Branoul Literary Salon: Enoch Arden

The last literary salon of 2015 did not attract the usual crowd. Three people were moaning about it and commenting on the differences between the cultural scenes of several major cities. I listened to their moans and criticism, while idly sitting in the theatre’s corridor waiting for the doors to open.

I did agree with them: it was remarkably quiet. At times, offering and organising cultural events is an uphill struggle. My list of over ten people wanting to attend, had suddenly evaporated to just me. Apparently, people signed up forgetting they were heading home for the Christmas holidays.

A few had already reached distant corners of the world, while others were packing, or en route that very evening. Others still in the country, had signed off as they had to attend the obligatory office Christmas parties. One or two were combating flu or after-effects of too much revelling. The only names remaining on the guest list were the scene’s notorious no-shows. However, the three moaners were discussing the home-bred variety of culture fans.

Suddenly, the street-doors opened wide and a group of culture-enthusiasts burst in. They were followed by a few members and fans of the NEUE. These were followed by the evening’s pianist and actor, who disappeared again to prepare for the recital Then some nearby pubs must have emptied, for a group of jolly folks walked in. Then all of a sudden, the corridor was full to overflowing with a large crowd eager to attend this evening’s performance.

People around me started discussing poems by Tennyson. Of course, the majority – including me – knew “The charge of the Light Brigade”. A few – including me – were actually familiar with other poems as well as excerpts of his longer works like “Idylls of the King”. However: none of us had ever heard of “Enoch Arden”, the poem actor Alexander Oliver was going to recite. The same applied to Strauss’s music inspired by the poem, which ms Hanna Shybayeva was going to play.

After everybody had found a theatre-seat, NEUE’s Emlyn Stam explained the tradition behind the evening’s performance. Reciting poetry accompanied by chamber music, or in this case a specific piano piece, had gone out of fashion about a century ago.

Fortunately, in this niche of Europe, the literary salon tradition is being revived and the dust is blown off works like Tennyson’s and Strauss versions of’ “Enoch Arden”. Strauss composed his music to thank an actor-friend for landing him a job in Munich. The two then regularly treated audiences to a performance of the combination of poetry and piano music.

The narrative poem describes a kind of love-triangle in blank verse. The theme is not modern. Similar stories exist in medieval versions, as well as in folksongs from France, Germany, England and other European countries. Tennyson wrote his highly Victorian poem with its arrogant but doomed hero and angel-in-the house around 1865. Richard Strauss composed his music about 30 years later.

A few in the audience had problems digesting the rather wrung-out, Victorian tear-jerker. When the melodrama became extreme and Victorians would have grabbed their hankies – these members of the audience had problems suppressing their laughter – and occasionally lost the fight. But overall, the poem and mr Oliver’s recital impressed.

As for the music: it is easy to distinguish the three main themes Strauss uses for each character and his variations on these themes to illustrate various emotions and moods. Strauss’ music certainly accentuates scenes and stresses events. Especially, when music and poetry combine.

The overall effect is like being in a cinema, being able to hear the film-music and actors. But having one’s imagination free to create the dramatic pictures. This makes it a very powerful experience.

After the performance, I bumped into a few friends outside the theatre. They were very impressed by mr Oliver’s performance but found the piano music at times rather loud. Nevertheless, mr Oliver had had no problems making himself heard.

As usual with these literary salons, it took a while to acclimatize to ordinary earthly life again. The story about the love-triangle is simple enough. It was the combination of recited poetry accompanied by music specifically composed for it, which created a heady combination.

What a pity Tennyson and Strauss’ “Enoch Arden” are now so seldom performed. What a pity so many of the regular crowd had missed this evening. Especially, as the first few 2016 literary salons will not be in English.

Youtube: another version of an Enoch Arden recital

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