03 March 2015

How Grim Thou Art!


Affixed to a glass panel of a telephone kiosk in a Belfast Street (just up the road from Botanic Station on the way to Queen’s University) is a small piece of paper which, inexplicably, is a photocopy of a page from a hymn book.  It includes the music (in four-part harmony) and words of the hymn “How Great Thou Art”.

Why that hymn and, more intriguingly, why is it there at all?  It’s too small to attract most passers-by (my eye was caught by the presence of musical notation) and faces outwards rather than inwards, so it can hardly be there to keep the occupant of the telephone kiosk entertained while awaiting connection.  It remains a mystery, as does, it has to be said, so much else about this hymn.

“How Great Thou Art” regularly gets voted as “the nation’s favourite hymn” in polls run on broadcast and social media, and any vaguely Christian event on television usually finds it being performed either by a massed congregation or, more cringe-makingly, by some solo singer of dubious talent but excessive vocal aspirations.  Its phenomenal popularity seems preposterous given its dirge-like musical quality and its grim words, and the biggest mystery is why it strikes such a powerful chord with the public at large irrespective of the depth of their musical knowledge or Christian convictions.

Its popularity seems to be something of a recent thing, and I survived almost 30 years as chorister and organist, attending sung church services on an almost daily basis and devouring hymn books like some ravaging half-starved monster, before it crossed my path.  I recall vividly that first encounter and my reaction to it.  Invited to adjudicate at a hymn-singing competition held in the Lake District, it was the set hymn for “Children’s’ mixed choirs 12 and under”.  I looked aghast at the copy handed to me before the competition and wondered what on earth I could find in this dire dirge to use as a yardstick in assessing the performance of the five eager young choirs.  The tessitura was so low as to risk damage to young voices and preclude any hope of dynamic variety (it can, at best, only ever sound like an extended low moan), each line ended with a long note - an open invitation, it seemed, for the singers to take an extended break and thereby destroy any sense of coherence the melody might have had (and all five choirs enthusiastically accepted that invitation) - and the melody was so blatantly unsuited to the words that any choir director with a hint of sensitivity would try to keep them as low-profile as possible.  After five dreary, colourless and utterly uninspiring performances I felt unable to award a placing and, as a consequence, the presentation of a cup to the winning choir was withheld.  The Lady Mayoress, who had donated the cup and was to present it, was horrified and demanded that I change my mind (she had put on her chain and regalia in the expectation of another public appearance on stage, which my decision had effectively dashed).  The subsequent altercation had me explaining that “whoever selected that hymn clearly had no understanding or knowledge of the vast number of uplifting and inspiring hymns more suited to young voices”.  Of course, it was the Lady Mayoress who had selected it and she explained that she did it in memory of her late father, whose favourite hymn it was.  My reply that I did not think it fair to impose on innocent and fresh young voices such a dismal dirge simply for her own personal gratification saw the Lady Mayoress storm out of the hall in high dudgeon.

So much of Christian church-going revolves around the comfort of the familiar, and I can appreciate that many people may have memories of an occasion on which a hymn is sung which they revisit every time they hear it again.  But why has this hymn got itself so firmly rooted in so many people’s psyche?  Neither extended exposure to it over the past 30 years nor prolonged study of it has made me change my opinion; it remains, as it ever was, a total mystery to me how this grim thing wins over so much of the great inspirational church hymnody of the past 300 years.  Is this perhaps a manifestation of that “lowest-common-denominator” we see in so much of our artistic life; the public preferring the least complex and intellectually stimulating material to anything more inspiring.

The clue may come from this web page devoted to this grindingly boring hymn (http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/o/w/how_great_Thou_art.htm) which explains that its origins go back to 19th century Sweden.  Swedish music and literature can be grim and forbidding, yet holds a strange fascination for the British, and perhaps the current vogue for British television dramas set in Scandinavia and built around grim and forbidding characters and stories might reflect a subconscious craving for a more miserable existence than that which we currently enjoy.  Possibly our anonymous bill-poster in Belfast was trying to tell us that, while the streets around are grim and grimy, the shops mostly shuttered and the graffiti and litter left undisturbed, there is, buried deep in our hymn books, something even more grim.

27 February 2015

Ernest Winchester, a forgotten composer

A request from Hobart, Australia, for information about an English church music composer and organist set me off on a fascinating search.  I have to confess I came up with very little other than some very old copies of his music - notably hymn tunes and some settings of the Responses and Canticles - and an oblique reference to a performance he gave in a church in Gloucestershire.  Yet, it seems, for a time during the latter years of the 19th century, he was as popular as, say, Bob Chilcott or John Rutter are today (minus, of course, the oxygen of publicity provided by recordings and the internet).  This rather set me thinking about the fate of composers whose popularity is so governed by the tastes of the time that, once tastes change, they lapse into obscurity.

