SULKE VRIENDE IS SKAARS - a clarion call for the importance of the old and out-of-fashion
In 2020, the Stellenbosch University musicologists Stephanie Vos and Stephanus Muller produced this curated collection of letters that had been exchanged between the composer Arnold van Wyk and Anton Hartman, conductor and longtime head of music at the SABC, in the period 1949–1981.
Despite ample differences between the correspondents, which Vos and Muller highlight,See p 19. the duration of their correspondence bears out that theirs was a strikingly enduring friendship. In an obituary that Van Wyk wrote upon Hartman’s death, which appeared in Die Burger newspaper early in 1982, a year before Van Wyk’s own demise, he observed that, although they sometimes forewent contact for long periods, their friendship was of such a nature “dat dit, by elke herontmoeting, gevoel het asof ons nog gister bymekaar was”, by now a clichéd turn-of-phrase by which friendships of a particularly tenacious quality are often described. Van Wyk then added a pithy evaluation that the compiler-editors, aptly, chose as the title of their work: “Sulke vriende is skaars”. Such friendships are rare.
Distilled to its essence, this book, running to just over 500 pages, is the diary of a friendship sustained over decades; the textual sediments of the epistolatory dialogue between the two men, each in his own way singular and an important participant in the world of classical-music production in the apartheid state.
The one interlocutor is gay; as composer, he is chronically self-doubting; preternaturally, it would seem, lonely; one whose professional career as an university teacher of music, first at UCT and, later, at Stellenbosch, was “skouspelagtig onsuksesvol”.See p 20. The other was married, yet childless; while also an artist, his central career trajectory was that of the arts administrator and commissioner of artistic works, whose life phases, the compilers suggest, might be construed as “natuurlike teleologie vir harde werk en Protestantse industrie”.See p 20.
Something of those contrasts is readily discernible in the picture Protea uses on the cover, the authorship of which is noted as being unknown. To the left is a lean and spry Van Wyk, probably in his thirties, his fringe straining against the discipline of the comb, his brow almost imperceptibly furrowed and the jacket of his light-hued suit slung open. To the right is Hartman, his eyes averted from the camera’s gaze; his hair coiffed into something akin to a helmet, the side parting as stark and straight as a gunshot. His dark suit appears to close around his chest like a cuirass.
Spread across the lion’s share of the book’s 500 pages, then, are the letters that these men wrote to one another, concerning private matters, but far more often of the incidences of their public – musical – lives. The first few date from 1949. Then, there are letters from every year starting in 1952 and running to and including 1966 (there are none from 1950 or 1951). There are hiatuses, too, in the years 1967, 1970, 1972, 1978, and 1980. The last cluster of letters were exchanged in 1979 and 1981.
In the manner in which documents like these come to be collected, there is, of course, no certainty that the letters presented here reflect the complete exchange between Van Wyk and Hartman in the period. Clearly, from time to time they also saw one another in person. It is also unlikely that they did not on occasion speak over telephone.See the comment in the letter from Van Wyk of 6 December 1960, at p 262. Yet, the age in which they lived was one dominated by the letter as the primary mode of communication – something emphasized by the appearance recently of several volumes of letters between Afrikaans correspondents, like those of the poet Peter Blum, the prose writer, poet and essayist Hennie Aucamp and the scholar of Afrikaans literature Elize Botha. Even if one were to accept that these letters represent a relatively full recordal of the exchanges between Van Wyk and Hartman, it seems that Van Wyk’s comment that there had been long periods of no contact was perhaps an exaggeration.
Be that as it may, in 2021 the meticulously assembled Sulke vriende was awarded the ATKV Woordveertjie in the category Non-fiction as well as the KykNET/Rapport Prize for Non-fiction, thus making it 2020’s stand-out work of non-fiction in Afrikaans.
From those accolades, the main ones in Afrikaans for non-fiction, one might already glean something of the diligence of the compilers and of the excellence of this heavy tome, beautifully made by the publishing house Protea, which has acquired a reputation for paying dutiful attention to every constituent part of its books. Winning those two prizes means that Sulke vriende was twice laureled over several non-fiction works of a more traditional kind, that typically contains a narrative account of the results of a research project undertaken by the writer, like a biography, the interpretation of an episode in history, or an extended argumentative essay. In 2021, this reviewer served on the judging panels of both those prizes.
