13 October 2017

Black Scottish Horn Players

Among the discs reviewed recently (this particular review appears on the MusicWeb International website, from which the disc can be purchased) was one entitled Edinburgh 1742, and comprising music written by Handel and Barsanti.  I liked the playing, the recording and the music - as, perhaps, you can gather from my reprinted review below.  But what intrigued me most about this was something I read in Michael Talbot's outstanding booklet notes.

The French Horn took on a particular resonance in English "high" society during the 18th century.  (Don't give me that gaff about Edinburgh being in Scotland, not England - I know that: I live there for part of the year.  In the 18th century, the concept of Britain was largely non-existent.  The English crown and government had subsumed Scotland and, to all intents and purposes among those in the "higher" levels of society, Edinburgh was just another fine English city.  It would have been anathema for the ladies and gentlemen of Edinburgh society to consider themselves Scots - until Sir Walter Scott came along with his romantic notions of a distinct Scottish character, the term Scots was more-or-less synonymous with lower-class and common.)

Back to the French Horn.  It would seem that any wealthy family worth its salt employed a couple of horn players to act as urban doorbells, announcing arrivals and departures, and as early car horns, travelling with the family coach to clear the way and warn of progress.  The implication given off was that the family spent much of its time in its country estate on the hunting field - the horn's natural habitat - so when back in town, the necessary horn players for the hunt, were given other duties.  That's interesting enough, but what Talbot goes on to point out is that often these horn players were black.

With the slave trade at its peak - Bristol was the hub of that particular activity - those who made their money from trading human beings, would often cherry-pick from their cargoes to find suitably imposing domestic servants not just for themselves, but for their friends and associates.  To have a couple of black men on display outside your front door playing the French Horn, was clearly a tremendous symbol of power and prestige; and the fact is that these former slaves from west Africa via the cotton and sugar plantations of the southern states of the USA seemed to have a peculiar penchant for powerful horn playing.

This, at least, is the impression I get from reading Talbot's essay, nourished, of course, by my own fervid imagination.   But how true a picture is it of 18th century English life? 

It might seem purely speculative were it not for this news item which BBC Wales presented on 24th March 2007 (from which the picture at the head of this post is taken).

"Among the attractions tourists will be able to see again at Erddig Hall, near Wrexham, is a well-known 18th Century image of the slave trade.  The National Trust property is home to the Negro Coachboy, a portrait of a black youth thought to be owned by the mansion's founder, John Mellor.
The bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act is on Sunday.  The painting, also known as the 'Negro Minstrel', 'Black Boy' or 'Mellor's Coachboy' hangs in the servants' hall.  Painted around 1720, it is still not clear whether the youngster was a slave taken to live and work at Erddig Hall by Mellor, who was a wealthy London lawyer, or whether he was just a figment of an artist's imagination. A verse written at the house decades later offers a clue to the painting's origins, claiming the boy worked at the hall and was given a Christian burial locally, but it cannot be confirmed. Jeremy Cragg, house and collections manager, said Mellor was not involved in the slave trade, but like many wealthy people of his time might have had a slave boy as a 'fashion accessory'."

It seems that here is a piece of English music history which managed to get itself swept under the carpet by the Political Correctness Brigade, terrified of offending black people by suggesting that, once upon a time, long ago, some of them may have been forced into slavery or treated as curiosities by white people.  It certainly is worth further investigation.  In the meantime, here's my review of the Linn disc, "Edinburgh 1742".

There is some relevance in the title (Edinburgh 1742) , but the really unifying feature in this programme is the pair of French Horns which appear in all but one of the works recorded here.  But before going any further, I must register my unreserved admiration for the excellent booklet notes by Michael Talbot who, in recent years, has turned his perceptive scholarly gaze, previously concentrated on Vivaldi, to focus more intently on Francesco Barsanti.  He offers here some of the most informative, readable and absorbing notes I have ever come across with a CD.  Beyond the enticing outline sketch of Barsanti’s life – born in Lucca, abandoned law for music, established a solid reputation as an oboist (“permanently in the background, never seeking the limelight”), travelled to London in 1723 and in 1735 joined the Edinburgh Musical Society where he “settled into the role of factotum, even acquiring a set of timpani to play in the Society’s orchestra” – Talbot gives us a wonderful insight into the role of the French Horn in 18th century Britain. 

We read that the instrument graduated “from the forest to the house, the street and the waterway” and developed “a deep social resonance” in 18th century English society.  Any nobleman or rich merchant would have a pair of servants employed to play French Horns  to announce domestic arrivals and departures.  Intriguingly, Talbot tells us that many of these servants were black, having themselves graduated from house-slaves in America, and gained a high reputation for their prowess as horn players.  The very portability of the French Horn made it a particular feature of water parties. 

Of course, the obvious indicator of this in in Handel’s Water Music, and, given Talbot’s intriguing insight into the unique place the French Horn had in English high society, perhaps we might have thought that the inclusion of at least part of that work on this disc would be obvious.   The tracklist makes no mention of it, but it is here, albeit in disguise!  The Concerto in F HWV331 is Handel’s own reworking of two movements from the second of the Water Music Suites, excising the trumpets from the original and transposing the whole thing into the horn-friendly key of F major.  Alec Frank-Gemmill and Joseph Walters bubble along cheerfully in these boisterous movements finding an enticing balance between the rawness of the natural horn and the elegance of a well-turned concert tone, each phrase intelligently moulded and the whole thing given a marvellous buoyancy by some suitably exotic ornamental flourishes.

