Musical Masterpiece in Chicago

I was in love with books and music from a very early age. My European-born parents had bookshelves in more than one room which held books in more than one language. I felt their importance before I could even read by myself.

And my parents loved classical music, especially Tchaikovsky. I must have been little when I saw Swan Lake for the first time because I recall asking my parents who everybody was. But more than that I remember being thrilled by the music as it washed over me and carried me away.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, inspired by a poem of Byron’s, was not in their record collection. I once spent a year reading everything I could of Byron’s and Manfred is a special favorite. I’ve quoted these lines from it many times: “in my heart/there is a vigil, and these eyes but close/To look within.”

The Manfred Symphony is apparently not performed that often, which is strange given how beautiful and stirring the music is. I heard a magnificent performance of it recently in Chicago, with Semyon Bychko conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the jewel-like Orchestra Hall.

The music is definitely Byronic: dark, romantic, passionate, melancholy, magnetic. The Chicago Symphony gave the piece the richness and depth it demanded. They deserved the standing cheers from the audience.

The story of how Tchaikovsky came to write this piece is truly bizarre. He was actually lobbied to do it by other Russian composers who felt it matched his emotional reality, and he was even given specific musical outlines. Tchaikovsky resisted vigorously until he read the poem and as a closeted gay man connected to its dark introspection. He thought the first movement was one of the best things he’d ever written.  I found it all compelling.  The symphony is just plain gorgeous, so look for it on CD, or if you happen to see it on some orchestra’s schedule, don’t miss the chance to attend a performance.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir including the Gilded Age novel Rosedale in Love.  He teaches creative writing on line at writewithoutborders.com.

In Praise of Passionate Professors

I did an MFA in Creative writing and English at UMass/Amherst when it was rated the third best writing program in the country–not that I picked it for its status. I wanted a school that was close to my New York home but not too close, which ruled out many other programs.

dubois_pond_chapel_620x305UMass was where I got my start as an author because I published my first story while still a student, in Redbook, which had 4.5 millions readers at the the time.  This was after having won second prize in the department’s writing contest my first year, and first prize my second year.

Each semester I had a writing workshop, but some of my favorite professors were actually literature teachers (we had to do thirty credits of lit classes). I still think about them years later because they passed on the most precious teacher’s gift of all: excitement. They were so passionate about the writers they taught that they set off fireworks in my mind that still glow whenever I think about those writers or read them.

Paul Mariani was a Hart Crane expert and while I’d read a biography of the doomed poet and some of his letters before signing up for Mariani’s Symbolist poetry seminar, Crane’s work seemed inaccessible to me, arcane and closed. But Mariani made the poems intimate, open, immediate, and I still quote lines from “Voyages,” “Chaplinesque” and “The Broken Tower” today. Crane feels like an old friend and I re-read his poems more than any other poet’s.

white buildingsThe late Ernest Hofer taught Contemporary British fiction and brought over English paperbacks for his students because we couldn’t buy them in the U.S. in those pre-Amazon days. Under his tutelage I read writers I probably wouldn’t have found on my own: Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell. Hill’s Strange Meeting is still one of the best WW I novels I’ve ever read. Hofer was also a Henry James expert and he let me co-teach a James class with him in which I also supervised an honors student. That gave me even more teaching experience than I already had.

susan hillCynthia Griffin Wolff was just about to publish her psychological biography Feast of Words about Edith Wharton which would change Wharton scholarship forever. Her seminar was rigorous and exciting. She knew Wharton so well that she never consulted her manuscript or any notes.  Even though I was already in Wharton’s thrall, I left Wolff’s class with a deeper respect for Wharton that led to three books of my own connected to that author.

feast of wordsEach of these professors was dedicated, focused, patient, good-humored–and in love with their subjects. You can’t fake that last quality.  It’s why I try my best to only teach books and classes I’m enthusiastic about now that I’m a guest at Michigan State University.  My hope is to pass on some of the gifts that were given to me in those formative years with such grace and generosity.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to historical fiction.

Don’t “Translate” Shakespeare!

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Oregon Shakespeare Company is getting translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays to make them more comprehensible. Why? According to a Columbia University professor:

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

Most? Medicinal? I’m not sure where these people grew up or went to school, but I never heard any of this in New York where I saw lots of Shakespeare with American actors. I read him from an early age and learned that whatever was difficult on the page melted away in performance thanks in part to the production: lighting, sets, costumes, music.  And it didn’t matter if that was live or on film.

onstage 2When I took acting classes in college, I saw Shakespeare from the inside and understood how important a job it was for the director and the actors to make the play clear to the audience. The WSJ writer seems to think that a line like this from Polonius’s speech to Laertes in Hamlet needs translating: “These few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character.” Why? Because Shakespeare used “character” as a verb for “write.”  If an actor old enough to play Polonius can’t make it obvious through his voice and gestures that he’s telling his son to mark his words, then he shouldn’t be acting.

onstage 1Attending the Stratford Festival in Ontario for years and meeting their directors and many actors, I learned how much plays are cut to make that more possible. And how setting plays in different periods can give an audience visual cues to comprehend the action and text more readily.  A play is never just the spoken words, as the WSJ author seems to think.  Everything on stage carries meaning.

onstage 3

The author of the WSJ article says plays will only be 10% translated (will there be a Translation Meter?). But I don’t just go to a Shakespeare play to see it, I also want to hear it, enjoy Shakespeare’s word play, the rhyme, the rhythm, the assonance. Yes, I like the poetry, even though I don’t remotely think it elevates me. It’s entertaining, it’s beautiful music, its Shakespeare.

Why should some tin-eared scholar be making decisions about what people do or don’t understand, rewriting great poetry and spoon-feeding them Shakespeare Lite?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon.