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34 posts categorized "Music"

31 March 2017

Wagenseil, Wagner and the Mastersingers of Nuremberg

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By a neat coincidence, an enquiry about a work by Johann Christoph Wagenseil arrived in the same week that I attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Royal Opera. Why a neat coincidence? Because an important source for Wagner’s opera was another work by Wagenseil, a history of Nuremberg with an appended study of the Meistersinger, or Mastersingers, and their art, especially as it developed in the city.

Wagenseil tp
Title-page and frontispiece portrait of the author from Johann Christoph Wagenseil, De Sacri Rom. Imperii Libera Civitate Noribergensi Commentatio ... (Altdorf, 1697) 794.f.6.(1.)

The precise origins of the historical Mastersingers are not entirely clear, but their schools or guilds developed in the late middle ages and their heyday was in the early 16th century. Wagenseil reports the tradition that the Mastersingers looked back to ‘Twelve Old Masters’, including the mediaeval poets Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide – although in the opera the pedantic town clerk Beckmesser dismisses the latter as a master because he is ‘long since dead’ and would have known nothing of the guild’s rules.

In Wagner’s story, the knight Walther von Stolzing seeks admission to Nuremberg’s guild of Mastersingers in the hope of winning the hand of his beloved Eva Pogner at the St John’s Day singing contest. Among the masters he is opposed by rival suitor Beckmesser and assisted by the shoemaker Hans Sachs, who has to set aside his own feelings for Eva. In the first act Walther auditions for the guild and the Masters are shocked by his untutored efforts, which break all their rules and are especially condemned by Beckmesser, who judges the song in his official role as ‘Marker’.

Wagner took many details of the Mastersingers’ rules and ceremonies from Wagenseil. The list of sometimes bizarre names for the guild’s approved tones, which Sachs’s apprentice David reels off to the baffled Walther, all come from Wagenseil, and the rules of the ‘Tabulatur’ which the master Fritz Kothner recites before Walther’s audition for the guild cleverly reflect in verse the rules described by Wagenseil in prose.

Wagenseil Tones
A selection of the Mastersingers’ tones, from Wagenseil’s book

Walther’s experience of the ‘Singschule’ also follows Wagenseil’s description, including the time and place: following a service at St Catherine’s Church. One key difference, however, is that where Wagenseil describes four Markers, each with a specific task, Wagner has only one, in order to highlight the contrast and rivalry between Walther and Beckmesser.

Even the Masters’ names come from Wagenseil, who lists 12 ‘old masters’ of the Nuremberg guild. Wagner uses all of these (with some minor changes), but attributes a selection of trades to them which are not mentioned by Wagenseil. As Wagner also needed to add Hans Sachs to his list and presumably wanted to avoid the odd and unlucky number of 13 masters on stage, one of Wagenseil’s line-up, Niclaus (In Wagner’s libretto Niklaus) Vogel, is absent from the action, reported sick by his apprentice during the roll-call.

Wagenseil Masters
Wagenseil’s list of the 12 ‘old masters’ of the Nuremberg guild

For all its basis in Wagenseil’s work, Wagner’s opera presents a romantic and idealised view of the Mastersingers as a core part of a community where art and work go hand in hand, and where the townspeople share an instinctive appreciation of true art. The guilds actually had little public or popular resonance, but were more of a closed circle. Those who did become popular writers, such as the real Hans Sachs, tended to be known for other works, not least because their Meistergesang was performed only at the guild’s meetings and preserved only in manuscript among the members.

In fact one of the historical Sachs’s works features in the opera: the opening lines of his poem in praise of Martin Luther, Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall, are sung in act 3 by an admiring chorus in praise of Sachs himself. But its poetic form is not that of authentic Meistergesang, and nor is the musical setting of the chorus.

Nachtigall  

Nachtigall Wach auf
Title-page and opening lines (as set by Wagner) of Hans Sachs, Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall  ([Augsburg, 1523]) 11515.c.18.(4).

Indeed, it seems that Wagner took little inspiration for the actual music of the opera from Wagenseil’s work: according to the musicologist Annalise Smith, it is only the songs of the rule-obsessed Beckmesser that closely follow the guidelines cited by Wagenseil. But since Wagner’s plot is concerned in part with the importance of change and innovation in artistic practice, and since he gently mocks many of the rules quoted from Wagenseil, perhaps this is only fitting.

Wagenseil Melody
An example of Meistergesang with music from Wagenseil’s history

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading

Herbert Thompson, Wagner & Wagenseil: a Source of Wagner’s Opera ‘Die Meistersinger’ (London, 1927) 07896.f.36.

John Flood, ‘Mastersingers’, in Matthias Konzett, ed., Encyclopedia of German literature (Chicago, 2000) pp. 687-689. YC.2000.b.1167

Annalise Smith, ‘Honour Thy German Masters: Wagner’s Depiction of “Meistergesang” in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.’ Musicological Explorations, 11 (2010)

29 March 2017

Celebrating the Stefan Zweig Collection

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Zweig in 1912
Stefan Zweig in 1912

You’d be forgiven for thinking the British Library’s Stefan Zweig Study Day, which took place on Monday 20 March, would be a sombre occasion. Beginning with Klemens Renoldner, esteemed Director of the Stefan Zweig Centre in Salzburg, and his presentation entitled ‘When Europe was destroyed’ and ending with translator and poet Will Stone’s readings from the essay collection, Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink (London, 2016; ELD.DS.115440), the programme might have struck a warning rather than warming tone. Yet the Library’s day of events brought together experts and fans – old and new – in a true celebration of Stefan Zweig and his collection of manuscripts around the 75th anniversary of his death.

Zweig Study Day KJ
Dr Kristian Jensen, British Library Head of Collections and Curation opening the Study Day

In the sold-out Eliot Room of the Library’s Knowledge Centre, guests were presented a programme that united the very latest research – namely on Zweig’s personal library, and on the relationship between Richard Strauss and Zweig –, the anecdotal and personal aspects of Zweig’s experiences across Europe, as well as the writer’s own words in the most recent translations of his more political essays. As Will Stone read from the concluding essay in Messages from a Lost World, ‘In this Dark Hour’, written in 1941, the day approached its end with the lines: ‘Darkness must fall before we are aware of the majesty of the stars above our heads’.

As darkness fell on Monday and on the study day, the shining stars of the Stefan Zweig Collection took centre stage at the Library’s ‘Evening of Music and Poetry from the Zweig Collection’. As Samuel West spoke the first lines in the role of Zweig himself, the audience was welcomed into a different era.