The other Handel items also employ a pair of French Horns, but in very different capacities.  The March in Ptolemy was written for a Hanoverian military band and became hugely popular amongst the London public in the early days of the Hanoverian monarchy.  The aria from Alcina adds a pair of horns to the mix, but here they are something of a novelty adding a wonderfully vivid edge to this tremendously invigorating depiction of an angry tigress in its lair deciding whether or not to run from the hunters.  Emilie Renard delivers a stupendously powerful vocal line, shaking with suppressed anger and energy.   You can almost feel her claws!

But where, you must be asking, does Edinburgh and, in particular, the year 1742 fit into the picture?  Barsanti, as we read, was based in Edinburgh between 1735 and 1743, marrying a Scots girl and visiting many parts of the country.  The 1742 connection comes from the fact that the five Concerti Grossi on this recording (each employing a pair of French Horns) as well as A Collection of Old Scots Tunes were published in Edinburgh in 1742  (according to Grove – Talbot suggests they appeared a year later).

Since the bulk of the programme is devoted to Barsanti’s Concerti Grossi for two horns, timpani and strings (Op.3 contains five more for trumpet, oboe and timpani, not recorded here), it might be appropriate to discuss these in some detail.   While Handel never visited Edinburgh (so far as we know) his and Barsanti’s paths crossed in London after Barsanti’s return to the English capital in 1743, and there is something distinctly Handelian about Concerto No.1, although the unmistakable stamp of Vivaldi is discernible in much of the violin writing.  For the first two movements the horns very much play a secondary role to the string ensemble, with the timpani rumbling away in the background.  But they then take the lead for a vivacious Allegro and have a somewhat concertante role in the concluding Menuet.  The Vivaldi influence is even more pronounced with the opening of Concerto No.2, where the horns and timpani again assume a somewhat concertante role.  Concerto No.3 opens with a Sostenuto movement in which that famous rhythmic device, the Scotch Snap, seems to figure (and is much vaunted under Peter Whelan’s direction), while the horns crown the music with their stately presence.  The second movement has more than a hint of the hunting field about it as the string ensemble gallops along hotly pursued by the horns and timpani.  Concerto no.4 is the only one with three movements, and in its opening movement the horns sound out in a blaze of glory above busily fugal strings. The adagio from Concerto No.5 is mostly in the form of a swaying Siciliano for the two horns with a basic string accompaniment, while the same Concerto’s Menuet opens with a powerful timpani solo played with startling presence by Alan Emslie.

In all five Concerti Grossi the Edinburgh-based Ensemble Marsyas play with impeccable stylistic elegance.  The dance movements – all of the concertos end with a Menuet – have a pleasing rhythmic lilt, and the clarity of articulation is particularly impressive in the contrapuntal passages.  Occasionally I wonder whether the continuo is pushed a little too far into the background, and the ornamentation often has a slightly false feel to it, but Peter Whelan directs clean-cut, intricately detailed and disciplined performances which largely avoid pretentious display or extravagant exhibitionism. 

The four short Old Scots Tunes from Barsanti’s collection of 30, are performed by Colin Scobie who produces a lovely quasi-Scots fiddle sound with some wholly idiomatic gestures and nimbly executed slides in the well-known strathspey The birks of Invermay.  Accompanied by the deft cello of Gulrum Choi and the tinkling harpsichord of Philippe Grisvard, the overall effect is slightly schizophrenic – is this Italianate baroque or Scots traditional? – but decidedly pleasing; as is this entire disc.


02 September 2017

Musical Fragmentation

An hour of my Saturday afternoon was given over to attending a concert of new music by student composers.  It is cause for celebration that student composers in Singapore not only have a forum in which they can try out their ideas and begin to have their embryonic creative voices heard in public, but also that there is an audience – and not just an audience of their peers and professors – who are willing to come, hear and react to what they hear. 
Could a Grade 5 Candidate know what to do with this?

It is also a cause for celebration that their youthful experiments in musical creativity are taken seriously by performers, and that those performers are not just committed to playing these works, but are willing to have their techniques stretched in order to do so.  The two-way traffic between composer and performer is vital for the evolution of new music, and this concert (and the many others like it) offered a matchless opportunity for productive interaction and collaborative learning.

Hopefully, the students whose works were aired in this concert will have learnt from the experience.  They will have heard what their ideas sounded like in reality (and the huge advantage of having recording skills on hand means that they can listen to them over and over again) and will have realised what works and what does not.  They will recognise things which can be developed on, and things which are best discarded, and while it is in the nature of the beast that there were far more of the latter than the former, there were still some very positive things thrown up in the concert which will warrant further investigation.

It troubles me slightly that every single work aired in the concert delved into the realms of what we once called the “Avant-Garde” – the deliberate movement away from the conventions of tonality, rhythm, harmony and instrumental colour – and strove (often far too hard) to find new ways of getting sounds from traditional instruments.  Interestingly, while bassoons were clicked, cello spikes played, flutes overblown, horns rasped and clarinets aired soundlessly, nobody thought to move away from the convention of pianists sitting at the piano and playing the notes (whatever happened to that 1950s fad for prepared pianos?).  As a result the piano all too often acted as a millstone around the composers’ necks, dragging their ideas of experimentation down to the level of the conventional chromatic vocabulary of the piano keyboard.  I did wonder why none of these young composers felt there was any mileage left in making use of tonal idioms and conventional instruments; after all, Minimalism was arguably one of the most successful and popular cults in late 20th-century music, and that positively celebrated tonality and conventionality of timbre.  Perhaps getting anything new and original out of tonality is asking too much skill and thought from a 21st century student.
How much longer will players trained to deal with graphic
scores be able to handle this? 

