08 October 2018

Baroque Baloney

A Giant by virtue of ability or an accident of time?

Over the weekend Singapore staged a Baroque Festival.  I’m not sure that three very short programmes containing barely three hours of music in total by three composers (and a part of a fourth) constitutes a true “Festival”, but I am open to persuasion either way.  What concerns me more is the use of the word “Baroque”.

You do not have to have read many of my blog posts to know that I am strongly opposed to what I regard as the seriously flawed practice of using the word Baroque as a synonym for a specific period of world history.  We might all have been taught in our grade 5 theory lessons, or at our High School music classes, that every and any composer writing music between the years 1600 and 1750 was Baroque, but at various times in our history we have also been taught that cigarette smoking is an acceptable social habit, that asbestos is a wonderful material for use in domestic buildings, that a woman’s place is in the home bearing children and caring for her husband’s every need, and that same sex relationships are repugnant.  Just as we now recognise that those attitudes fail because they misrepresent health considerations, and demean both women and homosexuals, so we should recognise that to lump every composer together by coincidence of dates is similarly to misrepresent and demean their individuality and the value of their music.

Any composer is influenced by a whole raft of things - culture, geographical location, technology, personal relationships, individual sexuality, gender and social standing - before the accident of time.  Do we look at today’s USA, with its idiosyncratic political attitudes, at today’s North Korea with its oppressive and dictatorial government, at Saudi Arabia with its unshakeable belief in its inalienable right to administer life and death to its subjects, or to Singapore with its comfortable, safe and unexciting life-style, and say that everybody thinks and does the same by virtue of the fact that they are all alive in 2018?  We do not do that in our 21st century, so why do we see no incongruity in making those very assumptions of sameness in earlier centuries? 

Almost every child who has had a few superficial lessons in music history can trot out the statement that Baroque comes from an Old Portuguese word meaning deformed pearl.  That may (or may not) be correct, but do any of them (or their teachers) take it any further and ask why music should be likened to a deformed pearl, be it Portuguese or any other nationality?

The application of the word Baroque to music was first recorded in a highly derogatory critique of Rameau published in 1733.  It was, in short, a term of abuse and ridicule.  Rameau, for his part, relished controversy and contention, and I suspect he deliberately had written music which was seen as the antithesis of his French counterparts.  Set beside the clean, clear, no-nonsense rhythms, harmonies and melodies, of Couperin and Charpentier, Rameau was almost gleefully wayward, introducing complex inner distractions and confusing outer details to which the description of a “deformed pearl” must have seemed utterly appropriate.  I think we might suggest, even, that Rameau was deliberately courting controversy and attempting to trigger debate.

So how is it that a composer like Bach, who, in his music at least, was never controversial (even if, in life, he was anything but simple and uncontentious) has ended up not just being described as “deformed” but celebrated as the most “deformed” composer of all time?

The answer lies in the passion amongst educationalists in the early 20th century to put everything into boxes with neat little labels so that it was readily comprehensible to the ignorant masses.  Sadly, music education – always slow to change with the times – has got itself stuck in that rut, and still loves its boxes and labels.  How much easier it is to describe all those myriad composers who lived and worked between 1600 and 1750 as “Baroque” than to endeavour to identify them with the kind of unique set of circumstances which have ensured that their names and their music have been preserved into posterity.  Gardeners talk of Bedding Plants and Perennials when suggesting to amateurs what to grow and where – and there is some value in this – but by doing the same thing with music, we do it a big disservice.  “Let’s begin our programme with Baroque and then move to Classical before finishing with Modern”, is the mantra of bad piano teachers and weak-kneed pianists when planning programmes.  Forget issues such as tonality, style, character and impact.  You can have a programme comprising three pieces all called “Prelude in D” provided they are taken out of different historical boxes, yet a programme of Powerful Opening Statement , Long Sonata, and exciting Toccata is deemed unacceptable since they all have come out of the “Modern” box; no historical variety here, so bad programme!

That inability to identify variety when it stares you in the face, because you are blinded by the label on the box, was the big flaw in this Baroque Festival.  We had a concert of Bach.  Yes, we could argue that Bach is a true Baroque composer, in that his music is complex, often difficult to comprehend and usually quite astonishingly deformed.  Various theses are propounded to justify Bach’s love of Bach’s love of counterpoint; that he intended his music to be incomprehensible to man and comprehensible only to God, that he was so fascinated by mathematical formulae that he allowed it to govern his approach to writing music, and that his obsession with the mechanical intricacies of the organ led him to write music which celebrated mechanical workings above all else.  Whichever argument you put forward, the fact is that Bach wrote the way he did because of the technological, cultural, intellectual and social circumstances not of his day but of his geographical location and his professional position. 

That said, the other two composers in this festival came from very different backgrounds.  Purcell was English.  At the time England was tearing itself apart with political and religious divisions; divisions in which music played a pivotal role.  The restoration of the theatre to the hub of social life in Purcell’s London, the emergent Anglican Church and the way singers were recruited and trained all had a bearing on the way he wrote his music.  There was no sense that he was writing music to be appreciated only by God – his music had to be appreciated by the large mass of people being enticed back to music after a period of musical famine.  There is nothing in Purcell’s background which points to a fascination with mathematics or machines.  So in every respect he was different from Bach.  He spoke a different language, he breathed a different air, he answered to different employers with different agendas, and he lived in a very different city.  He happened to live (briefly) around the same time as Bach, but while that would seem to be of no significance whatsoever, it so happens that they both lived at a time which music historians have packaged up and labelled as “Baroque”, so we lump them both together and consider them as closely related. 

