Christmas Quiz

The Bad Eggs of Art

Where do we start
with the bad eggs of art?
The Italians once had
several quite bad.
Gesualdo comes first
as one of the worst –
a child, lover and wife
deprived of their life.
Next the painting bad sport
who murdered on court
and the gay silversmith
who crossed, slew forthwith.
Though unreliable still
art hoods then go downhill:
there’s a painter gone mad
who did for his dad;
a poet not so deft
involved in art theft;
last, pathetic to see,
Tracey drunk on TV.

1, 2, 3, 4, There are four unnamed ‘bad eggs’ in the verse above. Who are they?

5, A famous jazz composer died as a result of the celebrations for his hundredth birthday. Who was he?

6, 7, 8, There are at least three centenarians connected with the American musical. Can you name a composer/lyricist, a lyricist and a producer/director who lived to be over 100?

9, Goya’s first portrait of the Duke of Wellington had been started as a portrait of someone else. Who was the original sitter?

10, 11, 12, In a critical essay, Craig Raine collected phrases of three authors who compared a woman’s bottom to a valentine-style heart.Who are these three authors?

13, A composition described in 1934 as ‘still the most sensational essay in modern music from the point of view of pure strangeness of sound’ and which might well be so described today, was one hundred years old this year. Can you name the piece?

14, Robert Hughes, the Australian writer who was at one time the art critic of Time Magazine, was surprised when an up-and-coming composer arrived to fit his dishwasher. Who was the part-time plumber?

15, Which French painter won the country’s lottery?

16,17, Two French composers met their deaths as a result of unusual accidents. Who died from a stab wound self-inflicted while conducting and who was crushed by a bookcase?

18, The works of which painter were collected by both Rembrandt and Rubens?

19, A European classical composer died when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship in which he was returning from America. Who was this unfortunate musician?

20. Which painter changed a painting to suit a dictator, had other painters imprisoned and signed death sentences?

I am offering a small print, Thinking, Reading, Writing (11 x 13 cm, pictured above) for the first correct, or the most correct entry. Follow the link to my website where you will find my email address and send answers numbered 1-20 by 1st February. I will post the answers shortly after that date.

Getting Sibelius Wrong

Sibelius, Nielsen, Berwald, Grieg
form the Norse composers’ league.
One for Finland, Denmark and Sweden,
Norway as if planned by some great but fair intrigue,
Sibelius, Nielsen, Berwald, Grieg.

I know people with some interest in classical music to whom the prospect of listening to those most accessible of twentieth-century composers, Shostakovitch and Poulenc, presents something of an ordeal. At a concert in a little eleventh-century church in France that I attended during the summer, both natives and expats were apprehensive beforehand because Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony was to be performed. Afterwards, the same people admitted that the experience wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t get the feeling that any of the group thought that the composer’s work merited further investigation. It’s a bit depressing for anyone connected with the arts. I discovered early on that it was worth putting in time to get to know new works. Yet I must confess to an appalling prejudice of my own, which I harboured for many years. It concerns the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.

In his wonderful book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross devotes a whole chapter to Sibelius. He describes how the Finn became a victim of the style war in which Continental composers postulated an obligatory trajectory along atonal lines. They may even have led him to destroy his eighth symphony and stop composing altogether. One ideologue actually published a pamphlet entitled Sibelius: The Worst Composer in the World.

As a schoolboy in the Orkney Islands, I don’t think that I was part of that zeitgeist. But I do remember my prejudice being kindled by the remarks of two teachers. Why twentieth-century composers ever came up in history lessons in Stromness Academy, I can’t imagine but when they did, a teacher who played the organ in one of the churches muttered that Sibelius was the ‘only one’. By this time I was listening to the harmonically advanced jazz of Charlie Parker, and we had records at home of Stravinsky’s Petruska and The Soldier’s Tale. I put the history master down as a hopeless reactionary.

The comments of a science teacher proved even more damaging. He described to the class how pictures of Finnish landscape flashed up in his mind when he listened to Sibelius’s symphonies. Although I hadn’t heard a note of his music, Sibelius became for me an adjunct of the Finnish Tourist Board. The very title Finlandia seemed to confirm this and whenever I glimpsed a Sibelius LP cover, it was sure to depict Finnish lakes and forests. When I went to art college and interest in jazz gradually gave way to an involvement with classical music I would avoid any concert that featured Sibelius. As well as the major figures, I investigated all sorts of minor composers. These included Constant Lambert, whose book, Music Ho, I read. In it he has a large section on Sibelius, credits him with solving the problem of the post-Beethoven symphony and in the last part, Sibelius and the Music of the Future, champions him as the answer to the dodecaphonic and neo-classical impasse. I couldn’t have thought Lambert more wrong.

But had I read Lambert more closely, he might have allayed my fears. Of Sibelius’s symphonies he wrote ‘Though their grim colouring clearly owes much to the composers nationality and surroundings, there is nothing in them that can be considered a folk song’, and he chided critics ‘more noteworthy for geographical knowledge than for nervous sensibility’, adding that ‘the chilly atmosphere of the fourth symphony is something more than a Christmas-card nip in the air’.

