Monday, June 23, 2014

Garrincha (1933–1983)

"a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic. It was difficult to know which way he was going to go because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right, so he could cut inside or go down the line and he had a ferocious shot too." (Mel Hopkins, Wales full back)

Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born in Pau Grande, Brazil, in total poverty, the grandson of slaves.  He was barely educated, and went on to lead a fairly disastrous life, dying of alcoholism before his fiftieth birthday.  The one thing he could do was play football.  Dribbling, corners, free kicks, people asked whether he was from another planet, such were his skills.  He could even head the ball, despite his shortness.  On four separate occasions in his career, he scored direct from a corner.  With Pele, he was probably the greatest soccer player that Brazil has ever known, and he even has a soccer stadium named after him.   And he was born disabled.

It was his sister who named him Garrincha, after he was born with a deformed spine and a left leg six centimeters shorter than his right: he was always small for his age, and his right leg bent outwards and his left leg bent inwards.  To fans, he was known as Alegria do Povo, “joy of the people” or Anjo de Pernas Tortas, “angel with bent legs”.  And it was watching Garrincha that fans first started chanting “Ole”, the bullfighting cry, as he feinted and tricked defenders with those extraordinary and unpredictable legs.
He was 20 when he joined Botafogo, scoring a hat trick in his first team debut.   Before that, he had been playing for his factory team.  He went on to score 232 goals in 581 matches during his twelve years playing for the club.  

He didn’t play in the 1954 World Cup.  But his reputation for extraordinary dribbling meant that he was in the squad for the next competition, held in Sweden in 1958: he played with a 17 year old named Pelé, and Brazil went on to win its first World Cup.  Brazil would never lose a match with both Pelé and Garrincha on the team.

Four years later in Chile, Pelé was injured early, and so Garrincha got the solo glory, knocking out England with two goals in the quarters and repeating his feat against Chile in the semis.  The British press described him as "Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all rolled into one."  Again, Brazil won the Cup, and Garrincha was named best player of the tournament, and won the Golden Boot as leading goalscorer.  He also got the girl, as a glamorous samba singer entered the team dressing room after the match to embrace him in the shower (she would later become wife number two).  
In 1966, luckily for England, Garrincha had problems with his knee, and Brazil lost to Hungary – his only defeat in 55 internationals.

Off the pitch, Garrincha partied as hard as he played.  He is said to have lost his virginity aged 12, to a goat.  Later he drove over his father while drunk.  The father was also a drunk, and cachaca was Garrincha’s undoing too.  Women were often the casualties, including the mother-in-law whom he killed in a drunken car accident in 1969, and her daughter, his second wife Elza Soares, that samba singer, who left him after he attacked her in 1977.  He had at least 14 children, including impregnating local girls when he went on tour with his team. 

As with George Best and Paul Gascoigne, it's questionable whether the sins of a genius should be forgiven. In Brazil, a dismal domestic record did not prevent you becoming a superstar, with the stadium in Brasilia being named after him in 1974.  When he died of cirrhosis of the liver on January 20, 1983, once again a pauper, thousands of fans came to view his body at the Maracanã stadium and pay their respects to the man who had won them their first two World Cups.

As the South American writer Eduardo Galeano wrote:

“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy. When he was out there, the pitch was a circus ring, the ball a tamed animal, the match a party invitation. Garrincha nurtured his pet, the ball, and together they created such mischief that people almost died laughing. He jumped over it, it gambolled around him, hid itself away, skipped off and made him run after it. And on the way, his opponents ran into each other.”

Link: Garrincha in action

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961)

“There are an enormous number of general empirical propositions that count as certain for us. One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not grow again”. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty)

Ludwig Wittgenstein has always been one of my favourite philosophers, so naturally I was intrigued, on reading the wonderful biography by Ray Monk, to learn about his older brother, Paul.  The Wittgenstein family were Austrian and extremely rich, and their home was visited by many famous composers and cultural figures – Brahms, Mahler, Strauss etc.  

All the children were musical and ambitious.   However, their father Karl wanted them to go into the family manufacturing business, rather than taking an artistic path.   But grandmother Fanny was a patron of musicians, and so she encouraged Paul when he showed particular signs of musical talent.  

In 1913, after his father’s death, he gave a successful debut concert, albeit after renting the hall and paying for the orchestra himself.  

