Roundup for 2020!

Since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual roundup (cf. 2018, 2019) is an occasion to group together some major themes from the last year (see also the tags and categories in the sidebar). This is just a selection (with apologies to the posts I’ve missed—do seek them out!):

For China, note

A substantial addition to my series on the ritual associations of Gaoluo:

Also new to the extensive Local ritual menu:

and on folk culture around Tianjin:

See also

Book reviews, mostly on religion and politics:

as well as

On modern Tibetan cultures, I’ve added a whole series, listed here:

—complementing my series on Uyghur culture in crisis, also with new input:

besides

* * *

For fieldwork and cultures elsewhere around the world—bearing in mind the important perspectives of

This year’s new posts on Indian raga, including some divine dhrupad singing:

* * *

On the travails of the 20th century:

* * *

On jazz:

and WAM:

On TV, film, popular culture:

* * *

Thanksgivings for liberation from tyranny:

And another sign of hope:

More jocular items include

as well as additions to The English, home and abroad:

and new entries under the headlines tag:

Further roundups:

And much much more, As They Say. Having grouped them together like this, I hope readers will scramble them all up again like a jigsaw, rather than retreating into their own little boxes… And do click on all the links within these posts! Happy, Happier New Year!

Messiaen in Japan

 

Messiaen Ozawa 1962

Messiaen with Yvonne Loriod and Seiji Ozawa, July 1962.

The exotic soundscapes of the Mystic East have long attracted composers, particularly in France (Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy).

Messiaen may be more commonly associated with Indian music (e.g. Turangalîla), but his fascination with Japanese culture goes back to his honeymoon there with his wife Yvonne Loriod in summer 1962. [1]

While the young Seiji Ozawa led rehearsals for a performance of Turangalîla, Messiaen, besides sightseeing and birdwatching, bought books and recordings of gagaku (cf. Laurence Picken, with whom he shared a love of birdsong), and attended an evening of koto zither, as well as performances of bunraku, kabuki—and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture):

I delighted in the music, the steps, the slowness of the movements, and the extraordinary cries of the tsuzumi.

Noh 2

Noh drums, 1992. My photo.

After admiring Mount Fuji and Nara, they visited Hiroshima, guided by the Belgian Catholic priest Fr Ernest Goossens. The fifth movement of Sept haïkaï was inspired by a boat trip to the Miyajima shrine; his notes evoke many images that recur throughout his music:

The sea: salty smell, of seaweed and of water, and the scent of a grove of pines. Large red torii [gateways] in the sea. Marvellous red Shinto temple, maze of rooms, corridors, columns of red wood. Dark interior of the temple where the divinity is hidden (principle room), and the other temple (which one cannot see) with the invisible true God, behind the red torii, in the sea and the sky. Monstrous stone lions defend the temple—stone lanterns on the path beside the sea—the mountains velvety with pines. Sunset above the temple. From a distance one can see the torii against the evening clouds, orange, red, pink, violet. At night one can just make out the torii in the darkness—a full moon, gold and silver, with a hazy red halo, veiled by a thin strip of completely black cloud.

Torii

The result was Sept haïkaï (for piano, wind, brass, percussion including cowbells, and eight lonely violins!), premiered in 1963, with Yvonne Loriod on piano and Pierre Boulez conducting.

  • Introduction
  • Le parc de Nara et les lanternes de pierre
  • Yamanaka cadenza
  • Gagaku (from 7.36; for an earlier orchestral adaptation by Hidemaro Konoye, see here)
  • Miyajima et le torii dans le mer 
  • Les oiseaux de Karuizawa
  • Coda

The vignettes are purely instrumental—it is only the title that alludes to haiku. But I’ve composed a couple for the occasion:

Besides world music
Olivier Messiaen
Enjoyed his birdsong

Meanwhile in Cambridge,

Wise Laurence Picken
Finding gagaku too slow
Relished birdsong too

See also Toru Takemitsu.

 


[1] See e.g. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (2005). Apart from the voluminous scholarly literature on Messaien (Paul Griffiths, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and so on), good overviews of his ouevre are Richard Taruskin, The danger of music, pp.289–99, and Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.485–96 (see The right kind of spirituality?).

Covid: ex-plosives

plosives

Leaf Lalm And Larry On

Since Covid struck, there’s been considerable research on droplets launched by speech (e.g. here); singing, too, has been scrutinised for its risks to public health. Here I’d like to add speech therapy into the mix (see e.g. Modifying disfluency), a topic that such studies hardly take into account. *

The main culprits are plosives—both unvoiced (p, t, k) and voiced (b, d, g) plosives p-p-posing a p-p-particular p-p-problem for us stammerers.

On the languagelog site there’s been much arcane, erudite discussion of multi-lingual spoof health advice, including posts by Mark LibermanBen Zimmer, and Victor Mair. More pleasing to a general Anglophone audience is this drôle fantasy by Peter Prowse:

Since consonants project over a greater distance than vowels, a three-tier system will be introduced in an effort to slow the spread:

Replacing P with F: anyone speaking to other feofle in a fublic flace will have to stop using the flosive sound; failure to do so could lead to a fine—or even frison. The whole fofulation, even members of Farliament, will have to flay their fart in this.

Replacing T with N: although this may cause some initial confusion—for example, neachers in schools will face challenges when neaching the nen nimes nable—we are confident any froblems will be nemforary; and measures under nier noo will help nurn the nide of this fandemic.

Replacing K with L: after a further brief feriod, we will bring in Near Three. The rules under Nears One and Noo will conninue. We have lonsidered these measures larefully, in line with relommendations from frofessors at Lambridge Universiny.

These new rules will affly also to other languages sfolen in this cunnry, including Nerdish, Folish, Fortuguese, and Inalian. I urge feofle to Leaf Lalm And Larry On. Nogether, we will lonquer the Lovid fandemic and renurn noo normaliny in no nime an all.

To be fair, it’s stressed, especially initial, flosives that are farticularly frojectile—and the major hurdle for stammerers. But requesting PPE may still present a challenge.

Levity apart (and here’s my pretext for relaying the topic here), it makes a good reminder for us stammerers to approach words with light contacts (“easy onset”)—and for fluent speakers, to imagine our chronic tribulations.

* Separately, several sites offer guidance for stammerers during Covid; this one has many links, including a BBC video. Of course, stammering is part of general issues in communicating; communication via masks is a challenge for all (cf. Masked drama in Asia). With so little social contact, I haven’t had much experience of negotiating stammering in a mask. I seem to be more reluctant to stammer “openly”, even if it’s invisible. When encountering a (silent) block, I apparently need people to see that I’m at least making an effort (also a reason why sufferers find phone-calls difficult), even if it’s precisely the tension of the mouth that is my undoing.

