Offenbach at 200

Once upon a time, far too many years ago, there was a boy. He was eleven years old, and had just started high school. There, he met a music teacher – one of those teachers destined to inspire many of the pupils who came into contact with him. A whole new world of classical music suddenly opened up to the boy and he was eager to explore it.

He didn’t hear classical music at home, and so the boy went to the local library and started borrowing records from their collection. But he was a novice. He had no idea what he “should” be listening to, what music was part of the “canon” and what music was obscure. So, he borrowed “Attila” by Verdi, with no idea that most people had never heard of it and would have probably directed him to “Rigoletto” or “La Traviata” instead. He borrowed Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony because he got it mixed up with Beethoven’s. But his naivety regarding the music he was eager to explore meant he had no bias. No-one had told him what was good, or what was bad, what was serious, what was important, or what was trivial.

Someone else had inspired the boy as well. When he had been younger, around seven, he had met an elderly lady who lived close by and they had become friends. Each week, he would go there and they would play board games or card games, maybe watch a classic film on the TV, drink lots of tea, and eat lots of cake. Lots. And they would read books together. One of those books, about the same time the boy was expanding his musical horizons, was “Robinson Crusoe.”

One day, he was in the library, looking for a new musical work to fall in love with, and there on the shelf he spotted a boxed set of records, with a yellow cover and a title emblazoned across it: “Robinson Crusoe” by Jacques Offenbach. He had no idea that there had been an opera made out of the story – and had even less idea that most other people were unaware of it, too. He had no prior knowledge of Offenbach, either. He borrowed the records, went home with them tucked under his arm, and fell in love.

Just as with the music teacher and the elderly neighbour (who the boy continued to visit several times a week for fifteen years until she passed away, and he still misses her more than could be imagined), there was an instant connection. Sometimes these things cannot be explained. Not only was there the music on the records in that boxed set, but also the story in the booklet that came with it, about how neglected the work had been over the years, how it had been carefully reconstructed for the recording, and the detective work that had gone into making that happen. It was a very romantic story for a twelve-year-old to come across.

There might have been notices on many of his records that “home taping is killing music,” but he made a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” all the same, and he borrowed it from the library as many times as he could. In fact, he borrowed it so many times that, after several years, the library agreed to sell the set to him. After all, nobody else could take it out because he had it all the time. A few weeks later, a huge fire destroyed the library, and the boy’s beloved “Robinson Crusoe” would have been lost forever had he not now owned it.

The finale of Act II of Robinson Crusoe. Just sublime from the 2:00 mark

That was a long time ago, and the boy grew up and became me. I spent my teens trying to find more Offenbach, although there wasn’t much to find on the shelves of the record shops here in Norwich. I managed to find the Nicolai Gedda recording of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and on my first or second visit to London (memory gets foggy now) I went into the giant HMV on Oxford Street (RIP) and found the Sadler’s Wells version of “Orpheus in the Underworld” from the 1960s. Then there was the Ofra Harnoy recording of the cello concerto (long before it was pieced back together into a work twice the length of that recording) bought on cassette tape, and a couple of albums of overtures found in a much-missed second-hand classical and jazz music shop called Ives Records – where I spent much of my misspent youth and spent even more of my pocket money.

As time went on, I started earnestly collecting all kinds of classical music – and other genres too, particularly jazz – and now I’m a middle-aged man with a collection of CDs that runs into the thousands. But if you don’t drink or smoke, what are you going to do with your money?! I have fallen in love with other composers or other works over the years, but no classical music has given me the joy that Offenbach has. Offenbach: the one who has spent much of the last two centuries being ridiculed or classed as too lightweight, has brightened up my often rather depressing life more than he could possibly imagine.

This week, on June 20th, my beloved Jacques will be celebrating his 200th birthday. And somewhat unsurprisingly, there have been a fair few releases on CD to celebrate the anniversary. He is loved after all. There have been new discs of relatively obscure arias, some famous and not so famous overtures, three discs of piano music, an album of cello music, and a rather scrumptious thirty disc set from Warner collecting together classic recordings of the best-known works with a few lesser-known ones thrown in for good measure. The English National Opera are performing “Orpheus in the Underworld” in the autumn and, best of all, I finally got to see my beloved “Robinson Crusoe” performed at the Royal College of Music in a wonderful production that was well worth that twenty-five year wait. Sadly, the BBC Proms have decided to ignore the anniversary, which seems somewhat bizarre – and unforgivable. Perhaps nobody told them.

