One-Year War and Peace 12.2 – From Good News to Bad

Reading for Friday, 20 March

In this chapter, Tolstoy tells us how Petersburg first thought everything was good, and then suddenly realised that Moscow was lost. However, in the midst of all that information, the one detail that is most shocking to us as readers is to find out that Helene is dead under rather sordid circumstances.

It’s rather a nasty way to go – but we certainly get the feeling that Tolstoy is telling us she deserved it . . .

It certainly frees up Pierre, doesn’t it? If he can get out of prison . . .

One-Year War and Peace 12.1 – Petersburg Hypocrisy

Reading for Thursday, 19 March

We return again to St Petersburg, where not a lot has changed. In fact, it’s almost bizarre – Moscow as we know it has been completely turned on its head, but here is St Petersburg, still with Mme Scherer and her shallow dinner parties, and Prince Vassily and his hypocrisy.

However, in what is perhaps one of the most stunning pieces of poetic justice in the book, Helene is out of the picture, dealing with an inconvenience caused by her having two lovers (that’s not counting her husband).

Tolstoy chooses his words carefully (or at least Constance Garnett does), but it’s quite clear that she’s trying to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy . . . Despite that, everyone talks as if she is ill.

Pierre may be in prison, but he was in one anyway, if he’d stayed in these aristocratic circles . . .

Despite all this, Tolstoy still manages to have a bit of fun at Vassily’s expense by talking about his elocution – famous because it’s all about emphasising certain words, regardless of what the actual meaning of those words might be.

Classical Music – Can It Be Salvaged?

I know I’m supposed to be back onto War and Peace posts, but the weekend has whizzed by and I haven’t had a chance to write any.

But I’ve been giving some thought to the classical music situation over the last few weeks. (Actually, it’s more like the last few years – but that’s a different matter.)

It’s not a secret to say that the classical music industry is struggling a bit. There are a wide variety of reasons for it, but my own personal theory is that since the 60s, it has been socially unacceptable to really like the music of the past. It’s getting better now, in this day and age of playlists, but when I was a kid growing up, the fact that I liked listening to classical music made me a bit of a freak.

So you combine that kind of peer pressure with stereotypes of classical music being performed by men in black suits for an audience of old people with suits on, and before you’ve even really listened to a note of the music, you have a negative perception that keeps people away.

Then we have problem number 2. Even if we get you to change your perceptions and say, “Hey, maybe this music isn’t so bad . . . I’ll give it a try,” when people come to listen to it, I think they’re often underwhelmed.

And I think that’s because it’s the kind of music that needs some explanation. There was a time when society used to teach people about music. You’d learn about it at school, mum and dad would make you have piano lessons which included classical music, and so when you went to a concert or listened to a classical recording, you sort of knew what to expect.

But that’s not the case now. In fact, one of the things that saddens me is seeing people who are new to classical music at classical concerts. The music is playing, everyone around them goes into raptures, and they’re kind of politely enjoying the general sound, while thinking to themselves, Well, wouldn’t want to listen to this stuff all day . . .

Anyway, this is a long and quite varied topic, but as someone who had to work the hard way to figure out classical music, I found one of the most helpful things was to understand how classical music is structured and what the composer is trying to do in the music.

Liner notes in CDs and concert programmes sometimes help, but then I find that they can be describing something in the music, but I can’t work out exactly where in the 30-45 minutes running time that the piece lasts, exactly where is the moment they are talking about?

And it occurred to me, that what would be nice is some way of explaining the music as it is playing so you can see exactly what things are being pointed out.

So I tried a little experiment on Friday night. I took a YouTube video of Toscanini conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and added explanatory subtitles to it.

Beethoven’s Fifth (at least the first movement) is probably one of my least favourite pieces of classical music, because it gets played to death, but it’s nice and simple to explain and everyone’s heard of it, so I used it as a test case.

The subtitles alone don’t tell the story, so there’s still a need for some explanatory notes, but I like the concept that I can point out the moments as they occur.

So what I’ll do is explain briefly what to listen out for in Beethoven’s Fifth and then you can check the video and see what you think.

First off, you need to know that classical music pieces often come in sections called movements. I won’t go into all the details, but the first movement is usually a fast one.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (a symphony is a piece for orchestra) is probably one of the most instantly recognisable classical music pieces in the world, and it’s definitely fast.

Beethoven also wrote it in a very common format called sonata form. In the same way that we get used to verse-chorus-verse-chorus as a pattern for songs, sonata form was a pattern often used for first movements.

Sonata form has roughly four sections.

The first section is called the Exposition. This is where the main themes of the symphony are laid out. Then we move into the Development, where the themes are broken down and played around with (a bit like improvisation). Then we come to the Recapitulation where the main themes return again (slightly different, but mostly the same). Finally, there is a Coda, which is the ending where the whole movement is wrapped up.

This may sound quite academic and boring, but when you know the structure, it adds a lot of drama to the music. First off, in the Exposition, you’re waiting to hear what types of themes the composer is going to give you. A good piece of music will usually vary the types of music in the themes, so you can often have complete contrasts of mood, speed and style in the exposition.

Then in the Development, the drama is to see what the composer does with those themes. Beethoven, especially, likes to go all mysterious and often he heads off into a strange twilight zone in his development sections.

