“He is a curious, interesting, and nearly perished link between obsolete forms of life and those which generally prevail.” – Thomas Hardy, from ‘The Return of the Native’

“You are all dodos for the professors to look at.” – anonymous, from writing on the wall of the old Mathematical Institute, Oxford University

From where I’m writing, nestled in one of Turl Street’s pedestrian windows, the Museum of Natural History is a true north-gate of the city’s orbit. Sharing its latitude with Oxford University Press, and Old Marston in the east, it points to the Cherwell and its flood-meadows, Jericho’s colourful walls, and Summertown: sites of wide-eyed exploration. At the heart of its collection, sentinel between Oxford and the world, are the world’s only soft-tissue dodo remains. Because only a head and the fragment of a foot remain, the Oxford dodo has lived, for the most part, in the mind rather than the flesh. It has become – like the Museum itself – a prism for the city’s imagination. 


Museum of Natural History, Oxford

Last Thursday saw a dissection of the dodo’s histories at the Museum, in association with TORCH Oxford. The afternoon was opened by the Museum’s affable director, Paul Smith. With the skill of a practiced curator, he led us on a tour of the dodo’s fingerprints around the city, from its likeness in the Lewis Carroll Window at Christ Church’s dining hall, to the dodo-shaped gargoyle perched on a corner of the Old Bodleian. Oxford’s resident bird, he told us, arrived at the Ashmolean in 1659 under sinister circumstances (the widow of its donor was found murdered, face-down, in Elias Ashmole’s neighbour’s garden pond), and was in all likelihood the one recorded live in London in 1638, part of an early-modern travelling show. 

Regardless of its immediate provenance, the Oxford dodo must have come from either Mauritius, La Reunion, or Rodriguez, where flocks were first found by Portuguese sailors and later described by their Dutch counterparts. Within seven decades of our earliest detailed sketch – by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck in 1598 – the dodos were extinct. They were starved by competing with pigs for food, the latter having been introduced as a source of fresh meat for sailors heading across the Indian Ocean. The story of the Oxford specimen, which made its way to the heart of one empire’s colonial civil service, paralleled that of its relatives depicted among Indian birds in Moghul palace drawings, where they arrived as gifts from European officials eager to gain trade concessions. The birds, as Smith observed, were “central to the story of Western exploration of the East”, and its brutal import.


Van Neck’s depiction of the dodo can be seen on the far left

Somewhat unexpectedly, the dodo returned to haunt the Western imagination. Literary critic Kirsten Shepherd-Barr pursued the dodo’s strange imaginative afterlife through Hardy’s description of the ill-fated reddleman “rapidly becoming extinct in Wessex”, to Ibsen’s lament for good verse dramas – “of which”, like the dodo, “only a few individuals remain on an African island”. The Victorians, a colourful species in their own right, were “fascinated with the extinct”, and found no better foil than the dodo, which was familiar, recent, and endearingly human. John Tenniel gave the dodo hands and feet in his well-loved illustration of the Alice books, and Charles Dodgson tantalizingly presented him as a “grave and solemn” character with an alternative vision of cooperation rather than competition in the Darwinian world of Alice’s Wonderland

As its influence in the thought-world of modern Europe grew, other creatures were extinguished in the dodo’s wake. Third in the evening’s order, historian Pietro Corsi delivered an “homage to a species of intellectuals…killed by the seekers of scientific truth”. He began with the story of the impressively-named Jean Baptiste Genevieve Marcellin Bory de Saint-Vincent, whose monumental Dictionaire Classique d’Historie Naturelle accompanied Darwin on the Beagle. In Corsi’s words, the Dictionaire represented a “summation of pre-Darwinian thought”, and contains the radically different conclusions that Bory drew after visiting La Reunion en route to Australia. Believing the islands to be ‘younger’ than the continents, created in recent history by movements of the sea floor, Bory thought that dodos were a product of nature’s attempts to put forth life on these isolated outcrops. This argument received acclaim in Edinburgh, following Ashmolean Society president Hugh Strickland‘s suggestion that God was “forming new organisms to discharge the functions required from time to time by the ever vacillating balance of nature”. Alas, such interventionist imaginings were soon out-competed by Darwin’s survival-driven model; just as, in due time, polymaths like Bory and Darwin were themselves replaced by specialist scholars.


