Why history? Part Two – Towns



The breakthrough came with taming animals and the raising of crops.  People were not tied up just staying alive.  They could do more by dividing their labour.  They could live together in towns.  Petra was one of them starting about 300 BC, but there are traces of settlements at Jericho nine thousand years before that time and many thousands of years before the time when the events described in the book of Genesis could have taken place.  Disputes about native title in that part of the world are therefore likely to be resolved by arms.

Settling in towns and farming with the seasons gave people a sense of order.  The development of bronze then iron led to better tools and more killing.  Writing started.  People could record their myths.   (Our aborigines relied mainly on Songlines.)  Trade started.  People had to count things.  Coins were made to replace barter – and to allow the ruler to take his cut.  People learned pottery and cloth-making.  They invented the wheel and the plough, and their animals served the people.

Settled life, if not civilisation, started in what we call the Middle East and North Africa while savages still roamed over what we call Europe. From about 4000 BC, the Egyptians developed papyrus for writing, a calendar and arithmetic.  People in Syria built a library and an army.  In Babylon, they looked at the stars and made clocks. The Phoenicians were a trading people who created an alphabet that the Greeks then Romans developed.

A form of civilised life started in India in about 2500 BC and the first of the great dynasties of China started in about 1500 BC.  Slavery somehow sprung up with the arrival of order and security.  Class in India gave way to caste.  The Brahmins, or priests, were at the top and the Pariahs, or outcasts were at the bottom.  Religion became a source of power over people, and across the world its exponents would seek a monopoly of knowledge.  Priests of all kinds commonly felt fear and jealousy when confronted with knowledge outside their realm.  In China, the leading position of Mandarin was obtained by merit and learning.  The Chinese script was hard to learn and this affected the spread of reading and writing.  The Chinese locked themselves in behind the Great Wall.

Tribes of the people of Israel overran what came to be called Palestine. They occupied land between the great powers of Egypt and Babylon.  Moses said that God gave him his ten commandments.  These tribes claimed to be chosen by God, and that God had promised them the land of Palestine.  They proceeded to act on that promise with their swords.  Their God was fearfully personal and jealous, and by our standards brutal, but this people had and still have an amazing capacity to stick together.  They were people of the word, and they developed books that contained their entire history and moral code.

There was only one God, but his laws were universal.  The Ten Commandments are close to the root of what we call western civilisation. They underlie our view of the sanctity of life and what we now see as equality before the law.  Two prophets, that we will come to, would give rise to the most populous faiths in the world.  Sadly, conflict within and between these three faiths would cause indescribable cruelty and misery across the history of mankind.

In the sixth century BC in India, Gautama gave up the life of the rich and powerful. People called him the Buddha.  He told people the Way, and this religion then spread through India and the rest of Asia. Buddha preached against caste, but it prevailed in India.  Confucius was teaching in China at about the same time.  He spoke of respect for the past and for the aged – very Chinese virtues.

We have been looking at what we might call the alphabet of civilisation, the bread and butter of settled life.  This is a very large statement, but people in those times do not look to us to have been big on big ideas or high art.  They were bent on forms and appearances, and lurks or magic – just like so many in government or business today.

Too many accounts of civilisation look too much on art and architecture.  It’s not much good having beaut pictures if you can be murdered in your bed.  Let us look then at the phases of law-giving described by Sir Henry Maine in his book Ancient Law. 

First, the law consists of little more than judgments given by a king with divine inspiration.  What the king gave, at least in the first instance, was a judgment (or ‘doom’), not a law; he was a judge, not a law-maker. Next, we have an aristocracy that becomes the keeper of the law. The aristocrats’ monopoly is not of divine instruction or inspiration, but of knowledge of the laws.  In the third phase, habit becomes custom and custom becomes law, a kind of unwritten law.  The Pharaoh would make a decree in a given case.  Repeated enough, this decree would become a decree in the broader sense.

The next phase is the codes.  The best known are The Code of Hammurabi, The Laws of Moses, The Laws of Solon of Athens, The Twelve Tablets of Rome, and later the Corpus Iuris of Justinian.  The Code is some form of protection against fraud and abuse by the aristocracy (or the priesthood).  But the codes get widened in their application by the process of analogy.  As a result, a prohibition of a specific act for the purposes of promoting cleanliness can descend into ceremonial abstinence or ritual ablution, and a division of people by status can degenerate into ‘the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions, Caste.’

These problems are worse where the ruling body, the aristocracy, draws its power from religion rather than politics, or the military. These generalisations are dangerous, but this may be one of the great differences between East and West, that the ruling parties were able to divorce themselves from the power of religion earlier in the West than in the East.

Here and there – The appetite for revenge – Punishment as a measure of despair


If I kick a dog, it will want to bite me.  If you hit me, I will want to hit you back.  Our instinct is not to forgive those who trespass against us, but to trespass against them.  Our instinct leads us to seek revenge.  That’s one of those instincts that we share with animals.  The Oxford English Dictionary has this for ‘revenge’:

The act of doing hurt or harm to another in return for wrong or injury suffered; satisfaction obtained by repayment of injuries.

We might fairly say that our law was born and shaped to control our instinctive need to take revenge.

We need to look first at what the original wrong or trespass was.  Oliver Wendell Holmes said in this in The Common Law:

It is commonly known that the early forms of legal procedure were grounded in vengeance.  Modern writers have thought that the Roman law started from the blood feud, and all the authorities agree that the German law began in that way.  The feud led to the composition, at first optional, then compulsory, by which the feud was bought off…..Vengeance imports a feeling of blame, and an opinion, however distorted by passion, that a wrong has been done.  It can hardly go very far beyond the case of a harm intentionally inflicted: even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.

Later, Holmes said that our laws dealing with wrongs and crimes all ‘started from a moral basis, from the thought that someone was to blame.’  A ‘law which punished conduct which would not be blameworthy in the average member of the community would be too severe for that community to bear’.

It follows that the punishment must be measured by the level of blame of the offender.  Holmes referred to the view that at least one purpose punishment is to deter the criminal and others from committing similar crimes.

Thus the punishment must be equal, in the sense of proportionate to the crime, because its only function is to destroy it.  Others, without this logical apparatus, are content to rely upon a felt necessity that suffering should follow wrongdoing.

Holmes saw in this emotional imperative ‘the notion that there is a mystic bond between wrong and punishment.’  That was very different to the view ‘that the infliction of pain is only a means to an end’, namely, deterrence.

Well, in the year of grace 2017, we prefer the deterrent view to a ‘felt necessity’ or ‘mystic bond’ that wrong-doing must lead to suffering, but we still feel a need to have our basic moral standards and our personal safety vindicated by the law.  We tend to lump the latter under the heading of ‘retribution’, meaning repayment.  How you distinguish retribution from revenge is a question that is a little too metaphysical for my taste.  Of the three factors mentioned by Holmes – revenge, deterrence, or retribution – only deterrence looks to be capable of being tested empirically.  We would now add reform or rehabilitation – that too may be capable of at least some measurement.

But on any view, the punishment must fit the crime.  Otherwise, as Holmes said, we contravene the teaching of Kant – and I think of Jesus – that every person has their own dignity or worth, and that we as a community must not treat a person as a thing, or merely as the means to an end.

For present purposes, at least three other conditions must in my view be met when we as a community seek to punish one of our members as a criminal.

First, since the law has taken vengeance from the victim and family, the punishment must be inflicted by and under the law, and not by the victim – or by the mob.  Secondly, the punishment must be adjudicated according to the rule of law.  We are all equal before the law, even cardinals of a church or magistrates of a court, and we can only be deprived of our rights by a judgment given after due process and by a court sitting according to law.  Finally, since the law inflicts the punishment on behalf of the community, the community must accept responsibility for ensuring that the punishment is that which has been ordered by the court – and no more.  So, when criminals were flogged, the community assumed some responsibility for ensuring that the punishment did not lead to the death of the criminal.  So now, if our law requires that a criminal be deprived of their liberty by imprisonment as a punishment, we as a community have the responsibility to ensure that the deprivation of liberty is the only punishment that the court has ordered – and not that the criminal is raped or murdered or bashed into a vegetative state.

(I may say that all of this discussion is predicated on the notion that our law of punishment has a basis in logic that underwrites the very considerable legal industry that expounds it at such length.  I was not able to detect such a logical basis when I studied Criminology in 1965, and I have not seen it since, despite having sat on tribunals over thirty years where the issue passed blithely over my head.  To say that a sentence of eight years conforms to logic or theory better than one of four or six to me resembles awarding points for difficulty to the Beatitudes.  But that is a discussion for another day.)

A recent edition of The Saturday Paper had the following story.  Robin Irvine worked a 12 hour shift in a coal mine.  Driving home, above the relevant speed limit, he failed to see a woman cyclist, a mother and a wine-maker, in time.  The collision killed her.  There were no drugs or alcohol involved.  It looked like a case of fatigue.  Irvine was devastated by the consequences of his actions.  He was charged with negligent driving causing death.  The court was told he was experiencing ongoing psychological issues from his involvement in the death.  A pre-sentence report said Irvine would benefit from supervision and counselling and that he was eligible to undertake community service.

The magistrate, who was known as ‘Fierce Pearce’, did not adjourn to deliver sentence.  He sentenced Irvine to twelve months imprisonment.  That is very rare for this kind of offence.  Irvine’s lawyer was in shock.  He asked for bail pending appeal.  The police did not oppose bail, but the court refused it.  (It is not clear to me who first used the term ‘flight risk,’ or what evidence there was of such a risk.  What is clear is that it would have been ludicrous to suggest that Irvine should have been held in custody pending the hearing of the charge.)

Irvine was taken to a high security prison that houses serious criminals and that has a history of assaults on prisoners.  With the assistance of other prisoners, a violent twenty year old prisoner bashed and stomped on Irvine, and left him in a vegetative state.  After two years in rehab, Irvine lives with his mother who has to look after him.  The state allowed him $5000 compensation as the victim of a crime.  In the trial of the prisoner for assault, the Crown could offer no motive.  Irvine and his wife are divorced.  He and his mother have been sent to hell.  According to the report, Magistrate Pearce will retire this year at the age of 71.

Not just we lawyers, but all Australians should be sick at heart over this outrage.  If there is a God worth worshipping, his will has been flouted in what mortals should call a crime against humanity.  If you look at the principles I have sought to set out, each one of them has been violated.

I first ask whether the hearing gave due process.  Was this one of those old time magistrates who say ‘I’m the sheriff in this town, and it’s my way or the high way.’  I’ve seen courts like that.  You wonder why you bothered to turn up.  The decision has been taken before you get to your feet, and it’s rule by a man, and not by the law.  But that is just surmise, so I put it to one side.

What is not matter of surmise is the impropriety and unfairness of the sentence of imprisonment.  According to the press report:

Statistics maintained by the NSW Government show that of the 65 cases [on this charge] dealt with between 2013 and 2016, only two people were jailed. A large percentage received non-conviction orders, the most lenient sentence available.

On that basis, it is nigh on impossible to support the sentence of imprisonment in this case.  And the magistrate must have known the records which made his sentence improper and likely to be set aside on appeal.

It is that which makes his refusal of bail not just capricious and unreasonable, but arbitrary and cruel.  That is a complete repudiation of the rule of law.  And, again according to the report, this magistrate had form for this form of cruelty.

In 2010, 13 men who had been jailed by Pearce had their sentences quashed.  When District Court judge Garry Neilson came to the case of Ian Klum, he wept when told Klum had been bashed to death at Grafton jail while awaiting the outcome of his appeal against a sentence for the offence of driving while disqualified.  Magistrate Pearce had refused an application by Klum for bail pending his appeal.

