31 December 2011

Mahler and the Organ

Gustav Mahler’s writing for the organ is confined to a few chords and pedal notes mostly supporting the chorus in the Second and Eighth symphonies, and a breathtakingly unidiomatic pseudo-continuo role in the first movement of his Suite after the Orchestral Works of J S Bach.  True, Mahler himself recognised the un-organistic nature of his writing in that last work by suggesting that what he wrote was “a sketch which should bear, in general, the character of a free improvisation”; in other words, “don’t play what I’ve written, make up something better”.

For a composer universally hailed as one of the great orchestrators of the late 19th century, such an obvious inability to write for an instrument or to recognise its value in an orchestral texture seems somewhat strange.  After all, Richard Strauss used the organ to riveting effect in many of his scores (and wrote for it in a distinctly idiomatic fashion too), as did Respighi, Wagner, Bartók and Elgar.  Admittedly Rimsky-Korsakov never wrote organ parts in his scores, but the organ was virtually unknown in Russia at the time so we can excuse him.  Ravel, too, avoided the instrument, but for French composers - more so even than German, Italian or English ones - the organ was so inseparably bound up with the church that they found it difficult to fit into a purely secular composition.  (No excuse, I know; Saint-Saëns was a prolific writer for the organ out of an ecclesiastical context.)

One could suggest that Mahler’s Jewish heritage effectively closed the door on the organ for him: but that does not hold water, not least because he DID use it in two works which celebrate Christian ethical concepts.  Perhaps he considered the organ too inseparably associated with religion to put into a secular score: yet how does that square with his use of it in a work which celebrates Bach’s secular rather than sacred music?  No, there is some other reason why Mahler avoided the organ – other, of course, than the obvious conclusion that he disliked it.

Perhaps the fact that he spent much of his professional life in Vienna holds the clue.  It might seem odd to suggest this, but let’s look at Viennese-based composers and the organ.  Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all played the organ to a level at which they were at various times employed as professional organists, yet they seemed to avoid it like the plague when it came to writing serious music.  Schoenberg, Berg and Webern also gave it a miss as did the Strauss family – the only organ writing I can recall in Johann Strauss the younger is his weird but charming Hochzeits-Praeludium which is hardly a work intended for public consumption.  Bruckner, you would have thought, would have put the organ in just about everything he wrote.  But no, he may have treated the orchestra like an organ, adding and subtracting instruments like an organist pulling out and pushing in handfuls of stops, but when it came to combining organ with an orchestra, he never did it.  Franz Schmidt did – and to good effect too – but he is hardly a household name, and neither in Anton Heiller who was one of the very few Viennese composers to write a substantial body of organ music.  So, can we suggest that living in Vienna prejudices a composer against the organ?  That might explain Mahler’s reluctance to add such a potent colour to his orchestral mix.

But there is more to it than that.  Mahler seems not to transfer to the organ even at the hands of someone especially gifted in turning orchestral music into organ sound.  Apart from a handful of transcriptions of the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, few have tried to transcribe Mahler for the organ.  Yet his large and colourful scores, with their vast dynamic and expressive range might seem natural fodder to a keen transcriber.  One who has done much to put Mahler on to the organ is British organist, improviser extraordinaire and assiduous transcriber, David Briggs.  I’ve just reviewed (for Gramophone) a recording of his transcription of the Sixth Symphony and found the experience, to put it in a nutshell, weird.  It doesn’t sound like Mahler at all, and one is painfully aware how much aimless note-spinning there is in the original score.  Nothing sounds right or natural, and while Briggs gives a devastatingly brilliant account of his music, and the mere fact that he has transcribed this massive score in its entirety, is evidence enough of an extraordinary musical talent, one is left ultimately wondering why he did it.  It certainly offers no new or valuable insight into Mahler’s creative process and certainly doesn’t add anything of significant value to the repertoire of the organ.

The fact is Mahler and the organ just don’t go together.

22 December 2011

Music on the Cheap

This is the time of year when television news programmes root out stories which purport to show how the Spirit of Goodwill To All Men permeates even the most austere realms of officialdom.  You know the sort of thing; the Norwegian Post Office employing a full-time staff to ensure all letters posted to Santa Claus are answered personally, the front office staff at the Tax Office donning Santa Claus hats, supermarkets handing out all their left-over perishable goods to children’s homes on Christmas Eve, and so on. 

