Trauma: music, art, objects

Norman Lebrecht has long laid bare the links of celebrated senior conductors (as well as Karajan…) to Nazism: it’s one subtext of his fine book The maestro myth.

I just read his review of Fritz Trümpi, The political orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich.

The book actually takes the story through to our own times. As Lebrecht observes, neither orchestra emerges with any credit—indeed, it’s a shocking account.

For me, as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra (of GB), another inspiring conductor (apart from Boulez) was Rudolf Schwarz (1905–94). Member of the Vienna Philharmonic in his youth, later inmate of Auschwitz and Belsen, after the liberation of the camps he eventually ended up in Bournemouth, remoulding the orchestra there. His Bruckner 7 with the NYO was wonderful—all the more intense with his laboured conducting style, partly the legacy of a broken shoulder-blade in Auschwitz. Never a superstar in the Karajan mould (which was why musicians appreciated him), he was a formative influence on the young Simon Rattle, my contemporary in the NYO.

Bruckner 7 is in the incandescent key of E major, just like the basic scale of the Li family Daoistsshengguan music—I often think of it while I listen to the shengguan piercing the bright blue sky of rural north China (e.g. playlist, #4, with commentary here).

Meanwhile, as Rudi was being dragged through the camps, here’s Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Adagio with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942. Like Philippe Sands’ choice of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 in 1938— and just as with Daoist ritual—we have to personalise such seemingly disembodied works, and place them in time.

You can find a newly remastered version here. For Celibidache’s Bruckner 7, see here.

Furtwängler’s relationship with Nazism has been much debated. Generally reluctant to collaborate, he did what he could, even helping some Jews escape, and with close ties to the resistance. Yet inevitably people baulk at his participation in events like this Beethoven 9 for Hitler’s birthday, also in 1942:

Lebrecht sums up his legacy (The maestro myth, p.93):

In Furtwängler the Nazis retained an interpreter who performed German music with undiminished conviction while genocide was committed in his name. By opting to remain, he endowed the Nazis with cultural respectability at a  crucial moment in their ascent, and in wartime gave moral sustenance to their cause. In his confrontations with tyranny, Furtwängler proved a feeble adversary who was all too easily manoeuvred into outright collusion. The humanity he expressed in music was was traduced and travestied by his paymasters. His legacy as a performer may well be among the most significant in the annals of conducting, but his conduct under political pressure compromised the very profession on which he wielded so formative an influence. [for Lebrecht’s more recent exposé, see here.]

Still, it’s easy for us to say that. Reflecting on the Nazi era from the perspective of our blessed safety from invasion and  agonising choices, Neil MacGregor poses the disturbing question “What would we have done?”. In his brilliant 2014 book Germany: memories of a nation (and no less enchanting are his podcasts—the perfect Radio 4 voice!), using both works of art and everyday material objects, he ponders how we can fit the great humanistic traditions of Germany into the same picture with Nazi barbarism. And having suffered throughout this whole period, people of Central and Eastern Europe would still have to continue making appalling moral choices for decades to come.

Apart from MacGregor’s astute discussions of earlier historical artefacts, one can’t help being drawn into those from more recent history—like the slogan (“to each what they are due”) above the camp gates of Buchenwald—just a few miles outside the Weimar of Goethe and Bach:


MacGregor observes the noble lineage of words that had once signified an ideal of justice—the very words that Bach used as the title of a cantata in 1715 Weimar. Indeed, as a prelude to John Eliot Gardiner’s epoch-making Bach Cantata Pilgrimage all through 2000, I played a modest role in the Christmas oratorio at the Herderkirche in Weimar—here’s Part One:

Next day we all visited Buchenwald.

I’m not sure we can derive any encouragement from MacGregor’s idea that the stylish lettering of those words above the gate (designed by an inmate, Communist and former Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich) might be read by fellow inmates as a subtly subversive message that the SS would eventually get their just deserts. By the way, Ehrlich survived, also disturbingly, to become a Stasi informant under the GDR.

MacGregor gives a fine diachronic survey of Käthe Kollwitz’s work,

as well as the incarnations and migrations of Ernst Barlach’s Hovering angel (1926, cf. the 1966 GDR film The lost angel),


along with reflections on Remembrance ceremonies.

But he also discusses movingly the “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen) who rebuilt shattered Germany after the war, and objects such as a little hand-cart pulled by refugees from Eastern Pomerania in late 1945—now reminding us tellingly of the refugee crises of our own day.

The wonderful Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig has a similar exhibit.