Losing touch with such figures not only robs us of part of our musical heritage, but makes it much more difficult for us to understand the musical environment out of which other, greater, composers emerged whose music has managed to transcend the very transitory world of popular taste.  We look at Victorian and Edwardian England and recognise the importance of such composers as Elgar, Stanford and Parry, and tend to dismiss the rest as second-rate.  Yet it was these "second-rate" composers, far more than those whose names and music has been preserved, who would have been the daily bread and butter of the young, budding musicians of the day.  Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten and Tippett were all developing their love of music in an environment peopled by the likes of E C Winchester.

With the centenary of his death falling next year, it might be appropriate to resurrect the music of E C Winchester and certainly it would sensible to be reminded of his life; not least because it seems so typical of how most who wrote music in England during the late Victorian era lived and yet seems so improbable to us today.  I have a particular interest since he seems to have lived and worked in the same part of London as my father did when, as a young man about to enter a career in the civil service, he, too, worked as an organist and composed a considerable amount of church music.  With extreme gratitude to my original correspondent, Brendan Lennard, who is Senior Cultural Heritage Officer of the City of Hobart, and who managed to find out far more about Winchester than I did, I reprint below the full text of his most recent researches.  Both he and I would dearly love more information on this long-forgotten musician and would be grateful if any readers of this blog could come up with something more.  Do contact me direct either via this blog or on drmarcrochester@gmail.com - I shall pass everything you send to Brendan.

Ernest Charles Winchester was born on 22 May 1854 at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, second child of Charles and Mary E. Winchester.  He had an older sister, Mary.  One reference (Dictionary of Composers for the Church in Great Britain and Ireland) says he was born at ‘Osborne’ which of course was a royal estate – possibly suggesting that his parents worked there.  His father Charles is described as a gardener (1861).  In the 1861 census his family was living at Arch Lodge, Osborne Mews, Whippingham , Isle of Wight, but by 1871 they were in London where his father is now described as a store keeper and domestic servant.  The 1871 census gives his address as 18 Wycliffe Grove, Battersea, though it also describes the young Ernest Winchester (who was sixteen) as Assistant Schoolmaster, Isle of Wight.

On 16 December 1872 the eighteen year-old Winchester commenced employment as a writer in the India Office, the British government department created to oversee administration of the Provinces of British India.  He continued to work as a civil servant in the India Office until his retirement.  By November 1878 he was clerk, 2nd class and in May 1901 was appointed staff clerk.  (1905 India List and India Office List).

He had begun composing church music by the age of 20.  In 1874 his hymn, Sing to the Lord was the prize tune of the College of Organists (which was not then the RCO).

He married Mary Agnes Harriett Spratt (variously known as Agnes or Mary) on 16 January 1878 at Holy Trinity Church, South Wimbledon; their daughter Mabel was born the same year, and was baptised at Holy Trinity on 16 December 1878.  There appears to have only been the one child.  The Winchester family lived at 44 Charlwood Street West; Civil Parish of St George Hanover Square, Westminster in 1881 and at 37 Lambert Road, Brixton, Lambeth (1891).  In both the 1901 and 1911 census they were at 22 Henderson Road, Wandsworth (where’s the Blue Plaque?). 

Winchester was still with the India Office in 1911, but retired to Bexley, where he died on 21 February 1916 (next year will be his centenary!)  He was survived by his wife Mary, who died seven year later on 28 June 1923 and by their daughter Mabel.  Mabel Winchester had married Arthur Ronson at St Mary Magdalene, Wandsworth Common on 8 October 1904.  Ernest Winchester had become a grandfather on 18 September 1906 when Irene Ronson was born.  Irene (1906-1963) married Noel Roy Dobree (1891-1968) and they had two sons (Arthur and Peter) and a daughter (Mary).

E.C. Winchester, who had obtained his FTCL by the age of 23,  served as organist at Holy Trinity, South Wimbledon (unsure of dates); organist at All Saints, Norfolk Square, Paddington in 1881, and organist and director of music at Christ Church, Southwark from 1883.  All Saints Paddington was consecrated in 1847, but destroyed by fire in 1894.  Christ Church Southwark was bombed during the Second World War.  Only the Wimbledon church survives.




Winchester’s music was occasionally reviewed in the ‘New Music’ column of The Graphic (London).  In 1877 a “batch of Church music” by Winchester was said to demonstrate that he was “not only a good organist but a painstaking composer.”  His anthem “I Will Give Thanks Unto Thee, O Lord,” with a tenor solo and chorus was described as “a brisk, nervous anthem”; the Te Deum and Benedictus were said to demonstrate “good sound writing.”  Other work, including six settings of the “Kyrie Eleison,” were “at times rather monotonous” … but … “have much in them to commend.”  A new setting by Winchester of the hymn, “Hark! Hark! My Soul” was dismissed by The Graphic as not coming up the original by Frederick William Faber.  His “May Day Dance” was described in 1880 as a very charming caprice … one which repay careful study. In 1888 Winchester’s “Crowning of the May Queen,” to words by Claudia F. Hernaman was described by The Graphic as “a remarkably pretty trio for ladies’ voices.”