Zweig_SamuelWest
Samuel West as Stefan Zweig (photograph © Samantha Lane Photography)

In the words of West, and Zweig, following the performances of Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and ‘An die Musik’ by soprano Ilona Domnich and baritone Simon Wallfisch respectively, accompanied on the paino by Simon Callghan, we forgot ‘time and space in our passionate enthusiasm, truly transported to a better world’.

Zweig_Baritone
Baritone Simon Wallfisch and pianist Simon Callaghan (photograph © Samantha Lane Photography)

Our performers navigated the often turmoiled life of Stefan Zweig through diary entries and letters, piercing the darkness of war and exile with moments of hope and friendship, and by bringing to life the sublime moments of creativity present in the manuscript collection.

Zweig MS 56 Das Veilchen
W.A. Mozart, ‘Das Veilchen’, a setting of words by Goethe (Zweig MS 56), one of the pieces performed at the evening event

From Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, via Keats, Verlaine and Wilde, to Mahler and Richard Strauss, Europe’s cultural heritage was on show, so that we for a moment could only share Zweig’s feeling that in the collection was the whole universe. As Zweig exited the stage, disillusioned with collecting and with a Europe lost to him forever, it was left for Ilona Domnich to bid us goodnight and to let the darkness fall once again with Strauss’s ‘Beim Schlafengehen’.

Zweig_Soprano
Soprano Ilona Domnich and Simon Callaghan (photograph © Samantha Lane Photography)

We thank all those involved in bringing the Zweig Collection to life and we hope to become aware once more in the near future of the majesty of those stars above our heads and in our collections.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library / University of Bristol

The Catalogue of the Literary and Historical Manuscripts from the British Library Stefan Zweig Collection is now published and can be purchased through BL Publishing. A display of manuscripts from the Zweig Collection will be in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery until 11 June.

08 March 2017

Music of the Revolution: the Hymn of Free Russia

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There has been great agitation in Petrograd all day. Processions have been parading the main streets. At several points the mob shouted for ‘Bread and peace!’ At others it sang the Working Man’s Marseillaise. In the Nevsky Prospekt there have been slight disorders.

This is how the French Ambassador to Russia Maurice Paléologue recorded 8 March (23 February old style) 1917, the day when the Russian Revolution started.

  Image 1 _Paleologue
Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador's memoirs, translated by F. A. Holt. (London, 1923-25) 09455.ff.3.

Spontaneous demonstrations to mark International Women’s Day were joined by angry women in bread-lines. The next day meetings, riots and strikes in Petrograd were multiplying and mixing with acts of hooliganism and vandalism. Almost all industrial enterprises were shut down and people were matching along the central street in Petrograd, the Nevsky Prospekt, causing severe disruptions to public transport.

Demonstrators were met sympathetically by the middle class and even by some troops. Nicholas II, who had left for the Staff Head Quarters (Stavka) at Mogilev some 400 miles away from the capital just days before the unrest, received belated reports and underestimated (or wanted to underestimate?) the seriousness of the events. When he finally commanded the use of troops to restore order, riots had already spread to some of the regiments stationed in Petrograd. Attempts to restore order ended in clashes between the troops and the protestors which only incited further protests. At the same time, politicians at the Duma (parliament), statesmen at the State Council (the supreme state advisory body to the Tsar) and the cabinet ministers all saw themselves as Russia’s saviours. The overall crisis of the old political system and the regime was so deep that the Tsar’s abdication seemed to be the most straightforward and secure solution. The situation spiralled out of control and within a week Russian Tsarism was over, no-one having risen to defend it.

The news was greeted with great enthusiasm by most Russian intellectuals and liberals. Expectations were high and hopes that a truly free Russia was already a reality turned into a creative euphoria: lyrics, essays and graphics glorifying and celebrating the Revolution and the people who made it happen, appeared in print and were read at rallies and meetings.

On 24 (11) March, the newspaper Birzhevye vedomosti (‘Stock-Exchange News’; Mic.B.1089) published a memo ‘Glazunov and Gorky’, informing readers that the actors of the ex-Imperial – now State – Mariinski Theatre asked the Director of the Petrograd Conservatoire, composer Aleksandr Glazunov, to write a new hymn for the new Russia. This was required for the ceremonial re-opening of the Opera House, which had been closed for a month during the unrest in the capital. As the re-opening was scheduled for the 26 (13) March, Glazunov declined saying that it was an impossible task for him at such a short notice. According to the memo, he suggested to ‬sing a Russian folk song Ekh, ukhnem! aka the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ (you can her it performed here by Feodor Chaliapin in a recording from 1902:Download Эй,_ухнем!_-_Фёдор_Шаляпин). The popular writer Maxim Gorky was asked to make necessary amendments to the lyrics.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, another Romantic composer Aleksandr Grechaninov  also came up with the idea of a hymn, performed here in 1926 by David Medoff:  Download The_hymn_of_free_Russia_-_Гимн_свободной_России_(text_and_music_-_1917)

Images 2a GrechaninovPortrait of Grechaninov from the Russian edition of his memoirs (New York, 1952), 10796.bb.23; an English translation by Nicolas Slonimsky (W11/4835) appeared in the same year.

In his memoirs, written in 1934 when he was living abroad having fled Soviet Russia, Grechaninov recalled:

The news of the Revolution of February, 1917, was greeted in Moscow with enthusiasm. People poured into the streets wearing red flowers in their lapels. Strangers embraced each other with tears of joy in their eyes. […] An idea suddenly struck me: I must write a new national anthem! I hurried home, and in half an hour I had composed music of the anthem. But what about the words? The first two lines, "Long live Russia — The country of the free," I took from a poem by Fedor Sologub, but I did not like the rest of the poem. What was I to do? I telephoned Constants Balmont , the poet. He came to see me without delay, and in a few minutes wrote out the text. Manuscript in hand, I went to see Gutheil [a music publisher]. Without wasting any time he sent the music to the printer, and on the following afternoon the Gutheil store displayed copies of my Hymn of Free Russia. The proceeds from the sales were turned over to the liberated political prisoners. The Bolshoy Theater was closed for only a few days. As soon as it reopened, my new anthem was performed, along with the Marseillaise, by the chorus and orchestra of the Bolshoy Theater led by Emil Cooper. Thanks to the simple melody and fine text, my anthem soon became popular, not only in Russia but also abroad. My American friends, Kurt Schindler and his wife, translated it into English, and it was published by the G. Schirmer Company.

 Grechaninov, obviously, was not aware that the score had already been published in London in 1917, with ‘with harmonisation and poem by Clarence Lucas’, a Canadian composer, who wrote his own lyrics instead of translating Balmont’s.

