in Babi Yar, in which at least 30 000 people died.
Much has been written lately about Shostakovich’s influence on Weinberg. Less about inspirations flowing in the other direction. But it is difficult to imagine that the cycle Jewish Folk From Poetry, and especially the last symphonies of Shostakovich, were written without knowledge of the experiences of the refugee from Warsaw. For both of them, those ‘tife griber, royte leym’ – deep graves and red clay – became a metaphor for despised outcasts whose œuvre threatened the unity of an oppressive world order.
Translated by Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Agrapha dogmata

We are happy to announce that the second monographic CD of Rafał Augustyn’s music, entitled Sub Iove, and recorded by the Cantores Minores Wratislavienses directed by Piotr Karpeta, will be released in the middle of February by CD Accord Music Edition. Instead of a teaser, I post my text from the CD booklet, where I explain the whole story and give some information about the pieces included in this album. Enjoy!


I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence’ – said Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus in the famous fragment referred to by historians of philosophy as a critique on writing (here translated by Benjamin Jowett). I also became lost in thought, when in an effort to broaden my knowledge on the subject of Rafał Augustyn’s newest contributions I turned for help to the invaluable Google search engine. First I was offered the biography of a certain race-walker, who after completing a five-year course at a technical college of gastronomy was awarded the title of a mass-catering technician. Despite all of Augustyn’s versatility I was not fooled and posed another question related to the Socrates letters. The reply came back as a mysterious 21-FP-S2-E1-TiMuz, which I initially acknowledged as a sign of solemn silence. However I persevered and after further searches discovered I was faced with a subject-cum-mode code, or more precisely the ‚Text and Music’ seminar that Doctor Rafał Augustyn conducts at Wroclaw University’s Institute of Polish Philology. I was delighted by what his classes aim to achieve (‚To acquire a practical ability of analyzing text-cum-musical relationships of a vocal and vocal-instrumental work in various styles, forms and circulatory systems found in musical culture’), and intrigued by the annotation in the ‚Initial requirements’ column, where larger than life it reads: ‚lack of formal requirements’.


Could it be that the lecturer, who discusses examples of his authorial approach to the textual-musical questions related to his own material, among others Three Roman Nocturnes and Vagor ergo sum featured on this recording, preferred to work on the mental tabula rasa of his 1st year postgraduate charges and fill it with a series of associations as loose as they are unexpected? This is somewhat if not entirely true. Augustyn values open minds. He continues to follow in the tracks of Socratic dialectics, which he considers the only source of accomplished speech – as well as accomplished composition, a characteristic ekphrasis that enters into discourse on art and our whole postmodernist world related to the principle of intertextuality. Rather than stylizing, Augustyn toys with tradition, wanders through semiotic space-time by throwing in a title here, an allusion there, and elsewhere confusing order and convention thus forcing written words and markings contained in the score to break their solemn silence and speak to the listener in a beautiful, meaningful and genuine phrase, which in effect leads to justifiable conclusions – regardless of a chosen thought process. Talking about his choral output, Augustyn descends into a somewhat schizophrenic string of free associations. In the same breath he mentions dozens of idiomatic expressions, beginning with angelic choruses, through to choirs of sirens and prisoners, ending with (if you’ll pardon the expression) ‚Uncle Sam’ choruses. All in order to make us understand that hidden behind this immense inter-textual mixture of material is an attempt to impart new values to a multiple group of vocalists, associated by an average music-lover with a stringent and disciplined sense of community, whose aim is singing in praise – never mind to whom. Augustyn’s chorus has nothing in common with heavenly choirs, where as in the Book of Jeremiah – ‚damned is he who badly performs the work of the Lord’. If anything it stems from ancient choreomania and is closer to poetry than composed music where melody and rhythm play an equal role dictated by the overall, over-riding ‚musicality’ of the narrative. His chorus, rather than communal is usually an individual ‚I’: sometimes an actor, sometimes a listener and sometimes a go-between, an authority that assists in finding the correct path in world participation – as witnessed by Nietzsche’s deliberations in The Birth of Tragedy.

This juggling act can already be seen and heard in Three Roman Nocturnes, where Augustyn exploits texts by Ennius, considered the father of Latin literature, texts by Catullus, a representative of the revolutionary Neoteric group and the philosophy of Seneca – primarily as semantic material, delighting in its sound without getting embroiled in any direct lingual-cum-historical connotations. Drawing on three Latin idioms, already established in the European cultural landscape well after the death of all three mentioned authors (Sub Iove, namely under clear skies, Sub rosa, in other words confidentially, and Sub specie aeternitatis – from a perspective of eternity), he places the choir in three different settings: in first person narrative spoken in the name of the entire humanity, in a dialectical dispute between lovers and finally in a supra-time and supra-individual narrative where the performing ensemble plays the role of a specific collective subconscious.