John Tenniel’s Dodo

After these surveys of the dodo’s histories, environmental scientist Paul Jepson and fantasy author Jasper Fforde closed the panel with two contrasting visions of the its futures. Jepson first suggested that the dodo’s cultural longevity could be attributed to its role as an imaginative frame: it had become “a window through which other extinctions were known”. While previously only God could create or destroy, the dodo had shown Man his own power to drive other beings to extinction, and produced the modern moral convictions behind our conservation frameworks. Instead of the dodo, however, it was the mammoth that would be humanity’s icon for the future. The mammoth, after all, possesses the possibility of de-extinction and can, as such, become a “new redemptive frame” for our species.

But wasn’t it even more powerful to imagine the dodo brought back to life, Fforde argued? Drawing on his own books – the Thursday Next series – Fforde painted a future in which the dodo would be reclaimed as a child’s pet. “I brought him up to my room under my cloak”, his protagonist says, “I didn’t want him to be alone”. Perhaps it is only in our imaginations that we can find such close and curious connections with those we have driven to peril. It was a sombre note to end on, but the idea of redemption through fiction was sufficiently appealing. “All of us in the arts and sciences try to make an imperfect world slightly better”, said Fforde. “The wonderful thing about being a fiction writer is: I can do it quicker.”

Theophilus Kwek

‘The Oxford Dodo: Culture at the Crossroads’ was presented at the Museum of Natural History on 18th November 2015, as part of the ‘Being Human’ festival. Speakers included Paul Smith (Director, Oxford University Museum of Natural History), Pietro Corsi (Historian of Science), Jasper Fforde (Writer), Paul Jepson (Environmental Researcher), and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (Literary Scholar). For more information about TORCH and their upcoming events, please visit their website.

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Adapting Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for the stage is, by any account, an ambitious undertaking. The novel is notorious for the multiplicity of interpretations it allows, simultaneously presenting satire, socio-political critique, philosophical allegory, and theological musing. Beyond this, Bulgakov’s prose is stylistically mercurial as he jumps between 1930s Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem, incorporating elements of magical realism along the way. Despite these obstacles, Magnolia Productions’ interpretation is the latest in a whole host of dramatic adaptations, from Edward Kemp’s 2004 stage rendition to the BBC’s radio play broadcast earlier this year. It seems that there is something irresistible about the dramatic challenge of staging Bulgakov’s book.

Magnolia Productions opted for an outdoor setting, in the gardens of St John’s College. In many ways, this was an inspired choice — the uplit trees created fantastical shapes and shadows across the moonlit lawns (reminding me of the shadow puppets that adorn the Penguin edition of 51vLyDnTiNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_the novel), and the freezing temperatures made the Russian setting that much more believable. In other respects, however, the setting hampered the production. Technical issues aside, the gardens were simply too spacious. Part of Master and Margarita’s power lies in its dense psychological interiority. In the November cold, this sense of claustrophobia, of a nation devouring itself through its own decadence, was lost. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the production was better suited to a venue like the Burton Taylor Studio or Keble O’Reilly, or even a closed courtyard space in one of the smaller colleges. Splitting Moscow and Jerusalem into two physically separate places did help to clarify the dual setting in some ways, but meant that focus of attention was lost when moving between the two. The audience were often left not knowing where to look in the passages that required quick transition between them, such as when the Master describes his novel. On a more metaphorical level, the physical separation of Jerusalem rather detracted from Bulgakov’s point that the world of Pontius Pilate is still alive and well in the Russian state.