The British Library lists 58 items by E.C. Winchester (though some appear to be duplicates).  This list includes settings of Holy Communion, the canticles Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, Te Deum, Benedictus, Benedicite and various hymns and anthems.  Interestingly, there is a setting of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ (I wonder how it compares to Sullivan’s St Gertrude?).  There are also two ‘Action Songs’ and music for Christmas.  His organ music includes a Grand Festival March and Three Original Voluntaries (both published by Pitman in 1898).  Most works in the British Library Catalogue were published by Hart and Co.  Many have a publication date of 1898 – though some of these works appear to have been in circulation long before that date.  His service settings were used in Hobart, Tasmania as early as 1891, and for its Christmas festivities in 1893, the Church of All Saints, South Hobart proudly proclaimed;


The special music for Christmas Day has been chosen entirely from the works of Ernest Winchester, the organist of All Saints’ Church, Southwark, London (one of the most popular writers of modern church music), including his “Festival service in F,” and anthem, “There were shepherds.”  The choral settings for Holy Communion are also to be Ernest Winchester’s compositions.

All Saints South Hobart continues the fine tradition of liturgical music in Anglican worship to this day, though I am pretty sure that Winchester’s work has probably disappeared from the repertoire!

This is the catalogue of compositions by E.C. Winchester held by the British Library:


Agnus Dei, etc. [In A flat.] London : Hunt & Co, [1898]
Be merciful after thy Power. Offertory Anthem. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Benedicite, omnia Opera, etc. [In G.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Benedicite, omnia Opera, etc. [In G.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Benedicite, omnia Opera, for use in Advent, Septuagesima and Lent, etc. [In E flat.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Benedictus ... in ... F. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Benedictus, etc. [In G.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Benedictus, harmonised on a Gregorian Tone. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Blessed is He that cometh ... Anthem, etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Cantate Domino, etc. [In B flat.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Communion Service in F, for use with Marbecke's ... Creed. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Crowning of the May Queen. Trio for Ladies' Voices. Words by C. F. Hernaman. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Deus misereatur, harmonized on an Ancient Melody. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Evening Service. Magnificat & Nunc dimittis ... arranged to Gregorian Tones with varied vocal and instrumental Harmonies. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Evening Service. Magnificat [in A] and Nunc dimittis [in C] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Evening Service. Magnificat [in B flat] and Nunc dimittis [in D flat] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Ferial Responses, arranged and harmonized by E. C. Winchester. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Four original Settings of the Kyrie Eleison, in ... D major. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Gloria ... for Ordinary and Festal use und five Settings of the Kyrie Eleison. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Grand Festival March for the organ. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Hallelujah! Christ is risen. Full Anthem for Easter. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Hark! hark! my Soul. Hymn ... for four voices with a free Organ Accompaniment. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
I will give Thanks unto Thee, O Lord. Festival Anthem. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
If ye love Me ... Full Anthem, etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Jubilate Deo ... in ... F. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Let us now go even unto Bethlehem. Anthem for Christmas. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Litany, etc. [In F.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Magnificat & Nunc dimittis ... in ... F. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ... in ... G. London : Hart & Co, [1878]
Nicene Creed with Kyrie eleison-two Settings-and Doxologies. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Nunc dimittis. (From the Service in F.). London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Office for Holy Communion ... in ... F. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Onward, Christian Soldiers. Processional Hymn, etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Praise the Lord. Full Anthem, etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Sing to the Lord. Hymn for four voices. London : Weekes & Co, [1876]
Six original Tunes to favourite Hymns. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Six Settings of the Kyrie Eleison. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Strike of the Beer-Jugs. Action Song ... words by A. J. Foxwell. London : J. Curwen & Sons, [1892]
Te Deum [in D] and Benedictus [in F], etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Te Deum arranged to Gregorian Tones. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Te Deum laudamus ... in ... F. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Te Deum laudamus set to easy music for small Choirs. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Te Deum laudamus, etc. [In B flat.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Te Deum laudamus, etc. [In D.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Te Deum laudamus, etc. [In G.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Te Deum laudamus. Chant Setting, etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Ten Offertory Sentences. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
The Cross ... [Hymn.] Words by S. C. Foster. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
The Little Gardeners. Action Song ... words by T. P. Cowling. London : J. Curwen & Sons, [1892]
The Lord is my Shepherd. Anthem, etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
The Story of the Cross, etc. [Hymns.] London : Hart & Co, [1898]
The Story of the Cross. [S. A. T. B.] London : Hart & Co, [1884?]
The Story of the Cross. Second Setting, and five Original Litany Tunes, etc. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
There were Shepherds. Anthem for Christmas. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Three original Introductory Voluntaries for the Organ. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Three Settings of the Te Deum laudamus to original Quadruple Chants. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Venite ... harmonised on an Ancient Melody. London : Hart & Co, [1898]
Versicles or Preces & Responses ... for use during Advent and Lent. London : Hart & Co, [1898]

