Culture Club: Theme for May – July 2010

by ttucker23 on May 5, 2010

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, Penguin book cover

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Well, it’s been a long time since I updated the Culture Club blog. There’s been a big gap between meetings, but the Culture Club is still going, have no fear.

This time we’ve decided on a Mexican theme for the works we’re looking at. Why? No reason, it just seemed to fall into place when we were bouncing around a few ideas.

Here’s the list of works we’ll be reading, listening to and discussing in the next couple of months:

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Image of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare cut-out from Toy-A-Day (click picture for link).

My English teacher at school once told me: ‘Shakespeare is a greater poet than he is a dramatist.’

This isn’t meant to mean that Shakespeare wrote better poems than plays, which is clearly not the case. Rather it means that the poetry in his plays is what drives the drama, and it is in his poetic gifts that his claim to being our greatest writer lies.

This is what I think the great author Vladimir Nabokov meant when he said:

The verbal poetic texture of Shakespeare is the strongest the world has known, and is immensely superior to the structure of his plays as plays. With Shakespeare it is the metaphor that is the thing, not the play.
Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 1973, quoted in After Shakespeare: An Anthology

And also what Boris Pasternak was getting at in the following excerpt from Observations on Translating Shakespeare (1939-1946, translated by Ann Pasternak Slater), quoted in After Shakespeare: An Anthology:

Rhythm is fundamental to Shakespeare’s poetry. Half his thoughts, and the words that verbalised them, were prompted by metre. Rhythm is the basis of Shakespeare’s texts, not a framing last touch. Some of Shakespeare’s stylistic vagaries can be explained in terms of rhythmic bursts, while rhythmic flow governs the order of questions and answers in his dialogues, their speed of exchange, and the length and brevity of periods in his soliloquies.

For more on the essential rhythmic nature of Shakespeare’s drama, see my post on the Musical Structure of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Is this emphasis on the poetic over the dramatic in Shakespeare because we feel, like Martin Amis, that drama is an inferior form of literature?

I will now take the chance to repeat my contention that the drama is handily inferior to the novel and the poem. Dramatists who have lasted more than a century include Shakespeare and – who else? One is soon reaching for a sepulchral Norwegian. Compare that to English poetry and its great waves of immortality. I agree that it is very funny that Shakespeare was a playwright. I scream with laughter about it all the time. This is one of God’s best jokes.
Martin Amis, Experience, footnote on page 91

Despite all this, I may be having a change of heart after all these years. Because on reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets for this month’s Culture Club, I’ve been struck by how dramatic they are. For me, part of the greatness of these poems lies in their narrative drive, in the substance of the principle characters and their motivations.

So now I’m confused. Is Shakespeare a greater poet or a greater dramatist? Or is he, as seems the obvious answer, both?

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Cover of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Helen Vendler.

The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Helen Vendler.

I’m just reading Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Amazon affiliate link). I think she is my favourite interpreter of poetry, and this might be her greatest work. Every page is revelatory.

One of her major themes is that a consideration of ‘form’ in lyric poetry is vital for a full understanding of the poet’s expression: ‘A set of remarks on a poem which would be equally true of a prose paraphrase of that poem is not, by my standards, interpretation at all.’ (Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Introduction, note 5, page 40).

Vendler demonstrates that lyric poetry of the type represented by these sonnets has very little of interest to impart if we concentrate purely on the propositional ‘meaning’ on the surface:

‘I have insomnia because I am far away from you’ is the gist of one sonnet; ‘Even though Nature wishes to prolong your life, Time will eventually demand that she render you to death,’ is the ‘meaning’ of another. These are not taxing or original ideas, any more than other lyric ‘meanings’ (‘My love is like a rose’, ‘London in the quiet of dawn is as beautiful as any rural scene,’ etc.). Very few lyrics offer the sort of philosophical depth that stimulates meaning-seekers in long, complex, and self-contradicting texts like Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels.

Vendler goes on to discuss how the poem’s ‘linguistic strategies’ need to be taken into account to yield a comprehensive interpretation of lyric poetry.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet form

The 14-line sonnet form as worked out by Shakespeare in his collection of sonnets consists of four parts: three four-line ‘quatrains’ and one ending ‘couplet’. As Vendler illustrates, Shakespeare (in a totally new way) manipulates the relations between these four parts, putting them in a wide range of logical relationships with each other.

