Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Box of Delights

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The wolves are running

I first published this post about a forgotten giant of Birmingham musical life and his solitary, much-loved seasonal masterpiece a few years ago on an early, now defunct iteration of the CBSO blog, and I’ve reposted it on a couple of subsequent Christmases. I’m hoping to write something more substantial about Victor Hely-Hutchinson in time for the CBSO’s centenary in 2020, but in the meantime, this always seems to draw a reasonably lively response. So in the spirit of the season, I hope you’ll forgive me for putting it up again. Happy Christmas, folks!


 

So here it is, Merry Christmas, and we have it on unimpeachable authority that everybody is having fun. Forgive me: I lived in Wolverhampton for eight years (well, it was good enough for Percy Young) and Noddy Holder is like a god there.

I’m not the world’s greatest fan of seasonal pop music. But I am, however, a fan of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony – a work with a deep connection to the English Midlands, and not just through its association with successive dramatisations of The Box of Delights. Here’s a blogpost I wrote in 2009 about the music and its (largely forgotten) composer. When it was first published I was delighted to receive a charming and kindly email from the composer’s then-78 year old son Christopher, who was living in Ludlow. Hopefully he still is.


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Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947)

When I was 11, my younger sister and I were both captivated by the BBC’s TV adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights. She liked the fantastic story, and the Christmassy atmosphere; I liked the steam trains. But one thing that we both loved, and which seemed to capture the whole wintry magic of the thing, was the signature tune – which we could tell, even then, was “proper” music, not just a typical children’s TV theme (this being the early 1980s, the lack of synthesizers was the giveaway). Here’s that title sequence in full (warning, unseasonably noisy Youtube advert may play first!).

I asked my father if he knew what it was – not realising that a pre-war radio dramatisation of The Box of Delights, with the same music, had become a seasonal classic for an earlier generation. Or that my father – at much the same age – had asked exactly the same question. He pulled out a Classics for Pleasure LP with a snowy landscape on the cover. The piece on it was called Carol Symphony, and the composer was Victor Hely-Hutchinson.

Carol Symphony cover 1

Sleeve art the way it used to be.

The record-sleeve told us that he’d been born on Boxing Day 1901, and had been Regional Director of Music for the BBC in Birmingham. It wasn’t very easy to find out much more back then, but it is now, and for the full story, there’s an excellent online biography by his son John. In short, Christian Victor Hely-Hutchinson was born in Cape Town, studied music with Charles Villiers Stanford and Donald Tovey, and at the age of 12 played a Mozart piano concerto with the LSO. In 1933 he landed the Birmingham job, and rapidly involved himself with every part of the city’s musical life – not least the 13-year old City of Birmingham Orchestra and its then music director Leslie Heward.

Hely-Hutchinson never held an official post with the CBO – but he was a tireless supporter of the Orchestra throughout the 1930s and 40s. The CBSO’s performance record-cards from that period are dotted with the initials VHH – indicating that he’d written the programme notes for a particular work. He gave pre-concert lectures (he took a doctorate in 1941, though he’d held the Chair of Music at Birmingham University since 1934). He appeared as piano soloist with the orchestra, notably in Mozart concertos, and in 1944 he performed his own rhapsody The Young Idea (intriguingly subtitled “cum grano salis”) with George Weldon conducting. It’s recently been recorded by Dutton.

And he did it all with consummate professionalism. The CBO’s manager Gerald Forty (of the piano-makers Dale, Forty) remembered that:

His quiet confidence was most reassuring. I see him in my mind’s eye, sitting at my desk. He knocks out a half-smoked pipe, his inseparable companion: fills it, lights it, takes a few puffs – finds it won’t draw – scrapes it out, refills it, wastes more matches – and so on da capo. While my ashtrays were being filled, his mind was concentrated on the matter at hand, and with a remarkable economy of words, he stated his views and recommended a solution.

Leslie Heward

Leslie Heward

But it was during wartime that Hely-Hutchinson gave his greatest service to the CBO. In early 1940, while working as a volunteer Air Raid Precaution warden, he performed (from memory!) a complete cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas at the Birmingham and Midland Institute – in aid of Orchestra funds. Meanwhile, he corresponded regularly with Leslie Heward, then recovering in Romsley Sanatorium from the TB which was to kill him just three years later. When Heward died in May 1943, Hely-Hutchinson rallied to the support of the CBO. As Forty recalled:

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Birmingham Town Hall in wartime. Hely-Hutchinson took part in ARP fire drills on the roof.