The judicial arm of government therefore behaved dreadfully in this case.  Then both it and the executive arm surrendered all care by putting Irvine straight into this kind of prison at Wellington.  This is what the press report says:

Wellington houses around 500 inmates, some of them violent offenders or gang members moved from other jails across the state to isolate them….

Bashings and sexual assaults are a regular occurrence in Australian jails, yet individual offences feature little in public discussion.  If Irvine had been beaten this way in Kings Cross on a Saturday night, his assault would have been front page news.  Yet his maiming in a place where the state was responsible for his wellbeing slipped by without any media attention or scrutiny.

Our jails, dangerous places at the best of times, are shockingly overcrowded.  The state’s 37 correctional facilities were built to accommodate 11,000 prisoners.  Current figures show more than 13,000 inmates, and the number has been rising.

In 2015 the Minister for Corrective Services approved two-person cells being used to accommodate three inmates.  In January this year it was reported that assaults on prison premises had increased by 37 per cent over the past two years.

Let me go back to revenge, and our instinctive reaction to seek revenge – which it is a hallmark of a civilised community to seek to contain.  We are, we hope, beyond the stage of the ‘felt necessity that suffering should follow wrongdoing’ as being a sufficient justification for punishment in general or for a particular sentence.  The punishment must fit the crime and we musn’t use real people for target practice.

Anyone who believes that a stint in Wellington, or any other such place, will send the inmate out a better man is wilfully delusional.  So, in my view, is anyone who believes that community security can be improved, either measurably or at all, by increasing the time that convicted criminals spend in jail.  Isn’t the truth rather that most prisoners will come out worse than they went in?  As I understand it, overseas experience says that this problem is worse in terrorist cases, and that the time that terrorists spend in jail just hardens them up to do better next time.  If that’s the case, trying to contain terrorism by holding terrorists in jail for longer terms is about as sensible as trying to lasso a herd of elephants with spaghetti.

What I see rather is that the courts are just taking some of the worse offenders out of circulation for a time – because in the absence of any alternative form of punishment, no one has thought of a better idea.  It’s like an expensive form of cold storage.  In the name of heaven, who would want to be found within the same state as the man who maimed Irvine when he gets out?  He looks to me to be a homicidal maniac now.  Will he not just get worse in the psychopathic Gehenna that is called Wellington?  If our security were paramount, wouldn’t they just throw away the key?

Well, if all that is the most rational account that we can give of punishment, how far have we moved from the instinctive need for revenge?  How far removed am I on this from my dog?  If we see imprisonment as a pis aller, a last resort, I am reminded of some remarks by an Anglican divine, J M Thompson, about a French terrorist, Maximilien Robespierre, that punishment is a measure of despair.

He could, indeed, read men’s minds, but he could not judge their characters; so he could make them think what he thought, but he could not make them do what he wanted.  Faced, as every preacher of a difficult creed is faced, sooner or later, by the problem of unbelief, he was too small-minded to forgive and yet powerful enough to punish.  But punishment is a measure of despair.  It may cause conformity; it cannot produce conviction

But why, then, have jail terms kept increasing and with them our prison populations?  The answer, I think, is that governments have acceded to the demands of parts of the press to increase the terms of jail sentences.  Those demands are not couched as rational arguments founded on evidence of the application of a given theory of punishment.  Rather, they derive from a mystic bond between crime and punishment, the belief that wrongdoers should suffer pain.  That is to say, they derive from our instinct for revenge.  And these demands are not made from a felt need to improve our community.  They are made in pursuit of profit by business people whose adherence to either sense or evidence can go clean out the window where there’s a dollar to be made.

So, we have governments responding to irrational dictates from the press to put more people in jail and to keep them there longer, and then completely failing to see that those jails properly serve the governments’ purpose.  You end up with the frightful and unjust tragedy suffered by Robin Irvine and his mother.  And you wind up with the suspicion that we have fallen this low at the behest of the mob and their chosen organs in the press.

No nation that is so governed can call itself civilised.

As for us lawyers, I think we need to answer the question put by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and stopped us being truthful and open…Are we still of any use?

Passing Bull 115 – More bull on conservatism


Some time ago, I quoted Simon Blackburn’s definition of ‘conservatism’ in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

Conservatism :Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions.  In this ‘organic’ form, it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and a properly subservient underclass.  By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally.  The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.

The word has been rendered worse than useless by reactionary elements in the Liberal Party, and apostles of the IPA in the Murdoch press.  People like Abbott and Bernardi are doing their best to work up sectarian strife, although fortunately now, most sane people cannot be bothered.  In two generations all the cranks, theorists, ideologues, and Catholic trouble makers have gone from the Labor side to the Liberal side.

As best as I can see it, these reactionary souls stand for the following: they dislike Muslims, gays, and wind farms; they loathe the ABC and the Fairfax Press; they are consumed by hate for anything to do with human rights and they gaze with the utmost suspicion anything to do with fighting corruption.  They adore God, Her Majesty (even though she is by law a Prot), the flag, and coal.  What any of that has to do with any version of conservatism is not clear.  What is clear is that they have no interest at all in conserving the planet.

In their worst manifestations, they even like Trump.  Two particularly vile commentators on Sky salute him.

Trump is nowhere near being a Republican, much less a conservative.  If you had to put a label on him, it might be something like Leninist nihilist.  But in one of those trumpet voluntaries that we get every now and then from the female cadres of the IPA, Janet Albrechtsen said this about Trump and Islam after his speech in Riyadh ( in a visit which led to regional unrest in record time):

Trump offered up the kind of moral clarity that drove the West to defeat Nazis and Soviet communists. What has happened to us in the interim? Paralysed by political correctness, we walk on eggshells so as not to offend. Ask hard questions about immigration? You’re a racist. Talk about Islam and terrorism? You’re an Islamophobe.  Keep calm and stay quiet? Not anymore. It’s time to get angry.

That newspaper was having a field day about Islam then, but Trump offering clarity on anything?  On morals?  Does anyone read this nonsense before it hits the streets?

Students of commedia dell’arte will be familiar with Scaramouch.  He indulged in grimaces and affected language.  He was what the English would call a bounder or a cad, even if he did play it for laughs.  Someone described him as ‘sly, supple, adroit, and conceited.’  Donald Trump, the darling of conceited nuts in Australia, has just appointed his namesake. The man looks to be exquisitely in character for the role.

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

A clear midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.

Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Why history? Part 1 – Stone

[This is the first part of the revised version of a short history of the world that I wrote for my daughters in 1990.   I began with a warning.  ‘This sketch is intended for my children, who are currently undergoing varying degrees of adolescence.  If  nothing else, it exemplifies two maxims of history: it depends on what story you believe, and it is written by the winners.  This sketch is hopelessly selective, incurably biased toward the West (and in particular the traditional Anglo-Saxon view) and loaded toward the present.  For anyone other than a WASP MCP, it is probably at best irrelevant, and at worst offensive.  There is little fact – it is almost all comment.  If I were you, I would not accept any of it.’ This version of the history of the world is less than 9400 words.  It is therefore shorter than so many judgments of our superior courts.  There’s a lesson there.]


A very brief history of the world

Geoffrey Gibson



  1. Stone
  2. Towns
  3. Greece
  4. Rome
  5. Medieval
  6. Interlude: Civilisation?
  7. Rebirth
  8. Kings
  9. Revolutions
  10. Explosions
  11. Civilisation – Are we there yet?



Did it all start with a bang or a whimper?   I wouldn’t know, but the hot-shots favour the big bang.  That’s fine, but where did it come from?  It’s all very well to say, as some ancients did, that the elephant stands on the tortoise – what does the tortoise stand on?

Until recently, most people on earth took their history of humanity from religious texts.  Most now believe that human beings evolved from animals.   The theory of evolution was pioneered by the English scientist Charles Darwin.  He revolutionised the way we think about a lot of things, and we will come back to him.  Science has also developed ways of dating artefacts from the past so as to prove, to the satisfaction of most people, that the account of creation in the Bible is physically impossible.  (Although a frightening number of people in the U S Congress still believe it.  It may be not be long before people ask if they are mad.)

It looks like this process of evolution was completed round about 200,000 years ago in Africa, in that part of Africa that is now one of the most backward parts on earth.  (Being first isn’t everything.)  We think that humans started moving out of Africa about 70,000 years ago.  They got to Australia after that.  Artefacts of our blackfellas can be dated to about 65,000 years ago.  Their occupation of this continent is so long compared to the tiny fragment in time of the white settlement that white people cannot get their heads around it. It looks like America was uninhabited when the first humans arrived here – when Tasmania was attached to the mainland – and the Maoris did not reach New Zealand until centuries after the birth of Christ.

We apply the label Neanderthal to the earliest man.  Applied to someone now – say a backward politician – that term is one of abuse (like knuckle-grazing).  They were savages.  Their first job was to stay alive.  They didn’t need Darwin to tell them about the importance of survival.  The symptoms of what we now call panic attacks show how we learned to heighten our responses to heightened danger.  People had to eat, find shelter, and stay warm – or cool.  They learned to speak.  People spoke to each other.  The apes hadn’t done this.  They learned to light fires.  They developed tools – and from tools came weapons.  We take the term Stone Age from our use of stone tools. These men we call Neolithic – about say 10,000 BC, although stone tools have now been found in Australia that are 65,000 years old.

Like our blackfellas, these people were nomadic.  They wandered in the forests and the savannah and sought out caves.  They didn’t cultivate the land or crops, or stay long enough in one place to develop towns.  This phase in our story is by far the longest.  We refer to the period before writing was developed as prehistory.  We now see writing and the division of labour that town life permits as essential to what we call civilisation.

We cannot now know what part fear played in human life then.  We now live with the risk of extinction by nuclear war.  But they must surely have lived with the threat of death or injury from nature, starvation, or predators, animal or human.  Having only a rudimentary knowledge of nature, what we call the supernatural may have had some charm.  So, some men came to claim power over others, either because they were stronger, or because they knew more, or because they were persuasive.  The fear of the unknown has always been a potent force for us.  They painted.  They developed totems and taboos.  We see all this in the Dreamtime and in big swinging dicks on Wall Street.

The Songlines of our aborigines go back a very long way.  In 1857 a blackfella told a white settler north of Melbourne that his grandfather could recall tracing the Yarra River down to the Heads where it entered the sea.  As Geoffrey Blainey remarked, it was a grandfather one hundred times removed whose memory was invoked.

And people began to notice not just that they were different to the apes, but that they were different among themselves.  There were differences in language, skin colour, and customs.  When the white people landed uninvited at Sydney Cove, the blackfellas required ocular proof that the white men were in fact men.  When people think they are somehow different to others, it is rare for one model to think that the other model is superior.  What you get is a kind of sibling rivalry.  And there is conflict not just about survival, but about beliefs.  They might kill not just to guard their territory, but to honour a leader or to appease a god.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was a man of towering intellect who stopped three bullets during the American Civil War – he spoke of ‘that unspeakable somewhat’ that allows us ‘to face annihilation for a blind belief.’

So, before the end of what we call prehistory, mankind was infected by two searing divisions from which we have never recovered – caste and race.

Here and there – The facts of political life


In order to encourage young lawyers to meet the facts of life head on, and to be able to recount them without bullshit, I used to give three books to my articled clerks on their admission into the legal profession: Gowers, The Complete plain Words; Clausewitz, On War; and Machiavelli, The Prince.  I don’t suppose any of them read all three, or anything like it, but I wanted to convey a hard-headed message – if they didn’t like it, they may have needed to rethink their future.

