Monday, 27 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 8 Images of disillusion (1)

Cologne, slough of despond.

I woke stiff, dirty and miserable to find George leaning over me. He was just about to wake me, he said. He was going to find the toilets; would I keep an eye on his rucksack? I crooked an arm through a shoulder strap and went back to sleep.

When he came back he said: Watch out if you go into the bogs. There's a mont in there, a seedy little bloke. Or there was, till I caught him with my belt. He tried to climb over the partition, the dirty sod.

'Mont' was a current school term for a predatory homosexual.

I asked George what had happened. On the way in he'd passed a small man leering at him and making suggestive gestures. He'd lashed out at the intruder with the buckle end of his belt when he tried to climb over the cubicle partition. There was a cry of pain, he dropped to the floor and ran off. When George came out there was nobody else about.

This nastiness clouded from the start the pure etherial beauty of my images of Cologne and the uplifting events I imagined happening there. I despaired of any actual contact with Adèle, but there remained certain evocations of her presence to attend to.

A man, even an 18-year-old obsessive, needs an occasional break from Beethoven. An amazing discovery when I was 16, a rising sun in whose warmth I basked, bathing my psyche in every rainbow colour from the white light of its emotional power, was Dichterliebe, Poet's Love, a cycle of 16 songs by Robert Schumann to words by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), an apostle of disillusion and a very individual voice among the German Romantic poets. I fell on these with an insatiable hunger and not so much swallowed them as bolted them.

No.6 of the cycle is set in Cologne:

Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,
Da spiegelt sich in den Well'n,
Mit seinem grossen Dome,
Das grosse, heilige Köln.

In Dom da steht ein Bildnis,
Auf goldenem Leder gemalt;
In meines Lebens Wildnis
Hat's freundlich hinein gestrahlt.

Es schweben Blumen and Eng'lein
Um uns're liebe Frau;
Die Augen, die Lippen, die Lippen, die Wänglein,
Die gleichen der Liebsten genau.

[Cologne, great and holy, with its great cathedral, is mirrored in the waves of the Rhine, the sacred river.
In the cathedral there's a portrait painted on golden leather, which has illuminated the wilderness of my life with kindness.
Flowers and cherubs surround the Virgin Mary; the eyes and lips, the lips and cheeks remind me of the most beloved.]

(My paraphrase. I had problems with this, partly because of the hopeless wetness of the verse - although Schumann's setting has a Bachian majesty to it - and partly because I really didn't want to come out with 'Great Holy Cologne' (Das grosse, heilige Köln) which would sound as though Batman had finally cleared Gotham City of crime and was passing the evening of his Batlife in genteel translation. Heine has no defence at all against ridicule. On with the story.)

It seemed to me that this could only refer to a painting I understood was housed in Cologne cathedral, Stefan Lochner's Madonna of the Rose Bower, a chocolate-box, Christmas-card image (at the top of this post) if ever there was one, but maybe one that has sometimes shed a kindly light on those whose life has become a wilderness. I was more interested in comparing the eyes, lips and cheeks of the painting with Adèle's, the most beloved's; to do so in Cologne cathedral would become a sort of sacrament, a confirmation that our eventual union was recognised elsewhere than in my mind and that all would be well.

I can't remember if George came too. I don't think so. It was hardly something he could share in, even if he'd wanted to. Cologne cathedral stands beside the railway station. Scaffolding covered much of the building. Dirty, unshaven, unkempt, in clothes slept in and unchanged since Ostend I joined a trickle of clean, shaven, kempt and Sunday-best dressed people heading for the main door, I suppose for early Mass. Just inside, a uniformed and beadle or verger barred my way, thumbs stuck aggressively in his heavy belt. He said various things of which I only understood Eintritt verboten, entry forbidden.