The problem of finding another conductor at short notice and of maintaining a full complement of players with War staring us in the face, was one of extreme perplexity; but Victor solved it by the apparently simple expedient of doing the entire job himself – including the compiling of programmes, rehearsing the orchestra (which he did anonymously and gratuitously for many years), conducting the concerts and dealing efficiently and decisively with the innumerable emergencies…

Hely Hutchinson was initially unconvinced by Heward’s successor, George Weldon, but with typical fair-mindedness was happy to revise his opinion after Weldon had settled into the post a year or so later:

“I want to tell you how right I think you were about George Weldon – and by the same token, I was wrong – eighteen months ago” he wrote to a colleague in June 1944. “As a pure musician, I cannot think him the equal of Leslie, but then, practically nobody is, and some of George’s performances – notably of Mozart – made me feel that he has the root of the matter in him”.

The following year, Hely-Hutchinson was offered the post of Director of Music for the BBC in London, and swapped his home near Droitwich for one in St John’s Wood. But he remained a familiar face in Birmingham music, and there was genuine shock in the city in March 1947 when the news arrived that he had died of pneumonia, aged just 45. The CBO paid its own tribute three weeks later, when Weldon conducted the first performance of Hely-Hutchinson’s recently-completed Symphony for Small Orchestra. (The concert was broadcast, and an incomplete recording survives in the CBSO archive).

Somehow, in this short but full musical life, Hely-Hutchinson found time to compose around 150 original works. The best known (by a country mile) is the Carol Symphony, from 1927, but there’s also an irresistible setting of Old Mother Hubbard “in the style of Handel”, which amusingly skewers the absurdities of baroque vocal style; and two shorter works, the Overture to a Pantomime and The Young Idea. Both have recently been recorded. They all show superb craftsmanship, a masterly ear for orchestral colour and a warm, thoroughly engaging sense of musical humour. They’d all merit an outing in the concert hall.

But the Carol Symphony has never quite left the repertoire (the most recent Birmingham performance was in December 2000). Far more than a mere seasonal medley, it’s actually a lovely and very English folk-song sinfonietta in four movements, in the spirit of Moeran, Vaughan Williams and John Ireland.

It’s packed with good things: the bustling mock-baroque figuration of the first movement (a sort of chorale-prelude on O Come All Ye Faithful), the jazzy, Walton-esque verve of the scherzo (God Rest Ye Merry); splashes of Handel, Elgar, and polytonal Stravinsky; the way Here We Come A-Wassailing trips in on the woodwind as the fugal finale bounds towards its grand, horn-trilling finish. And above all, that slow movement, in which Hely-Hutchinson sets the Coventry Carol to bleak, frozen harmonies that anticipate Vaughan Williams’ Sixth – and then, with dancing harp, muted strings and finally full orchestra, lightens our darkness with the gentlest and most enchanting setting ever made of The First Nowell.

A Box of Delights, indeed. Whatever else we remember him for, in the Carol Symphony Victor Hely-Hutchinson gave us something very special, and enduringly beautiful. Hely-Hutchinson’s CBO colleague and friend Gerald Forty, once more:

The Carol Symphony has become a standard Christmas piece for the City Orchestra: may it long continue to figure in those programmes as a reminder of the well-loved man to whom the City of Birmingham Orchestra and the Birmingham musical public owes so much.


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Review: English Symphony Orchestra in Cheltenham

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Johannes Brahms

JB in the ‘Nham

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Cheltenham Town Hall on Tuesday 21 November 2017.


“Brahms premiere” said the online listing, and who wouldn’t want to hear that? A couple of years ago Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra recorded an orchestral version of Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Now Woods has orchestrated Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet Op.26 to create what’s effectively a completely new Brahms symphony.

I’m sceptical about orchestral versions of chamber works. Woods feels differently, and I’m not going to take issue with that here. This was a labour of love, created over the best part of a decade, and my only serious reservation in this spirited premiere performance concerned Woods’s decision to give the opening motif to a quartet of horns in their fearsome top register: though this was apparently the idea that inspired the whole project. So it’s a case of take it or leave it, and – notwithstanding an occasional feeling that it was all perhaps a little too colourful for Brahms – it was far too enjoyable to leave.

And so many of Brahms’s ideas translated beautifully: clarinet and horn duetting in the slow movement; bassoon plodding under a lilting oboe duet; and leader Tijmen Huisingh sweetly delivering his second movement violin solo as a sort of homage to the First Symphony. Woods’s realisation of the third and most understated movement, in particular, sounded as if Brahms had actually conceived it for the orchestra. Any Brahms lover would be fascinated to hear this orchestration, and under Woods’s direction the ESO played it with whole-hearted commitment and verve.

And if that leaves no space to discuss the first half of the concert, and Alexander Sitkovetsky’s sweeping, heroic performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, I can only apologise. It’s just that under Woods’s artistic leadership, the ESO is an orchestra that gives you a lot to talk about.

Review: James Ehnes plays Bach

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Bach

JSB

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at the Barber Institute on Wednesday 15 November 2017.


