Classical notes: The sound of gunfire

All over the world, the shadow of war—both past and present—is impossible to avoid
December 6, 2023

It has been a crazy month of globetrotting. London, Ottawa, San Francisco, Rome, Krakow, Shanghai and Seoul (plus various other South Korean destinations), all in the matter of weeks. I’ve done things that no sane classical singer would think of doing. I’ve flown into Montreal the day after a concert and sung Schubert’s Winterreise (75 minutes with piano) the same night, up the road in Ottawa. I’ve sung seven demanding orchestral concerts in quick succession in South Korea. There's a sort of ridiculous post-Covid anxiety to do all one can to perform, and also a sense that—somehow—normality can be willed back into being by just doing, over and over again, what one has always done. Classical musicians ask each other, nervously, “Has it got back to normal?”—and, of course, it hasn’t. And it won’t. Normality is a mirage, change is life, something that a lot of this music teaches us. But faith in the art form remains, along with a conviction that it has survived and will survive. People have been talking about the death of classical music for a very long time.


So what did I learn, what did I notice, on my endless peregrinations? War is understandably—rightly—at the forefront of everyone’s minds; war in Europe, war in the Middle East. As I was due to give a lecture on Britten and war at a Seoul music festival during my stay there, war was again particularly on my mind.

My first column for this magazine, back in the spring, was about a trip to San Francisco to perform Britten’s War Requiem, so I’ll leave that return to the Foggy City out of the reckoning. On my trip to Ottawa, a city which I’d last visited 29 years ago, I discovered that it wasn’t just a randomly selected capital, chosen for being neither Montreal nor Toronto (like Washington vis-à-vis Philadelphia and New York, or Canberra vis-à-vis Sydney and Melbourne). Founded as Bytown in 1826, Canada’s future capital was the base for the construction of the Rideau Canal, a scheme designed to bypass a section of the St Lawrence River that had been vulnerable to US attack in the war of 1812. In the end, and after endless wrangling, the renamed Ottawa was chosen as capital by Queen Victoria in 1857 and confirmed by Parliament in 1859, partly because it lay equidistant between Montreal and Toronto, but also because it was more defensible than the alternatives; far from the border with the US and surrounded by impenetrable forest. So, this most peaceable and peace-loving of capitals was born out of worry at a future war that now seems utterly unthinkable.


A week or so later, I was singing Schubert’s Winterreise, in a series hosted by the major university in Rome, La Sapienza. La Sapienza’s glory—and to some extent its shame—is that, though it dates back to 1303 and a papal foundation, its magnificent main campus, built in 1935, is an inheritance from the fascist era: a severely beautiful collection of modernist-cum-neoclassical buildings planned by Mussolini’s “high commissar”, the architect Marcello Piacentini.

The concert took place in the university’s Aula Magna, in front of Mario Sironi’s 1935 mural Italy between the Arts and the Sciences. I’ve performed in the hall several times over the years, but always in front of a blurry reproduction of the mural, which was long in restoration. Seeing as it is a piece of fascist art, a work of unashamed propaganda, it was papered over directly after the war, uncovered in the 1950s but with its offensive political symbolism remodelled. Only more recently, and following a successful Sironi retrospective in 2014, has it been restored to its original form. Propaganda it may be, with representative figures of the arts and the sciences, toga-clad, presided over by a winged figure of war, helmeted trench-style, feathers like fasci, the symbol of the Mussolini regime, but it’s compelling nonetheless, executed in a telling interaction of hallowed fresco technique and industrial steel and cement. It’s difficult to appreciate in cramped reproduction; but facing all of its 8 by 17 metres in the flesh it’s also difficult to know how much its impact is just a result of its sheer monumental force. It raises issues of art and morality, of course; but also stands as a necessary reminder of Italy’s fascist past, whatever its artistic merits and our complex response to them. 


 And so on, via Krakow and Shanghai, with their own histories of war, to Seoul and a seven-concert tour of South Korea.

It’s a cliché that the Korean War, 1950 to 1953, is the forgotten war—the words are even inscribed on the war memorial in Seoul. The figures are difficult to absorb: 600,000 Korean military deaths, 1.5 million civilian, in a combined population, north and south, of about 25 million. To visit South Korea is to visit a country that has rebuilt itself from the depths of horror: almost every major city on the Korean peninsula was destroyed during the war.

Two things strike me when I come here, as I have been doing for about 20 years. First, the desensitisation—as one Korean friend put it—to the threat across the border. The Korean War never officially ended. It is, as they say, a “frozen war”, and the demilitarised zone is only 35 miles from the modern, thriving city of Seoul, which goes about its business apparently regardless. We all know about K-Pop and the renaissance of Korean cinema, but another part of that business—supported by a culturally savvy political establishment—is an extraordinary hunger for Western classical music. Audiences are young and enthusiastic, and they routinely cheer as you come on stage—before even one note has sounded. They are, conversely, frequently silent at the end of the piece, seriously engaged in the music. For a performer used to the “classical music is dying” narrative so often peddled in Europe and the UK (and the situation in the UK is indeed dispiriting), it’s inspiring.

I was in Korea to perform Britten’s orchestral song cycle Les Illuminations—and to talk about Britten and war. The composer sets Arthur Rimbaud’s revolutionary prose poems of the early 1870s to music by turns glittering and demonic, sardonic and sensual; a long way, one might think, from thoughts of war. Britten never again wrote such an unbuttoned, ecstatic piece. Yet the poems themselves, part of Rimbaud’s call for a “rational derangement of the senses”, emerged from his experience of war-time traumatic stress—the bombardment of his home town during the Franco-Prussian war, the violence of the Paris commune—and Britten made his reckoning with Rimbaud at the end of that “dark, dishonest decade”, Auden’s 1930s, teetering on the edge of unimaginable horrors. Violence lurks throughout Les Illuminations, ready to ambush us.

Performing in Korea, with a group of largely Korean musicians (the marvellous Sejong Soloists, named, like many other things in Korea, for the king who invented the Korean script), I was more than ever aware of the dark conclusion of the cycle, a sort of ominous, threnodic throbbing, dying away, in the lowest instruments of the orchestra. On the page the music ends, these words follow: “Amityville, October 25th 1939”. Britten far away from Europe, in upstate New York, as the Wehrmacht handed over control of conquered Poland to the German civilian authorities.