The eighth of March, 2011: shameless Filth, and such joy that no-one else could have any notion of

A little music criticism, courtesy of WNP Barbellion, April 11, 1915:

If music moves me it always generates images, a procession of apparently disconnected images in my mind. In [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony, for example, as soon as the first four notes are sounded and repeated, this magic population springs spontaneously into being. A nude, terror-stricken figure in headlong flight with hands pressed to the ears and arms bent at the elbows – a staring, bulgy-eyed mad woman such as one sees in Raemaeker’s cartoons of the Belgian atrocities. A man in the first onset of mental agony on hearing sentence of death passed upon him. A wounded bird, fluttering and flopping in the grass. It is the struggle of a man with a steam hammer – Fate. As tho’ thro’ the walls of a closed room – some mysterious room, a fearful spot – I crouch and listen and am aware that inside some brutal punishment is being meted out. There are short intervals, then unrelenting pursuit, then hammer-like blows, melodramatic thuds, terrible silences (I crouch and wonder what has happened), and the pursuit begins again. I see clasped hands and appealing eyes and feel very helpless and mystified outside. An epileptic vision or an opium dream, Dostoevsky or De Quincey set to music.

A little background information. Below is a cartoon by Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956), a Dutch cartoonist for the Amsterdam Telegraaf during the Great War (Barbellion, 1916: “…my gorge rises at those fatuous journalists continually prating about this ‘Greatest War of all time’… Why call this shameless Filth by high-sounding phrases – as if it were a tragedy from Euripides?”).

The picture’s from Illustration Mundo – thanks.

(Raemaeker, by the way, is often bracketed as an anti-war cartoonist, which is surely nonsense, given the extent to which his work fuelled Allied anti-German sentiment.)

Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) was the scandalous author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821):

Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!

And so on.

Dostoevsky, like Prince Myshkin in his The Idiot (1868-69 – just Idiot in Russian, a language with no definite article), suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. Or perhaps ‘suffered’ is wrong word: “For several moments,” he wrote, “I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life – such joy that no-one else could have any notion of. I would feel the most complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps.”

He had Myshkin add: “What does it matter that it is an abnormal intensity, if the result… turns out to be the acme of harmony and beauty?”

Beethoven, for what it’s worth, probably didn’t have epilepsy, though there are people who will tell you that he probably did. They’ll also tell you that Mozart had Tourette’s and that Bartók was autistic. Here’s Oliver Sacks:

Although the interpretation of the lives and works and personalities of eminent figures in terms of their supposed neorological or psychiatric dispositions is not new, it has become an obsession, almost an industry, at the present time…

…It may well be that many of these attributions are correct. The danger is that we may go overboard in medicalising our predecessors (and contemporaries), reducing their complexity to expressions of neorological or psychiatric disorder, while neglecting all the other factors that determine a life, not least the irreducible uniqueness of the individual.

Hear, hear! That’s from An Anthropologist On Mars (Picador, 1995). Quite apart from anything else, I find the whole business monstrously presumptuous. Some chaps have looked into it, with satisfying conclusions: the abstract’s here.

Anyway – and without apology for the above digression, because digression is what we do here – I’ve dug out my granddad’s elderly ‘Concert Hall’ recording, by the Symphony Orchestra of the Südwestfunk, Baden-Baden (conductor: Paul Kletzki), of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, and it’s spinning (and crackling) on my turntable as I write.

Have a listen (I prefer the third movement, myself, but Barbellion’s writing on the first is better) – this is Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1952:

“I will take Fate by the throat,” Beethoven wrote. “It shall not entirely overcome me.”

“I am not surprised to learn that Beethoven was once on the verge of suicide,” Barbellion concluded.


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