Brahms & The Tears of Britain’s Oppressed

by David Yearsley, December 14, 2016

London — ‘Tis the season to think about the next season. Before letting the wave of Christmas gifts crash of over their heads and/or into the digital stockings, and before undertaking their own yuletide retail therapy to help snap the U. K. out of its pre-postpartum Brexit depression, this island nation’s youths of college age have now to face the trial of interviews and auditions.

In the next room as I write, young George does his vocal warm-ups for a mid-morning audition at the Royal College of Music. He hopes to become an opera singer. His baritone calisthenics concluded, he launches into the opening of one of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs: Ich wandte mich und sahe an—“I turned and looked at all under the sun who have suffered injustice.” This seems a fitting lyric for someone who within two hours will be facing his own trial before a musical jury of his non-peers. The song’s opening is sparse and tentative, yet somehow also weighted with angst. There’s no brash enunciation of brave deeds to be done. It’s all fateful confrontation with truth rather than wrathful vengeance.

In the context of an audition the ardent feeling for “the tears of the oppressed” expressed a short time later could well be taken to refer to the aspirant himself, though George has the English public school bearing—and presumably training as well—to suppress any such displays of emotion when under duress.

The Four Serious Songs were composed in the year before Brahms’ death in 1897. Clara Schumann, the long-time object of his unrequited love, lay on her own deathbed. The song inexorably pivots towards mortality: “Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead.” For a singer to sing about dying—on stage, or before a panel of hanging musical judges—seems a risky business, but George is in good voice.

He’s now emerged from his ad hoc studio and grabs his backpack. He’s in the last year of his studies German and Italian and Oxford, so I give him the Teutonic version of the English-language theatrical boost: “Hals- und Beinbruch!”—break your neck and your leg. Leave it to the Germans to inflict maximum bodily harm as they shove the poor victim onto the stage. As he bravely descends the steps I slightly regret that ironic bit of encouragement. He’ll need his throat.

Earlier George had told me his brother was up at Cambridge for an interview at one of the colleges there. Those who want to be admitted to Oxford or Cambridge must go up for an interview with their prospective tutor. The students apply in a given subject: the Brits specialize earlier than their American counterparts rather than going for the liberal arts smorgasbord.

Somewhat coincidentally, I had spent a couple of days amongst the mist-shrouded crenellations and spires of the storied center of learning that is Cambridge. The place was thrumming with eager, nervous-looking applicants flanked by one or, more frequently, two of their parents.

I scanned my subjects for the shared familial expressions of concern. These were etched more deeply on the older generation’s faces, but genetically unmistakable on the younger ones as well. At times I felt like a pith-helmeted anthropologist studying the primitive ways of the modern Brits and their foreign imitators, most of them once ruled by these same island folk.

One parent informed me ruefully that it used to be that the school boy—and since about 1980 at most colleges, school girl—took the train up from London himself and made his way through the ordeal without age-based back-up. That has changed, since in all things the Old Country now models itself after its former colony across the Atlantic. Just as Roman culture was carried on in Byzantine after the Fall of Rome, so too America is now the engine of the British Empire.

Take for example that venerable bunch of judges who make up the country’s highest court, for centuries called the Law Lords. Not so long ago, they’ve been rebranded according to the America mode as the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court. Sure they keep the wigs and snazzy gold-brocaded robes, but gone is the name and with it the connotation of superiority and privilege that clings to the concept Lords. We’ve been hearing a lot about this posse of ten men and a single women recently, since they will soon make a decision as to whether to send Brexit to Parliament for approval. Word came down yesterday from the Lord Chief Justice that the referendum would not be overturned. Another foundational American institution, McDonald’s, isn’t waiting for the final judgment, however: the Big Mac purveyor announced this morning that it would fold the arches at its European headquarters in Luxembourg and relocate back to the U. K.

Give this larger cultural trend, it’s not particularly surprising that the sky over East Anglia is dark with fully-weaponized helicopter parents of American design. They touch down at the portals to ancient Cambridge colleges, and their youngsters’ boots hit the cobbles and charge into the porter’s lodge, leaving the old folks alone and exposed to the enemy fire of Chinese tourist iPhone video fusillades. Calling in air cover on their Bluetooth ear pieces, mum and dad pull back to the nearest Starbucks or kindred safe haven.

I retreated to a satellite village on the Cambridge periphery—a manor house of Queen Anne vintage. There are portraits of the ancestors running up the walls in the main stairs. There’s a fire crackling in the hall, and a broken down Rolls-Royce from the 1930s in the carriage house. A tiger skin hangs on the hall leading down to the breakfast room.

Within a few minutes of my arrival, the lord of the manor has told me all about his time in America and many other things, too, including the fact that Pablo Casals’s Hamburg Steinway grand is moored down in the library. His cello-playing debutante mother was the great Spanish cellist’s favorite student—at least according to my interlocutor. He ushers me towards the instrument whose peeling veneer indicates that too many years of its life were spent near the fire. I start into Brahm’s Intermezzo in A Major, opus 118, no. 2. On the piano facing me are photographs of Margaret Thatcher from the 1980s; the owner’s ex-wife shaking hands with Prince Charles; and Bill Clinton with an arm around my guide’s daughter.

Only late Brahms—again!—could survive such a visual assault. This is music that captures both the fading dreams and the hopes of youth.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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