22 June 2014

Traditional Touches

Think of Scotland and many things spring to mind.  For the Japanese and Americans, it seems, whisky and golf are the pre-eminent Scottish symbols.  Those with a love for the outdoors will see accessible mountain ranges and surprisingly well-developed ski resorts, while those whose interests are of a more sedentary nature might look to haggis, deep-fried Mars Bars, cans of Irn-Bru or the ubiquitous, grease-filled Scots Pie, as the ultimate symbols of Scottish cuisine.  Fashionistas see Tartan as Scotland's gift to their world, while those of a literary bent might associate the country with gritty and raw detective novels set in Glasgow or gentler ones set in Botswana.  Those in the financial world see it as a land of thrift and careful husbandry of resources; unless, that is, they are derived from the North Sea where, for those whose real interest lies in accumulating money at whatever cost, the oil industry is seen as the true purpose of Scotland (my nephew comes up with the lovely term "Rig-Pigs" for the innumerable loud-mouthed men who flock to the east coast to work in the oil and gas industry).  Art snobs believe Edinburgh tops Europe for its art galleries and festival, and Trendy Young Things think a Fringe has nothing to do with hair but lots to do with opportunities to amuse in Scotland. And those who feel the true soul of a nation lies in its folk art and music, see Scotland as the land of the Ceilidh, the Bagpipe and the Traditional Fiddle.

Attending a gathering devoted to Traditional Scottish Fiddling (of the musical kind, I hasten to add) I was handed a guide book to let me know what made a good Traditional Scottish Fiddler.  Apparently "In the past the fiddle was held not under the chin but under the shoulder.  But modern fiddlers have higher artistic and musical ideals, and have adopted a more violinistic approach".  Which begs the question, what is Traditional Scottish Fiddling and what is Proper Violin Playing of Traditional Scottish Fiddle Music?

I feel our man on the left is holding it too far below
the shoulder even for an arch-traditionalist!

Of course, the word Traditional means different things to different people.  In the case of Scots fiddlers, most of the music they play goes back no further than the Victorian age (and very little of it is that old) and even "traditional" airs seem largely to have been composed by Robbie Burns (1759-1796).  Nevertheless, there is a fine tradition of fiddle playing which you can still encounter in remoter areas, untainted by "higher artistic and musical ideals", and away from the interfering eyes of "experts on traditional music", you might still see a fiddler talking, looking around or even, on one memorable occasion, smoking a cigarette (the ban on the traditional Scottish past time of smoking in pubs has had unforeseen repercussions far beyond the prevention of lung cancer and heart disease) while playing, his fiddle grasped in a claw-like left hand which never changes position, rarely indulges in vibrato but seems to have an unerring instinct for intonation, ornamentation and controlled portamento (not, I hasten to add, words which any self-respecting Traditional Fiddler should understand).

No good for Beethoven - ideal for Robbie Burns
It worries me that the "artificiation" (there's a word the Americans haven't thought of yet) of traditional music is actually killing it.  If you need a classically-honed technique to be a good Traditional Fiddler, you are no longer a Traditional Fiddler.  It's an issue which affects so much in the world of ethnomusicology where there is a tendency to elevate a traditional amateur pastime into a formalised artistic endeavour.  Competitions and intellectual discussion on traditional art inevitably lead to the creations of a set of criteria which, by their very nature, go completely against the purpose and origins of traditional music.  Traditional music is, more-or-less by definition, part of an oral tradition.  Formalise it by devising rules and it can no longer be called properly Traditional.

From Afghanistan to Syria with Bach

Long haul flights - and I feel I undertake more than my fair share of these - provide the ideal opportunity to catch up on some serious listening.  On-board entertainment has changed beyond all imagination in the years I've been flying intercontinentally, and with well over 100 movies shown on demand in wide-screen monitors with outstanding sound heard through top-rate headphones, not to mention vast numbers of on-demand audio recordings, I should not need to provide my own in-flight entertainment.  How easy it is to escape the tedium of a flight and allow the plane's entertainment system to while away the hours filling one's brain with images and sounds. But I cannot fly without being glued to the live on-screen map showing the flight's progress, which rules movies out for me (I hate leaving the map even for the short walk to the nearest washroom), and for all the choice, the on-board music is pretty predictable fare.  So when I get on board, I settle down,  switch on the map, take a glass of something fizzy and wait for the seat-belt lights to go out.  Then it's out with the portable CD player, the noise-cancelling headphones and the latest crop of as-yet-unheard CDs.  I reckon the average flight between Singapore and the UK requires six CDs (allowing time for sleep, meals and walkabouts), and it is my ambition to get through them all on a single flight.