And with that I realised that there is a yawning chasm between what our students are being encouraged to do as composers and what the ultimate consumers of that music – the concert-going public – are exposed to.  It has become so wide that I wonder, even, if it stall can be bridged.

The thought occurred because last night was spent in the jolly company of some of my former examiner colleagues, presently in Singapore to examine some of the 60,000 plus children here who, every year, do their graded exams.  Among our party last night were a few new examiners who were making their maiden examining trips to Singapore.  “It’s wonderful”, one of them told me.  “So much music going on.  So many fantastic young players.  Classical music is certainly alive and well here!” 

Notwithstanding the argument that 60,000 plus young people undertaking the ultimately sterile activity of playing three short pieces, a handful of scales, doing some sight-reading and a few aural tests, and getting a sole listener to award a largely random mark determined by factors other than musical ability, is hardly indicative of a healthy musical climate, it was obvious to me that there is a very fundamental disconnect with what these examiners hear a couple of dozen times a day, and what the couple of dozen student composers and performers were doing this afternoon.

I worry deeply about the future of music.  I believe that its very ubiquitousness has devalued musical currency to the point where nobody really notices it any more.  But I worry also that music is rapidly fragmenting itself, and deliberately shutting itself off from reality.  While academic composers try to push boundaries and go where no musician has ever gone before, the vast mass of music teachers and their students flock in their droves to the familiar and predictable.  The dread of the old, as exemplified by today’s students, comes into conflict with the dread of the new, as shown by the obsession with traditional graded exams, and I do not see any chance of the two rubbing shoulders even peripherally.  The appalling limitations both of the graded examination syllabus and the new music extremists has set up a barrier which is pretty near impenetrable.

So long as 21st century trainee composers deliberately make their music inaccessible by a conscious move away from conventionality (exemplified by graphic scores which require special skills to interpret) and the graded exams continue to train musicians as if there have been no developments since the 19th century, the future of music as a unifying art seems doomed.

31 August 2017

A Viola Star in the Making

The annual Concerto Competition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore took place last night.  Never a great fan of competitions, I nevertheless think Concerto Competitions are worth running.  For a start, the audience is treated to several full-length concertos in one sitting (last night there were three) given by soloists who have not only spent the months leading up to the performance thoroughly working on their concerto, but have taken a degree of ownership over it in a bid to make their performance stand out as unique.  For the orchestra it provides a special challenge of having to work with several very different soloists in repertory which would not, in the normal course of events, find itself sharing a programme.  And then, for the soloists themselves, it provides an early opportunity to work in a public concert setting with a full orchestra and to get a taste of what it is like to be a fully-fledged professional.  To use a tired old cliché (and one which was inevitably run out several times last night), every one is a winner.

But the nature of competitions is that somebody has to win.  I remember an occasion when, as one of the three judges at the Christchurch Concerto Competition in New Zealand, we spent over two hours deliberating our decision, keeping the audience and soloists in unwarranted suspense all that time.  Our problem was that each of us had a passionate belief in the winner, but each of us had a passionate belief in a different winner, and we argued at length until we could at least come up with a majority decision.  Last night’s deliberations took far less time.  Perhaps because there was just one adjudicator, but I like to think that had there been a busload of judges, the deliberations would have still been brief.  It seemed pretty obvious that there was one performer who so far outshone the others that any question about the ultimate victor was purely technical.

The student orchestra under Jason Lai acquitted themselves extraordinarily well in what was, by any standards, a terribly demanding programme.  Lai’s magnificent command of the Schnittke Viola Concerto was supported by orchestral playing of quite extraordinary polish, every single player clearly utterly engrossed in this intriguing score.  Few professional orchestras – and I would suggest none in South East Asia – could have begun to match this quality of playing.  Lai also held things together in the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante where coordination between soloist and orchestra, always a tricky issue in a work where clarity of texture and rhythmic precision are paramount, was not always easy to achieve.  And he kept the orchestra’s head above water in the Saint-Saëns G minor Piano Concerto when, tired out from an exhausting programme (and presumably an exhausting day of rehearsing) cracks started to emerge, not least in the wind tuning.  No soloist could have asked for better support.

That cellist Chen Pin-Jyun sometimes ran a little out of synch with the orchestra was probably inevitable given the extreme focus he gave to the technical demands of the piece.  When the big virtuoso solos came, he was there with spectacular presence, reeling off great swathes of extremely demanding virtuoso display with impressive security.  This was, from a technical standpoint, a splendid performance; a potential winner, even.  But you got the impression that the focus on technical issues had become an end in itself, and one came away from the performance wondering about its interpretative credentials.  To understand Prokofiev you have to understand satire and sharp, aggressive wit.  Unless you read and absorb satire, unless you laugh at the bitter jibes and thrusts of satirists and can sympathise with a mind set on getting under the skin of established traditions, you can never convey the real spirit of this music. 