Ah, Bach. That’s what The Bluffer’s Guide to Music suggests you say if you’re ever stumped for opinions on old JS. He’s the greatest composer in Western music, you see. Everybody says so. And if it’s your job to have opinions on classical music, and you’re a Bachsceptic – you don’t care for fugues, say, or your enthusiasm for Lutheran dogma wears thin after the first hundred cantatas – you learn to keep that to yourself. What’s that, a whole evening of unaccompanied violin music? Ah, Bach!

That said, if any violinist could convince a doubter, it’d be James Ehnes – a virtuoso of golden tone and old-school brilliance, who never lets either ego or (commanding) intelligence get between him and the composer. He cut a smart if unassuming figure as he walked out at the Barber Institute. And then; well, the first thing you noticed was his sound – rich, firm, lustrous and layered. He’s generous with vibrato: there wasn’t a single coarse sound. From the very first notes of the B minor Partita, his violin sang.

But it danced, too. For every movement like the Fugue of the A minor Sonata – a study in controlled tension – there was something like the whirling verve that he brought to the finales of the A minor and C major Sonatas. Ehnes never imposed himself: the character here sprang from Bach, and it was unstinting, with the translucent sound Ehnes found for the A minor Sonata giving way to a solar radiance in the C major Sonata’s massive fugue. And every note felt honest. I’ve never seen a Barber Institute audience give a standing ovation before – and given the quality of so many of the Barber’s recitals, that’s saying something. Especially from a Bachsceptic.

Review: I Fagiolini at Birmingham Town Hall

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Rainy day in Venice

 The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Town Hall on Thursday 9 November 2017.


“The Other Vespers” was the title of this concert by I Fagiolini, and it was a bit of a tease. I Fagiolini approach everything with a twinkle in their eye, and the photos in the programme showed them in Italy, larking about on Vespa scooters (get it?) and generally enjoying la dolce vita. The point was that this wasn’t the famous Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: but a sequence of sacred music by various Italian baroque masters that Monteverdi is known (or plausibly assumed) to have directed in Venice some decades later.

Cue baroque music on a truly luxurious scale. The eight singers of I Fagiolini under Robert Hollingworth were accompanied by a continuo of chamber organ plus various sizes of theorbo, as well as two violins and the six-strong English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. Together, the sound they made was refulgent, and glowed rather than dazzled: in works like Gabrieli’s 14-part Magnificat, the harmonies built and shimmered like clouds of incense.

Elsewhere, the ensemble was used more sparingly, and there were some delightful discoveries: an Ave Verum by Palestrina had a warbling solo cornetto (just one) added by the Milanese vocalist Bovicelli – a sound halfway between a cor anglais and a duck-call. Instrumental items, including a marvellously florid violin sonata by Uccellini were interspersed with the sacred numbers.

But everything, sacred or profane, was informed by the same sense of playful inventiveness. It danced, as well as sang, and singers and instrumentalists alike improvised and ornamented their melodies. And if (to modern ears) it felt slightly anticlimactic to end with a solo item – Monteverdi’s Salve, O Regina, sung with languishing sweetness – it was a useful reminder that the real stars here were the composers.

Review: The Golden Dragon (Music Theatre Wales)

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The Golden Dragon - credit Clive Barda

Male cast member playing a female but racially non-specific cricket.

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is a review of a performance at Birmingham Rep on Tuesday 3 October 2017, originally published in the Birmingham Post on 5 October.


The Golden Dragon is a “Thai – Chinese –  Vietnamese” restaurant. Four chefs stand at their stations, dicing and frying. A fifth – The Little One – sits on the floor chopping peppers and pak choi, a martyr to toothache. And behind them sits the orchestra of Music Theatre Wales, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson: unlikely kitchen staff in aprons and headbands. Peter Eötvös’s 2014 chamber opera has a striking premise, and director Michael McCarthy’s production establishes it with brilliant economy.

Then it’s down to the cast and Eötvös’s glistening, juddering score. Metallic percussion and guiro become the clang of knives, synthesiser chords billow into the air like fragrant steam, and squirming clarinets evoke The Little One’s nagging pain. His rotten tooth is the centre of a nest of interlocked tales of exile, exploitation and economic migration. And amidst the restlessness of Eötvös’s music, he’s the one who finds a macabre sort of transcendence, and the opera’s final, darkly beautiful flight of lyricism.

It’s all performed with needlepoint precision and exuberant physical verve by a multi-tasking cast: Lucy Schaufer’s Woman Over Sixty had a rough-cut compassion, while Daniel Norman and Johnny Herford never overcooked the comedic potential of tattooed, bearded men doubling as hair-flicking air stewardesses. Llio Evans’s Little One was unquestionably the heart of the drama, tender-voiced and poignantly resigned to his / her fate.

But for all its inventiveness The Golden Dragon left a sour aftertaste, even beyond its stereotyped representation of Chinese restaurants as unhygienic sweatshops, or the fact that only the western characters are permitted names. Librettist Roland Schimmelpfennig’s mixture of narration and direct speech means that the characters never acquire more depth than a cartoon: a serious problem in a story that uses sexual violence as a rhetorical device. Still, a programme note in unreadable academic prose justifies it all by reference to (who else?) Bertolt Brecht. So that’s alright then.

