Apart from the way that Pierre Boulez made us listen to 20th-century classics, his own works are remarkable. I’ve hardly listened to his Le marteau sans maître (1955) since my teens, but returning to it now, it remains a formative and beguiling aspect of a changing sound world (see e.g. these reflections by S-S-Simon Rattle).
The chamber ensemble comprises contralto with alto flute, viola, guitar (recalling Ravel and Debussy), xylorimba, vibraphone, and other percussion—whose varied combinations create a most exotic timbre.
The xylorimba recalls the African balafon; the vibraphone, the Balinese gamelan; and the guitar, the Japanese koto. Boulez had long been attracted to non-European cultures. Over the winter of 1945–46 he immersed himself in Balinese and Japanese music and African drumming at the Musée Guimet and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “I almost chose the career of an ethnomusicologist because I was so fascinated by that music. It gives a different feeling of time.” Still, in Le marteau “neither the style nor the actual use of these instruments has any connection with these different musical civilisations”.
Pierre Boulez, 1958.
Indeed, the influence of world music (as it came to be called) is much less obvious in Boulez’s music than in that of his teacher Messiaen. The sound world of Le marteau even recalls jazz, a more unlikely influence.
Here’s Boulez with Hilary Summers and the Ensemble InterContemporain in 2002 (Le marteau avec maître!):
Indeed, Le marteau has generated a vast amount of agonised discussion about cerebral comprehension and sensuous engagement. As ever, notation is a double-edged sword—best not to let it distract us at first. Analysis, while unnecessary, can be instructive—for Mozart, Indian raga, Beatles, Chinese shawm suites, and any music; in this case, again, I find it rewarding to listen without such benefit.
Punctuating the instrumental sections, the challenging, vertiginous vocal movements are settings of poems by René Char:
L’Artisanat furieux La roulotte rouge au bord du clou Et cadavre dans le panier Et chevaux de labours dans le fer à cheval Je rêve la tête sur la pointe de mon couteau le Pérou.
Bourreaux de solitude Le pas s’est éloigné le marcheur s’est tu Sur le cadran de l’Imitation Le Balancier lance sa charge de granit réflexe.
Bel Édifice et les pressentiments J’écoute marcher dans mes jambes La mer morte vagues par dessus tête Enfant la jetée promenade sauvage Homme l’illusion imitée Des yeux purs dans les bois Cherchent en pleurant la tête habitable
Within the niche of modern WAM, Le marteau was, and still sounds, revolutionary; yet it can hardly compare with The Rite of Spring, which has attained wider popularity even while retaining its power to shock.
When Le marteau sans maître was created in 1955 the German school of percussion was relatively weak. People were accustomed to playing with two sticks. Today, it is done with four and the playing is very much easier. Ought one, on the grounds of authenticity, to return to playing with two sticks? Certainly not. This example really does show us what absurdity there is in the notion of authenticity.
Much as I love Boulez, it really doesn’t. I’d like to read this debate. Boulez’s point is about technique, not choice of instruments or style; indeed, if the result sounds the same, then it’s an underwhelming argument. But supposing the instruments, mallets, and timbres have changed since the 1950s, surely it would be revealing to play the piece now using those earlier versions. If a time comes when performers are estranged from Boulez’s aesthetic world, then it would be interesting to hear the piece played taking account of his own vision.
Making an elegant bridge between the enchanted worlds of Aretha and ancient gagaku, here’s Hideki Togi playing Amazing Grace on hichiriki—aptly uploaded to YouTube on Inauguration day:
Do click on those links above—the first to Aretha’s overwhelming 1972 sessions, the second to the great Toru Takemitsu’s captivating explorations of Japanese traditional soundscapes—notably gagaku.
I find myself more amenable to this arrangement than to the “world music fusion” that I churlishly characterised as “throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, Balkan brass, kora, and didjeridu…” (cf. Bach, um, marches to the world!).
Amanda Harris, Representing Australian Aboriginal music and dance 1930–1970 (2020).
The perspective of non-Indigenous art-music composers writing for the public stage may seem niche:
From a music history or musicology perspective the music and dance events that feature would commonly be perceived as peripheral to the main story. They are not the events that have contributed to the canon of important moments in Australia’s music history, itself a minor player in the canon of (European) Western art music. In the histories of Western art music taught in Australia’s conservatoria and high school music courses, the events which feature here are not even a blip on the radar of music history.
Thus Aboriginal culture itself has been marginalised, as has Australian composition within the wider sphere of WAM; and within the latter, Aboriginal-inspired works may seem even more peripheral. However, Harris puts in focus many important issues underlying the encounter between the broad categories of “folk” and “art” musics, making a fascinating story.
The period from 1930 to 1970 was characterized by government assimilationist policies aimed at “protection” and “welfare”. The book is focused primarily on the southeast and the ways that representation of Aboriginal music and dance linked urban centres to Australia’s Top End and its Red Centre.
Many of the works described here tap into “an appetite for representations of Aboriginality devoid of Aboriginal people”:
Non-Indigenous Australians have engaged more readily with works that could be disembodied from the people who created them, than they have with living, singing, moving Aboriginal people. […]
As Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us, Indigenous peoples have long been appalled by the way “the West can desire, extract, and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations”.
Importantly, Harris listens to the accounts of Aboriginal people themselves, “disrupting” the chapters with three essays. While these commentators partly share the values of the settler majority, they are attuned to the ways of their forebears.
Australian Aboriginal people’s rich oeuvres of song and dance point to the importance of embodied and auditory modes of knowledge transmission and continuance in the same way that the West’s libraries of books and reams of paper archives reveal the dominance of the visual and the written in European epistemologies. […]
Under protection/assimilation regimes, immense pressure was exerted upon Aboriginal people to abandon culture by banning the speaking of Indigenous languages and performance of ceremony and by rewarding actions that showed Aboriginal people were adopting mainstream behaviours like residing in a single house, in a nuclear family unit. These pressures were not just notional, but rather, punitively enforced—people who grew up under this regime remember mothers, aunts and grandmothers obsessively dusting and keeping a clean house, knowing that untidiness could lead to allegations of neglect of children, and that children were routinely removed from their families and placed in institutional care, sometimes indefinitely.
Nevertheless, at moments of national nostalgia, events commemorating European settlements sought to memorialise and celebrate the lost arts that had been actively repressed.
Such events go back to the start of the century, becoming more common from the 1930s. Aboriginal people were presented to gawping non-Indigenous audiences as “noble savages”.