In Mass with a contradictory subtitle of semibrevis (a reference to one of the markings describing rhythmic values in mensural notation, but also an atypical technical description of a short Mass complemented by a Confiteor rarely exploited in musical forms) there are two identities: that of a communal, fully engaged Polish choir and a professional Latin choir. The method of building these identities – unhurried, restrained, based on a measured gradation of tensions – again recalls a form of subtle, albeit unexpected toying with early sacred music conventions, considering that the applied contrapuntal textures and the narrative’s relative lyricism go hand in hand with the subtle tone-colour effects and work on motivic material that have more in common with Bartókian modernism than Renaissance polyphony.

The identity of the four short pieces Od Sasa, provided by Augustyn with the subtitle Tones-Pauses-Events, is equally fluid and intangible, just like the identity of the texts’ author, the Wroclaw poet Dariusz Sas, well known as a Polish philologist, organizer of underground literary life and co-founder of a certain no longer existing journal for the soul, not to mention an apiarist. Sometimes one cannot be sure that he is Dariusz as in some biographical notes he leaves out his Christian name. In Epistolas (which reminds me irresistibly of a joke about an old woman, who unable to make use of the church hymn book sang at the top of her voice: “dot, dot, two dots, slash, two slashes, o Maryyyyy, etcetera”) the chorus becomes embodied molto tranquillo into the identity of four types of smoked fish sold through the retail trade, albeit slightly watered down by an outpouring of meticulously sung numbers and letter markings from a fiscal invoice. In Song for Netballers there are echoes of a stadium roar from a chorus of fans, in Autumn Malaise the multiplex lyrical subject is divided by details of home cures for a cold while in my favourite Production the chorus identifies unequivocally with Sas – a freshly baked graduate – and divulges to the listener the behind-the-scenes mass production of Polish humanists. The highly amusing Od Sasa (From Sas) are a perfect example of Augustyn’s favourite technique of applying pauses as a building tool of the musical narrative – underspecified, incomplete, with no dot over the ‚I’, which is left up to the listener to place.

Augustyn spectacular journey in search of an identity for the contemporary chorus closes with a small cantata tellingly entitled Vagor ergo sum: an attempt at the impossible, namely an endeavour to tackle the unmusical poetry of Zbigniew Herbert. Augustyn would not be true to himself if in this particular spectacle of word and sound he failed to refer to the aesthetics of the theatre of the absurd – together with its uncertainty surrounding our world, its inversion of the traditional, metaphysical order of reality. Here is Herbert (or perhaps Augustyn) on a train journey across Italy, where successive legs of his trip are accompanied by station announcements related to arrivals, departures and delays of railway timetables. The chorus alternately embodies Mr Cogito, passengers, station staff, donkeys passed on the way, as well as stars and ‚watery-eyed, grey foolish stalkers’, towards the end only to sing itself out quietly into the role of a sensitive soul on the final words of a Herbert prayer: ‚if this is Your seduction I remain seduced for ever without forgiveness’. This is Augustyn’s musical theatre, his primary as well as his most recent fascination of creating new tonal situations out of old and discarded building blocks.

What next? A return from Herbert’s inhuman and unmusical netherworld to Plato’s two worlds? After all, he who knows what is fair, beautiful and good is not going to compose these things on running water. Rafał Augustyn’s true learning has not yet been written down. Perhaps his creative endeavour – even if supported by words – will remain forever in the sphere of agrapha dogmata, perhaps each time reconstruction on the part of the listener will be required. So much the better.

(Translated by Anna Kaspszyk)

Three Steps into Madness

Frenzy, insanity or mental illness? The autumn season at the Welsh National Opera, arranged under the heading of ‘Madness’, has obliged us to reflect upon several forms of lunacy. Three compositions superficially divided by everything: a masterpiece of Baroque opera, the swansong of a master of classic bel canto and a musical defying all attempts at categorization. Three extremely different characters: a knight possessed by jealousy; a girl caught up in religious and political intrigue, who loses her senses at the thought of her fiancé’s supposed unfaithfulness; and a barber motivated by a psychopathic lust for revenge. But nonetheless, the idea – from a musical standpoint quite awkward – to combine Händel’s Orlando, Bellini’s I Puritani and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd turned out to be considerably more coherent than in the case of last year’s series ‘Liberty or Death’ series, in which Carmen played the quite far-fetched role of a unifying force for two rarely-performed Rossini operas.