Amidst the pandemic it’s been suggested that (fluent) people should take up ventriloquism. I wonder if there are any stammering ventriloquists—perhaps a cruel dummy mercilessly taking the p-p-mickey out of their stammering minder… That would be great therapy.

For more melodious public health advice, click here.

La nativité du Seigneur

Nativité stained glass

Nativity, Saint Denis, Paris, 12th century. Source here.

Eschewing tinsel, sprouts, and a plethora of meretricious seasonal listening, what better way of celebrating Christmas than immersing ourselves in the profound meditations of Messiaen’s monumental La nativité du Seigneur! It’s high time for it to soar to the top of the Christmas charts… (cf. What is serious music?!)

Even by 1935, Messiaen’s distinctive vision was fully-fledged, expressed through a unique harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language, with extreme contrasts.

In French organ improvisation! (which also includes remarkable film of Messiaen himself at the organ of Saint-Trinité) I featured the joyous finale Dieu parmi nous, but here’s the complete work, played by various organists, as at the premiere:

I like the BTL comment “This music seriously messiaens with your head”. I set no great store by notation; it can be distracting as well as instructive, so do listen with eyes closed too.

The nine meditations are:

  • La vierge et l’enfant
  • Les bergers
  • Desseins éternels
  • Le verbe
  • Les enfants de Dieu
  • Les anges
  • Jésus accepte la souffrance
  • Les mages
  • Dieu parmi nous

Nativité score

This should lead us on to his great piano work Vingt regards sur l’enfant-JésusNote also Messiaen tag, leading to equally cosmic orchestral works (Turangalîla, Des canyons aux étoiles, Éclairs sur l’au-delà …), as well as his late opera Saint François d’Assise

Kolyma tales

This post continues my series on trauma—e.g. under Life behind the Iron Curtain, for the Soviet bloc as well as Germany; and for China, e.g. China: commemorating traumaConfessions, The temple of memories, and Guo Yuhua.

Among all the vast gulag camps spread across the USSR (e.g. Solovki), most utterly remote and terrifying was the Arctic region of Kolyma in northeast Siberia (wiki: under KolymaSevvostlag and Dalstroy; also e.g. here). As Anne Applebaum remarks,

In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi camps, so too has the word “Kolyma” come to signify the greatest hardships of the Gulag.

An early study in English was

  • Robert Conquest, Kolyma: the Arctic death camps (1978)—cf. his major book on the Ukraine famine, a predecessor of Anne Applebaum’s Red famine.

A major source is

  • Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) (wikiwebsite), who endured consecutive sentences in Kolyma from 1937 until 1953.

His Kolyma tales, a bulky collection of stories, most only a few pages long, makes grimly compelling reading. [1]

For the wider story of the camps, a brilliant study is

  • Anne ApplebaumGulag: a history (2003).

She uses Shalamov’s work extensively among a great variety of sources, and it’s worth reading the historian’s forensic overview of the camp system in conjunction with the Kolyma memoirs.

As Applebaum notes in her Introduction, it is impossible to treat the gulag as an isolated phenomenon. The difference between life inside and outside the camps was one of degree.

The Gulag did not emerge, fully formed, from the sea, but rather reflected the general standards of the society around it. If the camps were filthy, if the guards were brutal, if the work teams were slovenly, that was partly because filthiness and brutality and slovenliness were plentiful enough in other spheres of Soviet life. If life in the camps was horrible, unbearable, inhuman, if death rates were high—that too was hardly surprising. In certain periods, life in the Soviet Union was also horrible, unbearable, and inhuman, and death rates were as high outside the camps as they were within them.

Having noted the wretched fate of the “special exiles” (a separate yet related theme), she goes on to summarise the “long, multinational, cross-cultural history of prisons, exile, incarceration and concentration camps, from Ancient Rome and Greece to Georgian Britain, 19th-century France and Portugal, and Czarist Russia itself. She then encapsulates similaries and differences between Nazi and Soviet camps.

Applebaum explains:

To reach the camps of Kolyma, prisoners travelled by train across the entire length of the USSR—sometimes a three-month journey—to Vladivostok. They made the rest of the trip by boat, travelling northwards past Japan, through the Sea of Okhotsk, to the port of Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma river valley.

The transport ships were themselves deadly, as portrayed in Shalamov’s “The procurator of Judea”, and in the documentary below.

Kolyma map

Source here.

Part II of Gulag: a history, “Life and work in the camps” is a particularly harrowing survey, with chapters on arrest, prison; transport, arrival, selection; life and work in the camps; punishment and reward; guards, prisoners; women and children; the dying; strategies of survival; rebellion and escape.

Having noted that the guards didn’t inhabit an entirely different social sphere from the prisoners, in an astute analysis Applebaum observes that neither “politicals” nor “criminals” were simple categories. While inmates such as scientists, agronomists, former NKVD officers, and artists, mostly loyal Communists, have a higher profile, the “political” rubric was a catch-all for many ordinary people with no strong political views who had made some innocent yet fatal “mistake”, and most prisoners were ordinary workers and peasants. In 1934, 42.6% of the general gulag population were semi-literate; even in 1938, only 1.1%  had higher education. The proportion of “political” inmates rose during the war, reaching nearly 60% in 1946 following an amnesty for criminal prisoners.

Constantly hungry, subjected to relentless, punishing work in the dreaded gold mines and the endless taiga forests, they were at the mercy of the urki criminal inmates; degradation and dehumanisation were essential for survival.

Applebaum cites Evgeniya Ginzburg’s experiences on boarding the boat to Kolyma:

They were the cream of the criminal world: murderers, sadists, adept at every kind of sexual perversion… without wasting any time they set about terrorising and bullying the “ladies”, delighted to find that “enemies of the people” were creatures even more despised and outcast than themselves… They seized our bits of bread, snatched the last of our rags with our bundles, pushed us out of the places we had managed to find…

Shalamov 1937

Shalamov, “The Red Cross”:

Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each. […]

The young peasant who has become a prisoner sees that in this hell only the criminals live comparatively well, that they are important, that the all-powerful camp administrators fear them. The criminals always have clothes and food, and they support each other.

The young peasant cannot but be impressed by this. It begins to seem to him that the criminals possess the truth of camp life, that only by imitating them will he tread the path that will save his life. […]

The intellectual convict is crushed by the camp. Everything that he valued is ground into the dust while civilisation and culture drop from him within weeks. The method of persuasion in a quarrel is the fist or a stick. The way to induce someone to do something is by means of a rifle butt, a punch in the teeth. […]

The intellectual is permanently terrified. His spirit is broken, and he takes this frightened and broken spirit with him back into civilian life.