My last long-distance flight was actually a 3 CD-er; I was taking the flight from Delhi to Istanbul.  As we levelled out over Pakistan, I fetched down my three CDS which, taken from a backlog built up over the past few weeks, all featured the music of Bach.  As we crossed over Afghanistan and headed towards Kabul, on went the latest installment of the Bach cantata series on BIS with Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan.  I have derived much delight from this series, and was eagerly looking forward to hearing the second of the volumes devoted to secular cantatas, but it proved to be a disappointment (BIS-SACD-1971).  I found the sound rather lifeless, the performances clean rather than committed - typified by a surprisingly pedestrian opening Sinfonia (taken from one of the Brandenburg Concerti) in which the valveless horns were even more than usually rough - and impressive as the international line-up of soloists was, they proved to be too different in their approach to gel convincingly as a group.  It all sounded a little - dare I say it? - routine.  There were, of course, high points.  There's a lovely "Sheep May Safely Graze", with a pure-toned Sophie Junker accompanied by two endearing recorders.  We so often hear this delightful aria out of context, that to experience it in its true setting is always a joy.  There is also a wonderfully buoyant closing chorale to Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre Macht which I enjoyed so much I immediately repeated the track.

We were still over Afghanistan when I moved on to my next choice, a new release on the Brilliant Classics label with the somewhat unenticing title of "A German Soul" (94717).  I had been sent this as a gift and was not expecting very much from it; I somehow have unaccountably low expectations from any Spanish ensemble (how ridiculously prejudicial can you get?).  But immediately it was obvious that Ensemble Meridien is a group who not only love making music, but have that rare ability to communicate their enjoyment through the somewhat impersonal medium of a digital recording.  Everything was a joy, but it was their take on one of Bach's organ Trio Sonatas (the D minor BWV527) which really bowled me over.  My personal measure of success in a  CD is how often I repeat tracks during a single sitting.  I don't think I've ever gone over five back-to-back repetitions;  the only time I hit that number was with my first taste of Piazzolla on an Australian Eloquence recording featuring the New World Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas.  I stuck it into the car CD player on the journey from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast and then sat overlooking a spectacular beach, continually pressing the repeat button until a grain of sand got into the player and scratched the disc into unplayability.  But this wonderful Bach got four. I know how much fun there is to be had from playing this music on the organ (although generally it's more fun to play than to hear), but I wish all organists could listen to this version for chamber ensemble just to learn how much more there is to this music than the physical demands of playing three independent lines.  Even the continuo organist is having huge fun (at 00:42 in the 3rd movement).  A wonderful and life-affirming performance which contrasted oddly with the tarnished Iraqi soil over which we were flying, the members of ISIS apparently progressing over it on foot as quickly as we were by air.

I know that it is a function of news to report the unusual and the exceptional, but we are so overwhelmed by the news of atrocities and terrors in Iraq, that it is difficult to perceive that anyone on the ground beneath our plane was able to live in peace or tranquility, let alone get themselves into the mood to savour the sheer joy of these performances from this outstanding Spanish ensemble. 

 Crossing into Syria, I felt the incongruity of joyous music and pained existence on the ground a little too keenly and, reluctantly I put Ensemble Meridien aside for a programme of assorted Bach organ pieces in orchestral transcriptions (Naxos 8.572741).  Oozing pathos and revelling in self-indulgent emotional excess, the first track was Respighi's transformation of the chorale prelude on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland into a pained outpouring of grief from the lower strings.  Aided and abetted by Gerard Schwarz's unrestrained expressive nuances, this proved to be too much to bear and seemed to encapsulate the loss of hope for peace in the area.  But just as I thought I might have to abandon musical pleasure for the sunnier delights of the latest Hollywood guns and bombs blockbuster, Respighi turned his hand to two other preludes, Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn and Wachet auf, and while no self-respecting organist would dream of lavishing such over-the-top romanticism on these pieces (not least Respighi's addition of fistfuls of orchestral stops as the latter reached the kind of vast climax I had never spotted in the organ original), the sheer nonsense of it all brought a smile back to my face. 

Unable to take much more of these grotesque parodies of wonderful music, I switched off and turned to the glorious and vivid sound I carry with me everywhere; my musical memories.  And I replayed these chorale preludes in my head, in versions which combined Marie-Claire Alain's ingenious use of registration with Ton Koopman's sprightliness and Simon Preston's boyish buoyancy.  Re-living the glories of Bach reminded me that while the Muslims on the ground were, if the news reports were to be believed, celebrating their religion with violence, hatred, bloodshed and inconceivable atrocities, at least in some areas, Christianity still celebrates the joy and beauty of life.  Bach's Lutheran faith as portrayed by his organ choral preludes underlines more vividly than anything the huge chasm which has grown up between these two monotheistic religions.  True, Christianity has its problems and its fundamentally misguided leaders and adherents (I never go into a church these days simply because I feel so alienated by the widespread belief that, since Christ died in his mid-30s, there is no place in Christianity for anyone over the age of 40), but the prominence afforded to the ignorant, the violent and the intolerant in Islam, points to something having gone even more fundamentally wrong with that religion.  A documentary I caught on television in India about how the more violent and aggressive inmates in prisons were being converted to Islam only reinforced that view.  How convenient to be able to transfer responsibility for violent and inhuman actions to a long-dead prophet rather than accept responsibility for ones actions oneself.  (True, the Catholics have their Confession which allows them to do whatever wrongs they like and then have the slate cleared, as it were.)