This undermines them both as individual composers, but particularly hard-hit has been poor Purcell.  19th century historians defined Baroque in such a way that Bach’s music was the ultimate example of it, so the further a composer was from writing like Bach, the less good he was.  Purcell’s music is nothing like Bach’s, so he is, by extension, a much worse composer.  And for years poor old Purcell has been castigated as inferior to Bach because both have been labelled Baroque.  Let’s turn it on its head and suggest that beside Purcell, Bach’s music for the theatre was so absolutely dreadful that it has all been lost, and that since it is virtually impossible to play any of Bach’s organ music on the English organs of Purcell’s time, he was not as good an organ composer as was Purcell.  Nonsense?  And yet how many reading this call Bach “great” purely on the evidence that he could write Fugues well and could retrospectively be assessed against a set of phantom ethics devised a century later to define a theoretical period of musical history?

The third composer was Handel.  When it comes to fitting into a box, he was so large and expansive that no box was ever conceived which could accommodate him.  Yet, once again, he was a “Baroque” composer for this festival, and music written for a very different place, a very different society, a very different audience and under very different circumstances than either Bach or Purcell, was presented as if it was their equal.

In short three composers, from three very different backgrounds, writing in very different places and for very different audiences, had nothing in common to link them other than the accident of living around the same time.  If that’s sufficient to build a coherent festival, why not build one based on composers whose names begin with R, with composers born in the month of April, or composers who are known to have preferred wine to beer.  It makes as much sense as lumping together composers living around the same time in history, but lacks the enticing attraction of a single label.

I mentioned part of a fourth composer.  Well, in one of the concerts we heard Bach’s transcription of a Vivaldi Concerto.  Only a stone deaf gorilla might have mistaken Vivaldi for Bach, proof positive, I would have thought, that the term Baroque has no validity in assessing individual musical styles.  Yet the cursory programme notes (written, I would imagine, by an eager if ill-informed student) persisted in calling this Bach’s Organ Concerto.  For some reason, there is an attitude abroad which suggests that Vivaldi is not the kind of composer which respectable festivals like to play alongside the music of Bach.  When it comes to Baroque, what we really mean is Bach is best and nobody else is worth serious consideration.

04 October 2018

Who is Music? What is She?

Long ago I came to the conclusion that music is indefinable.  Everybody knows what music is, but when you ask them to define it they either offer you their emotional response (“music is beautiful”), define the kind of music they like (“harmonious sounds”), or use such a wide-ranging and generalistic description that, while it encompasses what most people regard as music, goes on to describe things which most people do not consider to be music (“music is organised sound”). I have my own sense of what music is, which I occasionally attempt to contain within words, but since I can identify innumerable flaws in my definition, I certainly do not wish to share it with anyone.

One thing we can all agree on is that music, at the very least, is communicated by means of sound.  Which is not to say that music can exist without sound – following the beliefs of the ancient civilizations in Greece and China, I subscribe to the notion that music exists without sound and that the desire to contain music within sound places considerable limitations on the scope and range of music.

Proof of this comes in the music of Bach.  Nothing annoys me more (well, actually, an awful lot of things do, but let’s put that to one side for the moment!) than people who describe Bach’s music as “beautiful”.  To reduce some of the highest artistic achievements of human civilization to the level of bikini-clad females parading on a cat-walk, or the visual appeal of plate of pork sausages and mashed potatoes, is, in itself, little short of outrageous.  But we must know that, were we to be transported – Dr Who and Tardis-like – to 1730s Leipzig, we would be absolutely appalled by what we heard.  Shambolic music making, grotesquely out of tune, ill-balanced and largely swallowed up in an acoustic haze and obscured by the noise of people both in and outside the church, (and let’s not forget the distractions of the dreadful stench of unwashed people and unsanitary conditions, and the innumerable open sores and disfigurations of a people yet to be subjected to systematic health care), it would strike us as anything but beautiful.  In our time, carefully tended and respectful performances of Bach’s music put it on a high pedestal and wrap it up in highly-manicured sound so that to our 21st century ears its beauty is so arresting as to be its dominant feature.  Yet even if 18th century ears had a wholly different perception of beauty, I remain unconvinced that Bach ever intended his music to be beautiful.  Indeed, I am absolutely certain that he would be horrified to feel that the sound of his music was regarded as so beautiful as to obscure (even annihilate) the fundamental message of Christian faith he was trying to promulgate.  We like our beauty in the 21st century; I tend to feel that for most people in earlier ages, beauty was a luxury so rare that many never thought to appreciate or even identify it.  But, of course, that’s open to debate. What intrigues me is the relationship between music and sound. 

Attending a programme presented recently by student composers, I was very conscious that what these students were doing was not writing music so much as experimenting with sound.  And since sound is the means by which a composer communicates musical ideas, it is absolutely right and proper that they should be encouraged to experiment and explore the possibilities of sound without necessarily attempting to harness it in the service of music.  Each student stood up and outlined their intentions.  (Unfortunately, while they had all been taught to use an amazing panoply of actual and computerized sounds, nobody had told them how to utter words down a microphone so that they were discernible amongst the audience in the body of the hall.)  From the often garbled collation of indistinct vowel sounds (Singaporeans avoid consonants with the same steely determination that left-wing British politicians avoid sounding the letter T) I was able to make out that these students had very different objectives in their various sound explorations.  That being the case, as a colleague confided in me afterwards, it was astonishing that they all sounded more-or-less the same.  But the fact remains that here were some intelligent and fascinating experiments in sound which, if applied to a musical composition, would certainly open the way for a more wide-ranging channel of communication.