Although Master and Margarita does have a plot of sorts, to say that it is a love story between Margarita and the Master is about as comprehensive as saying that Slaughterhouse Five is a book about aliens. This is one of the many levels at which the novel operates, and to their credit Magnolia Productions did not try and narrow down the interpretational complexities of the novel. Conversely, Florence Hyde’s script didn’t take as many liberties with the text as were perhaps necessary for a convincing stage rendition. Without the context of Bulgakov’s prose, the dialogue was appropriately kaleidoscopic but ultimately missing the grounding needed to make it a convincing social critique. In remaining so faithful to Bulgakov’s language, this script overlooked the radically different nature of the apparatus available to the novel and the drama. Consequently many of the most effective moments were improvised, particularly Josh Dolphin’s exceptional performance as Azazello. It was at the points where Dolphin and Ali Porteous (as Woland) went off-script to interact with the audience that the satirical nature of Bulgakov’s novel was most convincingly captured.


Magnolia Productions cannot be faulted for their ambition in choosing Master and Margarita as a topic. Reducing Bulgakov’s monumental work down to ninety minutes is a feat in and of itself. And there were some beautifully staged moments, such as when Margarita flew over the heads of the audience to the sounds of Tom Kinsella’s astutely atmospheric score. Nonetheless, I was left unconvinced by the efficacy of their production as a stand-alone dramatic piece. A close familiarity with the novel seemed to be a prerequisite for making any sense of what was happening, and from there draw out the interpretational layers that Bulgakov offers. In terms of both style and content, the adaptation needed to be bolder to make the leap from page to stage convincing. Paradoxically, a less faithful translation might have got closer to the chimerical brilliance of the original text. While this rendition offered moments of genuinely amusing entertainment, it ultimately fell prey to Bulgakov’s web of multiple narratives and styles.

Leah Broad

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In June 2015, Richard Dorment CBE retired from the Daily Telegraph, after thirty years writing for the newspaper as an art critic. His route into journalism was impressive yet unconventional: he studied art history at Princeton and at Columbia University, then held a role as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On Wednesday 18th November, Dorment was joined by Dr. Alexander Sturgis, the Director of the Ashmolean, to address an audience in the museum’s lecture theatre.

Mass Circulation was advertised as a ‘conversation’, but played out more as an interview, with Sturgis’ contribution confined, for the most part, to posing questions. With two knowledgeable art-world insiders sat in one room, there was the potential to debate the topics touched upon in greater detail, and the evening was a missed opportunity in this respect. The event’s subtitle proved similarly imprecise; rather than a discussion of how to write about art for a daily newspaper, the audience was given a retrospective that focused on Dorment’s personal experiences. This discrepancy may have been disappointing for some, but the result was enjoyable and highly informative nonetheless.

Dorment reminisced warmly about critics’ growing acceptance of contemporary art, which he suggested was spurred on by the founding of organisations and institutions such as the Turner Prize (in 1984) and the Tate Modern (in 2000). When Dorment first arrived at the Telegraph, the Turner Prize was remarked upon as ‘a bucket of spackle’, while many twentieth-century artists – Lucian Freud amongst them – were considered unsavory. Dorment’s focus on contemporary art was, at this point, met with staunch opposition from many of the newspaper’s other staff members. Indeed, much has changed in the past thirty years of art criticism, but not all for the better. Dorment noted that, while he was paid well and given journalistic freedom for most of his career, such comfortable positions are now rarer to come across.


Turner Prize shortlist 2015: ‘Infrastruktur’, Nicole Wermers

After discussing Dorment’s own journalistic experiences, Sturgis invited comment on the role of the art critic more generally. Here, Dorment was at his most passionate, emphasising the ‘responsibility’ of the art critic to spend due diligence researching the exhibitions or artists being reviewed. Again, there was a tension present between his ideal circumstance, in which one is given up to four days to form an insightful article, and the current reality, in which turnaround time can be as little as two hours. Although he did mention the latter context briefly, it was a shame that Dorment did not reflect further upon the differences in output that this may have led to.

Most important, according to Dorment, is that the art critic should convey the emotional response that he or she has to experiencing an artwork in the flesh. In an age where much of the art we see is in the form of a reproduction on a website, in a magazine or in a book, the art critic remains an important mediator between reader and exhibition space. This, then, is the value of the art critic, and their significance cannot be understated. Yet given the nature of today’s journalism, when a two-hour turnover is expected for some reviews, are we at risk of losing the very essence of what makes the art critic such a valuable asset?

