Serious Music for Serious Times

There is an extraordinary fit between Japanese musical tastes and German Lieder

Ian Bostridge

As I write this piece, I’m about to set off on a tour of Japan, singing six recitals in two weeks, a biennial event for me, and one I used to dread. My first visit was to sing the small role of Sellem the auctioneer in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress at Seiji Ozawa’s Saito Kinen festival in Matsumoto in 1995. In a provincial Japanese town for five weeks, arriving in the middle of a large Sumo wrestling convention, underemployed, phoning home too expensive – I didn’t embrace the experience but hunkered down in a faceless Hilton hotel clone, eating pizza and reading Jane Austen.

Each subsequent visit has been easier, and performing to Japanese audiences is one of the great pleasures of my professional life. First and foremost, they know and love the repertoire I sing. There’s an extraordinary and superficially surprising fit between Japanese musical tastes and Lieder, or German art song as the Americans rather self-consciously call it. Audiences are concentrated, and know the words of the songs so well that they can often be seen (and remember, if you’re ever in a Lieder audience, WE CAN SEE YOU) mouthing the words. The cultural fit is, of course, unsurprising. German Romanticism had an enormous impact on Japanese thinking at the turn of the 20th century, and an aesthetic of miniaturism is predisposed to appreciate an art-form one of whose primary exponents, Hugo Wolf, celebrated its smallness in song – Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken, small things can also delight us, is the opening song of his Italienisches Liederbuch, published in the 1890s.

Only a few years before I first went to Japan I was working in television, making business and politics programmes, and the Japanese economic miracle was the wonder of the world. We were desperate to churn out proposals for programmes about Japan, and the channels were desperate to commission them.

As I remember it – and were we not a little suspicious even at the height of the mania? – the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were notionally valued as real estate at more than the entire state of California. Japanese political stability, the unique structure of Japanese conglomerates, the co-operative nature of Japanese management methods, these were all envied and discussed in think-tanks and policy forums in the West. Then came the bursting of the asset bubble and more than a decade of economic underperformance. The Nikkei index reached a high of nearly 40,000 in 1989. By 2003, when it finally started to rise again, it was at around one-fifth of that level. It still stands under 9,000.

Which answers, I suppose, some of my selfish anxieties about the financial and economic crisis in which the world now finds itself, thanks to a bubble that has yet to be thoroughly anatomised. That is to say, life carries on, classical music still happens, I’ve been going regularly to Japan during the so-called “lost decade” of economic stagnation. And of course, in my world, while the cancellations have already started – especially of the big, or risky projects in opera or symphonic touring – there’s a feeling that serious music for serious times is something that will, relatively, prosper. Think the spirit of the Blitz, Myra Hess at the National Gallery. It’s the same vague feeling that surrounded the Obama campaign, despite its messianic hoopla, that serious times demanded a serious, thoughtful, intellectual incumbent. But in the end, who knows, we’re all guessing.

I like to feel that I’m full of insight about all this. I do remember sagely pointing out on the radio in November last year the cyclical nature of economic development, and the inability of markets ever to learn from history. However, the first ructions at Northern Rock had already happened by then, there was quite a hint of trouble brewing and, more importantly, very few of us, however much we see a crash coming, can extricate ourselves from our decade-long involvement in that bubble through our houses and our small-time investments. We are all, with very rare exceptions, materially but also psychologically implicated, and that is the lesson of history.

There is no question that the capacity of financial markets to turn nasty and present themselves with all the irresistible and apparently natural force of a hurricane or an earthquake – and these are the metaphors that we tend to use – is a compelling illustration of Marx’s notion of alienation. We take human desires and needs, progressively abstract and denominate them, freeze them, as money, stocks, futures, the whole range of complex derivatives, and they then turn against us with all the fury of a Golem.

This is something that those who were in on the first stirrings of modern financial markets already worried about. Daniel Defoe, trader, novelist and journalist, didn’t only detect the “villainy of stockjobbers”, he also saw something Other and diabolical in the new, disembodied practices on Exchange Alley in the late 17th century. It was tantamount to witchcraft: what was real, men’s goods and honour, was rendered imaginary; and what was imaginary, the current price of stocks, became real. Apparitions were conjured up, imaginations manipulated, with the “strange and unheard of Engines of Interests, Discounts, Transfers, Tallies, Debentures, Shares, Projects and the Devil and all of Figures and hard Names.”

Performing the riches of the past, one is always looking for new ways to bring them alive to oneself and to the audience. I sang Winterreise, Schubert’s great cycle of 24 Lieder to poems by Wilhelm Müller, last month in the Barbican – in the heart of the City – and one of the songs struck me with a new force. Im Dorfe, in the village, the wanderer, a loner, an outsider, rejected in love and rejecting bourgeois society, hears dogs bark and chains rattling and imagines the sleepers inside in bed, “träumen sich Manches, was sie nicht haben, Tun sich im Guten und Argen erlaben: und morgen früh ist Alles zerflossen” – dreaming of much that they don’t have, delighting in good things and bad, and early in the morning it has all melted away. The bubble-bursting flourish with which Schubert brings that phrase to an end says it all – the bourgeois dream and its inevitable evaporation.

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