Applebaum describes thieves’ slang, known as blatnaya muzyka “thieves’ music”.

The minority of women prisoners (Gulag, Chapter 15), again both political and criminal, were terribly vulnerable too. Shalamov’s “Women in the criminal world” is a substantial account, also addressing male homosexuality. As he notes, the sole exception to the contempt for women prescribed in the camps is the hypocritical cult of veneration for the criminal’s mother (cf. flamenco):

Even this seemingly lofty feeling is a lie from beginning to end—as is everything else. […] This feeling for his mother is nothing but a pack of lies and a theatrical pretence. The mother cult is a peculiar smokescreen used to conceal the hideous criminal world.

Crucial for inmates’ desperate strategies of survival (Gulag, Chapter 17) was the hierarchy of hospitals and medics, with their own troubled stories. They often feature in Kolyma tales, such as “Typhoid quarantine”:

The scratch marks on Andreev’s hands and arms healed faster than did his other wounds. Little by little, the turtle-shell armour into which his skin had been transformed disappeared. The bright rosy tips of his frostbitten fingers began to darken; the microscopically thin skin, which had covered them after the frostbite blisters ruptured, thickened slightly. And above all, he could bend the fingers of his left hand. In a year and a half at the mines, both of Andreev’s hands had molded themselves around the handles of a pick and shovel. He never expected to be able to straighten out his hands again. […]

The bloody cracks on the soles of his feet no longer hurt as much as they used to. The scurvy ulcers on his legs had not yet healed and required bandaging, but but his wounds grew fewer and fewer in number, and were replaced by blue-black spots that looked like the brand of some slave-owner. Only his big toes would not heal; the frostbite had reached the bone, and pus slowly seeped from them. Of course, there were less pus than there had been back at the mine, where the rubber galoshes that served as summer footwear were so full of pus and blood that his feet sloshed at every step—as if through a puddle.

Many years would pass before Andreev’s toes would heal. And for many years after healing, whenever it was cold or even slightly chilly at night, they would remind him of the northern mine. But Andreev thought of the future. He had learned at the mine not to plan his life further than a day in advance. He strove towards close goals, like any man who is only a short distance from death. Now he desired one thing alone—that the typhoid quarantine might last for ever. This, however, could not be, and the day arrived when the quarantine was up.

Among their strategies was self-mutilation, evoked in Shalamov’s “The businessman”.

The region’s main town Magadan was built by forced labour from 1932. Evgeniya Ginzburg noted a “peculiar paradox”:

the gulag was slowly bringing “civilization”—if that is what it can be called—to the remote wilderness. Roads were being built where there had only been forest, houses were appearing in the swamps. Native peoples [2] were being pushed aside to make way for cities, factories, and railways. […]

My whole soul cursed those who had thought up the idea of building a town in this permafrost, thawing out the ground with the blood and tears of innocent people. Yet at the same time I was aware of a sort of ridiculous pride…

The early years under Eduard Berzin were later recalled with a certain nostalgia. But

Of the 16,000 prisoners who travelled to Kolyma in Berzin’s first year [1932], only 9,928 even reached Magadan alive. The rest were thrown, underclothed and underprotected, into the winter storms: survivors of the first year would later claim that only half of their number had lived.

Berzin was himself executed in the purges of 1938, as Stalin’s Great Terror took an even more severe toll on the camps.

During the American Lend-Lease programme to assist their Soviet allies, vice president Henry Wallace visited in May 1944, and was efficiently deceived. In a macabre story the most urgent task of a bulldozer donated under the programme is to rebury the frozen corpses of prisoners exposed as mass graves from 1938 began to slide down a hill. And for Monty Python fans, Shalamov also features the prisoners’ withering assessment of spam.

During and after the war, the ranks were supplemented by Ukrainian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Korean inmates (cf. Gulag, Chapter 20)—as well as Soviet prisoners of war, considered traitors.

After the war the general population’s hopes for a less punitive society were soon crushed (see The whisperers).

In “The lepers” Shalamov describes yet another disturbing story.

In the course of the war the leprosaria had been destroyed, and the patients had merged with the rest of the population. […] People ill with leprosy easily passed themselves as wounded or maimed in war. Lepers mixed with those fleeing to the east and returned to a real, albeit terrible life where they were accepted as victims or even heroes of the war.

These individuals lived and worked. The war had to end in order for the doctors to remember about them and for the terrible card catalogues of the leprosaria to fill up again.

Lepers lived among ordinary people, sharing the retreat and the advance, the joy and bitterness of victory. They worked in factory and on farms. They got jobs and even became supervisors. But they never became soldiers—the stubs of the fingers that appeared to have been damaged in the war prevented them from assuming this last occupation. Lepers passed themselves off as war invalids and were lost in the throng.

* * *

Rebellion and escape attempts were rare, and doomed (Gulag, Chapter 18). As in China, there was nowhere to escape to (ironically, it was only 55 miles across the Bering Strait to America). In “Major Pugachov’s last battle” Shalamov notes a certain change after the war:

The arrests of the thirties were arrests of random victims on the false and terrifying theory of a heightened class struggle accompanying the strnghtening of socialism. The professors, union officials, soldiers, and workers who filled the prisons to overflowing at that period had nothing to defend themselves with except, personal honesty and naïveté—precisely those qualities that lightened rather than hindered the punitive “justice” of the day. The absence of any unifying idea undermined the moral resistance of the prisoners to an unusual degree. They were neither enemies of the government nor state criminals, and they died, not even understanding why they had to die. Their self-esteem and bitterness had no point of support. Separated, they perished in the white Kolyma desert from hunger, cold, work, beatings, and diseases. They immediately learned no to defend or support each other. This was precisely the goal of the authorities. The souls of those who remained alive were utterly corrupted, and their bodies did not possess the qualities necessary for physical labour.

After the war, ship after ship delivered their replacements—former Soviet citizens who were “repatriated” directly to the far north-east.

Among them were many people with different experiences and habits acquired during the war, courageous people who knew how to take chances and who believed only in the gun. There were officers and soldiers, fliers and scouts…

Accustomed to the angelic patience and slavish submissiveness of the “Trotksyites”, the camp administration was not in the least concerned and expected nothing new.

So escape attempts increased, but were just as futile. Shalamov evokes another such attempt in “The green procurator”.

Here’s a 1992 documentary, if you can bear it:

* * *

The 1930s and 40s were the most horrifying years for the gulag system. After the war amnesty (Gulag, Chapter 21), the death of Stalin in 1953 created a new mood, and Kruschev declared a more lasting amnesty in 1956, freeing many. But as Applebaum describes in her concluding chapters, some still had little choice but to remain until the 1990s.

