Wednesday 30 October 2019

The Haunted Lake - Die Geister von Mummelsee

Am Fuße der Hornisgrinde liegt der sagenumwobene, verwunschene Mummelsee. Diesen mythischen Ort sollen die Römer schon "locus mirabilis" genannt haben. Gemälde von Jakob Götzenberger im Wandelgang der Trinkhalle Baden-Baden, fertiggestellt 1844
© L. Hanisch
 Not quite Halloween, but spooky. A poem by Eduard Mörike, Die Geister von Mummelsee, set by Hugo Wolf.  Mummelsee is a deep lake in a remote forest surrounded by mountains in the Schwarzwalde in Swabia, Mörike's homeland.  Perfect Romantic Landscape ! Mörike made a living as a low level pastor, but was fascinated by "nature magic", legend and mysteries.  Please read the full text of the poem HERE. 

At midnight, from the darkness lights appear - torches in procession, strange, eerie songs.  Who are these spirits, carrying the Sarge die glänzende Frau! (the coffin of a shimmering woman), chanting strange songs. The dark reflecting lakes open for them like a living staircase to the depths, (ein lebende Treppen hervor) .The waters don't touch them. the spirits are mourning their king, a sorcerer. But wait ! They've spotted the person watching them ! In Hugo Wolf's setting, the piano part marches ominously, evoking the solemn processsion. With each strophe, more detail, shapes shifting and changing, like the spirits. Die Wasser, wie lieblich sie brennen und glühn! Sie spielen in grünendem Feuer.  Sparkling figures, magic, the alarm as the spooks grab the man and drag him preciptatively down to his death.  The recording below comes from the set of pre war broadcasts from German radio, with Herbert Janssen.

Monday 28 October 2019

Elgar The Apostles - Martyn Brabbins, Royal Festival Hall.

At the Royal Festival Hall, Sir Edward Elgar's The Apostles, Martyn Brabbins conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Chorus, the BBC Symphony Chorus and a good array of soloists. The Apostles is hardly unknown : it's been done numerous times, so its place in the canon is beyond dispute.  So why doesn't it get the respect it's due ?  It occupies a very special place in our understanding of Elgar and his music, and of the times he lived in. The Apostles is part of a trilogy of oratorios examining the nature of Christianity as Jesus taught his followers. This context should be well known, too, since both The Apostles and The Kingdom have been done in recent years, establishing the context. Though Elgar used the grand gestures popular in Edwardian times, it is significant that his approach to Christian belief was much more a personal statement of faith, humble and humane rather than triumphalist.  This might be the "real" Elgar, the "man behind the mask", Elgar the eternal outsider, despite his public acclaim. This makes a difference in reception and interpretation, which is why The Apostles deserves greater appreciation. 

In The Apostles, Elgar shows how Jesus sets out his beliefs in simple, human terms. Judas has doubts about him but is confounded. In The Kingdom, the focus is more open ended.  As the apostles go out on their mission, their story unfolds through a series of tableaux, impressive set pieces, but with less obvious human drama. The final, part would hase been titled The Last Judgement, when World and Time are destroyed and the faithful of all ages are raised from the dead, joining Jesus in Eternity. The sheer audacity of that vision may have stymied Elgar, much in the way that Sibelius's dreams for his eighth symphony inhibited realization. Fragments of The Last Judgement made their way into drafts for what was to be Elgar's final symphony, which we now know in Anthony Payne's performing version of what was to have been Elgar’s Third Symphony. Just as The Dream of Gerontius tells of one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. (read more here). The Apostles deals with the relation between  God made man and mortal men. Hence the inherent contradiction that sometimes confuses The Apostles with overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.

The Apostles unfolds in a series of seven tableaux, held together by male and female narrators. This structure allows a surprising degree of intimacy, concentrating on the interaction between  Jesus and the people around him. Judas, Peter and John are gearing up for their mission to spread the gospels to the world. The chorus exults and the brass plays the glorious fanfare, which seems to stretch over vast distances. The huge kettledrums beat out a ceremonial march. Splendid! Yet it is the quiet voice of Jesus which rises above the tumult. "He who receiveth you, receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him who sent Me".When Jesus  reveals the Beatitudes in By the Wayside, the baritone should sing with sincerity and conviction.  "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth". Meekness isn't weakness, though, for Jesus hints at persecutions to come.

The tension between grand forces and simplicity gives The Apostles much of its  appeal. Elgar describes the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Davis whips the orchestra into a turmoil. "It is I, Be not afraid!" : the very words  seems to shine like a lighthouse. Elgar's Jesus favours sinners, like Mary Magdalene. Peter the Doubter, and Judas Iscariot. Indeed, Elgar gives Judas more space than the others, suggesting his sympathy with those who question.This dialogue between Judas and Jesus is importnat because together they bring out a more unconventional element in the drama.  Judas isn't a monster. He expresses genuine concern where the other Apostles obey blindly. When Judas recognizes his mistake, his anguish is so intense that the part can take on a strange, noble dignity. The long passage that starts "Our life is short and tedious" evokes compassion. This is a Judas with whom modern people can identify. We cannot judge, but remember the Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful!".

Elgar goes swiftly from Golgotha to the Ascencion, as if drawn forwards by the musical vision of Angels singing "Alleluia!". The string writing is pastoral, yet luminous,  another insight, connecting Jesus's "rebirth" with his Nativity. The Mystic Chorus can ring with beautiful clarity. In The Apostles, Elgar writes for voice as if he were writing for different elements in an orchestra. He weaves together lines for the orchestra, choir and soloists to form an immaculate, shining wall of sound. "And lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world".

The Royal Festival Hall is not the most ideal setting for a piece like The Apostles, which, when heard in a cathedral or the Royal Albert Hall, breathes its full majesty. Cathedrals and the RAH have better organs, too, which make a difference.  Still, if the message of The Apostles is human scale, concert hall acoustic isn't necessarily a factor.  Mark Elder was originally scheduled to conduct. Since Elder's done the piece many times (and recorded it) his Apostles is a known quantity.  Though Elder did it with the Hallé at the Proms and on the recording, and the lineup of soloists is slightly different, (Alice Coote and Brindley Sherratt reprising their roles), the difference would not have been extreme. Jacques Imbrailo was divine, but Roderick Williams is a great communicator, too. I did want to hear Elizabeth Watts, Allan Clayton and David Stout but they're good enough that they can be heard everywhere. Brabbins, on ther other hand, is one of the most original and distinctive conductors around, specializing in British and modern repertoire. His The Apostles should have been worth hearing ! Pity that I couldn't make it to the RFH, since I would have appreciated the experience.  Still, conductors rarely do something only once, so here's hoping !

Sunday 27 October 2019

Fantasy Botany - The Anguished Lotus Bloom

Die Lotosblume ängstigt 
Sich vor der Sonne Pracht
Und mit gesenktem Haupte 
Erwartet sie träumend die Nacht. 