This came back to me when I read Be Like the Fox, Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, by Erica Benner.  It seemed to me to have a lot in common with another book I had recently acquired, Ike and McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower’s Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, by David Nicholls.  They both have respectable publishers – in order, Allen Lane and Simon & Schuster.  The academic credentials of the authors are elliptically expressed.  The title is catchy.  The style is a kind journalese that may leave some feeling like they’ve been talked down to.  In the first there is direct speech. In each, the author feels the need to tell us about their own journey of discovery, which can be a very troubling symptom. There are floods of notes.  Above all, extravagant claims are made for the book by the usual tame suspects in the blurbs, and by the author.  And in each case, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about – worse, I wondered how I got to be suckered once again, when I’m old enough to know better.

Erica Benner’s book is readable enough, if you go for that chatty style in the historical present, and you suppress your fear of another populist outbreak,  but you would have to be a bloody idiot to believe the blurb that says she has succeeded ‘brilliantly in overturning centuries-old received views.’ We can leave that puffery to the commercial conscience licence of Allen Lane.  But in the Preface, the author says this:

His [Machiavelli’s] design was to write for a tyrant those things that are pleasing to tyrants, bringing about in this way, if he could, the tyrant’s self-willed and swift downfall.’  In other words, the book’s most shocking advice was ironic.  Its author wore the mask of a helpful adviser, all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin…..Machiavelli’s self-proclaimed realism, his book’s main selling point,  was a fraud.  And Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and England were among its first victims.  Cromwell had taken the Prince at face value…..and in doing so, had walked straight into Machiavelli’s trap.

These statements are not small. They are large.  Is Ms Benner intent on eulogising a fraud?  (‘Fraud’ is her word.)  Where can you buy the crystal balls that allow you to divine Machiavelli’s real intent or purpose?  Was poor King Henry VIII really a flop?  Was the English Reformation a mistake?  How fared the nation of England in suffering through its victimhood?   And why didn’t Machiavelli’s fraud work earlier on seriously bad princes like Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler?  Why did five, twenty, and fifty million people have to die before they walked into Machiavelli’s trap?  Just how Machiavellian was Ms Benner’s version of Machiavelli?  Are we all just sad victims of a dilettante prankster?

And that’s before you get to the subtitle.  What did ‘freedom’ mean in Renaissance Italy?  As Bertrand Russell remarked of Machiavelli (in his History of Western Philosophy), ‘The word ‘liberty’ is used throughout as denoting something precious, though what it denotes is not very clear.’  My suspicion is that ‘freedom’ in Machiavelli means the kind of  pompous hypocrisy denoted in that word by the conspirators in Julius Caesar – as they pulled their hats down over their ears and hid half their faces, and then set out about murdering the man who was in their way.

Well, all this stuff is irrelevant to us in the Anglo-American scheme of things.  We don’t go big on theory.  We don’t trust ideologues.  And philosophy, especially political philosophy, has even less going for it than economics.  We prefer experience, evidence, tradition and something like natural growth.  Evolution hadn’t even been invented when Machiavelli was floating his theories.  But they have taken effect, and not noticeably to our benefit.

The Prince was mainly about contemporary or recent rulers in Italy.  The Discourses was more about republics, the form of government more favoured by the author.  If you know anything about the Medicis, Borgias, or Renaissance popes, you know that praise, much less idolatry, is out of the question. In the eyes of most, Cesare Borgia was a model of depravity.  Here is part of what Jacob Burckhardt had to say about the ‘great criminal’ Cesare Borgia.

‘Every night four or five murdered men are discovered – bishops, prelates, and others – so that all Rome is trembling for fear of being destroyed by the Duke’ (Cesare).  He himself used to wander about Rome in the night-time with his guards, and there is every reason to believe that he did so not only because, like Tiberius, he shrank from showing his now repulsive features by daylight, but also to gratify his insane thirst for blood, perhaps even on persons unknown to him….those whom the Borgias could not assail with open violence fell victim to their poison.

On any view, the bloodlines were less than charming, and the Borgias were not nice people to have dinner with. If Machiavelli says he sees nothing to reproach in Cesare Borgia, and he does, he is obviously taking the mickey – unless he is morally insane.  Some have called it satire; others call it comical irony.  While Burckhardt may be out of fashion, he did understand Italy at this time, and he thought the real reason for Machiavelli’s sympathy for Cesare was that Cesare was the only one who could have secularised the Papal States.  (Now there is a proposition to conjure with!)

We are looking at the difference between facts in history and politics, and values in ethics or morals. That’s what I wanted my new lawyers to come to terms with – together with the dangers of talking in such abstractions.  Can you have any politics without any morals at all?  Even Stalin and Hitler found room for loyalty to the nation and party, and obedience to the leader.

This realism had its upside.  Machiavelli criticised the Church because by its conduct it had undermined religious belief.  But there was a downside.  A prince should seem to be religious – an implacable law for American presidents – but the Prince emphatically rejects morals for princes.  Rulers who are always good will fail.  They must be as cunning as a fox.  In the year of Our Lord 2016, this attempt to divorce morals from politics came home to bite us all.  And the point was made by people who worked on the equally objectionable principle that the ends justify the means – a notion that figures largely in Machiavelli’s writings.

Russell introduced the subject this way (back in 1946, the year after I was born).

His political philosophy is scientific and empirical, based upon his own experience of affairs, concerned to set forth the means to assigned ends, regardless of the question whether the ends are to be considered good or bad.  When, on occasion, he allows himself to mention the ends that he desires, they are such as we can all applaud.  Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches to his name is due to the indignation of hypocrites who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.  There remains, it is true, a good deal that genuinely demands criticism, but in this he is an expression of his age.   Such intellectual honesty about political dishonesty would have been hardly possible at any other time or in any other country…..

This assessment looks fair and sensible to me, and I doubt whether Ms Benner would dissent from it.  But it is not a bookselling headline.  How then does Ms Benner unveil her revelation?

But he has learned to avoid lecturing princes on what they should and should not do.  Instead, he gives free reign to his old talent for ambiguous writing, so useful when writing diplomatic dispatches.  [35] He adopts the persona of a cold-blooded adviser to new rulers, one who teaches them to use other princes, foreign peoples, and their own subjects to serve their soaring ambitions.  Yet his writing turns hot, nearly bursts into flame, when he describes how free peoples avenge themselves on those who attack their freedom….On closer scrutiny, though, one begins to notice hesitations and caveats that compromise the praise…..Yet the book’s long discussion of Cesare’s career teams with insinuations that undercut the praise….look more closely and you start to notice details that subvert the artist’s glowing portrait….When reading the Prince, one often has the impression that the book speaks in two different voices, sometimes in the same sentence…..If the louder voice of the amoral adviser goads princely readers to accumulate more and more power, the Prince’s lower register voice – Nicco beneath his bestial disguise – constantly hints that well-ordered republics are stronger, safer, and more natural for the human animal.

Now, whether you regard ‘bestial disguise’ as an improvement on ‘fraud’ may involve issues of taste as much as judgment, but there is nothing new here.  When you could be killed or mutilated for saying the wrong thing, it was natural to equivocate, or be deliberately ambiguous, or to speak with a forked tongue.

All of Machiavelli’s books were banned; he had already been tortured not for what he said, but because someone else put his name in a list; and that most notorious controversialist of the Renaissance, Galileo, had sought to pull off the same stunt by dressing his heresy up in a dialogue.  He said that he just wanted to show both sides.  Well, as we know, the Inquisition did not buy that argument, and Galileo was convicted of being ‘vehemently suspect of heresy.’  Two could play the ambiguity game – but it was and is a well-worn game.

Well, if nothing is new, what’s all the fuss about?  The author’s argument begins with the reference to the ambiguity of diplomacy.  I have included the footnote [35] for which the citation is:

‘35 See Benner, Machiavelli’s Prince.’

Passim? The whole bloody book?  Has it all been said before? Is the good book right after all – is there nothing new under the sun?

So, give us a break Mr Allen Lane, and go a bit easier on the bullshit.

Why opera 9 – and Epilogue


So what?

Some years back, now, when my personal life was in turmoil, I took off for my usual bolt-holes in the sticks.  I was stationary in traffic at Port Fairy with the window down.  A guy lent across, and the following conversation took place.

Are you OK mate?

Sure, mate, is there a problem?

You’re bawling your bloody eyes out, mate!

Shit.  It must be the weather.  But thanks.

I was not aware of the tears, but the cause of the emotion just then, in an otherwise emotional time, was that I was right in the heart of Leb wohl toward the end of Die Walkure.  Getting a fading Anglo-Saxon emotional enough to shed a tear is no bad thing.  And that is a large part of what we have been talking about – awakening emotions by art, the art of the composer and the art of the performer.

We have come some way from the tableaux of Orfeo to Jack the Ripper closing out the heroine in Lulu.  As in all exercises in history, we are at risk of distorting our perspective because we have the advantage of hindsight.  It is worth setting out the views on Orfeo of John Eliot Gardiner, the founder of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, at some length.

Claudio Monteverdi, amazingly, provided all of these missing elements in the very first through–composed work for the stage… He recognised that the hitherto unexploited potential of what the Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental base line, giving just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast… The radicalism of L’Orfeo may not be fully recognised by audiences even today.  In an age when the emotional life of human beings was becoming a topic of the utmost fascination – with philosophers and playwrights trying to define the role of passions in human destiny, and with painters as varied as Velazquez, Caravaggio and Rembrandt all intent on betraying the inner life of men and women – Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above the contemporary musicians in the consistent way he explored and developed musical themes of ‘imitation’ and ‘representation’.  We now refer to L’Orfeo as an opera and think of it as the beginning of the genre; but that is because we are looking at it backwards via the perspective of Wagner or Verdi.  To Monteverdi, it was a… fable in music…

Then let us recall what it may have been like when opera was in its prime in its birthplace – Italy.  This is how the celebrated French novelist Stendhal describes a typical Rossini premiere at a minor Italian opera house in the early nineteenth century.

The maestro takes his seat at the piano.  The house is packed with people who have poured in from twenty miles around.  Some folk are so fascinated that they are more or less camping in their coaches in the middle of the streets; all the inns have been full since the day before…

The overture begins, and you could hear a pin drop.  When it is over, the auditorium explodes with excitement, with shouts of praise up to the very heavens, with incessant whistling and roaring…

Each aria of the new opera is listened to in complete silence, and then received with the same astonishing uproar.  Not even the howling of a wrathful sea can give you an idea of the racket.  You can hear the audience appraising both the singers and the composer.  They shout ‘Bravo Davide, bravo Pisaroni’; or else the whole house will resound to the cries of ‘Bravo maestro!’  Rossini rises from his place at the piano, his handsome face looking grave, which is not at all characteristic.  He bows three times as the applause washes over him, deafening him with adulation.  Then the performance continues with the next item.

Rossini himself is at the piano for the first three performances of a new opera, after which he receives his fee of seventy sequins (Fr.800), participates in a splendid farewell faced hosted by his new friends – the whole town, in other words – and then sets off in his carriage ready to go through the same rigmarole forty miles from here in a neighbouring town.

There’s no snootiness there.  It is all so Italian, yet it sounds a little like the English at soccer or the Spaniards at a bullfight – or some Lutheran Germans in a church.  John Eliot Gardiner spoke of Thuringia (a part of Germany) after Luther’s time when even the smallest parish church had its own pipe organ framed by a curved choir gallery where local craftsmen or farmers could sing during the service.  He spoke of doing a cantata concert in the town of Eisenach on Easter Day 2000.  The pastor invited Gardiner and members of his choir and orchestra to lead part of the singing.  In the middle of the Mass, they were suddenly joined in the organ choir by a group of local farmers who sang a short litany in Thuringian dialect and then left.  It’s a great story.  From any other source, I would be inclined to doubt it.

