Andy Rice on Bones of contention 94Kristan on A charming tale
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“I have placed death before life, wrote Charles Gounod, “because in the order of eternal things death precedes life.” The French composer was speaking about his oratorio Mors et Vita. This is a work filled with operatic drama, soaring orchestral music and meaningful solo passages sung with clarity of purpose and diction.
Perhaps the music is exemplified by the middle section of the work, the celebrated “Judex”, with its memorable melody – a signature tune for the whole work. Indeed, it was this piece of music, with its sensuous spirit and captivating appeal, first heard on my car radio, that awakened my interest in the whole work. It was to be some awakening and a recording of the music was immediately purchased.
The chosen recording, the Warner Classics 2-disc digital set from 1992, features a splendid quartet of Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Nadine Denize (alto), John Aler (tenor) and Jose van Dam (baritone), accompanied by Christopher Kuhlmann (organ), the Orfeon Donostiarra Chorus and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. All components are superbly managed by Michel Plasson, a conductor totally inside the music of Gounod. The orchestra is exhilarating and the soloists inspirational across the whole spectrum of this piece. Understandably, Hendricks illuminates the soprano lines with often incandescent singing, and van Dam commands the baritone’s pronouncements.
It is to be regretted that this work seems not to have entered the concert repertoire as it deserves greater recognition and wider appreciation than it apparently has. Perhaps this situation is owed to the fact that the work runs for in excess of 156 minutes. So too, the work is in three parts and, whilst the first part, “Death”, is a requiem that could stand alone as a composition, it is, nevertheless, an intrinsic part of the whole.
Whilst the above may be case it is interesting to note that the music itself was composed in the wake of Charles Gounod’s highly acclaimed The Redemption – an attempt to continue the impact and value of that work. According to the musicologist Richard Langham Smith, the Mors et Vita shows the musical influence of Bach and Wagner. It was dedicated to Pope Leo XIII.
Be that as it may, Mors et Vita is itself a composition to be cherished with its musical drama, operatic singing, striking orchestral passages and a primary musical motif which is reiterated throughout the work. According to the composer, the essential features of the ideas in the motif are “the tears which death causes us to shed here below; the hope of a better life; the solemn dread of unerring justice; the tender and filial trust in eternal Love.”
As mentioned in the foregoing, Mors et Vita has three sections:
First Part: Mors (Death), a fully-fledged requiem with a prologue and an epilogue. The music opens with a sombre passage leading to a series of triumphant choruses, with brass predominating, and solo parts for tenor and soprano sung against a lyrical orchestral accompaniment. This flavour of music continues in each appropriate section of the requiem, orchestral drama alternating with individual contributions from the soloist, striking cymbals with quieter passages illuminated by the strings of the harp. A choral component provides something of a heavenly vision. Musically, the seriousness of “Death” is brought to consciousness, but its sting is removed, sorrow is replaced by joy.
Second Part: Judicium (Judgement), the most celebrated component of this delicious oratorio, is first introduced by the violins in concert with the chorus – a languorous idyll that develops into a powerful chorale. It is this section that provides the most eloquent portions of what this oratorio offers: soaring and inspirational choral singing; clear and satisfying, and somewhat seductive, solo contributions; tense and powerful orchestral accompaniment in the louder passages; noble, tender and melodious in the quieter music. As the section nears its conclusion, the latent sorrow of the first part and the “Judgement” of this second part is refined by an expectation of the expulsion of pain.
Third Part: Vita (Life), a section comprising of sustained emotion and the expression of happiness. The above-mentioned qualities of the soloists, orchestra and chorus are all present in this section as the work moves towards a joyful choral finale. “Life” is quietly introduced, again with the use of the baritone voice, and the music gradually builds towards its climax as the chorus reprises the Judex theme of the second part. It could be said that the work had a double ending. The consummate choral ending of the “ergo sum alpha et omega” could well have concluded the work most satisfactorily, but the composer continues with a joyful “Hosanna…”, in order to bring the entire piece to an extended but appropriate and satisfying conclusion.
The version on Warner Classics is probably as good as it they come. The soloists are all first rate and sing flawlessly – it would be difficult to put together a foursome of esteemed soloists as good as those on this recording. The chorus is full-bodied and harmonious, often incandescent, and the conductor is in full control of a strong, responsive and expansive orchestra in a musical composition full of idiomatic structures and musical challenges. The recorded sound is clear and well-spaced, allowing the music to expand at the climaxes with the quieter passages deftly but firmly controlled and sensitively executed.