I suspect Chen Pin-Jyun is just too nice a guy to play Prokofiev - he has certainly attracted a large, devoted and vociferous fan-base who made their presence vividly felt in the concert.  But I missed the wit, the sharp humour and the fun which is what this marvellous work needs to transform it from a progression of set-piece technical displays to a musical commentary on the years which elapsed between the first ideas for the work and the final version.  In those years Prokofiev went from a rebellious youth, snubbing authority at every opportunity, to a disillusioned, bitter man, looking back on a whole series of catastrophic errors of judgement and wrongly-made life-changing decisions.  He had left Soviet Russia, believing the country had nothing more to offer him, he had achieved success and disillusionment in America and France, and had finally returned home, disillusioned as much by the freedom he had experienced as by the restraints which were imposed on him in his homeland.  There is a world of inner conflict here, which manifests itself in biting, often sarcastic humour; I wonder how much of this Chen had appreciated in his interpretative preparations.

Saint-Saëns kept his emotions at arms’ length, covering his own inner turmoil with a veneer of charm, elegance and a language of such utter refinement that it seems almost too good to be true.  Once or twice pianist Luong Khanh Nhi let emotion seep through, and, not least in the very opening statement, she allowed cracks to emerge in Saint-Saëns’s musical stiff upper-lip;  instead of the powerful tribute to Bach’s great G minor organ work which opens the Concerto, we had a glimpse into the world of Rachmaninov.  In all other respects, however, Luong's was a performance which seemed fully in tune with the spirt and character of the work, and there was nothing hollow, pointless or extravagant about her playing; it all made beautiful sense and carried us along as if on an unstoppable journey.  She paced the outer movements well, she produced a wonderfully rich dynamic palette, colouring each small detail with consummate care, and above all conveyed a clear overarching sense of the piece’s architecture.  Only in the delicate Scherzando did she seem a little out of step with the music’s Mendelssohnian delicacy of touch – there was a persistent sense here that she was trying to draw back, and, subtle and discreet as he was about it, Lai needed to prod her along in order to maintain the music’s light and bubbly character.  In ordinary circumstances, despite the small failings, this was a performance which would have won the competition hands down.

But these were not ordinary circumstances.  The evening had begun with something very extraordinary indeed.

Ho Qian Hui - one to watch
Ho Qian Hui gave a performance of the Schnittke Viola Concerto which was not just magnificent, but of a standard you would never expect beyond a top-notch player with a leading European or American orchestra.  Here was a player who had thoroughly imbued herself with the work, who, you knew instinctively, not only knew it inside out, but loved it and was determined to communicate that to her audience.  She was not going to think about competing (although she was, of course, the outright winner) – she was going to think about convincing the world that the Schnittke Viola Concerto, for all its manifest eccentricities and intellectual obstacles, is a fabulous work.  I think she convinced just about everyone. 

The huge technical challenges were passed over effortlessly in the white heat of an inspirational interpretation, and the command Ho had over the entire performance, raised the standard of the orchestra and clearly goaded Lai to match her, bar-for-bar, with his own sympathetic and equally committed approach to the work.  On top of that, Ho produced from her viola not just a tone of absolute sumptuousness, but a level of projection which meant that, even when competing with brass and percussion (not to forget three keyboard instruments) who were not, as they say, sparing the horses, she shone through, pulling our ears into the viola and allowing the noisy orchestra to subside into the background.  This was not just a winning performance; it was on the verge of being a great one.

I am looking forward to attending the 40th Gramophone Awards ceremony in a couple of weeks’ time in London.  I will be rubbing shoulders there with the great and mighty of the musical world.  How long before Ho Qian Hui is one of those?  Certainly, any record company which snaps her up to record the Schnittke will have a potential winner on their hands.

24 August 2017

Alien Concert Settings

Concert organisers and performing musicians worry about the nature of traditional concerts.  They believe that the conventional layout of an audience sitting in silent, serried ranks before the musicians on stage, separated by both a physical and psychological gulf, is partly responsible for the fact that classical music concerts attract only a tiny minority of the population.  It encourages, they would tell you, passive listening rather than active involvement, and makes people feel alienated.  I’m not sure audiences share their concerns and, in any case, a change in the physical set-up of a concert would alienate many of those who regularly attend.  People who attend classical music concerts are, by and large, pretty conservative in their tastes, comfortable in their existence and mature enough to have the finances and spare time to sacrifice for it; this is a significant sector of society and should not be ignored simply because political correctness demands we try to attract the poor, the needy, the dispossessed, the socially primitive and the young.

My personal opinion is that, while the environment should be made more friendly, for many the attraction of concert-going is precisely that sense of observing a spectacle rather than indulging in an activity.  What keeps the huge mass of population away from classical music concerts is more connected with conflicting pressures on time and wallet, poor publicity and, most of all, an ingrained disinterest in the art-form.  No amount of tweaking the arena in which it is performed will overcome that.

Singaporean percussion virtuoso, Joachim (the stage name of Joachim Theodore Lim), put on a solo concert last night and made the effort to break with that traditional concert-setting.  I would like to tell him he need not bother. 

Joachim is a brilliant and dazzlingly gifted percussionist, who in last night’s concert gave an unforgettable account of the Xenakis Rebonds and a truly mesmerising (and I use the word in its proper context here) performance of Andy Akiho’s Karakurenai.  Joined by Marvin Seah in a fascinating piece involving a plethora of small containers containing seeds which they shook rhythmically in an unbroken flow (not even momentarily put off track when Joachim dropped one of them on the floor) called, appropriately enough, Seeds, there was also plenty of visual stimulation.  Indeed, Joachim understands the visual drama of it all and displays athleticism as he dances around his marimba (the principal instrument of the evening) and clearly recognises the visual appeal of intense concentration.  In short, this was a concert of great musicianship and tremendous showmanship.