But to return to Trümpi’s book, this tale of two orchestras brings us, shamefully, right up to the lives of my generation and later. It was not until 2013 that the Vienna Philharmonic revoked the Ring of Honour it had bestowed on three leading figures in the Nazi genocide—including Richard Strauss’s patron Baldur von Schirach, who (also in 1942) described the deportation he oversaw of 65,000 Viennese Jews to the death camps as a “contribution to European culture”. Indeed, our feelings about those celebrated Viennese New Year’s concerts can’t help being stained by learning that it was Schirach who instigated them.

As an aside, these orchestras haven’t exactly been at the forefront of gender equality either. Competing hotly in the misogyny stakes with “Rear Admiral” Foley, Karl Böhm (a Great Maestro far more flawed than Furtwängler) is quoted as saying that “the Nazis aren’t that bad—they want to eliminate women from politics.” Digging himself into a deeper hole, he went on, “Of course, not all women are worthless—Rainer Maria Rilke [sic] wrote some good poems.”

And now there are new causes for anxiety, threatening all the liberal values that have been achieved so painfully over several centuries.

NB also posts on Ravensbrück, SachsenhausenMetamorphosen, A Nazi legacy, The Ratline, and Gitta Sereny; as well as posts on Maoism in China, starting here; see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain.

Yet more conducting

Berlioz opening

In the Rozhdestvensky film, I like his solution (from 22.29) to the perennial problem posed by the opening of the Symphonie fantastique:

“I simply invited them to begin”

and then let them get on with it.

Which reminds me, a noted baroque conductor (or “semi-conductor“, to use Norman Lebrecht’s term) was rehearsing the opening of a slow aria in the Matthew Passion. One of the wind players suggested he might try subdividing:

“Could you give us 7–8 into it?”

Conductor, indignantly: “I didn’t get where I am today by giving 7–8!”

“I didn’t get where I am today by…” soon became another musos’ snowclone.

And here’s Larson’s take on conducting.

Catching the tiger, Wu Mei, oboes and cymbals

This Larson cartoon reminds me of the “catching the tiger” tricks of the Li band—a rare moment of secular entertainment within the liturgical sequence.

In my film (from 42.52), Wu Mei’s tricks are charming (see also §B8 on the DVD with my 2007 book)—interesting also to compare (from 51.22) the more leisurely 1991 version of his predecessor Wang Chang.

Wu Mei [1] (b.1970; film from 53.52; see also this vignette), known as Zhanbao 占宝, is one of the great wind players in world music. Of course he does everything—also singing the liturgy, playing the large cymbals for a cappella sequences, and occasionally giving another Daoist a turn on the guanzi while he plays sheng mouth-organ. He’s a Daoist, not a “musician”, yet his musical genius is indispensable to the success of the Li band.

He was the fourth of five children from a poor family—his blind younger brother spent some time learning the shawm, and their father was an old friend of Li Qing. Wu Mei was at once enchanted by the sound of the funeral ritual, and there and then he went up to Li Qing and asked him if he could become his disciple. He went to live with him for the first year, and then commuted by walking an hour from his village, five li away.

Wu Mei recalls that the first time he played guanzi for a ritual was for a funeral at Lower Liangyuan in 1990, during his third year, playing small guanzi along with the aged Li Yuanmao on large guanzi. This might remind us of young, pre-punk, Nigel Kennedy in duet with venerable Yehudi Menuhin. But Wu Mei doesn’t remember much about it—they just got on with it; anyway, the seniors were satisfied with his playing.

When the hymns are accompanied by shengguan, a good guanzi player makes all the difference. Like Li Yuanmao or Li Tong in the old days, Wu Mei is not just totally reliable, he is inspired, helping the other Daoists to sing to the best of their ability, complementing them perfectly—managing to combine a deeply mournful tone with an almost playful way of weaving in and out of the melodic line, ducking and diving, sometimes soaring. The singers recognize that a good guanzi player is a great help to them in rendering the text.

Wu Mei soon became a local star. With his radiant innocence, he is on another planet, floating in the clouds above this world of dust. Here there is no empty display; he is a vessel, a puppet for the gods, like Bach. On guanzi—and not just in slow hymns but even in the zany “catching the tiger”—he has none of the posturing of the virtuoso. And not even just when he is actually playing: it is delightful when he takes a little break in the instrumental suite or the popular errentai sequence, doodling a little phrase reflectively on the guanzi before plunging back into the fray.