 
 

25 February 2015

One-Work Composers

The phenomenon of the One-Work Composer seems be dying out.  Forty, thirty, maybe twenty-five years ago most music-lovers could have easily listed a half-dozen composers whose names were familiar only through a single work.  Pachelbel was synonymous with the Canon, Boccherini with the Minuet, Dukas with Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bax with Tintagel, Sinding with Rustle of Spring, MacDowell with To A Wild Rose, and many more.  I recall from my student days taking part in a double-bill of operas – The Telephone and Savitri – for which the programme booklet (authored by a leading musicologist of the time) suggested that the audience was being shown that two composers were being revealed as writing more than just the one work by which everyone knew them then (Menotti Amahl and the Night Visitors and Holst The Planets).  It was a post-graduate student colleague researching into the music of E J Moeran who, goaded by a silly comment from me about the G minor Symphony (the first movement of which I absolutely adore), surprised me by rattling off a whole catalogue of other compositions from this much-underrated English composer of the early 20th century, and when I stumbled across an old Supraphon LP of Trionfo di Afrodite in a second-hand record-shop in the English midlands back in the late 1970s I realised, for the first time, that Carl Orff had composed something other than Carmina Burana (although even today most music-lovers only know his work in music education beyond that astonishingly popular choral extravaganza).  Max Bruch used to rile against the fact that everyone knew him only for his G minor Violin Concerto, while Percy Grainger was appalled at the popularity of his Country Gardens and would tell anyone who asked that the piece reminded him of cow pats and compost heaps.

The demise of the One-Work Composer seems to have begun with the tercentenary of J S Bach in 1985.  Never known himself as a One-Work Composer, Bach nevertheless has long suffered from a widespread ignorance of the totality of his output.  (Only a few years ago I was doing a presentation to students in Hong Kong and after hearing several of them perform one of the 48 asked them to list other works by Bach; they ummed and ahhed for a while before coming up with “another Prelude and Fugue” and “Toccata and Fugue”, although details of tonality were not known.)  Coming just two years after the first commercial CDs had appeared on the market, enterprising recording companies took advantage of the handy size of the medium, its extended playing time, the ease and relative inexpensiveness of its production, its dazzling aural qualities which sometimes encouraged listeners to focus more on the sound than the music itself and, perhaps most significantly, the opportunities its packaging gave for extended written support materials, to go for comprehensivity.  Quite literally they unearthed everything they could find that Bach had - or may have – written, and committed it all to disc.  That seemed to open the floodgates, and the culture of exhaustive comprehensivity was born.  We now have more CDs bearing the motto “The Complete Works of…” than one would have thought possible, while the one or two tiny gaps which the CDs do not cover have been plugged by the likes of tiny Timmy Tots thumping tunes to tinny sounds (I’ve run out of teasing alliterative Ts) on YouTube.  Bad sound, bad performances, non-existent background information, inane comments from pig-ignorant listeners, but at least bringing into the public arena music which nobody would otherwise have heard.
So today even the most peripheral music-lover will know that Pachelbel was a prolific writer of chorale preludes, Boccherini wrote some lovely chamber works as well as a cello concerto or two, Dukas produced La Peri and MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches contain a lot more charming pieces beyond the opening To a Wild Rose.  On top of that music scholarship has denied some composers their One-Work status; luckily we all now know Albinoni’s numerous concertos since the Adagio by which his name was uniquely preserved for decades turns out not to have been by him at all. 

Yet there remain several composers whose reputations cannot seem to break through the One-Work barrier.  When we see that Litolff’s Scherzo comes from a work listed as his Op.103 we might reasonably expect that, by now, several dozen of his works would, at the very least, have got an airing on YouTube (although that can be a curse; follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ojcu-g5soPY for a ghastly experience seemingly filmed on a cheap webcam in an adolescent’s bedroom - thank God he remembered to put his trousers on before switching on the camera).  On top of that, a truncated work-list in Grove suggests opus numbers for Litolff reach as high as Op.106 and that among his published compositions are no less than 12 operas, five piano concertos and “117 characteristic pieces” for piano solo.  Where are they?  I can find just two of the four listed Concert Overtures on YouTube (notably Maximilian Robespierre, Op.55, and Chant des Belges, Op.101, the latter of which appears as a bad regurgitation of an existing recording and an unexplained black-and-white photograph yet no acknowledgment about the origins of the sounds we hear - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6p3dwwR494w.  In proper recorded sound, in coherent performances and supported by generous and informative documentation, Hyperion have unearthed the remaining extant piano concertos (CDA67210 and CDA66889), but that’s it.  Litolff remains, firmly, a One-Work Composer.