Charles Gounod’s oratorio, Mors et Vita, is a ‘must have’ piece of music for any lover of classical music, and certainly those with an interest in sacred or secular choral music. This is sublime music, superbly recorded, supremely satisfying.
Daniel Ellsberg, the “Watergate” commentator, said that the book is “a masterpiece”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the true force behind the ending of the Cold War, considered the book to be “indispensable” reading. I speak, of course, of the Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone book The Untold History of the United States.
Peter Kuznick is a professor of history and the director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Oliver Stone is a Hollywood movie director who has won numerous Academy Awards for his work on such iconic films as Wall Street, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone further directed a DVD series of the same name from the book. The documentary series is compulsive viewing.
The book is a valuable insight for any student or chronicler of the history of the United States of America. Perhaps this statement should be qualified with the further statement that the American history with which the book deals is the relatively modern history of the USA. The material commences near the beginning of the 20th century with the period immediately before the First World War and the USA’s involvement in the Central American states. This is also the period of the Russian Revolution. This serves as a necessary foundation for the main content of the overall narrative. The period before the 20th. Century receives sparse comment, except in passing
So, the focus of the book is the history of the period that the authors, Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, name as the century which saw “the rise and decline of the American empire”. Using the “latest research and recently declassified documents” the book builds a meticulously documented and shocking picture of the American empire – “the most powerful and dominant force the world has ever seen”. Further, it is the view of the book’s authors that this empire has “determined the course of world events for the interests of the few across the twentieth century and beyond.” According to Oliver Stone, these events and the interests behind them, are little understood by the citizens of the USA.
In his DVD commentary, Oliver Stone has stated that a primary reason for co-writing the book and making the documentary series is to make Americans, and particularly young Americans, more generally aware of an American history that is rarely mentioned in the nation’s classrooms.
The latest edition of the book, published in 2019, has a section on “The Truth on Trump”. The latest Blu-Ray, four disc version of Oliver Stone’s documentary series includes two Prologues (I) “Chapter A: “WW1 and the Russian Revolution”, and (2) “Chapter B: 1920-40”, as well as “A Conversation with History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone.” Reading the actual book is itself a massive undertaking, as it chock-full of information on the relevant 20th Century events, contains a most impressive catalogue of notes and references, and deals with aspects of and opinions about USA history that are rarely part of contemporary awareness or discussion.
The DVD documentaries bring the full force of the book to the screen and impacts both the imagination and the conscience with the breadth and depth of its footage. It helps the enquirer to understand why this history has rarely seen the light of day in the educational establishments of the USA.
Particularly of interest to this reader was the sections of the book that mentioned the figure of Henry Wallace. Wallace was the Minister of Agriculture in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic administration in the USA prior to and during WW2. Wallace was pastoralist and a passivist. He was expected to be named as Roosevelt’s Vice-Presidential candidate at the 1944 USA national elections. Wallace had made a distinct impression in his role in the Roosevelt government and was known for his anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist views and his deep concern for human rights. He was more popular amongst the American electorate than all other vice-presidential candidates combined.
However, at the 11th hour before the 1944 elections, Roosevelt was persuaded by conservative power brokers in the Democratic Party to replace Wallace with Harry S. Truman. Truman was a little known and undistinguished Senator from mid-west America. He had made few enemies and he was considered unlikely to rock the boat. Kuznick and Stone point out that, as well as his apparent racism and antisemitism, little thought was apparently given to the attributes that would be necessary for Truman to lead the USA and the world in the challenging times ahead.
It was as USA President that Harry Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is open to speculation as to what world history since 1944 would have been had Henry Wallace become President of the USA. Perhaps a matter of “altered states”?
Oliver Stone asks a series of penetrating questions with the written and filmed material: Do Americans really know and understand their shared and complicated history? How do the citizens of the USA recall the small details and forgotten players that influenced some of the biggest events from America’s past? Will American children, present and future, get the whole story from reading their history books? How will the foregoing affect the ongoing history of the United States of America?
Oliver Stone narrates the DVD filming. His quiet and sombre voice is accompanied by suitably serious, sometimes ominous, music as the commentary presses on to important, for the world as well as the USA, summations, insights and conclusions. In the process, the material features such well-known Americans as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nixon, Reagan, Bush senior and junior, Obama and, of course, Trump. Many not so well-known, but important figures in USA history are also covered, e.g., Woodrow Wilson and General Smedley Butler, James F. Byrnes and Henry Wallace, as well as many of those in-between. Figures are combined with facts, characters with consequences, in a narrative that is never less than compelling.
