Archive for 1911

1911 No. 4: Mervyn Peake

Posted in 1911, Books with tags , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911, and educated at Tientsin Grammar School, Eltham College, Kent and the Royal Academy Schools. His first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds, was published in 1941. He also wrote Rhymes Without Reason (1944), Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1945), The Craft of the Lead Pencil (1946), Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948), Mr Pye (1953), The Wit to Woo, a play (1957) and The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962). He also illustrated several classics, notably The Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and The Hunting of the Snark. The Titus novels – Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) – are considered to be one of the 20th century’s most remarkable feats of imaginative writing. For Gormenghast and his poem The Glassblowers Peake was awarded the W.H. Heinemann Foundation Prize by the Royal Society of Literature in 1950. He died in 1968.

The book ends with its titular hero not yet two years old, but there is plenty of time for him: we have finished a mere third of the tripartite epic. And it is as we near the end of Titus Groan that we realize the propriety of applying the term ‘epic’ in an exact sense. The book is closer to ancient pagan romance than to traditional British fiction. The doomed ritual lord, the emergent hero, the castle, the hall of retainers, the mountains, the lake, the twisted trees, the strange creatures, the violent knives, the dark and the foreboding belong (however qualified by tea, muffins, tobacco and sherry wine) to a prehistoric England. And the magnificence of the language denotes an epic concept.

(Anthony Burgess, Introduction to Titus Groan)

Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan, arrives for breakfast:

Arriving, as was his consistent habit, at exactly nine o’clock every morning, he would enter the long hall and move with a most melancholy air between rows of long tables, where servants of every grade would be awaiting him, standing at their places, their heads bowed.

Mounting the dais he would move around to the far side of the table where hung a heavy brass bell. He would strike it. The servants sitting down at once, would begin their meal of bread, rice wine and cake.

Lord Groan’s menu was otherwise. As he sat, this morning, in his high-backed chair he saw before him – through a haze of melancholia that filmed his brain and sickened his heart, robbing it of power and his limbs of health – he saw before him a snow-white tablecloth. It was set for two. The silver shone and the napkins were folded into the shapes of peacocks and were perched decoratively on the two plates. There was a delicious scent of bread, sweet and wholesome. There were eggs painted in gay colours, toast piled up pagoda-wise, tier upon tier and each as frail as a dead leaf; and fish with their tails in their mouths lay coiled in sea-blue saucers. There was coffee in an urn shaped like a lion, the spout protruding from that animal’s silver jaws. There were all varieties of coloured fruits that looked strangely tropical in that dark hall. There were honies and jams, jellies, nuts and spices and the ancestral breakfast plate was spread out to the greatest advantage amid the golden cutlery of the Groans. In the centre of the table was a small tin bowl of dandelions and nettles.

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1911 No. 3: Gustav Mahler

Posted in 1911, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Mahler’s second season with the New York Philharmonic opened on 1 November 1910. He conducted his own Symphony No. 4 in New York on 17 and 20 January 1911. In February he became seriously ill with a severe, ultimately fatal, streptococcal blood infection. Today penicillin would have saved his life. He returned to Paris in April (where Chantemesse, a celebrated bacteriologist, told Alma Mahler “I have never seen streptococci in such a marvellous state of development – it’s like seaweed!”) and died in a Vienna nursing home on 18 May 1911.

Alma describes his last days in her book Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe:

After a time he lay completely still. His mind was becoming confused. [Mahler’s sister] Justine paid him another visit and at the sight of her his eyes dilated unnaturally:

“Who is this woman?” he stammered. She fled.

[Dr. Arnold] Berliner [who had taught Mahler English in his Hamburg days] arrived from Berlin, true to their old friendship, and Mahler recognized him and grasped his hand. “My dear friend,” he said, and then turned to the wall, perhaps to hide his emotion.

During his last days he cried out: “My Almschi,” hundreds of times, in a voice, a tone I had never heard before and have never heard since. “My Almschi!” As I write it down now, I cannot keep back my tears.

When Gucki [Anna, the couple’s surviving daughter, known as Guckerl] came to his bedside he put his arms round her. “Be my good girl.”

Did he know? Or not? It was impossible to tell. He lay there groaning. A large swelling came up on his knee, then on his leg. Radium was applied and the swelling immediately went down. On the evening after, he was washed and his bed made. Two attendants lifted his naked emaciated body. It was a taking down from the cross. This was the thought that came to all of us.