As does Hamish MacCunn.  A fantastic new disc of organ music recorded on the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and played with great verve by John Kitchen, boasts music by MacCunn, and this got me very excited.  Having fallen in love with MacCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood (his Op.3 written when he was just 19) from a marvellous HMV LP called “Music of the Four Countries”, I have many times tried to delve deeper into MacCunn’s output, but have largely drawn a blank. Hyperion have, as ever, done more than most by recording a couple of his other pieces and some extracts from his opera Jeanie Deans, but on YouTube you find just a profusion of Land of the Mountain and the Flood (mostly stolen from the existing commercial recordings), some of which include the deeply perceptive critical comments of your average YouTube reader (usually as grammatically conscious as a garden slug) including this dazzling bit of insight from a certain James Ginn; “I liked the part where the cymbals woke me up” or this hugely relevant comparison from Zrak23 “part of the song reminds me of Batman 1989 soundtrack?” (Nice one, Zrak23; after that intellectual effort you can go back to snorting your cocaine now.) MacCunn was by no means as prolific as Litolff, the worklist on Grove showing nothing higher than an Op.30, but surely something should have emerged to rival this one work’s popularity.  A piano recital on Divine Arts by Scottish pianist Murray McLachlan (dda25003) finds a few piano dances, and there is a setting of “O Mistress Mine” on an obscure CD on the Atma label, but that’s it. Kitchen’s organ piece, far from being a new discovery of a hitherto unknown work by MacCunn, turns out to be a masterly transcription by Jeremy Cull of - yes you’ve guessed it - Land of the Mountain and the Flood.

 

So we are left with the inescapable conclusion that, despite all the efforts to release into the public domain recordings of every note written by every composer, some composers must forever languish under the heading of One-Work Composers.  And, as that category continues to shrink, it lends a certain distinction to those, like Litolff and MacCunn, who remain known to the world through one dazzling and, it would seem, unrepeatable moment of creative genius.

  

 

14 February 2015

Musicians Against Love

That seemingly dwindling group of Christians who call themselves Catholics believe in the power of saints. To touch their remains, to visit their shrine or simply to invoke their name in prayer is said to bring great rewards to the faithful.  Little wonder, then, that the homage Catholics throughout the ages have performed in the names of various saints has led to a certain distribution of labour between them.  Instead of all these poor dead saints being barraged on all sides with requests for this, that and the other, the practice of assigning each human need or activity a Patron Saint has evolved.  Thus we have a Patron Saint of Music (St Cecilia) who, if you pay due respect and homage to her, especially on her assigned feast day (22nd November), will bless your endeavours with success.  And, of course, there is a Patron Saint of Love who is said to perform similar miracles for those who approach him with due reverence and unquestioning faith.  That saint is St Valentine who was beheaded in the year 270 for refusing to denounce his faith.  In 496 Pope Gelasius decreed that he would be Patron Saint of “affianced couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travellers, young people”, and that February 14th, the day on which it is said he was beheaded, should be his feast day.

While most Catholics no longer pay much heed to St Valentine (they generally have bigger sanctified fish to fry), the rest of the world does, and February 14th sees vast numbers of people - including those for whom religious devotion begins and ends with beheading other people and refusing to eat bacon sandwiches - buying an over-priced red rose and forking out on an horrendously expensive dinner at a table adorned with a single candle stuttering out of an old Chianti bottle in the name of a long-dead saint in whom few believe.  The marketing people have got hold of it and now no February 14th is complete without lurid red heart-shaped balloons, re-packaged chocolates, special hair-dos and “romantic getaways”.  Even orchestras have got in on the act and, with St Valentine’s Day this year falling on a Saturday – a pretty standard concert day for most orchestras – there was no shortage of “Valentine’s Day Concerts” marketed to serve as an alternative to going to church and invoking the martyred man’s name in prayer.  Naturally enough, in a place where St Valentine’s Day is treated as being just about on a par with Chinese New Year or Christmas, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra got in on the act with a “Valentine’s Day Concert”.

Dozens of young couples, him grasping his mobile phone (nothing special about that – he’s not let go of it since he was 8), her grasping a single red rose in a plastic sheath, took the opportunity to have joint selfies taken with the undeniably gorgeous Victoria Hall as a backdrop, before settling down for a couple of hours of romantic music.

At least, that was the plan.