Alas, it was not until Alex Ross’s book came out in 2008 that I realised how wrong I had been. I bought CDs of the great symphonies ­– four to seven – and eventually the earlier symphonies and tone poems as well. And Constant Lambert’s assertion written in 1934 that ‘of all contemporary music, that of Sibelius seems to point forward most surely to the future’ is proving to have much more substance. A host of contemporary composers including Maxwell Davies and Thomas Adès claim him as an inspiration, as did the late Morton Feldman. Meanwhile, John Adams, who seems to have emerged as the most significant figure to have moved beyond the easy listening of both secular and holy minimalism, mentions him constantly.

My new interest in Sibelius has led me to revisit other Scandinavian composers. I had heard a little Nielsen, for I once bought an LP of his clarinet and flute concertos for my father, who was a keen amateur flautist. Grieg I had always associated with pretty piano pieces of no great significance. That was until I heard his first string quartet. As for Berwald, who gives Sweden a famous composer to keep up with her neighbours, my Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (admittedly published in 1955) has an odd entry on this composer: ‘Works much praised by those by who know them’. I have apparently joined a select band.

Edinburgh's New Plinth Sculpture

The remarks Ken Livingstone made about the figures celebrated on plinths around Trafalgar Square, which led to the projects on the empty plinth, missed an important point. It is this: statues in this ancient tradition, to work well, must make an architectural impact. They act as centres of interest in the formal urban scheme and can be life enhancing whether or not the people represented interest the public. In every major city throughout Europe and beyond, such statues have been erected through the ages with a well-rehearsed competence. Edinburgh has a great number of such works dating from the 17th century right through to the early 20th. Recently, no less than five more have been added, four of them by the Paisley sculptor Alexander Stoddart, now appointed the Queen’s sculptor in ordinary in Scotland

Stoddart cannot be faulted for his modelling skills. Judged by these, he can hold his own with the practioners of previous ages in Scotland. Continuing with this tradition today, however, is problematic not least because all the best positions for placing such works in the city centre have been taken. Two of Stoddart’s figures are seated and there is an additional problem with these. Seated figures do not form pinnacles like standing figures and the back view is likely to be unsatisfactory. The great examples of seated figures from the past, like Michelangelo’s Moses, in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome or the figures on the Medici tombs, Florence, are all set in architectural facades. There seems to be some awareness of this problem with Stoddart’s statue of Hume (see photo above) in front of the old Sheriff Courts, as there is a rather pathetic attempt to link it to the building

by echoing its rustication on the low plinth. But to be effective it would have to have been embedded much higher up in the building. For this to have happened, Stoddart would have had to be involved when the building was being erected.

With his sculpture of James Clerk Maxwell (pictured right), the scientist, in George Street, the problem is even more acute. When we enter the street, Clerk Maxwell has turned his back on us. What is bad manners in life is bad manners in monumental sculpture. Again, the figure needs to face out from an architectural surround, which, in this day and age in an already completed city street, cannot be arranged. Photographs of the Clerk Maxwell sculpture in the artist’s studio have appeared in the press. It looked enormous. Placed among the buildings of George Street it looks too small. It therefore lacks the presence of the other sculptures at the junctions of the street. One of these is of George IV, unloved in his time and unrescued by any revisionist historian since. Yet serving as a finial on top of a monolith of the right scale, few would wish to remove him. It says a great deal about how these monumental pieces work.

Stoddart’s standing figure of Adam Smith on a high plinth in the High Street fares rather better. There is room for it on the widened pavement. On the other hand it is not obvious that a feature was actually needed at this spot. By far the best of Stoddart’s pieces is the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial featuring two characters from Kidnapped, mounted on a plinth of cyclopean rustication, giving some relief from the miles of blank wall on the right that is passed driving out of Edinburgh towards the airport. If any ideological objections to an artist working in a neo-neo- classical idiom can be put aside, everything here works very well, down to the little roundel featuring a relief of Stevenson himself.

The fifth of these revivalist sculptures is a representation of Sherlock Holmes by the pop-artist-gone-conservative-sculptor-turned-born-again-modernist, Gerald Laing. It is a poor piece, indifferently modelled and far too small in scale to be successful. Ironically, although removed, temporarily or for re-siting, by the tram works, it did have one of the best positions of any of the new works.

It is worth asking why we should again be raising statues to dead Scots males. The Roman purpose in celebrating heroes was part of the process of turning them into gods. We no longer believe in this. If we believe that it serves to increase interest in the achievements of the individuals represented, we should look at the evidence. How many citizens could locate the statue of Sir James Young Simpson, the Scottish doctor/scientist previously plinthed? As has often been said, the way to create greater interest in science and its heroes, is to teach the history of science in schools. Of our great Enlightenment figures, David Hume and Adam Smith, it could be said as Horace said of himself that they had constructed a monument more lasting than bronze, although it wouldn’t have been in the nature of either to so boast. As for statues of characters from literature making their authors more read, it should be remembered that Sir Walter Scott has a statue with a sixty metres architectural canopy which is very well known, yet Allan Massie has written recently, that he was stumped when asked how more reading of the great novelist could be encouraged.

Most important cities have masses of skilful sculptures in stone and bronze. Tourist guides, local historians and a few others will know what they represent but they are generally ignored precisely because they have become so common. Where they complete a pleasant urban composition everybody benefits but cramming in more may even destroy the balance already achieved.