At the outbreak of war, however, he joined up with the Austrian army, and served on the Russian front.  During fighting in Ukraine he was shot in the arm and captured by the Russians.  His right arm had to be amputated, which must have felt like the end of his career.  Hearing the news, Ludwig wrote in his diary: “I keep having to think of poor Paul, who has so suddenly lost his career! How terrible. What philosophy is needed to get over it! If only this can be achieved in any other way than suicide!”  (Three of their siblings did indeed kill themselves).

However, recovering in a prison-of-war camp in Omsk, Paul was undaunted, writing to his former teacher to ask him to compose a piano concerto for just the left hand.  He drew the outline of a piano keyboard on a wooden crate, and practiced playing it seven hours a day, to the bemusement of other prisoners.  “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another”  he later said. He was probably inspired by another Austrian, Leopold Godowsky, who taught piano at the Imperial Academy of Music, and who had both transcribed and commissioned pieces for the left hand in order to improve students’ technique.  He would have known also of Count Géza Zichy, one of Liszt’s students, who became the world’s first professional one-armed pianist after a hunting accident.  

After the war, Wittgenstein continued as a pianist, arranging pieces for the left hand and playing pieces that he had commissioned.  He did not want to be known simply as a freak or receive sympathy.  By commissioning work by famous composers, he would generate respect and become a famous performer.

Here the Wittgenstein wealth came in handy.  He commissioned work from leading composers including Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Korngold and many others, and always insisted on exclusive performing rights.  Unfortunately, his tastes were for nineteenth century style Romantic music, not the avant garde compositions favoured by people like Hindemith.   Those pieces he did not like, he did not play, and some were not discovered and performed until after his death, for example the work by Hindemith finally premiered in 2004.  In 1931 he wrote to Prokofiev:

“Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note in it, and I will not play it.”

Another pianist who had lost his arm in the War was to play that piece for the first time in 1956.  Wittgenstein also fell out badly with Ravel, because he made his own changes to the new Concerto in D for the Left Hand, without any consultation. 

The musician Ivan Ilic has suggested that Wittgenstein may not have been familiar with the actual work of the composers whom he commissioned, being guided instead by their prestige, saying 
“If Wittgenstein had been more familiar with Ravel’s compositional style there is no way that he would have been surprised with the result.”  
Prokofiev said of him, “I don’t see any special talent in his left hand.” 
It may be that Paul Wittgenstein would never have become a famous piano player if it had not been for his unusual circumstances.   His family certainly felt embarrassed by him, feeling he brought shame to the Wittgenstein name and wishing he would give up performing.

Paul emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1938.  The Wittgenstein family were originally Jewish, although they had been Christians for three generations on the paternal side and two on the maternal side.  To the Nazis, they were still of course Jews.   The sisters of Paul and Ludwig insisted on staying in Vienna, believing that no one would dare to disturb their privileged existence.  In practice, Paul had to bribe the Nazi regime to leave his sisters alone.  The Wittgensteins were one of the most wealthy private families in Europe, with assets of $6 billion, and this all went to protecting the two sisters in their Vienna palace.

Paul Wittgenstein died in New York City in 1961, after becoming an American citizen and continuing his career of playing and teaching music.  While in America, he commissioned a piece from Benjamin Britten in 1942, but, predictably, did not like it.  Whatever Wittgenstein’s own tastes and talent, disabled pianists have good reason to thank him for his determination and contribution to expanding the repertoire.  Other pianists lacking the use of two hands, like Leon Fleisher, have since followed his lead and played his commissions.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Leslie Banks (1890-1952)

To begin with, you want to be a parson, and after a good education at Glenalmond College and Keble College Oxford, you seem to be right on track.  But then, a change of plan:  after a while in an office job in shipping, the stage beckons, following some good experiences in amateur theatricals.  All’s goes well at first, with tours of North America, and your first performance on the West End stage.  But then war breaks out: you join up with the Essex Regiment. 

The Regiment serves during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916.  As soon as the troops go over the top, they come under heavy artillery and machine gun bombardment, and then get bogged down in no man’s land.  The order comes to recommence the attack: it’s impossible, and the surviving soldiers retreat and regroup.  Later, the names of 949 officers and men of the Essex Regiment are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial, their final resting places unknown.