Years of experience, public validation, and a formidable reputation have encouraged Dorment to write candidly and confidently. After all, there are few who can call the curators at Tate Modern ‘cack-handed’ and not only live to see another day, but also have an audience who will faithfully listen. Considering his evident knowledge and conviction, Dorment could have used Mass Circulation to bestow motivation or encouragement upon budding critics in the room. Although those hoping for such advice may have left feeling a little deflated, Sturgis and Dorment provided their audience with an evening that was thought-provoking for some and pleasant for all.

Nirmalie Mulloli

Richard Dorment’s book Exhibitionist will be published in May 2016 by Bitter Lemon Press. For more information about events at the Ashmolean, please visit the museum’s website.

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Many plays are often described as ‘powerful’. While I’m not a fan of such generalisations, I really can’t think of a better word to describe Spring Awakening, currently running at the Keble O’Reilly theatre. It’s a passionate and compelling journey through the life of a group of teenagers. At times both profoundly disturbing and moving, it is by all accounts a chronicle of adolescence that, in its form as a musical, many will be able to relate to.

The play, set in the 1890s, follows the story of Wendla (Ellie Lowenthal), a 14-year-old girl unripe for love, Melchior (Jack Remmington), the youthful rebel who perpetually questions institutional authority, and Moritz (Niall Docherty), Melchior’s inexpert and naïve friend. As teenagers, they all find themselves at that stage of life where so many things are discoveries, but somehow one still thinks one knows everything.


‘Spring Awakening’ © Daniel Cunniffe

Spring Awakening does not shy away from difficult issues such as rape, abortion, and suicide. Its unrelenting confrontation of such topics made its original version, written by Frank Wedekind in 1891, particularly controversial. It was originally banned on the grounds of being pornographic, and was only performed in highly censored form in 1906. The main point of reference for the O’Reilly production, however, is the 2006 Broadway musical version. In the musical, the emphasis on problematic issues differs significantly from the play: for example, during her rape, the original has Wendla pleading Melchior to stop, and she is later traumatised by the experience. In the musical the issue of consent is left much more ambiguous. This is what we see in this production, even though Wendla’s inner struggle, and Melchior’s combination of affection and violence, could perhaps have been emphasised a bit more. The production nevertheless has the merit of sensitively bringing to the stage issues that are as topical today as they were when Wedekind penned the play.

It features all the classic ‘rites of passage’ of adolescence: school difficulties, sex (‘Can’t you hear the word of your body?’ various characters sing), emotional education (‘I don’t do sadness’ says Moritz), gender identity, pregnancy, death. The picture could not be a more comprehensive one. And yet the result is far from being uninteresting or (worse) didactic: important issues are raised, but very few answers are given. This is in itself emblematic of adolescence, where questions arise at a much faster pace than their answers. The exploration of ‘the spring of life’ is careful and relevant, presenting teenagers bursting with vital energy, which they only need to channel in a productive way. When this does not happen, characters suffer the consequences of their actions. Adolescence is indeed a double-edged sword: a moment of discovery and excitement, but also of fragility and fear.

Included in the picture is the role of adults, played by Alice Moore and Josh Blunsden. Blunsden is particularly convincing in his role of the generic ‘adult male’ (teacher, father, doctor, priest), as seen through the eyes of the teenagers. The grown-up world is a scary one, populated by mysteries that are both attractive and horrifying. Stern and harsh as they can be, adults are not immune to grief, as the teacher’s breakdown at the death of Moritz shows. Adults are just teenagers who have been shaped by time.


‘Spring Awakening’ © Daniel Cunniffe

Moreover as a musical, Spring Awakening shone for the quality of the singing: Remmington and Docherty in particular stood out among the talented cast and ensemble, but the choruses of boys and girls also give solid performances. Especially entertaining (and utterly brilliant from a Classicist’s perspective) was Remmington’s solo accompanied by the chorus of boys giving a musical recitation of the Aeneid in Latin. Moreover, the actors moved with fluidity and energy on stage, complementing the songs with simple but precise choreographies. In musicals, dancing can often seem decorative to the point of being superfluous, but here it bears a sensual dimension, going hand in hand with the themes of the play. All the more praiseworthy is the fact that the cast didn’t stop acting for a moment, giving the whole play an impression of slick continuity.