Der Mond, ist ihr Buhle 
Er weckt sie mit seinem Licht,
Und ihm entschleiert sie freundlich
Ihr frommes Blumengesicht, 

Sie blüht und glüht und leuchtet 
Und starret stumm in die Höh'; 
Sie duftet und weinet und zittert
Vor Liebe und Liebesweh. 

(The lotus bloom is stressed under the glare of the sun, and bends her head to await and dream of the night.  The moon, her secret lover, awakens her with its light, and for him, she she reveals her purity. She blooms, and gleams and shines and gazes towards the heavens. She releases her fragrance to the air and weeps and trembles with love and the pain of love.) 

The poem, by Heinrich Heine, is deceptively subtle.  The setting, by Robert Schumann is discreet, but notice the throbbing piano accompaniment, suggesting the palpitations of an anxious lover's heart.  Neither Heine nor Schumann probably saw lotuses growing in their natural habitat, where they grow en masse in ponds and lakes, reaching upwards toward the sun.  It's hot in the tropics, though the water keeps them cool.  The petals look fragile, though they're strong, like the stems and roots. Perhaps Heine and Schumann and their audiences identified the lotus with the moon, stillness, and secrecy, as Goethe did when he wrote of feelings inspired by the untouchable Charlotte von Stein.  In the last  line, passion breaks through,the voice part fills out "for love, and the pain of love"

Saturday 26 October 2019

Edgard Varèse, FX Roth, Berliner Philharmoniker

Edgard Varèse Night  - two concerts - at the Philharmonie, François-Xavier Roth conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  By sheer coincidence, this waas the day after the death of Chou Wen-chung, Varèse's friend and foremost scholar. (Please read more here)   Thoughtful programming !  First off, Joseph Haydn Symphony No. 59 in A major “Fire Symphony”an early work, from the 1760's.  The connection to Edgard Varèse?  Haydn was a court composer, obligated to turning out music for his employer,  Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Yet Haydn created the modern symphony, paving the way for many others.  Varèse was a lone figure, pioneering new forms in a new world. The first concert featured Béla Bartók, another highly individual personality, who didn't write conventional symphonic works, but forged new approaches to other forms.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard played Bartók's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3, Sz 119 (1945), followed by Roth and the Berliners with Bartók's Dance Suite, Sz 77(1923). Stylish ! Varèse's Arcana for large Orchestra completed the set. Arcana is the biggest of Varèse's works, and relatively accessible.  The original version,from 1925-7,is scored for massive forces, roughly 120 players altogether,  68
 strings, 20 woodwinds, 20 brass and a phalanx of percussionsts playing 40 different instruments from timpani to castanets.  It's also very visual : watching is very much part of the experience.  It's not every day you see rows of trumpets and trombones, some muted, some not playing together, or 8 horns raised heavenwards. This time,we heard the more compact  revision from 1960, which balanced more neatly with Haydn and
Bartók. Arcana is big, but its bigness springs from its musical function. It proceeds like a gigantic beast, its component parts articulated to move in stately formation, groups of instruments impacting on each other in constantly varying combinations. Whatever Varèse meant by its title, the piece moves as if it were a mythical creature brought to life by arcane spells and incantations. Varèse might be called the Wild Man of Modern Music, but he was aware of the importance of structure and progression. 

Logically then to the Late Night concert with members of the Berliner Philharmoniker in smaller ensemble. Varèse Density 21.5 for solo flute, emerging mysteriously like primeval sound, a single melodic instrument developing many different motifs. In Intégrales the piercing cry of the clarinet is answered by rumblings and fractured tappings in the percussion, the other winds picking up on the clarinet's long lines. At moments a snatch of a vaguely familiar tune, almost like Ravel Boléro which was not published at the time Intégrales was completed in 1923. Hyperprism, for winds and percussion, experiments with new sounds, the "klaxon" of Amériques, just one of the procession of timbres, textures and rhythms. Ionisation is orchestrated solely for percussion instruments. The concept, though, is ancient, since much non-western music is percussion based.  It connects, too, to the “primitive” that fascinated modern artists like Braque, and the ethos of Africa, "the Dark Continent" to New York audiences who were horrified by the piece at its premiere in 1933. Ions are particles that build up to form larger units. so Ionisation foresees the idea of cells of sound multiplying to form more complex structures, while fragmenting and re-forming.  Octandre for seven Winds and Double Bass is a group of three miniatures. In the first movement, marked assez lent, an oboe calls, answered by clarinet, both pitched closely so their sounds seem to vibrate off each other. This vibration becomes even more marked in the second movement, marked Très vif et nerveux, the dichotomy developed still further in the last movement marked Grave-Animé et jubilatoire. Nothing primitive in this tightly crafted orchestration.  Sarah Aristidou was the soloist in Offrandes from 1921, soon after the groundbreaking Amériques.  The instrumentaion is relatively conventional, but the vocal lines are freer and more modern, pitched high like the instruments the voice imitates. The texts come from Vicente Huidbrodo and José Juan Tablada.

Chou Wen-chung : the passing of a true Man of Culture

Chou Wen-chung
Chou Wen-Chung (周文中) has died aged 96.  He was a man of great integrity and mental strength.  Now, perhaps, he'll meet up again with Edgard Varèse : the two of them both pioneers, totally original and courageous. No wonder they got on so well, even though they were so very different. A man of great integrity and mental strength. Now, perhaps, he'll meet up with Varèse : the two of them both pioneers. Varèse was not the kind of person who tolerated mediocrity, in himself or in anyone else.  He was also the kind of teacher who expected those he worked with to find their own way, like he had to do himself.  Like Varèse, Chou left his homeland for a new world, and Chou, even more so than Varèse was a man with deeply rooted cultural foundations, who bridged boundaries all through his life.  He was a great composer in his own right, but also more than a composer in the sense that everything he did expressed the wholeness of human creativity and experience. Please watch the video below, made earlier this year, which explains things better than I possibly can.  Chou exemplified the Confucian idea of 文人, a person who understands the concept that culture and learning have a role to play in the betterment of society. (look at the characters in his name - Learning + Central). Culture in its widest sense makes for a healthy society : no-one can suddenly disclaim their heritage without paying a price. (Please see my piece The World Belongs to Society)  So below, the video by Spiralis Music Trust - essential listening on so many levels !