Long-haul flights might inure one to the horrors of life on the ground 30,000 feet below, but spending the time listening passively to great art opens up channels of thought and contemplation which are denied those who, quite understandably, indulge in the escapism of on-board movies.

11 December 2013

Nein Audi Einaudi

Asked rather less often than the tiresome, “Who is your favourite composer?”, people do occasionally pose the more entertaining, “Who is your least favourite composer?”  It’s an impossible question to answer because, while it is astonishingly easy to list pieces of music one never wants to hear again (strange how much easier it is to compile this list than one of pieces one could not live without), every composer whose music appears on that list can salvage their reputations with at least one moderately acceptable musical offering.  We do not write a composer off for writing a few bad pieces; even if we are happy to describe a composer as “great” on the strength of one or two really good works (can one claim every single Bach Chorale Prelude to be the work of an absolute genius?). 

Usually at this time of year, if anyone asks me which work I’d like never to hear again, I’d have no hesitation in pouncing on Lowell Mason’s banal Joy to the World, possibly the most irritating and overblown of all Christmassy melodies.  (I find it incredible that there are still sadly deranged people out there who believe this piece of musical drivel to be by Handel: you have to be pretty ignorant of Handel’s genius to recognise any connection.)   But even then, I would never write off Mason as my least favourite composer (he did, after all, compile some rather nice tunes in his many song books for children), and I live in hope that I might one day see the light and recognise what this Christmas tune has that justifies its ceaseless exposure for around two months of the year.
However, this year even Mason’s music has an allure, largely because it is not by Ludovico Einaudi, a composer of whom I had never heard until I attended a piano recital last week.

I hope you will, like me, on hearing this name instantly ask; “who?”  I must confess that when I saw his name on the recital programme my initial reaction was that it was a spoof.  After all while the given name is Italian-ish, there is something suspiciously concocted about the family name, which could loosely be translated as “One who hears oneself”, and when I heard the piece performed – called Divenire – it sounded suspiciously like a basic improvisation using simple chords which, after a predetermined period of time, stopped dead in its tracks.  The “programme note” with the recital, and I put it in inverted commas because it conformed to none of the criteria one would normally expect in a recital, was of use only if you had the score in front of you (which even the pianist did not), since it merely suggested points of reference in specific bars.  It was dreary, aimless, unstructured and served no point other than to fill a bit of time.  I left convinced it was a very feeble attempt to hoodwink a gullible provincial audience.

But then, during the week, two students presented the same work to me and I began to wonder.  None of the performances convinced me it was anything other than a pointless waste of time and (admittedly minimal) effort, but clearly the students were under the impression it was serious music, and in fairness to them and to Einaudi, I tried to find out more.  I came across an article dated April this year from the London based Daily Telegraph in which a nicely impartial reporter wrote; "The music of Ludovico Einaudi may defy definition – you could call it pop, classical, minimalist, easy listening”.  What dread such a statement engenders in my heart.  We do like to categorise things, and I am the first to accept that defining music in such terms is dangerous and misleading.  But there are limits.  It’s a bit like suggesting a certain drink defines definition – "you could call it wet or dry, sweet or sour, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, tasty or bland" - there have to be some basic perameters.  I am reminded of the time André Previn was supposed to write a new work for the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music.  In charge of writing the programme notes, nothing I did could get Previn to respond to my request for some description of the new piece.  In the end, the Festival Director wrote to him direct and received this matchless description of the new work; “It may be long, it may be short.  It may be fast or slow.  It is scored for a flexible ensemble which probably includes a piano.”  As the Director deduced; “He hasn’t bloody written it yet!”

The Daily Telegraph piece also suggested that Einaudi has legions of “quietly fanatical fans” (whatever they are), and further trawling through the dark recesses of cyberspace, one encounters some of these in full (quiet) voice; “So cute. I love him!” writes Hailey Lytle (albeit beside a picture of a boxer dog, so to whom she is referring remains a mystery).  The more verbose and deeply perceptive Mohammad Nabeel describes Einaudi’s music as “Very very. Very. Very nice”.  Thornham10 has a very clear view; “Just amazing this sing cleanses the mind” (of both grammar and spelling, it seems), while of the 6 million (I kid you not!) who have viewed a performance of Divenire on YouTube, Nick1309 is a little obscure in his comment; “it makes me come the frissons!!”, although his fellow-listener Petr Kolář has neither any reservations nor the need to hide behind pairs of exclamation marks; “this is masterpiece. I love that”.
And if the impression is that Einaudi’s fans are about as eloquent in English as he is in music, here is something rather more substantive from Adarsh Rao; “I live and die for this piece of music. Ever since 2009 I've heard this song on almost everyday of my life. I'm learning to play this on piano and will learn to play it on violin too. I ll play this on every occasion of my life and can't go by a day without listening to it and I hope my family plays this on my funeral”.  The piece which poor Mr Rao’s family must by now be heartily sick of is I Giorno, which is almost as dire as Divenire.  What is it about this aimless, drivelling and pointless music which gets so many people so (quietly) excited?  It passes me by.  Are people’s emotions so superficial that this adequately reflects their mood or fulfils their need for the intensity of experience which only music can provide?