Chapter 1 a general introduction, opens with the 1951 Jubilee of Federation, featuring the Corroboree, a symphonic ballet composed in 1944 by John Antill with new choreography by Rex Reid.
Instead of the dozens of Aboriginal people proposed by the publicity subcommittee, Corroboree presented dozens of orchestral musicians from the symphony orchestras of each state and dancers from the National Theater Ballet Company. No Aboriginal people were involved in the production. The show was acclaimed as a landmark Australian work. […]
Non-Indigenous Australians have appropriated this language to stake a claim in Aboriginal culture and to represent Aboriginal music and dance to non-Indigenous audiences. […] But what relationship do these songs bear to those that Aboriginal people were singing?
In the Prelude that follows, D’harawal scholar Shannon Foster recalls her great-grandfather, the activist and songman Tom Foster, who spoke out on Aboriginal rights at the Day of Mourning in Sydney in 1938.
As she observes tellingly,
The archival research space is full of contradictions for Aboriginal people. I cannot help but feel a forging of my cultural identity when the archives unveil another piece of “evidence” of who we are and who I come from. I do not need Western research to validate who I am, though it still performs this task, whether I want it to or not. I can use the archives to tell the stories of the destruction of colonization and the violence that has been inflicted on my family, and I need people to know that it is there and not deny it. But I do not want others to misuse this information and to paint us as victims or use our damage to sell their research: to perversely and voyeuristically indulge in our pain and damage. […]
Every time I relish another crumb of information about my grandfathers, the joy is tinged with despair at not knowing or seeing this information until it is delivered to me through a white man’s colonial archive, stained with the blood and pain of our ancestors.
I am told by a prominent historian in the audience that they had always seen boomerangs like Tom’s as nothing more than kitsch, cultural denigration, humiliation, and damage. They had never considered (nor thought to ask) how we feel about them. It had never occurred to them that what we see is physical evidence of our existence in a world where we have been consistently erased. Tom’s boomerangs speak to us of survival, resistance, and cultural fortitude and strength.
This account makes a bridge to Chapter 2, on the 1930s. Though Tom Foster took part in the troubling silent film In the days of Captain Cook (1930), he was among those asserting the enduring presence of Aboriginal people in society.
As various official commemorations were staged through the 1930s, Harris describes the Aboriginal presence at the opening of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 1932. The 1938 reenacting of the First Fleet landing was attended by historical pageants—and the Day of Mourning protests. By contrast with the quotidian limitations on their mobility, the performers were coerced into travelling to Sydney.
Anthropologists had long been recruited to government agencies. They now acted as cultural brokers between performers, the arts sector, and the media; under A.P. Elkin a shift occurred from protection to assimilation.
A major actor in cultural agendas and the new “Australian creative school” was the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), founded in 1932. Alongside visits by Percy Grainger, composers building on European explorations in harnessing folk styles included Clive Douglas, John Antill, and Margaret Sutherland.
Chapter 3, “1940s: reclaiming an Indigenous identity”, surveys wartime performances for recruitment rallies; and after the war, the forming of groups like the radical New Theatre, whose productions included the 1946 Coming our way and the ballet White justice, with Eric and Bill Onus coming to the fore.
Ted Shawn, co-founder of the modern American dance movement, was deeply impressed by the performance culture he witnessed on a visit to an Aboriginal community in Delissaville (now Belyuen) in 1947. Still, when dancers were recalled for his trip, “many Darwin housewives found themselves without domestic labour”.
I note that in 1950s’ China too, under the avuncular eye of the Party, dance made a forum for modern experiments, as in the Heavenly Horses troupe in Shanghai (see Ritual life around Suzhou, under “Mao Zhongqing”).
Harris refers to the short 1949 documentary Darwin: doorway to Australia (filmed in 1946), which includes footage of a tourist corroboree in Darwin Botanic Gardens (from 6.23):
As Aboriginal activists continued to meet obstacles, the Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair was exceptional with his recital tours of the USA. Meanwhile the ABC was promoting non-Indigenous composers in “representing an Aboriginal idyll”.
Within this niche, John Antill and his Corroboree, with its clapstick beat persisting amidst the “modernist antics” of the orchestra, made a considerable impact, suggesting comparisons with The Rite of Spring:
New organisations supplementing the cultural work of the ABC included the Arts Council of Australia. Echoing Chinese clichés, “international cultural exchange” now “took Aboriginal music to the world”—specifically to the USA, as Australia’s ties with its imperial parent were downgraded. Ironically,
Just as Aboriginal people were increasingly steered away from maintaining their own cultural practice, non-Indigenous people turned new attention towards it.
But Aboriginal performers still met with obstacles in touring abroad.
Chapter 4 sets forth from the debates surrounding the 1951 Jubilee celebrations. The official cultural initiatives of these years were accompanied by strikes and protests. Performances took on a political dimension, with Bill Onus and Doug Nicholls taking leading roles in asserting Aboriginal rights.
As others have noted, Aboriginal visual and material arts are more readily packaged, reified, than their expressive culture. Despite their sincere aim of enhancing Aboriginal status, the Jubilee committee’s proposals for massed corroborees didn’t come to fruition, being replaced by Antill’s Corroboree. Still better received was the new dance drama Out of the dark: an Aboriginal moomba.
Linking Corroboree to the political, economic, and social exclusion suffered by the Aboriginal owners of the cultures that had inspired it, Margaret Walker of the New Theatre movement proposed her own alternative. She saw Aboriginal people as both a society of “primitive communism” and an oppressed group to be liberated through socialism. In 1951 the Unity Dance Group even toured to East Berlin. In 1958 Aboriginal soprano Nancy Ellis toured China, just as convulsive political campaigns were intensifying there.
Among arts bodies in the 1950s, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was founded in 1954—looking forward to a cultural renaissance of a type later ridiculously promised by Brexiteers. The Adult Education Boards sponsored major tours by Beth Dean and Victor Carell, whose ethnographic shows introducing song and dance from around the world gave a role to Aboriginal culture—albeit based, until their 1953 “expedition”, on reading anthropology rather than any acquaintance with the people themselves. In 1954 Dean did a new choreography of Corroboree. For events to mark newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 visit, Aboriginal performers again had to travel large distances to perform.