But to go back to Stendhal on Rossini, the point is that if you draw a line from Rossini’s Barber of Seville through Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Masked Ball to Puccini’s Tosca the composers and then the performers were engaged in giving the ordinary people of Italy a good night out.  They would have thought that you were at best absurd and at worst mad if you had accused them of engaging in snootiness.

Now come forward to today.  We are I think about as well served with singers for opera as we were in the past.  We are better served with theatres and production facilities than before.  But – we are not finding composers of the first rank or with immediate appeal; communal participation in making music is far less prevalent than it was before; jazz has become stagnant; and what passes for ‘popular’ music is a sterile form of bromide that is made purely for money – it might remind some of what some Anglican divines pronounced about sex outside of marriage.  They said it could be ‘trivially pleasurable and mildly therapeutic.’

There is then a risk of putrefaction in opera – especially if we cannot throw off the ‘snooty’ tag.

As ever in art, it depends on your point of view.  It is in the ear as well as the eye of the audience.  As with say, sports, you may find that performing musicians may well have a very different view about the merits of a composer or piece of music than a musically illiterate fan like me.  You may well find some who say Beethoven is to be preferred to Mozart, a proposition that would strike many opera-goers as at best risible and at worst blasphemous.  I have tried to explain my misgivings about Wagner.  There is one thing that can be said in his favour.  Angela Merkel, whom I greatly admire, is a fan.  She loves those big long shows.  I gather that Frau Merkel is not inclined to bruit this about – not because Waggers was a ratbag or a fascist, but because such taste might be regarded as snooty.  Sadly, too many Wagner fanatics lend weight to that impression.  Two things may be said of Bayreuth.  They don’t mind the snooty tag; not at all.  And I will never set foot in it.

And we English speakers live in a nether world most of the time in opera.  We get most of it in Italian, which is said to be the language best suited to this art form.  But there is a lot to be said for hearing an opera in your own language.  That’s primarily what a lot of them were written for.  About thirty years ago, I was faced with a choice in London between Billy Budd and La Bohème.  I rang Moffatt Oxenbould at the AO and I asked him for his opinion.  Since I called him cold, it was very good of him to take the call.  He gave me very good advice that I can still recall.  He said that the Bohème was imported and stale, but that there were two things in favour of Billy Budd for me.  It was so soon after its creation that they hadn’t had time yet to mongrelise it (my language) and that it would do me good to see an opera in my own language for a change.

Always spare a thought for the next most important artist after the composer.  They have to protect their voice at all times, so you may see them wearing a scarf in even mild weather.  Their fear is that their voice – their livelihood if not their life – may just fail.  They have to be careful that they don’t aim too high and overtax their voice.  Melba only tried Brunnhilde once.  She said ‘I’ve been a fool’ and it took her months to get over it.  And then there are nerves and stage fright.

Rosa Ponzillo was born in Connecticut in 1897 into a typical first generation Italian immigrant family.  She got interested in singing and she wanted to take Melba as her saint’s name.  She did vaudeville with her sister and they toured with people like George Burns, Jack Benny and the Marx brothers.  They made the phenomenal amount of $3000 a week in vaudeville.  Then Caruso spotted her.  Rosa Ponselle, as she would become, did a crash course in opera.  She was to begin with Caruso in La Forza del Destino at the MetThen she had a frightful attack of nerves.  She was physically dragged to the opera house.  In his book Prima Donna, A history, Rupert Christiansen says:

When she finally reached the wings, she looked pleadingly to Caruso for encouragement, only to find him in as bad a state as she was.  No two singers on record communicate a greater sense of spontaneous technical mastery than Ponselle and Caruso; no two singers suffered more agonies of uncertainty before a performance.  And Forza is not easy for anyone, even a Ponselle.

The New York Times said she was ‘vocal gold’ as well as beautiful.  But this was a very cruel way to blood such a young woman, and in some ways she never recovered.  Ponselle had limpid Latin eyes and she was achingly beautiful.  Just look at the photos of her as she started, not absurdly kitted out for Norma, but as the drop-dead gorgeous Latin migrant girl.  On the first night of Norma in 1927, her ‘Casta Diva’ halted the show for several minutes.  She gave up the stage in 1937 after an indifferent Carmen.  She had recently married, and she was still afflicted by nerves.  Even divas are human.

‘She had a string of romances and was known to enjoy herself uninhibitedly.’  That proposition of Rupert Christiansen may be a very discreet way of describing one way to beat nerves and to relax.

The critic J B Steane said ‘I daresay that if some (absurd) nomination were proposed for ‘Soprano of the Century’, Ponselle would vie with the title with Callas.’  After Ponselle died, Steane visited her home in Maryland in 1982.  It was being kept as a kind of shrine.

….the front door opened to the living sound of a dead voice familiar to me since childhood.  Rosa, as though in person, sang Auld Lang Syne.  For a moment, it was hard to believe she was not there.  I never heard such good reproduction in the house again, but this was as to life.  It forbade a normal exchange of greetings and introductions.  As we were about to speak, there came a phrase in the legendary pianissimo, and a moment later another in that incomparable low register, so that words again failed, and the heart fairly turned over.

That is the kind of devotion that some singers inspire, but for a time in New York nearly one hundred years ago (it was 1918), descendants of two Italian migrant families, Enrico Caruso and Maria Ponselle, were on stage together performing Verdi.  Each is considered by many to be the greatest ever of their kind, but each was a nervous wreck before the show opened.  The new world was taking on from the old world.  And if you wonder why Steane was so moved by the sound of the voice, listen to the divine Rosa Ponselle sing Ave Maria, the Verdi (Othello) version in 1924, and the Bach/Gounod version in 1926.  It is distilled beauty – to both the eye and the ear – and a joy forever.

But there is a price.  Ponselle never got over her attacks of nerves.  She retired from the stage at a very early age – but in 1947, ‘the supreme alchemist’ or ‘the dramatic soprano of the century’ ended up in an asylum for four months and spent one of them receiving electric shock therapy.  She recovered and lived happily until 1981. The scars were there – but so were the triumphs.  This is how the distinguished critic Ernest Newman of The Sunday Times described her debut season at Covent Garden in 1929.

Not only is her voice one of great beauty but she has the art of making it convey every nuance of the mind without it ever for a moment losing its pure singing quality.  It is a curious voice in some ways, with contralto timbre in its lowest register, yet a real high soprano up above.  She is not only a mistress of coloratura technique in the abstract but has the rare gift of making coloratura dramatic and psychological.  Sung as she sings it, we begin to have an inkling of what it was in the old coloratura that made it, for our ancestors, not a mere vain vocal display but the carrier of all sorts of shades of dramatic meaning.

What these performers do is to give us the drama of the performance in itself, and that is an integral part of a night out at the opera – or at the concert hall or at the theatre.  And without conceding one inch to snootiness, a night at the opera partakes of ritual in a way that our church-denying way of life cries out for.  It’s all very well for intellectuals and others to talk about the death of God, but they haven’t as yet found any replacement.  Major sporting events here carry a form of ritual, but a lot of us need a lot more – and I find it hard to think of a better place to look for it than in the opera house when the show is running.  It’s just that opera is much more a general part of peoples’ lives in, say, Italy and Germany than it is here.  My sense is that government subsidies there make it possible for great opera houses to make cheap places available for those who are not so well paid.  That might mean that they are in some ways just a bit more mature than us.  Well, the   truth is that they have been at it for longer.

The trick for you is to take opera at your own time and space.  Whether you want to go the opera house or just listen at home is a matter for you.  For most of the operas we have looked at, you can watch more than one version at home for nothing.  Most of my opera time is spent on just listening.  I could happily watch The Flying Dutchman again on the stage, but I do not think I could endure again any of the big ones of Wagner, and I absolutely reject Tristan and Parsifal, the first on medical grounds, the second on moral grounds.

The editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Opera says that when he is going to a doubtful venue, he gets a ticket on the aisle so that he can take off without offence.  That’s good advice.  At my first Ring, I went to the Flinders Ranges between Rheingold and Siegfried.  As a result, I missed the first act of the latter.  That was a good result, although some snooty people were put out.  The next time, I went back to the Flinders Ranges and I skipped the whole of Siegfried.  That was an even better result.  One of the big problems with the Ring is that Siegfried is a bloody idiot who takes too bloody long to die.  (The secretary of the Adelaide Club was thrilled to get my ticket.)  Now, I often leave at the end of the first or second act of other operas.  It is a habit that I got into living in Richmond and following the Storm.  With Bohème now, I would probably leave after Act I.

There is no call to express shock or horror.  It’s what suits you – provided that you don’t offend others.  And I have what lawyers call authority.  Here is the English conductor Sir Adrian Boult on sitting through Wagner.

I ran into Dame Ethel in the street during a Munich Festival: ‘You are the man I’m looking for; you’ve got to come and dine with me at the theatre restaurant tonight during the second act of Walkure; all the Walters are coming.’[This was a reference to the distinguished conductor, Bruno Walter.]

It happened that I had come a very long way to hear and see the second act of Walkure, among other things, but my hesitation was promptly sat on, and I joined a most hilarious and happy party.  Karl Muck was conducting, and Bruno Walter was having a night off, enjoying himself.  We felt particularly superior when the audience all rushed frantically out for beer and sandwiches in the second interval, while we had dined comfortably and could go leisurely back for the third act.

Then I learned a lesson; I thought I knew that act well, but I heard much in it that I had never heard before, and I decided then and there that to concentrate on two acts of Wagner was enough for any one evening, and I have always tried to escape one act, whatever the cost, ever since.

That is good advice from someone who is competent to provide that advice, and I have been both happy and better off for having followed it.  Remember this – Mark Twain thought that one act was enough, but I bet that they wouldn’t have had the nerve to try wagging school on at Bayreuth.

One way to start would be by getting collections on disk of some of the big hitters, past and present.  That way you get to hear songs you will never hear in the opera house, like the gorgeous ‘Amor te vieta’.  The record companies throw these at you, as they do boxed sets of operas by one composer or performed by one singer or under one conductor.  ABC FM offers an Opera Hour where you can hear from the past and what is going on now.

There are libraries of books, but one stands out way above the rest – J B Steane’s Singers of the Century, volumes 1, 2, and 3.  Steane writes beautifully and he composes his vignettes so as to reveal to us the heart of his subject.  He is to opera what The New Yorker’s Witney Bailliett was to jazz.  Each of them almost does the impossible and describes music in words.  Here is Steane on Di Stefano:

…Di Stefano was a summertime singer.  He came to us with his great talent, his youth and promise, just as civilisation was starting to breathe again after the Second World War.  In the 1950’s when Maria Callas became the sun goddess of opera, Di Stefano stood very close …if Tito Gobbi stands to one side of her in the photograph album of that summertime, on the other side is Giuseppe di Stefano…. ‘It was as though every part of him was voice….and you felt that if you heard it a little bit longer, you’d have enough energy built up inside you to last a lifetime.’  That was the effect the young Giuseppe di Stefano had upon his listeners: it is the special gift of the Italian tenor, and essentially it is the voice of youth.

That is beautiful writing.  This is how he concludes on Thomas Allen:

Yet here is the ‘true singer’, and method of some sort, there surely must be.  Whatever it is, it has worked like a charm and has made the art of singing seem an act of nature: which is probably as high a compliment as could be paid to any method yet devised.

Of Callas, he said that ‘she is instantly recognisable, and the recognition itself brings that frisson which is the tribute our instincts pay to genius’. He might have added that in this she may remind us of Louis Armstrong, but J B Steane was the ‘true writer.’  You might also enjoy his Voices, Singers and Critics.