Naturally and as the short summary above of its contents demonstrates, in most senses Sulke vriende is not one of those kinds of book. It is, quite simply, an academically seriously-minded collation and contextualization of 133 letters that passed between the twin subjects of the book, while both of them fulfilled a sequence of important roles in the musical ecosystem of this country, then in many respects dominated by a worldview aligned with the ideals of Afrikaner Nationalism.
The letters are preserved in two archives, the National Archive in Pretoria and the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at Stellenbosch University. It should be clear even to those not accustomed to the challenges posed by archival work of this type that the aggregation and ordering of the letters required considerable investigative heft and skill.
For instance, as to the process of the dating and, therefore, of the sequencing of the letters (there are not always explicit responses to earlier letters), the compilers say inter alia this See p 10. “Alle inligting (insluitende datums en adresse) wat in vierkantige hakies verskyn, kom nie op die oorspronklike dokumente voor nie en is óf deur onbekende katalogiseerders óf deur die redakteurs bygevoeg. Wanneer ’n datum dus in vierkantige hakies geskryf is, byvoorbeeld , beteken dit dat die redakteurs die datering gedoen het (ook deur die datering van die katalogiseerder te bevestig) deur byvoorbeeld die korrespondensiekonteks te oorweeg, koeverte te raadpleeg waar dit beskikbaar was, ander relevante dokumente (soos dagboeke of komposisiesketse) te raadpleeg, of inhoud in die dokument wat akkuraat gedateer kon word chronologies te interpreteer.”
The book is dotted with such square-bracketed insertions, the product of the above-delineated dating process. Yet, over and above a short essay containing editorial notes, which serve to explain the compilers’ approach (the above explanation is drawn from that section), at first blush it might appear that the volume contains nothing more directly from the editors’ pens than the dense and succinct essay entitled “Voorwoord”, of 25 pages (spanning pp 19–44), and, naturally enough, a detailed “register” at the book’s end (no different than a traditional index).
Besides providing biographical thumbnail sketches of Van Wyk and Hartman, the essay presented under the perhaps unduly self-deprecatory style of “Voorwoord” frames critically the central themes that emerge in the letters in the context of their time. In the section of the essay headed “Musikale Afrikanermans” (pp 23–29), for example, the compilers foreground the tension that runs through discussions in the letters between, on the one hand, the traditional orientation of classical music in South Africa toward Europe and the sense that Europe was ultimately the fons et origo of core of the interlocutors’ professional lives, and the awareness, on the other hand, then already never far from any thoughtful South African’s mind, that, geographically and culturally, South Africa is very remote from that centre. The situation was more complicated, inter alia since, as the compilers point out, Hartman voiced the reservation, stated in 1956, that South Africa was being “oorstroom deur besoekende kunstenaars – goeies, vrottes en middelmatiges” that were taking bread from the mouths of their local counterparts. See p 24.
Another theme that this section of the “Voorwoord” essay touches upon is that of gender and sexuality. When, in 1968, Hartman was awarded an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch, Van Wyk who had been employed by Stellenbosch University from 1961 to 1978 was similarly honoured only in 1981, but, remarkably, in circumstances where the university had refused him a promotion beyond the rung of an ordinary lectureship. See p 28 he responded to the addresses of the grandees HB Thom, the rector, who made it clear that Hartman was being honoured for his contribution to Afrikaans music, and of BJ Vorster, the chancellor, by saying that he was gratified by the award “veral omdat dit hom as ‘n Afrikaner vereer het, maar ook as ‘n musikus en ‘n man”. See p 29. The compilers add See p 29. “Hierdie erkenning het, volgens Hartman, bewys dat musici nie verwyfd is nie, en hy het die hoop uitgespreek dat meer Afrikaners (bedoelende ‘Afrikanermans’) hierdeur geïnspireer sou word om musikale loopbane te volg.”