Debra Bennet McLean brings us down to earth:
We asked ourselves how many Aboriginal people could ever really contemplate, let alone afford, to attend the ballet in the era of the “colour bar”; most Aborigines could not walk freely into an Australian town without an exemption form or “dog tag” at the time of Antill’s composing Corroboree, nor could they even sit in the same milk bar or use public toilets at the time of the premiere of the ballet Corroboree.
Harris writes with such empathy about all the diverse actors in these encounters that the following Interlude is timely, refocusing on the people who were the object of all this well-meaning attention, with Tiriki Onus thoughtfully reflecting on his grandfather Bill (for whose films, see here).
In Chapter 5: 1960 to 1967, Aboriginal performers begin to take the main stage. Harris discusses opportunities for public performance and the limitations imposed by state agencies. She begins with talent quests from 1961, the North Australian Eisteddfod, and tours of northern companies in the south—notably the well-received Aboriginal theatre, presented in Sydney by Aboriginal people from north Australia in 1963. Such shows
aimed simultaneously to engage those interested in Aboriginal performance from an ethnographic and/or historical perspective and those creating and producing new works of modern dance, music, and visual art on Australian stages.
As Harris notes, a defining feature of these new contexts was the way that performers from different traditions were brought together into a scratch ensemble, or into competition with one another.
In an interview Harris draws attention to a film about the 1964 North Australian Eisteddfod:
Yet international tours remained elusive. In Australia (as in New Zealand and Canada), with Indigenous and European genres competing for resources, the authorities of settler colonies still preferred to highlight their European heritage—by contrast with countries from which British colonisers had withdrawn (Pakistan, India, Kenya, Ghana).
Expatriate Australian Dudley Glass addressed the Royal Society of Arts in 1963,
writing that though Aboriginal people had given little to music [sic!] with their monotonous music and crude instruments [sic!], the “ingenious” John Antill has given a ballet suite “the flavour of aborigine music”, portraying native dance ceremony and using different totems for different parts of the ballet.
This contradictory sentiment, in which Aboriginal music was deemed to have little value and yet non-Indigenous composers were praised as innovative for evoking it in their music, permeated decisions about how Australia should be represented overseas. […]
In representing itself to international audiences, the Australian government sought to maintain a narrative of Aboriginal people as something old and static, not modern and constantly transforming. Tangible art works were sent overseas—works standing in for the artists who had created them, but live performers were excluded from events like the Commonwealth Festival in favour of non-Indigenous composers and performers who would represent Australia as a culture in dialogue with European modernity.
Here, as often, I hear echoes of the Chinese authorities towards their folk culture.
All this leads back to an update on Antill and Dean, with their 1963 Burragorang dreamtime, using non-Indigenous performers. Harris notes the bitter irony that the people whose displacement by the settler colonists was romanticised in the ballets, and embodied by the performers, had themselves just been displaced by a dam project to supply the Sydney population.
Interestingly, Beth Dean reported on Antill attending Aboriginal theatre:
This was far different from anything Antill had seen before. It was not the rather impromptu “tourist version” by Aborigines who had not been living a tribal life for many years, sometimes generations, as they survived on the outskirts of towns. John was thrilled. One may wonder what Antill might have done if he had experienced this kind of Aboriginal music in his early days, rather than on his 60th birthday.
Chapter 6 dicusses the end of the assimilation era—from the 1967 constitutional referendum, which led quickly and decisively to a shift to Aborigines representing their own culture, to the 1970 Cook Bicentenary, marked by protests.
The referendum belatedly paved the way for full rights of Aborigines as citizens. In the performing arts, they now gained greater rights of self-determination, as groups such as the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation and Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre were formed. Although I imagine that such developments had a tangential impact for poor dwellers of the remote Country,
Groups like the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation would be momentous in localising the performance of Aboriginal culture internationally, bringing a regional focus to owned and self-represented cultural practice, in dialogue with global contexts for performance.
In Australia’s music (1967), largely a study of contemporary art music, Roger Covell allowed some space for Aboriginal traditions—recalling the prophetic remarks of Percy Grainger in the 1930s:
What would we think of a Professor of Literature who knew nothing of Homer, the Icelandic sagas, the Japanese Heiki Monogatori [sic], Chaucer, Dante and Edgar Lee Masters? We would think him a joke. Yet we see nothing strange in a Professor of Music who knows nothing of primitive music and folk-music, and music of mediaeval Europe, and the great art-musics of Asia, and who knows next to nothing of contemporary music.
One fruit of this new mindset was the impressive 1971 Sextet fordidjeridu and wind instruments, in which composer George Dreyfus collaborated with Aboriginal cultural leader George Winunguj (see cover image above):
For the Mexico Cultural Olympics in 1968, Beth Dean presented the new ballet Kukaitcha, using taped recordings from Arnhem Land, still propagating non-Indigenous representation of Aboriginal culture abroad. Harris comments:
Performing the role of the woman who had transgressed cultural law by witnessing ceremonies forbidden to her in Kukaitcha, while publicly proclaiming her ability to dance men’s dances that women should not even see, Dean seemed more enamoured of the sensationalism of these transgressive actions than of the richness and complexity of the cultures she aimed to represent.
However, new international opportunities for Aboriginal performers were arising, such as performances of the Aboriginal theatre for the 1970 Expo in Japan, amidst complex negotiations.
The 1770 Cook landings, and modern protests over commemoration, are much-studied topics.
Despite the involvement of Indigenous performers, Dean and Carell’s 1970 show Ballet of the South Pacific was now at variance with the prevailing mood. Corroboree was still dusted off, to ever lesser impact.
The re-enactment for the Cook bicentenary, attended by the Queen, with Aboriginal performers among the cast, were now controversial. Protests were a feature of nationwide events.
After the “Too many John Antills?” of Chapter 1, Chapter 7 considers the legacy, progressing elegantly to “Too many Peter Sculthorpes?” and pondering the failure of Australian art music to engage with Indigenous cultures, always (inevitably?) remaining at a remove from Aboriginal performances.
Harris offers a balanced assessment of the inescapable Corroboree:
Antill did not appropriate Aboriginal musical culture. He successfully represented it in a way that settler Australians continued to experience it—as a background presence, a remembered soundscape from childhood, one that was not well understood, was constant, but which would always be subject to inundation by the productivity of nation building. In evoking Aboriginal soundscapes, Corroboree may have appeared to celebrate Aboriginal culture, but the action it performed did the opposite, replacing Aboriginal performance cultures on public stages.
Considering her topic in the light of settler colonial (and post-colonial) theory, she notes that composers’ representations of Indigenous culture “aimed to tame Aboriginal Country and define its value in economic terms”.