WM zhuo laohu

Concert performance in Rome, 2012

He is always devising new decorations, like renaissance divisions—experimenting, seeking new ways of making transitions. The others are attuned to all this as they accompany him. While the decorations of the older generation remained within strict confines, Li Manshan and Golden Noble observe that in recent years Wu Mei has been experimenting beyond the “rules”. To me, there was always an element of playfulness even in the slow solemn style (like Liu Zhong, although he wasn’t so admired); and if this is modernizing, then I’m cool with it. When I suggest to Li Manshan that Wu Mei’s ornaments are still serious and spiritual, he defers to my musical ears—but obviously he is a master musician with way more experience of the style. Perhaps the way to see it is as an innovation that began with Liu Zhong and has culminated in Wu Mei—it’s amazing, even if not strictly kosher. Bach would have adored Wu Mei’s guanzi playing.


The way he plays the large bo cymbals is childlike and adorable too; you can sense how utterly comfortable he is as a musician. Again he has a particularly charming way of decorating the patterns, tastefully testing his partner’s creativity and probing the possibilities. The most exhilarating, and by far the longest, cymbal piece is Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, now played only as a coda for Transferring Offerings (for which, apart from the edited version in my film [from 1.11.07], you can enjoy a fantastic complete concert rendition in the 2014 DVD), but also prescribed upon ascending the platform in the Pardon (film from 50.31). Wu Mei and Yang Ying can’t help showing their delight in it, whereas Erqing and Li Bin maintain their serious demeanour. This is the only percussion piece that ever attracts an audience, and even applause. Local or urban, Chinese or foreign, no-one remains unmoved by this exhilarating piece.


[1] These comments are edited from my book.

Ravel et al.

Further to my Ravel page (under WAM):

Tanita Tikaram (where has she been all my life?), for her wonderful Private Passions, chose Michelangeli’s version, also very fine, of the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto.

Apart from Bach (including the amazing Lalo Schifrin) she featured the slow movement of Mozart’s A major piano concerto, with the ill-fated Clara Haskil.

Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

WAGZ score

Hesi prelude and opening of Qi Yan Hui suite: score showing melodic outline in gongche solfeggio, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian county, Hebei.

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the 6th suite, playing it al fresco as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002, which he was curating.

As I come to adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the 6th suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

Prelude and Allemande, 6th cello suite, manuscript of Anna Magdalena Bach.

For wise words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis (click here for the CD set). Here he is playing the 5th suite (the Prelude here unambiguously meditative, like both the later Allemande and Sarabande):

For another Bach Allemande that seems to suit an alap-esque style, see here.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp. The 6th suite, of course [sic—Ed.], was written for a five-string cello, but—in the current spirit of austerity—I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan ritual melodies), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take a false exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.


Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban 散板 in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim (see here, and here) and the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term “free-tempo” isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a underlying pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei (see e.g. here, under West An’gezhuang) are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist #8, from Plucking the Winds, CD #14—see commentary; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are also a feature of ritual suites around Xi’an. But they are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.

And don’t miss Aretha’s extraordinary alap to Amazing Grace! And the exquisite expositions of dhrupad!!!

Private Passions

Radio 3’s Private Passions is always insightful. The edition with Philippe Sands (here) shows that he too “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”(see Muzak)—Leonard Cohen, Michael Chance singing Erbarme Dich

(see also herehere, and here—and for an Arabian version, here), Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 (here, and here) in 1938, and Let’s pretend we’re bunny rabbits. Actually, the latter isn’t such a kitsch choice as its title suggests, but hey.

My posts A Nazi legacy and The Ratline introduce Sands’s harrowing film and books.

Voices and instruments

In my book (p.261) I glibly compared the Li band’s hymns to the arias in the Bach Passions, “where action and drama are suspended while we contemplate the deep meaning of a scene.” In most elite Daoist and Buddhist temples, liturgy is accompanied only by percussion, not melodic instrumental music. Many of the Li band’s hymns are sung thus, a cappella—including those used to Open Scriptures in the morning and afternoon.

Whereas Chinese studies of northern Daoist and Buddhist “music” often focus almost entirely on shengguan melodic instrumental music, in my book (ch.16) I try to put it within the ritual context. But does the shengguan accompaniment (notably the constant variations of the guanzi) express what the vocal text is unable to embody?

As usual, this is not a close parallel, but one thinks of Erbarme Dich:

“Language is not essential to this moment, or even adequate to it. A verbal penitence is expressed by the alto voice, but the violin expresses a more universal distress.” (Gardiner p. 422, citing Naomi Cumming).