Before we close, I may list the operas that we have looked at.  They are Orfeo, St Matthew Passion, Rinaldo, Xerxes, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Marriage of Figaro, Cossi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Italian Lady in Algiers, The Barber of Seville, Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda, L’elisir d’amore, Norma, La Somnambula, I Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, La Traviata, Rigoletto, A Masked Ball, Don Carlos, Falstaff, The Pearl Fishers, Carmen, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, La Bohème, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, Turandot, Salome, Der Rosenkavalier, Wozzek, Lulu, Jenufa, The Makropolous Case, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I think the number is forty-five.  That could keep you going for a while.

We have listened to or noted the following performing artists in song: Thomas Allen, Luigi Alva, Victoria de los Angeles, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Janet Baker, Cecilia Bartoli, Kathleen Battle, Carlos Bergonzi, Jussi Bjorling, Montserrat Caballé, Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli, Diana Damrau, Natalie Dessay, Joyce Didonato, Giuseppe di Stefano, Placido Domingo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Florez, Mirella Freni, Elina Garanca, Nicolai Gedda, Alana Gheorghiu, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Gobbi, Miriam Gormley, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, David Hobson, Marilyn Horne, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Gundula Janowitz, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jonas Kaufman, Yvonne Kenny, Christa Ludwig, Catherine Malfitano, Emma Matthews, Susan Mentzer, Robert Merrill, Ann Murray, Anna Netrebko, Jessye Norman, Anne Sophie von Otter, Luciano Pavarotti, Peter Peers, Maria Ponselle, Lucia Popp, Leontyne Price, Graham Pushee, Christine Schafer, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Anja Silja, Elizabeth Soderstrum, Frederica von Stade, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Bryn Terfel, Jon Vickers,  and Rolando Villazon.

People have their favourites, in operas and performers, as they do in footy, but I hope you have got something from these works and these performers because, these works and performers are, with others, what I live by.

There is something dodgy or futile about top tens – wines, footballers, novels, or operas – J B Steane would have called them ‘absurd’.  But if I had to name a top ten now, it could be – The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, Don Carlos, Falstaff, Die Walkure, Tosca, The Makropolous Case and Peter Grimes.  If you asked me next week, at least four of those may not be there.

To go back to the first chapter, and how we might take these works, I am equally happy with the Mozart and Verdi operas on the stage or on CD (except in winter).  I may watch one on film about once a year.  For reasons I have given, I don’t think I could endure all Die Walkure again on the stage.  I’m happy with any of my three CD versions of that opera or the Chéreau/Bayreuth DVD – but instead of skipping the second act, which is entertaining, I could skip the first half of the third act, which is banal – and which has been a little on the nose for some since Robert Duvall said ‘I just love the smell of napalm in the morning.’  Tosca really has to be seen on stage, although we are fortunate to have Callas and Gobbi on film.  With the two twentieth century operas, I can enjoy them equally in all three media.

I hope all that is catholic enough for you.  To continue pub talk about the all-time greats, you will know that I idolise Bjorling and Callas.  My other favourites include Giuseppe di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Tito Gobbi, Katia Ricciarelli, Renata Tebaldi, and Christine Schafer.  If you asked me for the most electrifying moment for me on the stage, it was Katia Ricciarelli singing ‘Ave Maria’ from Otello.  The most hair-raising moment on disk?  Rosa Ponselle doing the same part about seventy years beforehand.  My favourite staging?  Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, The Makropolous Case and Falstaff, all by the AO.  And just to confirm my standing as a dodgy SNAG, if the categories of best staging and hair-raising moments were broadened to include ballet, my two favourites by some margin would be The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris and Anna Karenin in Budapest – each round about 1990.  Both were breathtaking.

What about an opera to go with a dinner – possibly pasta – and a bottle of red – possibly on the red and white table cloth.  Try one we haven’t mentioned yet – Bellini’s I Puritani.  It’s a good and simple plot about the eternal triangle and the conflict between love and duty.  It’s an ensemble piece for three leads and the chorus.  You know from beginning to end that this is Italian opera as it was meant to be seen and heard.  The tunes just keep coming.  You may not recognise one of them, but the reception at its premiere was such and so many numbers were encored that Bellini had to shorten it for the rest of the season.  So, there you have an ideal opera to go with the ideal meal – and that takes us back to where we started.

The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, said that reason is and always ought to be the slave of the passions.  Emotions mean more to us than ideas.  In our discussion here, we have been more interested in emotions than the intellect.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus reflected on the lovers’ account of the magic of the night, and how we might try to give shape to our emotions and our imaginings.  (‘A brow of Egypt’ probably means the face of a gypsy.)

More strange than true.  I never may believe

These ancient fables, nor their fairy toys.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is the madman.  The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

And this alchemy is going on with no music yet – what might music add to the magic that enhances all our lives?

So, dear reader, brush off the checked table cloth, and perhaps send it to the cleaner for the red stains, but hold on to the red, and surrender again to the magic of musical drama.  And remember what the man said about Formula One – pump up the volume; even if the dog does raise his eyes.


A short note on Shakespeare and Mozart

One was English, the other was Austrian.  One was born in the 16th century (1564 –1616), and the other was born and died in the 18th century (1756 – 1791).  Both came from families that we would now describe as middle class, although the class system in Salzburg and Vienna may have been less mobile than that in London at the relevant times.

Unlike Shakespeare – at least as far as we know – Mozart was a child prodigy, both as a musician and as a composer, a kind of travelling freak show.  He was giving concerts at the age of five; he wrote his first symphony at the age of eight, and his first opera at the age of 12.  Many say that the mature Mozart appears in symphony 29 that he wrote when he was about 18.  If we go to Richard III or Henry IV Parts I and II as the flowering of the genius of Shakespeare in his early 30’s, then we may see that the life-span of each in his full creative power is not so different – say 20 years, or thereabouts.

It looks like Shakespeare was clearly spent as a dramatist before he died – not many now hold that view about Mozart.

Each was married and each was survived by a wife and two children.  The family line for each soon disappeared.  Infant mortality made a lottery out of all life.  Mozart and his wife lost four children, as had his parents.  That we ever got either Shakespeare or Mozart is down to the luck of the draw.

We know very little about Shakespeare and God, but we know that Mozart was a practising Catholic, who died in the faith, and a devout Freemason.  In truth we know a great deal about the life and thinking of Mozart, but next to nothing about either the life or thoughts of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was comfortably off financially and socially.  Mozart was never financially secure, and to modern eyes he was shown a lack of respect by the ancien regime of the Hapsburgs that we find deeply shocking – not least because music was a lot more respectable in Vienna than theatre was in London at the relevant times.

Mozart was brought up to travel around Europe, including London, from a very young age.  ‘Without travel, one is a miserable creature.’  We don’t know if Shakespeare ever left England, but we do know that he liked setting plays in Europe, including Vienna, and that he was about the least provincial person ever born.

Shakespeare wrote 38 plays.  Mozart wrote 22 operas, but his composition outside of opera was far, far greater than Shakespeare’s poetry outside his dramas.

You could get an argument about whether Mozart’s innovations were more revolutionary for his art than Shakespeare’s, but such an argument is sterile and irresolvable.  You may as well ask who has had the greater impact on our western sensibility.

What, then, did these two men have in common?

Each of them was a genius.

Each of them was a professional writer – both wrote to make a living, to put a roof over the heads of the family and food on their table.  Or, as an American at Oxford said, he did it for the mortgage.

Each of them derived income, and I think the bulk of their income, as a performing artist.  Each of them first came to the notice of the public that way.  The primitive state of intellectual property law meant that neither of them was fairly rewarded for their compositions – their gift to posterity.  Shakespeare was fortunate that he found a more secure way to derive income from his business in the theatre.  He also looks to have suffered less from the whims and insults of patrons than Mozart.  (Remember ‘Too many notes’?)  It looks like Shakespeare was a much better manager of money than Mozart, but for the three operas he wrote with da Ponte – three of the greatest and most popular operas ever written – Mozart received a fixed sum that even then was little more than derisory.

Each of them was at least in part an impresario – each was in the business of entertaining people, and that meant anyone who could afford to pay to attend the performance of their work.  Neither was composing just for the better people.  Neither could afford to be exclusive, or to put their work beyond most people.  Each of them spent their working lives perfecting their craft.

We give our homage to these men of genius, but they did not hesitate to get their hands dirty in putting on their shows to entertain the public.  They had an immediate financial interest in honing their craft so that their work could attract the interest and money of as many as possible.  They needed the money to provide for their families.  Neither of these men could afford to be snooty.

Each of these is called a genius because of the astonishing quality, volume, and range of their work.

Accordingly, they can seem to us to be prodigal, and to be able to invest a passing moment with a level of transcendent beauty that lesser artists would die for.  One example is the trio near the end of the first act of Don Giovanni (Protegga il giusto cielo – preferably by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland and Luigi Alva). Another is the ‘Gentleman’ in the fourth act of King Lear who reported on the reaction of Cordelia to the return of her father:

……patience and sorrow strove

Who should express her goodliest.  You have seen

Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears

Were like a better way: those happy smilets

That played on her right lip seemed not to know

What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence

As pearls from diamonds dropped.

Throwaway lines like that can send us mortals clean out of our minds.

Each of these artists was prepared to stand up for women and against the establishment, at least through their work, when going too far could have been career threatening, or worse.  While the subversive tendencies of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are well known, opera goers who only know Falstaff through Verdi only know the Neighbours version.  The real thing is at least as anti-establishment as Figaro.

The work of each has the two hallmarks of classics – the respect for the work is timeless and universal.

Neither appears to have suffered from the egoism of Wagner or the prickliness of Bach, Beethoven, or Ibsen.

Above all, the work of both continues to engross and enthral and shock us and to humble us in a way that somehow leaves us more at home with ourselves.  If art is a lyrical reflection on our humanity, it is hard to imagine any other artist having a greater claim on our trust and gratitude.  As someone said of one of them, it is like touching the face of God.

In short, these two guys were married men who plied their trade to support their families.  It’s just that they did it so marvellously that they will for ever be beyond our comprehension.  And for that relief, much thanks.


[That concludes Why opera?  Next week we will start a short history of the world.  Fittingly, it will be about one third of the length of the history of opera.  In uncertain times, we must maintain a sense of proportion.]

Here and there – Religious fanatics


When the play Richard II begins, some big-hitting magnates are at each other’s throats.  One character refers to some ‘soon-believing adversaries’ (1.1.101). The Oxford editor gives ‘easy-to-convince’ for ‘soon-believing’. Another word is ‘gullible,’ for which the Oxford English Dictionary gives ‘capable of being gulled; easily duped.’  But Shakespeare’s phrase has a cool feel to it.  It catches the ear, and there is no reference to causation.

We have recently seen a lot of soon-believing or gullible types in the UK and the US.  Many have fallen for snake-oil salesmen like Farage or Trump. But it’s not just mountebanks and cranks who prey on soon-believers.  Religious fanatics just love them.  It’s amazing how fanatics and soon-believers find each other out.

Throughout history, religious fanatics have engaged in murder and terrorism.  A horrifying instance is described by Mario Vargas Llosa in his novel The War of the End of the World.  It is based on events in Brazil near the end of the nineteenth century known as the War of Canudos.