It is usual for those with little musical understanding to dismiss any music they do not like as “noise”, and we can point to innumerable examples through history where great musical works have been so disparaged (Pravda describing Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “Muddle instead of Music”, Hanslick describing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as “giving off a bad smell” and  “does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would not write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff, if he could invent a melody?" from an American review of La mer).  But to describe any music as “noise” is to reveal a fundamental ignorance as to what music is; and since nobody is quite sure what music is, perhaps we are all guilty of such ignorance.

However, I am delighted that in our conservatory, at least, we are inculcating an understanding that sound and music may be related but are by no means synonymous.  Budding composers need to work with sound, but if they can appreciate that sound is a tool, not an end in itself, we are breeding a better crop of composers than many of those who came through the 1960s and 1970s where experimentation in sound became the very raison d’etre of a musical composition.  Many back then agreed with Beecham’s famous quote about Stockhausen (“I’ve never heard any but I think I may have trod in some”), seeing in his flippant words a deeper awareness that sound in itself does not create a lasting or valuable work of art. 

Perhaps the most intriguing consequence of this attitude comes in the figure of a recent alumnus from the conservatory, a young man by the name of Mervin Wong, whose fascination with the properties and uses of sound have led to him carving a special niche for himself in the outside world as a self-proclaimed “Sound Alchemist”. Overlooking the awful pretentiousness of the title, Wong has it right.  You can play around with sound and use it to create golden effects without ever quite crossing that invisible and debatable border between sound and music.  That indefinable thing called music is by no means the same thing as that definable thing called sound.

02 October 2018

Organ; A Church Instrument or a Musical Instrument?

We are approaching the time in musical history when the organ will have been associated with the Christian church for as long a period as it was not associated with the Christian church.  The fact that the organ, synonymous for so many people, with the church, not only was not designed as a church instrument but, more particularly, was effectively banned from churches for over 1000 years may come as a surprise.  Typical of this ignorance is the concert-goer who, at the concert hall in Kuala Lumpur (the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas) for the organ’s inaugural concert on 29th January 1999 with Simon Preston, asked; “Why do we have a church organ in our concert hall?”  The answer was that the organ is NOT a church instrument and that, if anything, the presence of an organ in a Malaysian concert hall was a symbolic returning home of an instrument whose natural habitat had been the Islamic world centuries before it found its way into the Christian church.  Moreover, at the time there were more fully-functioning pipe organs in concert halls in Malaysia than there were in the country’s churches.

DFP Angklung-inspired organ
Nevertheless, that deep-seated belief in the organ as an archetypically Christian instrument persists.  The woman who financed the KL organ did so because she loved the visual effects of organs in the great European cathedrals and felt that our new concert hall demanded some such similar visual device to arrest the eye.  At the design stage, Philipp Klais, whose company built the organ, was confronted with a dilemma stemming from this belief that the organ is a “Christian” instrument.  Voices objected to the facts that the pipes “pointed to Heaven”.  His solution came from the Angklung, hanging in one of the ante-rooms off the auditorium.  An Angklung consists of several bamboo rods on a frame – much as organ pipes of differing lengths sit side by side on a frame – and Klais saw that if he described his design as being inspired by the Angklung, people could hardly object.  He also added false tops to the pipes to avoid any suggestion that they pointed to heaven.

The first organ, ca 250BC
We know almost exactly when the organ was invented; in the year 250BC in Alexandria in Egypt.  We know exactly when the organ first appeared in the Christian world; in the year 757 when Constantinus, the Byzantine Emperor, presented one as a peace offering to the King of France. (“The Emperor Constantinus sent King Pippin many gifts, amongst them an organum; which reached him in the villa at Compiegne where he was holding a convocation with his people”.)  We know vaguely when the first organs started to appear in churches; around 900.  And we know even more vaguely, when the organ first started to become an accepted and common feature in Christian churches: in the early 1400s.  So for 1150 years, at least, the organ had nothing to do with the church, and for no more than 600 years it has been synonymous with music in church.

Early organ history is largely speculative, but it appears to have been invented and used as a machine to make noise, with no obvious musical connotations.  It roused the rabble at gladiatorial contests in the colosseums of ancient Rome, and it adorned the houses and palaces of wealthy Arab rulers and merchants in much the same way as a fleet of Mercedes or a portfolio of properties and football clubs in the UK does today.  When King Pippin got his organ, one suspects its value was more in its presence than its sound.  The idea of putting an organ in a church came centuries later.

At various times between the 8th and the 16th centuries, the church banned instrumental music, and it was not really until the founding of the Lutheran Church that the organ really established itself as the pre-eminent church instrument.  Its function in the Roman church had been essentially accompanimental, but with Luther’s belief in the value of corporate worship and active participation through the mass singing of chorales, the organ really came into its own.  So it’s no surprise that church organists look to the heady days of North German Lutheranism in the 17th and 18th centuries as a Golden Age; a time when the organ was, at long last, elevated to the position of Serious Musical Instrument and earning the closest attention from composers we today regard as “great”.

