Spag stick conductor.
From its packet in the pantry, I unsheathed a dried
spaghetti stick. Ran my finger along it: good, a worthy if
I saw no need to change out of my dressing gown: any gown is
ceremonial in the privacy of home.
Into the stereo I put my Reader's Digest free-gift CD of
Tchaikovsky's "Festival of Hits". I have been listening to
this best-of album since I was a teenager, and little other
classical music besides.
I skipped to track 10, the 1812 Overture. Normally I would
skip to track 6, Swan Lake Ballet Suite, but this was a
The occasion was the bicentenary of the Battle of Borodino,
an incident in which the French fought the Russians on
Russian ground and, between them, the nations lost an
estimated 70,000 people in a day. More than half a Dunedin.
That is sickening even 200 years later.
It is also absurd, pointless. Is there a grand scheme of
things? I suspect not, but if there is, the scheme appears
not to have been affected by all those deaths. Inhumanity and
humanity keep happening in approximately equal measure, and
for this reason you might as well die old, rather than young
and for someone else's cause.
Some cultural artefacts were, however, created as a result of
the Battle of Borodino and its overarching Napoleonic war.
These include Tolstoy's famously fat novel War & Peace
and Tchaikovsky's famously cannon-fiery 1812 Overture.
So, in honour of the bicentenary of a battle, I took up a
spaghetti-stick baton and attempted to conduct the overture.
The orchestra was imaginary.
The overture begins with a hymn, requiring gentle waving of
the semolina-flour wand in the direction of the imaginary
cellos and violas.
I know the piece relatively well, although it is my least
favourite track on "Festival of Hits".
I usually prefer to pretend to conduct the ballet works
because these are, if you ask me, personal: the composer,
perpetually tormented by homoerotic feelings, hides nothing
of the thrilling hope, creativity, passion, doubt and despair
that marked his life, and never mind the lives of some
mythical accursed swans and a nutcracker.
Still, I thought I should give the pompous and ceremonious
1812 Overture an airing. At school our history teacher played
it through for us once and cried. Surely I, too, could engage
emotionally with the 15-minute musical progression that tells
the story of the Russian defence, now that I had grown up and
read the relevant Wikipedia pages.
The eyebrows can be used to command a bang on the kettledrum,
which is then followed by a clarinet, or possibly an oboe (it
doesn't matter too much as the orchestra is not real) joining
the cellos to signal the danger of the French advance.
Practically the whole orchestra then gets involved for the
battle scene, and this would be very difficult to conduct
even for a real conductor because it's all happening at once;
arms waving maniacally; quite discombobulating.
Next, a tilt of the spaghetti stick brings in the trumpeting
of the French national anthem. I think this is supposed to
indicate victory at Borodino; it does not last long
considering what it represents.
The rest of the overture is then a bit of a guessing game for
me as conductor, until late in the twelfth minute when the
cannon blasts come in with stomps of my feet.
I am not sure who is firing at whom here: in real life, the
Russians eventually got hold of the French cannons, which had
become stuck in frozen mud, and turned them back on the
French as they drove them out of Russia. That was just weeks
after Borodino, so again, you have to wonder what it was all
In the end, I couldn't get into the 1812 Overture. This
spaghetti-stick conductor's heart is not with the
militaristic music of massacre. Tchaikovsky himself called it
"a lot of noise about nothing". Nothing. Agreed. The
obliteration of 70,000 is just too much to comprehend.