It happened in a very poor part of semi-arid backlands of Brazil and it was driven by poor people who had been left behind.  It took place soon after Brazil became a republic, and shortly after slavery had been abolished.  A charismatic preacher called Antonio Consulheiro, who became known as the Counselor, predicted that the world would end at the turn of the century.  People soon believed him.  He developed a large following.  A lot of these people had been bandits, and they knew about killing. The faithful believed that the Republic was the work of Satan, and they said Brazil had done wrong in seeking to separate church and state.  They liked them fused in the empire.  They settled in a town called Canudos.

The government sought to weed them out, but the fanatics, who did not fear death, repelled three different moves against them by regular troops.  The town, or what was left of it, eventually fell.  The carnage and starvation and cruelty were beyond description.  About 30,000 died. Very few prisoners were taken. The Counselor had died before the fall, but they dug him up, and the photo resembles another murderous mystic, Rasputin.  The remains of Canudos resembled the remains of Mosul.

The novel deals with all this horror around seven main actors.  The three historical fanatics commence with the Counselor. He is a prayerful ascetic who prefers war and death to any kind of religious corruption.  He is, if you like, a Catholic puritan.  Then there is a Scot called Galileo Gall who is a kind of permanent revolutionary. When he tries to indoctrinate the illiterate crazies with a secular socialist vision, the results are entertaining.  Then there is Colonel Moreira César, a career soldier who is a cold blooded killer.  He saves ammunition by throat-slitting and is so named.

There are two political adversaries.  The Baron de Canabrava is old time nobility and a naturally suave politician and leader of men.  His wife Estela is a gorgeous aristocrat not built to face these horrors.  The opposition is led by Epaminondas Gonçalves, a nouveau newspaper man of plastic standards who spins the yarn that Canudos is an anti-republican plot sponsored by England.  He, too, finds plenty of soon-believers.

But the two main characters are I think fictitious.  One is a journalist who works for Gonçalves having worked for the baron.  He wears thick glasses and is referred to throughout as ‘the nearsighted journalist.’  He is intelligent and inquisitive, but nervy, and his nerves send him into spasms of sneezing.  He is locked in at Canudos under siege, and his glasses shatter.  He is therefore effectively blind. For company he has three rejects from a circus, A Bearded Lady, a Dwarf, and an Idiot.  This is high theatre. The near-sighted journalist is a kind of Greek chorus, although as the novel goes on, he gets more involved.

The principal character for me is Jurema.  She is a plain, decent human being who is much put upon and abused.  She represents suffering humanity – and, perhaps, God.  She is like Brecht’s Mother Courage.  The stories of the near-sighted journalist and Jurema form the literary or emotional heart of this novel.

And it is a real epic.  If you wanted to plot it on a literary graph, you might draw a line from Euripides to Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Faulkner to McCarthy to Marquez.  This is a seriously big book.  The Nobel Prize winning author thought it was his best.  It is not to be entered into unadvisedly.  The violence, cruelty, and starvation are awful.  Rape appears to have been a national past-time, as well as an incident if not instrument of war.

This is the baron addressing Gonçalves.

I admit that I have become obsolete.  I functioned better in the old system, when it was a question of getting people to follow established customs and practices, of negotiating, persuading, using diplomacy and politesse.  That’s all over and done with today of course.  The hour has come for action, daring, violence, even crimes.  What is needed now is a total dissociation of politics from morality.

Does that ring a bell?  When did you last hear the word ‘politesse’? Later, the baron says:

Let us keep our Republic from turning into what so many other Latin American republics have: a grotesque witches’ Sabbath where all is chaos, military uprisings, corruption, demagogy…’

Sadly, they’re still there.

Others had to compromise to meet the new order.  When César is ordered to retreat, we get this.

‘You know I had to resign myself to conspiring with corrupt petty politicians.’  Moreira César’s voice rises and falls abruptly, even absurdly. ‘Do you mean to tell me that we’ve lied to the country in vain?’ 

The book might prove that the depravity of war is capable of being described by an artist other than Goya, but the book also reminds of an essential truth.

‘It’s easier to imagine the death of one person than those of a hundred or a thousand’, the baron murmured. ‘When multiplied, suffering becomes abstract.  It is not easy to be moved by abstract things.’

‘Unless one has seen first one, then ten, a hundred, a thousand, thousands suffer,’ the nearsighted journalist answered.  ‘If the death of Gentil de Castro was absurd, many of those in Canudos died for reasons no less absurd.’

Two words that recur in this book are equally revolting – honour and martyr.  Jurema is advised to knock back a proposal from Pajeu, a once vicious soon-believer.

‘But we can’t break the news to him all at once.  We mustn’t hurt his feelings.  People like Pajeu are so sensible that it’s like a terrible malady.  Another thing that’s always amazed me about people like him is their touchy sense of honour.  It’s as though they were one great open wound.  They don’t have a thing to their names, but they possess a surpassing sense of honour.  It’s their form of wealth’.

Exactly – that’s why those who have not got one are so jealous of their citizenship, and so anxious to prevent others getting into their club. It’s their only form of wealth.  Soon-believers are very big on exclusion.  Just look at Trump and Muslims.

The great strength of this book is in its epic architecture.  But even in translation, we come across wonderful writing.  Here is the baron reflecting on his wife Estela and her maid, Sebastiana.

As he saw her settle in the armchair at Estela’s bedside, the thought ran through the baron’s mind that she was still a woman with a firm, beautiful, admirably preserved figure.  Just like Estela, he said to himself.  And in a wave of nostalgia, he remembered that in the first years of their marriage he had come to feel such intense jealousy that it kept him awake nights on seeing the camaraderie, the inviolable intimacy that existed between the two women.  He went back to the dining room, and saw through a window that the night sky was covered with clouds that hid the stars.  He remembered, smiling, that because of his feelings of jealousy, he had one day asked Estela to dismiss Sebastiana; the argument that had ensued had been the most serious one of their entire married life.  He entered the dining room with the vivid painful image, still intact, of the baroness, her cheeks on fire, defending her maidservant and repeating over and over that if Sebastiana left, she was leaving too.  This memory, which had long remained a spark setting his desire aflame, moved him to the depths now.  He felt like weeping.

The gullible are always with us – and inside us.  There’s one born every minute. We often read of people putting their life savings into a gold mine or Bitcoin.  The soon-believers here surrendered body and soul to the Counselor.  They believed him because they wanted what he was offering and they had not been brought up to know better.  The people of the blessed Jesus reviled others as Protestants, Freemasons, and dogs.  For their pains, the whole tribe gets wiped out.  Well, every faith has its failures and cancers, but on the basis of this great novel, it is not easy to see any part of South America being improved by religion of any kind at all.

This is as strong a novel as I have read.

Why opera? 8


Twentieth century

John Eliot Gardiner, the conductor and musicologist and man for all seasons, is nothing if not an enthusiast.  In his wonderful book on Bach, he speaks of the Lutheran teaching that music is something for people to make and share.  Music is communal.  Bach’s cantatas were written for people to come together to sing. It serves to remind us that for the most part, the operas that we have been looking at may not have been by the people but they are of the people and for the people.  Wagner again looks to be the exception.  One criticism of Puccini was that he was too much for the people.  Well, a lot of that communion with the people was about to change in the period that we now come to.

We don’t think fondly or kindly of the last century.  The world saw two world wars, the depression, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb.  Then it saw half a century of sustained peace followed by the humiliation of the United States and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Some optimists thought that history had reached the peak of its progress.  Any such optimism vanished early this century with a near miss on a repeat of the great depression from which we have not yet recovered, and which left capitalism only marginally more respected than socialism.  We have seen an erosion of faith in all pillars of our community, including what we call the arts.

In the first part of the twentieth century, we come to what is called modernism.  Picasso broke the mould in painting.  Diaghilev did the same in ballet.  Joyce wrote Ulysses and he would effectively dissolve in Finnegan’s Wake.  Eliot wrote The Waste Land.  It is not just that these people created what Robert Hughes called ‘the shock of the new’ – although it was a shock.  People remembered that when the impressionists arrived, some people could not see any pattern at all.  Rather, the point was that for the most part these revolutionary forms of art were only appreciated by a small minority in the community.  Had these works appealed to the community at large, there would have been no shock and no revolution.  Can you imagine a less ‘populist’ person than T S Eliot?  These works were not of or for the people – at least as the people then stood.  That’s a big change, and we can see it in opera.

Then came something less gripping.  Its label is Post-modernism.  I have always had trouble with that term and what it might embrace.  I sense that it may be as helpful as ‘deconstructing’.  Someone compared it to playing tennis with the net down, so my sense is that there is a wish to tear down all forms.  This is often a sure sign that the person doing the tearing down has no ability at all and wants to be free of the normal criteria for assessing that kind of art.  Whatever – the gap between the ‘artist’ and audience was even wider, and the audience was even smaller.  It follows that the works will not be seen to be ‘popular’ – although that is a weasel word.  It then follows that those who are seen to admire this new stuff are geeks or nerds.  That means that the cost of tickets will go up and the result then is that the people who go to these events are either geeks or toffs.  In any event, the ordinary person has little time or respect – or faith – in either the artist or the audience.

Generalisations like these are dangerous.  They represent what I call empiricism without the benefit of evidence.  Let me try to come at from the other side.  Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini were loved and admired for their art by the whole people.  Their nations were proud of them and they were happy to see their art woven into the social fabric.  By and large, that is not the case with the composers we are about to look at.  The reasons for the difference are, in my view, partly the factors I have just tried to identify, and the fact that few of the composers that we now come to got even close to any of their three great predecessors.  People have I think given up hope of ever seeing anyone constantly electrifying opera audiences in anything like those composed by Mozart, Verdi, or Puccini.  (One exception may be the comparison of Strauss and Puccini.)  That in turn leads to an underlying sense of decay and inbreeding, if not death.  Opera-goers might then feel about as safe and welcome and relevant as members of a gentlemen’s club.  And not many of them are prepared to chance their evening on an opera by Philip Glass; and even fewer companies are prepared to chance their arm on such a venture.

We might bear those admittedly large observations in mind as we consider, briefly, four composers – Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Leos Janacek, and Benjamin Britten.

Richard Strauss lived from 1864 to 1949.  As a German, Strauss did therefore live through what the Chinese call interesting times – and he came out carrying some baggage.  Should we not try to be adult about this?  Furtwangler, the great conductor was pilloried for shaking hands with Hitler.  What was he supposed to do with his Chancellor – turn his back?

Strauss was brought up and taught in a family where the father was a distinguished horn player and a fervent conservative who hated the music of Wagner.  Accordingly, the son, an only son, grew up in what we might call the classical tradition – he revered Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and it shows in his operas.  He was not like young Mozart, but he did start piano lessons at the age of four, and he began composing two years later.  He began his composing career with orchestral works, and after earlier efforts, landed with a bang with his third opera Salome that premiered in Dresden in 1905.  This set him up artistically and financially.  After Elektra, his best known work, Der Rosenkavalier, was first performed in 1911.  Works came steadily, some with the distinguished writer Stefan Zweig.  Strauss had a lull and came back to form with Capriccio in 1942.  He did act to please the regime, but he refused to give Zweig up to the Nazis, and he was later acquitted of collaboration.

In spite of his orthodox classical upbringing, Strauss has been called the last great German Romantic.  We shall look at two works, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.  Some might find it hard to believe that they were written by the same composer.  Romain Rolland was a fan, but he said that Strauss was ‘a Shakespearian barbarian: his art is torrential, producing at one and the same time gold, san, stone and rubbish: he has almost no taste at all, but a violence that borders on madness.’