The set could perhaps have benefitted from a few tweaks. Understandably, it had to be variegated due the diversity of locations the play embraces, but it still appeared a bit dull and approximate. Similarly, a bit more attention could have been devoted to costumes, which were generally appropriate, but with one actress too many in dungarees (in the 1890s?). As pedantic as this may seem, I felt that the vagueness of both set and costumes was something of a distraction, and didn’t help the audience to set the events in a specific time frame. While characters’ responses to the events (such as rape) seemed contemporary, other factors pointed to a late 19th century attitude. If such ambiguity was deliberate, then perhaps this was not made clear enough.

Overall, Spring Awakening proved an entertaining and thought-provoking performance. It threw me back to adolescence, reminding me why I’m glad it’s over, but at the same time depicting the outburst of life and passions which only belong to that season of life. For this reason, I think the play cannot but be described as ‘powerful’.

Anna Zanetti

‘Spring Awakening’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly theatre until Saturday 21st November; for more information and to book tickets, please visit the O’Reilly website.

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Sound and rhythm are the bedrock of Alice Oswald’s poetry: it longs to be read aloud. This is especially true of Dart, a long poem incorporating all the different voices of those who live, work and die on Devon’s river Dart. This makes its dramatic adaption by Grace Linden and Alice Troy-Donovan particularly welcome, the play running this week at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio. The pre-show event ‘Dart Voices,’ in collaboration with the Oxford Poetry Society and with illuminating talks from director-adaptors Grace Linden and Alice Troy-Donovan, was effective way of building interest to see what theatre can bring to the performance of Dart that a reading of the poem cannot.

Carefully-chosen selections were performed rather than the poem in its entirety, and these were ideal for bringing out a particular, important theme within the broader backdrop of the whole work. The dialogue between the contrasting, even opposing, voices of science against art made for a conflict which was built up to be repeatedly dissolved. A delightful resolution was reached when the words of Theodore Schwenk, a real-life theoretician of the water’s sounds, were used to describe his science in arrestingly poetic terms, blending these seemingly opposed types of language.


This subtle climax was built up to in the dramatised meetings of various voices. At one point, a boat-builder lovingly describing his creation – the materials, the stages of work –  is hurried along by his impatient wife (or perhaps she is the embodiment of the boat, his real companion) who has clearly heard all his jargon before. When she takes over, the boat-builder responds to her wildly different, abstractly poetic take on the project with fond incomprehension. The same actors, though in quasi-fairytale territory, deliver a woodcutter’s down-to-earth description of his work interrupted by the sinisterly flirtatious questions of an unseen water nymph. Here, and at many other points, there is delicately insinuated sexuality beneath the surface of exchanges. This could have reached a brilliant high-point in passionate physicality when a capsized canoeist captures the river’s deadly, seductive attention, but the beauty and spontaneity of dance which they aimed for in grappling with one another was not quite achieved.

Ideas of masculine and feminine identity play a part in the staging of this battle. A consequence of the casting was that almost exclusively female actors played the seductive, capricious spirits and embodiments of the water, and men their more level-headed victims. However, this is counterbalanced when the female head of the water-abstracting plant speaks of the challenges, importance and responsibility of her work. She calls out what ‘Jan Coo,’ a ghost of the Dart, really knows about water, tackling the irrational head-on, highlighting how the more masculine voices are as open to imagination and emotion as the feminine ones are to rationality.

There were tremendous successes on the actor’s parts to get into the spirit of each voice, but it was unfortunate that ultimately a feeling of diversity predominated. “Who’s talking in my larynx?” is a question posed by the river near the start: it set a challenge for creating the effect of many people talking through the river’s one voice that was not met. Soliloquies and dialogue between two actors were often outstanding, but wider group work perhaps needed greater cohesion. This was not helped by how scenes were divided by a momentary black-out rather than gliding into one another.

