Like Father, Like Son?
A selection of poetry, prose and music exploring the many facets of the complex relationship of father and son, with readings by Nicholas Farrell and Sam Troughton.
Marking the centenary of Arthur Miller's birth - a playwright noted for his fascination with fathers and sons - an exploration of the many facets of this complex relationship, featuring a selection of poetry and prose read by Nicholas Farrell and Sam Troughton and music by Rossini, Stravinsky, David Axelrod and others.
Producer: Torquil MacLeod.
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
To A Child, read by Nicholas Farrell
To A Child, read by Sam Troughton
The Iliad, read by Sam Troughton
Follower, read by Nicholas Farrell
My Fathers Waltz, read by Sam Troughton
The Gift, read by Sam Troughton
A Father To His Son, read by Nicholas Farrell
The Brothers Karamazov, read by Nicholas Farrell
You Are Old, Father William, read by Sam Troughton & Nicholas Farrell
Those Winter Sundays, read by Sam Troughton
My Father On His Shield, read by Sam Troughton
Stanley Jasspon Kunitz
The Portrait, read by Nicholas Farrell
Do not go gentle into that good night, read by Sam Troughton
The Day My Father Died, read by Nicholas Farrell
Percy Bysshe Shelley
To William Shelley, read by Nicholas Farrell
Producer's Notes - Like Father, Like Son?
The conflict between fathers and sons finds its way into much of Arthur Miller’s writing. Miller himself said “In writing of the father-son relationship and of the son’s search for his relatedness there was a fullness of feeling I had never known before; a crescendo was struck with a force I could almost touch.” Miller described the way that he and his own father interacted as being like “two searchlights on different islands.” To celebrate the centenary of the playwright’s birth, this is a reflection on how other writers and composers have distilled the father-son relationship in their work and, in some cases, turned that relationship into a creative partnership.
We begin, appropriately at dawn. ‘Jam lucis orto sidere’ is a hymn to be sung at first light and here it appears in a setting by Benjamin Britten from The Prodigal Son – the third of his Church Parables. The Prodigal Son may have a (largely) happy ending, but it also hints at some of the disruptions, departures and disappointments that we shall encounter during the course of the programme.
To A Child by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sees the poet – who had two sons and three daughters – looking into the infant’s future: vast, unknowable and freighted with possibility.
Day One was written by Hans Zimmer and is part of his score for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film Interstellar. Before Nolan told Zimmer what the film was going to be, he gave him a one page story outline about a father saying goodbye to his young son and asked him to use it as the inspiration for a composition - this is the piece that Zimmer wrote. Nolan had been struck by something that Zimmer said when he was talking about his own son – “once your children are born, you can never look at yourself through your eyes any more, you always look at yourself through their eyes”.
Wilfred Owen may be best known for his war poetry, but his poem To A Child takes a father’s point of view of his new-born child (although Owen himself had no children). The father is entranced by the atavistic wildness of the infant, but ruefully acknowledges that this will be erased as soon as the child grows and learns to abide by society’s conventions.
So far we have seen fathers speculating on their sons’ futures. Will they grow up to enjoy as harmonious a relationship as Vladimir Ashkenazy and his son Dimitri? Here are the duo performing Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Piece for Clarinet and Piano.
Dimitri Ashkenazy followed in his father’s footsteps and became a professional musician. Is it the wish of all fathers that their sons will grow up to be like them? In Homer’s Iliad, when Hector bids farewell to his baby son, prior to launching another attack on the besieging Greek army, he makes it very clear that he wants Astyanax to become an even greater warrior than his father. Zeus didn’t grant Hector’s wish – the child was thrown from the walls of Troy when Agamemnon’s forces sacked the city.
In Robert Burns’ ballad “My Father Was A Farmer”, the son tries to better himself, but ultimately falls back on the skills that he has learnt from his father and scrapes a living through humble toil. But because of the values that his father instilled in him, he is still happy with his lot.
Seamus Heaney’s father was a farmer and in “Follower” the young poet is literally following in his father’s footsteps as Heaney senior ploughs a field. The young boy wants so much to be like his father, but is painfully aware that he is more of a hindrance than a help. Years later, the roles are reversed and it is his elderly father who trails behind him, getting in his way.
The child’s perspective is key in Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz”. While the young boy’s mother sees her drunken husband reeling around the kitchen, trying to dance with his son, for the boy himself it’s a giddy, exciting moment when he has his father’s full attention. The man may reek of booze, he may need a bath, he may have just been in a fight and he may be being too rough with his son, but the two of them are having fun together.
Charles Ives may not have waltzed around the kitchen with his father, George, but he credited him as his main musical influence. George’s role as a band-leader inspired Charles’s love of marches, which he often quoted in his work. Here in “Three Places in New England” Charles recreates the sound of two bands playing two different tunes, something he would have first heard in his father’s musical experiments with marching bands.
We’ve seen fathers expressing their affection in a rough, boisterous way, but in “The Gift” by Li- Young Lee a moment of care and tenderness is captured, as a father delicately removes a metal splinter from his son’s hand, distracting him with a story.
In Rossini’s opera William Tell, a young boy is also at risk of injury from a sharp piece of metal, but this time it’s a crossbow bolt fired by his father. Tell is understandably shaken by Gessler’s command that he shoot an apple resting on his son Jemmy’s head, but once Jemmy has assured him that he trusts his father to pull off the feat, Tell’s courage returns and the bolt ends up embedded in the fruit rather than his son’s cranium.