Congregational singing in a large space is best supported by an organ.  No other instrument or group of instruments is capable of both leading and supporting massed, untrained voices so effectively.  Just ask any choir-trainer whose choir has performed with a symphony orchestra, and they will tell you even the massed ranks of highly-skilled professional players cannot equal the sensitivity or directness of response of an organist.  And with its powerful bass resonance (physical presence rather than the wall of amplified sound created by electronic basses), strong central core and illuminating upper register, singers can both feel and hear the organ, even when they are themselves singing at full stretch.  Add to this the vast array of colours and timbres, the dynamic range and, of course, the all-enveloping pitch range, and you can see why the organ was so readily adopted as the instrument of choice for Lutheran congregational singing.  Placing the organ at the west end, so that it effectively spoke behind the congregation, pushing the sound forward through their ranks and urging them onwards through its uplifting sounds, also proved the ideal.  And since they were not going to interfere with the visual focus at the east end of the church, organ cases could become increasingly spectacular until you got to something like the stunning organ case at St Bavo, Haarlem, where the organ itself is such an object of visual beauty, that it is easy to forget that the church has a function beyond merely showcasing its organ.
St Bavo, Haarlem

So while it was not originally a Christian instrument, we can thank the Christian church for transforming this noise-producing novelty machine into something capable of making music, and for developing and extending its scope and range to the point where, today, it overwhelms any other musical instrument in its range of pitches, timbres and dynamics.  There is no doubt that the visual aspect of the organ remains, for most people, its most important facet, and it is a sad fact that, even amongst the musical community, many do not see the organ as a musical instrument.  Nobody seems surprised or even perturbed that in Asia’s premiere musical conservatory there is neither an organ (other than a tiny thing designed purely to fulfil a continuo function) nor any training for budding organists; they are not regarded as musicians on the same level as, say, violinists, singers, conductors or (for some reason), players of the electone.  Many subscribe to the notion that the organ is something you have in church which has no connection with mainstream musical life.

The root causes of this refusal to acknowledge the organ’s musical legitimacy can be put, I’m sorry to say, at the feet of organists themselves.  Few players of the instrument ever seem to take that extra step from producing noise to transforming that noise into music, and many seem to regard the mechanical complexities of the instrument itself and the technical minutiae of the music they play on it as the be-all and end-all of organ playing.  Because the organ is a machine in a way no other musical instrument is, to get it to create music, the player has to make a conscious effort to achieve musicality.  While other instruments may have an inbuilt musicality about them, governed by the length of the bow, the fragility of wind supply or the immediate decay of a note, the organ has no such natural musical instincts, and the organist has to think each and every aspect of their performance out in detail in order to produce something musical.  This seems a step too far for most organists today.

Instead they become obsessed with the instrument.  It was a standing joke in my youth that organists would flock to St Magnus-in-the-Mud as it had a 32 foot Ophecleide, and issues of tuning temperament, wind pressures, keyboard action and materials used in manufacture are discussed interminably whenever two organists are gathered together.  The instrument’s enormous repertory is rarely discussed, with the result that organists seem fixated on Bach (usually the Trio Sonatas, which are regarded more as technical than musical challenges) with only very few venturing beyond into the realms of Buxtehude, Franck, Widor and Vierne.  Composers of monumental insignificance outside the organ world (think Flor Peeters, Marcel Dupré, Sigfrid Karg-Elert and Josef Rheinberger) are elevated as demi-gods by virtue of writing music which suits particular stops on particular organs.

Too many organists are also quite happy to relegate the playing of their instrument to a kind of group activity, passing responsibility of some aspects to others in performance.  The sight of an organist playing the notes while a team of acolytes stands in attendance pulling out and pushing in stops and pressing any of the myriad buttons to be found above and below the key and pedal boards, is common.  Surely, it is a vital part of the organist’s skill to control the totality of the instrument – including the manipulation of those parts which directly affect timbre and colour?  Yet few organists see any issue with this.  If I query it, I am told, “I can’t manage this piece on this organ single-handed” (in which case, choose music which you can manage on it single-handed) or, even worse, “Bach did it”.  (Yes.  Bach also fought with his choir in the streets, and was imprisoned for offences against his employer; I’m not sure that Bach was a man whose every action deserves emulation.)  If organists do not think musically, how can we expect the world to take us seriously?

However, for the vast majority of organists, the organ is not a musical instrument but an integral part of their lives as church musicians.  Big cathedrals and major churches aside, the overwhelming majority of churches with an organ use it almost exclusively for supporting congregational singing, and not only are opportunities for playing musical works of musical worth extremely limited, but since nobody actually expects you to do so, critical faculties amongst listeners are suspended.  You can play a dazzling Langetuit Toccata brilliantly or a dreary Reger Monologue badly, and you will know that someone from the congregation will come up and tell you it was “nice”. In church, it seems, it is more about doing something than doing something to the best of one’s ability, and that attitude has led to an environment in which the organ is becoming superfluous to requirements and irrelevant.  In many parts of the world (south East Asia amongst them) the organ as a church instrument is now virtually extinct.

