December 1987 (In rural Essex, memories and mind's eye, sea and blood, Keats, aphorism and motif, variation form, Edmund Ironside in USA)




my dear Erik,

      but which? In rural Essex (where my wife and I are staying with my poor old mother, now very frail) the festival of the winter solstice is a long hibernation. Not much is done or said. I fret at being sundered from Shakespeare for several days. But no doubt the Ruhepause is salutary. And it affords time for reflection. In this house, methinks I see my father. Where? In my mind's eye (an amazing locution: we easily become accustomed to such an image, in every sense, but it had to be invented). My father was a sailor, but in his own way rather scholarly - a sort of professor of torpedo gunnery. When my turn came, I volunteered for the army. Those with the sea in their blood are especially wary about getting their blood in the sea. But my attempts to stay on dry land were not entirely successful: I had several voyages on troopships to and from Israel, where they invented a special war for me after the main one was more or less over. There's great advantage though in being a sailor. My parents' marriage was idyllically happy, if only because my father was elsewhere most of the time. It's on record that my first spoken words, at about 20 months, were you go back to the big ship! But even I was converted, by absence and presents, into an affable relationship with the father-figure. I dare say there is a pattern into which individual relationships and existences are required to fit, as in dance measures and figures. Perhaps destiny is not bothered about who, exactly, is playing chess or singing Wolf at any given moment of time: so long as someone is, the universe is in reasonable working order. I think you are fortunate in your father - and no doubt in the rest of your family, mit leider unbekannt, apart from a brief telephone conversation with your sister who inquired after your whereabouts in tones touchingly tinged and tinctured with solicitude. I was able to explain that you'd had a tricky station-change in Paris. She spoke excellent English, I thought.

    I trust you found something of interest in the Wolf competition. I heard one of the contestants, Ingrid ?Atrott, at the bequest of a good friend of mine, and offered a few (I hope) helpful observations; but I doubt if she or her pianist would be found in the first flight.

    How good that you should also be a Keatsian, as I enthusiastically was at your age: less so now, rather sadly, not because he's not a great poet, but because the kind of great poet he is speaks more to youth than to age - all that supreme freshness and vividness of feeling and sensation, joy's grape, tiger moths deep - damoshed  wings, taste and touch as well as sight (oaks, greenrobed senators) sound (nightingale) scent (can't think of a example, but there must be many), even temperature (those thin shivering vowels in 'bitter chill'), with humour and tenderness too (cat! who hast past my grand Climacteric: blithe little fairy, just fresh from the dairy) is a heady and potent brew of the keenest synaesthesia which works wonders so long as one has the senses left to appreciate them with. But the palate became less fine, etc, and the magic is mitigated.

    I still share, though, your taste for aphorism and the motif. There's a special excitement generated by large scale works elaborate from the small scale idea, like a huge honeycomb of hexagons, heaven-high, with 'the singing masons building roofs of gold'. Shakespeare's an example: I think his stupendous grasp of form was always elaborated from endless chains of single images. It's a sort of metaphor of a universe compounded from single molecules. Wolf and Nietzsche, as you say: Wagner and Schopenhauer. I'm impressed, as ever, by your aesthetic reflections, the greatest art however emotively charged is always indebted to intelligence for its real power. True of Keats and Schubert too, of course: it's always very irritating to hear the intellectual achievement of those masters disparaged.

    I see what you mean, too, about the variation form. It can indeed sound static; it can emerge as if petrified from the hands of even the greatest masters. Yet lesser men can sometimes infuse the form with organic development, growth and life (perhaps the Enigma Variations of Elgar are an acceptable example). After all, individual life as well as universal phenomena may be (whether helpfully or not) considered as variations on a theme. It would be grand to write the music of the night sky. In my composing years (as distinct from the decomposing ones) I was essentially a miniaturist, because, I claimed, I had no real sense of structure. But perhaps I should have persevered. I have since discovered that the best way of assembling a general philosophy is by a study of minute particulars. At least we can get particular facts right, and then with any luck join them together in some more ambitious construction. But I think that you, my dear Erik, have that sense of innate structural intuition that I lacked; and you may well have the potential, therefore, to become a major artist. I'll be following your development with absorbed affection, for as long as I last. 

    And yes, 1988 ought to be a good year for us both. I wonder whether the Chinese, who order their calendar thus, have had the foresight to call it the Year of the Wolf? At least Wolf on one occasion thought of himself as a Chinaman (in the Kritiken). But I'm invited to America, which is quite far enough for me, in July next year, because Edmund Ironside has been chosen to open the programme of the Virginia Shakespeare (sic) Festival, and I have to go and attend the production and take part in the discussions and debates, - on very generous financial terms. So I'd better accept such ouvertures while I still can. Jetzt ist es Tag, nun rege sich der Mann/ die Nacht bricht ein, wo niemand wirken kann. Meanwhile it's back to Edward III as soon as we return.

    Look after yourself, my dear Erik: I wish you much joy and achievement in the coming year,

        with my warmest good wishes, as ever, yours Eric