Nicolai Gedda sings “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”

Offenbach has managed to put a smile on my face during some very dark times, and no doubt will continue to do so in the coming years. It is just a pity that people still seem less than willing to investigate his remarkable legacy – and because of what? A reputation? Sheer musical snobbery? I fear it’s the latter, I really do. There is nothing so utterly pointless as musical snobbery. I despise it more and more as the years pass. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music, letting it cheer you, letting it thrill you, or invigorate you, or letting it make you laugh.

So, in order to celebrate Offenbach’s birthday, why not get hold of the sparkling, vibrant new recording of the cello concerto by Edgar Moreau? It’s quite something. Or how about the delicious album of soprano arias from operas well-known and obscure by Jodie Devos? If you want to get even more obscure, try the Brilliant Classics album of songs by Offenbach entitled “Melodies” – it’s more interesting than the title!

Or perhaps you could treat yourself to that Sadler’s Wells version of Orpheus I bought in London many years ago, or grab yourself “The Tales of Hoffmann” – and then read the detective story about how that opera’s been reconstructed. Offenbach’s operas seems to have so many detective stories attached to them. Tales of researchers travelling the globe and sifting through archives to put all the pieces of his operas back together again. Is that actually why all three of the non-fiction books I have written are, in essence, works of detection? Perhaps that romanticised view of putting “Robinson Crusoe” back together that I read when I was twelve actually influenced my own research in adult life without me realising it.

And of course, maybe – just maybe – you could discover for yourself “Robinson Crusoe,” still available (on CD now) from the Opera Rara label.

The last few minutes of Offenbach’s Cello Concerto.

I would say at this point, let’s “raise a glass” to the wonderful Offenbach on his 200th birthday on Thursday, but I don’t drink. In all honesty, I doubt Offenbach would have approved of me raising a cup of tea to celebrate his bicentennial, but it will have to do. Perhaps he’ll see the discs of his work on my shelves, or hear them in my CD player and forgive me. I hope so.

So, happy birthday, Jacques. And thank you.

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Der Hund von Baskerville (1929). Review

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Tonight was a special treat, as I finally got hold of the 1929 version of Hound of the Baskervilles, made as a silent film in Germany. This was a very late silent, and while it was popular in mainland Europe at the time, it never reached the UK or America as cinemas had converted to sound by that point. It is directed by Richard Oswald, the same director as the 1914 version of the story.  The 1929 film was found about a decade ago (after eighty years) and has now been restored and is released on blu ray and DVD (in one pack) by Flicker Alley.

The film is very good indeed. Sadly, a few bits early on are missing and replaced by stills, but not much. It is strange watching a film such as this as one can see how a film like The Cat and the Canary (1927) had been influenced by German expressionism, and then how THIS film was influenced by Cat and Canary. So we have German films influencing American films influencing German films! Carlyle Blackwell plays a surprisingly chipper Sherlock Holmes, which is rather at odds with much of the film that is dark in tone and looks like it came straight out of a silent horror movie. Cue lots of secret passages, hands emerging from wall, and even a Fu Manchu-like device  to try to kill off our hero.

Richard Oswald, who directed the film, is a fascinating figure. He wasn’t a top-tier director in Germany, but a surprisingly important one considering few today have heard of him. He was what might be called a jobbing director. He didn’t secure for himself a particular style, but he was the first director ever to make a film that challenged anti-gay laws in Different from the Others, a film that celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Bear in mind, it took the UK to 1961 to make Victim, a similar themed film!

Oswald also helped to pioneer the portmanteau fantasy/horror film genre – where short stories are joined together to make one movie. In 1916 he did this with his version of Tales of Hoffmann, and in 1919 did the same thing with Eerie Tales, which includes stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe. If you’ve seen Corman’s Tales of Terror from 1963, this was in many ways the prototype of it. He also made other early horror films that no doubt influenced the expressionist horrors that followed. 1917 saw him direct the Picture of Dorian Gray and A Night of Horror.