Here, the fault lies with those who hold responsibility for what goes on in church; the clergy and the various voluntary committees who, by virtue of their willingness to give up their time, take it upon themselves to be the arbiters of what is acceptable and what is not.  Driven by a laudable but misguided belief in involving everybody regardless of ability, and in shaking off the shackles of history (it surprises me that those who peddle a faith based on events which happened over 2000 years ago, fight shy of maintaining practices which go back barely 200), music in church is no longer an elevated and specialist art, but a communal activity encompassing anyone with even the most desultory ability to play a musical instrument.  Miserable, uninspired twangings from guitars, half-hearted thumps from drums and aimless dribblings from keyboard players, all well-meaning and all utterly without musical talent, are accepted because they show “inclusivity” (getting everyone involved) and “relevance” (bringing music into the soft-core pop world of the 1960s rather than rejoicing in the hard-core magnificence of the 1700s).  These people’s complete absence of musical integrity means that the great chorales and hymns of the past, written to inspire and encourage massed participation, have been abandoned in favour of bland, mawkish lyrics sung to wholly unimaginative monochrome melodies.  With church music relegated to the position of simplistic background noise, how can the organist hope to gain any measure of musical credibility?

Over the weekend I visited Penang where, in St George’s Anglican Church, in an astonishing reversal of current trends, a brand new two manual pipe organ by Manders of London had been installed.  A visionary clergyman had encouraged four young people to learn to play the organ and had arranged for them to have a dedicated and committed organist as their mentor.  I had the enormous privilege of hearing each of these young musicians play, and was greatly inspired by not only the quality of their playing but also by their instinctive musicality.  But two things disturbed me during my talks with them after they had played to me.

Firstly, as soon as news of the new organ had reached down to Singapore, the Singapore Organ cadre (a close-knit body which seems hell-bent on preserving the remoteness and inaccessibility of the organ to non-organists) journeyed up to Penang to offer their advice and guidance.  Students remembered instruction concerning technique, registration and pedalling exercises; none of them remembered any advice about music-making or exploring repertory.

Secondly, since the organ was effectively an off-the-peg, free-standing instrument, a considerable amount of flexibility had been open to those who decided where it should be placed in the church.  So it was rather disappointing that it had been placed in about the worst situation possible for supporting congregational singing.  While the ideal places would have involved some structural alterations (out of the question for both financial and aesthetic reasons) it struck me that there was one place it would have been far better placed.  When I asked why this had not been chosen, I was told that to have placed it  there would have blocked the door to a cupboard where the guitars and drums were kept, and the church wanted to have easy access to these,

Notwithstanding the fact that guitars and drums are portable in a way that a pipe organ is not, basic common sense should tell you that, with an organ, all other instruments are superfluous (I attend a church where a very fine organ is regularly polluted by amplified noises from an assembled band of rag-tag instruments brought in to give the music street-cred; and I can tell you the combination of pipe organ and amplified guitars, keyboard and drums, is stomach-churning in its awfulness).  Why on earth would a church which has just spent a vast sum on a new and fine pipe organ be concerned about easy access to guitars and drums?  

I worry that this encouraging trend to bring the organ back to the church will be compromised by the determination of organists to remain on the periphery of musicality, and by the political fence-sitting of church authorities who feel that inclusivity and “trendiness” outweigh the lessons and examples of 600 years of history.



26 September 2018

Pulling in the Punters

Taking my daughter to Covent Garden to buy ballet shoes and other assorted paraphernalia to feed her obsession with dancing, we stopped off for coffee at one of the elegant French-style stalls which surround the piazza.  As ever, the place was buzzing, and periodically you would hear a round of applause or a cheer break out as some magician, acrobat, dancer or musician pulled off some stunt which impressed the flock of people looking on to what must be London’s greatest free show of the arts.  Forget pretentious Edinburgh and its horribly predictable Fringe, Covent Garden’s where the real class acts try out their stuff and attract attention.

As we paid up and left for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, one of the more static wonders of Covent Garden, the strains of Handel and the roar of the crowd drew us to the balcony overlooking the lower level courtyard where a string quartet was performing.  In the true sense of the word, we were mesmerized.

This was a true class act which combined great music, great music making and great entertainment.  They walked and danced as they played Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, et al., and the sight of the athletic cellist dancing as he played, the cello supported round his neck rather than stuck into the floor is one that will live with me for many a long year.  They brought the music to life through their naturally free actions and boundless enthusiasm, they embraced the audience with their mobile playing, and they had children up and ready to dance along with them.  And all of this without once compromising the musical quality or stooping to “accessibilize” the programme with little bits of rehashed pop and film scores. 

Many classical musicians try too hard to shake off their perceived stuffy image in a frantic bid to make music accessible to those who find it irrelevant and boring.  This group, far from playing down the boring image, played it up for all it was worth, hamming away and showing that while the stuffy image of string instruments, black and white attire, and 17th and 18th century music is part and parcel of what string quartets are, it can still be amusing and entertaining. These four players were not ashamed of what they played; rather they were so proud of it that they had no shame in pulling in the punters to Pachelbel and Telemann, and brightening up their Saturday morning in the process.

There is a lesson to be learnt here.  Forget “Kids’ Konserts”, forget “John Williams’ Greatest Mangled Hits”, forget dressing as footballers, divers, cartoon characters or clowns.  Celebrate the glory of music and music-making, and show that it is both serious and fun.  That way, should your audience then go on and venture inside a concert hall, they will not immediately feel alienated.  I often despair that all these dumbed-down concerts only ever attract audiences because of the side-shows, not because of the music.  With this group putting music and music making of quality at the heart of their performance, they showed that you could still get people on side.