Thursday 24 October 2019

Hans Zender is dead

Hans Zender with Michael Gielen and Sylvain Cambreling

Hans Zender died this week, aged 82. In the photo above he's with Michael Gielen (middle) and. Sylvain Cambreling (right).  Zender conducted, but was even better known as a composer.  I met Zender in 1994 at the Royal Festival Hall, after the UK premiere of his Schuberts Winterreise with Ensemble Modern.  At that time, I didn't understand the piece.  By no means was it an orchestration of Schubert. It's a through-composed work, a meditaion on the original by a thoughtful modern composer. Over the years, Zender's Schuberts Winterreise has grown in stature and has been performed numerous times, by many great singers and orchestras.It lends itself to staging, too, since both Schubert's Winterreise and Zender's Schuberts Winterreise are so graphic, and lend themselves naturally to visual image. Zender wrote several operas. Please click on the label below "Zender, Hans" to read about several notable performances.  Zender's Schuberts Winterreise has become a modern classic, respected for its originality.  Proof that good things do get the respect that they deserve. Over the years, appreciation has deepened. My go-to recording now is Julian Prégardien and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie conducted by Robert Reimerain, which works so well because it emphasizes Zender's often quirky but individual perspective.  Please read my detailed review HERE

Tuesday 22 October 2019

David Sawer Rumpelstiltskin, April\March - Martyn Brabbins, BCMG, NMC

From NMC specialists in modern British music, David Sawer Rumpelstitlskin, with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the team who premiered the ballet in 2010 and also the Rumpelstiltkin Suite (2011) featured here, recorded at a performance at the Wigmore Hall in 2013.  Rumpelstiltskin was one of the BCMG's most successful commissions : this commercial release has long been awaited.

Rumpelstiltskin is a fairy tale so grim even Disney stays clear. A bankrupt miller fools bailiffs, claiming that his daughter can spin straw into gold.  Up pops an ugly dwarf, who staves off the crisis, but keeps the girl prisoner. Though the miller was lying about the girl's ability to spin gold from straw, the Dwarf makes the scam come true.  The King is fooled and makes the girl his queen. When the dwarf returns to collect his payoff, the the girl steals the secret of the spell and gets rid of him by revealing his name. He shatters into many pieces. The girl's as dishonest as her father was. She thinks she's entitled to riches she didn't earn, and destroys the outsider to whom she owed her good fortune. What kind of moral does this tell? Sawer's take on the tale is uncompromising : it's a parable for modern times.

The fully staged original (Stewart Laing) presented the tale with stark stylization, the set a box-like structure which emphasized the claustrophia : scams are being woven, caught up in their own mad logic. Even then, though, music was integral to the narrative.  Members of the BCMG moved on stage in and out of the set, the action standing still at critical points to highlight solo players. Effectively, instruments as singers, telling the story without words. The idea of weaving and stalking flowed from the structure of the score. One ensemble with muffled tuba, trumpet, horn, clarinets, oboe, flute, bassoon, bass - dark, ominous - represented one force. The other, smaller ensemble led by harp, with violin, viola, cello represented something more fragile. At first, the girl, but later the Dwarf, destroyed when she loses her innocence. Both groups merge and change like a puzzle "spun" from sound on different levels. Interpretively, this expresses the changing alliances in the plot, the good becoming evil, the strong becoming weak.

Sawer's Rumpelstilstkin Suite concentrates the intensity still further. In the first movement, "The Idle Boast", tuba and bassoon suggest the miller's bombast, and probably also the Dwarf's pride. Trumpets call out, "naming" the miller with sounds of alarm, much as the girl eventually names the Dwarf. As the spell takes hold, the harp, winds and strings, evoke the sound of busy spinning - percussive strikes imitating the shuttle of the spinning wheel flying frantically back and forth. Gradually, the pile of gold rises higher and higher til perhaps we can't see the girl anymore behind the wall of booming orchestral sound. Trumpets announce "The Wedding and Coronation" but what are the baleful sounds of bassoon and clarinet telling us ? The procession goes on its merry way, figures repeating as if in perpetual motion. Bassoon and tuba dance along : as long as surfaces shine, no-one questions. All must be gold.  "The Guessing Game" is brief but tense, strings duelling brass and winds. In the "The Dwarf Alone", the mood is darker : the harp at its lowest register, the brass and winds pacing tense patterns, as if the Dwarf was stomping his feet.  The trumpet blows raspberries, cruelly mocking the Dwarf's dilemma. Rumpelstiltskin does his last dance, clumsy, grotesques, with strident  interjections from the brass, long, high pitched screams and turbulent circular lines suggesting upheaval. The sharp percussive sounds which once suggested the shuttle of the spinning wheel return.  The Dwarf dies but the girls keeps spinning her scam.

Cat's-eye (1986) is an early work, but already Sawer's distinctive feel for dramatic dialectic is apparent. Instruments operate in pairs and in larger groups, with piano and harp at the centre, interacting with nervous, jerky frisson, in constantly changing patterns, each of the seven sections developing what went before. Sustained chords contrast with staccato, moments of near-silence with explosive outburst. Like the sense of perpetual motion in the Rumpelstiltskin Suite, Cat's-Eye generates and regenerates itself with inventive energy.

With April\March (2106), Sawer adapts concepts of time and time reversal, to create an intricate puzzle.  Note the backslash in the title ! Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges's short story A survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,  Sawer experiments with ideas of symmetry, rules subverted and reformulated, sequences moving backwards as well as forward. A melody is heard as if from a distant past, but its lines blur, as if it were being heard back to front.  "Time", writes Steph Power for NMC, "is key to Sawer's music on many levels. It's the precision of his timing, allied with an instinct for structural proportaion and elegance that enables him to explore oppositional tensions with such verve. Boldness and clarity of texture, surprise, economy of ecxpression and an ear for the catchily skew-whiff combine in ways that see-saw between equilibrium and dis-equilbrium, while always remaining cogent  and direct".  Though this music is accessible to listen to, it isn't easy to play.  Martyn Brabbins and The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group perform it with the precision and idiomatic panache it deserves.

Friday 18 October 2019

Remembering Márta Kurtág - a true artist and human being

Márta Kurtág has died.  Her relationship with György Kurtág was very much a partnership of creative equals. They were together for 73 years, working, playing and inspiring each other. Shockingly, wikipedia leaves her out of his entry !  She was a great pianist in her own right. Fortunately, we were privileged to experience  them together many times : the symbiosis between them was so strong, it was palpable. In recitals, they often played together, picking up on each other so closely it was as if they were two parts of the same whole. That chemistry seemed to impart to those around them, too. Many of their students became very close personal friends and colleeagues. What a warm, sympathetic person Márta was ! Her spirit will live on.
Hearing them play together their performance embodied a lot about the Kurtág ethos of understatement. They would sit before a humble upright piano, just as if they were at home. No grandstanding. Backs to the audience, expressing the essence of music, drawing the listener into that private inner circle, like part of the family.  Sometimes their arms would cross diagonally so each would be playing at the opposite end of the keyboard. The world has lost someone who understood what it is to be a true artist, and human.

Mark-Anthony Turnage Refugee, Allan Clayton Britten Nocturne

Allan Clayton, courtesy Maestro Arts

Mark-Anthony Turnage Refugee (for tenor and orchestra) with Allan Clayton, the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Gourlay, premiered last month now broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  Five movements, four with texts - Emily Dickinson These Strangers (1864), Benjamin Zephaniah We Refugees (2000), WH Auden Refugee Blues (1939) and Brian Bilston Refugees (2016). Five vignettes (the fourth movement is orchestral) together forming a diverse collage. For refugees are everywhere - human history is shaped by mass population movements of one kind of other.  Being a refugee is not normal but is the norm.