He had difficulty in breathing and was given oxygen. Then uraemia – and the end. [Professor Dr Franz von] Chvostek [the celebrated Viennese doctor] was summoned. Mahler lay with dazed eyes; one finger was conducting on the quilt. There was a smile on his lips and twice he said: “Mozart!” His eyes were very big. I begged Chvostek to give him a large dose of morphia so that he might feel nothing more. He replied in a loud voice. I seized his hands: “Talk softly, he might hear you.” “He hears nothing now.”

How terrible the callousness of doctors is at such moments. And how did he know that he could not hear? Perhaps he was only incapable of movement?

The death-agony began. I was sent into the next room. The death-rattle lasted several hours.

The ghastly sound ceased suddenly at midnight on the 18th of May during a tremendous thunder-storm. With that last breath his beloved and beautiful soul had fled, and the silence was more deathly than all else.

I was not allowed in the death-chamber. I was removed that night from my room next to his. The doctors insisted. But I felt it a humiliation not to be allowed to stay near him. I could not understand it. Was I alone? Had I to live without him? It was as if I had been flung out of a train in a foreign land. I had no place on earth.

I can never forget his dying hours and the greatness of his face as death drew nearer. His battle for the eternal values, his elevation above trivial things and his unflinching devotion to truth are an example of the saintly life.

1911 No. 2: W.S. Gilbert

Posted in 1911, Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

W.S. Gilbert died 100 years ago. Here is part of a letter he wrote to Sir Arthur Sullivan in May 1884, following Sullivan’s rejection of his latest plot for a Savoy opera – Richard D’Oyly Carte had given them six months to come up with another one.

They patched up their differences, however, and Gilbert, the story goes, was inspired by a Japanese sword falling off the wall of his study to come up with The Mikado.

After the lapse of a week during which I wrote three lyrics and a considerable amount of dialogue, I received a letter from you to the effect that you could not bring yourself to like the plot, and that you wished me to construct a story in which there would be no supernatural or improbable element. This specification of your wishes, expressed as it was, for the first time, some four months after the production of Princess Ida, seemed to me to be so wholly unreasonable that I had no alternative but to express my regret that it was impossible for me to agree to your suggestion. Upon this you wrote to me that you felt convinced that my decision was final, and that therefore further discussion was useless. And so ends a musical and literary association of seven years’ standing – an association of exceptional reputation – an association unequalled in its monetary results, and hitherto undisturbed by a single jarring or discordant element. In justification of the course that I adopted in declining to construct a new libretto, I must point out to you that your own course of action in desiring me to do so, can only be justified on the assumption that, by the terms of our agreement, I am bound to go on constructing new libretti until I hit upon one which meets your views as to what a libretto should be. That you regard my relation towards yourself as of this servile nature, I do not for one moment believe. As reasonably might I suppose that a composer of your distinction is bound to set to music any words with which I might think fit to supply him. You must remember that we are not absolutely free agents – that I am not in the position of an author who comes to a composer with a suggestion which the composer is at entire liberty to reject – this would be our relation to one another if no agreement existed. But as a matter of fact, an agreement does exist – an agreement entered into presumably on the assumption that we have sufficient confidence in each other – you to accept my plots as belief to be good enough for your purpose, I to accept your musical setting as adding an invaluable element of attraction to my libretto. That my duty is to supply you with a series of pieces ‘on approval’ I cannot for one moment admit.

If you desired to devote a year to the composition of (say) a grand opera, I should, with Carte’s consent, have been most willing to forgo, for such a period, the agreement by which we are bound. I would even have accepted the subordinate position which the librettist of such an opera must necessarily occupy, if you considered that a work of such an ambitious class would, in any way, be furthered by my co-operation. But I need hardly remind you that such a work would be wholly and ridiculously out of place at the Savoy Theatre.

1911 No. 1: Vincent Price

Posted in 1911, Culture, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Taking a look back at what happened 100 years ago, I find that the actor Vincent Price was born on 27 May 1911. The clip is from The Comedy of Terrors, one of the funniest films you will ever see. Featuring Vincent Price himself, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone. If you don’t believe that a film could have such a great cast, check it out.

Vincent Price, a Suave but Menacing Film Presence, Is Dead at 82 (New York Times obituary)

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