The end of the war may have brought an end to the Nazi camps as such, but in the USSR the gulag network continued operating; and just as it was winding down following the death of Stalin, in China Mao was expanding his own system of labour camps.

As Applebaum explains carefully in an Appendix to Gulag, attempts to assess the death toll have been inconclusive; for comparisons with estimates of victims under Hitler and Mao, cf. Timothy Snyder and Ian Johnson.

The legacy
Memory of the whole gulag system is a complex subject, explored by Applebaum in her perceptive Epilogue (cf. Figes). More recent accounts of the haunted Kolyma region discuss memory, ignorance, and veneration for Stalin. Jacek Hugo-Bader revisited the region in Kolyma diaries (2014), reviewed here by Kapka Kassabova (cf. this article).

And Yury Dud challenges modern amnesia in Kolyma: the home of our fear (2019):

 


[1] I’ve been reading the 1994 translation by John Glad; a recent version by Donald Rayfield (“Kolyma stories”) is well reviewed here, including its vexed publication history, and a comparison with Solzhenitsyn. See also the sequel Sketches of the criminal world. Other survivors’ accounts of Kolyma include those of the Polish Stanislaw J. Kowalski, The land of gold and death, Vladimir Nikolayevich Petrov, Evgeniya Ginzburg, and the Romanian Michael M. Solomon.

[2] Accounts of Kolyma inevitably focus on the camps’ Russian inmates and other outsiders; the fate of local indigenous peoples like the YukaghirsYakutChukchi, and Evenki, with their shamanistic cultures, is another story.

Saint Bill: Black books

Coffee and books is a fad.

YAY!!! As further evidence that there’s hope yet for civilisation, I’m delighted that Bill Bailey, guided by the ever-wise Oti Mabuse, has just been canonised by winning Strictly (see this fantasy). So to supplement all the adulation:

His musical standup is brilliant (e.g. here; and Love song: The duck lies shredded in a pancake, Soaking in the hoisin of your lies…). Here’s another one, ranging from panto and military calls to the Alberti bass (“making the music go further—like cutting your blancmange with Angel Delight”), culminating in the East European version of the Match of the Day theme (“The tractor would not start”):

Nor should we forget Black books—episodes from Saint Bill’s earlier life (Channel 4, three series 2000–2004).

Black books

All three protagonists—Bernard (Dylan Moran, also co-author with Graham Linehan), Manny (Bill Bailey), and Fran (Tamsin Greig)—are delightful, making complementary role-models. Despite Bernard’s persona as a “vile, rude, arrogant, elitist, filthy, chain-smoking alcoholic”, and, um, all the senseless cruelty and violence, the series has the charming mood of a kinder bygone age.

The first episode of Season 2 has more on learning the piano. If you already know that Bill is an accomplished musician (as one does nowadays), then you just have to suspend disbelief. This is a nice reversal of a persistent dramatic cliché:

I always wanted to learn, but my parents forced me not to. I spent hour after hour playing football, all by myself, peering in at all the other children in the neighbourhood practising their piano.

In a Baileyesque kinda way, all this might lead us to John Cage‘s Sonatas and interludes, the Persian santur, and Studying the cello.

Mahler 4

For more, see Mahler tag, and under Conducting: a roundup.

Klimt

Choir of angels from paradise, Gustav Klimt 1901.

Mahler 4, whose premiere the composer conducted in 1901, may seem like a less weighty, almost “classical” interlude in between the monumental 2nd and 3rd symphonies and the angst of the 5th and 6th. But different as it is, it’s substantial—a continuation of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn theme, with typical layers of irony (wiki; and here’s an essay by the authoritative Henry-Louis de La Grange).

Mahler 4 MS

In the words of Norman Lebrecht (Why Mahler?), “death is never very far from the children who play in its meadows”. At the very opening of the first movement, he finds the sleigh-bells “dangerous as a runaway car on a mountain pass, driving conductor and orchestra to near-chaos”. Still, there are intimations of a transcendent world (from 4.26 in the Abbado performance below, and again from 14.31), as well as an ominous premonition of the opening of the 5th symphony (from 9.54).

Death fiddleThe Scherzo is a Totentanz, inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1872 Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, with the solo violin tuned up a whole tone. Mahler’s idea contrasts with that of earlier composers “dressing up gypsy music for family consumption”—Lebrecht goes a bit far:

He confronts civic society with its greatest fear, the untamed classes outside the law, and he exacerbates the threat by treating gypsy music not as a primitive sound to be colonised by an educated composer but as an art with a vitality and integrity all its own. […] The Scherzo is arguably the first multicultural work in western music and certainly the first before Bela Bartók to treat indigenous music with respect and admiration as an equal form of art.

The tranquil variations of the gorgeous slow movement are offset by a more clouded section in the minor—klagend, leidenschaftlich

Mahler 4 slow minor

After the return of the opening Ruhevoll mood, ***Santa’s speeding sleigh (from 41.52) hurtles headlong into a deep snowdrift (hmmI don’t really feel music in metaphors like this: I blame writing about music—cf. my programme for Mahler 10). This turns out to be another pathway to paradise, adorned by horns and then sumptuous strings à la Mantovani:

Mahler 4 adagio 1

Mahler 4 adagio 2

It’s interrupted by a blazing vision (from 44.25) modulating abruptly to the heavenly key of E major, combining a foretaste of the melody of the finale with the motif on timpani and plucked basses taken from the ruhevoll opening. This leads to the concluding pianissimo, “sehr zart und innig“—whose suspensions develop the string chords before the vision, now with Mahler’s ultimate Sublime Mystery harmonies:

Mahler 4 adagio 4

A clarinet emerging out of the silence introduces the final Das himmlische Leben, a childlike yet unnerving vision of heaven, marked “with a childlike, cheerful expression, without parody”. Hard as it is to find an ideal singer, it’s unrealistic to assess versions of the symphony purely on the singing, overriding overall timbre and choice of tempi. Early-music chastity, without sounding coy, may seem more suitable, but it still hasn’t quite replaced fruity warbling; while boy trebles have been tried, we await a version by a choirgirl.

Punctuated by manic reminiscences of the opening sleigh-bells, the poem (far from untrammelled—not suitable for vegetarians) also belongs with Mahler’s farewells:

Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,
D’rum tun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich’ Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh’.
Wir führen ein englisches* Leben,

Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben;
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen,
Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu.

Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes d’rauf passet.
Wir führen ein geduldig’s,
Unschuldig’s, geduldig’s,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod.
Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten.
Der Wein kost’ kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller;
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.

Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten,
Gut’ Spargel, Fisolen
Und was wir nur wollen.
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ und gut’ Trauben;
Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben.
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen,
Auf offener Straßen
Sie laufen herbei!
Sollt’ ein Fasttag etwa kommen,
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.

Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Elftausend Jungfrauen
Zu tanzen sich trauen.
Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht.
[ending with a descending portamento, by contrast with the frequent ascending ones for strings!!!]
Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen* 
Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen,
Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.

non angli sed angeli!!!

Note that hushed last verse, in E major—like that vision in the slow movement.

* * *

Lebrecht cites xenophobic early reviews, contrasting with comfortable later assessments:

  • Jewish wit has invaded the symphony, corroding it
  • A restless, nervous work
  • Nothing but Viennese corruption, carnival
  • No trace of spontaneity, not a single autonomous idea, no original feeling.

La Grange has more:

  • amusing himself by using thematic material alien to his nature
  • taking pleasure in shattering the eardrums of his audiences with atrocious and unimaginable cacophonies
  • incapable of writing anything other than stale and insipid music lacking in style and melody, music that, artificial and hysterical, was a medley of symphonic cabaret acts.

And for The lexicon of musical invective Slonimsky finds yet more scathing judgements:

The Adagio, barring an abuse of organ point effects, is at first harmless enough; but suddenly we are introduced to a circus scene. This may be a not unwelcome diversion for some; but without wishing to be traditional or pedantic, we cannot but remark that for us, at that moment, it was a shock and an unpleasant one. From a business standpoint it might be advantageous to utilize portions of this adagio on the pleasure boats which travel up and down the Danube in the spring. The bands could easily master any difficulties forthcoming in such appropriate extracts, and the Viennese ladies, munching sweet cakes, sipping light wine and flirting with handsomely dressed officers, would no doubt very much enjoy a dainty accompaniment to their conversation. [winner of the 1901 Rear Admiral Foley Award for Sexist Crap.]

And

The drooling and emasculated simplicity of Gustav Mahler! It is not fair to the readers of the Musical Courier [TweetySO UNFAIR! Cf. Peccable musical sensibilities] to take up their time with a detailed description of that musical monstrosity, which masquerades under the title of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. There is nothing in the design, content, or execution of the work to impress the musician, except its grotesquerie… The writer of the present review frankly admits that… to him it was just one hour or more [sic] of the most painful musical torture to which he has been compelled to submit.

Pah! No pleasing some people…

* * *

Armed with this comprehensive review, here are some recordings that delight my ear.

Again (e.g. Mahler 2), long before the Mahler craze of the 60s, early versions are rich ground for studies of changing performance practice (see also Reception history). The first ever recording (mystifyingly cutting one of the most exquisite passages in the 3rd movement!) was made in 1930 by Hidemaro Konoye with the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo—a year before his own symphonic composition Etenraku, inspired by the gagaku piece! The singer in the exceptionally ponderous finale is Eiko Kitazawa.

If Willem Mengelberg‘s Bach is hard to take nowadays, in November 1939, on the eve of the German occupation of Holland (and as with Furtwängler and others, there have been attempts to defend his collusion with Nazism), he recorded Mahler 4 with the Concertgebouw and Jo Vincent. Though he’s remarkably cavalier with Mahler’s instructions (right from the huge rit. after the opening sleigh-bells), and his rubato doesn’t always work (like the cellos in the first “vision” from 4.38), it’s still wonderful:

Of several versions by Bruno Walter, here’s a live performance in February 1944 (cf. the same team’s recording in May 1945), with the New York Phil and (singing in a kind of English!) Dési von Halban (daughter of the soprano Selma Kurz, whom Mahler himself, um, favoured just around the time he was composing this symphony):

—as well as some brief rehearsal footage of the end of the first movement with the Concertgebouw in 1946:

Walter also recorded the symphony in 1955, with the Vienna Phil and Hilde Güden; and in 1962, with the Concertgebouw and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Note also his Mahler 2 from 1948.

From the next generation, here’s John Barbirolli in 1967, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Heather Harper:

And Leonard Bernstein live in 1972, with the Vienna Phil and Edith Mathis:

Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony and Laura Claycomb, recorded live in 2003, is also very fine:

And among many versions by the wonderful Claudio Abbado, here he is live in 2009, with the exceptional Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Magdalena Kožená:

And I just have to remind you of the same team’s performance of Ich bin der Welt abhanden bekommen

 

With thanks to Augusta!

Tianjin: a folk Buddhist group

*For main page, click here!*
(under Themes > Local ritual, in main menu)

Tianjin FYT 1989

Having written about the 1990s’ UK tours of ensembles from Wutaishan (Buddhist) and Suzhou (Daoist), my articles on dharma-drumming associations and sectarian groups around Tianjin now remind me to introduce a household Buddhist group based in the Southern suburbs there.

Tianjin FYT 1993.1

As tradition revived with the 1980s’ reforms, the group was guided by former temple monks, long laicised. I reflect on their 1993 UK tour and the resulting Nimbus CD Buddhist music of Tianjin.

Tianjin CD cover 1

Four sacred pieces

Alongside the soundscape of popular celebration in Italy, we might think ourselves into the mood of late-19th century Italian Catholicism among the elite with the Quattro pezzi sacri of Jo Green—sorry, I mean Giuseppe Verdi, composed between 1886 and 1898.

In 1992, as early music kept on getting later (cf. The shock of the new), John Eliot Gardiner and the wonderful Monteverdi choir recorded it, with me maintaining a suitably low profile on violin after a summer traipsing around Shanxi in search of, um, sacred pieces (shenqu 神曲, the core of the ritual suites of north Chinese ritual groups):

The whole piece, highly chromatic, demands close listening. Of the two a cappella movements Ave Maria and Laudi alla Vergine Maria, the first is inspired by the “enigmatic scale

Verdi scale

(with five semitones and four whole tones!!!Cf. Unpromising chromaticisms)—though I haven’t yet found it in Indian raga, I’d love to hear a dhrupad version.

For more a cappella, cf. Bruckner’s Locus iste, and The Real Group.

Dharma-drumming associations of Tianjin

*For main page, click here!*

Tianjin huanghui tu

Yet another instance of the variety of ritual performance around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei

Just southeast of Beijing, the municipality of Tianjin is vast, with extensive suburban and rural regions. I’ve only made brief forays there (notably to sectarian groups around rural Jinghai), but it’s a remarkably rich area for fieldwork, both for ritual traditions and for various genres of narrative-singing.