Image 3 Score
A. Grechaninov, The Hymn of Free Russia, harmonisation and poem by Clarence Lucas. (London, 1917) F.1623.e.(9.)

Grechaninov claimed that “the Hymn of Free Russia was still sung even when there was no more freedom left in Russia”, and indeed the tune became a theme of Radio Liberty (RL), that was broadcast to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

23 February 2017

Stefan Zweig’s Literary and Musical Treasures

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To mark the 75th anniversary of the death of the Austrian writer and collector Stefan Zweig (23 February 2017), the British Library has this week opened the display: ‘Stefan Zweig: The Magic of Manuscripts’ in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

Zweig_display_210217-01
The display in the Treasures gallery (Photograph: Elizabeth Hunter)

Fast re-becoming a household name in the English-speaking world, Stefan Zweig was the most-translated author of his day. His short stories, his biographies and his memoir, Die Welt von gestern (The World of Yesterday), quickly became bestsellers but his writing was only one part of his work. From an early age, Zweig began collecting the manuscripts of creative figures he admired like Goethe and Beethoven. Soon, he owned one of the most prestigious manuscript collections in Europe and Zweig considered this group of ‘sublime figures’ as much of an artwork as his writing. Exile to England in the 1930s precipitated the dispersal of his collection – some items were donated to appropriate institutions, most were sold. What was left was the essence, the refined core of his original idea and in 1986, Stefan Zweig’s heirs donated this great collection to the British Library.

Zweig London 1938
Stefan Zweig in London, 1938

Our display will celebrate the breadth and eclecticism amongst the literary, historical and musical manuscripts. It begins with a case dedicated to the many close friendships Zweig made across Europe, with manuscripts from Romain Rolland, Hermann Hesse and ‘the dear master’ Sigmund Freud. We move onto showing how Zweig’s writing often reflected his collection through figures such as Marie Antoinette (the subject of an incredibly successful biography by Zweig), Leo Tolstoy and Lord Byron.

Zweig_ms_171_f001r
Letter from Marie Antoinette to Count Xavier von Rosenberg (1775) Zweig MS 171, f.1.

Zweig was motivated by the ‘secret of creation’ and the way for him to get closer to that secret was through manuscripts that were ‘still warm from writing’. In other words, working drafts, works-in-progress, corrected proofs – anything that showed the mess of production. This is precisely what the third case displays with a leaf from the monumental bound corrected proofs of Honoré de Balzac’s Une Ténébreuse Affaire, which is certainly the collection’s most emphatic example of the creative process. Works by Goethe, John Keats, Paul Verlaine and Oscar Wilde join the Balzac in revealing the deviations, re-imaginings and second thoughts at the heart of the creative process.

Zweig_ms_163_recto
John Keats, lines from the poem ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’ (1816) Zweig MS 163

The final case belongs to Zweig’s musical manuscripts, since music would dominate his later collecting period. In exile in the 1930s and more and more uncomfortable with the German language which was becoming contaminated by Nazism, music became a less-complicated artistic refuge. Manuscripts by Richard Strauss, Mozart and Schubert each tell a story about Zweig’s later life. In Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’, we hear the famous line repeated so often in Zweig’s memoirs: ‘Thou lovely art, how often in dark hours, when life’s wild tumult wraps me round, have you kindled my heart with loving warmth, and transported me to a better world.’

Mozart, Das Veilchen Zweig MS 56
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, ‘Das Veilchen’, a setting for voice and piano of a poem by Goethe. Zweig MS 56, f.1.

Other musical treasures from Zweig’s collection are also on longer-term display in the section of the gallery devoted to Music: a cantata by Gluck (Zweig MS 34), sketches for Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella (Zweig MS 94), and one of the greatest treasures in the collection, and indeed in the British Library, Mozart’s thematic catalogue of his own works (Zweig MS 63).

‘The Magic of Manuscripts’ will be on display until 11 June 2017 and to accompany the exhibition and celebrate the publication of the catalogue of the literary and historical manuscripts in the collection the Library will be hosting a study day and an evening of music and poetry from the Zweig Collection on 20 March. Tickets for these events are available through the links.

 Pardaad Chamsaz, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library/University of Bristol

16 September 2016

I was there when Jäki licked Iggy Pop’s leg: Punk in Germany

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Gudrun Gut, drummer and bassist in German punk bands such as Din-A Testbild, Einstürzende Neubauten, Mania D. and Malaria, says she was there when Jäki Eldorado (née Hildisch) — ‘Germany’s first punk’ — licked Iggy Pop’s leg during a Stooges gig in 1977. Purely a publicity stunt according to Jäki, but one that would provide an iconic punk photo.

Jäki Iggy
Jäki Eldorado licks Iggy Pop's leg (Image from mutantmelodien)

A decade after 1968, punk adopted a more chaotic and ‘publicity stunt’ mentality that had ‘nothing to do with social criticism’, Jäki suggests in Jürgen Teipel’s ‘docu-novel’ Verschwende deine Jugend (p. 66). He continues: ‘Punk Rock was so interesting precisely because there was no longer any ideological baggage. You could go crazy. Party. You wouldn’t care if someone walked around with a swastika or if someone else supported the RAF [Red Army Faction]’. Cyrus Shahan, in his Punk Rock and German Crisis: Adaptation and Crisis after 1977 (New York, 2013; YC.2014.a.10231) explains the phenomenon thus: ‘whereas student movements of 1968 and German terrorism both sought to establish (theoretically, violently) their own conceptions of a just, utopian society, punk was decidedly invested in an endless dystopia of the present’ (p. 2). Shahan echoes Eldorado in saying later, ‘Punk did not want to establish a new order to stave off chaos of the past. Punk wanted chaos. Punk did not want to erect barriers between fascism and the present. It wanted to tear down the present’ (p. 13).

Verschwende deine Jugend
Cover of Jürgen Teipel, Verschwende deine Jugend (Frankfurt am Main, 2001) British Library YA.2003.a.21455

While ‘punk in Germany was not English punk’ (Shahan, p. 11), punk bands in England did to some extent spark the creation of a German punk culture and music scene – arguably predominantly in Düsseldorf – in the summer of 1977. Alfred Hilsberg, contributor to Sounds magazine and owner of the labels Zickzack and What’s so funny about, calls English punk in England the ‘trigger’ for him to do something similar in Germany. Describing the performances he saw in London in 1976, he says, ‘it really blew me away that such a thing was possible: this eclectic, crazy cluster of people. There was a violent element of course. But that was only a game. It clearly wasn’t serious when they waged war with one another’ (Teipel, p. 28). This inspired Hilsberg to organise the first punk concerts in Germany, bringing over The Vibrators and The Stranglers. ‘Although, The Vibrators only half-count as punk. It was more rock,’ he says, ‘but at the time no one really knew what punk was’ (Teipel, p. 28).