Iceland’s Bell

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“My lord has not seen Iceland rise from the sea…” – Flatey in Breidafjordur, September 2013 (picture by Annette Rubery)

I wrote this longer-than-usual article in 2009 as a guest post on a blog about 18th century history, and it’s also appeared here as well.  It’s meant as an introduction to a favourite novel by one of my literary heroes, the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, and it’s not supposed to be definitive: it’s aimed at an English-speaking non-specialist readership, with no particular grounding in Icelandic literature or culture. I’ve had no further opportunity to write about Laxness or Icelandic literature, but I’d be very keen to do so! (Contains spoilers)


If you love the 18th century, chances are you have a favourite historical novelist. It’s a boom area in literature – and an opportunity for readers to slip, for a few hours, into a world of classical terraces, elegant ballrooms, colonnaded mansions and rolling parkland. But in the right hands, readers have shown themselves more than willing to move beyond the world of Jane Austen and into ever more exotic terrain. Rose Tremain’s 1999 Whitbread award-winner Music and Silence, for example, found a wide readership for a story set in the Royal court of 1630s Denmark.

So here’s a historical novel also set, in part, at the Danish royal court, covering (roughly) the period 1700-1730: the age of the Great Northern War. Epic in scope, it sweeps across nations and seas, a story of oppression, suffering and intrigue; of boisterous humour, deep poetry and star-crossed romance. It’s by a great novelist; in fact, a Nobel laureate. And yet it’s barely known in the English-speaking world. It’s called ĺslandsklukkan Iceland’s Bell – and it’s by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness (1902-1998).

To be fair, until recently you’d have had to read it in Icelandic, or maybe German. Incredibly, Iceland’s Bell was only translated into English in 2003 (it was first published in 1945). Philip Roughton’s translation (which I’ve used throughout; with Icelandic letters such as đ [pronounced ‘th’] used about as consistently as Wordpress allows me) has only now given this extraordinary novel to English-speakers. But the 18th century-loving community still seems to have been rather slow to seize on it.

Maybe that’s because Laxness is best-known as a literary modernist; the author of powerful social-realist novels like Independent People (1934) and visionary psychedelia (Under The Glacier – 1968). You certainly wouldn’t guess from the cover of the Vintage edition that this was a historical novel. Maybe it’s because of the notorious English-speaker’s allergy to literature in translation (though if you can handle Tolkien’s imaginary names and places, you should be able to cope with Laxness’ genuine Icelandic ones). And maybe it’s because when you open Iceland’s Bell, you enter an authentic, brilliantly realised 18th century world that’s startlingly different from anything in Austen or Georgette Heyer.

How different? Well, here’s the oldest surviving building in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavík. It dates from 1762 – in other words, a good half-century later than the period chronicled in Iceland’s Bell:

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At the start of the 18th century, Reykjavík simply didn’t exist as anything more than a tiny fishing settlement, and it doesn’t feature in Iceland’s Bell (for Laxness’ take on Reykjavík, try his enchanting coming-of-age novel The Fish Can Sing). But the fact that this was one of the biggest and most impressive residences in Iceland gives you some idea what to expect in the novel. True, it’s a story of noblemen, elegant ladies, country squires and great estates – but don’t picture Palladian mansions and jardins à l’anglaises. A couple of the locations featured in the novel survive today. Bessastađir, just outside modern Reykjavík, was the seat of the Danish regent, and it’s still the residence of the President of Iceland.

Bessastaðir today

Bessastaðir today (Wikimedia Commons)

This is where Jón Hreggviđsson is imprisoned near the start of the novel, and although it was extensively rebuilt from the 1760s onwards, it’s still on the same site. Here’s how it looked at the start of the 19th century. Remember, in the period of Iceland’s Bell this was by some way the biggest and most impressive building in Iceland – and it wasn’t even as grand as the structures in this picture:

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Bessastaðir in 1834

Only slightly less imposing were the houses of the Danish Monopoly Merchants – the officials licensed by the Danish crown to control and manage all trade with its colony of Iceland. From 1602 to 1786 trade with Iceland was rigorously controlled by Denmark, and in the period of Iceland’s Bell all trade was forbidden except through licensed Merchants in designated Monopoly Ports. The result, unsurprisingly, was poverty and famine. Most Icelanders were subsistence farmers or fishermen, living in turf-roofed cottages. (In the novel, Jón Hreggviđson is initially convicted as a “cord-thief”, and throughout Iceland’s Bell, a shortage of fishing-cord is reported as Iceland’s most urgent problem. Icelanders couldn’t even feed themselves without it). In such circumstances, the monopoly merchant’s houses were symbols of unimaginable power and wealth.

