Thursday 24 April 2008

O Thou Transcendent

We finally watched Tony Palmer's RVW film, O Thou Transcendent last night. As a convinced RVW lover, I found much of the material fascinating, but other aspects of the film seemed less convincing. I was also unsure about how much of the film would appeal to a non RVW lover.The basic format of the film, which intercut extracts of his music with interviews and archive film, seemed a bit restless. Sometimes the musical extracts were profoundly apropos, but at other times they seemed to be mere padding. It does not help that I have a profound dislike of watching extremely composed and stylised views of orchestral players. But then we'd get a discussion of his work on the English Hymnal and would cut to Gloucester Cathedral choir singing one of the hymns, or discussion of folk song collecting would move on to a real folk singer singing one of them. At these times Palmer was doing exactly what should be done in a musical film biography.

The collection of distinguished figures who gave interviews were a mixed bag. Fascinating though it was to hear Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Neil Tennant and Anthony Turnage, their contributions paled into insignificance compared to the contributions from Roy Douglas (RVW's amanuensis) and RVW's niece Belinda (I am a little unclear whether she was RVW's niece or Adeline's). Tippett also managed to put RVW's neglect in the 50's neatly into perspective, comparing his initial reaction to RVW's music to his appreciation in later life of the profound shaping influence RVW had on his successors.

I was rather disturbed by the films intermittent device of having an uncredited voice providing the narrative. At times this was Stephen Johnson but at other times it was another voice speaking as RVW himself. I am unclear whether this was a real RVW interview (though there were some archive clips of him) but it felt like a construct taken from his writings (I recognized odd passages). Added to this there was the naming of Holst problem - RVW never called Gustav Holst by the name Holst, when they were students he called him Von Holst (Gustav's original surname) and then Gustav; it was only when they were on first name terms that Holst dropped the Von.

The film went to a great deal of trouble to establish that RVW's music was not easy stuff. Though they did not say so, they intercut the finale of Symphony No. 6 in a way which suggested it was a bleak prognosis on the world when RVW always insisted its origins lie in the phrase we are such stuff as dreams are made of. The whole Job sequence was a joke, there was footage of Margot Fonteyn dancing (not in Job) over layed with miscellaneous evocative dancers. Given that the Birmingham Royal Ballet have performed the ballet at Covent Garden in living memory, couldn't a little archive footage have been found.

It was seriously interesting to hear Michael Kennedy and others discussing RVW's relationship with Ursula and its sexual nature. Also Jerrold Northrop Moore touched on the point that Adeline's illness might have had a psychomatic/pyscho-sexual origin and said that he had exchanged letters with Kennedy on the subject, but Kennedy did not touch on the subject in his interview.

I understand that Palmer cut his film down from around 5 hours and I would love to see a version which included far more talking and far less music. I found the Ursula VW interview clips rather unhelpful and would have thought that they might have found room for a rather longer, more personal interview (assuming that such material exists).

All in all it was a wonderful experience, but not one which will appeal to everyone I think

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