This time, we decided to catch the WNO in Oxford: among other reasons, in order to ‘check out’ this ensemble in the difficult acoustic conditions of the New Theatre, about which I wrote in one of the October articles on this page. I was consumed with curiosity about how Annilese Miskimmon, the creator of an extraordinarily intelligent and precise staging of Jenůfa for the Scottish Opera, would handle the dramaturgically weak I Puritani. I was a little (well, even very!) worried about Orlando in the staging of Harry Fehr, who shifted the action of this dramma per musica into the realities of an English hospital and the time just after the outbreak of World War II. I was looking forward to Sondheim’s ‘black operetta’ – a musical at moments closer to Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten than the insipid music of big-budget Broadway productions. Frankly, I couldn’t wait for this season, because production of Baroque operas in Poland is the exclusive domain of enthusiasts associated with the historical performance movement; Bellini is avoided by our theatre directors like fire; and if anyone aside from specialists and the more refined lovers of the musical œuvre has heard of Sondheim, then it was only in the context of the film version of Sweeney directed by Tim Burton.

New Theatre Oxford turned out to be even more cramped and poorly adapted to presentations of music theatre works than we had originally thought. The hall, more capacious than Warsaw’s  Grand Theatre–National Opera, literally merges into the stage; the audience is crowded into densely-packed rows, and there is no orchestra pit. The instrumentalists occupy the space left behind by seats removed from the front portion of the ground floor, separated from the audience by a low, temporary barrier. No wonder that in the first act of I Puritani, the soloists and the orchestra were occupied, above all, with ‘catching’ the sound proportions. However, this went more smoothly than expected, for which enormous credit goes to Carlo Rizzi, who from the beginning took care not only of the work’s big picture, but also of its meticulously-executed details, chief among them a beautiful, typically bel canto-style rubato, shaped in ideal accord with the disposition of the individual singers. All the more importantly that Barry Banks, expected in the role of Arturo, was substituted at the last minute by the young Italian Alessandro Luciano, a singer gifted with a nice voice and decent technique, but clearly inexperienced and insecure in the murderously high notes that Bellini did not spare the lead tenor in this opera. Linda Richardson (Elvira), playing opposite him, came out decidedly better, though after listening to fragments of ‘Vien diletto, è in ciel la luna’ in the rendition of the phenomenal Rosa Feola from the WNO trailer, I deeply regret having happened upon the other cast for this role. Richardson’s interpretation – though correct and completely period-appropriate – was lacking in girlish lightness and the charming freedom of coloratura figures showcased by her predecessor. David Kempster took a long time to warm up in the role of Sir Riccardo, one basically inappropriate for this baritone, who reveals the fullness of his artistic values in the later Puccini and verismo repertoire. I am all the more pleased to report upon the superb debut of Wojtek Gierlach in the role of the good-hearted Sir Giorgio, singing with fluid phrasing and a soft, round color (in ‘Suoni la tromba’, he made a splendid duo with Kempster, who felt much more at home in this proto-Verdian duet). The minor deficiencies in the solo parts, however, faded into oblivion before the brilliant musical vision of Ricci, who strongly emphasized the dialogical character of I Puritani, ensuring that the singers, orchestra and chorus (outstanding as usual) built a transparent narrative and did not try to drown each other out.

I PURITANI_WNO, Elvira; Rosa Feol , Lord Arturo Talbo ; Barry Banks, Sir Riccardo Forth; David Kempster, Sir Giorgio; Wojtek Gierlach, Lord Gualtiero; Valton Aidan Smith,

I Puritani. Wojtek Gierlach (Sir Giorgio), Rosa Feola (Elvira), Sian Meinir (Enrichetta). Photo: Bill Cooper.

Miskimmon based her staging on a surprising idea: she decided to take literally Elvira’s complaint that three months of separation from her beloved are like ‘tre secoli di sospiri e di tormenti’. Similarly to Jenůfa, she shifted the action to the realities of Northern Ireland, judging from the costumes (stage design by Leslie Travers) in the 1970s, the time of Na Trioblóidí, i.e. the infamous political and ethnic Troubles. The wedding preparations play out in parallel with the organization of the Orange Order demonstration in July – an annual Protestant parade in honour of William III’s victory over the Jacobites. A sudden and stormy shift of the narrative to 1649 is the first sign of the heroine’s psychological breakdown – the two time planes, each one with every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed as always with Miskimmon, continually merge into each other. The contemporary Elvira follows her 17th-century alter ego step by step. And here the first dissonance appears: the silent twin, after a suggestive first entrance, wanders aimlessly about the stage; instead of filling in the narrative, she just disturbs it. This is nothing, however, in comparison with the solution adopted in the finale: after the breathtaking scene in which the messenger arrives with news of the amnesty (the black-and-white character enters the Orange hall like something out of a dream), Miskimmon changes the ending and gives poor Arturo over to death at the hands of the Unionists. As a consequence, Arturo disappears from the final ensemble number. I would not have suspected that such a musical stage director would permit herself to do such obvious violence to Bellini’s score – especially that her provocative vision, despite the aforementioned reservations, does actually hold together for most of the opera.