I would hope that one of Einaudi’s quietly fanatical fans will be able to explain what his music has that I fail to appreciate, but unless and until they do, he remains the best placed candidate for my Least Favourite Composer.

03 December 2013

Why Write Programme Notes

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I ever learnt as a performer came, perversely, when I was not directly involved and when the student in question did not actually perform anything. The organist Gillian Weir had been invited to give a masterclass to a number of student organists, myself included.  With a professorial admonition to us  not to let the university down by presenting “Miss Weir” (as she then was) with poor playing, we all worked assiduously over our selected pieces in the days leading up to the masterclass.  One student, a highly capable pianist called Charles Spanner who had only recently turned to the organ (I last encountered him in Sussex where he ran a very fine music school), was determined to show he was as good, if not better, than the rest of us.  Every moment of every day you could hear Charles practising Franck’s Pièce Heroïque until he had it absolutely note-perfect.  When the masterclass started, he was brim full of confidence happy in the knowledge that, when it came to the delivery of his piece, Miss Weir could have no complaints.  He was called, sat down at the organ, pulled out his stops, raised his hands and was then stopped, before he played a single note.  “Why are you using that registration?” asked Miss Weir.  No response.  An extended discussion ensued during which it was apparent that Charles’s registration was not the only thing she queried.  “Why are you starting with those fingers?  Why use that foot? Why choose that speed?”, and so it went on, with barely a note of the Franck played.  At the end as a mortified Charles shuffled off the stool, Miss Weir turned to us all and with her captivating smile suggested that we should “never do anything in music without first asking ‘why?’”  And I have taken this advice very much to heart, never doing anything in a performance without first asking myself “why?”.

It goes beyond performing.  When a teacher came to me the other day and asked for advice about writing programme notes and how she could teach her diploma students to best approach the task, I recalled the Gillian Weir mantra; “Your students must first ask themselves why they are writing the programme notes”.  
The immediate answer is because the syllabus requires it.  As with anything to do with a music exam, if the answer to the question “why?” is “because it’s in the syllabus”, then the answer is wrong.  An exam syllabus asks for certain things which, it is assumed, have already been learnt; after all an exam is merely a checkpoint along the road of musical development, not an end in itself.  Correctly interpreted by an intelligent teacher, a syllabus lists those skills which should already have been taught before the exam is prepared, and part of that teaching should be to get pupils to understand why these are important skills.  If the pupil understands why they are being asked to do something, they will not only do it with real understanding (in other words, better) but will deliver it in the exam with greater conviction and authority.

So, why do we need programme notes? To put it in a nutshell, programme notes increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance. 
We are naturally intimidated by the unknown and that which we do not understand, and a clear, friendly guide to something we do not really know or understand breaks down that barrier.  Almost all Western Classical Music originates from a society and from an age of which we are not part and  which, almost by definition, is moving increasingly out of our range of experience; even the music of our own time is often written by those inhabiting a society, either physical or emotional, from which we feel excluded.  As music is, essentially, a product of the society which produces it, to understand that society immediately helps us understand the music.  By introducing the composers, placing them and their music in historical context and providing some background to the society in which they lived, programme notes open up the audience receptors so that they can more fully appreciate what message or ideas are being communicated through the music.  We can enjoy music on its own terms, but our enjoyment of it is vastly increased by understanding its historical and social context.

That, though, is only part of the answer.  As well as helping the listener appreciate the circumstances of, and the reasons for, the music’s creation, programme notes guide the listener through the particular journey the music is taking.  All musical works can be thought of as a journey, but, as with any good journey, it is more about enjoying what lies along the route than reaching the final destination. 
For many listeners, an unfamiliar piece of music can seem like an endless and incoherent sequence of sounds.  These may be pleasurable sounds, and quite acceptable as they are, but how much better to have some idea where those sounds are heading.  What’s more, in the wash of sound, so much gets missed which the listener would have enjoyed if only someone had pointed it out along the way.  So programme notes also serve as a kind of road map, showing where the journey is headed and pointing out some of the more important and significant elements along the way.  The directions “at 10 degrees north, 79 degrees east, turn in a north-north-westerly direction” may get us to the destination, but they tell us nothing about the terrain we cover.  How much more enticing is this set of directions; “After the Shell station you will see a small wooden house on stilts next to which is a tiny lane, little more than a dusty track heading into the trees.  Turn up there and keep going through the oil palm estate for about 10 minutes.  It’s a long, slow climb, but at the top you will suddenly come across a small clearing with spectacular views.  If you look to your right you can see over to the Indian Ocean and, perhaps on a clear day, see the coast of Sumatra”.  In programme note terms, the former equates to ; “The development starts at bar 56 and modulates to the enharmonic minor of the dominant major, returning to the tonic at bar 76”, while the latter equates to “it opens with a happy little theme, rather like small birds chirping away at the top of the keyboard, but which takes on a more serious character when the music moves down into its lower register and heavy, thick chords introduce seem to appear like the menacing tread of some giant prehistoric cat”.  

Deciding which level of information is appropriate is key to writing good programme notes, and for them to be truly effective they do have to be tailored to the particular audience.  How desperately sad it is when orchestras and performers download their programme notes from some anonymous source on the internet or steal them from other performers’ websites, careless of how appropriate they are to their own audiences.  I, myself, have sat in concerts reading cut and paste notes which mean nothing, offer not a hint of help in guiding through the music, and quite often alienate me to the extent that I switch off totally and regret paying the money to attend the concert.  Understanding the audience is essential, as the notes need to be focused on their particular environment.  A note on Elgar, for example, would be quite different when intended for an English audience (the English regard Elgar as part of their heritage and resent any hint that the programme notes might not realise this) rather than a Chinese one (for whom England is associated primarily with David Beckham, Margaret Thatcher and, possibly, Chris Patten; none of them major cultural icons, for all their qualities in other fields).
In the situation of a diploma, the audience is well known beforehand; it is going to comprise one or two professional examiners.  At this point the candidate has to revert to that question, “Why?”.  The examiners do not need to be told anything about the music, they know it all already.  So the inclusion of programme notes in the diploma is not to tell them anything, but to show them that the candidate knows how to explain and describe the music to a wider audience.  To do this, it is vital to remember why we have programme notes in the first place – “to increase listener receptiveness to, and appreciation of, a performance”.  Writing programme notes in this context requires the ability to stand aside from the actual performance and appreciate it from a different vantage point (the “listener’s-eye-view”).  Showing that you understand the historical context of the music and can step far enough away from your intimate knowledge of the detail of the music to describe its journey coherently is the reason why programme notes are included in diploma recital examinations.

02 December 2013

The Missing Piece

“Handel’s Messiah oratorio is recognised as one of the four major choral pieces performed in Western Classical Music.”  A statement from an article in today’s Borneo Post newspaper about a forthcoming performance of Messiah in Kuching.  Newspapers – especially local ones with limited access to expert knowledge - are adept at making claims which they cannot and do not substantiate, and I imagine the reporter here simply jotted down a phrase from a press conference without noting what else was said.  Which leads me to think of suitable candidates for the other three pieces. (And how refreshing, if odd, to describe Messiah  as a “piece” rather than as a “song” - although the joy is shortlived; later in the article comes the lovely phrase which grotesquely mangles the English language; "a repertoire of Handel's Messiah songs" ).

Bach’s St Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass have to be two of the others, would anyone disagree with that?  But what can the fourth be? 

It does not specify that the other major choral pieces are sacred, but certainly there are plenty of sacred ones in the running.  Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Fauré’s Requiem, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; they surely are leading the pack.  However can any of those really stand alongside the Bach and Handel offerings?  Both Mendelssohn and Elgar have their detractors, in a way which the Bach and Handel do not - musicians who justifiably point to innumerable solecisms and weaknesses in both scores and texts.  The Fauré is quite lightweight in comparison with the others, while the Mozart… Well, it’s not by Mozart so you have to decide which completion you would list as the most important.  As for the Beethoven; great music, certainly, but so wholly unsympathetic towards the human voice it has to be discounted on the grounds that it is out of the reach of most choirs.  And, by that token, we must probably also rule out the Verdi Requiem and Berlioz Grande Messe de Morts.  I would be tempted to suggest that the fourth work is Haydn's Creation, but is that a better work than The Seasons or even some of his sublime Masses?

The creation in the 19th century of what we call the “Classical Canon”, that list of composers and works decreed by certain 19th century musicologists as being the apogee of musical creation, has led most to believe that great music can only originate from the 17th and 18th centuries, with a few exceptions reaching into the 19th.  So we tend to imagine that those “four major choral pieces” will be of that vintage.  But let’s forget those outdated notions, and look to music written in the last 100 years.  With the centenary of Britten this year, the War Requiem has been very much to the fore in the field of choral music, and there are many who would undoubtedly list this as the missing piece.  Not for me, though; as with Mendelssohn and Elgar, its flaws are too numerous to be ranked alongside Bach and Handel.  Even my very favourite 20th century choral work, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, could hardly stand comparison with such august company.  Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder must be in with a chance, given its monumental stature, while choirs have developed such a liking for the atmospheric doodlings Eric Whitacre and his chums, that I suspect there are quite a few around who might tentatively put their names forward without, perhaps, daring to suggest a single work.

It has not really crossed my mind before, but if asked to list the greatest choral works ever written, I can only think of three.  What does the Borneo Post know, that I do not?

25 November 2013

No Music from the Grassy Knoll

Mao, Khruschev, Kennedy and Napoleon
Who is the odd man out?