As a former teacher of secondary school history, but never one who had studied or taught American history to any great extent, I found this book and documentary series a valuable source of information and recollection – urging a desire to forego retirement and take up the history books again with, of course, a focus on American history. Without equivocation, I can recommend both the book and the DVD series to the widest readership.
In this book Oliver Stone offers his personal testimony: “From the outset I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived through. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our history”. He dedicates the book to his own children as well as “the better world that they and all children deserve”. As well, he affirms his faith in the “often misguided, sometimes destructive and occasionally exalted species to someday achieve that goal”.
A few weeks ago, the House of Commons was presented with the latest Queen’s Speech in which the government, despite the expectation of a General Election, set out its priorities for the coming period of Parliament. It is rare for such speeches at any time to focus on issues of human rights, especially with so much current attention being on the Brexit debate and the ongoing political uncertainty. The latest Queen’s Speech was no exception.
With so much in the political and social worlds that seem to divide the British nation at present, it is timely and helpful to take a step back and focus on the values that unite us – especially the fundamental rights and freedoms we all share.
Amnesty International (AI) is an organisation that exists in order to protect and enhance human rights worldwide. So, in anticipation of the 2019 Queen’s Speech, AI put together an alternative Queen’s Speech in which it listed its seven human rights’ priorities for challenging injustices – both in the UK and around the world.
In what follows I will set out these seven priorities and, with the encouragement of AI, provide a brief explanation of what AI has stated about these priorities.
1. A Bill to embed respect for family life in all immigration and asylum decision making, including enabling more refugee families to be reunited in safety in the UK.
The Government should underline respect for the best interests of children and the importance of family life by extending family reunion rights to child refugees in the UK, so that children have the right to bring their parents here to join them. Adult refugees should be able to sponsor their elderly parents, siblings, and children up to the age of 25.
2. Measures to strengthen support and protection for human rights defenders.
Championing human rights around the world should be at the heart of UK foreign policy – and this must include increasing support for brave human rights defenders who face unprecedented levels of repression and abuse.
Defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things – lawyers, journalists, activists – defending the environment, uncovering corruption, promoting the rights of women and girls. They are the agents of change in their communities, and they need strategic support from the UK which includes access to funding, emergency protection, greater promotion and recognition.
3. A Bill to overhaul the UK’s immigration system to ensure respecting people’s rights is the primary priority of the system.
This must include ending indefinite immigration detention, restoring legal aid for immigration and nationality cases, guaranteeing the best interests of children, and ensuring no one – including EU nationals living in the UK – is unjustly deprived of rights to British citizenship.
4. A Domestic Abuse Bill that gives equal protection to all survivors of domestic abuse.
The Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill could be a trailblazing piece of legislation, but it will fail unless it meets the needs of migrant women. They must have access to safe reporting systems, without the fear of immigration enforcement, and be able to access public funds and support services. Migrant women should be asked if they are safe, not where they are from.
5. A clear commitment that the UK will remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights after Brexit.
It is vital that human rights are prioritised and protected throughout and beyond the Brexit process. The Government must also commit to retaining the Human Rights Act and to restoring the domestic rights and protections which UK citizens have lost through the previous Government’s decision to scrap the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the general principles of EU law.
6. Legislation to strengthen the arms export control system to ensure the UK complies fully with its human rights.
The fact that the UK has supplied more than £4 billion of military hardware to Saudi Arabia since the outbreak of the conflict in Yemen, despite the clear risk of it being used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law, shows that the current system is not fit for purpose and requires a complete overhaul.
7. Regulations that will enable free, safe, legal and local abortion in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, passed in July 2019, decriminalised abortion, provided a moratorium on prosecutions and made abortion lawful – including in cases where there is a risk to health, serious malformation of the foetus and in cases of sexual crime. The Government must now put in place regulations to enable free, safe, legal and local services by 31 March 2020.
As anticipated, the recent Queen’s Speech said little about fundamental human rights and the values that underpins them. Nevertheless, Amnesty International continues its work of protecting people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity is denied.
As a global movement of over 7 million people, AI is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation. It is composed of ordinary people from across the world standing up for human rights.
The organisation investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilises the public, and helps transform societies to create a safer, more just world. On reflection, it would have been wiser, more prudent and just, to have spent the time, effort and money involved in mounting a Queen’s Speech on advancing the cause of human rights issues – in this country and elsewhere.
Amnesty International has received the Nobel Peace Prize for its life-saving work.