You survive, but with injuries.  You recover, but your face is left badly scarred and partly paralysed.  At first, it seems to be a major handicap, putting paid to your ambition to play romantic leading roles.  But after the war, you join the Birmingham Repertory Company and by 1921, you are back in the West End theatre.   On stage, you discover that you can either show the unblemished side of your face – for the kinder roles -  or the scarred side, for the melodramatic roles.

In 1932, you begin your film career.   With your large bulk and your contorted features, you become known for playing gruff and menacing parts, such as the diabolic hunter of human prey in The Most Dangerous Game (1932).  Hitchcock casts you in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  In Fire Over England (1937), you play the Earl of Leicester, and meet Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh during the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) provides you with a leading role as an eccentric detective, who is called in to solve the crime when one of the opposing players drops dead, poisoned.

In the propaganda film, Went the Day Well (1942), you play the squire who turns out to be treacherous, during the nightmare scenario of a German invasion by paratroopers (the film also has the first performance by Thora Hird).   At the time, Picturegoer says “The subtle change from the quiet squire to the dangerous, scheming Nazi agent is put over by Leslie in an extremely clever and polished way. This perfectly rounded character study shows Leslie at his very best and is again proof of the versatility and abundant talent of this accomplished artist.”  
Half a century afterwards, this chilling classic would be listed as one of the 100 Best War Films, and summed up by The Independent: "It subtly captures an immemorial quality of English rural life—the church, the local gossip, the sense of community—and that streak of native 'pluck' that people believed would see off Hitler".   
For Ealing, you make Ships with Wings (1941), celebrating the Fleet Air Arm.  Later, you serve as the Chorus in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), another morale-booster, intended to inspire the country after D-Day. 
It’s a good life: marriage to another actor, three daughters, plenty of work.  You’re not a typical actor: you dislike giving interviews, you wriggle out of praise, you don’t like talking about yourself.  You continue performing until 1950, when you are awarded the CBE for services to theatre.  Two years later, you die after suffering a stroke while out for a walk.  Went the life well?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

Ivor Bertie Gurney was born in Gloucester on 28 August 1890: his father was a tailor, and he came from humble origins.  His mother was highly strung and somewhat unstable.  But a local clergyman, Revd Alfred Cheesman stood godfather to Ivor, and later took him under his wing, fostering his ideas and encouraging him.  Gurney was a chorister at King’s School, Gloucester, and studied music with the organist, alongside Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello.  Both Gurney and Howells were inspired by hearing Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival.  Gurney went on to a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in 1911, supported by Cheesman.  There he was considered erratic but brilliant.  He started setting poems to music, and began writing his own.   At RCM, he met Marion Scott, who was to be so influential in his life.
In 1912, came his first mental breakdown: “The Young Genius does not feel too well and his brain won’t move as he wishes it to”, he wrote to Marion Scott.  This seems to have been the first in a life long series of episodes of manic depression.  However, by July 1914 he was able to write to his friend Harvey:
Dear Willy,

 It's going Willy. It's going. Gradually the cloud passes and Beauty is a present thing, not merely an abstraction poets feign to honour.

 Willy, Willy, I have done 5 of the most delightful and beautiful songs you ever cast your beaming eyes upon. They are all Elizabethan – the words – and blister my kidneys, bisurate my magnesia if the music is not as English, as joyful, as tender as any lyric of all that noble host.
When war broke out in 1914, Gurney volunteered, but was initially turned down because of his eyesight. In 1915, he was accepted and served as a signaller with the 2/5th Glosters.  On the Western Front he found it was easier to write poems than to compose music.  His was a private’s war poetry, verses about longing for home, dodging tough jobs and the joy of sleeping on clean straw. 
One got peace of heart at last, the dark march over,
And the straps slipped, the warmth felt under roof’s low cover,
Lying slack the body, let sink in straw giving;
And some sweetness, a great sweetness felt in mere living,
And to come to this haven after sorefooted weeks,
The dark barn roof, and the glows and the wedges and the streaks;
Letters from home, dry warmth and still sure rest taken
Sweet to the chilled frame, nerves soothed were so sore shaken.

His first book Severn and Somme was published in October 1917, thanks to efforts by Marion Scott.  That year he was first shot in the arm, and then gassed, and was sent home to recover in an Edinburgh hospital, where he fell in love with a nurse. 

In 1918, he showed renewed signs of mental illness, with talk of suicide.   He spent time in hospital in Newcastle, Durham, and Warrington: his Scottish sweetheart broke with him.  He was discharged from the army and sent back to Gloucestershire, where things improved.   In autumn 1919, he tried to take up where he left off at the Royal College of Music, but was too restless to settle.  There was much roaming and walking.  