800px-1978-05-20_Duesseldorf_Ratinger_Hof
The Ratinger Hof, a pub in Düsseldorf where the first punk performances in Germany took place (photo by Ralf Zeigermann from Wikimedia Commons)

Punk was a term that didn’t carry a solid definition sonically or aesthetically, an idea which blurred at the margins and incorporated or appropriated a broad range of references. In A Cultural Dictionary of Punk (London, 2009; YC.2010.a.8548), Nicholas Rombes, in line with Hilsberg’s understanding, labels The Vibrators a 60’s-influenced ‘pop-punk’ group: ‘Bands like The Vibrators cultivated the open spaces that more radical bands like the Sex Pistols cleared, making possible a longer arc for punk and a deliberate future in the face of No Future’ (p. 296). That ‘arc’ is evident in their recent resurfacing in Berlin’s Cassiopeia Club, nearly 40 years after their first gig in the city.

Frank Z, guitarist and singer from Abwärts, remembers The Vibrators’ second gig in Germany, in Hamburg’s Winterhuder Fährhaus — what Hilsberg calls a ‘nice place all round, the kind of place you went for tea and cake’ (Christof Meueler, Das ZickZack-Prinzip: Alfred Hilsberg – ein Leben für den Underground, Munich, 2016; BL copy in process). Frank Z again: ‘the singer [Ian ‘Knox’ Carnochan] was a proper skinhead. He came on stage – and then the first available person on the front row got a boot. Right in the face [Aber voll in die Fresse]’ (Teipel, p. 28). Axel Dill, the Abwärts drummer, corroborates: ‘they played for ten minutes – and then with a few brawlers, which they had brought with them, they set off into the crowd and started a huge fight. It was a full-on battle. All the furniture was flying through the air. Everyone was beating everyone. That was their concept’ (Teipel, p. 28). But Moishe Moser, an associate of Hilsberg’s and The Vibrators’ road manager on a later German tour, provides evidence of the band’s softer side. On the last night of the tour he went to give the band their share of the proceeds before realising that the money wasn’t there: ‘Then, The Vibrators clubbed together so that I could get a taxi home. That was the beginning of a friendship that is still going today’ (quoted by Meueler).

Style was undoubtedly influenced by the fashion in the English punk scene, something also focused on in the British Library’s ‘Punk 1976-78’ exhibition. Peter Hein – another pretender to the title of ‘first German punk’, and singer in Charley’s Girls and Fehlfarben amongst other bands – says as much: ‘to become punk was a totally conscious decision. I saw a picture in the New Musical Express – with jacket and paperclips and kid’s sunglasses. And I thought: ‘I’d like to look as good as that.’ So I wandered about just like that. Kid’s glasses, paperclips on my jacket collar.’ Amidst the chaos of the ‘No Future’ punk ethos, Peter Hein does appear to leave some room for thought into his own future. In another supposed – but presumably not wholly applicable – borrowing from England, Hein avoids alcohol during his years of creativity. This is, for him, in contrast to American bands who subscribe to a drug-fuelled lifestyle:

We were the juice-drinkers. At the time I drank no alcohol. Punk was a straight movement for us. […] We were against the druggy-bands. Against the pisshead bands. We were absolutely England-oriented. The Americans we never took seriously because their punk-rockers took drugs. That was not cool.

800px-Peter_Hein_Fehlfarben
Peter Hein, playing with the band Fehlfarben in 2006 (Picture by Ulf Cronenberg from Wikimedia Commons)

A bizarrely sanitized life, then. And, even more bizarrely, one inspired by our punk scene so closely associated with precisely the sort of intoxication Hein refuses. In the nostalgic accounts of German punk protagonists, there is a sense of openness and acceptance, where anything goes, but without a stereotypical radicalism. Jäki Eldorado says as much when he suggests that, whereas in England there may have been a radical break with what came before, in Germany there was a more fluid merging between hippy and punk movements: ‘when I started working in Dschungel [a punk record store], I even had long hair still’ (Teipel, p. 27).

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and University of Bristol

The free exhibition Punk 1976-78  continues in the British Library’s Entrance Hall until 2 October

05 September 2016

Verdi and Shakespeare

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In a composing career spanning more than five decades, Giuseppe Verdi considered more than 100 works, including novels and plays by French, Italian, Spanish and German writers, as sources for potential operatic projects. Among them were several plays by Shakespeare, one of his favourite writers. Although he did complete three operas based on Shakespeare plays, several others – Hamlet, Cymbeline, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet – were discussed at various times but never materialised. Of these unwritten operas, however, it was King Lear that held the greatest significance for Verdi and came closest to creation.

CM FIG.1Verdi 1872.c.15
Portrait of Verdi, from Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana (Milan, [1887]) British Library 1872.c.15

Verdi successively approached three potential librettists for Lear: in 1845 he first mentioned the play to Francesco Maria Piave, the librettist of his Ernani, I Due Foscari and Macbeth. It was, perhaps, Verdi’s dissatisfaction with the last of these (he enlisted another writer, Francesco Maffei, to revise parts of the text) that made him commission, in 1850, a Re Lear from Salvadore Cammarano, another regular collaborator of his. 

After Cammarano’s untimely death in 1852, Verdi approached Antonio Somma. Recognising the difficulty of turning such a complex play into an opera, he kept advising Somma to reduce the number of scenes and principal characters (Gloucester and his sons were eventually removed). He also reiterated the need to avoid too many scene changes and to keep his text short. The extensive correspondence between the two men was first published in 1913 and, more recently, in a 2002 edition by the Istituto nazionale di studi verdiani which includes facsimiles of Somma’s manuscripts of his first and second drafts of the libretto (1853 and 1855), and of Verdi’s own transcription of the first version, with variants inserted in their proper place. The volume additionally includes a facsimile of Verdi’s letter of 28 February 1850 to Cammarano which contains a detailed outline of the plot. Transcriptions of all these facsimiles are also included.