The first section (Dickinson) is brief - a single verse.  Brief orchestral fanfare raises the curtains, so to speak, for the Benjamin Zephaniah poem, (full text here). "I come from a musical place where they shoot me for my song". Turnage's settings arealmost theatrical, for each verse is a drama encapsulating many tragedies. "Nobody’s here without a struggle, And why should we live in fear. Of the weather or the troubles? We all came here from somewhere.".  Auden's Refugee Blues is more savage. Urban and urbane, showing that even in supposedly civilized societies, evil reigns. "Say this city has ten million souls,Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us"  Since Brexit, Britain has changed. Now all that matters is The Will of the People, a slogan Auden would have known all about.  Auden himself is attacked in some newspapers for being too arch and too intellectual.  So much for his being one of the greatest poets of 20th century Britain. Auden's lines curl languidly, but each word drips poison : elegant subversion, way above the heads of Brownshirts and their one track minds. Turnage's setting reflects the bluesy ambiguity that gives the poem such power ; jazz musicians, cabaret artists, gays, Jews, blacks, leftists, non-conformists, the Weimar Auden knew so well.  It's also natural Turnage territory, given his background.  (Oddly enough the poem was also set by Elisabeth Lutyens). The fourth movement sets no text, but no words are needed. This is Turnage's own voice, a tone poem which says what words cannot say. Bristling with nervous energy, it's pugnacious and irrepressible.  A mournful melody, with hollow percussion, introduces the final movement.  The mood is desolate, Turnage's setting almost post-apocalytic. Woodwinds wail, string sounds hover like smoke.  In Bilston's poem people object to outsiders ("scroungers, we need to see them for who they really are"), but he is not on that side. Nor is Turnage. "Oh, do not tell me they have no need of a hand", sings Clayton, his pitch taken up by a cor anglais, ringing pure and clear.

Oliver Knussen's legacy lives on:  his influence on British music and musicians is profound. Knussen's  Songs without Voices (1991/2) . Songs without voices?   Their subtlety frees the listener who is freed creatively to "hear" in the imagination, becoming part of the creative process.  For me, the quiet stillness of Fantastico (Winter’s Foil)  suggests the pale light of winter and the way one's breath become visible in cold air. I visualize the long outward reaching lines in Maestoso (Prairie Sunset) translated into long, horizontal vistas. In the third song Leggerio : The First Dandelion , the stillness is shattering. In the final song, Adagio: Elegaic Arabesques, the cor anglais leads, delineating elegant patterns.well thought programming.

Britten was an outsider too, escaping the fascism sweeping Europe in his time : no-one really emigrates for fun. Fortunately he could return to his roots and destiny.  As a child, Oliver Knussen discovered Britten's Nocturne (Op 60, 1958). Knussen must have been an unusually perceptive child, responding instinctively to musical undercurrents which many adults still can't comprehend. (the animal sounds probably helped).  The scope is ambitious - eight very varied settings by Shelley, Tennyson, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare - put together with structural cohesion that's panoramic in scale though scored for only seven instruments and soloist. The ensemble is unobtrusive, commenting on and extending the vocal line. The voice part itself seems to reflect the sounds of an instrument, twisting and shape shifting, like an exotic oboe or clarinet, weaving and curling. The effect is like a seamless dialogue between human and non-human sounds, absolutely of the essence in  texts that address strange, otherworldy concepts where things might not be what they seem to be.

"On a poet's lips I slept/Dreaming like a love-adept"  is just the starting point as we enter this phantasmographic journey "Nor heed nor see, what things they be;But from these create he can Forms more real than living man, Nurseling of immortality!" - the word "nurseling" twisting and turning, very different from the cadence of normal speech. In the second song, we encounter the Kraken, a monster that sleeps in the ocean depths in "ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep" until summoned by the bassoon, which lumbers and coils like the mythical beast, aroused. As he rises to the surface, wind instruments evoke "bubbles". But the kraken dissolves as he reaches light,. the last word "Die" is clipped, strangled mid-note.  The third song describes a young boy, alone beguiled by the night. The lines of the text curve, round and round : almost circular breathing for voice. The effect is claustrophobic.

"Midnight's bell goes ting, ting, ting, ting"  a pause betweeen each"ting" so the ensemble murmurs around it. Dogs howl, but the nightingale sings "twit, twit, twit" and the nibbling mouse goes "peep, peep, peep, peep". Britten plays with this text to enhance the individuality of each creature's expressiveness. The “mew, mew, mew” of the cats is plausibly feline, yet also surreal. Indeed, it  reflects the bizarre setting of the word"be-au-u-teous boy" in the previous song, suggesting that the doomed boy may be prey, to be hunted down.  Here this had me thinking of the young Knussen, and of the composer grown up, but still fascinated by "Where the Wild Things Are".

The fifth, sixth and seventh songs form an internal group. Ominous drumrolls introduce "But that night, when on my bed I lay", where the voice projects, like a trumpet, as if the protagonist were trying to be brave. The ensemble rises around him,with hard staccato chords. The final cry "Weep no more!" may be cried in vain. In the setting of Wilfred Owen, "She sleeps on soft last breaths" the drumstrokes are muffled like a heartbeat, a clarinet calling in the background.  The pace is steady,like breathing, but the voice and its wind counterpart curve long lines.  Peace is an illusion.  When the voice falls silent, the ensemble continues, murmuring without words, "The Kind Ghosts" of Britten's title.The Shakespeare sonnet "What is more gentle than a wind in summer" dances gaily, but what is Britten's intent? When the sleeper wakes, will the nightmare end ?  The ensemble surges, menacingly, the voice ending on a very high note, held as silence falls.  Britten's Nocturne  is such a strange beast that interpretation is tricky.  Peter Pears's instrument wasn't beautiful but he intuited Britten's possible meaning. The English tenor voice, which Britten understood so well, is unique in that it can express otherwise inexpressible undercurrents that lie hidden beneath the words and sounds. A most idiomatic performance from the Britten Sinfonia, Allan Clayton and Andrew Gourlay, capturing the claustrophobic inwardness that makes this masterpiece still so disturbing for some listeners. 