There’s another lesson to be learnt.  I have no idea who this quartet was or where they came from.  A young girl running around the crowd with a hat for the money also had some CDs for sale at £10 each.  I bought one, and saw others do the same.  But while I don’t begrudge giving the money to these excellent musicians, I do begrudge the waste of resources that went into making the travesty which is this utterly ghastly CD.  It has gone straight into my waste-paper bin.  The CD did not tell you a thing about who these musicians were – indeed the playing is so grotesque and out of tune on the CD that I suspect it’s nothing to do with the ones I heard.  Horribly recorded with a weird electronic boom and oddly unbalanced sound which varies disturbingly between tracks, I don’t think I’ve ever put anything so hideous in my player before.  The CD was a disgrace but the live performance was brilliant.  I wish I knew who these people were!
So if you hear and see brilliant string quartets dancing around as they play, stay and watch; if a young girl heads your way bearing a box of CDs marked "Lotus Classics", give her the money and run.

03 September 2018

Love for Her, Love for Hymn

The Gymanfa Ganu is an uniquely Welsh singing festival in which a large number of people gather together with the sole purpose of singing hymns.  I know of no equivalent hymn singing fest anywhere in the world, yet thousands are held the length and breadth of Wales every year.  It is because of these hugely popular and frequent mass gatherings of hymn singing that the Welsh have earned a reputation as a nation which loves to sing.
To understand why the Welsh approach hymns in a way so different from anyone else, we need to look at the distinctive quality of the Welsh hymn tune itself.  To put it in a nutshell, the Welsh hymn tune is designed to be sung en messe by untrained voices in a way no English, Scottish, Irish, German, American or any other hymn tune is.  
Possibly the most famous Welsh hymn of them all.

Born and bred in London and having spent my later adolescent years on the Surrey/Hampshire border, my acceptance into the University of Wales to study music brought me into daily contact with what seemed to me then a wholly alien culture.  Apart from an aunt’s husband, whom I saw once a year when the extended family met for dinner on Boxing Day, I had absolutely no prior exposure to Wales, and certainly had no knowledge of its rich and unique musical culture.

The University of Wales is not a physical university, but a collection of autonomous colleges scattered around the Principality.  I was studying at what was then called the University College of South East Wales and Monmouthshire in Cardiff; and in the early 1970s Cardiff seemed almost proud of its detachment from the cultural identity of that part of Wales which lay to its west and north.  But within weeks of arriving, I had fallen desperately in love with one of my fellow music undergraduates, and that brought me into closer contact with authentic Welsh culture than would otherwise have been the case in what was then the nominal - but not the psychological - capital of Wales.

The object of my passion was the indescribably beautiful (well I thought so) daughter of a Welsh Nonconformist minister from deepest Cardiganshire.  We carried on an illicit relationship hidden from patriarchal gaze, since my girlfriend rightly believed that the notion of her getting involved with one of the hated English colonialists (which is how the English were regarded by many Welsh then – and possibly now) would have incensed her father so much he would have immediately withdrawn her from what he already regarded as the Sodom and Gomorrah of Wales, Cardiff.

Tafod y Ddraig -
the symbolic representation of
a dragon's tongue
As our relationship became more intense, so it became imperative for me to adopt as much of the Welsh culture as I could.  I learnt the Welsh language and joined a bunch of idealist activists intent on achieving parity between the Welsh and the English languages throughout Wales by whatever means possible.  I proudly sported my little red enamel badge depicting a stylized dragon’s tongue, which those in the know (notably the police) recognised as the symbol of an active member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, and duly disrupted political rallies, eagerly participated in non-violent campaigns against English-only broadcasters polluting the Welsh air waves with their signals, and aggressively expunged as many symbols of English Imperialism as I could.  It all gave me a lifelong passion for politics, a deep-seated love of Wales and an enriching linguistic outlet, it equipped me with the tools necessary for living what has been my entire life since in and amongst those whose culture, beliefs and languages are very different from those of my own antecedents (I have never actually lived permanently in England since the 1970s), but it did not net me a wife – my girlfriend died of meningitis before she had completed her undergraduate studies.  It was decades later that I found true and lasting love with my wife of 20 years who, perhaps inevitably, belongs to a land long occupied by an alien people, and who is a passionate supporter of political action to restore the unique cultural identity of her homeland.
As it turned out, my eagerness to impress what I hoped would be my future father-in-law with my anti-English activities and command of what someone (and I cannot find out who) described as the only language which can express every thought or emotion known to man, was unnecessary.  Barely a month into my intensive Welsh language course and still awaiting my Cymdeithas yr Iaith badge, I was suddenly dragged from my organ practice by my girlfriend who had heard from her father that he was in desperate need of an organist that evening for the annual Gymanfa Ganu at his Cardiganshire chapel.  Without consulting me she had promised my services, and commanded me to fetch my car and drive the 100 or so miles west to her home village.  Protests that I had no idea what a Gymanfa Ganu was, and certainly needed time to practice the hymns, met on deaf ears.  Here was a chance to ingratiate the English enemy with her father, and my girlfriend was not going to let that slip. 

