Review: Les Misérables

Les Misérables
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read somewhere online last year that Les Misérables had 365 short chapters, so I decided at the beginning of April 2015 that I would read Hugo’s famous book at the rate of one chapter a day for the next year (though I did speed up a little bit in the last few days, thus why I’m finishing in just under a year).

I know not everybody would drag the reading of this book out that long but I found it a good experience several years back with War and Peace, which I blogged at the rate of a chapter a day for a year.

While reading a novel slowly drags it out, I find it lets you luxuriate in the detail of the writer’s prose. Otherwise, you’re in such a rush to get through to the story’s end that you can find you missed all sorts of jewels along the way.

And if that is the case like that with an author like Tolstoy, it’s even more the case with Victor Hugo. Like many Westerners, I first encountered the story of Les Misérables through the famous musical, which I had always found immensely moving. But I had always assumed, given the size of the Hugo book, that there must have been reams and reams of back story and peripheral characters that were cut.

And, look, there certainly are extended scenes and characters and background details in the novel. But, in many ways the musical has done a pretty good job of keeping the spine of the story. But what fills this book out, more than any peripheral characters (which is the thing that makes War and Peace so massive) is simply Hugo’s long side-tangents on all sorts of topics of interest to him that might only slightly touch upon the plot. For instance, he spends around 20 chapters (and remember, that’s nearly a month when you’re reading one chapter a day!) discussing the battle of Waterloo. From a story perspective, the only reason he’s even talking about Waterloo is because there is a minor subplot with Marius’ dad and Thenardier that features in the story. (And this is one of the subplots that got cut from the musical.) The scene with Marius’ father takes all of two pages to read. From a plot perspective, we really didn’t need a detailed drill-down into every detail of what happened at Waterloo.

So sometimes these side-tangents were really fascinating, but other times I got a bit lost, chiefly because they refer to very particular French characters and historical events, and I simply had no idea what he was talking about – I think I would need an annotated version to get my head around them all.

But that said, by the end I started to understand the tangents. I think it’s because Hugo is trying to touch on two major issues in the book – one of which is a universal theme and the other more particularly French. The universal theme is the idea of replacing hatred and judgmentalism with love and kindness. And that, of course, became the heart of the musical – the journey of Jean Valjean from being an angry convict to being a man with a massive heart and an extraordinary conscience. And that’s the story that grabs the reader. Valjean’s journey and his moral decisions, especially when Hugo is on fire, are majestic, stirring and moving. You read them and they encourage you to be a better person.

But the other theme that he deals with -which has been largely watered down in the musical – is the rift that occurred in French society after the French Revolution. There had been a revolution, the aristocracy had been overthrown, the people had triumphed. But then, when Napoleon turned out to be somewhat of a tyrant and was ultimately defeated, there was now a swing back the other way. So those who had overthrown the Establishment and the re-emerging Establishment are now living side-by-side in the vast sprawling city of Paris and they are still nursing many of their old grudges and hurts. It is this tension that explodes into the barricade sequence towards the end, but I understood it a lot more in light of what the book laid out.

Still, it is that particularly French part of the story that dates it and makes it difficult for non-French readers more than anything else. I’d be interested to know to what degree it becomes a difficult read for French readers nowadays as well as the historical background to the novel moves further and further away from us.

All in all, though, I’m glad I read it. There were passages that had me enthralled, moved me to tears, filled me with anger and spoke directly to my heart. How often do you get that from a book? This is rightly called a classic.

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A Guy Named George – Part 2: The Man Who Changed My Life

The genial mutton chops of Sir George Grove

In my last blog post on the Book That Changed My Life, I explained how I picked a copy of Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies in a second-hand bookstore. It so fired my enthusiasm for Beethoven symphonies and then classical music in general, that I lay the blame for my subsequent entry into the classical music industry entirely on that book. (Well, that book and the Mahler 2 – which I am very much looking forward to presenting in this blog as part of the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour.)

But I must confess that it was a while longer down my classical music path before I started to get curious about the guy who wrote that Beethoven book. After all, if this was the book that changed my life, in a way it really means that George Grove himself (despite having long departed this earth) changed my whole life.