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Alphonse de Lamartine Le Vallon

JMW Turner : Mont Blanc, Val d'Aosta

Alphonse de Lamartine Le Vallon, a poem I've loved since I was a kid. Today I pulled out my old school textbook, Nine French poets : H E Berthon 1961, with a dustcover I made myself from a calender of Swiss lakes and mountains. It's still intact, though the pages are well worn and yellowed, scribbled all over with notes in tiny handwriting (and many doodles).  At school we learned to parse alexandrines, to analyse, and to translate as accurately and sensitively as possible.  Do kids still study like that today?  Certainly that book shaped me, instilling my love to this day for the Early Romantic.  Read the poem in its entirety HEREIt's too perfect to translate. Fastforward a lifetime, and it resonates even more. A few favourite verses : 

Mon coeur, lassé de tout, même de l'espérance, 
N'ira plus de ses voeux importuner le sort ; 
Prêtez-moi seulement, vallon de mon enfance,
Un asile d'un jour pour attendre la mort. 

Voici l'étroit sentier de l'obscure vallée : 
Du flanc de ces coteaux pendent des bois épais, 
Qui, courbant sur mon front leur ombre entremêlée, 
Me couvrent tout entier de silence et de paix...... 

La source de mes jours comme eux s'est écoulée ; 
Elle a passé sans bruit, sans nom et sans retour : 
Mais leur onde est limpide, et mon âme troublée 
N'aura pas réfléchi les clartés d'un beau jour.

La fraîcheur de leurs lits, l'ombre qui les couronne,
M'enchaînent tout le jour sur les bords des ruisseaux, 
Comme un enfant bercé par un chant monotone, 
Mon âme s'assoupit au murmure des eaux.......... 

J'ai trop vu, trop senti, trop aimé dans ma vie ; 
Je viens chercher vivant le calme du Léthé. 
Beaux lieux, soyez pour moi ces bords où l'on oublie :
L'oubli seul désormais est ma félicité. 

Mon coeur est en repos, mon âme est en silence ; 
Le bruit lointain du monde expire en arrivant,
Comme un son éloigné qu'affaiblit la distance, 
A l'oreille incertaine apporté par le vent......  

Mais la nature est là qui t'invite et qui t'aime ; 
Plonge-toi dans son sein qu'elle t'ouvre toujours
Quand tout change pour toi, la nature est la même,
Et le même soleil se lève sur tes jours...... 

Dieu, pour le concevoir, a fait l'intelligence : 
Sous la nature enfin découvre son auteur !
Une voix à l'esprit parle dans son silence :
Qui n'a pas entendu cette voix dans son coeur ?

Sunday 13 October 2019

Time and Space : Holst, Vaughan Williams, Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams

Time and Space - songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams, William Vann and Jack Liebeck, new from Albion, highlighting the close personal relationship between the two composers. As the label is an offshoot of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, its choices are eclectic rather than mainstream, but illuminate aspects of Vaughan Williams' life and work which might not otherwise be covered in mass market releases. While Albion's first collection "Heirs and Rebels" presented archive recordings of well known songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, the choices on this recording places less familiar songs - some unpublished -  by each composer beside each other for comparison and also their settings of the same texts.

Holst's fascination with visionary themes can be glimpsed in "Invocation to Dawn", from Holst's Six Songs Op15 H68 (1902-3). This was the first of his settings of his own translation from Sanskrit.  It's contemporary with his The Mystic Trumpeter (1904 rev. 1912), and works like Savitri Op 25 and the Choral Hymns to the Rig Veda Op. 26 (1908-12). While neither Holst nor RVW were conventionally religious, the ardent vocal line and rolling piano part in this song connects to transcendental themes prevalent in that era.   Holst includes three settings of Thomas Hardy, "In a Wood", "Between Us Now",  and "The Sergeant's Song", which text Vaughan Williams also used in Buonaparty (1908), which can be heard on the recent "The Song of Love" album, also from Albion. (Please read my review here). Holst's version is animated, more attuned to the irreverent satire in the poem, with Roderick Williams at his idiomatic best.  The suppressed passion in "I will not let thee go", to a poem by Robert Bridges might remind some of Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, from 1904, though Silent Noon is by far the masterpiece.

A E Housman verses inspired Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge (1909), and also Along the Field (1925-7). These songs, set for high voice and solo violin (Mary Bevan and Jack Liebeck) are exquisite studies in minor key modality, so refined that they seem to hover in  mystical trance.  In "We'll to the Woods No More", the vocal line stretches, with seemingly little dynamic variation,  mirrored by the violin.  But perhaps that is the point : the mood is so elusive that the song floats away, like a ghost.  "Along the Field" develops the mystery. The plaintive vocal line suggests  plainchant, or possibly vespers, for the lovers will soon be parted by death. The leaves of the aspen tree know what lies ahead but cannot  speak. "And I spell nothing in their stir" sings Bevan with hushed deliberation. Even the relatively cheerful "In the Morning" is melancholy, and "The Sigh that Heaves the Grasses" drips with portent.  The violin part in "Good-Bye" is subtly discordant, picking up on the unspoken emotions of the lad so abruptly dismissed by the object of his affections.  The text of "Fancy's Knell" resembles "Clun" from On Wenlock Edge, though the wordier scansion of this poem doesn't invite quite such a strong setting. The set ends with "With Rue my Heart is Laden", also set by George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams' version even more aphoristic and enigmatic. Although these songs are usually heard with tenor, the silvery timbre of Bevan's voice, in my opinion, enhances their strange, surreal magic. This perfomance is so beautiful that it makes this recording an absolute must.

Two settings of A Cradle Song to a text by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one by Vaughan Williams from 1905, the other By Holst from his Op.16 H6 (1903-5) contrast with Vaughan Williams' Blake's Cradle Song (1928) , the composer responding to the greater complexity of Blake's poem. Holst's Four Songs Op.14, H14 (1896-98)  are fairly early works, setting poems by Charles Kingsley, Henrik Ibsen and Heinrich Heine (both in English translation) and Robert Bridges.

Vaughan Williams' Bushes and Briars (1908), introduces the group of folk songs in this collection. Bushes and Briars is seminally important, since it was the first song the composer collected in the field, having heard it sung by a labourer in Essex in 1903. It's been performed hundreds of times in many forms, including by modern urban "folk", but here Roderick Williams brings out the sophistication of Vaughan Williams' transcription. The first verse is unaccompanied, as traditional ballad usually was, but the piano part develops it as art song, warmed by the natural sincerity of Williams' style. A memorable performance.  Vaughan Williams collected The Lark in the Morning (1908) in Essex, expurgating more ribald aspects of the original.  The Captain's Apprentice (1908) from a fishing community in Kings Lynn, was adapted into the Norfolk Rhapsody, on which the composer was working at that period.

Holst made sixteen arrangements of folk songs, two of which we have here, The Willow Tree (H83/6 1906-8), and Abroad as I was walking (H83/1). Holst's Four Songs for Voice and Violin (Op. 35,  H132, 1916-17)  display a more "modern" sensibility. There are no time signatures."Bar lines are used for coordination purposes, but the length of each bar varies freely according to the melodic line", as stated in the uncredited programme notes.  Two settings of Walt Whitman's texts from Whispers of Heavenly Death form the basis of the songs Darest Thou Now O Soul. Holst's version H72, 1904-5) is declamatory, delivered here with dramatic flair by Roderick Williams.  Vaughan Williams' version, which he was working on at the same period, incorporating the text into A Sea Symphony. Here it is heard in a setting for solo voice and piano, from 1925. The unison version for voices and string orchestra - a hymn with chamber orchestra - can be heard on Martyn Brabbins' recent recording of A Sea Symphony. (Please read more about that here).