The next day, my disappointment unexpectedly turned into admiration. Harry Fehr had done the impossible: he had set the action of the ‘magical’ Orlando in a very concrete space and time, with all of the fantastic elements coming from the sickened mind of the protagonist, a heroic airman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The director does not modernize the narrative by force – everything takes place in the meticulously-reproduced scenery of a hospital from the 1930s (stage design by Yannis Thavoris, playing wonderfully with the Art Deco-style interior of the New Theatre). There is the mentally-ill Orlando and the physically-crippled Medoro. There are two female rivals: the aristocratic Angelica and the modest, straight-laced nurse Dorinda. The strings are pulled by the demonic Zoroastro – the medical director, a peculiar cross between Mesmer and Freud, an omnipotent doctor who sets himself the goal of healing the protagonist and sending him off to battle with the enemy of the homeland. The entire concept could have fallen flat if Fehr had not worked out every detail and paced every gesture with the individual phrases of the libretto. The static narrative suddenly picked up its pace; the improbable twists in the plot gained a psychological justification. A few scenes and theatrical ideas will remain in my long-term memory: the scene where Orlando is ‘conditioned’ with the aid of slides from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s visit to Hitler in Berchtesgaden; Angelica’s emerald-green gloves in the aria ‘Verdi piante’; the daring idea of supposedly destroying Dorinda’s house as part of Orlando’s shock therapy. If we add to this the phenomenal acting of all of the singers (as well as choristers in non-speaking roles), we obtain a stage vision, the coherence of which would be appreciated from beyond the grave even by the director of (at that time) His Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket, where Orlando had its world première.

ORLAND_WNO, Orlando; Lawrence Zazzo, Angelica; Rebecca Evans, Medoro; Robin Blaze, Dorinda; Fflur Wyn, Zoroastro; Daniel Grice,

Orlando. Lawrence Zazzo. Photo: Bill Cooper.

I also will spare no compliments to the musicians. The WNO orchestra, prepared by Rinaldo Alessandrini, played in Oxford under the baton of Andrew Griffith. With a knowledge of style that not a few continental Baroque ensembles could envy it (despite the violette marine originally used in Act III being replaced by ‘ordinary’ violas). I have already written about my doubts concerning the casting of Orlando and Medoro previously – on the occasion of the Polish première of Händel’s masterpiece. My doubts have remained, especially in reference to Robin Blaze, who was not able to breathe any life into the part of Medoro, scored for female alto. Lawrence Zazzo in the role of Orlando, however, made up for all of his vocal deficiencies with wonderful scenic gesture, creating a character of flesh and blood – at moments grotesque, at moments tragic, convincing in every respect. Rebecca Evans turned out to be the brightest star of the evening: a lofty, somewhat distant Angelica, but at key moments moving one to tears – above all, by virtue of flawless technique and feel for style. Nor can one remain indifferent to the vocal art of Fflur Wyn (Dorinda), one of the most versatile light sopranos among the soloists at WNO.

It is no wonder, then, that after such experiences, I received the staging of Sweeney Todd without any great emotion. In this case, James Brining’s shifting of the action to the 1970s found no justification. The action moved quickly, images came and went as if in a kaleidoscope, but the drama of the mad barber – which is, after all, very firmly set in the realities of Victorian London – did lose credibility. Perhaps also on account of David Arnsperger, the German artist in the title role who was making his debut at the WNO, and who – to make things worse – sang in correct, but completely ‘transparent’, impersonal English. The strongest point in the cast turned out to be Scottish soprano Janis Kelly, who was sufficiently good as an actress, as well as vocally competent, to eclipse Sweeney in the role of Mrs. Lovett. There is also no way to overestimate the artistry of Paul Charles Clarke, who in an awesomely cavalier manner took on the role of Pirelli and parodied his own – otherwise splendid – technique of a lyric tenor accustomed to the Italian repertoire. I would prefer to assess the craftsmanship of the remaining soloists, especially Soraya Mari (Johanna) and Jamie Muscato (Anthony) in other conditions, without microport amplification of the singers. I shall again praise the superb work of the chorus and sensitive playing of the orchestra under the baton of James Holmes, but I cannot get rid of certain objections: since the WNO is raising Sondheim’s œuvre to the rank of a full contemporary opera (and not without reason), why is it hesitant to perform it ‘as God commanded’ – without amplification, on the natural forces of perfectly-trained vocalists?