But remember, I find nothing akin to word-painting in the Li band’s vocal repertoire (my book p.277):

I can find no matching of melody to textual content. There is nothing akin to word-painting, no illumination of the meaning of the text through music. Vocal liturgy is capable of arousing emotion, as for instance it should do in the Song of the Skeleton (see Yesterday…), but this is achieved through the general style of delivery rather than the specific text-setting. In musical style the Song of the Skeleton is no different from other hymns, and even its desolate text is not comprehensible when sung.

So expression is conveyed mainly through timbre. The more I listen to Li Manshan and Golden Noble, the more impressive I find the mournful nasal quality of their voices; I can sing some hymns, but can’t emulate this. They have utterly absorbed the meaning of the texts into their voices. And when the shengguan accompanies, Wu Mei complements them perfectly on guanzi, managing to combine a deeply mournful tone with an almost playful way of weaving in and out of the melodic line, ducking and diving, sometimes soaring. The singers recognize that a good guanzi player is a great help to them in rendering the text.

Anyway, both the decorations of a Daoist on guanzi and Bach’s oboe lines are spellbinding—an intrinsic part of the realization of the text. So I both demote and stress the shengguan accompaniment.

Beyond the transition of the Passions from liturgical to concert performances, the staged versions of recent years can also be compelling (for us):

And we’re already in tears (along with Peter) from the recitative of the Evangelist that introduces it. The shuowen introits of the Daoist also introduce arias…

Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to avoid reading my Textual scholarship, OMG.

Bach on film

Pasolini SMP

As part of my extensive coverage of Bach (roundup here), two fictional films from the 60s, despite their extreme contrast, are linked both by their intensity and by the way they don’t just accept but probe our own modern values:


(These links come and go. I’ll try and keep an eye on them, but you can do your own YouTube searches if they disappear. For the latter film I found a version enriched by Japanese subtitles, like the Greek subtitles of Johnny the shoeshine guy…)


I have outlined the importance of the Song of the Skeleton in the rituals of both north and south China (In Search of the folk Daoists pp.233–4). It’s a common theme throughout the north—mainly as part of the yankou, both Daoist and Buddhist.

In Yanggao Daoist ritual (Daoist Priests pp.274–5), several hymns are related. The Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言, more commonly known here by the melodic label Wailing to Sovereign Heaven, Ku huangtian 哭皇天) is prescribed, a cappella, for Opening Scriptures on the first afternoon of a funeral.

It’s a kind of catalogue aria, with seven long verses for the visits to the stations of purgatory over seven days. Its melodic material overlaps substantially with that of other hymns, beginning with the opening of the Diverse and Nameless melody (Daoist priests pp.267–8). The melismatic “Ah, Skeleton” (Kulou) refrain, and the coda in pseudo-Sanskrit (also in common with Diverse and Nameless), are not written here in the manual. My film (from 56’08”) gives the sixth verse:

Ah Skeleton! Skeleton!
On the sixth day he reaches Netherworld Souls Village
His sons not to be seen
Starving and parched, at his wits’ end,
Desperate to sup broth.

From Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980. The final folio on the left has the opening of Mantra to the Wailing Ghosts—my book p.266, also featured in the film, from 1.03.56).

* * *

For most such hymns one hardly expects an “emotional” response from audiences—in Yanggao, after all, it shares both melodic material and style with many others in the repertoire. But in his brilliant ethnographic studies of ritual practice in old Beijing, Chang Renchun notes how the renditions of two celebrated Buddhist monks moved their audiences to tears. Performative tears feature in many posts on this blog—links here.

Some common versions open:

昨日去荒郊玩游        Yesterday, seeking diversion roaming in the barren outskirts…

So talking of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney heard his own version in a dream, like Aboriginal singers.


Though secular, it’s deeply moving. Here’s an early solo rendition, live (and Paul’s unaffected style is a major element of the song’s impact—no cover versions come close):

Here’s the remastered version from 2009:

As I observe in the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums, analysis, while optional, can supplement our response; again it’s instructive to read Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Dating from the same period as A hard day’s night, Mellers considers Yesterday a “small miracle”:

Although the opening words tell us that yesterday his troubles seemed far away, the music in the second bar immediately enacts these troubles with a disquieting modulation from tonic, by way of the sharpened sixth, to the relative. The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles “return to stay” with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B♮is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence. […]

The immediate nostalgia of the song is without suspicion of sentimentality, and the corny accompaniment of string quartet can be employed, with validity, to reinforce the music’s frail bewilderment.

