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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



Peter Read

In July 1997 as part of a project comparing the destroyed places of several overseas areas with those of Australia, I visited Croatia with a friend who had been born near the town of Split on the Adriatic coast. I was overwhelmed by its history: the Croatians’ precise and bitter memories of the Second World War, the scores of historic monuments defaced or destroyed by succeeding generations of invaders, the former use of public signage to reinforce political ideology, the abrupt proximity of so many invasions and wars, the savagery of recent fighting, the intense passions about the communist past, the ancient rituals and cycles of peasant life in the little village of Cevoglave which seemed to have been let slip only yesterday. The emotional keystone of the trip was a day-long journey, escorted and guided by people from the Croatian Ministry of Culture through some of the regions of the recently pacified and physically devastated war zones.1

In the course of a career in indigenous history of many thousands of conversations and hundreds of visits, I have stood before more than one massacre site and absorbed countless horror stories from victims of the stolen generations. When the trip was over my friend, the Australian Research Council Small Grants Committee and the Croatian Ministry of Culture all expected something from me. After some deliberation I decided to write about my tour of the war zone. But how? My heart beat faster every time I thought about it. I began to realise that I was still deeply traumatised by the status merely of bystander. The enduring destructive physicality of the Croatian war—my experience of mile after mile of destroyed countryside, murdered people and ruined towns—affected me in ways that I did not expect and even now cannot easily express. My memories of that midsummer day of 1997 seemed almost too overwhelming to put into prose. Into what parameters would I sort my emotions as I stood in the ruined museum of the Jacenovac World War II concentration camp: the door shot in, the flagpole smashed, the garden trampled, machine gun bullets across the ceiling, huge black and white photographs of murdered men and women hanging ripped in half from the walls. How could I mentally accommodate the excavations carried out in the stinking local rubbish tip to find and identify the human bones thrown in along with those of pig and sheep to hide the whereabouts of killed civilians; the woman who discovered her missing husband in the well when she caught the smell of his decaying corpse; the black and stinking penises of dead soldiers sent back to the enemy in cardboard boxes. How can we historians encompass such deeds, sinister and savage, heinous and unspeakable, and, most of all, deeds incomprehensible? What words can apprehend the inexplicable? Can the very act of writing shape the emotional response? Such is the ancient cri de coeur expressed by Rilke and later by Drusilla Modjeska: ‘Help me, in saying it, to understand it.’2

Some days or weeks after 31 August 1680 Henry Purcell wrote a fantasy for five viols, ‘Upon One Note’.3 A fantasy was the English version of free but brief improvisation, a form much in vogue among Elizabethan composers but becoming old-fashioned by the Restoration. Also almost obsolete were the intimate performances of a chest of viols, the rather twangling family of stringed instruments, former competitors to the violin family but more limited in dynamics and range, which were becoming superseded by this time.4 Purcell himself did not particularly like them, evidently thinking them rather nasal and harsh. Yet in 1680, at the age of 22, he wrote a miraculous set of fantasias for viols. As was still the English custom, he scored them for three, four or five equal parts. Though relatively unknown except among chamber musicians, I’ve always admired them for their conciseness, their harmonic daring, their measured melancholy, most of all for their exquisite sense of structure and form.

I came across Purcell’s fantasies in the early 1970s when I was learning to play the bass viol, under the tuition of Francis and June Baines, in early music classes held in Chiswick, London. Francis led the Jaye Consort of Viols, then a well known English ensemble. Sooner or later beginners like me were introduced to a particular fantasy from the set entitled ‘Upon One Note’, because the middle player of the five parts plays nothing but the note F throughout the entire piece. At bar 25 the one-noter even plays an eerie solo, just for a quaver; at bar 27 the player has a whole minim while the other players are silent! The four other parts are usually played by two treble viols, a tenor and a bass.5 In performance, the Jaye consort used to play the bottom line on a wonderfully reverberating seven-string bass made in 1606 by the famous Renaissance instrument maker, Henry Jaye, himself.