Back at the station we went into the same Imbiss Stube we'd frequented the previous night and ordered coffee. Presently a one-legged man, wreathed in smiles, came and sat opposite us.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 7 Prometheus (3)

In 1800 Beethoven was commissioned by Salvatore Viganò, an avant-garde choreographer, to write the music for a ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, The Creations (or Creatures) of Prometheus. The book of the ballet is lost, so we can only conjecture what the substance of the ballet was from a surviving Viennese play-bill, and of course from the music. Act 2, for instance, was set on Mt Parnassus and records the apotheosis of Prometheus, who has brought the human beings he has created to Apollo and the nine Muses for cultural and scientific instruction. Whatever the merits of this, Beethoven's music is mostly very fine, and by all accounts the ballet was popular and the music was well received, impressing even the elderly Haydn.

There are some engaging mysteries here. The music consists of an overture, which is occasionally performed, and 16 dance numbers, which very seldom appear on any concert programme. Rarities abound: virtually the only instances of Beethoven's use of the basset horn (a sort of tenor clarinet) and the harp are found here. More intriguingly, there's a very uncommon and curious example of melodic recycling, re-using a tune he'd earlier written for something else. The last Prometheus movement, the finale, features a tune which Beethoven had written perhaps a year before as No.7 of a set of 12 contredanses, formation dances something like Scottish reels. Within the space of two or three years this tune did quadruple duty, as the contredanse (before 1800), in the Prometheus finale (1800), as the theme for 15 Variations and a Fugue for piano, Opus 35 (1802) and finally, in the place where it's best known, in the last movement of the Eroica symphony (1803). It's very unusual to find Beethoven borrowing his own music, let alone anyone else's, so clearly this tune had a particular significance for him.

It's easier to speculate about this from back to front. The Eroica symphony represented a major and definitive statement of Beethoven's entire aesthetic belief, to such an extent that some commentators divide his music into pre- and post-Eroica. Into the Eroica he poured his most mature invention. The last movement of the Eroica is a massive set of variations not only on the famous tune, but on the bass line that accompanies it. So diverse and ambitious are these variations that some listeners find the movement difficult to come to terms with, but the tune has enough characteristic features to stand a lot of pushing and shoving and transforming into other guises, as Beethoven had already discovered with the piano variations of the year before. But why this particular tune?

The answer lies with Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus. How the tune travelled from an obscure contredanse (in fact Beethoven shoehorned in another as well, No.11) to the finale of his ballet we shall probably never know. Possibly Beethoven simply wanted a lively but dignified dance movement to bring Prometheus to a close, and lifted the most suitable out his bag of contredanses. Once the tune had the Prometheus label and connotation it was inalienably identified with the mythical Greek titan, the hero who stole fire from the sun and brought it to mankind hidden in a fennel stalk. For this presumption Zeus had Prometheus bound eternally with chains to a rock in the Caucasus, where eagles and vultures tore at his liver. So the basic legend ran. It was probably much older than classical Greece: although the Greek 'prometheus' can be harnessed to mean 'forethought' it's equally likely that the name derives from the Vedic pra-mathyu-s, meaning a thief. Classical Greek writers present Prometheus very diversely, not just as the Bringer of Fire, but as the creator of mankind from clay, and as the Great Benefactor, bringing his creation joy and happiness, but at heavy cost to himself.

This notion isn't too distant from those concepts of the hero that Beethoven evoked in Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, the Praise of God in Nature, and was to express again in the finale of the 9th symphony. More down to earth, however, was the idea current in Beethoven's generation that there actually seemed to be someone striving then and there to improve the lot of mankind and whose influence was spreading over Europe, if not across the Channel; someone apparently dedicated to universal education, to the widest diffusion of culture and science, to a polity in which everyone had a say, someone unafraid to make sweeping political and social changes on a continental scale to achieve them. A latter-day Prometheus, in fact, although most Anglo-Saxon eyes would see him with a sterner reality as not much of a joy-bringer: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Composition of the Eroica - the Italian for 'heroic' - symphony started shortly after Prometheus. The full title of the symphony is Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festiggiare il sovvenire d'un grand' uomo (Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man). The original manuscript title page had 'Bonaparte' written at the top and 'Luigi van Beethoven' at the foot, and the pairing makes one wonder if Beethoven saw himself as a kind of Prometheus too. So the symbol of Prometheus became the topical reality of the Eroica, and Beethoven made the link obvious by using the same tune in both.