Antill’s position as composer of a work that would found a national creative school was not just produced out of his own creative industry and good fortune, rather, it capitalised on the state agenda for representing Aboriginal culture without the messiness of engaging with Aboriginal people and their political demands and physical needs.
As Anne Thomas noted in 1987,
Public dances and performances of folk musics that had been so active in the assimilation era fell away once Aboriginal people were able to advocate for their rights in explicit ways.
Harris goes on to describe later collaborative projects that seem to resist narratives of replacement.
Yet as ethnomusicologist Catherine Ellis observed,
very few composers have taken the trouble to examine the structural intricacies of Aboriginal music. They have preferred to look at the superficialities: a descending melody, a regularly repeated stick beat, a didjeridu-like sound.”
Though the public rhetoric around these works claimed that they aimed to persuade listeners of the value of Aboriginal culture, value (through public recognition, commissions for new works, performances, and recordings) was attributed to the composers and their works rather than to the cultures that ostensibly inspired them.
Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014) went on to become the leading figure on the WAM scene in Australia. Inspired at first by Japanese Noh drama, by the 1960s his music showed greater Australian Aboriginal influence. But as Harris comments, his works have such a unique voice that “they no longer resemble the Aboriginal music on which their performative capital is dependent.”
She also surveys recent works by composers such as didjeridu player William Barton.
Harris never loses sight of the perspective of Aboriginal people, or their maintenance of traditional ritual life under trying conditions. In a lively Coda, Aboriginal storyteller Nardi Simpson reflects further on the encounter. She makes a simple, pithy statement:
I want to do something that hasn’t been done before with the tools and knowledge that I have and who I am and where I’m from and that’s what I want to do.
* * *
This is a most thoughtful, compelling study. For a survey of the timeline, see also Harris’s Storymap site.
For the period since, one might also turn to Indigenous pop and rock music, another hybrid forum for creative representation with a more far-reaching influence, less constrained by officialdom. Meanwhile, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been ever more active in documenting the enduring ritual life of Aboriginal communities—and protests over Invasion Day continue.
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Avoir de réflexes malheureux Il faut que tu m’ex——pliques un peu mieux Comment te dire adieu
Mon coeur de silex vite prend feu Ton coeur de Pyrex résiste au feu Je suis bien perplexe, je ne veux Me résoudre aux adieux
(Je sais bien qu’un ex——amour n’a pas de chance, ou si peu Mais pour moi un ex——plication voudrait mieux)
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Devant toi surex——poser mes yeux Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu
(Tu as mis à l’index nos nuits blanches, nos matins gris-bleu Mais pour moi une ex——plication vaudrait mieux)
Sous aucun prétexte je ne veux Devant toi surex—poser mes yeux Derrière un Kleenex je saurais mieux Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu Comment te dire adieu
She sounds soooo cool, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hurting going on here. Instead, she finds inner strength through a flurry of insouciant wordplay on “ex“—not least Pyrex (a niche hommage to kitchenware in French chanson) and Kleenex. Sex is just a sibilant away….
Nor does she let up in her gorgeous sprechstimme interludes (above a change to triple metre on strings), stressing ex——amour and ex——plication (as in the sung ex——pliques and surex——poser) with an ecc——entric hiatus, negating the natural rhythm of speech—not so much a speech impediment as the kind of deliberate pause advocated by therapists to prepare the stammerer to approach the following syllable (especially plosives) with easy onset!
True, she would make the Paris phone directory sound irresistibly seductive (cf. the HP sauce label), but here her spoken sections further the dramatic effect, ex——punging, ex——orcising her ex——perience. They’re punctuated by a funky syncopated trumpet motif, courtesy of Caravelli, worthy of Hardy’s fellow-Parisian Messiaen—who three years previously had completed the Sept haïkaï…
Then there’s the extra visual frisson of veux, malheureux, auxadieux, mieux. One even hopes to hear her pronouncing the x there (I wonder how this works: do native French speakers somehow hear it in their heads?).
À propos, like many men, Monsieur Pyrex, the passionless, fire-resistant subject of this nonchalent lament, clearly needs his head ex——amining.
Françoise Hardy subtly subverts both the melodrama and the “gamine elfin waif” trope (see also Feminine endings). Put this song on the British school syllabus and there’ll soon be a legion of fluent young Francophiles…
Her German version of the song works well too; while the lyrics are less detached, they make a bit of an effort to keep the “ex” theme going:
Nach zwei Cognacsex bekamst du Mut Deine Abschiedstexte waren gut [Das Lied von der Erde for generation X?] Ratlos und perplex nur dachte ich Was mach ich ohne dich
Stets war mein Komplex du bist zu schön Charm hast du für sechs, ach was, für zehn ** Liebt denn so was exklusiv nur mich Was mach ich ohne dich
(Ob du daran denkst Wie einsam und verloren ich bin Nein, du hast schon längst Eine Andere im Sinn)
Gib mir keinen Extrakuss jetzt mehr Der nur noch Reflexbewegung wäre Ratlos und perplex nur frag ich mich Was mach ich ohne dich Was mach ich ohne dich
(All die Nächte mit dir Voll von Glück bis zum Morgengrauen Die und dich stahl mir Eine andere Frau)
Diese Dame X, die dich mir nimmt Fliegt auf deine Tricks wie ich, bestimmt Dann als Dame ex sagt sie wie ich Was mach ich ohne dich Was mach ich ohne dich
And she sings it in Italian, with yet another angle on the story:
Non voglio un pretesto per pietà Sai che io detesto falsità Sii un po’ più onesto quando vuoi Finirla fra di noi
Non restar perplesso ad inventar Scuse che del resto non van mai Oltre ad un modesto rendez-vous A cui non vieni più
(Io so bene che i castelli di carta Con un soffio van giù Non ne hai colpa tu)
Non voglio un pretesto per pietà Sai che io detesto falsità Dammi il fazzoletto quando vuoi Finirla fra di noi Finirla fra di noi
That first verse is good:
I don’t want an excuse for piety Know that I detest falsity Be a bit more honest when you want To finish it between us.
One might think Spanish regional languages would offer potential for the exes too. Anyway, the nuances of mood in these various versions are intriguing. Possibly a multilingual EU directive to Brexit Britain?