“We hope to reach again a Europe in which men will be proud to say, ‘I am a European.’ We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land – and that without lessening any of their love and loyalty to their home and birthplace. We hope that wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European continent, they will truly feel – Here I am at home, I am a citizen of this country too.” (Winston Churchill, Amsterdam, 1948)
The words of the above quotation come from Dr Denis MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2017). Sad to say but, presently, the answer to this statement remains in the balance.
I am writing these words on the day the self-styled reincarnation of Winston Churchill, that narcissistic, bombastic, duplicitous and opportunistic Old Etonian and presently the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is attempting to get his withdrawal deal with the European Union through the British House of Commons. If passed, the deal will take the UK out of the European Union. The ramifications of this deal are frightening to contemplate.
Clearly, Boris Johnson does not know his Churchill quite as intimately as he seemingly feels he does.
Dr Denis MacShane was a Labour MP serving in Tony Blair’s government as Minister for Europe. He was first elected as MP for Rotherham in 1994 and served until his resignation in 2012. MacShane studied at Oxford and London Universities. He was and remains a prominent commentator on European issues. He is well qualified for this task having lived and worked in different European countries, speaks a range of European languages, and is reported to have “a contact book of politicians and journalists in most European member states.”
Dr MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (see the above reference), is the second of a trilogy of books on the theme of Brexit. The trilogy began with Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2015) and concluded with the recent publication of Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain (I.B. Taurus, 2019).
In the first book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, Dr MacShane examines the issue of whether Britain will leave the EU. He indicates that the question of Brexit – a British exit from the EU – was high on the political agenda in the UK. This situation followed the Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election and the mounting pressure from within the Conservative Party for the UK to exit the EU. MacShane looks at the history of Britain’s fraught relationship with Europe and shows how “the possibility of Brexit had become increasingly more likely.”
He looks at the “key personalities who had shaped Britain’s European policy – from Churchill to Wilson and Heath to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron” – and “the key issues of immigration and the economy” which had heightened Eurosceptic feeling in the UK. In so doing, MacShane touches on one of the “most divisive political issues of our times” as the nation moved towards a referendum on Europe and considered its future place in the world.
In the second book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe, Dr MacShane discusses the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016 and the inconclusive election just twelve months later. He asserts that both events “unleashed a wave of chaos and uncertainty.” He argues that “Brexit will not mean full rupture with Europe and that British business will overcome the right-wing forces of the Conservative back-benches and UKIP.” In consequence, both forces were weakened due to the ill-fated election gamble of June 2017 by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Denis MacShane correctly predicts that British negotiations with the EU in the post-Referendum period “will prove to be excruciating.” He considers that Britain cannot and will not divorce itself from the continent of Europe, “Indeed, the European question will remain the defining political issue of our time.”
He further considers that public and political opinion in both the UK and EU member states has never confronted such an issue before – namely “A decision by one of the world’s largest economies and democracies to withdraw from the world’s biggest open-border trading bloc, which has managed to secure peace and the sharing of laws and democracy between more than 30 nations, …as well as those seeking to join.”
Rather alarmingly, MacShane sees Brexit as just “the first step in a bigger nationalist campaign aimed at destroying the EU and returning to a Europe of rival nation states behind closed borders.” To reach this conclusion Dr MacShane first examines the impact of Brexit – in the UK, the EU, with reference also to Donald Trump and the U.S.A, before dissecting why Brexit happened.
Following this, Dr MacShane provides evidence as to why Brexit disrupts Britain from within and will cut off the UK with respect to its near and far neighbours. Finally, he shows how Brexit will change Europe in terms of the requirement for a new politics. His “Afterword” discusses how the UK stays in Europe.
Brigid Loffan (Director, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies) says that the third book in MacShane’s Brexit trilogy Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain, spells out why “Brexit will morph into a Brexiternity.” Loffan is of the view that Denis MacShane’s book rightly argues that the English politics that gave rise to Brexit will result in “years and years of Brexit issues in Britain but also in Ireland (I might add Scotland) and the rest of Europe as well.”
Indeed, as MacShane explains, “Brexit will affect the lives of future generations, deal or no deal, and even threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom itself.” Even as this article is being written two days after the British government has made a deal with the EU, it is clear, as Denis Macshane outlines, that “No matter what happens, a ‘Brexiternity’ of negotiations and internal political wrangling in Britain lies ahead.”