And when you look at the surviving examples – such as the Husiđ in the monopoly port of Eyrarbakki (1765), today a museum – it’s impossible not to do a double-take. This is the very house where Squire Magnús of Braeđratunga passes out in the pigsty after selling his wife for a keg of brennivín, in Part 2 of Iceland’s Bell (Laxness stayed in Eyrarbakki to complete the novel). It’s about as grand as Georgian architecture got in Iceland. And it’s not exactly Blenheim Palace:

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Husiđ at Eyrarbakki

This is the world in which Laxness chose to set his great historical novel. Like many of his literary choices, it proved controversial amongst his fellow Icelanders. Laxness was at the height of his career; ten years later, in 1955, he’d be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He worked on the book over the period 1942-45. On 17th June 1944, after seven centuries of foreign rule, Iceland finally achieved independence from Denmark – though with the superpowers already positioning themselves for the Cold War to come, the young Republic’s future looked far from secure. National pride, and nationalist passions, were burning high. Now, at this historic moment, Iceland’s leading writer published a novel set in the most humiliating period of Iceland’s history.

Laxness makes his intentions clear from his very first page:

There was a time, it says in books, that the Icelandic people had only one national treasure: a bell. The bell hung fastened to the ridgepole at the gable-end of the courthouse at Thingvellir by Oxará. It was rung for court hearings and before executions, and was so ancient that no-one knew its true age any longer. The bell had been cracked for many years before this story begins, and the oldest folk thought they could remember it as having a clearer chime. All the same, the old folk still cherished it.

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The church at Thingvellir in 2009 – picture by Annette Rubery

Anyone who’s ever been on a “Golden Circle ” tour in Iceland will have visited Thingvellir – the breathtaking natural gorge where, for nearly a thousand years, the Icelandic Parliament, the Althingi met annually in the open air. Today it’s a World Heritage Site; a wooden church (dating from the 19th century) has replaced the 17th century courthouse. The old bell, sent as a gift to Iceland by King Olaf of Norway in 1015, and known to Icelanders under colonial rule as “the nation’s sole possession”, really existed. And what happens next – like many of the events in Iceland’s Bell – really happened, too:

One year when the king decreed that the people of Iceland were to relinquish all of their brass and copper so that Copenhagen could be rebuilt following the war, men were sent to fetch the ancient bell at Thingvellir by Oxará.

The king’s hangman comes from Bessasađir with a work party of convicts, and the bell is cut down.

The pale emissary took a sledgehammer from a saddlebag, placed the ancient bell of Iceland on the doorstep before the courthouse, and gave the bell a blow […] the bell broke in two along its crack.

The nation’s last treasure has been hacked down and shattered. Laxness’ message could hardly be more clear. He hasn’t just set his novel in the darkest period in Icelandic history – he’s beginning his story at its absolute lowest point. But there’s worse to come. There’s a famine, and an epidemic. By the end of Iceland’s Bell, the island itself has been put up for sale by the king of Denmark – and even he can’t find a buyer.

Meanwhile – and almost as an aside – Laxness has set his story in motion. As the cord-thief Jón Hreggviđson unwillingly cuts down the bell, he cracks a scurrilous joke about the king. That’s a criminal offence. The legal action that ensues becomes the driving force of the whole novel, expanding, twisting back on itself, and eventually, over three decades drawing the whole of Icelandic society into its coils – right up to the king of Denmark himself. It’s a classic Icelandic narrative gambit. Throughout the 1940s, Laxness was engaged in editing new editions of the medieval Icelandic sagas. The single, rash, action leading to a legal dispute that embroils the whole nation (and punctuated by set-piece courtroom battles at Thingvellir), is an archetypal saga narrative. Laxness conceived Iceland’s Bell as a modern saga, and the famous line from Njál’s Saga (known to every Icelander) is a sort of unspoken ground-bass to Iceland’s Bell: “With laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste”.

 Laxness borrows a literary style from the sagas, too. We never read his characters’ thoughts or inner emotional conflicts. Like the anonymous saga poets, Laxness simply describes their words and actions – and lets us infer the emotions for ourselves. Instead of manipulating the reader’s feelings, Laxness prompts them. The effect is clear, objective and yet, at the book’s great climaxes, overwhelmingly moving.

And make no mistake, this is a story of epic range and emotion. Jón Hreggviđson’s decades-long struggle for justice is its backbone, and there’s no doubt that Hreggviđson – an illiterate, impertinent peasant-farmer, with seemingly endless reserves of stoicism and a head full of garbled medieval ballads – is the novel’s central figure. Hreggviđson (and the lawsuits he pursued from 1683 to 1715) really existed, but Laxness makes this near-forgotten 17th-century criminal a figure of universal significance.

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Egill Skallagrímsson – from a 17th Century manuscript.