In the remaining sections of the “Voorwoord”, the compilers consider related themes, like the relationship between music, as high art, and apartheid and the discussions that the letters contain entailing an aesthetic appraisal of Van Wyk’s compositions.
Yet, to limit the compilers’ contribution to these comparatively focused aspects of Sulke vriende would be to present only a partial picture. This is so since the entire textual body of the collected letters, printed in black, is undergirded by a dense and highly instructive apparatus of footnotes, pleasingly printed in burgundy ink, that ask to be and are easily read as one studies the letters themselves. For the latter reason – the often elusive goal of accessibility – the compilers’ decision to use footnotes rather than endnotes, to which the reader would repeatedly have to page, was a salutary one.
In each section of the book devoted to a given year from which enclosed letters derive, the numbering of the footnotes starts anew, no doubt to avoid the difficulty of the numbers running, unhelpfully, into the hundreds or even thousands. Many pages are dominated by their burgundy foundations.
Under the broad banner of serving to elucidate references in the letters, the footnotes take a range of allied forms. Often, they contain the full names and potted biographical details of those mentioned in passing in the letters, which were naturally written to be read and understood by the recipient rather than by a third-party audience several decades later. Indeed, one of the many surprising insights gleaned from the letters – specially through the web of footnotes of this type – and indeed from Hartman’s above-quoted jeremiad is how extensive and sustained the cultural contact was between apartheid South Africa and countries in the west.
Sometimes, the footnotes provide facts relating to the careers of the two interlocutors, usually underpinned by references to textual or other sources. A good example is footnote 2 on p 49, which provides factual details concerning the following statement in the letter in question: “Hulle het my toe gevra om die ballette te dirigeer …” Thus, by simply casting their eyes to the bottom of the page, readers would learn the occasion and the context of that mandate and the persons involved. The source for this information is provided as the biographical work Anton Hartman: Dís sy storie, written by his niece Mia Hartman, which appeared in 2003.
In this way, the footnotes grow into a parallel text that, over and above offering often necessary and always enlightening contextual information, soon becomes a critical chorus to the naturally rather less self-aware and self-critical exchanges. It is in this way that Sulke vriende transcends the expectations that many readers might initially form: namely that the book documents no more than the thoughts, plans and expectations of two dead white men from a former time that has little relevance to today.
Of course, even without the critical apparatus sketched above, in their own terms the letters often, lucidly and readily intelligibly, bear upon the patterns of power and patronage in the world of classical music at the time. Yet, read with the narrative that emerges in what I have termed the chorus, the compelling and directly relevant project that the book embodies is opened up also for those that are not well-versed in the peculiarities of the specific contexts in which Van Wyk and Hartman lived and worked – in which number I would count myself, too.
I might add that, embedded in the textual body of the book, is a range of photographs as well as other forms of material culture, such as depictions of letters, postcards, and musical scores, which together provide the reader with further evidence of time and place, and serve to render the book all the more accessible.
Yet, ultimately, whatever strategy a reader might adopt in tackling the various textual and visual accounts drawn together in Sulke vriende, it is ultimately the letters themselves and the friendship to which they attest that hold one’s attention. Perhaps unavoidably in the light of the number of the letters and the period they cover, however much of the letters are devoted to public and professional matters, ultimately it is the friendship between the two men that impels and animates the epistolatory exercise. It is because, despite their differences, they are friends of a kind that they write to one another, often with pressing excitement, an apology for a delay in responding or for the terseness of a missive that could simply not wait.
Surely tellingly, the very first letter – sent from Hartman to Van Wyk on 30 April 1949 – is the only one addressed to “Beste Nols”. Thereafter, both writers use the fonder, more intimate mode of address “Liewe”. Van Wyk is always Nols, while Hartman is sometimes addressed by way of the faux-formal Latinate Antonius. On 13 January 1960, Hartman outdoes Van Wyk’s Latin: the letter is addressed to “Amice Arnoldus Petronius Primaverius” The latter adjective is a reference to Van Wyk’s composition Primavera. and, in the opening paragraph, Hartman adds: “Ek kon nog seker Tre Amicalus bygevoeg het, al weet ek niks van Latyn nie.” Sometimes, Van Wyk directs a letter to both Anton and his wife Jossie, herself an internationally successful singer.