But you know what it’s like with old books from the 19th century – they all seem to be written by a bunch of guys with very English-sounding names who all have rather spectacular facial hair that would give a hipster barista a run for his money. So I’ve never paid a lot of attention to old authors, even if I like their books.

But somewhere along the line, I got curious about George Grove – especially as I grew interested in the art form of creating audience engagement with classical music. Clearly, this was a man who had a knack for getting people fired up about Beethoven symphonies. Who was he?

A quick look around Wikipedia told me a little bit, and that little bit was fascinating. Grove was born in 1820 and died in 1900, so he effectively spanned most of the 19th century, just disappearing off the horizon before the onset of the 20th century. Nowadays, outside of classical music circles no one has heard of him – and even then, I’m not sure how well known he is in those circles.

But back in the Victorian era, in the realm of classical music, he was big bikkies. He was involved with regular concerts that occurred in a place called The Crystal Palace (I’ll do another post on those) where he was not only Secretary of the company that ran the concerts, he wrote the program notes week in and week out. (So the Beethoven book was actually just a collection and expansion of his notes on Beethoven symphonies. There are apparently lots more – some of which I’m hoping to get a look at while I’m in London next month.)

As if writing notes and promoting concerts weren’t enough, he also got the Royal College of Music up and running in the late 1800s, which became the major place for young musicians to study their craft. And he established the famous Dictionary of Music of Musicians, which became the most essential dictionary on musical matters.

And apart from the Crystal Palace (which sadly burned to the ground in 1936), all of the musical endeavours that George put his hand to are still with us. The Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies book is still in print, the Royal College of Music is still running (and if their website is to be believed, voted the #1 place to study music in the UK). And if you’ve got a small fortune and spare room on your shelves, you can get yourself the 29-volumes of The New Grove Dictionary of Music. If that’s not a lasting legacy, then I don’t know what is.

But what’s most fascinating to me about Grove is that, when you look more closely, he’s not actually a musician. He wasn’t a famous conductor or composer. He was an engineer. His studies and background prepared him for civil engineering (like this lighthouse he built in Jamaica, which is also still standing today). He was a layperson. And yet somehow this man managed to become the driving force behind British classical music, with a presence that still impacts on us today.

This I find extraordinary and also (as a layperson myself) incredibly inspiring. If the 19th century of classical music is largely dominated by the names of composers, the 20th century – especially once the record player became widely available – has been defined by the names of famous musicians and conductors.  As a result of that, the structure of most arts companies is that the top position, that of Artistic Director – the person who sets the tone for all the activities of the organisation – is nearly always an artist themselves.

I can understand the logic – you need an artist to help you shape the artistic direction of a company, right? But it does often feel that those of us who aren’t artists as such, are second tier. We can help with some of the admin side (after all, there is plenty of work to do selling tickets and raising money) but when it comes to the look and feel of what happens on stage, we still look to that new young hot-property conductor to be the magic bullet.

So from that context, Grove now fascinates me. Because what I can’t help wondering is – did he manage to build up the classical music scene precisely because he was a layman? Was it that feeling of being on the outside of something amazing (even though he was as heavily involved on the admin side as he could be) that helped him know how these things should be run? Did it give him an empathy for the amateur, struggling to come to terms with the genius of Beethoven, Mozart and Co?

I’m not sure, but I’ll see what I can uncover when I’m on my fact-finding trip to London next month. More next time!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)


We have four Mahler symphonies left to go, and hopefully in this homeward stretch, blogging about them out of order will all pay off. Like the long-awaited dessert at the end of a meal, these last four symphonies are all musical gold. They’re huge – both in length, size of the orchestra, massiveness of sound and the philosophical and theological concepts that they touch on. (Don’t worry, if that sounds too scary, you can just dip in and like it as pure music – many people do.)

But when it comes to size of an ensemble, the Mahler 8 – the next symphonic stop in our guided tour of Mahler – is a thing of legend. Mahler had experimented with putting choirs in symphonies (you’ll hear that in the Mahler 2 and the Mahler 3). But for the Mahler 8, he decided that he wanted to try something completely different – a symphony for orchestra, solo singers and choir, and the singers and choir would sing throughout almost the entire work. (This almost makes the piece a cantata, which was the name for – mostly sacred – works for choir and orchestra that were popular in back in the 1700s.)