Other minor technical and balance issues stilted its flow and undermined the value of the otherwise great idea of layering recorded voices and a watery soundscape with the words onstage. A major strength of this production was how it did not shy away from the eerie and unsettling aspects which are very much present within the poem, and the use of recorded and distorted voices were appropriately ghostly. However, balance was an issue in the use of this technique and the actors were sometimes drowned out beneath the recording, which is a shame when the poem’s words were so central to creating complexity and atmosphere. Staging was minimal: sheets of compressed flotsam suspended in transparent plastic strung across the stage looked faintly baffling and ungainly at the start, but they came into their own whenever hit by soft lighting, recreating the impression of cloudy water.

These faults were never so apparent as to obscure the beauty and significance of the language and its spirited, insightful performances. As much was gained in the emphasis on having two characters intimately reacting to one another’s language as was lost through the neglect of plurality. The dramatic Dart was not a reflection of the poem as a whole, but nor was it trying to be. Instead, it was an aid to the imagination for certain aspects of it, highlighting strands of meaning that can easily go unnoticed.

Rose Sykes

‘Dart’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 21 November; for more information and to book tickets, please visit their website.

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In the ever-expanding realm of countertenors, Franco Fagioli is his own kind of phenomenon. A relative newcomer to the international stage, he gained immediate prominence in late 2012 with his role in Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse. Although Fagioli has since been nicknamed after the legendary Farinelli, his most recent concert at the Wigmore Hall consisted of arias written for Farinelli’s rival Caffarelli, punctuated by instrumental pieces and well-timed extempore banter between Fagioli and conductor Riccardo Minasi.

A performance by such an outstanding singer demands an equally strong set of instrumentalists. Il Pomo d’Oro, with whom Fagioli performed, are such an ensemble, a young group focusing on the revival of forgotten works and on historically informed practice. As cellist Ludovico Minasi informed me during the interval, all his instruments are made according to his particular requirements by the Roman luthier Eriberto Attili. The group’s traditionally small Baroque format (seven instruments, with Riccardo Minasi playing one of the violins) made for total synchronicity, producing a taut, supple sonic texture. In contrapuntal music, each harmonic line is often a commentary on the others: particularly in Giuseppe Avitrano’s Sonata in D major ‘L’Aragona’, the cohesion between the players provided the audience with a rich perspective on the musical text.

After an introductory sonata by Angelo Ragazzi, Fagioli took to the stage to delivered the balance of lyricism and pyrotechnics he is notorious for. His timbre, warm and slightly guttural, is surprisingly full for a countertenor. The three-octave range that enables him to tackle a wider variety of parts than most of his peers also sustains his virtuosity at coloratura (the ornamentation of a vocal melody through complex leaps and trills). He pays considerable attention to soundscape, with considerable dramatic effect: his voice moves seamlessly from low to high volumes while retaining its focused intensity. Other than Patricia Petibon, he may not currently have an equal for messa di voce, creating a gradual crescendo or diminuendo on a single note. His mouth contorts uniquely when he sings: I have never witnessed another singer take advantage of the vibrational potential of the lips and cheeks to the extent that he does. Each sound is measured, weighed, and projected precisely as it was intended.

Beyond being an outstanding vocal technician, Fagioli is also an extraordinary interpreter of the musical score. Most Baroque arias feature a final da capo passage, mirroring the first movement and leaving room for a performer’s improvisational skills. Fagioli’s da capo sections, for the most part, proved refreshingly low-key; he avoided excessive, high-velocity runs, instead favouring melodic variations to subtly shift the mood and colouration of the original theme. Minasi’s and Fagioli’s common choice of arias was equally well-advised. Proceeding chronologically from Angelo Ragazzi (1680-1750) to Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), the programme almost didactically followed the development from the mid-to late Italian Baroque.