Salome is a mix of the bible and sex, and that really upset the Kaiser.  Try the 1997 Covent Garden version with Catherine Malfitano and Terfel.  Der Rosenkavalier is very different, a kind of dreamy rhapsody to the haute bourgeoisie.   It has similarities with Figaro, but, interestingly for our purposes, Strauss thought that some sections of the libretto were ‘too delicate for the mob.’  Well, the people loved it, and Strauss was rich.  You get humour, the waltz, and glorious tunes for sopranos.  ‘The Presentation of the Rose’ is legendary.  Gough Whitlam loved the work and Debussy said that there is ‘sunshine in the music of Strauss…it is not possible to withstand his irresistible domination.’  Others think that it is like Arabella – kitsch or schmalz.  The EMI recording with Schwarzkopf and Karajan is famous, and you can see the whole opera with that pairing at the Salzburg Festival.  If you want to sample the Presentation of the Rose, there is a wide selection – including Lucia Popp, Diana Damrau and Anne Sophie von Otter.  If you are a blokey sort of bloke, this may not be your bag.

Alban Berg (1885 to 1935) came from a wealthy Viennese family.  He was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and his general output was not huge.  He wrote two operas.  They have both been well served by the AO, but neither is for the beginner.  Wozzek is about brutality in the army and it involves a brutal murder.  Both the music and the plot could very soon frighten off the beginner.  You can listen to the whole opera with Karl Bohm and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  It is not a work for excerpts.  Lulu may be less depressing, but it’s marginal.  Lulu is sexually active and burns men off until she gets topped by Jack the Ripper.  Christine Schafer is provocatively sexy in the lead – she starts by taking a bite out of the apple and she looks like Eve giving Adam the come-on – in a wonderful Glyndebourne production that I have and which you can see and hear.  The music may be jagged to the ear of the novice, but this is very high theatre about desire and pleasure – sex.  Some of the characters may have stepped out of Dickens, but the power of Schafer’s femme fatale is hot.  (And just think – she also plays Gilda in Rigoletto.)  A lot Lulu evokes the cabarets of Berlin between the wars.  The AO version in 2003 with Simone Young and Emma Matthews was a winner.

Leos Janacek (1854 to 1928) is a very different proposition.  Although he was born in the year after La Traviata was finished, his substantive opera work is all twentieth century.  He was born into a poor teacher’s family in what was called Moravia, and he lived there most of his life.  He dropped out of studies in Leipzig and Vienna.  Most of his work premiered in Brno.  The Czechs in Prague were cool about it although Janacek was very supportive of the Czech Republic after its foundation in 1918.  He said that he wanted ‘to compose a melodic curve which will, as if by magic, reveal immediately a human being in one definite phase of his existence.’  That is a very interesting statement from the composer of operas.  So were two traits he had.  He was fascinated by what we call folk music, and by what he might learn about our humanity by carefully observing patterns of speech.  He went as far as to note down speech in musical notation.  He talked about ‘speech melodies.’  Here then was ripe ground for opera. His work came with a rush toward the end of his life.  His operas are less difficult to access than those of Berg, and for many people, they may be easier than a lot of Britten.  We will look at two, both performed by the AO.

Jenufa is one of those sad eastern European tales that may be a bit too unsubtle to resemble Chekhov.  It involves a thwarted love affair and the murder of a child – which might send us off in the direction of Ibsen.  But the music is easily gettable, and you can trace folk melody in it.  I have a recollection of Moffatt Oxenbould saying that this is one of the operas that the AO then really enjoyed putting on.  You can watch the whole of the 1989 Glyndebourne production with Roberta Alexander and Anja Silja, who is very good with this composer.  You may want to watch the conductor David Robertson discuss this opera at the Met.  He touches on some of the points made above.  There is also a 2014 Deutsche Oper version from Berlin.  The conductor Charles Mackerras was much involved in bringing this composer to the fore, and his recordings with Elizabeth Soderstrum are to be preferred.

The Makropolous Case is a Monty for lawyers.  It’s about litigation arising from the fact that the heroine has lived for hundreds of years in different guises and has now had enough.  The music is intensely dramatic, but it’s well worth persevering.  It’s like an orchestral recitative- you have staggered dialogue over staggered music, and restated motifs.  This really is music as drama in itself, and Act III, especially the soaring finale, is amongst my favourite pieces of music.  It’s curious that this acceptance of the end of life can seem to leave us at what Churchill called those ‘broad sunlit uplands.’  There is a film version with a Czech cast I’m not familiar with but it was recorded in the theatre in Brno – so you might get the real thing.  You can also hear a remarkably urbane Charles Mackerras interviewed about this opera, Jenufa, and other issues relating to Janacek.  On some days this opera features in my top ten.

Benjamin Britten (1913 to 1976) was a different kind of a cove again.  His mother was a keen amateur singer and musician, and Britten was composing at five.  He was introduced to the work of contemporary composers like Berg.  He worked at the Post Office and in conjunction with Auden who was important in his life.  Auden and Britten and his partner Peter Peers left for America.  Britten returned in 1942.  He was a conscientious objector.  After two lesser works, he wrote Peter Grimes which was first performed in June 1945.  Britten retained a great affection for the sea and his native East Anglia.  Peter Grimes made Britten’s name for him, and it began a change in attitude to home grown opera, and not just in England.  Billy Budd was first performed in 1951, and Midsummer Night’s Dream premiered in 1960.

There are other operas, but some with too much edge to be chanced by many opera houses.  Britten could be prickly dealing with people.  He loathed Puccini and he was sickened by Tosca, although he was determined to be melodic.  Peter Grimes remains his most celebrated opera, and its sea interludes are very popular on the concert platform.  Leonard Bernstein conducted them with Beethoven’s 7th on his last night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Peter Grimes is set on the coast.  A fisherman has lost a young boy.  The town people reject him as an outsider when another boy seem looks to have been mistreated.  The opera is surprisingly easy on the ear for such a macabre theme.  When I went to a talk about this opera at the AO by Moffatt Oxenbould more than twenty years ago, there was an older lady in a ruby red hat who had it in her mind that the show was about ‘pederasty,’ and nothing was going to change her mind on that score.  Both Britten and Peers identified with the outsider, and anyone who has lived in a small country town will know how nasty things can get if you are adjudged to be off side.  You can listen to a version recorded in 1945 or watch a BBC studio version in 1969.

Billy Budd is a beautiful novella by Herman Melville.  It is everything that Moby Dick is not and far more satisfying for the general reader.  During the Napoleonic War, a handsome young sailor, Billy Budd, was impressed into service on a British warship.  Billy is as innocent as he is handsome, and he is fortunate that his new captain is Captain ‘Starry’ Vere.  Vere is a civilised product of the Enlightenment with a refined sense of justice.  But Billy comes under the notice of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart.  Claggart is in effect the Chief of Police on the ship.  He is morally bereft.  He may well be gay.  He cannot stand being in the presence of beauty and goodness like that of Billy ‘Baby’ Budd.  Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny before Captain Vere.  Billy is horrified and incredulous.  When stressed, Billy’s voice falters.  When he is pressed for an answer, he strikes out at Claggart, and strikes him dead.

During a time of war, therefore, Captain Vere has witnessed a sailor strike and kill an officer.  He summons a drumhead court martial.  Billy is plainly guilty of the legal offence charged, but the officers are reluctant to give a verdict that will see Billy hanged.  They agonise over Billy, but Captain Vere persuades them to do their legal duty.  Billy is hanged.  The threat of mutiny passes.  Captain Vere carries the responsibility for the death of Billy to his grave.  A morally innocent man has been killed to preserve the integrity of the law of arms.

That is a beautiful plot for an opera, and Britten and E M Forster did a wonderful job on it.  (There is a great film with Terence Stamp, Robert Ryan and Peter Ustinov.)  The drama is elemental – pure evil against pure innocence: which way does the law go?  If an angel must die for responding to evil, is this another redemption story?  In my view it is, and to my taste, it is a far more successful redemption story on every level than Parsifal.

Well, the music brings this out with an all-male cast – homosexuality is touched on by Melville in the text – and we already know that Britten can conjure up the sea musically like no one else.  You can see the full opera starring Peter Peers in a television film made in 1966, or you can see it performed at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2001.  You can also see and hear Billy’s final aria ‘Billy in the Darbies’ (Billy cuffed, the night before execution and taken from Melville) sung in concert or in rehearsal.  It is for me one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all opera.

That leaves Midsummer Night’s Dream based on the play of Shakespeare.  When I saw this in rehearsal with one daughter about thirty years ago, I thought that the music might be above our pay level, but the two of us nearly died laughing at the rustics at play.  This was ruthlessly hilarious slapstick.  The production was both gutsy and gorgeous.  The play was set in the Raj, and the little orchestra was put on stage in a rotunda.  You can see a clip of this quite wonderful AO production or watch the whole show.  There is a full recorded version, and various clips from others, but as far as I could see, no full vision of the whole show.  Enjoy, then, the clip from the AO version.  It is fully worthy not just of the composer, but the original playwright.

There then is what I think is a representative sample of what I see as the best of twentieth century opera.  I am very fond of a lot of it now, but it has taken me some time and effort.  I incline to the view that opera as an art form is not as dead in composition as some people fear.

Passing Bull 114 – Bull about a Christian nation


From time to time, you hear chatter about whether Australia may be called a Christian nation.

There is a problem with the question.  Religion involves faith.  Can an impersonal thing have faith? The word ‘nation’ is a form of abstraction, or a label, for a ‘distinct race or people, characterised by common descent, language or history, usually organised as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory’.  It may make sense to speak of a small body of people having feelings, but a body of 25 million?  How does a nation profess its faith?  Would it make any sense to ask whether BHP or the Melbourne City Council was a Christian corporation?

As I see it, the answer to those questions is no.  The inquiry presumably then becomes whether the number of people somehow or other professing their faith in Christianity entails that the nation might fairly be described as Christian – even if those who are not of that faith may be a little put out by the suggestion.

I suppose that nations like Iraq and Indonesia are loosely characterised as Muslim nations because a very large majority of their peoples actively practise the religion of Islam and their governments seek to apply its teaching.  Indeed, one of the things that makes people here fear Islam is a perceived threat that Muslims will seek to introduce Sharia Law among peoples not considered to be Muslim.

Well, then, let’s put to one side the question of how many Australians actually practise the religion of Christianity, do Australian governments seek to apply the teaching of Christianity?

A key statement of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is in the Sermon on the Mount.  Here are some parts of it as found in the fifth chapter of the gospel of St Matthew in the Bible.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy…..

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you that you resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn him the other also.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you…..

It would be absurd to suggest that any government in our history has ever sought to give effect to that teaching in government.  It would be seriously offensive, even to a lapsed member of the faith like me, to claim that the Commonwealth government, in any current manifestation, is adhering to the Sermon on the Mount in its dealings with refugees.

The reason is simple enough.  There is an unstated premise in government across the West – the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to governments.  Governing is hard enough as it is without worrying about high moral teaching about turning the other cheek.  I have never learned where this dispensation comes from, but you won’t find it in the bits in red.

It’s a fair bet that Donald Trump, who defames all Christians by claiming to adhere to their religion, would not know the difference between a beatitude and a Siamese kitten.  God only knows how he might react if Mr Bannon whispered in his ear that in the course of their Leninist destruction of Washington DC, the meek would inherit the earth.  There could be a Twitter meltdown.  And imagine what might be the reaction if you told a Queensland rozzer – say Peter Dutton – to turn the other cheek!

The Marquess of Salisbury (Robert Cecil) was the definitive Tory.  Andrew Roberts said he believed ‘in the politics of prestige and vengeance’ – a comprehensive repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount.

No one dreams of conducting national affairs with the principles which are prescribed to individuals.  The meek and poor spirited among nations are not to be blessed, and the common sense of Christendom has always prescribed for national policy principles diametrically opposed to those that are laid down in the Sermon on the Mount.