It was first premiered in Munich. For that performance Mahler assembled a massive orchestra, eight soloists, a large choir and a children’s choir as well. The over-enthusiastic guy who was spruiking the concert (channelling the spirit of classical music marketers all the way into the future) came up with the tagline to end all taglines: “Symphony Of A Thousand”. Mahler never authorised this subtitle and the reality is that you can quite adequately perform the piece with half those numbers, but it was too late – the nickname has stuck ever since and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a recording or a concert advertisement of the Mahler 8 that doesn’t slip it in somewhere. (That said, because it does require such massive forces to perform, it is the rarest Mahler to hear performed live. If you do ever see it advertised by your local orchestra, don’t muck around getting a ticket – hordes of Mahlerites will be scrambling over themselves to snap up the seats.)

So what’s it about and why does it need a choir? Essentially it’s because Mahler came across two ideas that he really liked – one an old Latin hymn tune and the other the end of Goethe’s famous epic poem Faust and he wanted to set these particular pieces to music. Structurally, it is different from any other symphony he composed. Essentially, there are no movements – just two parts.

Part One is in Latin and is an ancient 9th century hymn known as Veni, creator spiritus or “Come, Creator Spirit”. Part Two is the final scene of Faust.

I might just pause here to do a quick potted version of Faust, because while it’s a name that crops up a fair bit in 19th century music, I don’t know of too much popular culture that references it. Faust was the name of a doctor in an old German legend who sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for all the wisdom and experiences that this life could offer. This legend has been the inspiration for plays, operas, songs, etc. but the most famous version of all is the one by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote a play in verse of the Faust legend (known as Faust, Part One) and then later in life came along and wrote a much more metaphysical extension of the Faust story (known as Faust, Part Two).

At the end of Part Two, various angels, holy women and finally the Virgin Mary come down from heaven and transform Faust’s soul in order to draw him to Heaven. I find that every translation of the German I’ve read of this final scene is tortuous to read, so I’m half-suspecting it could be difficult in the original German as well.

The main point you need to know is that that final scene of Faust spoke to Mahler and he was clearly interested in the concept of spiritual transcendence and the transformation of the soul. So when you look at the lyrics to the Latin hymn in the first half, Veni Creator Spiritus, you can see that it’s a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to “take possession of our souls” and contains lines such as: “O guide our minds with thy blest light, with love our hearts inflame.”

So if you think of this as a massive exploration of the theme of human souls being transformed by a Divine power, you’ll be on the wavelength of what this symphony is about. And when you hear the music that Mahler used for this symphony, you’ll understand what an awe-inspiring concept he found that to be.

From a musical perspective, Mahler managed to tie these two parts together (both written centuries apart and in different languages) by having some common musical themes that are shared across both. So whether or not you think he successfully tied the two texts together, you’ll probably agree the musical tunes are united together very well.

As far as recordings go, it was tricky to know which one to choose. All the recordings seem to bring out lots of different details, and some people lean towards the dramatic, some people like to go more calm and spiritual. (I will tell you now, there is nothing quite so convoluted as reading reviews of classical music online. One reviewer will be telling you it’s the definitive recording, sounding absolutely amazing, but the next reviewer will say, no, it’s pretty lackluster, actually. Proving yet again that, even among people who all love the same music, everybody can hear different things.)

The recording conducted by Georg Solti is one that crops up on favourite lists all the time (and I’d recommend tracking it down), but because we used him for the Mahler 6, I’ll run with another conductor who shows up quite regularly on Mahler 8 favourite lists: Klaus Tennstedt, with his live recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I haven’t listened to all of it myself, so it can be something new for both of us.

See you soon for Part One!



The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler 1 Deleted Scene: Blumine

The Trumpeter of Säckingen, the inspiration for Mahler’s deleted Blumine movement. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

And before we finally finish up with the Mahler 1, let me just throw in one last movement that Mahler originally wrote for the symphony, but later deleted.

This movement was called Blumine. (Which is not actually a real word, by the way  – Blume means flower in German, so it’s presumably something to do with flowering? Any German-speakers are more than welcome to chip in and help me out on this one!) It would have originally slotted in between the first and second movements.

