The way we weren't ...

While so many are taking their leave of this century by condemning its artists,
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The Independent Culture

One of the many benefits in store from seeing the back of the Millennium is that, with any luck, we shall also be shot of a strand of cultural journalism that has depressed me increasingly this past year. I refer to the kind of column that involves a present-day arts celebrity trotting out 300 words to tell us why, in his or her opinion, some 20th-century luminary and/ or esteemed work of art is about to - or deserves to - vanish down the waste-disposal shute of history.

One of the many benefits in store from seeing the back of the Millennium is that, with any luck, we shall also be shot of a strand of cultural journalism that has depressed me increasingly this past year. I refer to the kind of column that involves a present-day arts celebrity trotting out 300 words to tell us why, in his or her opinion, some 20th-century luminary and/ or esteemed work of art is about to - or deserves to - vanish down the waste-disposal shute of history.

People I respect have been in on this racket. In his own series along such lines, Gilbert Adair - that formidable footnote to Barthes and pasticheur of genius - has made a cottage industry out of kicking yesteryear's VIPs into cosmic touch. Terence Rattigan? Dust. Kenneth Tynan? Ashes. Even first-rate creative talents such as Hilary Mantel have sunk to the occasion. George Eliot, no less, got a brisk fin-de-siÿcle bruising from her. In the sun lounge of the hereafter, the word must surely have got round by now that no one is safe and that it can be only a matter of time before somebody (Irvine Welsh, perhaps), declares that Shakespeare was just a quill-wielding waste of space.

The Waste Land has, of course, been a prime target for facile desecration, but it's worth listening to what TS Eliot propounded in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Someone said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know."

The young Eliot was himself no mean dislodger of reputations. In the same piece, when he argued that the conscious present possessed "awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past's awareness of itself cannot show", he was far from taking a Pollyanna-ish "whatever was, was right" approach to predecessors.

But while there is every need for responsibly argued discrimination about the dead, the conclusion I draw from the first of those two quotes is this: given that we are partly their creation, we owe our forebears more respect than to treat any of them (barring the downright vicious) to the kind of self-regarding soundbite dismissal encouraged by these columns, where the cumulative impression is of people joining the sordid queue at a gang rape.

So, the rest of this article offers itself as a determined antidote. My millennial concern is not with the so-called has-beens but with the mouth-watering might-have-beens - those artistic endeavours that almost came off, or could easily have done so, but for various reasons didn't. Everyone has pet regrets of this kind, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. For some, it may be the fact that Harold Pinter's screenplay of Proust's ÿ la recherche du temps perdu - a surely unrepeatable conjunction of two major writers and one deep obsession with time - has never been filmed (though there are tantalising rumours that, paradoxically enough, the National Theatre may stage it.)

For others, it may be that we were cheated out of what would have been the weirdest of all the Noël Coward/ Gertrude Lawrence collaborations when the orientally visaged and terribly, terribly English playwright turned down the Siamese monarch role (that eventually went to Yul Brynner) in The King and I.

Benjamin Britten and Maria Callas: what a creative alliance that might have been. It was on the cards - if not, alas, on disc or in the history books. That example, though, is a matter for straightforward regret. My own pet speculative sorrow is more contentious; indeed, it may have some groping for the sick-bag.

You could nickname this one The Way They Weren't. How does the thought of the Barbra Streisand and Leonard Bernstein Show grab you? Consider. Whatever you think of the material on which she has largely thrown away her gift you would have to be deaf or daft not to recognise that some of the loveliest sounds ever produced have issued from that woman's throat. It's not just the soaring, ecstatic compass of the voice, or its vaudeville trunkful of identities (everything from a "Loony Tunes" capering to a bell-like ethereality), or the extraordinary range of synaesthetic effects it can achieve (in thecourse of one long-held note, Streisand can seem to shift the direction of the vibrato like an ice-skater turning on her heel and suddenly streaming backwards.)

More important is the fact that, as Angela Lansbury once remarked, generously and envyingly, Streisand is able to sing from the depth of her boots up to the stratosphere with no apparent break between the middle and the upper registers. As with the otherwise very different figure of Jon Vickers, the opera star, the resulting absence of any sense of artificiality gives everything she sings the quality of transfigured speech. Hers, therefore, is inherently a dramatic instrument.

To explain why I regret the lack of any significant collaboration with Bernstein, let us imagine a scene in which, having travelled back in time, I intervene in history and waylay the great composer-conductor at a point just after he has written the admiring sleeve-note for Classical Barbra, Streisand's ill-fated 1976 foray into the Radio 3 repertoire. I greet him on Fifth Avenue and, when I've managed to get his tongue out of my mouth (Lenny was as big on social French kissing as he was on Mahler), I give him a piece of my mind. "How could you write the sleeve notes for that? Classical Barbra, Lennie, is not a record, it's a cry for help. She's got so much damn talent, she's essentially homeless. There's no one style that can contain it. And even if the old Broadway musical could have harnessed much of it, they're just not writing shows like that any more. She's a lot like you, Lennie, and we are not just talking Jewish and liberal - and absurd, as only the prodigious can be. What could be more eclectic and homeless, for God's sake, than your Mass?

"You could make beautiful music together, the two of you. Take that versatility and hunger you both have, and push her towards musical and emotional profundity. Write her a long, lyrical, stretching piece such as Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. It's going to be hard work persuading her. You know how she let the studio talk her into abandoning a project with Michel Legrand about the different phases of a woman's life in favour of recording an MOR idea of pop. But it would be worth it for both of you. Don't let her become a megastar effectively imprisoned by her industry-power." And Lennie goes home, obediently fulfils this command, and redirects the course of American music.

Well, in my dreams. Streisand, who is the biggest-selling female artist of all time, hasn't recorded much Bernstein, but she has taken to ending her live concerts with a rousing version of one of his greatest hits. On New Year's Eve, for a fee of $13m (£8m) she will perform in Las Vegas and will doubtless include this song yet again. In my alternative version of history, she would, of course, be singing hello to the 21st century with something by Bernstein that was longer, meatier and less simplistically hopeful than "Somewhere".

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