SWEENEY TODD, , DIRECTOR - James Brining, Designer - Colin Richmond, Lighting - Chris Davey, The Welsh National Opera, The Millenium Centre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Sweeney Todd. David Arnsperger and Janis Kelly (Mrs. Lovett) and the chorus. Photo: Johan Persson.

But now let us bring the matter back down to earth. We got three shows, sometimes controversial in terms of staging, but despite slight reservations superb from a musical standpoint. We happened upon them on tour, in immeasurably difficult acoustic conditions, in the final phases of their tour, when just plain human exhaustion could have been coming into play. I would wish for such premières at Polish opera houses. I would also wish everyone an equally friendly and objective audience.

(Translated by Cara Thornton)

A Symphony in Seven Chapters

If any of the 20th century composers had managed to create as precise and consistent a language in their works as Thomas Mann had when composing the linguistic scores of his short stories and novels, we would have gained a music to overshadow the whole legacy of modernism. The sensitivity with which he spun leitmotifs, the ability to lead verbal melodies in an intricate counterpoint, the consciousness of form, and, predominantly, the sense of musical time of the narration which was once continuous and then jagged, cyclic and linear, falling at times into a mythical, fable-like timelessness, brings to mind non-existent symphonies, operas that were never sung and painfully elusive works of chamber music. Regardless of whether he directly referred to the music of that time in his works (like in Buddenbrooks – built in the image and likeness of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung) or whether he wrote about imaginary music, completely different from his own preferences (like in Doctor Faustus whose hero Adrian Leverkühn in a way unintentionally became the character of Arnold Schönberg) he made a typically German “music of the word” in the spirit of Tieck, Hofmann and Heine, which was, however, larger in scale and more consistent as regards its concept.
The Magic Mountain can be interpreted in the same vein, as it is, after all, a pastiche, if not a parody of the classic Bildungsroman, as well as a story about death and illness, an allegory of the violent clash of ideology and thoughts at the turn of the century, a reflection about the space-time continuum. Also, in the context of music, what Mann clearly makes readers realise at the beginning of Chapter Seven: “Can one tell – that is to say, narrate – time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? That would surely be an absurd undertaking. (…) For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound to it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once”. He explains the implications of this situation a few pages further on: “We freely admit that in bringing up the question as to whether time can be narrated or not, we have done so only to confess that we had something like that in view in the present work. And if we touched upon the further question, whether our readers were clear how much time had passed since the upright Joachim, deceased in the interval, had introduced into the conversation the above-quoted phrases about music and time (…) we should not have been dismayed to hear that they were not clear. We might even have been gratified, on the plain ground that a thorough-going sympathy with the experiences of our hero is precisely what we wish to arouse, and he, Hans Castorp, was himself not clear upon the point in question, no, nor had been for a very long time”.
The hero, Hans Castorp, will experience a violent transformation a few chapters later when a certain German product appears in Berghof, “the truly musical, in a modern, mechanical form, the German soul up to date”. The enchanted treasure, a Polyhymnia gramophone, which Castorp will soon appropriate, becomes the only dispenser of musical delights, out of fear that “the sick, but thick-skinned” will desecrate the records using worn needles, leaving them scattered on chairs or playing goofy pranks. Our “good-natured nuisance” will get out from the state of great stupor, stop playing patience and start listening. He will comprehend the meaning of those many years spent in the sanatorium, sum up his experiences to date, gain strength, mature and come to the surprising conclusion that the subject that he loves most, with a healthy and vigorous love, is death.
He will arrive at this conclusion with the help of his most beloved records, with the aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Gounod’s Faust, the prelude to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the final duet “O terra addio” from Verdi’s Aida, the end of the second act from Bizet’s Carmen with the well-known tenor “Flower song”, and above all the song Lindenbaum from Schubert’s cycle Winterreise. Castorp listens to these records in an utterly different manner than toward live performers, whose artistry made such an impact on the reception of music by Thomas Mann himself – the writer who experienced his musical initiation at the age of 17 at the performance of Lohengrin in Stadttheater in Lübeck and considered it one of his most significant experiences. Mann witnessed the very first performance of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand as well as Pfitzner’s Palestrina and Berg’s Lulu. He was friends with the conductor Bruno Walter, a legendary interpreter of Mahler, Mozart, Brahms and Bruckner. He enjoyed sitting at the piano in solitude and playing his favourite fragments from Tristan und Isolde, allegedly the only opera that could make his stern and always poised face reflect any emotion. For a long time, he could not take to the recorded music, although he succumbed to it while still in the era of mechanical records, before the first gramophone for electrical recordings appeared on the market.