Oswald was also the director who brought Conrad Veidt to the fore, giving him leading roles in both Different from the Others (as the doomed gay violinist who gets blackmailed) and Eerie Tales, and casting him as Phineas Fogg in his version of Around the World in 80 Days. Werner Kraus and Emil Jannings also got career boosts at the start of their careers thanks to Oswald. Sadly, despite all of this he is a virtually unknown figure, overshadowed by Wiene, Leni, Murnau and Lang – and, unlike some of those, when he sought exile in America, his career didn’t take off there.

The Flicker Alley release of Der Hund von Baskervilles is quite a treat. It not only includes the 1929 version, but also the 1914 version which was also directed by Oswald – but which I have yet to see. The blu ray/DVD combo edition is region free and will play worldwide. The downside is the price, especially if you are outside of America and get stuck with customs. I paid £25 for a used copy on ebay simply because it was being posted within the UK so no customs to pay, but you’re looking at nearly £40 if you buy it new and factor in customs – which is a lot of money for two films of the same story.

But there is no getting away from the fact that this is an important release, and is the second major “lost” Holmes silent movie to be discovered and released in less than a decade (the other being the 1916 film “Sherlock Holmes”). So never give up hope!

Doris Day

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Doris Day, who passed away this weekend, had the rather unusual position of being one of the most beloved, and yet underrated, acting and singing stars of the Twentieth Century.

She is remembered first and foremost by many as the lead in the fluffy romantic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s that paired her with Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and James Garner.  But those films were just the tip of the iceberg of her achievements.  Well-made and well-performed though they are, they give little indication of what a great actress Doris Day really could be when she was given material worthy of her talents.  Many will cite as one of her best the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which she introduced the hit song Que Sera Sera – but even that doesn’t contain a performance as good as Love Me or Leave Me, Young Man with a Horn, or Julie.  And she wasn’t afraid of courting controversy such as in 1951’s Storm Warning, a Warner Bros social conscience film primarily about the KKK, a movie with a final reel that is still shocking today, and one can only wonder how it got past the censors at the time.   And it’s worth reminding ourselves of just how popular she was on the screen – she won the Laurel award for top female star every single year between 1957 and 1964 inclusive.

But it is her musical achievements that seem forgotten partly thanks to her on-screen stardom.   Her string of albums for Columbia from the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s contained mostly first-class renditions of songs from the Great American Songbook.  She wasn’t always paired with arrangers of the quality used by the like of Sinatra, but her thoughtful interpretations of the material nearly always made one forget that.  Every word was crystal clear, and if any female songstress was going to compete with Frank Sinatra when it came to the intelligent reading of lyrics, then it was Doris Day.  Take a look at Mean to Me from Love Me Or Leave Me, as she sings the song with her abusive husband (James Cagney) in the night-club audience.  No histrionics, very little volume, just absolute perfection.

Her best known hits were pure pop, but her best recordings found her adding jazz inflections into her interpretations.  What Every Girl Should Know is an album with a horrible title and cringe-worthy liner notes, but try and find a better vocal rendition of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington than the one tucked away on that little-known album.

A year or so after that was recorded, she finally got the chance to do a full-blooded jazz album, paired with pianist Andre Previn (who we have also lost this year).  It was called simply “Duet,” and it remains one of the best jazz vocal albums ever recorded, and how it didn’t get recognised at the Grammy’s that year is anybody’s guess.  Day and Previn proved to be a dream team, complimenting each other beautifully, and while the album concentrated mostly on ballads, the up-beat jazz numbers were a delight.  The version of Close Your Eyes that opens the album may well be the very best recording of Day’s career, and her treatment of Fools Rush In is simply stunning.

Sadly, though, Duet wasn’t the commercial success that might have been hoped for, and Day’s later albums, while good, never really hit the mark in the same way as the pre-Duet album had done.  There was an awful religious album, a Christmas album, a kids album – pretty much everything but the albums of great standards that she should have been singing.   In 1965, she recorded Sentimental Journey, an album of songs associated with her big band days of the 1940s, and that rather apt release which took everything back to where it started for Day, was her final album release for three decades.  In 1994, a set of songs recorded in 1967 was released, and in 2011 came My Heart, a hugely successful issue of some songs that she had (mostly) recorded for her TV series in the 1980s when Day was in her mid-60s.   Any notion that she might have retired in the 1960s because of a failing voice was blown out of the water with this album, with Day (aged 89) the oldest person to have a hit album in the UK charts with a record of new material.