But Joachim was not prepared to risk everything on his own performing skill, and in long, rambling talks, barely audible (those of us who, aware of the decibel properties inherent in a percussion concert, chose to sit or stand at the back, lost almost every word Joachim uttered – next time, use a microphone please!) and constituting at least 50% of the concert’s hour-long duration, told us that this was not going to be a traditional concert and that we were free to talk, walk about and participate.  He then suggested that some people might find this distracting, so we should respect that.  In the end I had no idea what we were supposed to do, and in the event only the handful of very young children in the audience felt free to talk, fidget and move about. 

He also told us he had organised the hall in an informal manner.  Yet the only obvious manifestation of this was the chairs placed in a slight arc and widely spaced - a trick usually employed to negate the effects of a small audience (something Joachim never needs worry about in Singapore; his reputation proceeds him and he attracts a goodly crowd).  In short, it looked pretty traditional to me.

Other devices used to “break the traditional mould of concerts” were a programme presented on paper in a different sequence to the order in which it was performed, and the inclusion of something which was not on the programme but included “at the last minute”.  This may have been a deliberate attempt to add informality, but for my sceptical mind, it suggested a lack of preparedness.  He also brought in his colleagues from the Lorong Boys, who gave a desultory and aimless display of mediocre ersatz-jazz which never went anywhere, never lost its firm footing in minor tonality and seemed not so much un-rehearsed as made up on the spot.  You would have been hard put to associate this dismal drivel with a group who have become hugely popular in Singapore.

But the most peculiar break with tradition was the handing out to the audience of a piece of blank paper and a pen.  “What’s this for?”, I asked the steward as I entered the hall.  “You’ll see”, I was told, “It’s an interactive concert”. 

It wasn’t.  The paper – which I half thought might be used to add an aural dimension to one of the pieces by being collectively shaken, hit and torn by the audience – was used just once.  Before a performance of Jacob Druckman’s Reflections On The Nature Of Water Joachim told us all to write down what we thought the piece was going to be about and what we thought each of the six movements would represent.  Since the programme printed clear and descriptive titles for each, I failed to see what possible object was served by this, and wrote on mine “as the title suggest” six times, merely changing Druckman’s “Fleet” to “fast and fluent”.  Joachim waited patiently until we had all written down our ideas and then performed the piece.  All the way through I was dreading that moment when we would be asked to read out what we had written and compare it with what we had heard.  It never came.  The writing idea was stillborn and pointless, and served only to distract my attention from the music.

If there is something perceived to be wrong about conventional concert settings, for goodness sake do not make changes unless you are certain you have a better alternative.  I left what should have been a stimulating and amazing display of performance prowess feeling distinctly dispirited and even quite alienated by an environment I simply did not understand.

23 August 2017

Moral Guardians of Music

The city of Salzburg has voted against naming a street in the city after the governess to the Von Trapp family, Maria.  She was, of course, celebrated by Julie Andrews in that memorable musical film The Sound of Music which today forms the backbone of Salzburg’s tourist economy.  As a coach driver, I used to get very annoyed doing tours of Salzburg when everyone went on about The Sound of Music; “I don’t know anything about that”, I would glibly tell my passengers, “but this is where Mozart was born”.  (Which often met with a quizzical stare; who is Mozart?) The grounds for the city council’s rejection, according to a report last night on the BBC, is that she advocated in the 1950s corporal punishment for children.

We live in an age where we refuse to accept history unless it conforms to the convoluted moral code which we, as a contemporary society, accepts.  We see this in the big debate in the USA where statues of Confederate figures such as Robert E. Lee are being removed because their actions in the past are actions which society today would not condone. 

(I readily confess I know nothing of Robert E. Lee.  His name only ever crossed my consciousness when, during the 1970s I was addicted to the TV series The Dukes of Hazard  - my addiction was prompted purely by Daisy Duke and her tight shorts, and to this day I retain an admiration for the female form which far outstrips any interest in the automotive one.  Their iconic car - red and white, unlike Daisy’s unforgettable blue denim shorts - was named after General Robert E. Lee.) 

Whether those who demand the removal of memorials to Lee are right or wrong is immaterial.  It seems to me that they are attempting to expunge from history a figure who, whatever he did, clearly was worthy of honour amongst a section of society in years gone by and therefore has some part to play in the evolution of that crazy, mixed-up society which is the USA today.

Statues of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler are removed (and controversially re-erected) because their actions, much praised and admired by many people in their day, are now seen to have been wholly reprehensible.  There is an argument that to allow statues to such figures to remain in the public arena might prompt extreme groups to use them as focal points for a revival of what we now regard (but did not at the time – how else did these figures achieve such prominence, uncomfortable though it is for us to accept this?) as abhorrent moral positions.  But that, surely, is a problem with today’s society and should not affect our recognition of the part these figures played in the society of their day.