In many villages in the Western and Southern suburbs, large “dharma-drumming associations” (fagu hui 法鼓會), perform for mortuary observances, calendrical rituals for the parish (she 社) temple fairs, and rain prayers; processions for popular entertainment, and formerly the grand ceremonies of the elite.

Tianjin is a major centre for maritime trade, so it has long been a rare northern outpost for the worship of the seafarers’ goddess Mazu, such a pervasive element in the cultures of south Fujian and Taiwan. 

Huanghui 2

Also known as the “Imperial assembly” (huanghui 皇會) since the patronage of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor, it is the subject of considerable research—not least on its heyday before Liberation, suddenly a legitimate topic after the 1980s’ reforms. Since 2005 it has become an object for the commodifying agenda of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, along with the dharma-drumming associations.

So do click here for the main page!

Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan

Josef Lada, illustrations to The good soldier Švejk.

Having featured the character of Švejk under The great siege of Przemyśl (cf. Why the First World War failed to end), I was prompted to explore further the life of his creator Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923) (see under Czech stories).

Cecil Parrott’s biography The bad Bohemian (1978) is full of insights (see also this review, and even this 2019 thesis). As Parrott observes,

Like so many Czechoslovak personalities, Hašek ran the gauntlet of differing assessments according to the prevailing political doctrines of the time. From his death until 1939 he was looked on as a “bad bohemian”; from 1939–45 (under the Germans) he was outlawed and his books burnt; from 1945–48, thanks largely to Communist influence, he was rehabilitated to a limited extent; and since 1948, after a brief period of uncertainty, he has almost been canonised.

Thus, ironically, Hašek became a “hero of Communism”, and Švejk approved reading for the Czechoslovak army. But

Had Hašek not been disillusioned about politics but engaged himself more deeply in party activities, it is almost certain that with time he would have been expelled from the Party too, because by his very nature he could not be anything but a non-conformist. His experiences in Prague soon after his return cooled his ardour and, paradoxically enough, his subsequent withdrawal from political activity was to prove his saving grace and to earn him later a place in the Communist canon.

Indeed, this whole history was submerged as Švejk became a theme for tourist pub-crawls (to which I also plead guilty).

Beermat from U Kalicha, as borrowed from my trip to Prague in 1980.

As Parrott describes in chapter 7 of The bad Bohemian, Hašek had already thought up the character of Švejk by 1911, well before the war, when he published five stories, which Parrott translates in The Red Commissar (1981).

One evening he had returned home very exhausted. Hardly had he woken up next morning when [his wife] Jarmila saw him feverishly searching for a scrap of paper which he had left about the night before. Before going to bed he had jotted down on it a “brilliant idea” and to his horror had now completely forgotten it.

Jarmila goes on:

In the meantime I had thrown it on to the rubbish heap. (Jarmila had a fetish for tidiness.) Hašek rushed to search for it and was delighted when he found it. He carefully picked up the crumpled note-paper, read its contents, crumpled it up again and threw it away. Meanwhile I rescued it again and preserved it. On it I saw clearly written and underlined the heading of a story, “The booby in the company”. Underneath was a sentence which was just legible: “He had himself examined to prove that he was capable of serving as a regular soldier”. After that came some further words which were illegible.

Parrott explains, “At a time when no Czech wanted to be classified as mentally or physically fit for service, the ‘booby in the company’ was literally asking for it!”

Aficionados of the Tang may even see echoes of the recluses Hanshan and Shide.

In The good soldier Švejk Hašek offers few clues that he might suffer from any delusions of political engagement. Parrott describes the japes of his early years—his hoaxes, spoof articles for The animal world, and his brilliantly-named Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law, “designed largely to satisfy Hašek’s innate thirst for exhibitionism and partly to bolster the finances of the pub where election meetings were held” (see also stories in The Red Commissar).

This seems to have been the extent of his propensity for leadership at the time.

* * *

So it’s hard to square Hašek’s bohemian, alcohol-fuelled capers before the War, and after his return to Prague in 1920, with his interlude of commitment and responsibility in revolutionary Russia.

As Parrott notes, Slav prisoners of war were treated abysmally; Hašek was lucky to survive. After a spell in the Czech Legion in Russia, at first he worked as propagandist in Kiev, while continuing to write satirical sketches. He soon found himself in charge of an army detachment.

These years were a convulsive period when people had to juggle personal survival with shifting, murky political allegiances. With the Russian revolutions of 1917 Hašek’s loyalties shifted from monarchism to Bolshevism. From 1918 he broke with the Czech Legion to spend two years in the Red Army, soon becoming a leading figure in the town of Bugulma in southeastern Tatarstan during the civil war.

Parrott opens The Red commissar with Hašek’s nine short Bugulma stories. Like Švejk, the persona of Hašek here blurs the lines between fact and fiction. As Parrott observes, while the stories are satirical, they give a mellow, benevolent view of the convulsive social changes then under way.

With Hašek’s constant aversion to authority, the stories revolve around how he outmanouevres the belligerent yet hopelessly dimwitted Comrade Yerokhymov, Commander of the Tver Revolutionary Regiment. Hašek generally ends up having to give counter-orders to such proclamations by Yerokhymov as

To the whole population of Bugulma and its Region!
I order everyone in the whole town and region who cannot read and write to learn to do so within three days. Anyone found to be illiterate after this time will be shot.

Commandant of the Town, Yerokhymov

Also featured is the enmity between the local Chuvash and Cheremis, and their shared bemusement at the struggles they now found themselves caught up in.

In addition to the Bashkirs the Petrograders brought in other prisoners, youths in peasant sandals, aged seventeen to nineteen, who had been mobilised by the Whites and had been watching for the first opportunity to make a bolt.

There were about three hundred of them, emaciated young men in tattered homespuns. Among them were Tartars, Mordvins, and Cheremisses, who knew as much about the significance of the civil war as they did about the solution of equations to the power of x.

Parrott retells another story:

A member of the Central Committee came to Ufa and at once searched for me!
“You’re Comrade Gashek, aren’t you?”
I nodded…
“You’re a former legionary, aren’t you?”
He looked at me sternly, straight in the eyes.
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re from Prague, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Comrade Gashek, you’re a great drunkard. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Comrade Gashek, everything’s all one to you—there’s nothing sacred, right?”
“Quite right.”
“When you were at home they say you were everything—Anarchist, Social Democrat and working in editorial offices all over the place. Is that correct?”
“Perfectly correct.”
“Khorosho [good]! You don’t deny anything. You’re a good man.”
After his departure in about a fortnight, I was appointed inspector of the Fifth Red Army.

He spent time as Commissar in Ufa, capital of the Bashkir Autonomous Republic—where he was involved in purges, and began a relationship that became a bigamous marriage.

