The Thirty Nine Steps - Book




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Published on Aug 31, 2014

Programme Note

2014 წლის 31 08, კვირა

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS in its filmed versions was never done with fidelity to the original story. As a teacher I want the children to access the best parts of the original story through my essays and commentaries and the audio extracts; but I also want them to be so confident in their understanding of a story as a POLYPHONIC PROCESS that they can learnedly distinguish between the treatments of the original 1914 book and the 1978 colour film.

(I never study ALL the adaptations of a work: you have to go for the one you fancy and ignore the others...otherwise you become ACADEMIC...)

The sense in which Buchan prepared his ground - first having the steps idea, then deciding its significance, then creating a plot which would give it book-length duration while releasing the half-life of its mystery in an appropriate dosage - is of Mozartian majesty - yes, it's as good as that…!

The stylistic neo-classicism (which makes Vierne- aware of Poulenc and Debussy as well as Wagner - so apposite) is a shade ahead of Conan Doyle in its economy: the last sentence is a case in point and I give this coda an extended duration. It's really the stretto of the whole work, but my great French organ masters, loved since my teens with an ardour I can't find words for, contribute, also, an appropriately buffo atmosphere with their scherzi: this is after all ONLY A STORY (though it's salutary indeed to reflect on the clumsy pride which started the Great War amid the incomprehensions of the current moment in the Ukraine crisis) and my child-pupils must by no means be frightened ('let nothing affright thee' - in Saint Teresa of Avila's words...)

The musical key structure of the three pices: B, E, Fsharp - all extreme sharp keys - and their implications in the organ world of mixture stops and ambiguous tonalities - set against Vierne's confident polytonality and the watershed baseline harmonic metric of Gigout, a generation earlier - contribute not just an appropriately maritime froth; but an elan which might be the psychological mood-music for Milton's 'L'Allegro' personality type; of which Hannay definitely partakes....

As the music subsides and we can genuflect before the considerable blazing genius of John Buchan, in the month of the 2014 Scottish independence poll which would have puzzled and amused him, we may, with Eliot, muse that 'All will be well, all manner of thing shall be well' [Julian of Norwich] and thus conclude that THERE WILL NOT BE WAR if prayers of this intensity are offered against it (war, of course, had already started when the book was written; the author could hear the cannons of France from his hotel room in Broadstairs).

Finally, I think, this film sequence is about The Channel (where I am proud to have served a short stint in the Merchant Navy) - the liminal, the littoral, the marginal,and the threshold mindset in our culture and imagination.

Bachelard might have made something of that.

As do Vierne's ever-ambiguous harmonies, crying out to us - constantly seeking landfall and understanding! - in every bar.

We live in a world of no certainties: the but the love of God and the decency of human beings - not just in England and Scotland but everywhere and always - will endure (of this I am quite sure!) until the end of time.


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