The one that caught my eye this year was about staff at the Trading Standards Department of Wandsworth Borough Council (the council where my good friend Peter Almond spends his waking hours – including, it seems, all of Christmas – being astonishingly courteous to members of the public who call up to complain at all hours of the day and night) who, going about the grim task of confiscating fake designer-label garments from market traders and back-street shops, have chosen not to destroy the goods but pass them on to a church which painstakingly removes the fake labels and sews in their own legitimate ones.  The church then gives these garments away free to the homeless.  It was a truly heart-warming story, and had a nice extra moral about it in that the church had recently been given permission to use a former fake-goods factory in the area in order to re-brand the illicit goods professionally.

True, when the motley assortment of tramps and winos who had been presented with formerly-fake Gucci, Guess, Levi, Miss Selfridge and whatever else people seem to think warrants and extra pair of noughts on the price tag, were asked what they thought, they were, to a man, deeply unimpressed; “It’s OK”, said one, of his rebranded North Face anorak, “All right, I suppose”, said another from the depths of a quilted Formerly-Known-As-Barbour.  I wondered if they might not have been more enthusiastic had the church left the fake labels on.  But, there again, it might just be that designer clothes, fake or real, are more about appearance than practicality.  The point was, illegal copying of goods, useless or otherwise, is being ruthlessly stamped out in Wandsworth (God Bless It), but is being done so this Christmas with a humane face.

Perhaps next year the story might be of an equally conscientious council in the Far East exporting briquettes made from the pulped paper used to produce pirated music to heat the homes of freezing Euro-bereft Europeans, or sent to India as material to fill pot-holes.  Certainly there are vast quantities of such material just waiting to be confiscated, and would-be confiscators would do well to look first at the choirs of the region.  I don’t suppose there is a single choir in the whole of south east Asia that possesses more than one copy of each work they sing; my estimate is that there are 10,000 singers for every original copy, but I suspect that is ridiculously conservative.

A few days ago I attended a choral concert of Christmas music given by a collective of south east Asian choirs.  It was a lovely occasion and despite a certain tackiness (an inevitable side-effect of Christmas concerts anywhere), musically it was well worth the hefty admission fee. 

But… Five choirs, five conductors, five pianists.  Original copies?  None.  True to form, the singers had no music with them on stage (which caused a certain discomfort with the arms and hands which was only alleviated by the horrible inevitability of synchronised movements) but one could almost hear the clatter of clear-folders stuffed to the brim with photocopied sheets being cast aside in the wings as they all filed on stage. 

No such pretence for conductors and pianists, all of whom marched on with their clear plastic folders, glinting in the stage lights and revealing page after page of badly photocopied extracts from Carols for Choirs and the like.

I can sympathise with those who find it difficult to sort through the pages of a large carol book to find the next item, and with those whose books are so new they have yet to crack the bindings and sit flat on the music stand.  But we all know this is a fiction.  Why buy when you can steal, is the choral motto.  How I wish they adopted a similar attitude to their Mercs, BMWs and Porsches.  Yet, for some reason, while music should be free for all – after all, it’s only fun – driving a state of the art German automobile – which is a fatal weapon both directly and indirectly - should be the unique preserve of the wealthy.

Choral societies are the worst offenders, but by no means the only ones.  Once the trading standards people have taught them not to steal, they might start to look elsewhere.  The greatest Christmas present for those of us who make our living out of music would be some serious legal attempts to stop people getting our product for free and then, effectively profiting from it by charging an audience to witness the fruits of their theft.  Only when music is appreciated as a costly necessity rather than a cheap accessory will people begin to value it.

06 December 2011

Liszt, Lang Lang, Lunacy

Two of the major composers in the long history of music fail to find a sympathetic ear with me.  It will come as no great surprise to readers of this blog that I do not really enjoy the music of either Chopin or Liszt.  I admire what they did, I respect the admiration with which their compositions are greeted by the great mass of music lovers and I recognise myself the marks of genius in their music.  I acknowledge them as major composers; I just don't like the sound of their music.

Trying to be objective, I think my problem with Chopin are the superficial layers of pianism obscuring the core of the writing.  The genius lies in the harmonic adventurousness and the elevation to distinctive genres of previously inconsequential musical forms.  The re-defining of idiomatic piano writing was probably his greatest gift to music; but I just baulk at what I see as excessive and often quite pointless ornamentation and florid decoration.  Too many arpeggios and complicated quasi-improvisatory passagework add, for me, an excessive sweetness which is utterly cloying.