Sometimes the parts are successive and equal, sometimes they contrast with each other, sometimes they’re analogous, at other times logically contradictory. The four ‘pieces’ of any given sonnet may also be distinguished from one another by changes of agency (‘I do this; you do that’), of rhetorical address (‘O muse'; ‘O beloved’), of grammatical form (a set of nouns in one quatrain, a set of adjectives in another), or of discursive texture (as the descriptive changes to the philosophical), or of speech act (as denunciation changes to exhortation). Each of these has its own poetic import and effect.

What Vendler demonstrates is that these formal features represent an ‘inner emotional dynamic’, as the fictive speaker of the Sonnets ‘sees more’, ‘changes his mind’, ‘passes from description to analysis’ and so on. In other words, these formal devices are ‘designed to match what he is recording – the permutations of emotional response’.

I found these perceptions invaluable in appreciating the extraordinary range of expression in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. There seems to be an inexhaustible energy of creativity behind them, and once you take into account the ways that the formal and propositional elements interact to create wider perspectives of meaning, the true nature of Shakespeare’s genius emerges.

I wonder if this also accounts for the experience I had while reading through the complete sonnets in sequence – which I can only describe by saying that I fell in love with them. Reading Vendler’s analysis this makes total sense. Shakespeare’s Sonnets enact the emotional/logical confusion, perplexing variety and breadth of vision that accompanies love itself.

As Vendler asserts, ‘no poet has ever found more linguistic forms by which to replicate human responses than Shakespeare in the Sonnets’.

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Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Essays, Resources and Links

by ttucker23 on January 14, 2010

Cover of the Penguin edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

The following links offer useful and free online resources for the study and analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Full text

Essays and Analysis

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Culture Club: Theme for January – February 2010

by ttucker23 on January 7, 2010

William Shakespeare, Chandos Portrait.

William Shakespeare, the so-called Chandos Portrait, National Portrait Gallery, London.

January – February 2010

Happy new year to all Culture Club readers!

This month we’re looking at some of the greatest poetry in the English language, and some other works that relate to it. Here’s the list:

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Analysis: Here, There and Everywhere by The Beatles

by ttucker23 on December 9, 2009

beatles-here

The Beatles' Here, There and Everywhere. This cover was used when the song was released as a single in Portugal.

Here, There and Everywhere is one of the best songs on The Beatles’ Revolver and its brightest affirmation. Paul McCartney is the song’s sole writer (despite the Lennon/McCartney credit), and it is suffused with his inveterate sentimentality. But it is sentimental in the best possible way, balancing finely ordered poetic thought with an intoxication that suggests the writer is ‘drunk with love’ (as Jonathan Gould puts it in Can’t Buy Me Love).

Even John Lennon, The Beatles’ most cynical band member and the first to pull up McCartney on his sentimental tendencies, called Here, There and Everywhere ‘One of my favourite songs of the Beatles’ (Playboy interviews, 1980).

In purely compositional terms, the song stands as a beautiful example of music and lyric working together to reinforce meaning. McCartney sets the song in three closely related keys, analogous to the ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ of the song’s title: G major (the first half of the verse), E minor (the second half of the verse) and G minor (the bridge).

Harmonic shifts like these are unusually sophisticated for popular music, but if this were not ingenious enough, the modulations are made to work at precisely the right moments. Ned Rorem describes the first modulation in The Music of the Beatles, New York Review of Books, 1968 (quoted in The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles by Dominic Pedler, pg 80):

‘Here, There and Everywhere’ would seem at mid-hearing to be no more than a charming slow ballad but once concluded it has grown immediately memorable. Why? Because of the minute harmonic shift on the words ‘wave of her hand’, as surprising and yet as satisfyingly right as that in a Monteverdi madrigal…

That harmonic shift is the sudden appearance of an F# minor chord after four bars that are solidly in G major. This is followed by a move to B7, which takes us to E minor, the relative minor of G major.

That a surprise modulation occurs on the line ‘changing my life with a wave of her hand’ makes that change all the more real to the listener. It provides a vividness to the detail that is reminiscent of a similar line from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: ‘But look—he flicks his hand to the back of his neck. For such gestures one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime.’

Likewise, the most significant moment in the song is handled with consummate skill – the opening out into ‘everywhere’ that makes this song a statement of all-embracing love. Look at how the song builds to this moment so beautifully. ‘Here’ is introduced on the dominant (D7) in the intro (‘To lead a better life, I need my love to be here‘) and is then immediately appropriated by the tonic G major at the start of the verse (‘Here, making each day of the year’). It’s as if the singer has pulled his lover closer to him and the song immediately becomes more intimate.

‘There’ has been through the same journey, first showing up on the dominant (D7) at the end of the verse (‘nobody can deny that there’s something there‘), and is likewise immediately appropriated into the tonic (G major) for the start of the second verse (‘There, running my hands through her hair’).

