Friday, 12 October 2007

A Bedtime Story

Perhaps there has been a more unusual concert but it would be hard to find.
The work was Enoch Arden, Op 38 by Richard Strauss (1896).
The program note said:
Strauss himself called it a “worthless piece”.

The location was the aquarium – Reef HQ complex Flinders Street Townsville.

Guide: “Have you been to a night viewing in the aquarium before.”
“It’s really interesting all the fish hide behind rocks and in the coral; some even make themselves nests from mucous.”

The piano and some loudspeakers were set up in front of one of the one of the windows of the large tank. Unaware of the strength of the amplification I sat near the front. Piers Lane was the pianist and Damien Beaumont the reader.

Long lines of the cliff breaking have left a chasm;
And in the chasm are foam and yellow sands.

We are underway. It is a long poem. 20 pages long. From time to time there are short interludes of music. It sounds something like Strauss, no misdescription here.

The fish were in hiding as promised; the water in the largely vacant aquarium changed colour in a light display.

After 30 minutes or so Enoch is stranded on a deserted but verdant island:

The mountain wooded to the peak, the lawns
And winding glades high up like ways to heaven,
The lightening flash of insect and of bird,
The lustre of the long convolvuluses
That coil’d around the stately stems, and ran
Even to the limit of the land…………

A turtle swam up and down in the aquarium.

As well as being long the poem is somewhat morose, so I will not attempt to tell the story here. It does end however, and abruptly:

So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.

And seldom has there been such an unusual hour or so. At least I have heard one of Tennyson’s narrative poems read aloud and have become acquainted with it. Life seems to have been an awful burden for the Victorians. Thomas Hardy has seemed to me to have beeen suffering from a unique sense of depression; but hearing this poem is a reminder that this kind of thing was very prevalent.
Why did Strauss compose it; or more accurately the short passages of music that go with it? It was written for performance by an actor Ernst Von Possart who was also the head of the Munich opera at the time. Strauss wished to ingratiate himself. Strauss played and Von Possart proclaimed all over Germany and even on one occasion in London.
Some of Strauss’s songs were described by Ernest Newman as “not music but merchandise” and Matthew Boyden in his biography of Strauss puts Enoch in the same class.

See: Mathew Boyden: Richard Strauss, 1999. Reviewed (unfavourably) by Michael Tanner TLS 13 August 1999.

Australian Festival of Chamber Music; A Bedtime Story 12 July 2007.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was at the performance too - what a journey and how amazing to think that everyone in the story was only driven by goodness; not one nasty character. Did you know that that narrator, Damien Beaumont, had a week to prepare? And what a combo with the great Piers Lane; it was a great night even though the fish slept!