As it was, the programme they were treated to was about as vehemently anti-love as you could get.   Whether by accident (which I suspect) or design (which I’m quite happy to believe was the intent ion all along), the SSO had programmed three works which did not have an ounce of romance in them and which, either because of the composer’s background or the music’s origins, served more as a warning against deep human relationships.

When it comes to love Tchaikovsky is about the worst role-model you could select.  When a young girl became so besotted with him that she demanded they get married, he agreed: the experience of married life so appalled him that within weeks he had run away, sought psychological help and gone so far as to contemplate suicide.  Deciding, once the shock of that had died down, to take another tack, as it were, Tchaikovsky then had an affair with a young man, only to be accused by his peers of endangering the reputation of his old school and, if credible recent scholarship is to be believed, handed a jar of arsenic and told to do the “decent thing”.  On this occasion suicide was not so much considered as successfully accomplished and, because of love, a great composer’s life was cut short.

The rest of the programme was devoted to the Tango; a dance which involves a man and a woman getting about as close to each other as they can without actual physical contact, and performing a series of suggestive movements.  The Tango’s origins lay deep in the seedy bars of Buenos Aires where, if the woman ever allowed the man to come closer in private than he did on the dance floor, it was usually at the point of a knife or the exchange of cash.  Again, not a particularly wholesome notion to set before Singapore’s young lovers.

Nevertheless love was in the air during this concert, although we all had to wait a jolly long time to find it; the opening work, delayed by some 10 minutes and further extended by an inordinately long gap between the first and second movements while a goodly chunk of the audience decided to come into the hall and take their appointed seats.  If there is love in Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence it is that of a Russian composer well into his 50s taking a liking to a certain Italian town, and I’m not sure St Valentine would ever have regarded that as falling within his ambit, despite the unusually broad-range of his patron saintly portfolio.  There was certainly no love in the performance we experienced.  Possibly taking the message from the composer and keeping each other very much at bow’s length both physically and musically, the six string players led by Chan Yoong-Han played away largely regardless of each other.  The result was some horribly straggly ensemble and such persistently bad tuning that one wondered how long before the concert started most of them had actually tuned their instruments; they certainly didn’t bother to do it on stage.  Only with the pulsating rhythms of the third movement did the performance start to feel a little committed, but such was the poor communication within the ensemble that those lovely little moments where Tchaikovsky passes a figure between the instruments, were almost wholly lost. 

Love came after the interval when Jin Ta and Kevin Loh took to the stage with Piazzolla’s History of the Tango.  Producing an extraordinary, disproportionately hefty tone from his golden flute, Jin Ta left us in no doubt who wore the trousers in this relationship, but through his marvellously empathetic guitar playing, Kevin Loh was the one who attracted our attention.  Both musicians clearly loved what they were doing; eye contact, every bit as much as the wonderful musical results, showed that.  As the music progressed, however, I became almost hypnotised by the effortless fluency of Loh’s playing, the lovely clarity of his tone and, perhaps more than anything, the instinctive feel he had for this music and for the antics of his performing partner.  The programme booklet told us he was just 14; if he were twice that age I would still be amazed and deeply in love with his immaculate guitar playing.  I suspect he is destined to become the next star in the guitar world, and I pray that he maintains his discreet and subtle virtuosity; it’s just the sort of antidote the musical world needs to safeguard its future credibility.

The final work, Mike Mower’s Sonata Latino, saw Jin Ta joined on stage with a motley collection of saxophones, brass and percussion, with a piano and bass guitar thrown into the mix.  More tangos and Latin-American dances, but this time delivered as a simple piece of fun.  Our young lovers may not have left the hall with their hearts intertwined, but by the end of the concert, the music would certainly have given them a real lift.

13 February 2015

Blue Dazzlers

(Concert Review of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra "Pops" Concert held on 13th February in Singapore's Esplanade Concert Hall)

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Rhapsody in Blue was conceived as a crossover piece; an experiment to see what would happen if the popular music of the New York dance halls of the 1920s was combined with the classical music of the concert hall.  The result was an immediate success, and the work quickly established itself as a "classic" of the 20th century. 

Which is a shame since, with such "classics" being revered and respected by musicians and music-lovers to the extent that they are treated as unarguable musical truths, Gershwin's original notion of a crossover work has been somewhat forgotten over the intervening 90 years. 

That is until Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone came along and decided to discard all performing conventions and take the piece back to its crossover roots; this time combining the jazz of the contemporary club scene with the conventions of a formal orchestral concert.  His performance dispensed with just about everything Gershwin wrote in the piano part, replacing it with extraordinary improvisations, some of which worked spectacularly well and some of which fell flat on their face.  Never mind that, it was a breathtaking display both of pianistic virtuosity and musical risk-taking.  A gorgoeus horn solo from Jamie Hersch was the only noteworthy non-piano element in a performance which was so focused on Ozone that one rather forgot the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was also present on stage.