Saturday 12 October 2019

Children of Troubled Times : not just history

Yuan Muzhi
Children of  Troubled Times (風雲兒女, 风云儿女) or more "children of the thunderstorm". It was a seminal film of its time,  galvanizing support for the war of resistance to the Japanese invasion.  The theme song, The March of the Volunteers, became so popular that it was heard everywhere, and eventually became the national anthem.  The composer Nie Er (聶耳) was a composer and musician, who died aged only 23 in a swimming accident while he was visiting his brother in Japan (war didn't stop Chinese intellectuals from learning about Japan).  When the film was released, in May 1935, Nie Er was still alive. He drowned in July that year. The film describes the awakening of social and political consciousness. It's not an entirely "historic" document, whatever your politics.  Nuts to the notion that Chinese people didn't need politics, which was an argument used to suppress democracy. 

It's also interesting because the star was Yuan Muzhi(袁牧之), matinee idol,actor, writer, director an intellectual. and director. He made Street Angel (馬路天使, 1937), perhaps the best known Chinese movie of the period in the west, which launched the career of singer Zhou Xuan. It's much more than a love story ! Please read my analysis of it here).  In Children of Troubled Times the opening credits roll with the March of the Volunteers playing, then a sudden discordant flashback to Shanghai, in darkness. Upper middle class domesticity : a rich man's daughter, Shi Yanshi, is playing the piano. Bored, she moves to the window where she looks into the next door apartment, where two men live : Xin Baihua (Yuan Muzhi) and Liang Zhifu (Gu Menghe). Both are refugees (though rich) from the North West, which the Japanese invaded in 1931. A folk song is heardfrom afar. The singer is Ah Fung, a poor girl, who lives with her elderly mother. They're refugees too.  Xin notates her song, but is attracted to Shi, whose portrait he sketches.Still, he looks after the welfare of Ah Feng, out of kindness. Xin goes to a glitzy nightclub, where he meets Shi, in evening dress, smoking. Her makeup's wild : drawn on eyebrows, high fashion then but on her like a caricature from Beijing operas. His friend Liang, however, is involved with the political underground, as is Ah Fung who gets an education and gets involved with student politics.  When she doesn't turn up at school, Xin goes out looking for her, but she's gone. Ah Fung sneaks back into Liang's apartment, which has been ransacked. He's gone - arrested by the police. As she leaves she steps on a painting of a phoenix which had been on the wall.
Meanwhile, Xin and Shi have married, enjoying a honeymoon on the coast in a fancy hotel.  Xin, though, is restless, following news of the civil unrest around them. They go to the theatre. In the first act dancers enact a strange tale where a man beats a woman down, but she rises back up and stabs him. Then a woman dressed in Lederhosen sings in front of an alpine landscape. Xin recognizes her - it's Ah Fung!  She visits his home in Shangahi, to learn that he's chosen a very different life. Xin gets a message that his friend Liang has fled abroad. At the port, the ship has already left.  Shi finds Xin, sitting on the shore, looking out to sea, looking desolate. A primitive goatcart wends its way up a steep hill. Ah Fung has returned to the North East, and sees her grandfather once more.  Images of the Great Wall and marching armies : self explanatory.  Back in Shanghai, Xin's increasingly restless. A letter arrives, a last farewell from Liang, now so far away. More images of war, bombardments, fleeing refugees. But where is Liang ? In the North East, partisans are building a fire.  Liang spots the picture of the phoenix and knows that Ah Fung must be near. Sure enough, there she is, with her grandad.  The Japanese mount an attack, but the partisans fight back, and the film ends as it began with The March of the Volunteers.  "Rise up! Rise up! Rise up!...march on! march on!" I'm sorry I don't get all of the levels, eg word plays, because I don't speak Mandarin and none of the prints I've seen have any kind of subtitles.

Wednesday 9 October 2019

O lieb! Lieder and Mélodie by Franz Liszt : Cyrille Dubois, Tristan Raës

O Lieb ! The Lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté.  Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well.  With these settings by Franz List, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt's approach to song.  Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert Lieder develop the piano part with greater elaboration than Schubert's originals where naturalness is of the essence. Liszt's own songs and Lieder reflect the the international circles he moved in and the more "modern" times he lived in. As Dubois and Raës explain, "Liszt’s ardour and expression resonate with the youthful nature of our duo, just as his music, so demonstrative and accessible, answers the tumult of our troubled times".

This is demonstrated in Die Loreley, second version, LWS273 (1841), to the poem by Heinrich Heine, and possibly one of the most beautiful Lieder ever written.  The structure is dramatic : almost an opera in miniature, the piano evoking the richness of an orchestra.  The first motif rises like an overture, the repeat softer, descending as if from some rocky height to the river below.  "Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten" his voice delicately restrained, so the words "Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten", are infused with a sense of wonder. Near-declamation turns to lyrical warmth. "Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt, Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein" the melody dances : the music evoking the flow of the river., complete with sparkling figures and the repeating phrase "Die Loreley".  On the short phrase "Im Abendsonnenschein", Dubois shapes the dramatic crescendo, expreessing the thrill the poet feels as he sees at last the lovely maiden combing her golden hair. The line "Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme" is repeated twice, each time with difference emphasis, a pattern that runs through the whole piece. Enchantment turns to horror, as the poet sees the sailor in his boat dashed upon the rocks. Rolling figures in the piano part descend, like engulfing waves. Tristan Raës low pedallin exudes menace.  After the tumult, an eerie calm.  Is this the spirit of the Loreley herself,  innocently oblivious to what has been done ? The song ends with the line "Die Loreley getan!" repeated, the last taken with tessitura so high that it seems to soar to the skies.

Dubois and Raës preceded Die Loreley with Liszt's Hohe Liebe (LWN18/S307, 850, Uhland), Jugendglück (LWN61/S323, 1860, Richard Pohl), Liebestraum O lieb (LW N18/S298, 1850, Freiligrath), Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (2nd version, LWN16/S290-2, 1859, Heine), and Es rauschen die Winde (2nd version, LWN33/S294, Rellstab). With Vergiftet sind meine Lieder (LW N29/S289, 1859, Heine), its intensity belied by its compact duration, contrasting with the delicacy of Bist Du (LW N29/S289, 1859, Prince Elim Metscherskey). Die Zelle in Nonnenwirth (4th version, LW N6/S274-2, 1860, Furst von Lichnowsy), is a dramatic scena based on medieval legend.  Liszt's setting lifts it above its maudlin text, and Dubois gives it heroic ring. The very well known Ein Fichetenbaum steht einsam (1st version, LW N36/S309, 1860, Heine) is followed by Nimm einen Strahl der Sonne (LW N20/S310, 1860, Rellstab), and two settings of Liszt's friend Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Laßt mich ruhen (LW N55/S314, 1859) and In Liebeslust (LW N55/S314, 1859).  Der Fischerknabe (1st version, LW N32/S92-1, 1847) is one of three settings Liszt made of poems from Friedrich von Schiller's William Tell. Hence the spirit of full-throated freedom. Raës plays the piano line so it evokes "alpine" images - tinkling figures that might be cowbells or pure water in a mountain lake,  swelling forth, then precipitately descending.  One crescendo after the other in the voice part, posing no problems for a singer like Dubois whose technique is so agile. 