Cover of Arias for Caffarelli © Julien Laidig

Cover of Arias for Caffarelli © Julien Laidig

But an opera — especially an opera of this period — is always an adaptation of a poetic text, and an acute composer will take into consideration the soundscape of poetry when setting it to music. When it comes to diction, Fagioli often falls short, tending to lack definition. The actual verbal discourse, which in operatic convention provides the urge to start singing in the first place, blurs into the background too often in Fagioli’s renditions. Conversely, sopranists such as Philippe Jaroussky have made a method of clear, rolling consonants and ample vowels: when I listen to Jaroussky, I hear the articulation of poetic material. Fagioli’s performance, to a significant degree, misses that dimension.

Even so, Fagioli remains a phenomenal interpreter: his undaunted technical bravado and intelligent approach continue to assert him as an axiomatic presence in contemporary countertenor singing. With the emerging generation of younger singers like David Hansen and Valer Barna-Sabadus, it will be interesting to gauge his influence on them. The two encores aptly returned Fagioli to his starting point; they were taken respectively from Händel’s Aridante, premiered in London, the very city that Fagioli was performing in, and from Artaserse — the forgotten opera that launched this phase of his impressive career.

Pierre Zahnd

Franco Fagioli and Il Pomo d’Oro will continue to perform extensively across Europe in 2015-16. Their full dates can be found on their calendars.

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Professor Philip Bullock (University of Oxford) offered a talk at Wolfson College last week about his new biography of the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, to be published by Reaktion in 2016. It was difficult to know what to expect from this event. Would Bullock stick to a discussion of the act of writing biography, as the organisation hosting the talk suggested he might do? Or would he instead succumb to the temptation of Tchaikovsky’s controversial reputation and use the time provided to hold forth on the tumultuous life of the subject in question? In the end, this was a talk that gave a nod to both concerns – the method and the man – and that also managed to bring a new energy to a potentially wearied topic. 

Despite his open disavowal of the utility of biographical analysis in music or literary criticism, Bullock seemed to have taken to this project with comparative ease. He was eager to emphasise the amount of work involved – essentially spending two years reading more than 6,000 of Tchaikovsky’s letters, along with the vast corpus of secondary literature that has dissected the minutiae of each – but what was most apparent from the opening statements of his talk was quite how enjoyable he had found the whole process. It seemed as though the act of biography-writing had given Bullock the opportunity to face head-on the sensationalist proponents of conspiracy theories which had undermined the character and achievements of a composer he clearly loves. Just as he has done in his short critical life of Tchaikovsky, Bullock dealt with the elephant in the room – the apparent mystery of the composer’s death – early on in his presentation. This both sated the audience’s appetite for his opinion on that controversial subject, and gave Bullock the time to deal with the more interesting story: that of Tchaikovsky’s conscious self-fashioning as a modern Russian celebrity.   

Professor Philip Bullock

Professor Philip Bullock

Though he did pay occasional attention to specific works, in particular providing an erudite reading of key scenes from the opera Eugene Onegin, Bullock spent the majority of the lecture outlining his central thesis about Russian musical society during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime. He presented a culture at a crossroads: caught between the feudal system of artistic patronage still practised by the Imperial Family and Tchaikovsky’s benefactor Nadezhda von Meck, on the one hand, and a new proto-capitalist system of mass music consumption and performance backed up by the growth of print culture, on the other. It was fascinating to learn how Tchaikovsky played one system off against the other, in conjunction with his erstwhile publisher Pyotr Jurgensen. There was more to be said about Tchaikovsky’s involvement with the Moscow Conservatory, as well as the new musical middle class that bought so many copies of Tchaikovsky’s printed works. However, I assume that such details are covered in the book, and in any case it is testament to the richness of the subject – and Bullock’s examination of it – that the talk ended with the audience still keen for more of the story.            

What is undeniably apparent is that this talk marked Professor Bullock’s important contribution to the de-sensationalising of this great composer. Even more laudable, Bullock somehow managed to turn a rather earnest socio-economic analysis of the nature of celebrity in 19th-century Russian culture into a constantly absorbing hour’s discussion. At one point, he noted that “Tchaikovsky’s genius [was] to marry aesthetic and pragmatic imperatives in a single work.” It would not be too generous to say that Professor Bullock’s talk achieved that same tricky conjugation.           

Ben Horton

For more information about Professor Bullock’s work, please visit his faculty page.

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