The shock of the familiar

20121126-080828.jpgIt is always a revelation to come back to a piece of music one has known well after a period of absence. But seldom is that revelation so startling, so exhilarating, so cathartic as it was for me when first I heard Ian Bostridge’s recording of Britten’s three great orchestral song cycles, Les Illuminations Op. 18, Serenade Op. 31 and Nocturne Op. 60.

These three pieces were once intimate friends of mine. Twenty-six years ago I wrote my A-level extended essay on the Serenade and Nocturne. (My teachers, I suspect, thought me barking mad–why write an extended analytical essay for A-level when one could submit a Grade VIII practical result? To each his own. I never regretted it.)

I know all three works from the 1964 Britten/Pears recording; I’d originally learned the Serenade from a 1970s recording on LP by Ian Partridge and Nicholas Busch, paired with the Violin Concerto (another old and new friend of mine). My Britten/Pears CD disappeared some years ago and I’d somehow never replaced it.

I do remember a phrase from the sleeve note of the Partridge LP, though. It said something to the effect that “Britten can always make us hear a tonic triad or a C major scale as if we have never heard it before.” As a general observation that has always rung true. It is even more profoundly true, however, of Bostridge and Rattle’s interpretation of these three pieces. This is no re-interpretation; it is not a response to earlier recordings, whether by Britten or others; it is a joyous discovery of a great new unknown treasure.

All this has made me think about discovery and re-discovery in a new way. I recently re-visited Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers–a book of luminous beauty which I have known and loved for 12 years, and which always reminds me how to see goodness beyond the immediately obvious. The book’s heroine visits Venice for her first time, late in life, and discovers not just the treasures and beauties of the city but something deeper and more real within herself than she has ever known before. It is not too fanciful to say that in Venice, Julia Garnet discovers her soul.

But there is more to it than that. There is something in the way Miss Vickers tells the tale, something that makes it at once personal and universal. In part this is to do with the story of the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha, interwoven with Miss Garnet’s present-day story in a way which adds an authority and a timelessness to her experience. In part, it has to do with the breadth and the richness of Miss Vickers’ characters, and the clear-sighted empathy with which they are drawn.

More than that, though, there is an immediacy, an intimacy and yet a timelessness about the journey on which Miss Garnet finds herself. There is an inevitability, an innate rightness, about the character and her experience, which makes me as a reader respond with something equally deep inside myself. It is the same deep inevitability that I felt on hearing the third movement of the Britten Violin Concerto after twenty-something years.

This is, I suppose, one of the hallmarks of great poetry too: that it can take the personal, the intimate, however transient and inconsequential, and elevate it to the level of the universal. (Look at any of Shakespeare’s sonnets, at Ted Hughes’ animal poems, at the poetry of World War I, at… well, at any poet from John Donne to John Hegley.) That remarkable fusion–of an experience or an image that belongs to the poet and the reader and to everyman; that can remain personal to each, even if it means something quite different to each–that is one of the ways that language binds us together. And our response is to say, in one and the same breath, “I have known that since the beginning of time” and “I had never seen that before”.

That fusion of experience or of image is as crucial to the author and the book as it is to the reader. Speaking in Winchester a couple of weeks ago, Salley Vickers said, “Until the reader engages with the book, I’d say about 45 per cent of the book isn’t even there.” Transposing this to the musical environment for a moment, Britten spoke in his 1964 Aspen speech of “this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener”. The idea that by reading a book or listening to music I am effectively completing it, is a heady one.

Part of that process of completion, of course (as Britten stated so eloquently in his Aspen speech, and as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog), is about giving your whole attention to the words or the music. For me, though, perhaps the greater part of it is the willingness to contribute something of myself–something of my experience, something of my soul.

When I first read Miss Garnet’s Angel I was wholly enthralled by Salley Vickers’ gift for description of character, setting and mood. I was able to fall in love with Venice, which I have only visited once at the age of 11, and of which I have only the most rudimentary memories. But Miss Garnet’s greatest gift to me was the shock and heady excitement of meeting a fellow-traveller on my own journey of discovery–one who, as Tobias found in the Book of Tobit, and as I found on rediscovering Britten, has been there all along.

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6 Responses to The shock of the familiar

  1. philipparees says:

    The bond between reader (or listener) and the work completed thereby, is, not only heady (for both) but indicative of something else I think. That words or music ‘lead’ towards the human empathy for a shared reality but do not contain it. The hell of being a writer is to try and remember that end when struggling with the means, the words. So easy to give them too much importance, but too little and the evocation fails. This was a generous and thought provoking disclosure.

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      You are right, Philippa. The most a writer or composer can do is to offer the opportunity for that connection; it cannot be demanded or coerced. To paraphrase Olivia, the bond sought is good, but given unsought better. The risk, I suppose, is that in an effort to create the connection, the author tries to be all things to all people–and ends up as bland as paste.

      (I remember a few years ago getting horribly wound up about negative reviews of ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ and ‘The Nine Tailors‘. In each case it was quite clear that the reviewer just didn’t ‘get it’; there was no connection between the author and the reader. In one sense it is a sign that the author has got it right, has written the book she meant to write, rather than the book that would have a bland generic appeal.)

      That raises the question, what does the artist have to offer, and to whom? It is a brave writer who puts their emotional all out there for public consumption. Maybe it is easier for the composer – there is so much more ambiguity in the meaning of music than of words, so much more opportunity for the composer or performer to be searingly honest without exposing their emotional innards to public scrutiny?

      Which isn’t to say, of course, that ambiguity – or the opportunity for multiple responses – doesn’t exist with the written word. Of course it does, and the book that offers escapism to one reader will offer to another the restoration of the soul. The important thing is that the writer or composer has something specific to say, and has the courage and the skill and the generosity to say it. The rest is up to us.

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