Friday, 2 November 2007

Mob rule

By the end of yesterday's rehearsal we had finished our first sweep of the score. Hmm. 'Sweep' uncomfortably makes me think of Sooty's sidekick, who could only make staccato squeaks now and then. 'First pass through the score': that's better.

It's still all very fragmentary, and the clock is ticking. Next week is Reading Week (incidentally, have you ever met anyone who was actually born in Reading?) so there's no rehearsal, so we have in essence two weeks to learn this music, with all its tricky entries, odd spacings and absolutely wonderful expressive, atmospheric power. Because on the next sw... sorry, pass, through the score, we'll have to do a bit more than just nod our heads in time with Tim's piano.

After the rehearsal my friend Xenia, who's in the chorus, came up to me.

"What is Peter Grimes about?", she asked.

"Well," I replied, "it's about two hours 45 minutes, or if it's our orchestra doing the second interlude, perhaps nearer three."

OK, so I then gave her a proper synopsis: loner fisherman has apprentice die in fishy circumstances, village turns against him, fisherman manages to lose second apprentice in accident, goes mad, villagers hound him to suicide, his only friend Ellen Orford unhappy accessory to crime.

I fell to thinking, yet again, of parallels between Britten and Shostakovich. Britten said that Peter Grimes is about "a subject very close to my heart — the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual". Shostakovich must have nodded in glum sympathy.

It's interesting that in the years following 1945, just as Grimes was playing to packed houses and being recognised as the first great English opera since - no, the first great English opera, and still the greatest - Shostakovich was embarking on his extraordinary 'middle period'. The two weren't to meet until 1960, but already they were explorers in similar territory.

Such Shostakovich works as the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Symphony No. 10 are huge, dark, powerful, tragic works which seem exactly about the 'struggle of the individual against the masses'. The individual in the concerto is clearly the violinist, goaded and harassed by the jeering crowds in the second movement into a frantic display of resistant complicity. In the symphony the individual is signified by Shostakovich's musical signature D-E flat-C-B in the third movement, defiant against the baying brass and jabbering strings of the orchestra-mob.

And what could be more vicious than the Tenth's 'portrait of Stalin' in the second movement? It's surely no coincidence that the Concerto features a Grimes-like Passacaglia in its third movement, one of the most transparently haunting elegies for violin and orchestra ever written (and note how the cor anglais imitates the violin at one point, as if echoing its tragic tale).

So, a handy hint to all Grimes Goldies: spend the Reading Week listening to Shostakovich. Then, when we do that scary military-march to the tattoo of Jim Hobson's drum, you'll know all about baying mobs, out for blood, an eye for an eye.

And if no Shostakovich is to hand, then just read the tabloids' latest DNA revelation about the McCanns, or watch Jeremy Kyle. The spirit of the Borough is still alive and well.

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