CM FIG.3 SOMMA'S AUTOGRAPH
The end of Antonio Somma’s second version of his libretto of Re Lear, showing Cordelia’s death. Reproduced in Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Somma, Per il “Re Lear”. Edited by Gabriella Carrara Verdi (Parma, 2002). LC.31.b.1041 

Verdi’s continuing reservations about the libretto meant that the project was abandoned and there is no evidence that music for the opera was ever composed. This is all the more regrettable as some of the most poignant scenes in Verdi’s operas are those between fathers and daughters - Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Aida, and above all, Simon Boccanegra are the most notable examples - and, judging from the final scene of the libretto of Re Lear, the death of Cordelia (‘Delia’ in the libretto) would have been a notable addition to the canon.

CM FIG.2 VERDI AUTOGRAPH
Verdi’s autograph of the first version of the final scene of the libretto of of Re Lear, reproduced in Per il  “Re Lear”

The three Shakespeare operas Verdi did complete – Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff – are all great masterpieces.

Macbeth (1847), one of his greatest early works, typically full of Risorgimento connotations (the fall of a tyrant and the liberation of the country under his rule), was extensively revised for the Paris Opéra in 1865, and it is this version, which is usually performed today. As well as a magnificent banquet scene at the end of Act 2, the opera also has one of Verdi’s greatest final scenes (the death of Macbeth and triumph of Macduff), and Lady Macbeth’s haunting and eerie sleepwalking scene. 

By the time he began composing Otello in the 1880s, Verdi had become the grand old man of Italian opera – a ‘national treasure’ in today’s parlance. The fact that he had not composed a new opera since Aida, over a decade earlier, added to the public anticipation for the new work. There was, consequently, extensive press coverage both before and after its premiere, including a special Otello issue of the popular weekly illustrated magazine L’Illustrazione italiana which discussed not only the subject of opera and scenes from its first production but also looked at Verdi’s life and works, including his collaboration with his librettist, Arrigo Boito.

CM FIG.4 VERDI E L'OTELLO
Cover (above) and image of Otello's opening storm scene (below), from Verdi e Otello. 1872.c.15. 

CM FIG.5 Otello Act 1

A poet, critic and composer (his opera Mefistofele, for which he wrote the text and the music, is sometimes performed today), Boito first collaborated with Verdi on Inno delle nazioni, a cantata commisssioned to represent Italy at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, and, in 1881, on a revision of Simon Boccanegra.

CM FIG.6 Verdi and Boito at S.Agata
Verdi and Boito. Illustration from Verdi e Otello. 1872.c.15. 

Otello was Verdi’s and Boito’s first collaboration on a new opera and they were to work together again on Falstaff (drawn from The Merry Wives of Windsor, with insertions from Henry IV and Henry V). Premiered in 1893, when the composer was 80, and unusually for Verdi, a comedy, the opera was greeted with the same enthusiasm as Otello six years earlier, including another special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana. Falstaff was Verdi’s glorious and astonishing swansong, its final joyous fugue beginning with ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (‘Everything in the world is a jest’).  

CM FIG.7. Falstaff Hirsch 5213
Cover of the special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana, Verdi e il Falstaff (Milan, [1893]). Hirsch 5213

Chris Michaelides, Curator, Romance Collections

References

Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana, e compilato da U. Pesci ed E. Ximenes. Milan, [1887].  1872.c.15.

Verdi e il Falstaff. Numero speciale della Illustrazione italiana. Milano, [1893]. Hirsch 5213. 

Re Lear e Ballo in maschera. Lettere di Giuseppe Verdi ad Antonio Somma, publicate da Alessandro Pascolato. (Città di Castello, 1913). X.439/1592.

Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi (London, 1973-82) X.0431/75

Gary Schmidgall, ‘Verdi’s King Lear Project’, in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Autumn 1985), pp. 83-101. P.431/268

Philip Gossett. ‘The Hot and the Cold: Verdi writes to Antonio Somma about Re Lear’, in Variations on the Canon: Essays on Music from Bach to Boulez in Honor of Charles Rosen on His Eightieth Birthday. (Rochester NY, 2008). YC.2009.a.6153.

Roberta Montemorra Marvin (ed.), The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopedia (Cambridge, 2013). YC.2014.a.2360.

Stuart Leeks, ‘Verdi and the lure of Shakespeare’ (Opera North Blog) 

Recordings:

Otello, complete 1976 live recording from La Scala, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, with Placido Domingo (Otello), Mirella Freni (Desdemona), and Piero Cappuccilli (Iago).

Falstaff,  a complete 1965 live recording from the Opéra de Paris of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Falstaff, with Tito Gobbi as Falstaff.

Our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is open until  6 September, and you can continue to find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare's life and work on our dedicated Shakespeare webpages.

12 April 2016

Tolstoy and music

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Nikolai Gusev, Tolstoy’s personal secretary, stated in his memoirs that “for Tolstoy music was not an amusement but an important business in life” as Tolstoy was “a good musician and composer”. The professor of music at the Moscow conservatory, Aleksandr Goldenveizer, a regular visitor to Tolstoy’s home for some 15 years, noted that Tolstoy, as well as many members of his family, was musical by nature and that in his youth, when he occupied himself for hours on the piano, he even thought of becoming a musician. During this period Tolstoy composed a waltz for piano. Goldenveizer recorded in his memoirs, how he and the composer Taneev  wrote down the waltz when Tolstoy played it for them at Iasnaia Poliana in 1906.

STaneev and AGoldenveizer
Aleksandr Goldenveizer and Sergei Taneyev in 1906. Photograph by Sophia Tolstaya, reproduced in Z.G. Paliukh & A.V. Prokhorova. Lev Tolstoi i muzyka : chronika, notografiia, bibliografiia. Moscow, 1977) X.989/75936

Tolstoy’s ‘Waltz in F’, his only known musical composition, was recorded several times, for example by Christopher Barnes and Imogen Cooper (both available in the British Library’s sound collections). Tolstoy remained a dilettante in music all his life, but was sensitive to it to a considerable extent.

Tolstoy Waltz MSTolstoy’s autograph MS of his 'Waltz in F’, reproduced in Lev Tolstoi i muzyka.

Tolstoy was always deeply interested in the question of what music was and what the philosophical grounds of its inner existence were: What is music? What does it do? Why was it made? Why do sounds of different pitch and degrees of strength, separate or simultaneously sounding together, following one after another in time and combining in a kind of rhythmical construction, have such a powerful, infectious influence on man? Why does this sound combination appear on one occasion as a senseless assortment of sounds, and on another as the symphonies of Beethoven? No satisfactory answer can be given to these questions.