Françoise Hardy did a more melancholic version with her soul sister (twin?) Jane Birkin in 1976 (Comment lui dire adieu!):
Later Birkin gave an intense live arabesque rendition (1996/2002), with ex——emplary decorations on solo fiddle:
The 60s, eh?! Ex——traordinare! I am officially applying to be reincarnated as Serge Gainsbourg.
To complement my introduction to Tibet: the Golden Age, another volume, focusing on ritual and expressive cultures in the Himalayas and Tibet,
Katia Buffetrille and Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (eds), Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie: mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90e anniversaire (2017; 427 pages),
makes a fine occasion to survey the inspiration of Mireille Helffer’s pioneering studies.
The book opens with a tribute from her long-term colleague Bernard Lortat-Jacob (another doyen of French ethnomusicology, whose own ouevre is the subject of a new volume). The editors themselves provide a detailed overview of Helffer’s life (cf. their tribute after her death in January 2023, at the age of 95). The book includes a bibliography and discography of her work on pp.25–33 (for her audio recordings, see also under https://archives.crem-cnrs.fr).
Though C.K. Yang’s distinction between “institutional” and “diffused” religious practice has been refined, I still find it useful for Tibetan as well as Chinese cultures. While the Tibetan monastic soundscape became a major focus of Helffer’s work (see e.g. her section in the New Grove article on Tibetan music), she always paid attention to folk practice too—a focus continued by scholars in recent years. The chapters further show the relevance of her studies for iconography, historiography, and organology.
Through the 1960s and 70s, when Chinese-occupied Tibetan regions were inaccessible to outsiders, the base for Helffer’s fieldwork was among the Himalayan peoples in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Ladakh. Since the 1980s her research has inspired younger scholars to address the embattled Tibetan heartland of the TAR, Amdo, and Kham (cf. Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?” and other articles in n.1 here). Here I’ll just mention some chapters that particularly arouse my interest.
The essays are grouped in three main sections. The first, “Conteurs et épopée”, includes a survey by Gisèle Krauskopff of the early days of ethnology on Nepal, as Helffer’s concern for sung oral literature developed through her fieldwork on the gäine minstrel castes—who are also discussed in the following chapter by Jean Galodé. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine explores a related tradition through an interview with a damāi minstrel. In the first of several contributions addressing the Gesar epic, Roberte Hamayon sets forth from Helffer’s work on the genre to compare its form in Buryatia.
The second section, “Danse, musique et théâtre”, opens with reflections by Geoffrey Samuel on Tibetan ritual and cham ritual dance, focusing on its use inside the temple. Always keen that we should have an impression of such rituals as performed, rather than mere silent immobile text, I’m glad to learn of the films Tibet: le message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins from the mid-1960s (set mostly in Dharamsala), including this on Tantrism:
Turning to Kham (in the PRC), Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy reports on her 2014–15 fieldwork on Gesar dance in the Dzogchen monastery—one of three ritual dances created under the Fifth Dzogchen (1872–1935).
Gesar is also the subject of “From Tibet to Bhutan” by Françoise Pommaret and Samten Yeshi. Françoise Robin contributes a translation, with commentary, of “Dream of an itinerant musician”, a novella by Pema Tseden (b.1969), based in Amdo.
The third section, “Études népalaises et tibétaines”, opens with Véronique Boullier reflecting on issues in studying the life of apparently “closed” Hindu temples in India, setting forth from Helffer’s 1995 article “Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain”. Following chapters discuss themes in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism.
The volume ends with an engaging conversation between Samten G. Karmay and Katia Buffetrille (English version here), with astute reflections from Karmay on the culture clash he experienced since making an academic career in the West from 1960—covering topics such as Karmay’s childhood in Amdo, Tibetology in France, Gesar, Bön, and documenting a ritual on his return visit to his natal village in 1985.
Throughout these chapters the influence of Mireille Helffer is clear. Yet again I am struck by the great vitality of Tibetan studies, and the mutual benefit of perspectives from both outside and within the PRC.
Following the Capitol riot, a tweet by Ian Boyden, “the yak re-enactment of the last few days in America”, made me wonder if this might form part of a viral series of Yak Re-enactments of Great Moments in History.
I now eagerly await yak re-enactments of The Signing of the Magna Carta, * The Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, and The 1966 World Cup Final.
Adding to my series of recent posts on Tibet, I’ve been reading a fine book in French:
Katia Buffetrille, L’âge d’or du Tibet (XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles) (2019; 311 pages) (review here; this brief notice; numerous other publications by Buffetrille here).
While Tibetologists have long focused on early history, more recently many scholars have turned, impressively, to addressing the complexities and traumas of Tibetan society since the Chinese occupation in 1950; so this volume on the historical background is welcome. Notwithstanding the focus on the “Golden Age”, it provides material on both earlier and later history, making a useful, wide-ranging introduction for the greater Tibetan region—including Amdo and Kham—before the Chinese occupation, as well as relations with neighbouring countries including Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, and Manchu China.
Using Tibetan, Chinese, and European sources, the book is attractively presented in the Guide Belles lettres format, with copious illustrations and a bibliography arranged by topic. Paying attention to both material and conceptual aspects of Tibetan culture, Buffetrille covers not just the upper echelons but popular life too, correcting misconceptions in the process (cf. Tibetan clichés).
Here I’ll merely list some main themes of the eight chapters.
History: subsuming both the thriving period of political stability under the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–82), with the hegemony of his Gelugpa school of Buddhism, and attendant power struggles.
The Tibetan space: cosmology; central Tibet and the peripheral regions, notably Amdo and Kham; and cosmopolitan Lhasa, with its ethnically mixed population (also including Muslims, Newars, Armenians, Christians), dynamic commercial life, and monuments.
Chapter 3 looks at the political and administrative organisation in more detail, including justice, the army, finance, and the postal system.
Chapter 4 unpacks the society and economy. Buffetrille introduces the nobility; the varied strata of common people (“serfs”, in the parlance of some modern observers), including brigands; and the clergy, another stratified category. As to the economy, she discusses agriculture, nomadism, commerce, measures and currency, mining, hunting, and the artisanat.
In a chapter on Time, she discusses astrology, the calendar, divination, and the life cycle.
Chapter 6 considers Religions in all their forms. Besides giving a useful overview of the various schools of Buddhism (with earlier historical background) and Bön, Buffetrille features “social inscription”: the life of monasteries, lay practices, pilgrimages, beliefs, indigenous rituals, and local deities.
Intellectual life: language, writing, paper, xylography, printing, libraries, and literature (Buddhist, historical, scientific, fiction).