For the ‘everywhere’ section, the song shifts even more abruptly, leaping from D7 to F7 (‘I want her…’), a completely alien chord to the predominant G major tonality. It then moves to a remote Bb major (‘…everywhere’) before settling on G minor (‘…and if she’s beside me I know I need never care…’). How much more satisfying then is the final appropriation of ‘everywhere’ in its turn, back in the main key of the song, G major – ‘But to love her is to need her everywhere…

The last verse brings together all three states (‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘everywhere’) for the first time in the tonic G major. It is one of the most sublime endings in all popular music – ‘I need her here, there and everywhere’ – as the melody reaches a high ‘g’ on ‘…where’ and the final plagal cadence sounds a distinct ‘Amen’.

Here, There and Everywhere can be heard on Revolver by The Beatles (Amazon affiliate link).

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Analysis: Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles

by ttucker23 on December 3, 2009

Eleanor Rigby statue, Liverpool, by Tommy Steele, 1982.

Eleanor Rigby statue, Liverpool, by Tommy Steele, 1982.

Eleanor Rigby is perhaps the Beatles’ most shocking song. Not simply because of the sound of it, which was an abrupt departure for its time, but because of its theme. It is hard to think of a more desolate statement in any work of art, let alone popular music.

This song marked a sudden break with the optimism that was a hallmark of The Beatles’ earlier work, and in its place presented an almost unbearably dark cynicism. Two lonely people, living in a church community, cannot find a way to connect and end up living their entire lives alone and apart. Their destiny is not that they will end up together, but that one buries the other, a grim irony that would be humorous if it weren’t tragic (the poet Ezra Pound is said to have ‘smiled lightly’ when he first heard the song).

But the song suggests even greater despair. We learn that Eleanor dies in church, which ought to be a comfort, and ‘was buried along with her name.’ Even Hodge, in Thomas Hardy’s war poem Drummer Hodge, leaves his name behind. In Eleanor Rigby’s death we see the death of hope itself. As Ian MacDonald says in Revolution in the Head:

MacKenzie’s sermon won’t be heard – not that he cares very much about his parishioners – because religious faith has perished along with communal spirit (‘No one was saved’).

The novelist AS Byatt remarked that it has ‘the minimalist perfection of a Beckett story’, pointing out that had Eleanor Rigby’s face been kept in a jar by the mirror, it would suggest the less disturbing idea of make-up, but behind the door, inside her house, it suggests she ‘is faceless, is nothing’ (from a talk on BBC Radio 3, 1993, quoted by Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head).

The song avoids sentimentality by keeping a distance from its subject throughout. The action is presented like a film script –  ‘Look at him working…’ – and uses various tenses to imply shifts in perspective: Eleanor Rigby ‘died in the church’ (past tense) while in the same scene Father MacKenzie is ‘wiping the dirt from his hands’ (present tense).

Positioned as the second song on Revolver, Eleanor Rigby casts a shadow over the whole album. We already have a hint of death in the opening track Taxman (‘my advice for those who die…’), but here we have an all-encompassing despair. As Jonathan Gould says in his book Can’t Buy Me Love:

The questions the song poses aren’t rhetorical; they’re unanswerable. They’re the sort of questions people ask when they don’t know what else to say, and by raising them as he does, Paul calls attention to the inadequacy of his own response.

Nevertheless, we can see the rest of the Revolver album as an attempt to present an answer to the issues raised in the song Eleanor Rigby. Whether it’s a turning away from old age and a return to childhood, in Yellow Submarine and the ‘When I was a boy, everything was right,’ section of She Said She Said; or the escape into the unconscious of ‘I’m Only Sleeping'; or the drugs pedalled by ‘Doctor Robert'; or the urgent embrace of sexual love in Love You To (‘Love me while you can, before I’m a dead old man’); or the attempt to reach a more spiritual, omnipotent love in ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, which starts with the line ‘To lead a better life…’.

Meanwhile other songs on the album serve to remind us of Eleanor Rigby’s bleak message: the desperate emptiness presented by the death of love in For No One, and the difficulty of communication that prevents attachment in I Want To Tell You. It is not until the album’s extraordinary climax, Tomorrow Never Knows, that we finally get an answer, one that transcends the failure of the Christian Church in Eleanor Rigby by re-asserting a progressive belief in universal love.

Eleanor Rigby can be heard on Revolver by The Beatles (Amazon affiliate link).