Tolstoy’s ideas on music were related to his ideas on nature (i.e. concrete objects portrayed): how in literature and the fine arts some kind of nature is always reproduced (whether taken from actual life or from the artist’s fantasies), and how in instrumental, chamber and symphonic music of (opera and programme music are excluded) there is the very absence of nature. His conclusion is that the contents of a musical work are clearly and forcefully conveyed by the musical work itself and do not need any kind of literal translations. In 1850s, Tolstoy defined music as “a means to arouse through sound familiar feelings or to convey them” later noted in his diary that “music is a stenograph of feelings”. Goldenveizer even recalled from his conversations how Tolstoy developed an analogy between music and dreams where there is a discrepancy between responses and their causes. This leads to the conclusion that “music does not cause states such as love, joy, sadness but summons them up in us”.

Tolstoy playing
Tolstoy at the piano.

Tolstoy liked music with definitely expressed rhythm, melodically distinct, lively or full of passionate excitement. His favourite composer was Chopin. Listening to Chopin, Tolstoy experienced (in his own words) the feeling of “complete artistic satisfaction”. Tolstoy also liked Mozart, Haydn and Weber, particularly Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which was remarkable as he did not like opera as a genre in general and considered it a false kind of art. He seldom went to the opera and having seen Wagner’s Siegfried once, gave a destructive account of it in Chto takoe iskusstvo? (‘What is Art?’, 1897). Instrumental music made a stronger impression on Tolstoy than singing; he is quoted as saying about singing: “This union of the two arts has never had an effect on me. You always only listen to the music, but don’t pay attention to the words”. This is why the singing of Fyodor Shaliapin  did not make a big impression on Tolstoy.

Tolstoy What is Art
An early edition of Leo Tolstoy, Chto takoe iskusstvo? (Moscow, 1898) 1578/5199.

Tolstoy also showed an ambivalent attitude towards the music of Beethoven. When Tolstoy heard Beethoven he admired and was captivated by him, but when he spoke or wrote about Beethoven he often responded negatively considering that Beethoven began the decline of musical art. There are amazing descriptions of Beethoven’s sonatas in Tolstoy’s works, for example in The Kreutzer Sonata (1890) or Semeinoe schast’e (‘Family happiness’, 1859), where the mournful majestic sounds of the sonata‘Quasi una fantasia’ make the heroine confess “Beethoven lifts me to a radiant height”.

It is likely that Tolstoy’s wavering in his evaluation of Beethoven is down to the fact that Beethoven and Tolstoy were very similar in temperament: Tolstoy instinctively opposed all kinds of authority - Beethoven thrilled Tolstoy with his powerful individuality and this made him angry as he did not like to submit.

Folk-Song A.868.z
Russian folk-song and dance, from a collection of illustrated postcards, ca. 1900. A.868.z.

Tolstoy’s attitude towards folk music was always positive. He also liked gypsy singing, which can be found in works like Dva gusara (‘Two Hussars’, 1857). Tolstoy’s attitude to certain composers and types of music seemed to be influenced by the performances he witnessed or by the performers who visited him. Among musicians who visited Tolstoy and played for him were Anton Rubinshtein, Taneev, Skriabin, Rakhmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been extremely negative about the ideas contained in Tolstoy’s What is Art?, but held back from expressing this at the time.

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections, and Peter Hellyer, former curator Russian Collections

Further reading:

Lev Tolstoi i muzyka: vospominaniia , (Moscow, 1953). 7901.a.16.

Tolstoï et la musique, publié sous la direction de Michel Aucouturier. (Paris, 2009). Ac.8808.d/8[tome120]

I. N. Gnezdilova, Literatura i muzyka : A. Ostrovskiĭ, F. Dostoevskiĭ, I. Turgenev, L. Tolstoĭ, A. Chekhov. (Tiumenʹ, 2006.) YF.2008.a.19917

 

24 March 2016

Passion and compassion: Nikos Kazantzakis’s Christ Recrucified

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Throughout Europe, the tradition of the Passion Play has a long history, reaching back to an age where it was a powerful means of bringing the dramatic events of the last week of Christ’s life before the eyes of those who could not read. Although the comparatively late Oberammergau Passionspiel  is perhaps the best-known example, many others were performed in the Eastern as well as Western churches.

Nikos_Kazantzakis_Statue_in_Heraklion             Bust of Nikos Kazantzakis in Heraklion (Image from Wikimedia Commons)                      

It is one of these which the Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) describes in his novel Ho Christos xanastauronetai (1948). The British Library holds a numbered copy of the seventh edition signed by his widow Eleni Kazantzakis. It was translated into English in 1954 by Jonathan Griffin under the tile Christ Recrucified (12589.d.18), and ran into several subsequent editions.

KazantzakisSignatureDSC_1549

Signature of Eleni Kazantzakis from copy no. 216 of a limited edition of the Greek original of Christ Recrucified. (Athens, [1959?]) 11411.e.96 

Kazantzakis was born at a time when Crete was still part of the Ottoman Empire rather than the modern Greek state which had existed for just over 50 years, and the village of Lykovrissi (‘Wolf’s Spring’) in which he sets the action recalls his experience of growing up in a society where Greek and Turk, Christian and Muslim existed side by side in comparative harmony for the most part. What destabilizes the equilibrium of the community is not internal friction but the arrival of a group of refugees whose own village has been destroyed by the Turks. They reach Lykovrissi at a time when parts are being allocated for the next year’s Passion Play, performed every seven years, and these two events ignite the tumult which ultimately ends in bloodshed and self-sacrifice.

Throughout his life Kazantzakis was a spiritually questing and perpetually restless soul whose challenges to established religious dogma and practice caused him – like his hero Manolios – to face excommunication, though it was never actually pronounced. However, his later novel The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) caused such a furore that the Roman Catholic Church placed it on its index of forbidden books. Though controversial, his portrayal of Christ as a fully human being who understands and engages in the dilemmas of existence to the utmost is close to those of Kahlil Gibran and Dennis Potter, and provided the basis for Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name (1988). Christ Recricified was also made into a film in 1957,  Celui qui doit mourir, by Jules Dassin, with Melina Mercouri in the role of Katerina . 

It was in another medium, though, that Christ Recrucified found additional dramatic expression. Throughout his life Kazantzakis had been a frequent traveller, and had lived in many countries, including the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. When the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů encountered his work, he immediately recognized its potential for an opera, and the two artists began a correspondence in French which is available in a Czech edition as Řecké pašije: osud jedné opery : korespondence Nikose Kazantzakise s Bohuslavem Martinů, edited by Růžena Dostálová and Aleš Březina (Prague, 2003; YF.2005.a.6912).