The scales fell from his eyes in 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. When the news was brought to him, Beethoven angrily tore away the offending name 'Bonaparte' from the title page of the Eroica score, saying 'Is he no more than an ordinary human being? Now he too will trample on the rights of man and indulge only his own ambition. He will exalt himself above others, become a tyrant.'

At the gipsy encampment George and I sat hungrily with the whiteshirts and their women and children in the soft light of paraffin lamps and candles, waiting for the promised Abendmahl and wondering what was going to happen. Presently a man dressed in a grey suit whom we hadn't noticed before appeared in the candlelight behind the table and it became immediately clear that some act of worship was about to begin. It turned out to be a Communion service.

I don't know what punishment is reserved for those who take Communion before they've been confirmed. Whatever it is, it will be meted out by priests rather than God-given. At school I strongly resisted confirmation classes, which, it seemed to me, simply led to better ringside seats in a priestly circus that hadn't moved on much from the Barsetshire novels of Anthony Trollope. Confirmation wasn't for me, although I came to love Trollope dearly in due course. (Some of the Barsetshire themes were based on 19th century events - causes célèbres, even - in Rochester Cathedral.) I don't know what George's religious history was or leanings were, if any, but we both accepted the piece of bread and a mouthful of wine without scruple. I learnt much later that it was considered good religious manners to come to the Communion table with an empty stomach.

Afterwards the pastor took us to Cologne. He spoke a little English. Between shaking bouts of laughter and some consequent wobbling of the steering wheel he explained the difference between Abendmahl (Holy Communion) and Abendessen (supper). Some lessons come hard. The white-shirted ones, he said, were Evangelisches fahrendes Volk, evangelical travelling folk. They were good-hearted but often impractical. It was unthinkable that their Saturday night Communion should not have the Light of the World on the altar. He himself would have gone back to Cologne to fetch matches if we hadn't happened to pass by.

He dropped us at about 10.30 at the station. No tall blonde girl in a white dress stood beneath the station clock, but an Imbiss Stube was still open and we ended the day as we'd started it, with Brötchen mit Eier, and found a quiet corner of the concourse to doss down in afterwards, I after my usual post-prandial cigarette.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 7 Prometheus (2)

. . . George told me sharply to put the bloody thing away and not to be such a cretin. Was I mad? A titch like you? You get out of this kind of jam with your wits, not with a bloody great carving knife that'll end up between your ribs. Put it away this instant, son. And so on.

And of course I did. It was too dark for the whiteshirts to have seen, anyway. I think George was surprised by this display of aggression, a most regrettable streak in my character that used to bubble up from the murky depths now and again. I was often in trouble in my teens and well into my twenties for fighting, although not with knives. I seldom won. Fights I got myself into tended to develop in the manner of The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who continues to bawl defiance even though his arms and his legs have been lopped off one after the other in combat and he's been pruned down to a squirming, cursing trunk threatening to head-butt his opponent. (I had my nose broken in a fight at 22 and lost my front teeth at 25, leaving a terminally weakened canine. This tooth finally fell apart one morning during playground duty in a Southampton school, given its quietus by a piece of Victoria sponge that a Mrs Moss had sent me via her daughter Linda because she thought I looked pale.)

The whiteshirts turned out to be perfectly peaceable, polite and pleasant. Through a series of minor miscalculations that we didn't follow they'd found themselves without any means of making fire. They'd heard us shouting from their fireless, lightless encampment and had run down to the road to see if by any chance these people unexpectedly walking by happened to have a light. Haben Sie Feuer, bitte? - and I was able to answer Feuer? Jawohl! Kein Problem! shaking my box of matches and anxious to lay the shameful ghost of my aggression. (But we couldn't know, could we?) They seemed pathetically grateful: if we would consent to go back with them - it wasn't far - could we light a lamp for them? From that flame they could light others, they could prepare their Abendmahl. They would be honoured if we would agree to share it with them.