More posts on the Beatles at Culture Club:

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See the Nutcracker at the Cinema this Christmas

by ttucker23 on December 1, 2009

Nutcracker-Advent-Calendar

If you can’t make it to the Royal Opera House to see The Nutcracker this Christmas, you need not miss out. Opus Arte, the ROH’s multi-platform arts production and distribution company, is bringing The Nutcracker to cinema screens across the country, filmed in a high-definition recording from the Royal Opera House itself.

To promote the screenings Opus Arte has made a wonderful digital advent calendar for The Nutcracker. Enter your details (it just takes a few seconds) and you get daily clips of the opera throughout December. A neat idea and a delightful way to count down to Christmas.

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Leonard Bernstein: From Mahler to the Beatles

by ttucker23 on December 1, 2009

For our discussions on The Beatles’ Revolver album I dug out the clip below from Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated lecture series The Unanswered Question, Six Talks at Harvard. This short extract is from Lecture 5: The 20th Century Crisis, in which he focuses on Mahler’s 9th Symphony. He sees this great symphony as a prophetic vision of the 20th Century that lay before Mahler, a century that was to become shadowed by the spectre of death like no other before it.

Bernstein’s list of the great works of the century is interesting, and he was one of the first of the giants of classical music to champion The Beatles and other significant ‘popular music’ of his time. This lecture was recorded in 1973, and I often wonder what other art works he would add to that list that have emerged since then, and what he would have made of the 21st Century.

It’s interesting that Bernstein should reflect on the Beatles’ Revolver during a talk on Mahler, as I’ve always thought that there is a strong connection between these two very different artists, namely that focus on the universal. Recall that statement Mahler made about his work to Sibelius: “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.” Like The Beatles’ work on Revolver he sees the task of art as encompassing the universal spirit.

In his essay on Mahler’s symphonic work in A Guide to the Symphony Stephen Johnson has this to say about the famous Mahlerian irony:

This brings us neatly to one of the most celebrated Mahlerian devices: the use of naïve, or even downright banal material in a way which, far from bringing a sense of bathos, can convey intense feeling. It is one facet (but only one) of the so-called Mahlerian irony. Again context is everything: the clarinet’s Ländler tune in the Scherzo of the Second Symphony is innocuous in itself but after the haunted opening one can read all manner of sinister possibilities into it; the childlike oboe tune of the Sixth Symphony’s second movement Trio has an intrinsic oddity in its alteration of 3/8 and 4/8 bars, but coming as it does at the heart of what is perhaps the classic Mahler ‘horror’ Scherzo, it can be deeply unsettling.

There is a similar effect that we find in the appearance of a children’s song (Yellow Submarine) on Revolver. In itself it’s a glorious sing-along, a beautiful pastiche of the kind of nonsense verse that Edward Lear wrote for children, with the improbable craft updated from a sieve to a submarine. But in the context of an album marked with so much ‘bitter sweet cynicism’ it sets off different resonances.

This was reinforced when the Beatles came to release a single from the album, and chose Eleanor Rigby, a song of hopeless love, loneliness, old age and death (‘no one was saved…’), backed with Yellow Submarine, a song of youth, togetherness and hope (‘we all live…’). Here are the two polarities between which life is lived.

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The Beatles’ Revolver and the Universal

by ttucker23 on November 28, 2009

Revolver, by The Beatles, was released in 1966.

Revolver by The Beatles was released in 1966 and marked the beginning of a new phase for the band and a revolution in popular music.

In his book The Sixties, an exhaustive history of the 1960’s, Arthur Marwick introduces his subject as follows:

If asked to explain the fuss, both survivors of the decade and observers of the repeated attempts subsequently to conjure it up again could probably manage to put together a list of its most striking features, which might look something like this: black civil rights; youth culture and trend-setting by young people; idealism, protest, and rebellion; the triumph of popular music based on Afro-American models and the emergence of this music as a universal language, with the Beatles as the heroes of the age; the search for inspiration in the religions of the orient; massive changes in personal relationships and sexual behaviour; a general audacity and frankness in books and in the media, and in ordinary behaviour; relaxation in censorship; the new feminism; gay liberation; the emergence of the ‘underground’ and the ‘counter-culture'; optimism and genuine faith in the dawning of a better world.

The first part of that statement regarding The Beatles’ contribution to 1960’s culture – ‘the triumph of popular music’ – finds its source in the band’s extraordinary success during the early phase of its career, from 1963 – 1965. The second part – ‘the emergence of this music as a universal language’ – emerges entirely from the album Revolver.

In the June 2000 issue of Q Magazine, Revolver topped its assessment of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. In that issue, David Quantick pointed out that this was ‘the most shocking Beatles record, the one that makes a quantum leap even from the brilliantly developed super pop of Rubber Soul’. He also asserts that ‘1966 was the only year that The Beatles’ album Revolver could have been recorded.’