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, marked by TV and radio documentaries complete with grainy footage and crackly tape recordings, has vividly brought back to me memories of that day.  It has become something of a cliché to say that everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing the day President Kennedy was shot, but, certainly in my case, it’s true.  And why, I have often wondered, do I recall it so vividly?  I was a nine year old boy living in London, my horizons bounded by my bicycle, the big red buses which thundered past our front window, the 78 rpm records my father let me play on his old wind-up gramophone and, most importantly, the piano and my imminent grade 3 piano exam.  Like so many post-war English families (and the wartime damage wreaked on London was still very much with us – a huge bomb crater in the woods behind our house down which we all raced our bikes to see whether we could gain enough momentum to get up the other side without pedalling was our favourite playground), we regarded Americans with a certain dislike; many of my parents’ generation voiced their feelings with the statement that the “Yanks came into the war late, and then claimed they had won it”.  Despite the fact that my father worked in the Civil Service and that, during the War, my mother had been on Winston Churchill’s staff, we were a family without particularly strong political feelings; certainly nothing which percolated down to a nine-year-old boy obsessed with bikes, buses and Bach (I put that in for alliteration, but in truth Purcell was my favourite at the time).
Indeed, it was Purcell I was playing in the front room of our house at 655 Rochester Way, Eltham, when my father came in to tell me that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  This did not excite me at all, and my indifference clearly angered my father, as did my retort to his anger; “But you and Mum hate Americans”.  At that point he told me to stop playing the piano straight away and come into the back room where the tiny black-and-white television was replaying those unforgettable images of a slumped JFK cradled in Jackie’s arms in the back of a huge open-top car as it hurtled off to the hospital in panic.  I remember vividly that I was playing Purcell’s Prelude in C, a work which, while I was to play it a few years later for my Grade 5 (and, by a curious coincidence, it appears in this year’s Trinity grade 5 list), was not one I was learning for my Grade 3. (I do recall that the grade 3 pieces I had to play were pretty dire, and I responded with such disinterest that the examiner awarded me 104 for my efforts.)

That, though, is the only musical association I have with those events of November 1963.  One thing that has struck me vividly this weekend has been the marked lack of musical response to the assassination; you would have thought that an event regarded by the world at the time as something verging on the catastrophic would have prompted at least a few composers to try to get to grips with it through music, but hardly any did. Even two months after the event, by which time someone could surely have penned something significant (even if it was just adding words to, say, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings - that, however, was not to come until 1967), Kennedy’s requiem mass included music by Mozart, Bizet and Schubert; nothing, it would seem, from those very Americans who professed themselves so utterly devastated by their loss.  I have to confess that my information about Kennedy’s requiem mass is drawn from Wikipedia, so I cannot be at all sure of its reliability, but the fact remains, if anything did get written specifically for that occasion, it has been pretty much forgotten today. 
A year after the assassination, a few pieces did emerge.  Stravinsky wrote his Elegy for J.F.K. in 1964, but performances of it have been only marginally more numerous than assassinations of US presidents.  Rather more enduring, and certainly a lot more emotionally-charged, is Herbert Howell’s Take him, earth, for cherishing which he wrote, also, in 1964.  But what else was there?  I am sure that as soon as I have posted this a host of pieces will spring to mind (I’m sure there is an organ piece with the date of Kennedy’s death in its title, but I can find no mention of it anywhere). Musical responses to the 50th anniversary have been hardly more numerous.  While Hong Kong-born Conrad Tao wrote a work for the Dallas Symphony to perform (The World is Very Different Now - an odd title considering Tao was not even born when Kennedy was assassinated), the only other notable music event was what the Boston Globe advertised as; “Online-only livestream of a musical tribute in Kennedy’s honor, featuring James Taylor, saxophonist Paul Winter, and the US Naval Academy Women’s Glee Club”.  I find it amazing that an event which had repercussions which swept across the globe like a vast tsunami has created not even a ripple on the great lake of music written over the past 50 years.

In fact, when I come to think of it, the deaths of great world leaders have rarely triggered a musical response.   Even the death of that other iconic world figure of our time, for whom so few people had a bad word to say, Princess Diana, only inspired a reworking of a pre-existing piece by the late John Tavener.  Far more profound have been the musical responses to the deaths of “unknown” figures.  There’s Ravel’s matchless memorial to friends lost during the First World War, Le Tombeau de Couperin (I well remember a lengthy discussion with David Robinson over the obligatory bottles of wine at Chinoz in KL as to whether the Dreyfus immortalised by Ravel had any connection with the notorious Dreyfus Affair – I think we decided it could not), and profoundly moving works inspired by deaths of brothers, sons, fathers, mothers and friends.  Perhaps the great and good of the world don’t inspire passion from composers. 

There is one notable exception; Napoleon.  There is Beethoven’s homage to him in his Third Symphony - but then he excised that dedication, so it doesn’t really count.  But there have been numerous Napoleonic memorials in music since then. Louis Vierne wrote a memorable Marche Triomphale du centenaire de Napoléon I a pretty spectacular romp for brass and organ, Schoenberg wrote an Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, and even Johann Strauss II got in on the act with a waltz named Napoleon.