In my imagined perfect performance, Purcell’s fantasy Upon One Note emerges out of several seconds of total silence. In the first bar, the keynote F already assumed by the middle part, the bass rises meditatively up the F major scale. It’s joined by the second tenor an octave above. In the second bar the first of the treble viols begins a descending identical scale. In the third bar the second treble and the first of the tenors diverge equally, again from F. The bass begins the pattern again and brings the introduction to a sonorous close at the beginning of the seventh bar. Now emerges a seven-bar development, still slow, built on a dotted rhythm. In the third section—we are less than a minute into the piece—the emotional tension warms from meditative to thoughtful. Half a minute later, now in the fourth, Purcell doubles the time in a brief phrase for all the instruments (except the one-noter), the parts tripping, skipping, interrupting, tossing higher and higher. Just four bars later comes the fifth, a longer phrase embraced by all the parts, three times the tempo of the introduction. We are more than half-way through the piece. At this point, marked ‘Slow’, Purcell pulls us to reflection in grinding chromatic runs which must have sounded strange indeed to the court of Queen Mary. Abruptly in the sixth section, we are thrown into semi-quavers, four times the original tempo, another tiny phrase, tumbling, grasping, searching, thrusting higher and higher until at bar 40 the first treble shouts a dotted rhythm against the other equal parts, the snatched soaring climax of a high C. At once the pace slows. Down a long descending run, in the exact same seven-bar sequence with which the fantasy began, we glide from semi-quavers to quavers to crochets to minims: E flat, D, C, B natural, B flat, A natural, A flat, G and at last the welcoming, resolving F held by all the instruments, not even a full F major chord, for all but one of the instruments are holding the tonic.

That last chord lingers for two meditative bars. The slowing, diminishing but purposeful descent into the nothingness out of which the piece emerged ends the tiny apocalypse. The seven sections of this minor miracle of English music would make an apt funeral elegy for those who believe that life emerges out of silence, builds on its own past, allows and demands time for meditation, holds its own seasons and cross rhythms, carries lesser climaxes within its crescendos, and concedes that there may be time only for a brief but elegant farewell.

Much learned discussion has compared the structures and techniques of musical composition to those of writing, but the attempted close analogies between prose and counterpoint, tonality, ground bass, dissonance, suspension, variation and cross-rhythm I find more interesting than convincing. Yet this fantasy has never ceased to touch me both as a music lover and as a writer. I embrace its balanced form, its planned ascending emotional peaks, its solemn exuberance, its brevity, its dynamic tension, its controlled cyclic acceptance, its elegance.

Help me, in saying it, to understand it. The fantasy Upon One Note helped me to formulate those unquiet, unshaped experiences of the Croatian war. The article I would write would be the journey itself, the narrative structure, the events of that single day, a piece unrolling as the experiences themselves unrolled from dawn to dusk. It would be called ‘A Day in the Country with Dr Death’, for I had seen this name of a heavy metal band inscribed, I think disingenuously, in white paint on the useless electronic scoreboard of the destroyed bowling alley in the blown-up health resort of the Liptik Compleks. The emotional control of the fantasy could discipline my experiences as a series of rising emotional climaxes. Each site confronted would be more appalling than the previous: the dawn dim and cool, then warmer, hot, hotter, blazing hot, cooling, at last to a descent into the plain in the cool dusk of evening. The fantasy could show me how to shape, direct and order the experiences as a first stage of bringing myself to the point where I could write about them. Purcell would enable me to be my own therapist, not simply by copying his own musical plan (an exercise not only pointless but inimical to artistic intuition); no, an artistic structure—in this case, musical—could frame my powerful, undigested emotions into a kind of comprehension. I could not come to terms with what I had confronted until, as it were, I could format them.

Mindful of the power of Purcell’s strong sectionalised concision, I arranged my response—then the article—into cumulative, short, terse paragraphs:

We begin our day in the country with Dr Death at Korita. Korita used to be a village of a hundred people, some 150 kms east of Zagreb. Now it is a collection of ruined houses. At the time of our visit, the gardens are quite wild in the hot mid morning of high summer. Fences are overthrown, the gardens are empty. Graves have vanished in the undergrowth.