That, though, may have been a good thing.  Opening their concert with Jeff Tyzik's homage to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, the SSO clearly were way out of their comfort zone.  Sitting dispassionately, dutifully following the letter of their printed scores and maintaining a strait-laced demeanour (not a smile, not a glimmer of enthusiasm to be seen), the string players did what they had to, and no more.  Thankfully the SSO brass are a more extrovert bunch and the trombones, in particular, showed that, if nowhere else in the orchestra, this music was in their blood.

It all should have come together in the Gershwin Piano Conerto which closed the concert. Conductor Joshua Tan had prepared his interpretation with considerable thought, revealing a perceptive and intriguing approach to a score which, for many of us, is so familiar as to be regarded almost as a personal possession.  The staid old SSO strings, happy to do what their music told them, played with neatness and a certain degree of conviction, while the wind simply enjoyed everything that Gershwin put their way.  For the first movement, Ozone buckled down manfully to his task (dressed now in sober black and white to show he was in serious mode, as opposed to the sensuous blue of the first half), indulging in fairly coherent dialogue with the orchestra.  Things started to go pear-shaped with the second movement.  An awesome - there is no other word for it - opening trumpet solo (I don't think I have ever heard this done better) seemed to be all the excuse Ozone needed to go off-piste with a rambling improvised cadenza, more Errol Garner without the groans than George Gershwin, and with that it all went to his head.  Musical caution and respect for Gershwin's painstakingly drafted score were thrown to the wind with two gargantuan cadenzas - one, unfortunately, the twin brother of one of the improviesed insertions in Rhapsody in Blue - taking us into musical realms a world away from 1920s America. 

Programming the two Gershwin works together was a huge mistake; one of those ideas which looks great on paper yet does not work in practice.  What we had, in effect, was Rhapsody in Blue times two, and I don't think Mr Gershwin would really have approved.  We in the audience did, however, for, musical integrity aside, this was as dazzling a display of pianistic pyrotechincs as anyone could wish for.  No wonder it received a spontaneous standing ovation from the excited and excitable audience.

06 February 2015

Apocalypse? No!

Correspondence to this blog from Stuart Nettleship, who was both my inspirational peer and dearest friend during student days at Cardiff, brings to mind the time he was working on his submission for his Masters in composition.  Already an active composer (as well as fine singer, excellent violinist, brilliant comedy writer and utterly splendid chap) he was preparing a mammoth work for chorus, orchestra and (quite possibly) kitchen sink called Apocalypse.  Heading into the library one day I met an acquaintance on his way out who told me in passing; “Stuart’s there with his ‘Poxy Lips’!”.  Not the kindest nickname for a hugely serious composition, but one which rather sticks in the mind.  It was Stuart’s own father, I think, who coined a much cleverer, but equally inappropriate nickname for the work-in-progress, referring to it as “The Apolcalypso”.  Neither nickname was in any way suitable to such a large-scale work, but I suspect that, without them, I would never now be able to remember the title of Stuart’s magister opus.

Relevant or not, nicknames for musical compositions do provide a very helpful aide memoire and often bring a work to mind more readily than its true title.  Mention Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, for example, and many will rack their brains for a moment to try to remember how it goes; mention the “Emperor Concerto” and we know it straight away.  How useful, too, to have nicknames like “Surprise”, “Le Matin” and “Military” to help us identify individual Haydn symphonies from the vast mass of unmemorable numbers (it’s just a shame so many of them have been given the nickname “London”).  And many will refer to their Most Magical Mozart Moment as the “Elvira Madigan” – so much more memorable than “Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K.467” – and know the music of Richard Strauss primarily as a brief exposition of C major which they refer to as “2001”.

The Haydn nicknames have an obvious basis in the musical character of the works to which they apply, while the Beethoven nickname seems appropriate, even if nobody can be sure to what person, occasion or musical element in the work it specifically refers.  The Mozart and Strauss nicknames come from movies many of us have probably never seen and, certainly in the case of the former, never actually knew existed, and have no bearing whatsoever on the music itself; yet still helps us bring quickly to mind what the music sounds like.  But only very rarely does a composer choose his own nickname, and where he does it usually creates more problems than it solves.  The nickname, for example, Tchaikovsky chose (with a bit of help from his brother) for his Sixth Symphony might have seemed entirely apposite to a Russian audience, but a direct translation to English of the one-word nickname paints a wholly different, and far less complimentary, picture; and for that reason only in the most lowly musical circles do you ever see it referred to as Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetic” Symphony, the usual practice being to change the c into a que to give it, at least, a rather more elusive quality.