The arts, again enmeshed with religious practice: artists, painters (with an interesting vignette on pigments), iconography, sculpture, architecture—ending with a brief mention of music, which is further covered in
Private life, including naming customs, family, women, sexuality; the house, tents, food and drink; healthcare, costume.
All this makes a suitable reminder that before the Chinese occupation, for all its social issues, Tibet was a mature, functioning, independent society. This concise introduction much deserves an English translation.
I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film The death of Stalinjust at a time of crisis for another major world power, as the departure of a capricious monster offers the hope of a more humane society (cf. this review).
A study in duplicity and terror, Iannucci’s telling script continues from In the thick of it and Veep. Far from belittling the gruesome history of Stalinism, the film’s black humour makes the macabre, chilling brutality sink home. Amidst the frantic, ludicrous power struggles of the Central Committee, the brilliant cast is headed by Simon Russell Beale as the evil Beria; besides Kruschev, Malenkov, and Zhukov, Michael Palin as Molotov has some telling scenes.
Most commentators agree that it would be churlish to cavil at the artistic licence the film takes with historical facts—indeed, it’s likely to prompt viewers to delve into the grim realities, consulting the detailed work of scholars such as Orlando Figes (cf. this brief page). In her enthusiastic review, the perceptive Sophie Pinkham (always worth reading) also explores the banning of the film in Putin’s Russia (as Iannucci remarked, “In many ways Putin did our PR for us”).
Stalin’s death not only radically altered Soviet people’s lives, but set off a chain reaction outside the USSR. In China, the population was subjected to similar terrors until the death of Mao in 1976 prompted equally momentous change.
A most educative aspect of enjoying snooker on TV is the expert commentary by former players. But way back in the Mists of Time, pundits were considerably less well informed. And everyone was hampered by only being able to see the “game” in black-and-white—even live…
Here’s a transcript of the first ever broadcast:
I wonder what he’s going to do with that stick. I think you’ll find the technical term is “baton”. Gosh, he used it to hit one ball onto another one. Well that’s a bad start. Oops, one of the balls has gone down a hole. Obviously another serious mistake.
Yes, unfortunate, that—looks like the ref’s going to punish him by making him take another go.
Hang on, they gave him a goal then, when that ball went down the hole (I think it might be red, but who can tell?). Rewarding failure, if you ask me—Typical! Yes, but I notice they only score one goal for that. Someone should tell them not to bother.
Oh no, now another ball has gone down a hole! It’s almost as if they’re doing it on purpose.
This time it looks like a black one—makes a change, I suppose. Screwing up once is understandable, but twice in a row, come on! These chaps are clearly amateurs.
Hey, the ref’s put it back on the table—cheating, surely. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?O tempora, o mores!
Have you noticed how they keep hitting the white ball first? Bit unimaginative if you ask me.
It’d be easier without the stick too—whatever it is they’re trying to do. And they might have thought of the risks and just designed a table without holes in it. Basic design fault, what. I’ll give them a call, once someone gets round to inventing the telephone.
Or they could just play with bigger balls, so they don’t go down the holes.
I think he’s eyeing up a plant!!!
What on earth are you on about? Kindly leave botany out of this. People will think we don’t know what we’re doing. Sorry, no idea what I meant by that. Mind you, now he’s got a nice angle on the blue to go into the pack, hitting the pink full ball. You’re at it again.
Hang on—do you reckon the goal is to Attain Emptiness, after the fashion ofHuineng and Walt Disney?
Pour me another gin.
I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.
Hmm, not many red balls left on the table. The ref should put them all back. At this rate they won’t have any more balls left to hit—the whole sorry travesty will just fizzle out. Let’s face it, this is never going to catch on. I’m going to take up accountancy. Fancy a curry?
They missed out the essential piece of information that made things comprehensible. No one told me that the village was where the Master of the Earth, the man who controlled the fertility of all plants, lived, and that consequently various parts of the ceremony would be different from elsewhere. This was fair enough; some things are too obvious to mention. If we were explaining to a Dowayo how to drive a car, we should tell him all sorts of things about gears and road signs before mentioning that one tried not to hit other cars.
Here’s yet another vignette to complement my portrait film on Li Manshan (watch here!!!) and his family Daoist tradition in north Shanxi.
Now I don’t want to make him out as some kind of Mystic Sage, but for village ritual clients his focus and integrity are a major aspect of his charisma. His unassuming personality shows itself in all the different contexts where we’ve shared food together over the years. He is far more comfortable with informal gatherings than with formal group banquets.
For much of his life since the 1980s Old Lord Li has been fed during village funerals (brief scene in my film from 48.02), where the Daoists sit round their own table in the communal tent, usually with a couple of old friends, and perhaps a couple of members of a gujiang shawm band. He has written some of the ritual documents in advance (my film, from 10.44), but now, smoking as he dips sparingly into the sumptuous dishes, his mind is on the paperwork he still has to prepare back in the scripture hall (my film, from 19.38).
And on his own, when visiting village clients to determine the date, site the grave, supervise the encoffinment, decorate a coffin, and “smash the bowl” (see under Li Manshan’s latest diary), the host family also feed him.
Li Manshan, Li Bin, Li Jin, 2018.
Like the rest of his generation, Li Manshan was constantly hungry through his whole youth, from well before the famines caused by the Great Leap Backward right until the 1980s; the variety of dishes now served at funerals contrasts with the meagre fare then available. Along with other rural dwellers he shares an unease at the conspicuous consumption that came into favour in the towns after the reforms. His son Li Bin (also a Daoist), and his (much) younger brother Third Tiger (my film, from 55.23), who became a cadre in the county-town, are much more at ease with the world of banqueting. Even at a family meal in a posh Yanggao town restaurant, hosted by Third Tiger, with Li Bin and our old friend Li Jin, Li Manshan was quiet (see here, under “A trip into town”).
Venice, 2012: lunch at Il Giardinetto with Mirella Licci, our favourite groupie.
Turning to our foreign tours since 2005, group meals with our hosts were none too formal, and pleasant. And with just the band and me, it’s been fun to find little restaurants free of formalities. We became regulars at Il Giardinetto in Venice, relishing delicious courses; and in Paris we were happy to walk round the corner from our hotel to take lunch at little Chinese restaurants, Li Manshan drumming peacefully away on the table with his chopsticks.
Buffet breakfasts at a succession of hotels were always fun too, as the Daoists kept in practice using the cappuccino machine. And on the train between venues in Italy, Germany, and France we enjoyed sandwiches (“the lunch-pack of Notre Dame”).