With Liszt, my objections are more easily voiced.  Simply put, he wrote too much and had no concept of self-restraint.  Self indulgence is probably an essential aspect of any composer's psyche; with Liszt, however, it just goes too far and I find his music, in the main, tasteless.  It doesn't help that, unlike so many admirers, I am left cold by flashy displays of extreme pianistic virtuosity.  I can't get thrilled by the idea of a man so taken up with his own greatness that he labelled a set of his piano pieces "Transcendental" studies – I merely find them pointless exercises in technical proficiency.  Nor can I really take seriously someone who wrote a musical diary about his "Years of Pilgrimage", decades after the events he purported to depict.  The organ music is, with a couple of exceptions, agonisingly dreary, and while I respect the genius of someone who could come up with the concept of a Symphonic Poem, I find his own forays into the genre little short of embarrassing.  Hearing the Singapore Symphony Orchestra programme two of them alongside one of Richard Strauss, it was pretty obvious that Strauss had an infinitely better grasp of the genre's potential than had Liszt.  (It was quite an interesting programming choice, which might have worked better under a more mature and authoritative conductor, but that's another story.)

However, I found myself leaping to Liszt's defence when I attended a talk about him the other day.  The speaker falling into the trap all speakers fall into (myself especially) of equating a figure from history with modern life, came up with all the usual things; Liszt the first rock star (because of his legions of female admirers), Liszt the great showman (with his flowing white hair and pseudo-clerical garb), Liszt the tireless performer (800 concerts in a 10-year period, or some such statistic).  And then he did the outrageous thing of showing a clip of Lang Lang doing unspeakable things on a piano keyboard and saying something like "This is the modern-day Liszt".

No it is not.  Liszt was a great artist, unquestionably a brilliant pianist and very clearly a sensitive musician.  Lang Lang is a brilliant pianist.  Full stop.


Not a wart in sight
Warts and All
Liszt was an extremely ugly man, with a face full of warts and physical properties of a pig.  You can't begin to translate him into a society where physical appearance is everything.  Today we go by looks and only then endeavour to find some substance. In Liszt's day society went by substance, and physical appearance mattered not a jot.  We could say it was Liszt himself who began to change that, by creating a physical appearance which was, if you like, the icing on the cake of the artistic substance.  But what those legions of female admirers saw in Liszt was a man of great artistic skill.  They admired his brain, his fingers, his heart.  His antics were immaterial to their admiration of him.

Lang Lang is an extremely handsome man, with a face as pure as the driven snow and the physical properties of a sculpted movie star.  Thousands of dollars' worth of grooming, carefully selected photography shots and a portfolio of poses to go on to record sleeves, concert programmes, publicity posters and Rolex commercials have created a look which is immediately attractive even to those who believe a piano is a small box with the word Roland printed in large letters between the various inputs and outputs on its back.

Lang Lang is also a peculiarly gifted pianist.  I have never forgotten a BBC interview he gave seated at a piano.  At one pointed he illustrated what he had to say by playing just two chords.  I have never heard anyone play two chords so arrestingly.  There was something in the tone, the touch the balance, the sense of leading somewhere which completely caught my attention.  Had I not known it was Lang Lang and heard those chords while doing something else, I would have stopped everything there and then simply to savour the sound.  Few, if any, pianists have ever had that effect on me.  He has the indefinable gift of touch, which no amount of showmanship can completely disfigure, and that makes him a pianist in a million.  I imagine Liszt had the same skill.

But comparisons stop there.  Lang Lang, great pianist maybe, but a very, very pale shadow of the totality of Liszt.  It's quite wrong for us to equate the great men of the past with the popular idols of today.  That only cheapens the concept of artistic greatness.  Whether you like his music of not, Liszt was a one-off, a unique figure whose like we will not see in our lifetimes.  Let's not try to diminish his stature by comparing him with a far lesser mortal.

02 December 2011

Why Music Theory?

The study of musical theory, especially at pre-university/conservatory level, is very rare.  The apparent spike of interest in the subject amongst younger students is wholly due to the obligation on those taking ABRSM graded practical exams at grade 6 and beyond to have passed a grade 5 theory exam.  Educationally this makes sense, as a basic understanding in theory is absolutely essential in anyone wanting to take music in any shape or form seriously.  But in reality it probably does more harm than good, since those teaching it are usually instrumental teachers whose obligation is to get their students to pass the exam and so, themselves, have a very peripheral interest in and knowledge of the subject.  Music theory is one of those subjects which is uniformly badly taught and becomes a matter of deep interest only once the student has broken away from the teacher and has the time and luxury to investigate its charms unaided.