Tell’s instruction to Jemmy is to stay still – ‘resta immobile’ - which, if terse, is undoubtedly a good piece of fatherly advice. Carl Sandburg is rather more expansive in his poem “A Father To His Son” and offers plenty of precepts for leading a fulfilling life, but whether they will fall on receptive ears is another matter.
The fact is that when sons reach adulthood, their relationships with their fathers can turn sour. Old wounds and resentments can become the source of feuds. Rufus Wainwright was three when his parents split up and the absence of his father – Loudon Wainwright III – is a theme which surfaces in some his songs. Dinner At Eight recalls a bitter altercation between father and son during what began as a pleasant meal in a restaurant, following a successful Rolling Stone photo-shoot.
Matters become equally toxic between Mitya Karamazov and his father in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, due to a misunderstanding about the property Mitya stands to inherit. Sadly, the relationship deteriorates even further when father and son find themselves vying for the affection of the same woman.
Fortunately there doesn’t seem to have been the same degree of discord between father and son in another Russian family - the Stravinskys. In 1938 Igor Stravinsky and his son Soulima went into a studio in Paris and recorded Igor’s Concerto for two solo pianos. The recording may be crackly, but no matter how closely I listen, I can’t hear any muttered recriminations about what Soulima is due to inherit.
However, intergenerational conflict erupts again between the remarkable Father William and his impertinent, unnamed son who plagues him with a series of questions until the old man can take no more. Lewis Carroll’s poem is a parody of Robert Southey’s “The Old Man’s comforts and how he gained them” and has deservedly eclipsed the sententious stanzas of the original.
In Verdi’s opera I Vespri Siciliani, the governor of Sicily, Guido di Montforte, discovers that Arrigo, a young rebel opposing the French occupation, is his son, born to a Sicilian woman who he abducted and then abandoned. Montforte shares this revelation with Arrigo who angrily insults him, holding him responsible for his mother’s death. In this duet between the two men, Montforte begs Arrigo to recognise him as his father, while the young man resists, saying that his love for his dead mother makes it impossible.
While Montforte makes his feelings for his son abundantly clear, a common stereotype of the father, particularly in previous generations, is of a man who is distant and emotionally inaccessible. The father in “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden is such a man and it is only years later that his son recognises that the thankless, mundane tasks which he performed around the house were inarticulate expressions of his love.
Fortunately there’s nothing faltering or inarticulate about the communication between jazz pianist Stan Tracey and his drummer son Clark as they play together at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1993.
It is the natural course of events that a son should face the death of his father, but a harder blow if it happens when he is still a child. War makes many sons fatherless and Walt MacDonald in his poem “My Father On His Shield” has only an old photograph of a soldier and some childhood memories of a sled. None of it can bring his father back.
Heat by David Bowie is a strangely allusive song. The mood is dark and foreboding and it is unclear whether the insistent refrain “My father ran the prison” is literal or metaphorical. But there is no doubt that the singer is desperate to distance himself from his father’s malign influence and warped idea of love.
If a father can be a hugely influential presence, he can also be a powerful absence for a son who grows up without ever knowing his father. The poet Stanley Kunitz was born six weeks after his father had killed himself. His mother removed all traces of him from the house and, as we hear in ‘The Portrait’, when Kunitz found a picture of a stranger in the attic, she reacted swiftly and decisively.
Returning to Arthur Miller - the inspiration for this programme – the suicide of a father is a motif which occurs in more than one of his plays, most famously that of Willy Loman at the end of Death of a Salesman. Here is Alex North’s haunting piece for solo flute which was composed for the original Broadway production of the play. The flute evokes Willy’s connection to his own father who was a flute-maker and salesman and its sound is heard at key moments through the play.
“Do not go gentle into that good night” is probably Dylan Thomas’s best known poem. It was actually written five years before the death of Thomas’s own father in 1952, but it remains a heartfelt plea from a son for his father to muster all of his dying energies to try to postpone the inevitable.
There is little information on how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart received the news of his father Leopold’s death – there had been quarrels and a partial estrangement in the preceding years and Wolfgang was unable to return to Salzburg for the funeral. Although he is best known today as Wolfgang’s father and teacher, Leopold was a talented violinist and composer in his own right. Emerging briefly from his son’s shadow, this the 2nd movement from his Concerto in E flat Major for two horns and strings.
Mervyn Morris is Poet Laureate of Jamaica and his poem “The Day My Father Died” speaks of death’s finality and the birth of grief. The son’s own sense of loss will come, but his mother’s distress takes immediate precedence.
The fourth and last of our father-son musical collaborations spans three generations. Dimitri Shostakovich wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1957 for his son Maxim’s 19th birthday. Maxim premiered the piece at the Moscow Conservatory. In this recording from 1986, Maxim moves from the piano stool to the conductor’s rostrum and his own son – another Dimitri – is the soloist.
The loss of a father is one thing, undeniably painful and life-changing, but congruent with the natural course of things. The death of a son before his father leaves a rawer wound, immune to the mitigating comforts which may soften other bereavements. When Shelley’s son William died at the age of three, these are the lines that the poet composed. They express an anguish over where the animating spark that gave his child life has gone and a wish to believe that it has been absorbed into the soft beauty of the natural world.
Finally, Lou Rawls sings Loved Boy by the producer and composer David Axelrod. The lyrics are adapted from Ben Jonson’s poem On My First Sonne, written in 1603 after the death of his seven year old boy Benjamin. Rawls was with Axelrod when the composer was told over the phone that his seventeen year old son Scott had died. This is the father’s tribute to his ‘loved boy’.