Less comfortable for Li Manshan (and for me) are mercifully rare official banquets, such as at a Hong Kong conference in 2011, and with the band after our workshops in Beijing in 2013. He doesn’t drink, or make grandiose speeches—which are the main objects of the exercise—so he just sits quietly before slurping the final bowl of noodles and gaining his freedom to go outside for a smoke, his main pleasures.
On our brief stay together in Beijing following our return from Hong Kong we both enjoyed the tranquility of sharing bowls of noodles in modest little noodle joints together before he took the train back home to Yanggao.
As a verb, a stress on the second syllable seems standard; more variable is the pronunciation of the noun. I was never aware of the stress on the first syllable (with a long “ee”) until the 1990s; now I often find myself bombarded by it on the radio.
Both forms may have been around for a long time, but I’m not sure the current state of play is entirely random. In the UK it seems to be largely generational—the first-syllable stress perhaps another of those more recent influences from the good ol’ US of A. Amongst all the research [gritted teeth] on stress patterning, someone must have tabulated this by age, period, region, and perhaps by class and even gender (“broken down by age and sex“, like Keith Richards). zzzzz…
So I suspect it’s just an index of my irrational elderly snobbery. For me, absurdly, the stress on the first syllable seems to suggest that the speaker is a callow upstart. The choice seems to distinguish serious study from messing around on the internet; Some Might Say that reSEARCH is what I used to do, while REsearch is what I do now… Hoisted with my own petard—whatever that is.
The recent additions to my series on Messiaen (here and here) remind me that he was a major influence on Toru Takemitsu (1930–96). Here I’ll just feature some of his works directly inspired by the traditional Japanese soundscape—though of course there’s much more to explore in his ouevre (wiki; see also e.g. Tom Service’s succinct general introduction).
Having spent his early years until 1938 with his family in Dalian in occupied northeast China, where his father worked as a businessman, military conscription in 1944 further alienated him from Japanese militarism and nationalism; coming to associate these—not incorrectly—with the musical traditions of Japan (see e.g. this article on gagaku), he was drawn instead to new Western Art Music. He extended his initial aversion to Japanese music to other traditional forms:
There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. (Folk music in a “contemporary style” is nothing but a deception). [Hah! Discuss!]
So it was only from the early 1960s, partly through John Cage—another important inspiration for him—that Takemitsu came to value the Japanese concept of ma 間 “empty space” (exemplified by Noh drama) and began consciously to borrow from Japanese music. As he recalled:
One day I chanced to see a performance of the Bunraku puppet theatre and was very surprised by it. It was in the tone quality, the timbre, of the futozao shamisen, the wide-necked shamisen used in Bunraku, that I first recognized the splendour of traditional Japanese music. I was very moved by it and I wondered why my attention had never been captured before by this Japanese music.
Here’s the second story, “Woman of the snow”, from the soundtrack for Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964):
Best known among his Japanese-inspired works is November steps (1967), for shakuhachi, biwa, and orchestra, commissioned by the New York Phil at the behest of Bernstein, premiered under Seiji Ozawa:
For the same combination is Autumn: into the fall after a little while (1973):
Traditional Japanese music, notably the courtly tradition of gagaku, deriving from Tang China, had long inspired Japanese and Western composers. Henry Eichheim‘s visits to east and southeast Asia (for his trips to China, see here) led to works such as Oriental impressions (1919–22), including the gagaku-derived E[n]tenraku (cf. Japanese nocturne); in 1931 Hidemaro Konoye (who the previous year conducted the very first recording of Mahler 4!) made a more faithful orchestral arrangement of Etenraku. Both works were soon taken up by Leopold Stokowski in his programmes with the Philadelphia orchestra.
The Reigakusha ensemble (site, largely in Japanese).
But now some composers actually began writing for the gagaku ensemble itself, as innovation became a significant subsidiary theme in the gagaku world. Takemitsu wrote Shūteiga for the gagaku ensemble of the Imperial Household (hichiriki oboe, shō mouth-organ, ryūteki flute, biwa lute, gakusō zither, and percussion), later incorporating it into In an autumn garden (1973), one of the most enthralling essays in the genre. Besides the Imperial Household’s own version, the sonorities of this recording, by the Reigakusha ensemble that grew out of it, are even more mesmerising (cf. this live performance):
Garden rain (1974), for brass ensemble, evokes the cluster-chords of the shō mouth-organ (so very different from the anhemitonic pentatonic organum of its Chinese ancestor the sheng!):
See also this interview with the enterprising shō performer Mayumi Miyata.
Just in case you suppose all these to be avant-garde creations far distant from their model, here’s some “traditional” gagaku:
In my post Detroit 67, among several clips of the great Aretha Franklin I featured her extraordinary live sessions in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. The double albumAmazing Grace was released that year to huge acclaim, but the documentary had to wait right until 2018 to see the light of day. For anyone who hasn’t yet managed to do so, you can still find it on BBC i-Player (here)—otherwise, one can always buy it… 
BBC2 followed the film up with the documentary Respect.
Recorded over two evening sessions, the film Amazing Grace is all the more effective for showing its workings, complete with its calculated planning, technical hitches, and even piano-tuning. Yet despite the constraints of live recording, these were clearly inspired celebrations—just like many musical gatherings around the world (see What is Serious music?!, under “Serious world music”).
Between numbers, Aretha’s focus sometimes makes her look pensive, almost frail—but as she sings she becomes a spirit medium, a vessel for the Holy Spirit, possessed with all the joy and pain of Gospel.
With the MC Reverend James Cleveland adroitly mediating sacred and secular, Aretha is backed by the Southern California Community Choir, who are also spurred on by the balletic Reverend Alexander Hamilton. Among very few white faces in the ecstatic congregation are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.
On both evenings the tone is set by a devotional opening song (Wholy Holy and Mary don’t weep), followed by rousing up-tempo numbers like What a friend we have in Jesus, How I got over, All go back, I’m climbing higher mountains, as well as the ensemble interactions of Precious memories (“Sacred secrets will unfold”) and Precious Lord, take my hand/You’ve got a friend in Jesus.
The way Aretha opens in slow free-tempo is always moving—her final song (from 1.12.01), I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ‘Tis the beautiful home of the soul where we shall never grow old, is a whole seven-minute alap in itself—just as inspired as Indian dhrupad.