In the second section I worked out my sense of violent irony:

At the foot of the range lies the town of Pakrac … [where] one memorial to the suffering may remain unnoticed and unrepaired. In the town square is a bronze monument of the Second World War. It is a sculpture of a man in extremis, a dying Yugoslav soldier. His battle jacket is torn off and half gone. His head is thrown backwards, his ribs protrude horribly, his body arches to breaking point. But he and the plinth on which he lies dying are now pocked and holed by shrapnel.

The third section occurred at the peak of the fiery day:

The temperature has risen to 95 degrees as we drive to Jasenovac. It is the site of the infamous concentration camp where at least 60 000 Serbs perished at the hands of the Croatian Ustashe during the Second World War.

The fourth echoed the sense of a cumulating and barely comprehensible violence:

Worse follows … The fifty six people [of the village of Hvratska Kostjanjica] who answered the summons to an evening meeting were so little prepared for what was to come that they came with handbags or umbrellas … The fifty six were loaded onto trucks, taken to a green rolling meadow only two kilometres from the town and shot with machine guns. How familiar this lovely site must have been to the villagers, how often they must have visited. And how small a hole it needs to hold fifty-six bodies.

Purcell inserted his reflective passage—perhaps he saw it as a keystone—in the middle of his fantasy. My more personal reflection on the Yugoslavian tragedy seemed to fall naturally at the end. We ascended a high hill on a obscure and shell-holed road to a group of four or five houses, all destroyed:

I clamber through a ground level window of a three storey house. Broken concrete, smashed tile; stair without railing, pot plant without water, garden without nurture, window without glass, verandah without chairs, walls without pictures, door frames without door, playroom without toys, kitchen without warmth, table without conversation, bedroom without love.

And now to apply the brake to bring myself a slower, more gentle but purposeful closure:

beyond the ash trees and down the hill, the full sun of the Croatian summer is gold in the dying light. Chimneys and factories, chequerboard farms, darker forests, fading red roofs, fading white walls, fading streets, fading communities, dead towns. Night closed over what will not be apprehended even in broad daylight: mourning, grief, trauma, desolation, absence. Tragedy for everyone touched by this savage war, the unrequited passions which swim and hover in the cooling evening air.

I don’t think anyone much liked the piece, though I still can’t read it without emotion. The Ministry of Culture was lukewarm, I suppose because they thought it rather unpolitical. I had trouble placing it in one or two overseas newspapers and in the end was content with Arena.6 That no one else seemed particularly moved by my essay doesn’t worry me very much. Purcell enabled me to give my thoughts a structure, and I know now that I was writing out my trauma as a kind of therapy. Purcell gave me a frame to do it. Art structured emotion, then emotion structured art.


1     I suspect that my companion had billed me to the Croatian authorities as more of a political writer than I am or want to be.

2     Quoted by D. Modjeska as an epigraph of Stravinsky’s Lunch, Picador, Sydney, 1999.

3     In the collection are thirteen fantasies, and two In Nomines. The first twelve are dated, the last as 31 August 1680. The fantasy ‘Upon One Note’ is the only one undated.

4     The best known of the viol family is that for which Marin Marais wrote many works, the viola da gamba (‘knee viol’), which is played like a cello, but supported not by a spike on the floor, but on the calves. Historically viols were constructed in many sizes, but all, except the largest basses, were supported on the lap or the calves.

5     Composers of chamber music often did not specify which member of the viol family was to play which part; it is today not unusual for different instruments, such as viols and recorders, to take different parts to form a broken consort.

6     P. Read, ‘A Day in the Country With Dr Death’, Arena Magazine, no. 33, 1998, pp. 6–8.

Cite this chapter as: Read, Peter . 2009. ‘Fantasy upon one note ’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 5.1–5.6.

©Copyright 2009 Peter Read
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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath