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December 05, 2005

Violetta for me - Roger Scruton's Violet at the Guildhall School of Music

Posted by David Conway

Roger Scruton's Violet
music and libretto by Roger Scruton
conducted by Clive Timms, directed by Tess Gibbs
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London
30th November & 1st December 2005

David Conway attends a new opera by a philosophical luminary. As with everything we publish, this review reflects the opinions of its author - not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit does not dictate a "line" to its reviewers.

The great Michael Wharton chronicles in his alternative universe of Peter Simple the labours of the intellectual Julian Birdbath, "last citizen of the Republic of Letters", struggling in his atelier at the bottom of a disused leadmine, accompanied only by his pet toad Amiel, to complete his biography of Stephen Spender. Were Wharton's political inclinations to the left rather than right ( - but this is scarcely conceivable, since the necessary pathos which so powerfully underlies his humour would be eliminated), the leadmine might well have contained instead a foxhunting philosopher, perhaps "last Thatcherian", dedicated to creating an opera on the life of the polyandrous harpsichordist Violet Gwynne, an equivalently dim figure of a forgotten era. But Violet has somehow emerged from such worlds of fantasy, and has been given two performances at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to boot.

Evaluating this work is something of a facer. According to the Grove Dictionary of Music, Violet was:

a woman of wealth and some social standing [who] did not lead a very active public professional life, but made a considerable impression on the intellectual circles of her day.
This seems code for "she wasn't that good, but she picked the right coterie".

Grove is a staid publication in its way and therefore does not go into the composition of this coterie, but at its core was undoubtedly the white marriage sustained by Violet with the wealthy Gordon Woodhouse and her chain of upper-class male hangers-on, (amongst which can be included the butch composer Ethel Smyth). It is on this curious but rather exasperating ménage, (which depended, as Scruton writes, "on a strict regime of chastity"), that Violet, the opera, centres. The libretto is by the composer, drawing on the biography of Violet by her great-niece, Jessica Douglas-Home.

As an opera I have to report that the work is unlikely to procure a place in the standard repertoire. Mr Scruton is a professed admirer of Janáček and has quite wisely chosen to adopt a derivative of his style for the general texture of his music – hints of melody, often paralleling speech patterns or inflexions, tonal, nothing frightening about the harmony.

If his textures (strings, single woodwind, horns, trumpet, percussion) are often a bit clogged, or his use of the Janáčekian motif style is less subtle or fluid than that of the master, these cannot be set to his discredit in the context of the enterprise as a whole, all the more so as he writes for love and, as far as I am aware, without any formal musical training. This texture is interspersed with occasional passages in arioso or ballad style, and at one point by a bathetic, supposedly comic, scene, in which Violet's aunts consider disinheriting her but are pre-empted by their butler blasting them to eternity with a shotgun.

What is less engaging is Scruton's frequent resort, at moments of excitement, to what he calls "a fugue" (but what I would call a few bars of fugato); also his tendency to the "Tom Stoppard" syndrome of introducing (in his case musical) quotes – Bach, Mozart, Wagner - which make the audience feel clever when they have spotted them.

However, Scruton the composer has been far too indulgent to Scruton the librettist. Whatever the music, opera has to work as theatre, and really as little happens here as in Gordon and Violet's marriage bed. Max and Gordon and Dennis and Bill (and Ethel, baritone) are introduced and tell us what a wow Violet is; Violet plinks the harpsichord a bit and prophesies World War I, in which Max dies; a ménage a quatre however continues at Nether Lypiatt. Jessica, who has been reconstructing these relationships by reading her deceased aunt's papers, decides to sell the house. Er, that's it.

The best scene, which occupies the second part of the first act, introduces the characters of the ménage and sends them off to dinner to the strains of the Commendatore ("he who dines in heaven has no need of mortal food") from the last act of Don Giovanni. This is quite a good joke; and the scene by itself would make a pleasant masque perhaps preceding a meal at a country house; but stretched out over two acts the material reminds us of the second part of the Commendatore's message, "there are other things more important". I have to say also that I thought Violet herself was a pain in the neck with her sentiments on chastity and purity, although one has to admire I suppose her ability as a serial prick-teaser. In operatic terms I prefer any day Violetta to Violet; at least La Traviata gave her clients a good run for their money, if the time of month was OK.

All credit however to the young singers, amongst whom the voices of Lenia Safiropoulou as Jessica and Joana Seara as Violet were outstanding, as was David Stout as Bill. Tom Oldham as Ethel Smyth was unfortunately struck by laryngitis, and although he acted the role the part was sung suitably bluffly by Edmund Connolly from the wings.

It was interesting to meet, in discussion with audience members in the interval, a great-nephew of one of Violet's lovers who had come on the off-chance after reading about the opera in Country Life; and distant relative of Jessica's who had come after enjoying the book. After discussion with these very engaging folk I did admittedly feel a bit of an intruder. I noticed also in the programme the impeccable political pedigrees of the show's patrons who included A. N. Wilson, Minette Marrin, Stuart Wheeler and Lord Kalms.

Roger Scruton has written extensively about music wearing his philosopher's hat, and it therefore seems appropriate to attempt to consider Violet in this wider context. I should do so making it clear that the only substantial text of his which I have read is his superb part-polemic, part-autobiography, On Hunting. From this it is clear that one motivation for writing Violet must have been his friendship with Jessica Douglas-Home, as whose guest he became introduced to the world of fox-hunting. I cannot conceive of a more laudable motive for art than friendship and whatever I have said above (or say below) about Violet pales into insignificance in this context. I believe, as I think does Scruton, that music is a route toward the numinous where all emotions (our own and those of others) can engage.

But I have to ask what exactly it is about the sterile and hermetic world of Violet and her chums, presented in this way, that might have value to an audience. Jessica, at the end of the opera, decides to detach herself from the house and its associations on the grounds that Violet lived always in "the perfect tense" and never in the present. "Perfect" in this sense of course carries an ironic connotation; since what was "perfect" and convenient for Violet was artificial and imperfect in the extreme in the real world. (It in fact involved extraordinary financial extravagance and depredation as part of her selfishness).

Douglas Murray, in a programme note, writes that Violet epitomises "the sad magnificence of human folly"; I do not find this case made out, either by the music or the libretto. Rather, she seems a spoilt child fortunate enough to have found willing victims to vamp – too emotionally feeble to be a heroine, insufficiently ruthless to be an anti-heroine. The life which Scruton rightly says infuses true art -

the life which drives the "Jupiter" to its inevitable ending, or which breathes softly and rhythmically in a Schubert song
– is stifled in the close atmosphere of Violet's Nether Lypiatt. His parallels between Violet and Isolde – both in his music and his programme notes – suggest that he wants us to think that Violet, like Isolde, may have a "Death-Devoted Heart" (the title of Scruton's recent book on Wagner's Tristan). In an admittedly not overfriendly review of this book, James Kennaway summarises Scruton's take on erotic love, which depends on confronting death:
Without th[e] sense of the sacred made possible by such experiences of love and death, […] life can have no meaning, and desire degenerates into perversion, pornography and pedophilia. Instead of the sense of the sacred found by connecting with another subject, there is only a voyeur's pleasure in an object.
Scruton's glimpses of the life in Violet however can be clearly characterised as voyeuristic, and her sadistic chastity is a denial of what is admirable in Scruton's conception of the erotic. At the end of the opera Scruton has Jessica say of Violet:
She robbed what she loved of its future tense.
Scruton writes:
Jessica has learned that order and harmony, when cherished for their own sake, become frail and transient, and that happiness lies in the pursuit, not the goal.
If this were the story of Violet, (and indeed of Violet) it could be a poignant tragedy. But clearly the historical Violet created an artifice of order and harmony, not for their own sakes, but to gratify herself. Moreover, the real Jessica erected a monument to this gratification in her biography of her aunt.

I hope that Birdbath's forthcoming biography of Spender will be less embroiled in such conundrums.

To read David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit, see Reviews - Music.

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"In an admittedly not overfriendly review of this book, James Kennaway summarises ..."

Well, why not read the book? It's only 198 pages long. As for Kennaway, the piece was a reminder to me of just how unpleasant and self-obsessed so many leftist commentators are. Every review by such a person almost always degenerates into ad hominen attacks, political abuse, and a striking intolerance of any dissent from liberal shibboleths. It is also a very good example of posture-striking on behalf of whatever carpet-bag of opinions is currently fashionable on the left - which is why I used the term "self-obssessed".

I'd like to know where Professor Scruton has advocated "capitalist Thatcherite politics" (whatever they are). And I wonder what homosexuality (a veritable obsession on the left these days) has to do with the opera.

Moreover, why should it be thought to be a valid complaint if a book about _Tristan and Isolde_ doesn't contain long diatribes against Wagner's anti-Semitism? This failing of Wagner's is unpleasant but irrelevant to the theme of the book. I suppose it's something that Kennaway has not yet caught up with advanced leftist ideology where anti-Semitism, far from being condemned, is now becoming all the rage.

Posted by: Damian at December 5, 2005 12:19 PM

David Conway's review of Violet was one of the most amusing piece of accurate invective I have ever read. Conway is a well known Conservative writer on political theory , so I can not see how politics comes into it. It is clear that the opera was not a success and was based on a trivial indeed silly tale written by a close friend of the author's . Surely there are aesthetic limits even to the strongest of friendships. What would Kant have said ? Conway ought to write sketches for a living- he is a comic genious

Posted by: Alec at December 6, 2005 11:57 PM

Damian is quite right – 'Violet' appeared suddenly on my radar leaving me no time beforehand to read Scruton’s book, (which I had been saving for over Christmas). I will endeavour to report on it within a few days. In quoting Kennaway, by the way, I by no means intended to suggest support for his opinions. In particular, Wagner’s attitude towards Jews has virtually nothing to do with his music; and it was far more complex than the label ‘anti-Semitism’ suggests (see, if you like, my website for a partial discussion of this -'A Vulture is almost an Eagle') . Treating Wagner and his art as part of the Holocaust Industry is pure intellectual laziness, worlds away from Scruton’s philosophical standards.

I am gratified (I think) by Alec’s encomium. I am not proud - if anyone out there wants to pay me for this sort of thing I will gladly take their money……

Posted by: David Conway at December 7, 2005 05:46 PM

Questions various people have asked the Social Affairs Unit - and Alec's comment above - suggest that there is a certain confusion as to the identity of David Conway, the Social Affairs Unit Web Review's music reviewer.

David Conway, the Social Affairs Unit's music reviewer, is not the same person as David Conway, formerly of Middlesex University and now with the think tank Civitas. They merely share the same name.
Social Affairs Unit

Posted by: Social Affairs Unit at December 13, 2005 02:09 PM
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