Most miraculous of all is the title track Amazing Grace (from 37.04; for the audio version, see under Detroit 67)—a long, slow meditation (without clearly defined beat or melody!) that leaves the congregation, the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Aretha herself in tears.
“Piano prodigy Fou Ts’ong tries to win the approval of his stern Francophile father, the translator Fu Lei” (Kraus). From China reconstructs, April 1957.
In homage to the great Fou Ts’ong 傅聪 (1934–2020), who became yet another casualty of Covid last week in London, I’ve been re-reading the account of his career in Chapter 3 of Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989). It makes a perceptive study of tensions in the Chinese artistic world before and after the 1949 revolution, rippling out to the Iron Curtain and London (note also this post by Jessica Duchen, and this by Chen Guangchen).
Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei 傅雷 (1908–66), renowned Francophile translator and essayist, was a leading light in the Shanghai literary scene. Though steeped in China’s traditional literature, he was deaf to its musical culture:
These antiques are merely things for a musical museum or an opera museum; not only can they not be reformed, they ought not to be reformed.
The debate between urbane cosmopolitanism and revolutionary populism was to be played out in the sphere of traditional Chinese music (see here).
So it was through Western Art Music that Fu Lei resolved to groom his son to “fulfil his destiny” of modernising China. In recent years in China, as Kraus observes,
partly because of the family’s tragic history and partly because of the renewed influence of their class, the Fus have become a posthumous model for upright behaviour, principled integrity, and child-rearing.
may seem the image of Confucian propriety to Chinese, but to a Western reader the regime he imposed on his son seems cruel.
Indeed, Fou Ts’ong himself gave a more critical view (here, in Chinese). Latterly such “tiger parenting” has more often been associated with mothers.
So Fou Ts’ong began learning the piano from the age of 7; the following year his father resolved to educate him from home. Among Fou Ts’ong’s early piano teachers was Mario Paci, founder of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. After Paci’s death in 1947 he mostly studied piano on his own; but when the family moved to the Nationalist base of Kunming in 1948 to escape unrest in Shanghai, he began to rebel. He was now punished by being sent to school. He remained in Kunming when the family returned to Shanghai in 1949; entering Yunnan university, he hardly played the piano. He returned to “Liberated” Shanghai in 1951, where Western music remained in vogue in bourgeois circles despite the ideology of the Yan’an populists. In 1952 he performed Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the Shanghai Philharmonic. But by 1953 Fu Lei, disillusioned, refused to allow him to take the entrance exam for the Shanghai Conservatoire.
Poland With bonds now severed between China and western Europe, Chinese musicians looked to the countries of the Soviet bloc. Later in 1953 Fou Ts’ong was chosen to take part in a festival in Romania—part of a Chinese delegation led by Hu Yaobang. After giving additional performances in the GDR and Poland, he was offered a scholarship to the Warsaw conservatoire in preparation for the 1955 International Chopin competition there. Poland was still recovering from the extreme devastation of the war, and this was an unstable period in the Soviet bloc: even before the 1956 crushing of protest in Budapest, discontent was revealed in the widespread GDR protests of 1953 (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). By 1956 the Polish regime was promoting Western Art Music at the expense of folk culture (see also Polish jazz, then and now).
Fou Ts’ong took third prize at the competition, as well as a special award for his his performances of Chopin mazurkas:
Back in China,
For urban intellectuals, Fou Ts’ong’s success was a badge of their their own ability to participate in the world culture which they held so dear. For the leaders of the Communist Party, the Chopin competition was a diplomatic encounter, in which Fou’s performance demonstrated that China could achieve great things after expelling the imperialist powers.
For Fou Ts’ong the triumph also marked a new independence from his domineering father.
Meanwhile in China political pressures were increasing. Kraus describes the 1955 campaign against Hu Feng, the Hundred Flowers movement that led insidiously to the Anti-rightist campaign, and Fu Lei’s own tribulations after being branded a rightist. Music too was becoming an increasingly perilous battleground.
Fou Ts’ong could only try to grasp these events from Warsaw. As his father’s letters veered from depression to exuberance, the political changes in China between 1954 and 1958 must have seemed both mysterious and frighteningly unstable.
Having been criticised by Chinese students in Warsaw, Fou Ts’ong was recalled to Beijing to take part in rectification. But after writing a self-criticism he soon returned to Poland, graduating from the Warsaw conservatoire in December 1958—just as the Great Leap Backward was rolled out to empty fanfare across China.
London And so on Christmas Eve that year, Fou Ts’ong defected, seeking political asylum in London, still only 24. Among those helping him flee was Yehudi Menuhin’s daughter Zamira, who became his first wife in 1960. Refusing to return to China, Fou Ts’ong was escaping the dual prisons of Confucianism and Communism. From the safe haven of his London base, his international career soon thrived.
His father’s tribulations were compounded by Fou Ts’ong’s defection, but they continued corresponding. Fou Ts’ong later published a volume of his father’s letters written over the following period:
The family letters of Fu Lei are popular in China allegedly because Fu Lei is such a model of old-fashioned virtue. But one wonders if Fou Ts’ong published them to justify his defection, perhaps unconsciously letting all readers understand that he was fleeing not only China’s politics but the obsessive love of a tyrannical father.
A brief political thaw from 1961 even encouraged Fu Lei to imagine his son returning to China. But in September 1966 Fu Ts’ong’s parents, persecuted by Red Guards from the Shanghai conservatoire, became two of the most notorious suicides of the Cultural Revolution. In the elite world of the qin zither, other tragedies were the suicide of Pei Tiexia (old friend of Robert van Gulik in 1940s’ Sichuan) and the disappearance of Pu Xuezhai.
Fou Ts’ong now went through a difficult period in both his personal and professional life.
On his first return visit to China in 1979, as old wounds began to be plastered over, he took part in a memorial service for his newly-rehabilitated parents. Hard as it is now to imagine a time when glossy Chinese piano superstars were still a rarity, he inspired a new generation with regular visits thereafter.
His reflections on Chopin convey his charm:
Though both father and son espoused a very different aesthetic from that of the qin zither, their stress on wider personal cultivation, and the refinement of Fou Ts’ong’s touch on the piano, recall the refined sensibilities of that world.
I imagine him in his Shanghai youth listening to the numinous 1927 recording of the Schubert G major piano trio by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals on the family phonograph… By the 1960s Fou Ts’ong, my teacher Hugh Maguire, and Jacqueline du Pré relished playing piano trios together—how I wish I had heard them.