Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of Antwerp

Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of Antwerp

Article excerpt

Music can't paint a picture or take a photograph, and the term `picture postcard' is commonly used derogatively, implying cheap, small, garish or faded, superficial - a touristic sound-snap of the world-famous cathedral, seafront, garden, mountain, valley. What music can do, incomparably, is evoke by means of mood and atmosphere the states of mind aroused by visual impressions. Such timeless loci as the brook scene in the Pastoral Symphony, the desire-quivering night landscape at the start of Tristan Act II and the exhausted sterility of the noonday seascape in Act III, or the rapturous dawn in Daphnis and Chloe that restores the lovers to each other are perfect proof that `pathetic fallacy is no fallacy'.

And the many successful attempts which have been made to portray specific cities work best when they capture emotion too - the 'Paris' of Delius's tone poem, the 'London' of Elgar's overture and Vaughan Williams's symphony, the 'Rome' of Respighi's fountains and pines. Debussy's city evocations remain supreme for subtlety and suggestive strength: the sullen Seine and the honk of a passing tug in Nuages, in Iberia the contrast between bright public streets and dark twisting alleys, between the scented perfumes of the night and the acrid vulgarity of the festival day.

Adding another such endeavour to this tradition, I can't expect to achieve the quality: but I can be more explicit about the flow of interconnection whereby an abstract musical canvas is filled with images derived from the sights, smells, tastes, maybe even touch of a great city, as well as its sounds. Possibly sounds are the least of it in my Antwerp experiences. Apart from special identifying features - a salvo of cannon at dawn and dusk, a unique peal of bells - most cities sound much the same, grinding traffic torn apart by screaming ambulances. The visual aspect is paramount. Even arriving from the airport by taxi the journey is dominated by the stone Gothick causeway along which all the trains enter and depart, and its culmination in the stupendous shed and monstrous dome of the central station, a sort of Natural History Museum (with, as it happens, a living zoo clustered around one flank). This chunkiest accent of the city's buildings is taken up in further late l9th-century commercial erections down the main shopping street, less monumental, more florid, dripping with an intoxicating riot of gilding and decorative detail, topped with further domes. The cathedral, genuine Gothic, lacy for all its size, stands aside from this main route to the second primal thrill, the broad sluggish pewtery-brown shoulder of the river Scheldt, unforgettable image of the power latent in seeming inertia.

Traversing a grand place less spectacular but more pleasing than its over-manicured big brother in Brussels, the heritage trail soon gives way to smells and sleaze - a tingling red-light quarter (unencumbered, unlike Amsterdam, with trippers goggling from their luxury charabancs) and the halfderelict outskirts of the dock area. I'd traipsed each chartered street on previous visits. More recently it was a daily walk, for the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra has joined the Ballet in placing its new rehearsal space and offices out in what will soon enough become a bourgeois bohemia. Look your last on picturesque neglect! Northward stretch vast watersheets of docks, making a perfect complement in their land-bound formality to the slow flow of the river. …

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