But that’s about it.  World leaders, political figures, kings, queens, emperors and soldiers, all of them seem to get the bums rush when it comes to music.  Perhaps, I have got it wrong and somewhere out there are great works dedicated to Kennedy, Khrushchev, Mao, Regan, Thatcher and the like which, somehow or other, have passed me by.  Do let me know if I’ve missed them.  And certainly please offer me any suggestions you might have as to why great figures in world affairs have not inspired great music.  For my part, I can offer no coherent explanation.

23 November 2013

Battling for Britten

Few music lovers in Britain will have been unaware that yesterday marked the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.  Even from the remote outpost of former empire, thousands of miles from the UK, where I’m currently based, distant echoes of Britten celebrations reached me - by courtesy of the inbuilt radio of my Smartphone which, from the day I bought it, has saved my sanity more than once with its ability to pick out the great radio stations of the world.  An eight hour time difference, the need to sleep and the obligations of a full working day meant that, unfortunately, all I heard of what BBC Radio 3 was putting on for the day were small trailers, but even that was better than the soprano sax hideously wailing a kind of moronic keening vaguely related to once beautiful Christmas Carols which invades every corner of my hotel.  One trailer included the phrase; “Benjamin Britten was England’s greatest composer”.
Long gone are the days when a Radio 3 commentary offered mildly scholarly information delivered with impersonal authority.  In place has come a colloquial chattiness which places personal opinion over factual statement.  I have to admit I quite like it, even if I still yearn for the days of Patricia Hughes and the sense of unambiguous superiority she brought to the role (if she said it, it HAD to be true).  So when a voice on Radio 3 tells me that “Benjamin Britten was England’s greatest composer”, I don’t accept this as fact but rather as a statement of opinion.  In my lectures, talks and writings I frequently do exactly the same thing; make a bald statement of apparently unarguable fact so outrageous and extreme that those who hear or read it are driven to question it and, hopefully, create an argument during which ideas are shared and opinions formulated or modified.  It matters to me that people think and talk about music, and argue over it; it keeps it alive and fresh in people’s minds, and shows that it still matters to us.  Told that “Benjamin Britten was England’s greatest composer”, I immediately start to dispute the statement.

Very few composers in history have polarised opinions among music lovers more than Britten.  There are those who regard him as, unquestionably, one of the truly great composers of the last century, and others who find in his music nothing of any interest or value.  A discussion in a bar after a concert (in which the Cello Symphony had been performed) led one of those present to challenge us to “show me one real tune Britten ever wrote”, claiming that all good melodies in Britten came from other composers (Folk Song settings, Purcell Variations, Frank Bridge Variations, and so on).  Britten is either regarded as “great” or “terrible”, and comparatively few people seem to take the middle ground.

Putting my cards firmly on the table, I must say that Britten is by no means a composer whose music I consistently like or even admire.  I cannot find it in me to enthuse over the War Requiem or Albert Herring, while most of the purely instrumental works leave me cold; the fact that I once attempted to foist the dire Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria on an unsuspecting audience sends me into a cold sweat.  I recognise the touches of genius in Peter Grimes and the Sinfonia da Requiem, although neither work is one for which I have any affection, but I do profess a personal liking for the Rejoice in the Lamb, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and many of the folk song settings. Generally, though, I look with indifference on the 105 CDs I have in my personal collection which feature Britten, and rarely, if ever, taken them off the shelf purely for listening pleasure.  Personal dislike is one thing, and mine certainly has no bearing on whether or not Britten was “the greatest English composer”.  But the very fact that someone went so far as to make that claim has me trying to find an alternative name to knock Britten off that elevated perch. 

Elgar made it on to British bank note
What of Elgar?  Certainly his Enigma Variations and Cello Concerto have far wider appeal and seem to get far more frequent performances than any orchestral work by Britten, while The Dream of Gerontius certainly gives the War Requiem a run for its money.  And while we can dismiss a lot of Elgar as being too flavoured by English patriotism to have much relevance to the international music-loving public, that same charge could certainly be levelled against at least some of Britten’s music (notably Gloriana).  Evens pretty split there, I think, and I would not like to argue the case for Elgar too strongly, much as I prefer a lot of his music to Britten’s. 

There are many who would (and do) proclaim William Byrd as “the greatest English composer”.  The trouble is, his music resonates only with a relatively small and select group of musicians, and while wide appeal does not, in itself, confer greatness, it has to be taken into consideration. 

Purcell made it on to a postage stamp

So what about Henry Purcell? 
Frequently Britten is listed as “the greatest English composer since Purcell”, implying that the two are, at the very least, on a par with each other.  I would be more willing to press Purcell’s claim, not least because Dido and Aeneas has to be in a league of its own in the opera house, while even Britten held that great tune from Abdelazar in high esteem.  Purcell has certainly achieved a greater level of popularity in our own time than almost any other English composer, appearing on a postage stamp and actually making it into the rich tapestry of recent fiction (Diana Norman’s 1994 romp through 17th century London – The Vizard Mask - has Purcell hovering there in a delicious cameo role) and his death - interestingly exactly 218 years before Britten was born - has spawned at least as many legends and conspiracy theories as Mozart’s (I particularly like the story of his wife locking him out of the house overnight and emptying a chamber pot over him – causing him to die from exposure).  The trouble with Purcell is that his genius was rather stifled by the constraints of his age, and the passage of time has led to much of his original music surviving only out of its proper context.  And you can’t fairly judge a composer for good or ill on those terms.