The charms of theoretical trills!
Enough to make Beethoven go mad?
I love musical theory, but readily confess to having hated it as a student.  All those hours spent dissecting trills into upper and lower auxiliaries, counting up the number of notes to make the required multiples of four, working out whether to add a triplet or quintuplet to get it to finish on the right note, the murky world of mordents, inverted mordents, turns on the notes, turns after the note, not to mention learning by rote those reams of alien Italian, German and French terms and remembering names for harmless little signs which you had no problem playing, but never knew their proper name – is that an appoggiatura or an acciaccatura, is that a tenuto sign of a marcato sign?   When I did my statutory study of theory to get through ABRSM grade 5, my teacher made no attempt to instil any enthusiasm into the subject nor, indeed, relate it to what I was doing in my practical lessons, and, despite getting the usual 99 marks in the exam (ABRSM used to – perhaps still do – mark theory exams out of 99 merely to imply that nobody could ever get 100; something they certainly still do in practical exams, banning their examiners from issuing top marks at any level) I remained completely disinterested in theory right through my university days.

And that dislike of theory is widespread.  Ask teachers and students why they choose to do Trinity practical exams over ABRSM at the upper grades, almost always the response is, "Because Trinity doesn't need you to do any theory". 

Superficially, this is absolutely right; there is no theory pre-qualification demanded at any stage in the Trinity exams.  In actuality, however, it is wrong, for there is a theoretical element in all Trinity practical exams.  This might take the form of Musical Knowledge questions - which by grade 4 require a pretty extensive knowledge of key relationships and modulations and by grade 5 extend to an understanding or musical form and structure, while all the way along expecting a thorough understanding of the signs, terms and ornaments the students encounter in the music they play – or Aural Tests – which are based around the aural (and from grade 3 visual) identification of those same elements in a piece of music.  On top of that, just as in any other exam board, an understanding of theory is essential for a successful performance of the set pieces.  How can you, for example, give a good performance of a Grade 3 Gigue if you do not understand the concept of compound time or, at its most basic, play a Grade 1 Allegro, if you do not know what Allegro means?  Theory is part and parcel of any musical performance, and it is a shame that, if it is taught at all, it is generally done execrably.

I often allude to what I describe as the Dolce question.  Ask a student what Dolce means and they will nearly all answer "Sweetly".  Correct, so far as it goes, but then ask them what that means and they are stumped.  If a composer writes Dolce above a phrase, just knowing what Dolce means is pointless; you need to apply the theoretical knowledge to the practicality of a performance.  Theory is an integral part of any performance, not an adjunct to allow you to pass on to higher grades.

It is a matter of constant amazement to me how teachers so often fail to connect the theoretical with the practical in their lessons.  After hearing a succession of grade 6 students rushing through a Vivaldi Largo with no concept as to what Largo meant and a plethora of young children spoil their chances of a good exam result by assuming leggiero to be synonymous with legato, my irritation with bad teaching got the better of me and I raised the issue at a teachers' meeting.  To my horror I realised that this failure to teach anything other than the mechanical of producing the sound and the literacy skills necessary to read the notes is the norm rather than the exception.

My understanding is that whatever appears on the page in front of the student needs to be taught.  From the title down to the page number there are implications on the performance.  Before you even play a note, if you see that the piece is called Waltz, has a key signature of one sharp and ends on a chord of E, is in ¾ time, is marked doloroso and begins with a piano dynamic, you have a very good idea what the music's message is – this is going to be a slow, sad, perhaps ghostly echo of a ballroom dance.  With that information to hand, how much easier it's going to be for the student to learn the piece, rather than merely learning all the notes and then wondering, after a fast, lively, loud and cheerful performance, why the examiner has failed it.

I was, to a certain extent, rather hoist with my own petard when I set an exam for conservatory students recently.  Presenting them with a couple of pages from an unlabelled score, I asked them to come up with a suggestion as to the work and composer from the evidence on the score.  It was a Haydn Minuet and Trio from a String Quartet and I was expecting comments about style; harmonic relationships, writing for instruments, regular phrase structures, etc. etc..  A number, however, noticed at the very bottom of the page, photocopied from a miniature score, the tiny legend "H-46678".  Trained to look for everything on the page they quite rightly suggested that this was the publisher's code and that H probably stood for Haydn.  Quite right; but how many students, inculcated with ABRSM grade 5 would have shown such insight?