He’s the eternal underdog; resourceful, facetious and seemingly indestructible. Icelandic readers will have found traces of favourite saga-characters in his make-up – the buffoonish Björn from Njál’s Saga, the bullish Grettír the Strong, and of course the great trickster-poet Egill Skallagrímsson. English readers might be reminded of Baldrick. But Hreggviđson is very much his own man. Whether conscripted into the Danish army or wrestling with trolls on an Icelandic heath; flogged, abused, and pushed around by the mighty, he always comes back with the proud assertion that he’s descended from the saga-hero Gunnar of Hliđarendi – and throws in an apposite verse of his favourite Elder Ballad of Pontus.

Against his story, and intertwined with it, another very different narrative unfolds. And for many readers, the romance of the Lady Snaefriđur, “Iceland’s Sun”, and the King’s Antiquary, Lord Arnas Arnaeus makes Iceland’s Bell one of the most touching love stories in modern literature. Snaefriđur (literally “Fair as Snow”) is one of Laxness’ most beloved creations: daughter of Iceland’s senior magistrate, sister-in-law of the Bishop of Skálholt, she’s universally admired as Iceland’s loveliest and most nobly-born heiress. We meet her first as a figure from a fairy-tale:

She wore no hat, and her head shone with dishevelled hair. Her slender body was childishly supple, her eyes unworldly as the blue of heaven. Her comprehension was still limited only to the beauty of things, rather than to their usefulness, and thus the smile she displayed as she stepped into this house had nothing to do with human life.

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“Snaefridur, Iceland’s Sun” – costume design from the 1950 National Theatre of Iceland stage version.

But Snaefriđur will soon learn about human life, and in full measure. Like Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, the commanding heroine of Laxdaela Saga, she’s proud, determined and idealistic. She’s also in love – and is prepared to break the law, and bring about her own social and financial ruin rather than betray her emotions. One night at Thingvellir, she springs Jón Hreggviđson from the condemned cell and sends him with a ring and a message to her beloved in Denmark. Determined that if she can’t marry the “best of men”, she’d rather have the worst, she marries the brutish drunkard Magnús of Braeđratunga. Meanwhile she sacrifices her wealth, dignity and youth to pursue a long series of lawsuits against her true love, Arnas Arnaeus – who has ignored Hreggviđson’s message (but taken up his case), returned the ring, and quit Iceland in pursuit of a higher calling.

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Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir’s grave, from Helgafell – photo by Annette Rubery

Fire in Copenhagen, the final volume of Iceland’s Bell is dominated by his story, just as the second, The Fair Maiden is dominated by Snaefriđur, and the first, Iceland’s Bell focuses on Jón Hreggviđson. Court Assessor Arnas Arnaeus, the Royal Antiquary, is the highest ranking Icelander at the Danish court, and at first sight he’s little more than another Restoration dandy:

The aesthete in him spoke out from every seam, each pleat, every proportion in the cut of his clothing; his boots were of fine English leather. His wig, which he wore under his brimmed hat even amongst boors and beggars, was exquisitely fashioned, and was as smartly coiffured as if he were going to meet the king.

 But he enters Hreggviđson’s turf hovel in search of something more precious to him than his own status – fragments of old Icelandic parchments. His passion is the ancient literature of Iceland; to him, the proof that his stricken country once created great art. In his elegant Copenhagen townhouse, he collects a library of Icelandic sagas, ballads and poetry. Meanwhile he pays court (Fire in Copenhagen opens with a gorgeous set-piece description of a royal masque in the Danish capital), marries into money, and struggles to improve the lot of the Icelanders – making powerful enemies along the way. It’s all of it necessary to protect his priceless manuscripts, and sacrificing the love of his life is just part of the price that he decides to pay. The tragedy of their love is that Snaefriđur understands this too:

“Snaefriđur” he said as she turned to leave. He was suddenly standing very close to her. “What else could I have done but give Jón Hreggviđson the ring?”

“Nothing, Assessor”, she said.

“I wasn’t free,” he said. “I was bound by my work. Iceland owned me, the old books that I kept in Copenhagen – their demon was my demon, their Iceland was the only Iceland in existence. If I had come out in the spring on the Eyrarbakki boat, as I promised, I would have sold out Iceland. Every last one of my books would have fallen into the hands of my creditors. We would have ended up on some dilapidated estate, two highborn beggars. I would have abandoned myself to drink and would have sold you for brennivín, perhaps even cut off your head –“

She turned completely around and stared at him, then quickly took him by the hand, leaned her face in one swift movement up against his chest, and whispered:

“Arní.”

She said nothing more, and he stroked her fair and magnificent hair once, then let her leave as she had intended.