Then there’s the drama of the Recapitulation, where we get a little thrill of recognition as the movement goes full cirle and comes back to the opening themes (assuming you were paying attention to them the first time around). But even though the music is back on familiar ground, we know the Coda is coming up, and so the audience can start to wonder how the piece is going to end.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, while fairly short by classical standards, uses this structure to great effect. First off, there are two wildly different themes in the Exposition. But what’s really amazing is that in between these two themes, the French horns play Three Big Notes (as I call them). They’d be just a throwaway moment (they’re played kind of slowly, the second is higher than the first one, and then the third note drops and is lower than the first two), but Beethoven makes those three notes the highlight of his development and breaks them down to two notes, and then one note.

Then there’s the Recapitulation. We expect to hear the first them repeated again as per normal, but instead, Beethoven interrupts everything (for no particular reason) to give the oboe a beautiful solo moment. But all of this is nothing, compared with the Coda. Codas often just finish movements off, but Beethoven writes music describing a titanic struggle in the Coda, and the music is so dramatic, it eclipses everything that comes before it.

Even though this movement is laid out in a pretty strict structure, the music was so wild and passionate, that audiences back in the day thought they were listening to random sounds strung together. It was just too over-the-top and emotional for them. For us, now, it sums up everything that’s great about classical music.

So here’s the video. I was hoping to embed it on the blog, but when I do that, the subtitles disappear, so for now you’ll have to go visit it on the DotSub website.

One-Year War and Peace 11.34 – Captured

Reading for Wednesday, 18 March

And not only has he saved one life, he’s also out to save another. Now that he’s rescued the little girl, he goes to defend the Armenians. But this is his undoing.

We finally end with Pierre – the most harmless and least warlike of an of the males in the novel – and there he is in gaol, and considered a dangerous person.

It’s a dark but fascinating ending to Book 11.

See you all for Book 12!

One-Year War and Peace 11.33 – Taking Life and Saving It

Reading for Tuesday, 17 March

Here’s an ironic juxtaposition – Pierre starts out on his way to take Napoleon’s life, but gets distracted by a mission to save the life of a three-year-old.

We know the former plan would never have worked but it’s nice to see Pierre going after a more worthy goal. (Though Tolstoy, never one to get too cliched, makes the child out to be a little terror, once Pierre does find her.)

One-Year War and Peace 11.32 – Divine Love

Reading for Monday, 16 March

This chapter is really just an elaboration on the last sentence of the previous chapter. I was struck, in reading it, by all Andrei’s thoughts of a divine love above all others.

That concept comes up a fair bit in 19th century books and music. I especially think of the last movement of the Mahler’s Third Symphony, which is a 25-minute picture of divine love. But it’s not romantic love, like we think of it. It’s a majestic, huge thing – really it’s another way for the Romantic artists to describe God.

What’s interesting is how that concept (and thus the music and words to describe it) seems to be so achingly missing from 20th and 21st century music and literature.

With the “death of God” in the latter half of the 19th century, there went the music that described him and with two world wars, it seems that we humans are much more skeptical about the idea of humans loving one another as well.

But in Tolstoy’s world, it’s the middle of an invasion, a man is dying, and a divine love conquers all. Or at least between Andrei and Natasha, and that’s all that matters for the moment . . .

One-Year War and Peace 11.31 – Smiled And Held Out His Hand

Reading for Sunday, 15 March

I have to say this was where the one (or two, in my case) chapters a day really paid off for War and Peace. Last time I read this, I was basically skim-reading and only really taking in the main plot points.

But I can’t tell you how exquisitely moving I found this chapter. It’s probably slightly different in every translation, but the last sentence in mine is “He smiled, and held out his hand to her.”

I think that’s the my vote for the most beautiful moment and the most beautiful sentence in all of War and Peace. It nearly made me weep and took me right out of my morning commute.

One-Year War and Peace 11.30 – Burning

Reading for Saturday, 14 March

We now switch to the Rostovs on their escape from Moscow. It’s only a tiny chapter, but it’s quite dramatic, how it shifts from the humourous (the way the Rostovs barely get anywhere because they keep running back to fetch things) through to the tragic. When old Danilo starts weeping, we know Moscow is in trouble . . .

One-Year War and Peace 11.29 – Conversations With the Enemy

Reading for Friday, 13 March

I know this conversation that takes place between Pierre and Ramballe is fictional, but I’m sure there must have been a few cases like that in the siege (if you can call it a siege) of Moscow.

I love the progression – we go from talking about Napoleon and all things French – and end up with Ramballe telling some off-colour stories – followed by Pierre telling of his love for Natasha.

It doesn’t really matter who he was talking to – the fact that it’s a French soldier just makes it more bizarre – but there’s something cathartic about Pierre finally telling the secret he has carried around in his soul, for at least the last few months of chapters that we’ve been reading.

And, in fact, if he loved Natasha from when he first met her, we’re talking about a secret that he’s carried around since Book I, which is a long, long time ago. (When we actually had 10 people reading the book . . .)

One-Year War and Peace 11.28 – The French in the House

Reading for Thursday, 12 March

And now the French arrive. Ironically, Pierre was out to kill their leader but his compassion (which was always bound to win out in the end) leads him to rescue a French officer.

Thus we’re left with a perplexed Pierre, wondering if he’s really on the side of the Russians, and French soldiers who consider Pierre one of their own . . .

Have you noticed how War and Peace has really entered another world now? After three quarters of a book of aristocratic houses and battlefields, this new world of deserted cities and occupied houses is a bizarre new setting. In this kind of world, anything is likely to happen.