In the 1950s my parents were quite unusual in their sparing use of corporal punishment to us children.  If I got a smack, I recognised I deserved it, and I am not sure it did me any harm.  At school in the 1960s, corporal punishment was meted out with great generosity.  I even got the slipper when Billy Weir, our French master, realised I was the only boy in the class who had not had the slipper, and felt that was a good enough excuse for me to get punished.  (Today you will read that with horror; at the time it was painful but hilarious, and it did me the world of good, as Billy Weir knew it would, by raising my status in the class from that of “Slimy Little Creep” to “One Of Us”.)  This might all seem horrific to modern-day readers, luxuriating in a society where corporal punishment is seen as wrong, but it was the norm and accepted as such without too much question.  As a postscript, I would never dream of physically punishing my daughter, no matter what the provocation, simply because the ethics of today oppose it.  It would be wrong to smack a child today; it was not considered wrong in the 1950s and 1960s.

If we try to expunge from history those people whose morals and ethics, perfectly acceptable in their own time, are different from those of our own time, we expunge history.  We only understand the past – and therefore the very roots of our present – when we open our eyes to its totality.

This is especially true in music where morals and ethics are inseparably woven into the historical context of the music we play.  An interpretation has no validity if we do not understand the composer both as a person and as a product of a particular society.  Music history for too long has side-stepped moral and ethical issues adopting, instead, an appallingly simplistic attitude which formulates totally false and pointless generalisations about Baroque, Classical or Romantic ideals to which none of the composers in history ever wholeheartedly subscribed.  Students are taught that Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Byrd, Rameau are all the same, had the same moral outlook and the same artistic goals because they happened to live in this mythical “Baroque Era”.  More shockingly, ignorant teachers apply the same uniformity of attitudes to the likes of Richard Strauss, John Cage, Sergei Rachmaninov, Pierre Boulez, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives because they were all “20th century”.

We know this is not true, yet ill-informed and unthinking teachers still peddle the same rubbish to today’s generation of students.  Pupils know all about non-existent “eras” and nothing at all about things like the French Revolution and Soviet Ideologies; yet for composers, it was the reality of existence which flavoured the creative process, not some meaningless label retrospectively adopted from another field of artistic study

This approach to music history has meant that the private lives, the morals and the ethics of even the greatest composers have usually by-passed the prurient gaze of today’s self-righteous moral guardians.  When we think of Bach merely as a “Baroque” composer, we can put him on a pedestal and not worry that he was, in reality, prone to fits of drunken violence, addicted to sex (even in the organ loft of the church), rebelled against authority and spent time in prison.   Similarly how much more comfortable it is for us to identify Bruckner and Mahler as “Romantics” and not acknowledge that, were both living in today’s moral climate, the former would be serving several life sentences for his approaches to young girls – seen as the actions of a harmless eccentric in his society but condemned as blatant paedophilia in ours – and the latter strung up by modern-day feminists, incensed by the mistreatment he meted out to his wife, forcing her to sign a contract of marriage which forbad her from any musical activity.  Glibly placing him in history as a “Classical” composer, we happily overlook the fact that Mozart was a dreadful social misfit.  Surely the good burghers of Salzburg would immediately rip down the name of Mozart from the city’s streets, hotels and chocolates, rename the Mozarteum after some innocuous but morally acceptable crooner when they realise that in his day he was the city’s most outspoken critic, showering contempt on it and its people and taking every opportunity to get away from the place.  If we really want to show our admiration for Mozart, we should avoid Salzburg like the plague, not flock there in our droves.

No trip to Vienna is complete for musicians without a visit to its many musical statues and memorials.  Yet how many of these should still be standing if the current trend for re-evaluating historical significance through the prism of contemporary moral values were allowed to spread to composers.  Johann Strauss opposed his father, Schubert was addicted to hard drink, Haydn’s treatment of his own wife does not bear close scrutiny, Beethoven indulged in anti-social behaviour with a vengeance…the list goes on.

We must accept that previous moral and ethical attitudes were not the same as ours.  In so doing we understand what created the key figures of the past, even if we cannot morally agree with them.  Ii is not the job of musicians to exercise retrospective moral censorship, even if city councillors in Salzburg have adopted that role.

20 August 2017

Peace and Harmony - What is it?

There is an episode of Peppa Pig in which the children at Peppa’s school dress up in the costumes and flags of the countries of the world and sing, to the tune of Kumba-ya, the words “Peace and Harmony to all the World”.

(My intimate knowledge of Peppa Pig, of which I am an absolute devotee, stems from my daughter’s early childhood when she would watch it continuously.  She has moved on to pastures less wholesome now, but I remain an avid viewer, although I admit to finding Ben and Holly more intellectually stimulating.)

In that episode, the teacher of Peppa’s class, Mrs Gazelle, leaves the classroom for a moment.  During her absence, petty jealousies erupt and she returns to the find the class in uproar.  “Children, Children!”, she calls out, clapping her hands to restore order.  “You are supposed to be acting like the countries of the world.  Do you see them arguing and fighting with each other?” (Sad to report, that delicious irony was not lost on my five-year-old daughter.) 

In a bid to restore calm, Mrs Gazelle gets the children to hold hands and sing “Peace and Harmony to all the World”.  Of course, there is nothing remotely peaceful in the way they sing, bellowing it out for all their worth.  Neither is there anything harmonious about it – delivered in that sour unison which, when delivered by children makes us say “Ah! Cute!”, but when adults do it we accuse them of being tone deaf.  Irony is heavy in Peppa Pig and I have no doubt the script-writers knew exactly what they were doing here.  But with the words "Peace" and "Harmony" increasingly bandied about in the public arena, it might be worth asking just what do we all mean by them.