The omniscient and, at the same time, completely non-scient narrator of The Magic Mountain speaks from the perspective of a neophyte with an obsessive passion for listening into the gramophone tube. Mann was perfectly aware of the fact that the phonographic revolution turned the existing model of listening to music inside out. It took music out of its social context. It stripped the closed form of its integrity, making it possible to listen to the chosen passages virtually endlessly. It involved the listener in an intimate dialogue with the work of art, and, at the same time, increased his distance to the musicians. It aroused his imagination, forcing him to carry out a mental reconstruction of the visual aspect of the performance and the missing elements of the purely musical landscape. As we read about Castorp in the subchapter Fullness of Harmony: “The singers male and female whom he heard, he could not see; their corporeal part abode in America, in Milan, Vienna, St Petersburg. But let them dwell where they might, he had their better part, their voices, and might rejoice in the refining and abstracting process which did away with the disadvantages of closer personal contact, yet left them enough appeal to the senses to permit some command over their individualities”. Similar to Wagner’s Parsifal, the pure simple man was slowly reaching the truth, he “writhed when they failed. He bit his lips in chagrin when the reproduction was technically faulty; he was on pins and needles when the first note of an often-used record gave a shrill or scratching sound – which happened more particularly with the difficult female voice. Still, when these things happened, he bore with them, for love makes us forbearing”.
The majority of the readers of The Magic Mountain incorrectly assume that Mann equipped Castorp with a collection of records from the epoch, gave him a standard set of mechanical records from the time before the Great War. Meanwhile, the writer projected on the hero his own phonographic fascinations, whose beginning coincided with the author’s visit to George M. Richter in 1920, which was recorded in his journals. Admittedly, Radamès and Aida sing in the voices of Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso in the record from 1909, but the character of Valentin who leaves his sister, Marguerite, under the care of his beloved friend, Siébel, was impersonated by the German baritone Joseph Schwarz recorded almost ten years later. The British-American tenor Alfred Piccaver, the star of Staatsoper in Vienna, recorded the “Flower song” in 1923.
Similar was the case of the record with the piece that was of key importance for the hero’s inner transformation: “It was Schubert’s ‘Linden-tree’, it was none other than the old favourite, ‘Am Brunnen vor dem Tore’. It was sung to piano accompaniment by a tenor voice; and the singer was a lad of parts and discernment, who knew how to render with great skill, fine musical feeling and finesse in recitative his simple yet consummate theme. We all know that the noble lied sounds rather differently when given as a concert-number from its rendition in the childish or the popular mouth. In its simplified form the melody is sung straight through; whereas in the original art-song, the key changes to minor in the second of the eight-line stanzas, changes back again with beautiful effect to major in the fifth line; is dramatically resolved in the following “bitter blasts” and “facing the tempest”; and returns again only with the last four lines of the third stanza, which are repeated to finish out the melody”.
In the description of the narrator of The Magic Mountain there is a telling phrase “none other than the old” referring to the words “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore”, while the song sung by children and the German people – and most probably known to Castorp also in this form – uses a shorter text; the longer one had not yet been developed by the poet Wilhelm Müller who introduced into it the linden tree, the sacred tree of the Germanic peoples, associated with the cycle of life, and so with death and unavoidable passing, absent from the song’s traditional form. The folk song about the house of the beloved woman which was located by a well in front of the gate, was sang in Germany by everybody: at home, school, in an inn or by a bonfire, in the very simple version by Friedrich Silcher for voice accompanied by any given instrument, which served as a point of reference for one of the most famous and most sophisticated songs of Schubert’s cycle Winterreise.
It is possible, although quite unlikely, that Castorp knew only Silcher’s interpretation and encountered Schubert’s masterpiece for the first time in Davos. Regardless of that, he could not have listened to it in Berghof, at least not in the version described so sensually and meticulously by Mann further in the paragraph. This “clear, warm voice, with his excellent breathing technique, with the suggestion of a sob” as a result of which “the listener felt his heart gripped in an undreamed-of fashion; with an effect the singer knew how to heighten by head-tones of extraordinary ardour on the lines ‘I found my solace there’ and ‘For rest and peace are here’” definitely describes the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber, an outstanding performer of Mozart characters, operetta parts and the German Lieder, whose records Thomas Mann listened to “with passion verging on misdeed”, five years after the end of the Great War.
And with this song, he sent his Castorp to attack the trenches. Singing Lindenbaum “as one sings, unaware, staring stark ahead”. He left us unsure whether Castorp would survive or fall, saying farewell to his hero in an elaborate musical cadence which befits a non-existent symphony by Mahler more than even the longest of novels.
What was the purpose of this anachronism in the narration of The Magic Mountain? Could Mann really have attempted to narrate time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? An attempt that is perversely successful because it is performed in the categories of musical time which is intrinsic to a completely different form? The time of Hans Castorp, rarefied by the seven-year long stay in Berghof, became suddenly thicker, future-oriented, made a circle and formed a spiral. Like in a real sonata cycle.