Soundwise, the main tune was one that Mahler had written earlier as some incidental music from a story called The Trumpeter of Säckingen. Which explains why this is essentially an extended serenade for trumpet. It’s very beautiful, but it’s also very treacly and sweet as well, so you can see why Mahler cut it out and left only the edgy stuff in the symphony.

And once he did cut it, it was never heard from 1894 to 1966 when somebody discovered the older original manuscript of the Mahler 1 and found the movement. Respecting Mahler’s wishes -and also because of the above-mentioned treacle effect – nobody puts it in back in the symphony, but every now and again, somebody will play it as a bonus extra at a Mahler performance.

Somewhat like I’m doing now. So have a listen and see what you think. If nothing else, it’s a great piece of trumpet music. (Apologies -there is a lot of applause on this video before the music starts.)


A Guy Named George – Part 1: The Book That Changed My Life

Screenshot 2016-02-26 at 7.04.58 AM
Archives Bookstore – my favourite second-hand bookstore and the place where I was to pick up The Book That Changed My Life. (Photo Copyright Google 2016, sourced from Google Maps.)

I know we’re only four symphonies off the end of the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – and that will continue , don’t worry! But I have the opportunity to make a trip to London in just over a month, and that gives me the chance to track down and go hunting for any information that I can find about a particular person – namely, a guy named George Grove.

So in between the Mahler posts, I’m going to be throwing in the odd extra blog post on this guy George over the next couple of months, which may be far too nerdy for many, but you never know there might be some people that are interested as well. I guess we’ll see.

But let me start with a question: Have you ever had a life-changing moment? Something that, perhaps, you could look back and say, “Yep, that’s one of the major turning points in my life right there.” In some cases, you might have known right at that moment that this was a big thing (like births, deaths and marriages). But sometimes life changes in major ways and you didn’t realise that it was happening until much, much later.

It was this kind of change that happened to me about 15 years ago, and it all started in the building in the photo above – Archives Bookstore in Brisbane. And precisely because I didn’t realise that this particular visit to a bookstore was going to be so momentous, I actually can’t remember the year or even the time of year. I suspect it was 2000 or 2001, but I couldn’t be entirely sure.

Archives, which I’m glad to see is still going strong in Brisbane, even though I don’t live there any more, is a big old rambling bookshop where you can find everything from old rare editions through shelves of pre-loved sci-fi and fantasy, with just piles of odd stuff everywhere.

In fact, obviously the folks at Google were taken with the place, because they didn’t just stop at photographing the outside. You can actually take yourself for a virtual wander through the shelves, which is great fun:

Somewhere up the back, if you wander up far enough, is their section on music books. Possibly, the reason I was interested in music books was because I’d been reading through Phil Goulding’s Ticket to the Opera, which is a fantastic friendly guide to learning about different operas. Anyway, whatever the reason, I stumbled across a little blue paperback that looked brand new amidst the piles of otherwise well-loved books.  (Maybe it was donated by some music student who was supposed to read it but had never bothered to crack the cover? I’ll never know.)

This was the book:


The book offered to take you through the music of Beethoven’s symphonies, almost note by note and, perhaps the most friendly aspect of it, it was written by Grove for amateurs. So, while being quite a different beast, it was very much in the same spirit as what I’ve been attempting with my Mahler guided tour.

Of course, when Grove was writing his book (and this was in the late 1800s), the definition of an “amateur” was a bit different. An amateur was somebody who could read music (the book is filled with different snippets of sheet music) and understood music theory – so stuff like sonata form, major and minor, movements in a symphony (which I feel would need to be explained to amateurs today), were all assumed to be understood by his readers.

So when I first started reading it, I had to work hard consulting music dictionaries and such-like stuff to try to understand what the heck he was talking about. (And I can only thank my father and his piano lessons for teaching me how to read music, otherwise I don’t think the book would have meant anything at all.)

But I persevered, and as I read, something jaw-dropping happened.

Let me back up a minute. A few years earlier, I had seen and loved the famous Gary Oldman Beethoven film, Immortal BelovedAnd I’d enthusiastically bought the soundtrack which I still think, to this day, is the greatest single Beethoven album anyone can own.