“Peace” has become almost an oxymoron in its usage today.  Those who campaign for peace do so extremely noisily, peace protests often erupt into noisy violence, and “peaceful demonstrators” reinforce their points by means of megaphones and microphones.  From all the first-hand recollections of warfare I’ve ever come across, peace – as in quietness or silence – is usually seen as more terrifying than the actual noise of battle.  My mother used to recount how, in London during the Second World War, the thing they dreaded most about the V2 bombs sent over by the Germans was not the noise they made but the peace which followed; “You knew you were safe when you could hear them”, she told us children, “But when it all went silent you were terrified – you knew it was about to drop down to earth and explode, but you had no idea where”.  On top of that, peace is something we musicians generally try not to deal in, so let’s leave that to one side; it is, after all, an unattainable state, whether we like it or not.

“Harmony”, however, is perceived to be a musical term and, as such, discussion of its changing meaning falls easily into the remit of this blog.  The word “harmony” has gone the way of crescendo in being so totally misused that its true meaning is lost.  Of course, words are always changing their meaning; that’s the inevitability of a living language.  When someone tells you about their ass, you assume they are referring to a fleshy part of their anatomy, not to one of their equine possessions.  When someone tells you they are gay, you immediately assume they have a sexual preference for members of their own sex with all the emotional complexes that seem to come with that, not that they are carefree, happy and devoid of psychological hang-ups.  So I have no fundamental objection to most people assuming that a crescendo is always loud or that harmony is always soothing. But those of us who deal with history, and in particular musical history, need to know precisely what words meant to the people using them in the past so that we can properly understand their usage then; not simply project our understanding of terminology on to previous eras where their perceptions were substantially different from ours.  Musical terms have undergone many subtle and not-so-subtle changes of nuance and meaning over the centuries, and it is the job of music historians to keep track of these and, where necessary, re-interpret them for the benefit of modern-day musicians.

The true, musical meaning of “harmony” is straightforward enough.  It means a number of different pitches existing as a block, sounding together or written as a single vertical entity.  (Grove tells gives us rather more detail; “The combining of notes simultaneously to produce chords and the placing of chords in succession, whether or not to produce tonally functional progressions; the word is used also of the system of structural principles governing chords and progressions”.)  We have, in the past, qualified harmony by describing it as consonance or dissonance – although those words have also altered considerably in meaning over the centuries and most would be very ill-advised to use them freely today.  Perhaps the word harmony owes its origins to the very beginnings of music, when ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians (amazingly enough, almost exactly at the same time) identified it as a continual parallel movement.

Consequently, it would be perfectly correct to suggest that a number of terrorist cells in Spain, working in parallel to reap death and destruction are, in fact, working in "harmony".  Is that really what we want to imply when we call for "Harmony" in the world?

In the last half century, harmony has become, for musicians, a word more indicative of earlier times (ie the music of the 18th and 19th centuries) than relevant to the music of our day, and to describe the harmonic language of a living composer often seems to imply they lack originality and, damningly, have an antiquated approach to composition.  I have no problem with that, and actually find that to use the word harmony with so much recent music is almost to apply a negative qualitative judgement on it.  Increasingly, we reserve the use of the word to music which fulfils certain rules laid down in the late 19th century by academics with minimal practical experience of their own in the act of composition; something indicated in the second part of the Grove definition.

So by calling for Peace and Harmony, might we not be calling for the terror of silent weaponry unleashed on us in a coordinated attack which adopts the rules of the past and ignores the ethics of contemporary society?  This, surely, was not in the minds of Mrs Gazelle nor the children in Peppa Pig’s class.  Nor is it in the minds of those who call for “Peace and Harmony” in our world today.  But we should be careful what we call for.  Do we really want “Harmony” in either its original meaning – an inevitable and unstoppable parallel movement of celestial bodies – or its current meaning – an antiquated and irrelevant observation of sterile rules laid down two centuries ago?  For me, I would like a world with no war, strife, argument or mass destruction; but that is such an impossible dream I may as well call for “Peace and Harmony” – that, too, is at root, a totally unrealistic demand.

17 August 2017

The End of Music

An illustration by Mark Stamarty taken from Culturebox
Predictions have never been my strong point.  It seems that just about everything I have predicted has not come about.  In the past, this has caused me some embarrassment and a considerable amount of bruised pride, but with my latest prediction, I earnestly hope that I am proved wrong.

I predict the demise of music.  One day, not in my lifetime, possibly not in that of my daughter, but quite probably in that of her children and certainly by the time of the subsequent generation, music will have become extinct.

Naturally, I need to define what I mean by music before explaining why its destruction seems to me inevitable.

By music I do not mean musical sounds – those accidental noises, not necessarily originating from mankind, which seem to us to have a musical quality – but that art form which, ever since the earliest of human civilizations, has been used for the gratification, inspiration and entertainment of man and involves pre-meditated combinations of pitch and/or rhythm and which is disseminated by means of sound.  Today we may talk about Folk, Pop or Classical music as distinct genres – as, indeed, they are – but my prognosis sadly refers to all of those.

To understand why I believe it is in terminal decline, we need to look both at history and at Man’s relationship with the environment.