(Translated by Patrycja Cichoń)

The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am very pleased to post my review of Tristan und Isolde at the Longborough Festival Opera in an excellent translation done by Cara Thornton with the utmost care and attention to detail. Here is the link to the Polish version:


Two years ago, the Longborough Festival Opera was the world’s first private opera house to present the entire Ring of the Nibelung in one season. This year, it basically began the worldwide celebration of Tristan und Isolde’s 150th birthday by giving the first presentation barely two days after the anniversary of the world première in Munich. I have written about the Grahams’ endeavor – as beautiful as it was crazy – already previously, so I shall not repeat myself. I shall only explain what drove me to Longborough, for my decision concerning the trip to see and hear that Tristan was made over a year ago, after the Warsaw première of Lohengrin. The performer of the title role, Peter Wedd, provoked mass confusion among our critics. The so-called main trend was populated by his opponents, who were trying to compare his interpretation with the supposedly obligatory model template. From several side trends, voices of admiration reverberated – more often, however, focused on the general manner of building the character than on the enormous, at that time already evident potential of this singer. Intrigued by Wedd’s extraordinary musicality and the beauty of his dark, overtone-rich tenor, I began systematic field research. With pleasure I observed how that voice grew stronger, gaining power and a peculiarly Wagnerian brilliance. I traveled to Longborough hoping that Anthony Negus had managed to fill in the rest of the cast with equal sensitivity, work out a convincing concept for the whole and clothe it in an appropriate sound. Reality exceeded my boldest expectations.

And it had seemed to me that those expectations were, even so, excessive. The stage at Longborough resembles that of a second-rate cinema out in the middle of nowhere. No sophisticated acoustical paneling: spread over the audience’s heads is a roof of corrugated metal supported on wooden rafters. The orchestra pit – as in Bayreuth – is deep and placed almost entirely beneath the stage. The singers follow the conductor’s movements on black-and-white monitor screens hung on the walls of the side loggias. To organize that microscopic stage space, one must have truly enormous imagination, intuition and good taste. All of these things were present, especially in the stage designer (Kimie Nakano) and the lighting director (Ben Ormerod), who put us into the mood of the Tristan myth with a spectacular play of colors and contrast, almost entirely abandoning scenery and superfluous props. Their vision, on the one hand, brought to mind associations with Japanese Nō theater, where the actors move about an empty stage; and on the other, with Wieland Wagner’s legendary second staging from Bayreuth (1962) – especially in Act III, where a characteristic ‘Celtic’ monolith with a round opening in its upper portion appeared at the back of the stage. Japanese inspirations were also evident in the cut and colors of the costumes, loosely modeled on court attire and warriors’ clothing (Tristan appeared in something resembling a shinobi shōzoku, the traditional clothing of Japanese ninjas). Stage director Carmen Jakobi filled in the whole with economical, indeed ascetic acting gesture, so I have no idea what tempted her, at key moments in the drama (among others, during the love duet from the second act and in Tristan’s death scene), to introduce two dancers, otherwise fantastic, who were supposed to reflect the characters’ ‘Jungian’ subconscious. First of all, this is a solution of a completely different order – for choreographer Didy Veldman appealed not only to Jung, but also to the erotic bas-reliefs from Khajuraho – and secondly, the dance distracted one’s attention from the considerably more interesting symbols contained in Wagner’s music itself. I must admit, however, that in comparison with the visions of Polish stage directors, with their ubiquitous parades of little girls without matches and little boys with gramophones, Katie Lusby and Mbulelo Ndabeni created only a minor dissonance with the rest of this deeply thoughtful staging.