Martinu_1942caBohuslav Martinů in 1942. Image from Bohuslav Martinu Centre in Policka, inventory number: PBM Fbm 115, via Wikimedia Commons

Martinů composed the original version of his opera between 1954 and 1957, when memories were still fresh of the Slánský show trials  and the worst excesses of political intolerance and corruption within a communist state where religion was actively suppressed. With no chance of staging it in Czechoslovakia, he offered it to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, but it was not until 1961 that a revised version received its premiere in Zürich, two years after the composer’s death.  The Royal Opera House staged a production by David Pountney (in English) in 2004, conducted by Charles Mackerras, thus making amends for not producing it earlier as originally intended.  

Kazantzakis himself, though disillusioned with Soviet communism and never a party member, had admired Lenin and the general principles which he believed communism represented, many of which find their way into his novel. As the year progresses, the villagers – Manolios, cast as Christ, Katerina, the widow and prostitute chosen as Mary Magdalene, and the various disciples, as well as Panayotaros, the Judas – gradually find themselves assuming the characteristics of the figures whom they portray, and embodying them in their actions towards one another and the starving refugees. The village priest Grigoris denies the fugitives shelter for fear of cholera, and sends them and their own priest Fotis to starve on the mountain of Sarakina. Manolios, regarded with suspicion by the village elders as a ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘Muscovite’, leads his neighbours to help them, and offers his life to save the village from the wrath of the local Agha following the murder of his boy favourite Yousouffaki, but it is Katerina who sacrifices hers, struck down by the Agha after claiming responsibility for a crime which she did not commit. As Manolios inspires others to leave their possessions and join him in a life of prayer and seclusion, the mob, headed by Panayotaros, kills Manolios on Christmas Eve as the refugees resume their flight, led by Father Fotis, who reflects, ‘When will You be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity?’

Kazantzakis English
Cover of Nikos Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified , translated by Jonathan Griffin (London, 1962) X.908/5908.

Though nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazantzakis never won the award. However, in this as in his other works, he proved himself to be not only a truly European but a universal figure, whose writings continue to raise existential issues of personal integrity and human responsibility – more timely than ever as a new stream of refugees pours into Greece in the weeks before another Easter.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

 

25 December 2015

The Stories of ‘Silent Night’

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Few Christmas carols are better known and loved than ‘Stille Nacht’ / ‘Silent Night’, and probably none has such a familiar romantic tale attached to its origins. Most people know the story of how the church organ in the small town of Oberndorf near Salzburg was found to be broken on Christmas Eve 1818, and how the priest, Joseph Mohr, and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, hastily wrote the words and melody of a song which could be performed to a guitar accompaniment instead.

Stille Nacht MS 1836
Facsimile of a manuscript of ‘Stille Nacht’ made by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1836, from Alois Leeb, ‘Bibliographie des Weihnachtsliedes “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”.’ Oberösterreichische Heimatblätter, Jg, 23 (1969). British Library 2737.eg.3.

This is partly true. The song was indeed written by Mohr and Gruber and first performed, to a guitar accompaniment, at Christmas 1818, but Mohr had in fact written the words two years earlier and the story of the damaged organ is speculation (besides, presumably there were existing carols which could have been sung to a guitar…).

Stille Nacht 1832
The first published version of ‘Stille Nacht’, in three-verse form, from Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder ... Gesungen von den Geschwistern Strasser aus dem Zillerthale.(Dresden, [1832?]) Hirsch M.1291.(18.)

Although the song quickly gained local popularity around Oberndorf, it was taken to a wider audience by two families of singers, the Strassers and the Rainers, who both came from another part of Austria, the Tyrolean Zillertal. The Strassers were glove-makers who started singing as a group to attract custom to their stall at the Leipzig Christmas fair. They were subsequently invited to perform at Christmas services and concerts in the city, and for a few years in the early 1830s they devoted themselves to a singing career, travelling around Germany with ‘Stille Nacht’ as a popular part of their repertoire. They cut Mohr’s original six verses down to three, and this is the form of the song that is known today and was first published in a collection of ‘authentic Tyrolean melodies’ as performed by the Strassers.

 Stiller Nacht StrassersTitle-page of Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder...  with a (probably fanciful) picture of the Strassers

Incidentally, the Strassers apparently first heard of ‘Stille Nacht’ from Carl Mauracher, an organ-builder who rebuilt the church organ at Oberndorf in 1825. Could his role in the transmission of the song have inspired the story of a broken organ forcing Mohr and Gruber to improvise?

The Rainers were a more professional and longer-lived group. They travelled beyond Germany, taking  ‘Stille Nacht’ to international audiences, including America, where they toured from 1839 to 1843, and where the first English translation of the song appeared in 1849. Ten years later the most familiar English version was published by an American Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young

Stille Nacht Rainers
Fascimile signatures of the Rainer Family Singers, from an edition of ‘Tyrolese melodies’ published in London (R.M.13.f.22.). The signatures guaranteed that this was an authentic and approved edition, evidence of the Rainers’ more professional and businesslike approach to their singing career.

Like the Strassers, the Rainers were advertised as singing traditional Tyrolean songs, and ‘Stille Nacht’ was not attributed to either Mohr or Gruber in its earliest publications. The melody was generally thought to be either a Tyrolean folk-tune or the work of Michael Haydn. In 1854 the Prussian Court Chapel in Berlin wrote to St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg asking for clarification; the letter found its way to Gruber who wrote an account of the song’s origins, identifying Mohr as author and himself as composer, although a  printed score in the British Library (F.1171.mm.(22.)) attributes the tune to Michael Haydn as late as 1921. 


Stille Nacht authentischer BerichtA facsimile of Gruber’s report of 1854, explaining the origins of ‘Stille Nacht’, from  Max Gehmacher, Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Das Weihnachtslied, wie es entstand, und wie es wirklich ist (Salzburg, 1937) 11858.c.95

Despite Grubers efforts, legends and misinformation continued to accumulate around the song. A completely untrue claim that Mohr translated the words from Latin dates from 1899 and was still being quoted nearly a century later. The story has been fictionalised several times and there have been film and theatre adaptations, all adding various romantic subplots and embellishments to the original tale, many of which can be found today presented as truth on the Internet and elsewhere.

But none of this mythology would have accumulated without the song’s genuine popularity and power to move. For British audiences in particular it has gained in emotional impact by becoming linked with the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce (another true story around which many legends have been built), when British and German soldiers sang it together across the lines. It has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects, and in countries all round the world Christmas would not be Christmas without it. No wonder we love the story of its rise from humble origins to worldwide fame.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

 

22 May 2015

Sequins, songs and sociopolitical change - 60 years of Eurovision

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With the Eurovision Song Contest celebrating its 60th anniversary, and still regularly attracting around 200 million viewers, this year presents a great opportunity to look beyond the glitz of modern Eurovision and consider the changes in European culture, society and politics which it reflects.

