I boarded this train of thought last week in preparation for church. I was the substitute music director in a Sunday without the choir, seeking joy while pondering darker thoughts.
I don’t pretend to know how I happened to be so preoccupied with music associated with water, only noticing it after the fact. But I played one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words titled “Venetianisches Gondellied”, which probably means “Song of the Venetian Gondolier”. It’s a stunning solemn piece that I first encountered in a comical transcription by Korngold in his film music for Reinhardt’s adaptation of A Midsummernight’s Dream (1935).
I’ve never been to Venice. It comes up as place of importance in the history of opera, a place of importance in the history of theatre, and currently: as a city facing the onslaught of nature.
Is it sinking?
And by a curious chain of unconscious association, I pulled out a piece by Claude Debussy that also suggests water. That’s not so unlikely when one recalls titles such as “Reflets dans l’eau” (reflections in the water) or “Poissons d’or” (fish of gold: more likely to be koi rather than goldfish), to give you two titles from a CD I’ve been listening to lately.
This one is another prelude, namely La Cathédrale engloutie or “the submerged cathedral.” I’ve played it in church before. I always understood it as a very moving piece that affirms something immortal. It’s program music as the piano tells a story based on various legends of a cathedral submerged off the coast of France. Whatever the legend might say, Debussy’s prelude suggests something mystical. It gets louder building to a climax that might signify the emergence of the cathedral from the water in all its glory, and then eventually fading until at the end we hear music coming to us as though from under water, a cathedral that’s submerged or engulfed in water.
In 2019 it’s a very troubling image.
I especially like this version from youtube, that shows us exactly how the composer wanted his piece to sound, a piano roll of Debussy himself playing the piece. That it’s faster than anyone else’s version, lacking the extra schmaltz that mars other performances, should by now be a clear indication of how the piece should be played.
What struck me this weekend in prep for the church service was something I’ve never really thought about before. At one time when the population of France was universally Catholic Christians the idea of a cathedral off-shore in the sea was just a quaint legend. But I see it in a different light this week, in context with #GlobalClimateStrike and the realization that not only are the oceans are rising, but I no longer have the confidence that I held as a small child, the certainty that human life will go on. In a world where oceans may inundate islands, cities, even whole civilizations (recalling the myth of Atlantis, suggesting that it’s part of our psychology & even our deepest fear): this isn’t just a quaint legend. The poignant sounds of the cathedral heard at the end as if from under the water become an apocalyptic forecast.
It never hit me before that this piece has a possible dark interpretation. The spirits and voices of that cathedral drift up to the surface, their songs persisting, living on in spite of the relentless sea. If we flash forward to a time when perhaps humanity is no longer so confident, no longer assured of survival, the piece takes on a totally different meaning. Is the song that floats up from underwater a remnant of humanity, spirits that live on in spite of rising sea levels?
That thought led me away from playing the Debussy this past Sunday, and instead to sing and play something more cheerful, namely “What a Wonderful World”. Everyone smiled afterwards.
And so there I was curating the music (as usual, as any music director does), reminded suddenly of music’s power to cheer us or terrify us, lull us or arouse us. And so too with all the arts.
And so forgive me for raising some prickly questions. In a course I taught called “The Most Popular Operas,” we discussed popularity, a troubling metric because it is not necessarily an indication of excellence. Would people rather listen to something sentimental that makes them smile, than something that might challenge them? Can humanity handle the truth, or do we prefer lullabies and sentimental songs?
I pose the question as I wonder if the arts have failed humanity as far as this whole question of climate change, opting to pander to public taste rather than to show us what we need to see.
I recall a film called Waterworld starring Kevin Costner, telling us about a future where the ice-caps had melted & the oceans had risen to cover the land. The film was a big-budget flop that lost money at the box-office. And so it was largely dismissed. At times like this –as I contemplate the way we seem to conflate and confuse the amount of money a film earns with its actual quality—I think Greta Thunberg is on to something when she said
“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Is the only value of Waterworld to be understood in how many dollars the film made for its producers? And please note, it’s just a commercial film & fictional and not to be understood as a treatise on anything like genuine truth.
But in fairness there are other films that have shown some of the effects of climate change and they’ve been far more successful. I’m thinking of the Mad Max series which show us a barren world that’s heating up. Where Waterworld is an expensive failure (again using the money-box office metric), the first Mad Max is one of the most astute & profitable films ever made, a cheap little film that made millions.
But Greta would still be growling at me, that we’re only looking at the $, not the meaning.
So let me ask for a moment, what role should the arts be playing?
There is a group on Facebook called Artists for Real Climate Action (or ARCA). It’s an interesting group that I’ve joined, who are aiming to be active in protests such as the #GlobalClimateStrike that’s on Friday Sept 27th. And perhaps that’s the best thing artists can do.
Perhaps it’s late to be talking about this, but I was thinking of something else. I grew up at a time when I believed in the power of music to change the world, listening to the songs of John Lennon and Bob Dylan. I believed in the relevance if not outright activism in the arts, of the power of the arts to persuade & mobilize public opinion.
It’s a troubling thought when you contemplate creations to reflect our scary future, to hold up a mirror in whatever medium rather than merely aiming to lull or entertain. Can one entertain while in some respect telling the truth about climate change? Or in other words, will anyone listen? Perhaps if we go into something like science fiction, or even horror, the audience will be there.
That truth includes the recognition of how lucky we are in places such as Canada or Sweden (as Greta reminds us), not yet as hot, not yet inundated. That truth includes a future with refugees fleeing their disasters and coming to us.
I see at least two possible avenues for exploration, at least as a blogger who sees mostly classical concerts & theatre performances:
1) Original work
2) Adaptations of existing works
I leave #1 for those who have ideas of how to demonstrate the crisis of our time in the portrayal of the climate emergency or in human responses. But #2 might be a more commercial pathway, if one imagines employing existing works given an extra spin by directors or adaptors. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few works that already have overtones of ecology & sustainability in their storyline that could become vehicles for at least some politics.
- Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande includes scenes that already suggest ecological disaster. Set in “Allemond” (a name to suggest the whole world), it is of the type of the symbolist dead city, with hints that the waters underneath are poisoned, that there are paupers struggling to survive in the vicinity (ignored by the personages of the opera)
- Rusalka, coming up on the stage of the Canadian Opera Company this fall, tells a fairy-tale of a mermaid who pays a high price to come ashore among humanity, while showing us an unimpressive image of that humanity. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine sets to suggest that this world is out of balance with nature.
- Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a story suggesting the betrayal of nature, might be the ideal vehicle. It has already been staged to suggest something ecological in Harry Kupfer’s staging at the Bayreuth festival back in the 1980s, and more recently in Francesca Zambello’s production in the USA.
- King Lear is one of several Shakespeare plays where the weather plays a prominent role, that can be steered towards something more pointed as far as climate change. If you google “ecocriticism Lear” you’ll see that there’s already a conversation underway
- And the same is true of some film, where you might google “ecocriticism film”.
Meanwhile many doubt that the crisis is real. I see the same effect in the arts that I see on CNN, where we bring our political baggage into the theatre, showing up with our prejudices & positions intact. For those of us who are believers, our beliefs are reinforced while others are not persuaded. Surely the arts have a role to play in persuasion, which brings you back to the headline (please re-read it).
I wonder how the story will play out in the world, how bad it will get, but also, how the story will be signified in film & theatre, and how hearts & minds will respond. We live in interesting times.