Sadly missing from that album was her wonderful 1985 reunion with the band of Les Brown, with whom she had worked in the mid-1940s.   One watches the video and wonders whether there really is something in those eyes that says “I’ve missed this.”  Whether or not she had  missed it, we shall never know – but one thing is for certain: we had missed her.  Her retirement from music in the 1960s deprived the world of so many more wonderful albums that, no doubt, we would still be listening to today.

But the 1960s had been a changing time in the music industry, especially for artists like Doris Day.  By the end of the decade, Sinatra was announcing his retirement, Ella Fitzgerald was without a stable recording contract, Bobby Darin had become “Bob” and was recording protest songs, Julie London and Jo Stafford had both effectively retired, and many jazz musicians who had made their mark in the 1930s and 1940s were musically homeless until Norman Granz came to their rescue with the Pablo label in the 1970s.

Despite attempts to lure Doris Day out of retirement, she couldn’t be tempted.  Only a short-lived, low-budget TV show entitled Doris Day’s Best Friends got her back on screen, where she was visited by human friends, but mostly it was about sharing her canine ones.

And now, aged 97, she has passed away.  Tributes are pouring in, as they should.  No doubt her films will be shown on TV in the coming week from Calamity Jane through to A Touch of Mink and maybe even a thriller like Midnight Lace.  Move Over Darlin’ and other hits will be played on the easy listening radio stations.

But take time out, if you can, to dig that bit deeper and listen to some of what I think was probably the real Doris Day – the superlative singer of jazz ballads both on screen and on record.  And, while you go hunting, here’s Doris in 1975 from the second of her two TV specials singing perhaps one of the most fitting songs for this occasion.  This was her final network TV special and a fitting and dignified end to her entertainment career.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

BREAKING POINT/BREAKING DOWN

In 2013, I published a young adult novel about homophobic bullying in schools. Breaking Point told the story not just from the point of the victim, but also of the bullies and a teacher. On the initial free download period for the Kindle, it was downloaded more than 7,000 times and user reviews were largely positive.

A few years later, I started work on a sequel which, for various reasons, kept getting put to one side. I finally finished the first draft in the middle of last year, and Breaking Down has now been released in Kindle and paperback editions alongside a revised version of Breaking Point. The revised Breaking Point has a somewhat expanded text, but the narrative is largely the same, although it deviated slightly in the last couple of chapters.

In Breaking Point, James Marsh is sixteen years old and in his final year of high school. He has been suffering from bullying for months at the hands of Jason Mitchell and his friends but, as they return to school after the Easter break, Jason takes his tormenting to a whole new level. As James struggles to cope, a teacher at the school finds his hands tied when he attempts to help him, Jason spirals out of control, and a former friend of James tries to make amends.

In Breaking Down, the sequel, James is about to leave home to go to university, knowing that it might signal the end of his relationship with Paul. Jason has been trying to make amends for what he did at school, but his past is coming back to haunt him. And teacher Andrew Green is struggling with his mental health due to the stress of the events of two years earlier, with his boyfriend at a loss on how to help him. They all learn to realise that the effects of school bullying will be with them for life – whether victim, bully, or teacher.

The following are the links to the books:

Breaking Point
Breaking Down

Original Dixieland Jass Band, 1917.

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In February 1917, jazz was recorded for arguably the first time when the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded Dixieland Jass Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues.   I say “arguably” because it depends on your definition of what jazz music is.  For example, thirteen tracks (mostly ragtime) precede these recordings on the masterful Le Grande Histoire du Jazz, a collection of 100 CDs released in four boxed sets that almost singlehandedly made the case for the EU public domain fifty-year rule for recorded music.  In other words, buy them now if you don’t already have them – the prices have already started rising.

But I digress.  This modest post takes a look at advertisements and reactions in the press to those early recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.  We start with the New York Times, and an advertisement for an appearance by the band less than one month before they made recorded music history.

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The Scranton Republican, April 17, 1917.

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The Decatur Daily Review, April 21, 1917.

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The Hutchinson Gazette, April 25, 1917.

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El Paso Herald, April 28, 1917.

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The Wassau Daily Herald, May 1, 1917.

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The Sandusky Star Journal, August 14, 1917.The_Sandusky_Star_Journal_Tue__Aug_14__1917_p5

Should academics and writers be opting out or butting heads?