Then, thinking that I should expand my horizons and get into all of the Beethoven symphonies, I one day picked up – because it was always the cheapest set of Beethoven symphonies back in the late 90s – the von Karajan set where he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. In fact, this exact box set here:


But I seemed to run into difficulties listening to it. All the Beethoven symphonies have four very distinct movements (except for the “Pastoral” Symphony, No. 6, which has five movements). But instead of hearing 37 distinct movements, the CDs always seemed to sound like this:

Symphony 1 – Nice Orchestral Background Music (NOBM)

Symphony 2 – More NOBM

Symphony 3 – First five minutes I heard off Immortal Beloved followed by another 40 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 4 – NOBM

Symphony 5 – Opening famous bit; another 25 minutes of NOBM

Symphony 6 – Some NOBM with that bit with the storm and the country dance – this one was a little easier because the tunes were vaguely familiar from Fantasia

Symphony 7 – NOBM – that great second movement where Beethoven’s nephew tries to shoot himself – More NOBM, albeit a bit more up-tempo

Symphony 8 – NOBM leaning towards random

Symphony 9 – What, a whole hour of NOBM before I get to the famous part with the choir? Why can’t he just skip to the good bits? (That said, there are possibly still hugely educated music fans that ask the same thing about the Choral Symphony.)

But, after reading Grove, I discovered that the Beethoven symphonies came into sharp focus, and all of a sudden I felt like I understood a) what Beethoven was trying to do and b) why the music was the way it was. So now listening to the Beethoven Symphonies became like this:

Symphony 1 – Movement I: Energetic opening with the first chord that shocked listeners; Movement II: beautiful little movement with the heartbeat on the timpani; Movement III: Beethoven’s first symphonic scherzo, so fast and furious it could never be mistaken for a traditional minuet (even if that’s what Beethoven called it); Movement IV: The joke with the slow scale at the beginning, like a worm poking its head out of a hole, clearly Beethoven’s sense of humour.

Symphony 2 – Movement I: unmistakable because of its fiery violin parts; Movement II: The slow movement with the intense climax at the end; Movement III: the scherzo where snippets of the tune get thrown between different groups of the orchestra like a football; Movement IV: The awesome one that sounds like a particularly crazy episode of Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner.

Symphony 3  – Movement I: 15 minutes of epic grandness, with a huge sweep from the opening theme to the barricade-storming final minutes of the finale; Movement II: One of the greatest funeral marches ever written; Movement III: The scherzo with all the flash and fire of a cavalry charge; Movement IV: One of the most clever things Beethoven ever wrote, a theme and variations, with a theme that sounds so light and fluffy, you wonder why he put it at the end of such a heroic symphony – until it spectacularly transforms into a thing of majesty and light at the end.


You get the idea.

But I found something had changed as well. With a knowledge of what the music was doing, combined with the enthusiasm of George, all of a sudden, my enjoyment of the music – which up until then I had already thought was pretty high on the scale – increased tenfold. Suddenly, I understood that when previously I had thought I was listening to classical music, I actually wasn’t. Now, for the first time, I understood what that sound world was that was inhabited by musicians and conductors and long-time fans of classical music. I understood why they went back to it time and time again.

And then, when I pondered a bit longer, a theory began to crystallise in my mind: Perhaps people aren’t walking away from classical music because they’ve had a listen and it’s not for them. Instead, they don’t actually really know what it is they’re hearing. The music is like a foreign film with no subtitles, a spectator sport where you don’t know the rules and can’t follow the game. It’s just meaningless sounds.

So – what if you could turn the subtitles on? What if you could teach the rules of the game to the ordinary person on the street, in language they would understand? Would more people then have the epiphany that I got from reading Grove?

it took several years for this idea to emerge, but that idea so took hold of me that I left behind my career path in maths and statistics, which I had studied at university, and spent two years trying any which way I could to get into the classical music industry. And after eight years in that field, it was the best thing I ever did.

So looking back, it was that trip to that bookstore, and picking up that book, that changed my life. But later on in life, I got curious about the man who wrote the book. Who was he? Clearly, he had a drive to share classical music with people as well, but where did that come from? How did he act that out?

I’ll talk about that in my next post about A Guy Named George.