We must thank the Italian members of the European Broadcasting Union  for the idea of the contest, originally conceived to help promote peace and harmony in a Europe still recovering from the Second World War. Since that first contest in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland between seven participating countries, it has expanded to include as many as 43 entries in the record year of 2008;  now qualifying rounds are required before the grand finals.

 Eurovision map
Map of countries participating in the context and the years they first took part (picture from Wikimedia Commons)

How amazed those Italian broadcasters, whose stated mission was to “stimulate the output of original high- quality songs in the field of popular music by encouraging competition between authors and composers through the international comparison of their works,” would be to see the power of YouTube, enabling viewers to compare in seconds the first ever winner, Switzerland’s Lys Assia singing Refrain, with Conchita Wurst’s winning Rise like a Phoenix for Austria in 2014.

Eurovision_Song_Contest_1958_-_Lys_Assia  ESC2014_-_Austria_07
1956 Eurovision winner Lys Assia (image from Beeld en Geluidwiki via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0) and 2014 winner Conchita Wurst (Photo: Albin Olsson, via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As a child of mixed heritage growing up in a small, monocultural English city, I loved the reporting of votes from the national juries even more than the songs – seeing the glamorous multilingual presenters, usually framed by an iconic national landmark first gave me a sense that I fitted in somewhere as a European and really inspired me to study foreign languages. Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of those national juries? Wonder no more! Via the EU Screen portal you can now see the terribly solemn 1976 Belgian jury deliberating at length over a nice cup of tea and contributing to one of the highest scores ever for a winning entry – the UK’s Brotherhood of Man’s inimitable Save Your Kisses for Me

Everyone will have their favourite Eurovision moments and associations, but there is far more to this event than sequins, folk-costumes and cheesy songs. On one level, Eurovision can be viewed as consolidating nationalistic stereotypes, but by encouraging viewers to encounter Europe in their living rooms it can also be seen as contributing to a sense of a common European identity. It is family viewing for today’s European family in all its diversity – gay and straight, old and young – all sharing the same experience but bringing their own readings to it. This European identity is then projected further afield with many enthusiastic viewers around the world – the contest is so popular in Australia that in this  anniversary year Australia’s Guy Sebastian will be a guest participant.

_AP52039
Winners of the 2015 second semi-final, with a range of national flags on stage and in the audience (photo from  EUROVISION/EBU, © Andres Putting (EBU))

Through the prism of Eurovision we can also see the changing shape of Europe. In the 1990s there was a rapid expansion of participants from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  The socialist countries had previously held separate song contests, with only Yugoslavia breaking the mould by joining Eurovision in 1961. Viewers behind the Iron Curtain watched the annual Sopot Music Festival from Poland or its short-lived offshoot, the Intervision Song Contest. The Sopot Festival was the brainchild of Władysław Szpilman, the Polish Jewish musician immortalised in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, bringing singers from around the world to perform, initially at the Gdańsk shipyards, then moving along the coast to Sopot. Intervision/Sopot also attracted huge audiences not least because guest artistes such as Boney M were invited to play in the intervals. 

By the 1990s participating in Eurovision was often a way for the new entrants to assert sovereignty, contribute to nation-building and project a particular national image around the world. Take for example Ukraine’s 2004 winning entry Wild Dances, performed by Ruslana  and featuring a version of the dances, costumes and rituals of the Hutsul people from western Ukraine, which then came to represent universal Ukrainian folk traditions for international viewers.

Eurovision also brings its viewers face to face with key political issues facing contemporary Europe. One can learn much about regional and cultural alliances by observing voting patterns, or about  linguistic politics within Europe, such as the rapid rise of English as a lingua franca, demonstrated by the fact that so many entries are now sung in English in order to reach the widest possible audience. 

But perhaps one of the key reasons for Eurovision’s enduring success is the way in which it has come to symbolise diversity and tolerance, far exceeding the original hopes of the EBU. It can be seen to represent a certain stability and unity in the face of an increasingly fragmented Europe.  To quote Conchita Wurst, who was welcomed in November 2014 by UN Secretary General  Ban Ki-Moon as an ambassador for human rights, “The Eurovision Song Contest is about love and respect for different languages, cultures and people, who in the end have more in common than differences” 

Eurovision books 2
Two of the many books about the Eurovision Song Contest in the British Library's collections

The British Library catalogue lists a huge range of resources relating to the Eurovision song contest – from books and academic articles, to audio and video recordings and archived websites. Some appear in unexpected places such as the article “ How does Europe Make Its Mind Up? Connections, cliques, and compatibility between countries in the Eurovision Song Contest” published in the scientific publisher Elsevier’s serial Physica A. (Vol. 360, No. 2, 2006, 576-598; British Library 6475.010000). However, not every author feels the love which Conchita Wurst refers to, as shown by S. Coleman’s article “ Why is the Eurovision Song Contest Ridiculous? Exploring a Spectacle of Embarrassment, Irony and Identity” in Popular communication (Vol 6, No. 3, 2008, 127-140; 6550.310000)

But whether they come to love or to mock, millions across the continent will be  sitting down this Saturday evening to watch the contest once again.

Janet Zmroczek, Head of European and Americas Collections

Further reading:  

Media, nationalism and European identities / edited by Miklós Sükösd, Karol Jakubowicz, (Budapest, 2011) YD.2011.a.8708

A song for Europe: popular music and politics in the Eurovision Song Contest / edited by Ivan Rakoff and Robert Deam Tobin (Aldershot, 2007) YC.2007.a.15111

John Kennedy O’Connor, The Eurovision Song Contest: the official history. (London, 2007) YK.2008.b.3530

Jan Feddersen, Merci, Jury: die Geschichte des Grand Prix Eurovision de la chanson. (Vienna, 2000) YA.2002.a.7182

K. Sieg , “Cosmopolitan empire: Central and Eastern Europeans at the Eurovision Song Contest” European journal of cultural studies. (Vol 16, No. 2, 2013), 244-226.  ZC.9.a.5325

Eurovision Song Contest 60th Anniversary Conference – webcast http://www.eurovision.tv/page/webtv?program=129423

SQS 2/2007 : Queer Eurovision/ Guest Editors: Mikko Tuhkanen & Annamari Vänskä  http://www.helsinki.fi/jarj/sqs/sqs2_07/sqs_contents2_07.html