Other nicknames have come along entirely by accident, and I am guilty of creating one of these.  Working as a music critic in London I was dispatched to do a fairly routine review of a recital in (if I remember correctly) the Queen Elizabeth Hall by a brass ensemble the name of which I cannot now bring to mind.  Neither can I recall the programme they played nor, indeed, whether or not I liked it.  What I do remember is that it included a work by Stuart’s former composition tutor (and my professor), Alun Hoddinott.  And I can remember this because, phoning my review through to the copy-taker (in those pre-computer days, all newspaper copy had to be dictated over the phone to one of those incredible typists who could not only type perfectly at speed, but could also correct and improve your grammar, punctuation and syntax as you dictated – where have these brilliant men and women gone now?) I committed the cardinal sin of not spelling out every name and title; no matter how good the copy-taker was, it was still one’s own job to make sure all titles and names were exactly right.  So having mentioned that our anonymous brass players performed Hoddinott’s Ritornelli I was horrified to read in my review the following morning that the concert had featured “Hoddinott’s Little Nellies”.  I made a point of apologising to the composer when next I saw him; he was gracious and suggested that, without the error, most people would have forgotten what the work was called.  How right he was!

The question of how much credence should be given to nicknames which have become accepted through common practice rather than as integral to the work’s proper title is a problematic one.  Indeed, the whole issue of how to list and present a work’s title causes those of us who write about music an enormous amount of concern.  Catalogue numbers, for example, can be really confusing and actually off-putting to potential audiences if they are not handled with care; what would be more likely to bring the punters in to a Haydn performance, “Missa in angustis, HobXXII.11” or “Nelson Mass”?  Would not more audience turn up to a piano recital featuring the “Moonlight Sonata” than one billed as including the “Keyboard Sonata No.14 in  C sharp minor, Op.27 No.2”?  I like the habit many, particularly German, concert halls have of putting the catalogue number in a smaller typeface to differentiate it from the full title (ie: Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Op.27 No.2) and while the usual convention in English-language publications is simply to separate the number from the title with a comma (Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op 27 No.2) that can be confusing.  So, with my absolute obsession with parentheses (of which all readers of this blog must be painfully aware) I prefer to put such numbers in brackets, simply to show that they are incidental to, rather than a part of, the work’s title; somehow Piano Sonata in C sharp minor (Op.27 No.2) seems a little friendlier to a non-specialist audience.

I have usually gone down the path of adding more specific detail the further into the written material one delves.  Thus, when first promoting a concert I suggest steering clear of those specifics which will be appreciated by only a few cognoscenti.  If a pianist has chosen to include Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in a recital programme, the pianist probably is hoping that the presence of that work will draw in a large audience; so I advise listing it as such (and no more) on all pre-concert material as a tempter for the widest possible audience.  Once in the concert hall, the audience can be regarded as being more receptive to greater depth of detail, and on the first page of any programme – that which lists the works in the order they are performed and usually gives the approximate timings - it would be appropriate to suggest that the work is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, “Moonlight”.  Only once the audience member has decided to delve more deeply into the background to the work by reading the actual programme notes should the full panoply of titling be unleashed, and even then in a piecemeal fashion.  Here, at the top of the programme note, one can, for the first time, list the catalogue number, but only in the body of the programme note would it be really appropriate to give the composer’s (or his publisher’s) full original title for the work. That also allows us to show that we know the composer called the work “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra”, while we have, everywhere else, simply referred to it as “Violin Concerto”.

But what of nicknames?  Very few people know it as such, but Beethoven did give his Moonlight Sonata a nickname – “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” – and at some time in the body of the programme note this needs to be mentioned.  Highlighting it on the title page or in pre-concert publicity would, in most cases, simply complicate matters.  Trawling through the web resources on programme notes from many and varied sources, I came across one music teacher who advised her pupils in great detail how to include nicknames in the titles.  She wrote of adding dashes and single inverted commas;  all sensible stuff, except that the nickname she chose as an example was the “London Symphony” (as in Vaughan Williams Symphony No.2 – ‘London’).  Unfortunately, that is not a nickname but the actual title of the work.  Vaughan Williams called it “A London Symphony” and I’m pretty sure he himself never referred to the symphony with a number. (Interesting how, once he started applying numbers to his symphonies they went, musically , downhill.)

Giving musical nicknames on printed concert posters, radio listings and CD/record sleeves is vital to help most people recognise works they like.  (Where would the world of popular classical music be had not some wag a few years ago decided to link four Vivaldi violin concertos under the collective title “The Four Seasons”?)  But for students preparing their own recital programmes and for professional programme note-writers, the matter needs to be handled with extreme care, balancing the need to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the work and its background with an awareness of the music’s popular reception.  Getting mixed up between correct titles and informal nicknames may not bring about an apocalypse, but may well lay the writer open to accusations of possessing the equivalent of Poxy Lips.