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Then came the London Sinfonietta's UK première of Goebbels' exhilarating setting of a Leonardo Da Vinci 'Battle Description', Schlachtenbeschreibung, a remarkable text in which he sets out some rules of how o paint a Battle scene. The text, in German, was eloquently sung by Roderick Williams, soaring above the ensemble's machine like momentum that veered from jazzy tonality to a more astringent chromaticism in the middle section depicting the gory aspects of the scene. The ten minute work had an intriguingly satisfying climactic structure fuelled by the tension between vocal and instrumental elements, an aspect which seems to be at the heart of Goebbels' aesthetic.

That tension is felt in Songs of Wars I have Seen in the rather curious amalgam of oddly varied extracts from Stein's first hand reflections of 1943 wartime Paris with a postmodern melange of musical styles, yet as a music theatrical experience, it somehow all makes sense. The musical material as a whole is far from original or even complex, yet always deftly scored and arranged. Its role in relation to the moods of the text, sometimes directly contrary and thus ironic, sometimes ambient to Stein's distinctive free associative style, was to enhance, complement and underline the larger poetic structure. Bringing to bear his extensive experience of theatre to the concert stage, Goebbels introduced a rather daring practice of asking professional instrumentalists to speak texts in a naturalistic way. Its potential hazard is the possibility of amateurish acting, but the advantage is that the many different accents and inflections somehow generalize Stein's individual experience, appropriating it for a larger group, for society at large; here it seemed to express a rather British wartime stoicism and humour.

The extracts of Gertrude Stein seem to be chosen to illustrate a personal rather than political angle, exemplifying her associative repetitious literary style and range of themes from poetic flights of fancy to factual descriptions, from mundane musing on the scarcity of honey, sugar and butter during wartime, to the lofty inspiration of Shakespeare in interpreting the recurrence of history and war, and more interesting reflections on the role of radio and the different national signatures for each radio station. At the heart of it is as Goebbels himself observes, the sense of history recurring, so that in 1943 Stein can write 'the world is ... just as medieval as it can be' and that 'it is disconcerting to know ... that any time not only that you can be told to go and you go but also that you can be taken.'

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Copyright © 19 July 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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