Copenhagenfire

The Great Fire of Copenhagen – contemporary print

Laxness based Arnas on the great Icelandic antiquarian Árni Magnússon (1663-1730). Magnússon, like Arnas Arnaeus, built a collection of Icelandic manuscripts in Copenhagen; and like him, led a troubled personal life. And his collection, too, was badly damaged in the Great Fire of Copenhagen in 1728, which forms the dramatic climax of Iceland’s Bell. But unlike Arnas’, it wasn’t completely destroyed. Three decades after Iceland gained independence, and Iceland’s Bell was published, the Danish government started to repatriate the Magnússon collection. Today, the manuscripts are protected by the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík, and the room that displays them in Reykjavík’s Culture House is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of European literature.

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Arni Magnusson

Halldór Laxness doesn’t have quite such a happy end in store for his characters. But he wouldn’t be the writer he is if he didn’t somehow find hope in even the bleakest of circumstances. At one point in the novel, Arnas comments that his countrymen’s “one and only task is to keep their stories in memory until a better day”. In the closing pages of Iceland’s Bell, his life’s work is in ashes, Iceland is more abject than ever, and he has sacrificed love and career in vain. But one thing – one person – has survived it all; the indomitable Jón Hreggviđsson and his head full of poetry. Together, they ride to the harbour where Hreggviđsson, pardoned at last, is to take ship back to Iceland. And as always, the illiterate cord-thief has a verse for the occasion:

“Now I shall teach you an introductory verse from the Elder Ballad of Pontus, that you have never heard before,” he said.

Then he recited this verse:

“Folk will marvel at the story,
There on Iceland’s shore
When Hreggviđsson’s old grey and hoary
Head comes home once more.”

 After both had memorized the verse, they all sat in silence. The road was wet, causing the carriage to sway from side to side.

The Assessor remained lost in thought for some time, then finally looked at the farmer from Rein, smiled and said:

“Jón Marteinsson saved the Skálda. You were all that fell to my lot”.
Jón Hreggviđsson said: “Does my lord have any messages he would like me to deliver?”…

“You can tell them from me that Iceland has not been sold – not this time. They’ll understand later. Then you can hand them your pardon”.

“But shouldn’t I convey any greetings to anyone?” said Jón Hreggviđsson.

“Your old ruffled head – that shall be my greeting” said the Professor Antiquitatum Danicarum.

Arnas Arnaeus gives his life to the written word. Jón Hreggviđsson can’t even write, but his nation’s literary culture bubbles, unquenchably, beneath his “old ruffled head”. It takes a writer of Laxness’ vision to perceive that a nation’s literature can survive without books – but not without its humanity. When Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, the Swedish Academy’s citation was:

For his vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.

 None of his novels embodies that spirit more stirringly than Iceland’s Bell. And nothing captures the spirit of the novel better than Laxness’ response to his career’s crowning moment. As the telegrams of congratulations poured in from around the world, Laxness realised that he couldn’t respond to them all. So he decided to respond only to one – a message of “lycka til” [congratulations] from the Sundsvall Society of Pipe Layers, in northern Sweden. In other words, sewage-workers. Praised by the whole world, Laxness was moved above all by the idea that “men who bent double over pipes, deep in the ground, should climb out of their drains in the midst of the winter in Sundsvall, in order to shout ‘hurrah for literature’”.

August 2009

Review: Gerontius at the Three Choirs

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Worcester Gerontius

Just before Prince Charles arrived

 

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Worcester Cathedral on Tuesday 25 July 2017.


There’s something very special about hearing The Dream of Gerontius in Worcester Cathedral during the Three Choirs Festival. “There is music in the air”, said Elgar: and when the very stones of the Cathedral seem to vibrate, as they did tonight when the organ held a deep, quiet pedal-note at the end of Part One, you can almost sense Sir Edward’s invisible presence.

So this performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Festival Chorus under Martyn Brabbins had a lot going for it even before a single note had been played. With the performers located (for the first time in many years) at the east end of the nave, the clarity and transparency of the orchestral sound was evident from the outset, as Brabbins gently blended the misty colours of Elgar’s Prelude.

That set the tone for a performance that was expansive (new layout or not, the Cathedral acoustic doesn’t allow much leeway on that front), but consistently lyrical and loving. David Butt Philip was almost a bel canto Gerontius, and while his voice felt perhaps too fresh for the dying man of Part One, his vocal radiance and sense of wonder made Part Two glow. As the Angel, Susan Bickley had “something too of sternness”, cresting her Alleluias like a Valkyrie – but found limitless compassion in her great Farewell. Roderick Williams was both a warmly expressive Priest, and a majestic Angel of the Agony.

Chorus and Orchestra responded in kind, with the Girl Choristers of Worcester Cathedral giving a gleaming golden top to a Festival Chorus whose pianissimos were luminous, even if they struggled for clarity in the Demons’ Chorus and Praise to the Holiest. But the spirit, clearly, was willing: and in The Dream of Gerontius, nothing matters more.

Review: Madam Butterfly (Welsh National Opera)

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It really is that brown

 

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday 27 June 2017.