Yet, as the compilers correctly observe, however sustained and warm it was, theirs was also a skewed and, in some senses, limited friendship. Its lopsidedness derived from the fact that Hartman was throughout the cultural bureaucrat with commissions within his gift; Van Wyk, on the other hand, was the artist who, despite his initially brilliant trajectory, always doubted his ability to create a musical work that was truly great. In turn, the friendship might be characterized as limited since, even by the standards of the time, as the compilers note, there is “baie min intieme, persoonlike inligting wat in hierdie korrespondensie uitgeruil word”. see p 42 To what extent the latter might at least in part be attributable to a sensitivity on Van Wyk’s part to place in black on white the details of relationships that were at the time considered taboo and that were indeed often faltering ones is not wholly clear. Yet, a comparison with contemporaneous letters between Van Wyk and others suggests that it was indeed perhaps beyond the outer bounds of Van Wyk’s relationship with Hartman to have delved into such matters.
Yet, whatever it lacked in the type of intimacy contemplated here, it cannot be gainsaid that Van Wyk and Hartman shared a rare and singular friendship that merits the energy invested by Vos and Muller. The compilers observe See p 41. “’n Vriendskap tussen twee prominente en invloedryke Afrikanermans, gerig deur ‘n gemeenskaplike professionele belang in kunsmusiek, was buitengewoon vir die tyd …”
Sulke vriende is skaars is a consuming and thought-provoking book, perhaps all the more some two years since its publication, during which time the fragility of the arts sector has come all the more starkly to the public’s attention, worldwide but especially in South Africa.
However, no review of Sulke vriende can fail to mention Nagmusiek (2014), the remarkable, genre-defying and multi-award-winning novel-cum-biography by Muller that Fourthwall published so exquisitely, in three parts and in a boxed case.
In the third, hefty volume of Nagmusiek, Muller posited as the narrator of the biography of Arnold van Wyk, the Oxford-trained Stellenbosch musicologist Werner Ansbach (born in 1971), whose own fictional narrative interweaves with that of Van Wyk, the latter’s plainly the real thing, borne out as it is by copious source materials, not least because of Van Wyk’s early-nurtured habit of letter-writing and the keeping of a diary.
This is not the place to sing the many praises of Nagmusiek. Nevertheless, the two works speak directly and intriguingly to one another. Indeed, having read Sulke vriende first, I was struck by how much of the richness of Van Wyk’s life does not come to the fore in his exchanges with Hartman, surely proof of the compilers’ thesis that there was something inherently limited about their friendship. On the other hand, of course, even an intimate friendship can never encompass all the fullness of two lives. Deep and meaningful friendships, especially those mediated through a professional engagement, might be expected to demonstrate a focus upon specifically shared concerns.
Perhaps more tellingly, the juxtaposition emphasizes the importance of our collective national archive, a resource sadly all the more neglected and under threat. The picture of a life that emerges from one repository of historical documents might well be called into question – even falsified; certainly enriched – by others, however apparently anecdotal or unimportant the latter might appear to be.
Construed even just in its own terms, Sulke vriende is a clarion call for the importance – nay, necessity – of the commitment by serious historians to the responsible and creative writing up of episodes that are considered out-of-fashion or, heaven forfend, old.
|1.||↑||See p 19.|
|3.||↑||See p 20.|
|4.||↑||See the comment in the letter from Van Wyk of 6 December 1960, at p 262.|
|5.||↑||In 2021, this reviewer served on the judging panels of both those prizes.|
|6.||↑||See p 10.|
|7.||↑||See p 24.|
|8.||↑||Van Wyk who had been employed by Stellenbosch University from 1961 to 1978 was similarly honoured only in 1981, but, remarkably, in circumstances where the university had refused him a promotion beyond the rung of an ordinary lectureship. See p 28|
|10.||↑||See p 29.|
|11.||↑||The latter adjective is a reference to Van Wyk’s composition Primavera.|
|12.||↑||see p 42|
|13.||↑||See p 41.|