Four settings of Victor Hugo : S’il est un charmant gazon (1st version, LW N25/S284-1, 1844),.Enfant, si j’étais roi (2nd version, LW N24/S283-2, 1859), Oh! quand je dors (2nd version, LW N11/S282-2, 1859) and Comment, disaient-ils (2nd version, LW N12/S276-2, 1859), showing how Liszt was at ease with Mélodie and with Hugo's idiom. The last song, in particular, is beautfully balanced, Dubois bringing out its elegant, understated charm.

Liszt's Three Petrach Sonnets (Trois Sonnets de Pétrarque) (1st version, LW N14/S270-1, 1846) (S270/1 1842-6) are extremely well known, and here receive superb performances, making this recording a recommendation for admirers of the composer. "E nulla stringo, tutto l'mondo abbracio" sang Dubois. His poise is superb - this is how rubato should properly be used. He breathed into "i sospiri e le lagrime e 'l desio" so it seemed to well up from deep within.  Raës sculpted the piano line, as firm as marble. Surprisingly, Liszt only wrote two other songs in Italian.  Angiolin dal biondo crin (2nd version, LW N1/S269-2, 1856 Cesare Boccella) is a lullaby for Liszt's daughter Blandine, then 4 years of age, a little angel with blonde hair. The Marquis de Boccella was a family friend of Liszt and Marie d'Agoult.  Thus the tenderness and intimacy of Dubois' delivery, Raës' piano like an embrace.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

When satire becomes reality

"As I have said before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!)"

Sunday 6 October 2019

Jacques Prévert Les feuilles mortes - art poetry, art song

photo : Flemming Christiansen 2008
Everyone loves the song "Autumn Leaves".  It's so famous that its origins are almost forgotten. The poem is by Jacques Prévert, set by Joseph Kosma.  Prévert was one of the great figures in French poetry in his time, and was also involved in the golden age of French cinema. He wrote scripts for Michel Carné, like Les enfants du Paradis, Le jour se lève, two classics whose quality trancends the genre of "movies" : films that are art in their own right.  Les enfants du Paradies help define me.  Prévert's poetry is so evocative that it also transcends cinema.  Prévert worked closely with Joseph Kosma, who studied with Hanns Eisler, who helped define music for cinema as art music in its own right, not just as sound track. Kosma  also worked with Jean Renoir : class ! Lots on Eisler on this site.  So now that autumn's setting in, a chance to indulge in the poem and the song it inspired.  This translation is much closer to the spirit of the poem than the usual English lyrics.

Oh, je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes,  Des jours heureux quand nous étions amis,  Dans ce temps là, la vie était plus belle,  Et le soleil plus brûlant qu'aujourd'hui.

(Oh how I wish that you would remember the happy days when we were friends. At that time, life was beautiful, and the sun more golden than today) 

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,  Tu vois je n'ai pas oublié. Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,  Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi, 
(The dead leaves were swept away by rakes, you see, I haven't fogotten.  Menories and regrets swept away, too)

 Et le vent du nord les emporte,  Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli. 
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié, 
La chanson que tu me chantais. 

(And the north wind carries them away  into the cold night, where they're forgotten.  You see, I haven't forgotten  the song you sang to me.) 

C'est une chanson, qui nous resemble,  Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais.  Nous vivions, tous les deux ensemble, Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais. 

(It was a song that was like the two of us, you who loved me, I who loved you. We lived, two of us together , you who loved me, I who loved you) (notice how Prévert repeats linese as if they would fade away if he didn't, as if he were holding on to the precious memory before it slips away) 

Et la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment,  Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit.  Et la mer efface sur le sable,  Les pas des amants désunis. 

(Yet life separates those who love each other, so softly without making a sound, as the sea wipes away the footprints in the sand of lovers now apart).

Nous vivions, tous les deux ensemble,  Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais.  Et la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment,  Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit.

(We lived, the two of us together,  you who loved me, I who loved you. But life separates those who have loved,  gently making no noise).

Et la mer efface sur le sable  Les pas des amants désunis...  (and the sea wipes from the sand the traces of those torn apart)

 Please also see my translation of Prévert's Barbara, in Kosma's setting HERE
Recommended recording : Francis Le Roux and Jeff Cohen,  Please see what else I've written on Kosma, French poetry, Mélodie and art song of the period.

The World belongs to Society

天下為公 (Tien ha wei kung) Under the skies, the people, or the world belongs to society.  In kindergarten we were taught about the First Emperor whose big acheivement was to unite the country.  But we were also taught, even then, that he burned the books of learning including The Book of Rites, from which this quotation comes. So as kids aged 5 we learned that morality and culture are greater than individual power : you can win the battle but lose the war. Confucian values are not a bad thing.  Two thousand years later Dr Sun Yatsen quoted the phrase : it's the background to his San Mun Ju I, the Three People's Principles :  民族主義, that the people even in a  nation with hundreds of different minorities, have values in common.  民權主義 the rights of the people to be part of governance, and 民生主義 the concept that government should serve the community.  Basically the message is : deny culture and history, you're in trouble.  In the short term denial might be expedient, but long term, self hate is self harm, and corrosive. Fifty years ago, the Red Guards attacked learning (and Confucius). Like the First Emperor, they didn't last. 

Friday 4 October 2019

Franz Liszt Vor hundert Jahren - Kirill Karabit's Ode to Schiller

Franz Liszt : Vor hundert Jahren (1859) highlight of Kirill Karabits’ tribute to Friedrich Schiller.  In these modern times when the world seems hell bent on denigrating intellect, we neeed Schiller more than ever.  Schiller's importance in modern culture cannot be underestimated.  To him, even more so than to Goethe, we owe the philosophical framework of freedom and democracy. Vqalues that matter in increasingly authoritarian times. Full marks to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for having the courage to start their new season with this truly inspired programme : Hummel Freudenfest Overture, Liszt Kunstlerfestzug, Liszt Vor hundert Jahren and Richard Strauss Suite on Rosenkavalier.  Bournemouth raising the bar for all Britain : will other orchestras dare meet the challenge ?

Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Freudenfest (Overture for orchestra in D major (S148) is based Hummel's overture to Die gute Nachricht (op 61, S103) written to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, a collaborative piece with contributions from  Beethoven, Adelbert Gyrowitz, Georg Friedrich Treitschke and others. 1814 was a defining moment in German history. Germany then did not exist as a nation, but a conglomerate of 300 or so different territories.  The Wars of Liberation united thinkers, artists and activists across state boundaries. Thus was born the idea of Germany as a nation, inspired by the ideals of the Romantic Revolution, which owed so much to Schiller.  Please read my piece HERE on the Lützowsches Freikorps and their connections to Schubert, Beethoven and much more.  Hummel's Freudenfest flows with energy, light woodwinds flying above the orchestra : a military march, but fleet-footed and joyous. Quotations of the anthem God Save the Queen abound, Britain at that time being perceived as a bastion of democracy.

Friedrich Schiller
Franz Liszt Vor hundert Jahren combines poetry, philosophy, history, music and theatre. This kind of intellectual hybrid was popular at the time. Imagine Berlioz and Schumann without spoken narrative - so modern audiences just have to stop thinking only in present day terms.  The form goes back to the allegory dramas of the 16th and 17th centuries. As Stravinsky said "To be a good listener, you must acquire a musical culture.... you must be familiar with the development and history of music, you must listen". Don't sneer at what might be different to what you expect, but listen where things are coming from (Please read more here).  

Vor hundert Jahren is music drama, unfolding as a series of tableaux, illustrating aspects of Schiller's life and works. The text by Friedrich Halm, an Austrian dramatist, was heard here in English translation by Richard Stokes. In the first scena, a processional march introduces a succession of artists. Not militarists, but artists and intellectuals !  The harp and clarinet melody, reiterated by strings and muted brass, suggested refinement, not brutality. The pace speeds up with mounting excitement, punctuated by percussion exclamation marks ! Germania (Sara Kestelman) recounts the horrors of the Thirty Years War, which tore German nations apart : millions were killed, some areas depopulated.  This apocalyptic horror is the context behind the dream of peace and unity. "Who shall save Germany's name and when its neighbours houses are ablaze?"  Poetry (Jemma Redgrave) prophecises that "self-inflicted sorrow" will be replaced by a "magic circle of love around the defiant hearts of (Germania's) children..... Salvation is a great human being is presently will greet my enraptured heart."  Horns and strings usher in the "Song of Destiny", a vision of hope embodied in the person of Friedrich Schiller, depicted in his simple cradle. "He shall live not long, but eternally" the Three Graces chanted in unison. "A master of words, a lone individual but yet an entire army". "The region that begot the Hohenstauffen and the Hohenzollern begot him too ....but Swabia has a mother's claim".  Schiller's Ode to Joy, in Beethoven's setting begins to grow and swell. 

Germania speaks of the struggles Schiller will face before he returns to Germany, purified. Another almost cinematic prelude sets the stage for the next phase in Schiller's journey to artistic maturity. Since the piece was meant to be staged, one can visualize a non-speaking actor playing Schiller striking heroic stances, surrounded by figures whom audiences in Liszt's time would have been able to identify.  Simon McBurney created a semi-staging for this performance : knowing his style, it would have been intelligent and well informed. Another interlude, alpine -sounding horns and cowbells suggesting Switzerland, and Schiller's hero, William Tell, whose bravery helped his nation to independence.  Its mountains and clear air were also symbols of the lofty ideals of the Romantic revolution.  The Ode to Joy swells up again in the orchestra. "Immortality!" says Poetry, "Let one phrase echo in every heart : He was a German and we are German!" A resounding coda. Liszt's  Vor hundert Jahren is fascinating as a missing link in the development of music theatre. Much more than a novelty, it captures a unique sensibility which modern audiences might not get at first, but could warm to if they appreciate its background.  

After the interval Richard Strauss's Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Karabits conducting a scintillating performance.  Subversion and freedom from authoritarian scam, disguised by elegant "silvery" light.  Even now many people don't get Strauss, and don't understand his self-deprecating humour : but he, too, was a revolutionary in his own way.    Listen to this most rewarding programme here for 28 days.

Thursday 3 October 2019

Stravinsky's Prophecy : Listening and hearing are not the same thing

"To receive music you have to open your ears and wait for the music: you
must feel that it is something you need...To listen is effort, just to
hear is no merit. A duck hears also."  

This brief quote from Stravinsky divides opinion, but that in itself is revealing.  But what can be so threatening ?  In many cases, the response has been to attack the messenger, anything rather than to think about what Stravinsky might mean. What raw nerve has Stravinsky hit here that should upset some people so ? If anything that proves why what he said then is only too relevant today. Listening is not the same as hearing.  Music is infinitely more than just sound. A duck can hear sounds but few ducks could sit through a Beethoven symphony processing it on many emotional and intellectual levels. To "receive" music involves "opening your ears and waiting for the music". The key word is "waiting" : letting the music unfold, allowing communication.  In normal conversation, you don't interrupt someone when they're speaking and impose your own preconceptions on what they can or cannot say.  You listen to take on board different perspectives and ideas.  Maybe that's why the idea of listening is so disturbing.  Too many people think the world revolves only around themselves and that no-one else can possibly have anything to say.

Stravinsky refers to subscription audiences who attend for non-musical reasons, and more pertinently to the mindset that comes from only receiving music from recordings.  It's not recordings that are wrong - Stavinsky was keen to conduct his own works - but the illusion that music exists in some kind of existential limbo. Music is an art of human communication.  Breaking that connection between listener and the wider world of human interaction deprives the art of listening from its fundamental purpose. As Stravinsky says, composers write because the music compels them.  As long as what they do is worthwhile in itself,  there always will be some who appreciate more than others.

That's where "effort" comes in.  Another word that infuriates ! But effort means differentn things.  For those who love something dearly, effort comes easy.  Stravinsky refers to being familiar with the culture of music, which anyone can pick up naturally if they listen enough.  All human beings develop with time and experience. No-one stays exactly as they were, thinking they know all that is possible to know.  "No-one can tell me what I don't already know !"  But maybe I'm wrong. If the dissociation Stravinsky refers to about receiving music in isolation held back in the era of mass produced music, that isolation now is even more pronounced.  Now it seems people live in sealed bubbles of self-absorbtion, glued to technology, cut off from normal human interaction.  This isolation gets harder and harder to break out of. Not a good thing for society and civilization.   

Music has the power to connect us to the world outside ourselves, to enhance communication, to widen our understanding of universal ideas.  Morever as we really listen, we learn a lot more about ourselves in the process. Music cannot be owned. "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."   Rich men in this case being those who rely on status, externals and processes. Because they have no humility and sense of others, they can't understand the message. Maybe we're heading to the era of Dial-up Music (read more HERE) where composers, and musicians  and music itself can be dispensed of altogether by hearers. That will be the triumph of hearing over listening.