A second volume of poems, War’s Embers, was published.  He worked in a series of jobs musical (organist, cinema pianist) and manual (farm labourer, tax clerk), but money was scarce.  He wasn’t sleeping much, but the verse was flowing through the years 1919-1922.  He found physical exertion – working, walking – essential therapy for his nerves and the voices and radio waves which he felt were persecuting him:
Visions of natural fairness were more clearly seen after the excessive bodily fatigue experienced on a route march, or in some hard fatigue in France or Flanders - a compensation for so much strain. One found them serviceable in the accomplishment of the task, and in after-relaxation. There it was one learnt that the brighter visions brought music; the fainter, verse, or mere pleasurable emotion.

He tried living with relatives – a brother, an aunt – but neither worked out.  In September 1922 he was committed to Barnwood House, an asylum in Gloucestershire, after going around asking for a revolver to shoot himself with.  He wrote letters to everyone begging to be released, and tried to run away.  Worse was to come when Gurney was then moved away to the City of London Mental Institution in Dartford in Kent.  He remained there for the final 15 years of his life, and would never see his beloved Gloucestershire countryside again.  At Dartford, he would not even go out into the grounds, because it was the wrong sort of landscape.    But he continued writing, and produced some of his best war poetry: “the pain is in thought, which will not freely range.”
I think of the gods, all their old oaths and gages –
Gloucester has clear honour sworn without fail –
Companionship of meadows, high Cotswold ledges
Battered now tonight with huge wind-bursts and rages,
Flying moon glimpses like a shattered and flimsy sail –
In hell I, buried a score-deep, writing verse pages.

It would be easy to think of Gurney like poor Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway, driven mad by the war.  But in truth, Gurney’s mental illness predated the conflict.  His behaviour was mainly more eccentric than insane: he couldn’t hold down a job, his sleeping and eating patterns were erratic, he liked midnight rambles.  Three-quarters of his poems show no signs of mental illness.  His friend Marion Scott described him as “heart-breakingly sane in his insanity”: she left instructions for everything that he wrote in the institution to be preserved and sent to her.
P.J.Kavanagh points out that Gurney is wrongly described as a local poet, as if his poems only have relevance to Gloucestershire.   Gurney is one of those who achieve the universal by means of the particular, a poet of detail.   His voice is a gentle and domestic voice, lacking the anger which distinguishes Owen or Sassoon:
I believe in the increasing of life: whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles,
Real, beautiful, is good […]

He loved Shakespeare, and used all manner of reminiscent phrasing.  He loved Whitman too, and shares a similar lyricism:

Memory, let all slip save what is sweet
Of Ypres plains.
Keep only autumn sunlight and the fleet
Clouds after rains.

Gurney wrote 200 songs and 300 poems: he was one of the very few artists who have excelled in two forms.  The revival of interest in him in the 1930s and after the war was due partly to the loyalty of his supporter at the Royal College of Music, Marion Scott, but mainly to the efforts of the composer Gerald Finzi and his wife Joy.   First, they organized an edition of Music and Letters devoted to Gurney, published in 1938: it contained tributes from Vaughan-Williams, Walter de la Mare and others.  By this point, Gurney was unable to grasp what the volume represented: a month later, he was dead of tuberculosis.   Finally, he returned to his beloved Gloucestershire to be buried.
Finzi kept pushing: he asked another war poet, Edmund Blunden, to edit a selection of Gurney’s unpublished poems, which was finally published in 1954.  After Gerald died in 1956, Joy kept sorting out the archive.  In 1984, a collected edition was published, thanks to editor P.J.Kavanagh.  

One teacher at my school was a biographer of Blunden; another was a friend of Joy Finzi.  So as a teenager, I studied Gurney’s poems and listened to his music, as well as that of Finzi.  I was also lucky enough to meet Joy.  I was enormously touched by her kindness: after I visited her home and admired a wood engraving by Reynolds Stone, she later packaged up the print and sent it to me as a present.  Her husband’s verdict on Ivor Gurney, quoted by Kavanagh, was that
“All his work, even the worst, seems to have (for me at any rate) the sense of heightened perception which makes art out of artifice.”

"Sleep" (there are also other songs on YouTube)
BBC Four documentary
Ivor Gurney Society