The timing is significant. It marks the start of the second phase of the 1960’s, when the exuberance of youth, permissiveness and sexual scandal gave way to a darker and more cynical outlook. It was the year that the 1960’s grew up.

The Beatles more than any other artists were totally in tune with these times. The album Revolver didn’t just capture this new outlook, it pointed the way forward. And the way forward from the point of view of the latter part of the 1960’s was that ‘universal language’ referenced by Marwick above. In fact, every one of those definitions of the 1960’s referred to in the Marwick quote above finds expression and reflection on Revolver.

The wide variety of musical styles, the range of human concerns covered in the lyrics, the bewildering kaleidoscope of innovative sounds and the interrelated musical themes on Revolver are unprecedented in any musical field, let alone pop music. Consider the musical genres covered:

  • Rock (And Your Bird Can Sing, She Said She Said)
  • Soul (Gotta Get You Into My Life)
  • Electric blues (Doctor Robert, Taxman)
  • Ballad (Here, There and Everywhere, For No One)
  • Children’s song (Yellow Submarine)
  • Classical chamber music (Eleonar Rigby)
  • Indian raga (Love You To)
  • Avant garde ‘musique concrete’ (Tomorrow Never Knows)

And within these songs themselves we glimpse snippets of a myriad of other styles, from military brass bands, sea shanties, tape loops, sound effects, sacred vocal music, bar-room piano, and more.

While not quite a ‘concept album’, Revolver does, as Quantick states, ‘combine an astonishing mix of styles with a weirdly consitent sense of purpose’.

The subjects of the songs cover much ground, from the worldly (Taxman) to the deeply personal (For No One), from adolescent sexual joy (Love You To) to a more spiritual kind of love (Here There and Everywhere), and from a child-like wish for togetherness (Yellow Submarine) to the desperate loneliness of old age (Eleonar Rigby).

The all-encompassing variety is itself a theme, as the album creates a powerful sense of the ‘unviersal’ from its disparate materials, the many combining to make one.

Cyclical motifs in Revolver

The other major theme is that of ‘cycles’, referred to in the title, as Jonathan Gould elaborates in his excellent book on The Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America:

After considering titles like Abracadabra and Magic Circles, the group had settled on Revolver as a kind of McLuhanesque pun – revolve is what records do – that also described the way the focus of attention on the album turned evenly from one Beatle to the next. Woven with motifs of circularity, reversal and inversion, Revolver was the first record on which the Beatles made the interplay of their individual personalities a theme of the music itself.

Those motifs of circularity that Gould alludes to can be found throughout the album. To take some random examples: the overlapping a capella fade-out on ‘Good Day Sunshine’, the cyclic harmonised guitar instrumental in ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and the circular descending/ascending chord progression of ‘For No One’. The album culminates in a tour de force of cyclical representation, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, with its incessant circular drum pattern, backward-and-forward guitar playing and musique concrete taped loops. As Gould explains in his chapter on Revolver in Can’t Buy Me Love:

As the singing fades up and away, the bass hums, the drums stutter, and the banshees wail. “Or play the game Existence to the end – of the beginning… of the beginning… of the beginning,” John repeats, over and over, like a proverbial broken record, or a skip in the Wheel of Rebirth, ending Revolver with a conceptual joke as elaborate as the one with which it began. “The end of the beginning” completes the album’s motif of circularity and declares the Beatles’ intent to initiate a new phase of their career.

The motif of circularity is not merely decorative. It refers to a deeper theme on the album, that of transformation. From childhood (Yellow Submarine) to old age (Eleanor Rigby), from sleeping (I’m Only Sleeping) to waking (Good Day Sunshine), from the birth of love (Love You To) to its tragic demise (For No One). Above all it speaks of the ultimate transformation, from life to death.

Death casts a shadow over Revolver, from the ghoulish image of Taxman, in which we are advised to ‘declare the pennies on your eyes’, to the ‘surrender to the void’ of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (see my post on Leonard Bernstein’s comments on death in the 20th Century). The journey that Revolver takes us on is in effect an acceptance and transcendence of death. The lost opportunity for love that leaves us suspended over a spiritual precipice at the demise of Eleanor Rigby (‘No one was saved’) is finally transformed into something positive with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. By surrendering to that same void, accepting that ‘love is all and love is everyone’, we reach a state that ‘is not living’ and ‘is not dying’ – ‘it is believing’.

Buy Revolver by The Beatles (Amazon affiliate link).

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