In a nod to the recent Grammy Awards, allow me to pay tribute to a record that was nominated in 1963, in the category of Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording (Other than Comedy). That record is Enoch Arden, Op. 38, TrV. 181, performed by Glenn Gould and Claude Rains.
Most people probably know Claude Rains best as the blithely unscrupulous Captain Renault in Casablanca, or maybe as the gleefully unscrupulous Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or even as a wholly unscrupulous senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. No question, Rains brought particular élan to a certain kind of villain—yet nowhere did he commit as fully to a performance as to Enoch Arden.
Enoch Arden was written explicitly for narrator and piano; it’s a setting by Richard Strauss of Tennyson’s narrative poem. Tennyson wrote “Enoch Arden,” a sort of Odysseus story, in 1864, while he was England’s poet laureate. The eponymous hero is shipwrecked on a desert island for ten years, and given up for dead; when he returns home, it’s to find his wife happily remarried to his best friend, and one of his children dead. Enoch Arden cannot bear to destroy their lives, and so keeps his identity a secret and dies of a broken heart.
Needless to say, the resulting musical adaptation is dramatic. While it’s not generally considered one of Strauss’s most distinguished works, it was a hit at the time of its writing, when such musical melodramas were enjoying a vogue. Indeed, the entire piece is a dizzy immersion in Victoriana.
Which is part of what makes the Rains-Gould recording so wonderful. Both artists are unmistakably themselves: you never forget for one moment that you’re listening to Rains’s plummy voice or Gould’s emphatic phrasing, yet the whole thing is incredibly old-fashioned. And there’s not an iota of irony about it; both are fully committed. What I’m trying to say is that the 1963 Glenn Gould–Claude Rains recording of Strauss’s Enoch Arden is both a triumph of high camp and a genuinely moving, passionate performance by two great artists, and I insist you listen to it this instant.
No one was under the illusion this would appeal to the general public. Only two thousand copies were pressed. And yet, there have been many subsequent versions of the piece: most recently, by Patrick Stewart and Emanuel Ax in 2007. As for the 1936 Grammys, Enoch Arden lost out to The Story-Teller: A Session With Charles Laughton. And given that the latter includes superlative readings of Shaw, Plato, and Margaret O’Brien, it’s hard to feel as though the forces of philistinism won out.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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