The Guardian newspaper’s Polly Toynbee has said that, “Brexit is far from over. It is a Gordian knot that requires new and strong political leadership in order to be cut.” Referring to the last book in the Denis MacShane trilogy, Jon Snow, the journalist and presenter of the Channel 4 News, considers that “Leavers and Remainers alike will learn from this book as we face a decade in which Brexit will dominate our national life.”
Toynbee and Snow are among a veritable celebrity line-up of journalists, commentators, writers and politicians, amongst others, who have lauded the above trilogy of books about Brexit by Dr Denis MacShane. This writer is no exception.
“Unless secularism’s role in the development of human rights and freedom is well understood, theocrats will be well placed to erode them”. These are the words of the Chief Executive of the National Secular Society (NSS) in the UK, Stephen Evans. He was writing in an article for the Autumn Bulletin of the NSS. The article was called, “We must teach the young how they benefit from secularism”.
The article was a basic introduction to a new initiative of the NSS – the provision of a range of teaching resources for schools under the banner of “Exploring Secularism”. The rational for this initiative is the NSS’s belief that secularism is worth celebrating. This is so because, “Its principles under-pin liberal societies and the political institutions which have been built to protect individual human rights to freedom of thought, speech and expression”.
The implicit assumption in this view is that religious dogma and authority subjugates human reason. Secularism endeavours to liberate human reason from these shackles and, it is proposed, in the process enables human material and health benefits to flourish. Religion is bondage; secularism is freedom. In the view of Stephen Evans, and with reference to schools in England and Wales, “It is bizarre, therefore, that something so significant rarely features in the school curriculum”.
As I read Stephen Evans’ article, I reflected on the content of the religious studies curriculum that I was involved in teaching when I was the Head of Religious Studies (RS) at a Northampton comprehensive school. The teaching of the RS curriculum was as broad as the system at the time would permit, including a substantial proportion of curriculum content and time being devoted to the teaching of both secular and religious philosophy and ethics. This was particularly the case at senior school level.
However, the syllabi for the RS, Philosophy and Ethics courses at the school never involved a specific course on “Secularism”. With hindsight, this situation was regrettable. The RS department of the school would have been the most appropriate location for space to be made for a genuine approach to the topics that Secularism would introduce to the syllabus – and the staff of that department would have been more than adequate for the task of teaching the subject.
It is the view of many involved with both Religious Education (RE) and Secularism in the UK that the approach to RE is outdated and that a new approach is overdue. The latter would mean that RE is broadened out or make substantial way for what the NSS describes as “A new broader civic education that encompasses citizenship and human rights”.
Such an approach would obviously include the exploration of the diverse range of worldviews, practices and beliefs, that currently are studied in RE (otherwise Religious Studies) courses. However, in addition to the role that religious ideas play in people’s lives and in society, would be added the respective role that secularism should play. Secularism has a specific role to play in that exploration.
The NSS article of Stephen Evans strongly suggests that, as emerging citizens of 21st century societies, “pupils should have an awareness of the importance of secular principles”. Amongst other things, this would include the separation of religion and the state, and the way in which secularist principles impact their lives.
Secularist principles should not be taken for granted and it is necessary that steps are taken to ensure that secularism is not misunderstood or wilfully maligned. Again, Stephen Evans is instructive when he states that, “It is not unknown for those eager to impose their religious faith on others have groundlessly portrayed secularism as a threat to religious freedom, promulgating misconceptions – routinely equating it with state-enforced atheism and even totalitarianism”.
A focused role on the educational curriculum would enable students to better understand and appreciate Secularism, as well as counteract the false views its opponents promote. Though it is a bit late for me to make use of the Exploring Secularism resources, it is obvious to me that the package will serve a valuable purpose as a teaching aid – and it is free!
My wife and me recently spend two enjoyable weeks touring Scotland by car. The focus for this visit was primarily the north-east of the country, using Inverness and Aberdeen as bases. With a current membership of the Scottish Heritage, much of our time was spent visiting the many and varied properties that the trust manages.
A considerable number of these properties were self-entitled as “castles”. Many of them were grand homes that had been extended to become even grander, and safer. We spent many hours listening to guided commentaries on the history of the properties.
Amongst other things, we learned that many of the grand homes and castles, a number of which were located within extensive estates and quite stunning locations, were either built or had been extended by royal personages, aristocracy, wealthy merchants and various other citizens who had accumulated their wealth from successful dealings in war and, more especially and, for me, surprisingly, the slave trade.
Prior to this visit, I was aware that warfare was almost a routine past-time amongst the Scottish clans. However, the association of the country of my birth with the slave trade was something of a shock to my system. This timely visit served its purpose.