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Five years ago, when the Viva for my PhD was approaching, I was worried about it and was told to look at it in a different way – that someone had bothered to read my work from beginning to end, they had engaged with it, and they wanted to debate it. In other words, it was a compliment, not something to worry about. In hindsight, that is a good way of looking at  it – although it doesn’t stop the stress at the time.

But I am getting concerned how some academics and other writers not only run away in fright of someone reading and challenging and debating their work, but view it as an act of aggression. It seems that it is believed that it is a God-given right that they/we can write something, advertise on social media that they/we have written it and thus draw attention to it, and then not want people to do anything but provide unequivocal praise.

We should not be turning into an academic equivalent of the Memphis Mafia – saying “that’s right” to every utterance, and unable to question ideas, theories and, yes, supposed facts. If people publish something, and/or draw attention to their work, then they should expect it to be debated in a rigorous fashion.  Are we really heading to a position where a conference panel ends not with questions from the audience but with compliments from the audience in case the questions are a tad awkward and draw attention to something we haven’t considered?

Academia and academic writing cannot and should not be a place inhabited by those who want to type away in an office with a closed door and the phone off the hook, who then go to the door and shove their latest article out into the public domain through the gap at the bottom, before running back to their chair ready to don blindfolds and earplugs so they can’t see any negative or challenging reactions to it.

Anyone happy and confident with their work and their research would not be fearing debate. And how boring it would be if this became the norm. I could never imagine Pauline Kael disagreeing with Andrew Sarris but keeping quiet about it in case she hurt his feelings.  While that kind of academic jousting might not be for all, hiding away from dissenting voices must not be the way forward.

Sadly, as so much debate is now done on social media, hiding away is much easier.  We can block anyone on Facebook or Twitter who is asking awkward questions and debating our ideas.  But we need to remember that there is a world outside our offices, or bedrooms, or wherever we write and think.  And perhaps if we as writers and, indeed, as human beings, ventured out there a bit more often and spoke to people other than those who we know will agree with us, we might learn something, and most definitely might be more rigorous in our own ideas.

And, of course, I write this at the same time as it is announced that next year will see the formation of a new academic journal for controversial ideas, where academics can publish anonymously if they are worried they might receive a backlash to their work.  Jeff McMahan, one of the organisers of the journal, has been quoted as saying, “it would enable people whose ideas might get them in trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym.”  How the hell did we come to THIS?  Surely, part of the reason why the country is so divided is because people can hide behind anonymous Twitter accounts and spout as much drivel as they want without any fear of reprisals?  Do we want an academic world that works in the same way? Haixin Dang and Joshua Habgood-Coate recently wrote in a piece about the formation of the journal:

When it is working well, academic inquiry is a conversation. Researchers make claims and counterclaims, exchange reasons, and work together to open up new fields of inquiry. A conversation needs speakers: we need to keep track of who is talking, what they have said before, and who they are talking to. Pseudonymous authorship is an opt-out from the conversation, and the academic community will be worse off if its members no longer want to engage in intellectual conversation.

https://theconversation.com/the-journal-of-controversial-ideas-its-academic-freedom-without-responsibility-and-thats-recklessness-107106

If we have ideas, theories, plans, or arguments, then it is our duty to own them and be confident enough in them to be able to argue our position – and there is nothing wrong with hearing what others have to say about those ideas and then changing our own minds.  That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.

I recently read an article that said the following:

There is (on occasion) a little too much saccharine camaraderie, perpetuating an old-school sort of club that I’d rather watch die than thrive. While rivalries and debates are often more romantic in retrospect — the great one-liners and the heightened emotions enduring more than the petty squabbles and bruised egos — they not only add colour but scrutinize critical discourse. Art and criticism might not be a race, but sometimes a little head-butting forces us to be more firm and more resolute in our hot takes — or even better, open to the idea that those who disagree with you might be onto something.

https://vaguevisages.com/2016/05/03/why-criticism-sarris-vs-kael/

Amen to that.

And yes, I realise that not all authors or academics (and it should be reiterated that this goes beyond academia) are the head-butting, argumentative type, but that does not mean that anyone should be hiding behind the sofa in case a negative response or difficult question is aimed towards them.  Debate doesn’t have to be confrontational – but it is likely to become more confrontational when you start being defensive or simply run away from it!

I should, of course, say that comments are welcome 😉