His language skills came into play:

He spoke some Russian, Polish, German, and Hungarian, and later learned some Bashkir as well as a little Chinese. Indeed, his “pidgin” Chinese seems to have great success with the Chinese prisoners-of-war.

He continued studying Chinese in 1920 when posted to Irkutsk in western Siberia, and published a report of his work among the Chinese Communists (for the 1956–57 film of Švejk dubbed into Chinese, see here; and note The definitive transliteration). There too he learned the Buryat language, founding its first ever journal—earning him the title “father of the nation” there. But clues to a planned mission to Mongolia remain elusive.

Accounts differ over Hašek’s alleged abstention from alcohol during this period.

Summoned back to Prague in 1920 by the Czechoslovak Bureau of Agitation and Propaganda (attached to the Central Committee of the Russian Bolshevik Party), his early death in 1923 rescued him from having to confront the more disturbing ramifications of his political involvement, and from learning the limits of satire under the new regime.

Some middle-period Miles

Roll over late Beethoven

Miles with Coltrane: source here.

Stanley Nelson’s documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the cool (still on iPlayer, if you’re quick) makes a useful survey, despite this critical review (cf. Eric Nisenson’s biography Round about midnight, and Miles’s own autobiography).

With Frances Taylor.

Putting to one side Miles’s dubious treatment of women, much as I admire his constant urge to move forward—a bandleader, always recruiting young creative young talent—there’s always much to explore in his middle period before he gravitated to funk and rock styles. While his early work with Bird and Dizzy is amazing, here’s a little selection from the late 50s and early 60s, mainly revealing my taste for more soulful ballads.

Having featured Chet’s iconic My funny Valentine, here are three versions by Miles. First, from the 1956 Prestige sessions before he signed with Columbia, with Red Garland on piano:

From 1958, with Bill Evans—and Coltrane:

And from the 1964 live album, with Herbie Hancock on piano and George Coleman on tenor:

Kind of blue (1959), again with Coltrane, never ceases to amaze—for me, particularly Bill Evans’s Ravelian Blue in green. Here’s a live version of So what:

Just before the Kind of blue sessions Miles improvised the soundtrack to Elevator to the gallows (Louis Malle, 1958):

With Coltrane on their last tour together, 1960.

And here’s the title track of Someday my prince will come (1961), yet again with Coltrane, before he went on to pursue his own vision:

Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

One of my main themes for Maoist China is the persistence of religious activity. In my posts on folk traditions of Poland and east Europe I mentioned the 2009 volume Music traditions in totalitarian systems (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Complementing studies of the largely “secular” Polish folk genres, an interesting chapter there is

  • Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the Peregrination of Virgin Mary’s Icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”.

Despite secular, atheist Communist policy, the Catholic church remained central to Polish identity, and a focus of resistance.

Among many pilgrimages in Poland, the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa northwest of Kraków inspires a national network of religious devotion, with its holy icon of the Virgin Mary, the Black Madonna (most famous of many such images around Europe and around the world).

The pilgrimage was sometimes interrupted by political movements from the late 18th century, and notably during the wars of the 20th century.

Source here.

As in Communist regimes more widely, a partial thaw followed the death of Stalin in 1956, though persecutions of the clergy continued. From 1957 major round of Peregrinations to the Icon got under way in many dioceses and parishes, which were held until 1966—just as in China local folk rituals that had managed to persist during the first fifteen years of Maoist rule were also silenced by the Cultural Revolution. After the Icon was “arrested” that year, empty frames were taken on pilgrimage, “the best example of authentic folk piety”.

Meanwhile in Jasna Góra small copies of the Icon were consecrated and offered to all parishes in Poland for veneration. With the approval and guidance of the institutional Church, domestic services (“Small Peregrinations”) before the Icon also became highly popular. Even after the clampdown, all these manifestations of popular piety persisted, emerging more openly by the 1980s.

A 1983 Peregrination.

As with any study worth its salt, Jackowski pays attention to the soundscape, going on to give details of religious song, under three broad headings:

  • Church songs, from official songbooks, with official approbatur
  • Religious songs from the songbooks especially issued on the occasion of the Peregrination
  • Local religious and devotional folk creations—a rich repertoire.

Pilgrimage songs were led by przewodnik/prowadnik “guides”, often elderly women.

With religious devotion and pilgrimage significant elements in the popular resistance to the Communist regime, such songs were also sung during strikes and protests.

Meanwhile the Catholics of China were enduring their own tribulations.

The mantric Shipping forecast

The Shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, whose antecedents date from 1861, is an extraordinary marker of British identity (cf. The Archers and Desert island discs, among many posts under The English, home and abroad). To be fair, Radio 4 listeners may not quite be representative of the whole population (You Heard It Here First), but still…

The forecast is replete with the abstract, poetic litany of

North Utsire, South Utsire, Viking, Cromarty, Forth, Dogger, German Bight…

and

southwesterly veering northwesterly five or six, decreasing four. Rain then showers. Moderate with fog patches, becoming good.

In a perceptive chapter on “weather rules” from her brilliant book Watching the English, Kate Fox notes the power of this “arcane, evocative, and somehow deeply soothing meteorological mantra”:

None of this information is of the slightest use or relevance to the millions of non-seafarers who listen to it, but listen we do, religiously mesmerised by the calm, cadenced, familiar recitation of lists of names of sea areas.

Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, attempted to explain its popularity:

It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.

Zeb Soanes, a regular Shipping Forecast reader:

To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

Like Fran in Black books, perhaps:

Charlie Connelly, in his engagingly nerdy book Attention all shipping: a journey around the Shipping forecast (2004, complementing the 1998 picture-book Rain later, good), notes the subtleties of reading the forecast at different times of day.

The late-night broadcast is particularly evocative (as in the old joke “Drink Horlicks before you go to sleep—otherwise you’ll spill it”). It’s perfectly crowned by the healing aural balm of Sailing by (1963), by the splendidly-named Ronald Binge, creator of Mantovani’s “cascading strings” effect [Persontovani, please!—Ed.]:

In case you’re still mystified as to what the forecast is for, click on the YouTube icon and note the BTL comments there.

As reader Jane Watson comments, the forecast is “comforting for people at home, because they’re tucked up in bed and they’re hearing that it’s absolutely blowing a gale somewhere out at sea”—which might sound rather like Schadenfreude.

As with most ritual traditions, the language is slow to change—how I would love to hear the suave tones of Charlotte Green announcing

Pissing down. Bummer.