It appears the greatest achievement
of any humn being in the field of
music was written with the
Left Hand
A correspondent to this blog some time ago suggested that Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem in Alium, is one of the greatest achievements of any human being in the field of music, and I’m inclined to agree.  A concert I heard given by The Sixteen recently, which included a sequence of Tallis hymn tunes, only reinforced my very high opinion of him as a truly great composer.  And for many church musicians, Orlando Gibbons is a name to be held in awe, even if, like Byrd, his name has not moved very far beyond ecclesiastical musical circles.

While I might pass quickly on over my 105 discs of Britten, I invariably linger long and lovingly over the 47 with music by William Walton.  Without a scintilla of doubt, I prefer everything by I have heard by Walton to everything I have heard by Britten.  My heart races to that tantalising, pulsating start to the First Symphony, sounding like so many F1 cars racing their throttles on the starting grid (albeit in the far distance), and when it does get going, not a moment disappoints.  And few, if any musical works, excite, move and simply electrify me like Belshazzar’s Feast.  Which, if any, Britten opera so cleverly mingles slapstick humour with high artistic ideals and ingenious musical references as Walton’s The Bear? The Viola Concerto, Façade, the Coronation Te Deum…every one, for me, up there with the greatest music ever written by an Englishman and, unlike both Elgar and Britten, he had the gift of producing patriotic tunes which transcend a patriotic audience.  Crown Imperial sends shivers down the spine of even the most ardent republican, while the jazzy whoops of Orb and Sceptre may now seem dated, but they certainly don’t reek of stuffy Englishness.  Walton was a film composer par excellence.  True, Britten may have been rather limited by his role in providing music for government propaganda films (is Night Mail remembered most for Auden’s words or Britten’s music?) while Walton had the great good fortune to supply music for Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare movies, but there are passages from Walton’s Shakespeare film scores, not to mention his score for the war-time classic First of the Few, which are probably better known than the films themselves.
Walton, though, has never earned much support in academic circles.  On the other hand the “trendy lefties” of 1970s and 80s musical thought regarded Michael Tippett as their great God, and I remember a wonderful lecture given by Arnold Whittall in which he suggested that the Tippett and Britten (still very much alive in those days) were the major composers of our age.  I wonder where his thoughts lie today?  Certainly Tippett’s star has dipped some way below the horizon, and I was appalled recently to hear someone promoting A Child of Our Time – for me a work of extraordinary power and vision – on the assumption that it was a forgotten masterpiece.  Perhaps she was right, but I keep a flicker of a flame burning for Tippett and would point to The Vision of St Augustine and the Midsummer Marriage as truly great works.

We tend to gloss over a whole host of significant composers in our desire to find the “greatest”.  Vaughan Williams once carried that label in many people’s eyes, and there are still those who have a profound passion for his symphonies (a passion I, for one, find utterly unfathomable), while for me the really great English symphonists were Bax and, especially, Stanford.  The latter may have been Irish, and his symphonies rather more flavoured by Brahms than we could overlook, but his contribution to English music was certainly more deep-seated and profound than Britten’s.  A fellow university student urged me to seek out the Symphony in G minor by Moeran, proclaiming it “the greatest ever English symphony”, and for a time I agreed.  In fact, I only came to see its flaws when an incredibly dire performance of it was given by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra under Kevin Field, and I began to see that it was a work which relied on an incisive conductor, a cutting-edge orchestra and a sympathetic audience to bring out its glories.  And that rather diminishes its stature as a work of universal greatness.
Some of the greatest music by English composers certainly eclipses even Britten at his finest.  Holst brought something extraordinarily visionary to music with The Planets. Did any composer ever show such a natural affinity with a specific geographical location in his music than Herbert Howells?  Could any composer elevate the mundane to the ethereal through a few simple bars than Delius with his “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” near the end of his great opera A Village Romeo and Juliet?

These are all examples of great music by English composers.  But does this really get us closer to deciding which composer was really the greatest of them all? 
Of course, it’s not just a pointless exercise, it is also a hugely stupid one.  Does anybody ever ask who was the greatest German composer, the greatest Austrian composer, the greatest Italian composer, even the greatest French composer?  No.  To ask such a question, and certainly to attempt to answer it, is to belittle the whole nation’s music.  Britten was unquestionably a superb composer, possibly even a great one, but he would be the last person to diminish all the other composers from Tallis to Tippett by singling one out as special.  Over the last 700 years England has bred marvellous composers – there are plenty of them at work at the moment – it would be a devastating indictment on those centuries of achievement to suggest that in all that time, only one truly great one has emerged.