Jemima Rooper and Ewan Bailey read works relating to metallic elements by Wilfred Owen, Afua Cooper, Homer and others with music by composers including Grieg, John Adams and Kraftwerk.
Producer: Torquil MacLeod.
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
Metals Metals, read by Ewan Bailey
Metamorphoses, read by Jemima Rooper
Living, read by Ewan Bailey
Cold Iron, read by Jemima Rooper
The Iron Man, read by Jemima Rooper
Edgar Allan Poe
Eldorado, read by Ewan Bailey
The Innocence of Radium, read by Jemima Rooper
Timon of Athens, read by Ewan Bailey
Red Eyes, read by Jemima Rooper
Poem Without a Title, read by Ewan Bailey
Arms and the Boy, read by Jemima Rooper
Homer (Tranlator Richmond Lattimore)
The Iliad, read by Ewan Bailey
Producer's Notes: Metal
Metal is everywhere - from the blood pumping through our bodies to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Some metals are hard and shiny, but by no means all. Of the 118 elements in the periodic table, around 90 are metals. Our relationship with metal is so vital that we define eras of pre-history according to the metallurgical skills of our ancestors.
Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry is taken from his 1927 ballet Steel. This kind of musical Futurism, reflecting the innovations of industrialisation, was received with scepticism in Mosolov’s native Russia, but this piece certainly evokes the rhythmic cacophony of the foundry.
The ubiquity of metals and our ambiguous relationship with them is underlined by Russell Edson in his poem Metals Metals.
After the heat and noise of Mosolov’s Iron Foundry, we meet more metalworkers in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This time it’s a band of gypsies, hard at work on the slopes of a mountain in Biscay and singing what has become popularly known as the Anvil Chorus.
When Ovid lays out the history of the world from its creation in the first book of his Metamorphoses, he describes the inexorable decline from the Golden and Silver Ages to the Bronze Age and finally to the Iron Age. By his account, the mastery of this metal by the human race brought about untold misery.
We find another smith at work on some of this accursed iron in Franz Schreker’s opera Der Schmied von Gent. Here Smee the smith is encouraging his workers to put their backs into their work, emphasising the virtue of what they’re doing – “Well-forged iron helps against bullets; from the plough comes bread for all the world!” He sells his soul to the Devil later in the opera, but fortunately everything turns out alright in the end.
There’s more hot metal being worked on in this excerpt from Henry Green’s novel Living. Set in the 1920s, Living tells the story of workers at an iron foundry in Birmingham.
Titanium is a low density, high strength metal which lends itself to aerospace applications. It’s also used to build high end bicycles and it’s this that Kraftwerk have in mind with the track Titanium, taken from their Tour de France Soundtracks. Listen carefully – aluminium gets a mention too. And carbon (not a metal).
The soundscape of the forge and the foundry may be a deafening racket, but metal can sound beautiful too. Here’s a good example - Edvard Grieg’s Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak performed by Brass Partout. Grieg originally wrote this as a piece for piano, but later arranged it for brass octet. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Alloys with a higher copper content give a warmer, mellower tone, while more zinc gives a brighter tone with better projection.
Despite the fact that our bodies contain many different metallic elements, we generally think of metal as being inert and lifeless, so the idea of a creature with a metal body is particularly disturbing. Just think of the Cybermen from Dr Who. No wonder then that in Ted Hughes’ children’s story The Iron Man, the arrival of a metal giant with an appetite for agricultural machinery causes terror and alarm. However, this metallic monster does redeem itself by saving the world. Black Sabbath’s Iron Man on the other hand (covered here by Giant Sand) was originally created to save humanity, but is tossed to one side after serving his purpose and, in a fit of pique, wreaks his dreadful revenge. So it seems that it can go either way with Iron Men.
Gold has been admired for millennia for being malleable and not losing its lustre beneath a layer of tarnish. Many terrible things have been done and endured to acquire it. The myth of El Dorado – a fabulous golden city – gripped the imaginations of the European colonisers who came to South America. In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, it is a metaphor for an all-consuming but ultimately pointless quest which can only end with death. A Dream of Gold – the first part of El Dorado by John Adams – was originally titled Pizzaro’s Dream and it depicts the peace of the forest being destroyed by the violence of the conquistadors.
Although our bodies depend upon certain metals to function properly, others have a lethal effect. Radium, like calcium, is an alkaline earth metal. Unlike calcium, it is radioactive. Marie Curie, who discovered the element, eventually died from the effects of radiation poisoning and her notebooks are still unsafe to touch 80 years later. Dr Sabin von Sochocky used Curie’s discovery to develop a luminous paint that contained radium and zinc sulphide. Lavinia Greenlaw’s poem The Innocence of Radium recalls the fate of the young women employed to apply the paint to clock faces.
We come back to the darker side of gold in Shakepeare’s Timon of Athens when Timon, having renounced wealth and its trappings, discovers a buried hoard of the precious metal while he’s digging for roots to eat. And gold is at the heart of mischief in Wagner’s Das Rheingold when the dwarf Alberich steals the treasure that the Rhine maidens are guarding and uses it to forge a magic ring.
Another piece of jewellery – a copper bracelet - features in Red Eyes by Afua Cooper. Offered as a token of love, it is rejected.
More sounds of metal, being struck rather than blown through this time. John Cage’s 1939 piece for piano and percussion, First Construction in Metal, is played here by members of the London Sinfonietta.
We’ve already touched on some of the ways that metal can cause harm, whether it’s through radiation or greed. But the clearest connection between metal and intentional destruction lies in the manufacture of weapons. Poems by Charles Simic and Wilfred Owen muse on how lead, zinc and steel are put to deadly use.
Vaskilintu - Finnish for bronze bird - is the title of this unaccompanied song by Sanna Kurki-Suonio. Archaeological digs at grave sites in Finland suggest that bronze pendants in the form of birds were once commonly worn by women there. Evidence of the ability of ancient smiths to create beautiful artefacts can be found in museums around the world. It was clearly a highly valued skill – Homer devotes nearly all of Book 18 of The Iliad to a detailed description of the beautiful shield that the Olympian blacksmith Hephaistos fashions for Achilles.
We finish back in the forge with Franz Lachner’s setting of Der Schmied – a poem by Johann Ludwig Uhland. The smith here is a strong and passionate figure who wants to present himself in the best light to the object of his affections – ‘the bellows blow/the flames roar up/and blaze around him’ when she walks past the smithy.
Producer: Torquil MacLeod""Added, go to My Music