This is nothing, however, in comparison with the brilliant coherence of Anthony Negus’ musical concept. My fears that the orchestra’s sound would not find its way through the narrow throat of the pit, but rather disappear into the abyss beneath the stage, were dispelled already in the second measure of the prelude, where the legendary Tristan chord appears for the first time. When Tristan’s ’cello motif merged with the oboe wistful Liebeslust theme, I gained certainty that this true master of the baton would balance the proportions even in such Spartan conditions. Even if one felt a certain dissatisfaction with the volume of the strings (Negus was conducting a relatively small ensemble, comprising a total of 61 instrumentalists, distributed about the pit in a German-style arrangement), he more than made up for it with the exceptional beauty of their sound. In terms of style, Negus’ craft can be compared with the most brilliant interpretations of Karl Böhm – and here, I do not at all have in mind barren imitation, but rather an aptness of interpretation flowing from knowledge of the deepest kind. This Tristan pressed on inexorably toward the final ecstasy of the Liebestod, moving forward in strong tempi, energetically, passionately, retaining proper proportions between longing, sensuality and desire for ultimate fulfillment. On the one hand, Negus made ideal use of harmonic (vertical) features; and on the other, he ingeniously impinged upon them with melodic thinking, whereby he built tension so effectively that sometimes this Wagner was no less than painful. Let us add to this a watchmaker’s attention to detail, and we shall find ourselves in seventh heaven.

Over the past year, Wedd’s voice has gone through a metamorphosis surprising even to the careful observer. It has taken on a yet darker color (in the lower register, it sounded more baritone-like than the singing of Kurwenal), while at the same time retaining ecstatic ardor and heartbreaking lyricism which inclines one to comparisons with the achievements of Max Lorenz at the peak of his career. Aside from this, the singer is tireless: only the greatest masters are able to retain such power of expression and depth of interpretation during Tristan’s death scene. Rachel Nicholls took her first steps as a Bach and Handel soprano; after that, she had the good fortune to come across Anne Evans, who opened up her voice to repertoire of heavier caliber. For Wedd, she turned out to be the ideal partner: physically delicate, almost girlish, but at the same time, warm, passionate, full of emotions brought out by flawless intonation and a perfect feel for phrasing. If it were possible to fault her for anything at all, it would be a not-quite-complete immersion in the role of Isolde, though I am convinced that this, too, will come with time. Nearly all of the other soloists created memorable characters: from the broken King Marke (Frode Olsen); to the distinctive, psychologically complex Brangäne (Catherine Carby) and the touchingly devoted Kurwenal, trying to maintain optimism until the very end (Stuart Pendred); to the episodic roles of Melot (Ben Thapa), the Shepherd (Stephen Rooke), the Young Sailor (Edward Hughes) and the Steersman (Thomas Colwell).

In this production, there were several moments of unearthly beauty. First of all, the finale of Act II, in which Frode Olsen – in collaboration with the phenomenal Kate Romano (bass clarinet) – brought us to our knees with the heartbreaking monologue of King Marke, the drama’s most tragic character, a dignified ruler who (unlike the two protagonists) does not manage to come over to the other side and experience ‘the thing in itself’ – a lament sung with surpassing beauty, in an old, breaking voice, but for all that with improbable power of expression. Secondly, the ideal blending of the lovers in the passage from the earlier love duet when Isolde and Tristan sang ‘Wonne-hehrstes Weben, liebe-heiligstes Leben’ as a single being overcome by ecstasy, almost inaudibly opening the phrase just a little bit, opening it up wide, and then closing it without slamming the door. Thirdly, ‘Muss ich dich so versteh’n’ in Tristan’s death scene, which would move an entire avalanche of stones to tears. And finally, the Liebestod, after which ensued a deathly silence, preceding a veritable storm of applause. Enough to remember this production for the rest of one’s life.

Though British critics – spoilt by productions at the Royal Opera House and on the country’s other leading stages – grumbled about the staging, everyone was agreed in their enchantment with the musical side of the Longborough Tristan. Jessica Duchen, who a month before the première expressed herself concerning the Longborough enthusiasts in a quite protectionist tone, was later not able to find words to express her admiration. It will suffice to mention that Duchen is going to the July production in Bayreuth and has serious doubts whether the team under Thielemann’s baton, with Stephen Gould and Anja Kampe in the cast, will be able to achieve the level to which the modest musicians from a provincial opera house in Gloucestershire were able to rise. She supplied her passionate review for the Independent with the following long and characteristic title: Excuse me, but why isn’t this man conducting Wagner at Covent Garden and Bayreuth?

Indeed – why? Perhaps Peter Wedd – with whom I talked the next day – is right when he comments upon this strange situation with a quote from a quatrain by William Blake: ‘When Nations grow Old, the Arts grow Cold, and Commerce settles on every Tree’. Here in Poland, they froze solid already a long time ago. I myself know conductors whose knowledge and sensitivity continue to escape the notice of Polish opera house directors. Maybe it is time to go out to the country, look for some abandoned chicken farm and start over again from scratch?