Elsewhere he said: ‘Christianity forced its way up from being the religion of slaves and outcasts, to become the religion of the powerful and the rich; but somehow it seems to have lost the power to force its way down again.’ We don’t speak so plainly about the first proposition now, but it is an inarticulate premise of our view of government

On those grounds, I suspect that people who claim Australia as a Christian nation are talking bullshit.  And, after all, why bother?  What’s the point?  Will anyone feel or act any better in the unlikely event that they see some merit in the proposition?  Who wants to make some Australians feel left out of it?

Who else might qualify?  All of both Americas, Western Europe, and the UK.  There would have to be exceptions.  The Germans know better than to label an entire nation.  The French have firmly locked religion out of politics since 1789.  And in my view the US are disqualified on three counts – their gun laws, their health care laws, and the election and adulation of an absurd graven image.  You would also have a problem with Ireland for the reason I am coming to.

May I now make a technical point?  The word ‘Christian’ has only come into vogue here in the last generation or so.  Prior to that, people identified their denomination, or their lack of it.  And for least some purposes, you still have to do so.   If you called yourself a Christian in Ireland, you would at best get a funny look.  It’s not good enough for our head of state to claim to be a Christian.  Because of the provisions of a foreign constitution, over which we have no control, our sovereign must be in communion with the Church of England.  Because of this relic of the Reformation, it’s not just Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or good God-fearing doubters like me who need not apply – Catholics are banned too, and all those the English called Dissenters.  How, as a matter of either form or substance, you square that barrier with our being a Christian nation is a matter that may have diverted the Medieval Schoolmen.

But to finish on a point of substance, haven’t we done enough to besmirch the teaching of the man Einstein called ‘the luminous Nazarene’ without applying his name to a crude political label?  The people who want to make this argument tend to have a reactionary caste of thought, and invoking the name of the Lord to make some political point, with an exclusionary tendency, looks to me go infringe the spirit if not the text of another biblical injunction.  Indeed, the whole discussion leaves a bad taste in the mouth – and partly for reasons that might fairly be called religious – even in an old apostate like me.

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

O Captain!my Captain!

(In memory of Robyn Williams)

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills;

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head;

It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Here and there – Macaulay on Glencoe, zealots, and superior orders


The Clan McDonald (or Macdonald) of Glencoe was a band of robbers.  Most Highlanders were.  The Campbells of Argyle hated them and they had ruthlessly preyed on a man named Breadalbane.  The British Crown offered money to all Highlanders to take an oath of allegiance by 31 December 1691.  Anyone who did not do so in time would be treated a traitor and outside the law.  Breadalbane was in charge of handling the money. The Highland chiefs dragged their feet but they came in.  The McDonald chief left it to the last day – but no one there could take his oath.  He finally got sworn six days later.  That the McDonald chief was outside the law was good news for the Campbells, Breadalbane and for the Scots Prime Minister, Sir John Dalrymple, known as the Master of Stair.  Dalrymple had hoped to strike at a number of clans. In a letter written in this expectation, he said ‘I hope the soldiers will not trouble the government with prisoners.’  Then he found out that McDonald had sworn his oath after the cut-off.  He resolved to strike at that clan.  Without saying that McDonald had taken the oath late, Dalrymple put an order before King William that said:

As for Mac Ian of Glencoe [the McDonald chief] and that tribe, if they can be well distinguished from the other Highlanders, it will be proper for the vindication of public justice to extirpate that set of thieves.

You can get an argument about what ‘extirpate’ might mean there – clean the glen out of these bandits by rooting them out (as the Scots  king swore to ‘root out’ heresies), or wipe  them out in the sense of killing all, including women and children?  A soldier killing a bandit might seek to rely on that order as a defence – but killing a woman or child?

The design of the Master of Stair was ‘to butcher the whole race of thieves, the whole damnable race.’  But the troops would not just march in and execute the condemned outlaws.  Dalrymple was afraid that most of them would escape. ‘Better not meddle with them than meddle to no purpose.  When the thing is resolved, let it be secret and sudden.’ Macbeth himself might have said that.  The troops accepted the hospitality of the clan at Glencoe for twelve days.  Then at five o’clock in the morning, the troops started to kill men, women and children.  But they used firearms, and three quarters of the clan escaped the fate of their chief.

Macaulay could understand the hatred of Argyle and Breadalbane for the McDonalds, but Dalrymple – ‘one of the first men of his time, a jurist, a statesman, a fine scholar, an eloquent orator’?

To what cause are we to ascribe so strange an antipathy?….The most probable conjecture is that he was actuated by an inordinate, an unscrupulous, a remorseless zeal for what seemed to him to be the interest of the State.  This explanation may startle those who have not considered how large a proportion of the blackest crimes recorded in history is to be ascribed to ill regulated public spirit.  We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or avenge themselves.  A temptation addressed to our private cupidity or to our private animosity, whatever virtue we have takes the alarm.  But virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is in his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church on a commonwealth, on mankind.  He silences the remonstrances of conscience, and hardens his heart against the most touching spectacles of misery, by repeating to himself that his intentions are pure, that his objects are noble, that he is doing a little evil for the sake of a great good.  By degrees he comes altogether to forget the turpitude of the means in the excellence of the end, and at length perpetrates without one internal twinge acts which would shock a buccaneer. There is no reason to believe that Dominic would, for the best archbishopric in Christendom, have incited ferocious marauders to plunder and slaughter a peaceful and industrious population, that Everard Digby would, for a dukedom, have blown a large assembly of people into the air, or that Robespierre would have murdered for hire one of the thousands whom he murdered from philanthropy.

This analysis is vital.  There we have a description of our greatest enemy – the zealot who has God or the people on his side; the quintessential Catholic terrorist, Guy Fawkes; Robespierre and the people of la patrie; Osama bin Laden and the religion of Islam – all responsible for some of ‘the blackest crimes recorded in history’, and all convinced of the blackest falsity mankind has been guilty of – that the ends justify the means.   

Dostoevsky put it this way.

One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.

So the great Russian writer, in The Brothers Karamazov, foretold the misery that would flow over all of the Russias from the righteousness of Marx, Lenin and Stalin.

In the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky explained how we are corrupted by power.

Whoever has experienced the power, the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being….automatically loses power over his own sensations.  Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease.  The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man to the level of a beast.  Blood and power intoxicate…The man and the citizen die with the tyrant forever; the return to human dignity, to repentance, to regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Those words are deathless because they are so true, but they have frightening ramifications for Donald Trump.

Shortly before citing those words, Paul Johnson referred to some equally relevant remarks of Joseph Conrad in Under Western Eyes in 1911:

In a real revolution, the best characters do not come to the front.  A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.  Afterwards come the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time.  Such are the chiefs and the leaders.  You will notice that I have left out the mere rogues.  The scrupulous and the just, the noble humane and devoted natures, the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a revolution, but it passes away from them…..Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured – that is the definition of revolutionary success.

All that is so true of the French and Russian revolutions.  A Marxist historian applied this kind of learning to the Communist Party under Stalin: ‘The whole party became an organization of torturers and oppressors.  No one was innocent and all Communists were accomplices in the coercion of society.  Thus the party acquired a new species of moral unity, and embarked on a course from which there was no turning back.’  George Orwell saw all this.

The violence, the randomness, and the cruelty all come to be taken as part of life, and people become what we now call ‘desensitised’.  Commenting on the butchery that followed the fall of the Bastille, the French historian Taine reflected mordantly that some mockery is found in every triumph, and ‘beneath the butcher, the buffoon becomes apparent.’  The result is that the people become less civilised.  They are degraded.  You can get an argument over whether terror or ‘the Terror’ commenced on 14 July 1789, but there is no denying that bloody violence and lawless butchery erupted on that day and continued off and on until at least the time when Napoleon put a former break on hostilities with a whiff of grapeshot.  The nation itself was destabilised for the best part of a century.

To go back to Glencoe, who was to be answerable?  It was all hushed up for a while, but word got out, and there had to be a public inquiry.  It was full and fair, and its findings went to the Scots parliament, the Estates.  The commissioners of inquiry concluded that the slaughter at Glencoe was murder, and that the cause of that crime lay in the letters of Dalrymple, the Master of Stair.  They resolved with no dissenting voice that the order signed by King William did not authorise the slaughter at Glencoe. But the Estates let Dalrymple off with a censure, while they designated the officers in charge as murderers.

Macaulay says they were wrong on both counts.

Whoever can bring himself to look at the conduct of these men with judicial impartiality will probably be of opinion that they could not, without great detriment to the commonwealth, have been treated as assassins.  They had slain no one whom they had not been positively directed by their commanding officer to slay.  That subordination without which an army would be the worst of all rabbles would be at an end, if every soldier were to be held answerable for the justice of every order in obedience to which he pulls his trigger. The Case of Glencoe was doubtless an extreme case: but it cannot easily be distinguished in principle from cases which, in war, are of ordinary occurrence.  Very terrible military executions are sometimes indispensable.  Humanity itself may require them…..It is remarkable that no member of the Scottish Parliament proposed that any of the private men of Argyle’s regiment should be prosecuted for murder.  Absolute impunity was granted to everybody below the rank of serjeant.  Yet on what principle?  Surely, if military obedience was not a valid plea, every man who shot a McDonald on that horrible night was a murderer?

Should officers have resigned rather than carry out their orders?

In this case, disobedience was assuredly a moral duty: but it does not follow that obedience was a legal crime.

That sounds to me like common sense. What about the Scots Prime Minister, the Master of Stair?

Every argument which can be urged against punishing the soldier who executes the unjust and inhuman orders of his superior is an argument for punishing with the utmost rigour of the law the superior with whom the unjust and inhuman orders originate.  Where there can be no responsibility below, there should be double responsibility above. What the parliament of Scotland ought with one voice to have demanded was, not that a poor illiterate serjeant…should be hanged in the Grassmarket, but that the real murderer, the most politic, the most eloquent, the most powerful of Scottish statesmen, should be brought to a public trial and should, if found guilty, die the death of a felon….Unhappily the Estates, by extenuating the guilt of the chief offender, and, at the same time demanding that his humble agents should be treated with a severity beyond the law, made the stain which the massacre had left on the honour of the nation broader and deeper than before.

That analysis seems fair – even if it is distorted by the author’s need to be gentle with King William, one of his heroes, and the failure to mention in this context the hatred of the Campbells for their targets, the McDonalds.  You wonder how many of these killers were reluctant, and how many were actuated by what lawyers call ‘malice’. And it must take some acquired coldness to kill in cold blood members of a family you have lived, eaten, and slept with for so long, and some of whom were morally and legally incapable of committing any crime.

But people who say that the soldiers should have rebelled rather than comply with orders are postulating a very high moral standard, one that calls for immense courage, which may not be appreciated by the dependants of the soldier so called upon.

Very few people have the still strength or firm insight of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany after Hitler became the Chancellor.

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and stopped us being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.  Are we still of any use?  What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.  Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

It took a hero even to ask the question.  Moral giants like Lincoln, Bonhoeffer and Mandela come along once or twice a century.  The rest of us just hope that we don’t get called on to seek to emulate them.  If we do, and if we fail, as is most likely, then the judgment will belong not to us or the law, but to God.

This sordid affair was all Scottish.  The avengers took the view that the ends justified the means.  In doing so, they sank below the level of those whom they attacked.  It’s a lesson on how not now to respond to terrorism.  Lawyers have a saying that hard cases make bad law.  If you stretch or bend the law for a tricky or hard case, you make the law worse.  You debauch it.  That, too, is a lesson of the massacre at Glencoe.