Welsh National Opera has been doing some interesting things this year, but in the Second City it’s mostly been Puccini revivals. To say we’ve seen this all before is an understatement: Joachim Herz’s production of Madam Butterfly is nearly 40 years old, though to be fair Reinhart Zimmermann’s designs – with their hanging cherry blossom and little wood and paper house – have aged well. It’s only the tie-dye drapes and preponderance of the colour brown (it’s all very Habitat) that make you realise this production dates from 1978.

And of course each new cast, conductor and revival director (Sarah Crisp on this occasion) has the potential to breathe new life into it. The staging’s telling little details – Trouble’s toy lighthouse, the ugly locks that Pinkerton has fitted to the delicate-looking house in Act 2 – were matched by vivid, detailed performances: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s calm, compassionate Suzuki, and David Kempster, as a gruff, warm-toned Sharpless, wagging his finger in warning as he tries to make Pinkerton do the decent thing. As Pinkerton, Paul Charles Clarke was determinedly oafish. His hard-edged, blustery singing and the way he let the cowardice flash across his face won him a chorus of pantomime-baddie boos.

But of course there’s no Butterfly without Cio-Cio-San, and Linda Richardson had it all: unsinkable assurance shading into heart-breaking fragility and (at the end) chilling resolve, all conveyed in a voice that never stopped glowing – whether quiet and poised, or soaring above the orchestra at the climax of an Un Bel Di that really blazed. Andrew Greenwood conducted with red-blooded sweep, and the WNO Orchestra responded with a passion worthy of the only UK opera orchestra from which I’ve never heard a lacklustre performance.

Review: CBSO / Canellakis / Tiberghien

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CBSO: hangin’ with my homies

 The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Symphony Hall on Wednesday 17 May 2017.


 

We need to hear more César Franck. Historically speaking, Debussy is meaningless without him – and his blend of fervent Wagnerian harmonies with high Gothic grandeur makes Franck’s orchestral music intoxicating listening. So huge plaudits to the CBSO’s guest conductor Karina Canellakis for opening her Birmingham debut with Franck’s terrific symphonic poem Le Chasseur Maudit. With its hell-bound horns and eerie moments of calm, it’s a real white-knuckle ride, and the CBSO sounded as if they were enjoying every bar.

As well they might: in her enthusiasm, Canellakis went at it with off-the-scale energy, generating within the first few minutes the kind of volumes that some CBSO chief conductors reserve for the climax of Mahler’s Eighth. She’d dialled it back slightly by the final item in the concert, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. This was an intelligent bit of programming, with the baleful chimes of Rachmaninoff’s finale echoing the Franck, and Canellakis conducted with a powerful sense of direction. I’ve never been more convinced that this piece is a symphony in disguise, and the CBSO’s strings were so lush that you felt you could almost reach out and squeeze the sound.

In between, Cédric Tiberghien was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Egyptian”. Given that the CBSO won a Gramophone Award for its Saint-Saëns concerto recordings a few years ago, you’d think we’d hear this more often too. But its blend of Parisian glitter and sunny orientalism make it worth the wait, and Tiberghien played it with a winningly light touch – and in the sultry second movement, a surprising amount of muscle. Canellakis accompanied with loving care, reinforcing the impression that this is one young conductor it’d definitely be worth asking back.

Review: Orchestra of the Swan

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Orchestra of the Swan

Orchestra of the Swan

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Town Hall on Wednesday 24 May 2017.


A change, they say, is as good as a rest. It’s rare that we get to hear the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by anyone other than David Curtis. But it’s no reflection upon Curtis’s tireless work to say that under the American guest conductor Franz Anton Krager, they sounded like a band renewed. Krager served as OOTS’s principal guest conductor back in the noughties, but this was his Town Hall debut, and on the strength of this performance it’d be good to have him back rather sooner next time.

True, Schubert’s Fifth Symphony and the teenage Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto aren’t the stuff of which ovations are made. Still less, the symphony formerly known as Mozart’s 37th – actually a work by Michael Haydn to which Mozart, for reasons known only to himself, added a short introduction. Under Krager, OOTS played it in big, buoyant phrases, propelled by buccaneering horns and a real feeling for this underrated music’s ebullient personality.

That verve and sense of colour were even more noticeable in the Schubert, with some of the most stylish playing I’ve heard from OOTS. Krager brought out the shadows in this usually sunny symphony, letting woodwind lines sing through the texture, and weighting the stormier string passages towards the basses to generate a powerful momentum. It all went with a terrific swing, as did Jennifer Pike’s larger-than-life account of the concerto – delivered by Pike with a glinting tone and a series of brilliant, startlingly Romantic cadenzas. Krager and the OOTS were more than ready to meet her on the same terms. Played by a symphony orchestra, these three pieces can seem like miniatures. Here, they became whole worlds.