Yesterday quartet

George Martin’s manuscript for Yesterday, on display at Abbey road studios.

Pollack’s analysis is also insightful. And as he notes (also in my roundup), the opening uses a device here that Paul was to use regularly in some of his great songs: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent.

I can be quite confident about our own emotional responses to this song; less so about the responses of various types of Chinese mourners to the Skeleton, over time.


Household Daoists tend to know about performance, not doctrine. I focus on practical knowledge—right down to which cymbal patterns to use as interludes for which hymns, and when to use them, or not. What the Li family don’t know, or do, is things like secret cosmic visualizations.

They don’t necessarily know how to write the texts, or if they do so (for me) they may write some characters a bit approximately because they already know how to recite them.

They know nothing of Laozi’s Daode jing, so central to Western images of Daoism. When I quote the pithy, nay gnomic, opening two lines to Li Manshan and his son Li Bin:

道可道非常道    The way you can follow is not the eternal way;
名可名非常名    The name you can name is not the eternal name.

they don’t quite get it, and I have to translate it into colloquial Chinese for them! Hmm…

We have a bit of fun playing with feichang, which in modern Chinese is “very”, rather than the classical “not eternal”. Actually, in their local dialect they don’t use feichang at all, though of course they know it. In Yanggao the usual way of saying “very” is just ke 可, pronounced ka—thus “dao kedao feichang dao” might seem to be “The way is soooo waylike, I mean it’s just amazingly waylike”…

Still, Daoists like Li Manshan will have picked up a broad understanding of the texts they sing every day, even if they have never been taught their “meaning”. They know Laozi not as the author of the Daode jing but as a god.

As I wrestled with translating the Hymn to the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan), used for Opening Scriptures in the morning (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.262–3, and film from 22.01), Li Manshan explained it to me.


Hymn to the Three Treasures, from Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980.


The subject of the first verse to the dao, “We bow in homage to the worthy of the dao treasure, Perfected One without Superior” (Jishou guiyi daobaozun, Wushang zhenren) is Laozi himself, so it is he who is the subject of the remainder of the verse: “He descended from the heavenly palace” (xialiao tiangong) refers to Laozi descending from the heavenly palace after beholding the sufferings of the deceased spirit (guanjian wangling shou kuqing)—it’s all about Laozi! So you see, Li Manshan does get the texts…

As for any ritual tradition, where does the “meaning” reside, when texts are unintelligible to their audience? When we translate and explain ritual texts, we are radically altering them as experienced by their audience. True, the performers, the priests, certainly “understand” them, to various degrees, if not in the same way as scholars translating them. I don’t suggest limiting ourselves to the consideration of how people experience rituals, but that should surely be a major part of our studies. Experience lies beyond textual exegesis, consisting largely in sound and vision.

I am reminded of Byron Rogers on an American version of the New Testament (Me: the authorized biography, p.268):

Pilate: “You the King of the Jews?”
“You said it.” said Christ.

There’s another one for the Matthew Passion (cf. Textual scholarship, OMG). “What is truth?”, indeed…

Mercifully, there is no movement to translate the ancient texts of Daoist ritual into colloquial modern Chinese. Of course, for northern Daoist ritual a modern translation wouldn’t make the texts any more intelligible anyway, given the slow tempo and melisma.

Laozi does appear in one of our favourite couplets for the scripture hall (see Recopying ritual manuals, under “The couplet volume”; cf. my book pp.194–5—not easily translated!):

穩如太山盤腿座     Seated in lotus posture firm as Mount Tai,
貫定乾坤李老君     Old Lord Li thoroughly resolves male and female aspects.

For a basic roundup of posts on the Li family Daoists, see here.

Textual scholarship, OMG

One often finds oneself consulting Doesn’t one.

Like “Meretricious and a Happy New Year”, or “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”. This is the kind of meticulous historical work that one expects from the scholarship of Daoist ritual texts.

“OMG” isn’t there, but appears to date from at least 1917 (OMG!)—recalling the brilliant Armstrong and Miller sketches:

And that’s kinda like a commentary on what we do when we listen to Bach (qv): we can’t help hearing the cadences of our own experience of life in the scenarios of the past. And shit like that. Innit though.

In the Bach Passions, textspeak could generally work for the choral crowd scenes, but actually “Erbarme Dich, OMG” fits worryingly well too:



He has risen from the dead, YAY!”

YAY being a more economical version of Hallelujah…

Maybe I’m onto something. Let’s hope not.