Among many parodies, most brilliant are Les Barker’s version as read by Brian Perkins:

and Stephen Fry (1988):

Back at the real script, Alan Bennett (“occasionally moderate”) read it for Radio 4’s Today at the inspired request of Michael Palin—taking on a quite different tone, both sinister and hilarious:

Talking of British identity, the forecast waxes philosophical in the phrase “losing its identity”—precisely the paranoid fear bandied by Brexiteers.

Yansheng chan gods

Stellar lords of the Northern Dipper, from the chanted Litanies for Prolonging Life
(Yansheng chan 延生懺) manual, copied by Li Qing, early 1980s.

SanskritRadio 4 listeners, bless their cotton socks, defend the ritual fiercely: there was a “national outcry when the BBC had the temerity to change the time of the late-night broadcast, moving it back by a mere 15 minutes (‘People went ballistic’, according to a Met. Office spokesman).” When the name of sea area Finisterre was changed to FitzRoy, “Anyone would think they’d tried to change the words of the Lord’s Prayer!”

Needless to say, such formalistic language reminds me of the long litanies of deities and pseudo-Sanskrit mantras that punctuate Daoist ritual (e.g. here, under “20th May”), whose efficacy for the devotee is also unsullied by mere cerebral comprehension.

For further meteorological drôlerie, see Cloudy with showery outbreaks, and More wisdom of the elders.

Folk traditions of Poland

String band, Polish highlands 1931. Source here.

My recent post on the great siege of Przemyśl reminds me to explore Polish folk soundscapes, which were somewhat outside my remit in surveying folk musics around east Europe but also deserve to be savoured.

As Simon Broughton observes in his useful Songlines update, since he edited the second edition of The Rough Guide to world music in 1999, Polish folk music has seen a dynamic revival akin to the earlier Hungarian táncház movement. See also the third edition (2009).

Fieldwork project, early 1950s. Source here.

Fans of “world music” have long made an avid audience for the folk musics of Hungary and Romania. Poland’s extreme sufferings in the mid-20th century (see also Bloodlands) were followed by Communism and its sanitised musical “fakelore” (brilliantly dissected by Kundera for Moravia). But local traditions were maintained there too—and indeed collected, both before the 1939 invasions [1] and in the early 1950s, although official support for such fieldwork was an ironic casualty of the 1956 political thaw. Note also chapters in Music traditions in totalitarian systems, 2009 (slow to load, but worth persisting!). Cf. fieldwork in Maoist China.

So here, as is my wont, I seek more hardcore rural traditions, the inspiration for higher-profile bands touring on the world music circuit like the Warsaw Village Band, Kroke, and, notably, Janusz Prusinowski’s group.

Do explore the riches of Andrzej Bieńkowski’s Muzyka Odnaleziona site (in Polish; for perceptive interviews with him in English, click here and here), along with hundreds of wonderful videos on his YouTube playlists, featuring both instrumental bands and singers from regions including Lublin, Radom, and (in Łódź province) Rawa and Opoczno, as well as Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian traditions within current Polish borders (several of my posts also feature Ukraine and the work of William Noll, such as this).

Recording venues of the Muzyka Odnaleziona project.

We might start with Bieńkowski’s own selection of favourite clips:

Kapela string bands (often family-based) for festive dancing are led by fiddles—with sawing accompaniment, or sometimes a slapped bass resembling the gardon of Gyimes [Plain people of Ireland nod knowingly]. As one moves south, triple-time dances give way to duple metres. The Muzyka Odnaleziona material also does a nifty sideline in bagpipes.

Among the discography in Simon’s article is an impressive anthology of 27 CDs in the Muzyka Źródeł series from Polish radio (here, or here), featuring great musicians such as the fiddler Stanisław Klejnas (1905–88), from the tiny village of Raducz east of Łódź:

He’s also shown in this clip:

From the 1970s, a major inspiration for the renewed interest in Polish folk traditions was Kazimierz Metó (1922-–2008), from Glina south of Łódź. Here he is at home in 1987:

The brothers Jan and Piotr Gaca, based in Przystałowice Małe in the Radom district, are also renowned:

Particularly famed for its distinctive traditions is the Podhale region of the southern Górale highlands, near the border with Slovakia (and west of Przemyśl)—despite the popularity of the main town Zakopane as a tourist resort. In similar vein to Bartók, Kodály, and Janâček, the folk culture of this region inspired WAM composers from Mierczyński and Szymanowski to Górecki, as well as the anthropologist Malinowski. [2] 

This style is addictive as that of the string bands of Transylvania at the southern reaches of the Carpathians. Besides the sheer energy of the music, it’s intriguing to become acquainted with the syntax and signposts of the distinctive harmonic progressions; and above them, apparently quite independent, the decorations of the fiddle melodies. Such features are all the more stimulating for seeming rather close to the familiar conventions of WAM (and indeed pop music) while operating quite outside them.

The ever-discerning Nimbus label (e.g. their flamenco recordings) issued two intoxicating CDs in 1996. Recorded a couple of days apart in nearby villages, they evoke a festive conviviality, punctuated by gutsy vocals and dance calls:

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Gienek Wilczek’s Bukowina band —among whose many delights are the funky coda of Oh, Susanna that rounds off the ballad sequence of #5 on this playlist!:

and

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Trebunia family band:

Here’s a 1985 video of Tadeusz Szostak’s kapela—based, like the Trebunia band, in Poronin:

And here’s the playlist of the CD Poland: folk songs and dances (VDE-Gallo, 1993), compiled by Anna Czekanowska (author of many works, including Polish folk music, 1990):

As in China, it’s only by zooming in from region to county to village to family that we can marvel at the depth of local traditions. By analogy with my experience of the Hebei plain and north Shanxi, I can well imagine the wealth of material that detailed fieldwork can afford on the lives of Polish people through all the vicissitudes of modern history.

* * *

Further to Accordion crimes, and among a rich archive of recordings of migrant communities in the USA (such as Italian piffero and ciaramella players in 1963–64!), yet another great Folkways album features early recordings (1927–33) of Polish bands around Chicago and New York; as the liner notes suggest, over this period the rougher folk string-band style (e.g. #4, from the Tatras—where, as we’ve heard, it has persisted) was giving way to a more, um, polished idiom with wider commercial appeal:

Note also the “cheerfully infanticidal” #2.

See also Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland, and Polish jazz, then and now.


[1] For the early history of documenting Polish folk music, see also Barbara Krader’s section in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993), pp.171–7.

[2] For the music of Podhale, note the works of Timothy Cooley, such as Making music in the Polish Tatras: tourists, ethnographers, and mountain musicians (2005), and this article; see also here, and for the renowned fiddler Bartek Obrochta (1850–1926), here. For a hint of the region’s travails during and after World War II, see here and here.