Translating Abendmahl as evening meal, I asked George what he thought. Great, he said, he was famished. So was I: the last square meal we'd eaten had been with Josef Kula and his wife in Liège, and we'd only had an apple and some biscuits since breakfast in Aachen that morning. There came into my mind unbidden the Wind in the Willows episode of Toad newly escaped from jail and grossly excited by the irresistible scents of gipsy stew. Were these people gipsies? Could we too expect a glorious stream of hot rich stew gurgling on to our plates? Or, less appealing, would we be served drabbed bawlor, which I understood was the Romany for hedgehog baked en croûte? We accepted eagerly.

We trudged through pasture in the semi-darkness while they asked us questions. Where had we come from? Last night we were in Aachen, we said, but we came from Kent, in England. Where we we going? Vienna, eventually, we said, but we had hoped to be in Cologne that night. It wasn't far to Cologne, a whiteshirt said. That's where their pastor came from.

I didn't pick up the inference of this, either. We reached an encampment of half a dozen vans and trailers arranged in a circle, a sort of laager. No light shone anywhere. A whiteshirt brought a paraffin lamp with a wire-protected glass flue, took my precious box of matches and lit it. He lit some candles as well, returned the matches to me, poured little pools of molten wax on a nearby table top and stood lit candles in them. People moved about lighting more candles and lamps from these, in a sort of arithmetical progression, and presently the laager was suffused with a soft pale light, reflected in van windows and chrome-work. There were a good twenty people there, women and children among the whiteshirts, dark eyes sparkling in lamplight, gold and silver threads twinkling in shawl-weaves, pale flashes from earrings and buckles, and everybody seemed to be smiling. And well dressed. But no one spoke. A whiteshirt brought a blanket smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, spread it on the grass and invited George and me to sit down like everyone else. Two or three children came and sat by us, staring at us silently and turning away quickly when we looked at them.

There was no sign or scent of anything to eat.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 7 Prometheus (1)

'Halt!' Someone called. 'Stop!' Someone else. 'Warten sie mal, bitte - '

In the failing light George and I looked towards a field entrance where the shouts appeared to come from. Several swarthy white-shirted figures appeared out of the near-dark, waving and shouting. What was this? An ambush? Were we being attacked? Were we going to be robbed? Instinctively I did something which might have turned out to be very dangerous: down the frame of my rucksack I kept a 10-inch (25cm) kitchen knife, the handle just at the back of my neck for easy access.

A man about whom I remember very little had dropped us, almost the last of a succession of short lifts that day, on a country road somewhere about Kerpen, a village west of Cologne. On picking us up he'd wanted to talk, but extended conversation was far beyond us and we gradually fell silent. Eventually he stopped outside a farm cottage. He claimed he had to visit whoever lived there: it would take some time, he didn't want to hold us back, so if we walked on a kilometre or two we would arrive at the main road to Cologne. If he found us still on the road, he'd pick us up again. We got out, thanked him, said Auf wiedersehn, to which he replied Ja, vielleicht, and shouldered our rucksacks. Not ten seconds later he sped past us, foot down hard on the accelerator, not having made the slightest attempt to contact whoever lived at the cottage. Clearly he just wanted rid of us. We walked on in the gloaming, scandalised by this wretched man's utter despicability. After a good airing of some of the picturesque oaths we were given to at the time, and after some perhapsing and maybeing we concluded that he was in fact Germany's champion bore, that he was in full training for the forthcoming World Narcolepsy Championships, that by chance he'd lit upon these two agreeable young fellows thumbing lifts somewhere east of Düren. Wunderbar! Prima! Here was somebody to practise on . . . and then, imagine his chagrin when he discovered that his two passengers, his captive audience, had so little German that they could barely understand a word he said.

I remember George shouting Wunderbar! Prima! at the top of his voice to the evening sky, and being answered a second or two later by shouts of Halt! Moment, bitte! and the like. What do you do when a gang - there were six or seven of them - of black-a-vised white-shirted men leaps out at you from behind a hedge when it's almost dark? I drew my knife: I wasn't going cheaply . . .