Late Austerity

Just after midday a week ago last Friday, I was sitting at home listening to BBC Radio 3 and Donald Macleod’s Composer of the Week, who on this occasion was Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971).  I love Stravinsky.  I have a framed picture of him on the wall above my piano.  I’m looking at it right now.  It is a head-and-shoulders charcoal sketch by Richard Butterworth, superimposed on the musical stave of a composer’s manuscript paper and, on closer inspection, it consists in its detail entirely of musical notation.  The portrait represents Stravinsky in his later years.  Oddly, he is wearing two pairs of glasses at once, one pair in situ and the other on his forehead, I suppose a kind of primitive bifocal arrangement, and I imagine him at rehearsal on the conductor’s rostrum, sometimes studying the score and sometimes communicating with the orchestra.  It’s quirky, and I think it would have made the composer, who said his music was for children and animals, and thought of it pictorially as akin to a map of the London Underground, smile.  Back to Radio 3.  This was the last programme of the week, entitled “Late Austerity”, in which Donald Macleod concentrated on Stravinsky’s last years. 

The first piece we heard was a setting of Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, sung on this occasion by the tenor Robert Tear.  Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas had met in 1953, and the composer wanted to collaborate with the poet, who would be his librettist for a new opera.  It was not to be.  Dylan Thomas died that same year, and Stravinsky was left to set this poem, as a requiem.

Halfway through the rendition, the music suddenly stopped, and there was a profound silence.  I thought, “There is a fault; do not adjust your set”.  But then a sombre voice announced the death of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.  The next music we heard was the National Anthem.  Normal service was not resumed.  Instead, there was blanket coverage of the passing of the duke, broadcast over every BBC station, including – I checked – Radio Scotland and even BBC Radio nan Gàidheal.  I remember thinking at the time that there was a slight irony in interrupting the Dylan Thomas, and indeed the whole of the rest of the programme.  I’ve just caught up with it on BBC Sounds.  There could hardly have been a more appropriate programme to broadcast on the occasion.  We proceeded to Movements for Piano and Orchestra, the final movement from the ballet Agon, and then a very beautiful anthem for unaccompanied chorus, a setting from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding of The dove descending breaks the air.  Finally, we heard Canticum sacrum.  It occurs to me that if a BBC controller in command of the switches had had half an ear, he might have interrupted the programme to make a brief announcement, with a promise of further coverage pending, and then a recommendation that listeners return to the Stravinsky, whose music would now acquire an added level of significance. 

Stravinsky died in New York on April 6th, 1971.  His body was flown to Venice.  There was a service in Santi Giovanni e Paolo on April 15th, 1971.  Then the coffin was transported by gondola to the Isle of the Dead, San Michele.  I think his funeral service must have been in its way every bit as impressive as the duke’s, in the Chapel of St George’s at Windsor.  Oddly enough, I also have a picture of the Duke of Edinburgh, on my mantelpiece.  From Igor’s position above the piano, I now turn to my right and there is the duke, in the then City of Glasgow Police Headquarters in St Andrew’s Square, talking to my father.  The duke is examining a file in a buff folder.  On his left, my father, very smart in his Chief Superintendent’s uniform, a short ceremonial stick under his left arm, gloves in his left hand, is explaining something to him, while the Lord Provost, with his heavy ceremonial chain of office, is peering inquisitively at the file over my dad’s shoulder.  A clock on the wall says it is 10.40 (am – daylight coming through the window), and a calendar says it is the 22nd, but I can’t make out the month or the year.  I’d guess it would be late sixties or early seventies.  We are in an office belonging to another era, with books and filing cabinets and nothing remotely digital.  A young police constable and a secretary are getting on with their work.  The press, with cameras, are at the back.  Even they look very smart.       

I remember my father was rather impressed by the duke.  He said he was well briefed, interested in everything, and he asked very astute questions.

I watched the duke’s funeral on television.  It is the fourth funeral I have attended remotely during this past year.  The slow procession of the funeral party, the sombre military band, the intermittent gun salvo, and the tolling of a bell.  Awe inspiring.

Not everybody’s cup of tea, of course.  But I confess I’m rather drawn to a bit of ceremony,    whether it surround a gondola passing under the Ponte del Cavallo, a water-hearse in the Rio dei Mendicanti, or a modified Land Rover within the precincts of Windsor Castle. 

I wonder why Stravinsky chose Venice as his resting place.  Perhaps it was because he believed something miraculous occurred to him there.  I think it was in the 1920s.  He had a piano recital to give, but he was disabled by an infected finger.  He prayed for a cure, went on stage, sat down at the piano, and removed the surgical dressing.  Lo and behold, his finger had healed.

Superstitious nonsense, I hear you say.  Smoke and mirrors, like all the regal pomp and circumstance of the past week, and the OTT blanket coverage of the BBC.  That’s okay.  You can switch off.  There’s always Classic FM.                       

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