This may have been the chapel where I had my
first taste of Gymanfa Ganu, but if so, it's been
tarted up quite a bit since 1973,
We arrived at her father’s forbidding Welsh chapel to find the place full and the Minister impatiently waiting the appearance of the organist.  Without any preamble, I was pushed up to the chapel organ and handed the one hymnbook in the entire place which had the hymn tunes in what the Welsh quaintly describe as hen nodiant (“old notation”) – everybody else sung from SolFa copies. I vividly remember that it was a dusky leather-bound, much thumbed volume with the word EMYNAU (“hymns”) embossed on the cover.  You do not have a programme in such events, you simply let the spirit move the Minister to  select which and how many hymns the massed congregation will roar their way through.  I had sufficient Welsh to recognise numbers, and while the Minister simply called out the names of the hymns, he did make the grudging concession to add the numbers from the hymn book.  Frantically, as each number rolled off his tongue and he gave incomprehensible instructions to his flock about how he wanted them to sing, I leafed through the hymn book, found the relevant hymn and struck up a few lines of the tune - eliciting encouraging or, more likely, derogatory comments (my Welsh classes had covered basic swear words, but not the kind of venom so beloved of Welsh Nonconformist Ministers) – and then we were off.

Passion, anger, tears, laughter; all emotions went into every hymn.  The minister would shout and yell, stirring his flock to a peak of ecstasy through the singing of hymns, and it was a thoroughly exhausting experience, musically, spiritually, physically and emotionally.  At particularly passionate movements, the Minister would yell above the hundreds of genuinely harmonious voices, “Heb Organ!”.   Assuming he wanted more, I piled on the stops, adding dazzling descants and making up for missing ranks by playing everything an octave higher or an octave lower at will.  It was only when he called out “Heb Organ!” with more than usual vehemence and looked at me as if my English ancestors were entirely to blame for all the ills of the world (which they perhaps were), that I began to wonder.  I asked a nearby chorister what “Heb” meant.  “Bloody ‘ell”, came the response, “It means stop playin’.  Ee wants you to shut up!”

Whether or not my linguistic ignorance rankled with the Minister, I never knew.  He never uttered another word to me, grudgingly instructing one of his vestry to pass me a cheque, and warning his daughter that, just because I had played the organ for him, she did not need to think that he approved of me or any of the English.

I was however, hooked on Gymanfau Ganu, and for the next 20 years was a frequent attendee as singer, organist or even, on one memorable occasion, conductor.  I fell in love with Welsh hymnody, and started to study it in some detail.  I noticed, for example, that Welsh hymns nearly always starting in stepwise motion or with repeated notes, generally cover a fairly wide range, avoid too many large intervals, and love to work up to a single note and stick there for a while.  They all have climaxes where they reach their highest pitch, and these are so positioned in the tune that they can be (and in a Cymanfa Ganu, usually are) held indefinitely by the singers.  Traditionally, hymn tunes in England were often led by a cantor, with each line repeated by the congregation, but in Wales this was not so common a practice, and as a result, the tunes have longer lines but less complex melodic patterns - ideal for communal singing.

Hymn, dirge or late night drinking song?
Perhaps the most interesting Welsh hymn fact I learnt in my Cymanfa Ganu days, came from a great aunt of my then girlfriend, a woman of extreme old age, who lived in a large house in the village of Llangrannog, tucked away on an isolated part of the Cardiganshire coast.  She hated the Minister, adored her great niece, and enthused over young people in love.  She also had a soft spot for music, and whenever we visited I was compelled to play hymns from the hen nodiant book of Emynau she had permanently on the ancient piano in her parlour.  It had candleholders either side of the music stand, and whenever I played she would ceremonially light the candles as if preparing an altar for mass.  Then she would go into the kitchen and butter bread in the traditional Welsh way, upending the loaf, buttering the cut surface and then very thinly slicing the buttered section off.  I would play through the book in continuous sequence, eliciting various comments.  With “Ebenezer” she stopped and came over.  “Is that in the book?” she asked.  “I remember when the men came out of the pub the worse for drink each Saturday night, they would sing that as they walked past my door.  I never knew it was a hymn”.  It had not been.  Like so many Welsh hymns, it had begun life as a drinking song, and its Welsh name, Ton y botel (“Tune of the Bottle”) rather makes that clear.

Perhaps the greatest memory the great aunt had, though, was shared after I had played one of the old parlour pieces I had found buried deep among all the old sheet music under the lid of the piano stool.  A dreamy look came over her face when she said how beautiful it was.  The last time anyone had played it on the piano in the house had been when she was a young girl and a frequent English visitor to the village had called in to have tea with her mother. She recalled that, “Apparently he was some kind of composer in England”.  “Can you remember his name?” I asked.  “Yes.  Edward Elgar”.

20 August 2018

Mahler gets the Byrd

If the musical health of a city is gauged by the number of concerts it hosts, then Singapore is in robust musical health.  Most days of the week something is happening on the classical music front, and at weekends the diary can get very crowded indeed.  This last weekend was a typical example, where very difficult choices had to be made about what to attend and what to miss.  There was a big Mahler event taking place on Saturday, and I imagine most Singapore music-lovers gravitated towards that. 

Not me.  I chose to give Mahler a miss and took the bus up to a remote hill-top monastery in Bukit Batok to hear some Byrd.

The alliteration certainly attracted my attention.  After all, as regular readers know, for me, alliteration absolutely always attracts attention – the concept of taking the Bukit Batok Byrd Bus was linguistically irresistible.  But what really swung my choice in favour of Byrd was that Mahler symphonies are performed with such frequency in Singapore that I have reached saturation point – I think I could go to my grave quite happily now without ever hearing another Mahler symphony. I’ve heard Mahler 2 more times over the last decade in Singapore than I did in my entire previous existence, and much as I like the work, a little over-indulgent emotional excess can go a very long way indeed.