History first.  Although few today realise this, music was not part of most people’s lives until about a century ago.  For the vast majority of the world’s population, music simply just did not exist until the invention of recording.  Before that, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make a sacrifice, and one which only a few were either able or prepared to make.  You had no control over what you heard, you had to make a conscious decision to hear music, you needed to travel to a specific location where music was being performed, and in most cases you had to devote considerable personal resources both to reach the location and then to gain entry.  Music did not happen every day, and your exposure to it was determined by forces beyond your control.  Christians usually had access to music at worship in their churches, but only a very small percentage of the world’s population were Christians, and few other religions used music to the same extent in worship.  

Going back still further in time, music was denied to all except the aristocratic or religious elite, and going even further back, it was seen as the sole possession of rulers and gods.  (I have never subscribed to the romantic notion that peasants were routinely entertained in the fields by roving hordes of travelling musicians – for this to have happened, it seems to me, there would have been so many travelling musicians that there would not have been any peasants left to work the fields!)  So, for most of human history, music was an irrelevance.  Those ridiculous people who claim they cannot live without music should know not only that they can, but that their ancestors most certainly did; the absence of music did them no harm whatsoever.

As for our relationship with our environment, we have seen – in my own lifetime – the destruction of much of our natural world.  Species become extinct, natural habitats are destroyed, pollution poisons rivers, seas and land, and as climate changes, our very existence seems to be under threat.  In all of these cases, much of the harm has been done by man’s complete indifference to the environment.  We have plundered natural resources without regard to their sustainability, we have damaged the atmosphere without thinking of the long-term consequences, and we have hunted, fished and slaughtered with an abandon which has outstripped the abilities of animal and fish stocks to regenerate.  In short, we have been in grave danger of destroying our environment simply because we have taken it for granted. 

Unlike most natural resources, music is not a finite resource.  But it is an abstract one, and as such possibly needs more care and attention because we do not really know where it comes from or what it is.  We only know our own intellectual and emotional responses to it without fully understanding what its true nature is.  Yet we still take it for granted and, unable to see the parallels between Man’s relationship with the environment and Man’s relationship with music, are heedlessly heading down exactly the same path.  Our indifference to music, our assumption that it needs no protection and our simple taking it for granted will finish it off before we are really aware of what is happening.

Today, unlike 100 years ago, music is all around us.  We cannot escape it.  It is used as a tool to make us buy, to help us eat, to calm our nerves, to get us excited, to make us change our emotional state, to encourage us to spend money, to spur us on to dance and move.  It is used to exercise our intellectual and motor skills.  It is used as a game, a competitive sport, as a recreation activity and as a background to onerous tasks.  In short, music has become all things to all men, and in so doing has lost its very raison d’être.  Music is now used as a substitute rather than something in its own right.  And, as with any substitute, it can just as quickly and comprehensively be substituted by something else.  Once music is used as an adjunct rather than an object, it no longer has any purpose and its survival hangs on a knife edge, ready to collapse as soon as something new comes along able to take its place.

Even today, as we ask young people about music, we learn from their responses that music no longer has anything unique about it.  They will talk of “seeing” music; a generation raised on music as being a visual stimulus can no longer listen to music without the benefit of visual images, and there has been a marked change in music as perceived as being accompanied by images to images perceived as being accompanied by music.  They will talk of music as being “emotion”; yet emotion exists without music.  And many will say that music helps them work, relax or think, activities which can easily be undertaken without music.  If, for them music does not exist in its own right, how long before they recognise the irrelevance of music and replace it with something else?

Until that disastrous year of 2012 when I lost all my worldly possessions, I had a collection of many thousand sound recordings.  People used to ask me why I had so many and that, surely, I did not need so many nor even have a chance to listen to them all.  I used to come up with what I thought was a pretty good response, and even now, as my CD collection has risen, once again, well into four figures, I excuse its enormity by suggesting that I can listen to anything I want, when I want, and, for my professional purposes, have access to just about every piece of music I might need to refer to.  Similar arguments are put forward by those who build up ridiculously huge playlists or who cannot travel any distance without access to a music-sharing device.  Yet I, like them, am guilty of abusing music, of treating it as a commodity which I need to have access to at any time of day or night.

Music is not a commodity, it is a luxury which, treated properly, can enhance our lives in a way no other thing can.  But like a dependent drug, initially taken to alleviate a medical problem, continued reliance on it to the point of addiction negates its value and leaves us open to a recurrence of the problems for which it was originally taken as a palliative.  The parallel between music and addictive drugs is one which we should not ignore.  Look around at the people on trains, planes and buses; are they not all totally addicted to music as ingested by means of digital devices and small white leads plugged into the ears?

By taking music for granted, as we do, and by using it for purposes and to achieve ends it was never intended to satisfy, we are risking losing it altogether.  Once its unique purpose is lost, it becomes valueless.

Is there a solution? Can we ensure music is restored to its place as a unique art form rather than a ubiquitous accompaniment to life?  I think there is, but one which is so unpalatable that it will, surely, never be adopted.

I suggest one international music-free day.  24 hours during which it will be impossible to listen to, hear or have any exposure to music.  Most of our radio channels will close, shops, hotels and transport hubs will cease to function, gymnasia and other sports arenas will be emptied and major multi-national companies will see their share values plummet.  The more you think about losing music for a day, the more profound the repercussions are.  Yet that in itself is symptomatic of our wholescale abuse of music.  How has something so elevated, special and unique reached a point whereby it props up just about every human activity?

Music MUST be valued and our exposure to it limited, if it is to survive for future generations.