Archive for jewish

Brown Bread: Miriam Karlin

Posted in Books, Culture, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

“The sequinned grande dame of British theatre, a Jewish legend and Equity terrorist.” Anthony Sher

“I can’t imagine being anything but left-wing. I was brought up in a home where justice was the most important quality. I’m part of a race that has survived 2,000 years of persecution. I think, if I’d had any ambition at all, I would like to have been the first female British Prime Minister. I would have been a rather lovely English Golda Meir, a benevolent dictator. I am, shall I say, a Utopian socialist. I have an idealistic dream of a wondrous socialist world where there will be a real brotherhood of man. I know it will never happen, but it doesn’t hurt to have such belief, and it keeps me going.” Miriam Karlin

Miriam Karlin, who has died of cancer aged 85, was a pillar of the British acting establishment who was also a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad. During sixty workaholic years, she acted in every area of the performing arts except ballet and the circus, and is fondly remembered as the truculent, whistle-blowing shop steward Paddy (complete with her catchphrase “Everybody out!”) in the classic TV sitcom The Rag Trade. Parallel to her life as a performer, she was a dedicated political activist, spurred on by her lifelong socialist beliefs and an unerring sense of justice, promoting broadly leftwing causes as a member of the council of the actors’ union Equity, and as a campaigner for the Anti-Nazi League, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Soviet Jewry.

She had been unwell for a number of years, suffering from peripheral neuropathy for a decade.

Here is the last page of her 2007 autobiography Some Sort of a Life, based on conversations with writer and director Jan Sargent:

I don’t think I’ll last much longer. I have to say that the contemplation of my own death only frightens me if I think it’s going to be painful and if I can’t control how I go. The idea of not being here only frightens me in terms of my vanity: I hope that I die looking good with my teeth in and that people won’t say awful things about me. I hope that the obituaries will be nice. Perhaps what I am writing now is my own; that’s what it feels like, some sort of a life story.

I don’t want another 20 years in pain; I can’t contemplate very much more of it. I want to say that’s enough, thank you, been there, done that, got all the T-shirts, let’s now finish it in a dignified fashion. I don’t want to die throwing up everywhere; I would just like to die nice and quietly. If only I hadn’t given that damn “Do It Yourself” book to somebody who never gave it back …

I love conversations and talking on the phone, but it’s probably because I have always lived alone. I’d miss gossip, not being here. I’d miss going to wonderful concerts listening to beautiful music. I don’t believe any longer in heaven; I don’t think I am going to hear beautiful harps in a mystical place. I think this is all there is. I’d miss music and my friends. I’ve got some wonderful friends that I’ve had for a very long time, and of course I’d miss my brother, my sister-in-law and my niece Vivien. I can’t really say “I’d miss” because I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t know how to; but if one could, those are the things I’d miss.

R.I.P. Miriam Karlin (Miriam Samuels) 1925-2011


Let’s all listen to Schoenberg …

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I enjoy a lot of Schoenberg’s music, in the broadest sense of “enjoy”. It’s not really music to relax or wind down to, it can be so intensely personal and subjective, especially the works of the free atonal period, exhibiting a plethora of intense emotions which tend towards the dark side. I don’t expect any more than a minority of classical music listeners will ever want to listen to it on a regular basis, but I think it is unique and meaningful music (if very much a product of a particular time and place) and does have an importance for that reason.

Certainly all art is very much a product of its time and place – the question is whether it still has anything to say to people here and now? That sort of sensibility that comes through in Schoenberg – rootlessness, alienation, inhabiting a certain precipice within “high culture” and the social world it inhabits, etc., certainly speaks to me, but I don’t find it wholly surprising if many others don’t find it relevant to them.

Schoenberg’s life beyond the concert-hall – his listing by the Third Reich as “degenerate”, his escape to the United States, his life as an émigré, his teaching there, his prominent position as a Jewish refugee – brought his name to a greater prominence than many of his contemporaries. His name became a byword for a kind of purposed complexity and intellectual rigour in music … to a wider public who’d never heard a note of it, but had heard of Arnold Schoenberg.

And they fervently believed that this Schoenberg man represented the very summation of everything they wouldn’t like in music, and should be avoided like the plague.

Giacomo Meyerbeer: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Meyerbeer – like Halévy, Auber, and several other contemporaries – has mostly disappeared into a black hole. Even in France he is mostly ignored (although he worked primarily in France, he was German by birth).

Richard Wagner had personal differences with Meyerbeer (mainly rooted in private jealousies that Meyerbeer’s music was so successful by comparison to his own works at the time – and his perilous financial position for much of his life). However, this does not completely explain the disappearance of Meyerbeer’s works from the repertoire in the 20th century, which seems to be also related to fad and fashion. It’s the entire genre of French grand opera which has fizzled out.

It can be claimed – but without any real justification – that Meyerbeer and Halévy were discriminated against as Jews, but this doesn’t explain why Auber (who had been enormously popular) has dropped off the radar entirely … why Gounod’s works are rarely performed (except for Faust) … why Bizet’s other operas (except Carmen – does anyone even remember them, except for their overtures?) are never staged … why Delibes is utterly ignored … why even Massenet is relegated to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy League.

For me, I’m afraid, the axe-grinding excuse of anti-semitism doesn’t explain any of this … there are too many non-Jewish composers in the same genre who are ignored too. Nor does the word of Wagner, which is a red herring – what opera manager takes Wagner’s views into account when programming a season nowadays?

In short, Meyerbeer’s French grand opera is clearly out of fashion these days. Vast amounts of utterly bloated bombast, a dearth of melodic imagination, and the most ludicrously melodramatic plots, reedemed by the odd inspired moment and a certain dramatic sense. L’Africaine is probably the best (or least bad) and has a few genuinely striking sections. Robert le Diable, the opera that truly established his reputation, was a massive success in the Paris of the July Monarchy; nowadays it works as an unintentional comedy (try the scene in Act 3 with a chorus of dead nuns rising out of their coffins). There’s a pretty good section on Meyerbeer in Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation; also worth reading for those interested to know more about the composer are Jane Fulcher’s The Nation’s Image: French Grand Opera as Politics and Politicized Art, Heinz and Gudrun Becker’s Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Life in Letters, and Mark Everist’s collection of essays Giacomo Meyerbeer and Music Drama in Nineteenth Century Paris.

The whole genre of French grand opera (encompassing the works of Meyerbeer, Halévy, Auber and some of the later works of Rossini, and becoming influential on the work of Donizetti, Verdi and even Wagner) is certainly of great interest to those wanting to understand better the cultural history of the period; the works are worth hearing a few times, but I’d be very surprised if they would stand up to the numbers of repeated performances and productions that would lead to their being incorporated into modern standard repertory.

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