I count the music of William Byrd among my most absolute favourite.  I checked my personal record collection just now, and discovered I had more recordings of Byrd than of any other single composer.  I was probably around five or six when I first encountered Byrd.  Since then I have sung Byrd, accompanied Byrd and conducted Byrd.  When I was in England I reckon I heard Byrd at least once a week.  But in Singapore Byrd is rare, and when you do catch some, it is always a moment to savour.  I hear it from time to time sung liturgically in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, but despite a plethora of choirs in Singapore, few are either willing or able to tackle Byrd.  After all to sing Byrd properly requires a particular level of intellectual insight and musical wit, and I’m not sure the current pool of American-trained, soft-core-pop-orientated choral directors possesses that sort of insight or wit.

Cappella Martialis is a small group of like-minded enthusiasts who specialise in singing the kind of sacred and liturgical music which forms the very foundations of modern choral singing.  They may not do it particularly well technically, but they do it with love and sincerity, and that, to me, matters far, far more than having every little detail perfectly manicured.  On Saturday more than once things seemed on the brink of collapse as a voice or two fell by the wayside, as tuning sagged, balance wobbled dangerously and stability of pitch was a very rare commodity. (Why do choirs here seem so terrified of pitch pipes?  Surely it’s better for the singers to hear their pitch blown clearly and steadily, than to wait for a single member to pluck a starting note from a tuning fork thrust against an ear-lobe?)  But there was a powerful feeling of collective involvement in the spirit of the music which easily overwhelmed these technical flaws.

When I had last seen Cappella Martialis perform, they had rather spoiled things with a stage manner which reminded me of nothing other than a flock of sheep in a field determined to avoid the ministrations of the guiding sheep dog.  Things had improved beyond measure for this performance, and as a stage presentation, it had a good sense of occasion and a feeling that it had been, at the very least, thought through.  There did seem to have been a little pay off in quality of singing, and the conductor’s single-minded obsession with beating time and keeping the singers together meant that everything sounded as if it was being sung by a group of individuals jogging around the athletics track – a notion reinforced by the very obvious beating time from singers with both hands firmly affixed to copies.

But if on a purely technical level the singing lacked polish, and there was a lurking suspicion that it simply had not been rehearsed thoroughly enough, there was absolute sincerity and conviction in this singing which transcended everything else in the performance.  It had the power to move and inspire; it was not a pretty sound but it was dazzling in the beauty of vision it conjured up in the listener. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing here, though, was the obvious amount of deep and thorough research which had gone into the programme.  Cappella Martialis programme booklets  are a work of art, full of fascinating historical insight, beautiful and carefully chosen illustrations, and so much information, that they are best read at leisure (which is why, I assume, they send out the programme booklets in advance to the audience).  They are also privileged to have among their number a fine scholar who delivers fascinating, enlightening and intriguing insights to set the music in context before each part of the concert.  Among the gems he offered up on Saturday night was the thought that we were hearing music which was not just written as an act of rebellion, but as one of treason.  He drew our attention to little coded messages and signs in the music; and I have to confess to having become so familiar with these works that I had never stopped to think much about either their context or these coded signs.  When the choir sang the word “Catholic” in the Credo from the Mass for Four Voices, suddenly moving into chordal harmony and repeating the word, the incredible bravery and political risk Byrd was taking was revealed in all its amazing glory.

Here was a concert which conclusively showed that, if the music is good enough, we do not need a polished, technically flawless performance to convey its meaning.  All we need are people who both understand and love what it is all about, and we certainly had those on this occasion.  My decision to give Mahler the Byrd on Saturday was thoroughly vindicated.

06 August 2018

One from the Tudor Archives

A good friend urged me to seek out and listen to the group called Stile Antico and even bought me one of their CDs to convince me!  I was duly impressed and when, in 2013, the sadly-defunct International Record Review sent me a new release from them for review, I was happy to share my friend's enthusiasm for them.  The original review popped up the other day and I felt it was probably worth resurrecting; the disc is still available:

Tudor church music is so embedded in the repertoire of choirs of all shapes and sizes that it is hard to believe that it has not been there for centuries. The fact is the sacred music of Byrd, Gibbons, Tallis et al appeared in practical performing editions only in the 1920s and even then took a while to establish itself. It was a project financed by the Carnegie UK Trust, which, as Matthew O’Donovan points out in his booklet notes, ‘was to transform the musical life of the whole nation’. Between 1922 and 1929 Carnegie funded Tudor Church Music, which over ten volumes published for the first time many of the great Tudor masterpieces which have become so familiar to us today. That there was an appetite for this music in those inter-war years is evidenced by the fact that within eight years of its publication, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus had sold staggering 16,629 copies; that it remains as popular today is evidenced by the fact that one UK online retailer lists no fewer than 46 currently available recordings of the work from performers who range from church choirs, through most of the major English cathedral and collegiate choirs to specialist singing groups from across Europe and the US.
Here is a forty-seventh disc to add to that list and it is unquestionably one of the best.

Stile Antico, a relatively new player on the block, formed in 2001 , has already established itself as a leading group in the Early Music vocal arena, and this is only the latest in a long line of extremely impressive discs released on the Harmonia Mundi label. Its collective (conductorless) approach pays particular dividends in this repertoire where the music depends on an instinctive reaction from the individual singers rather than a sense of order created by a firm hand on the tiller. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Gibbons’s O clap your hands, where the sprightly rhythms here have an appropriately percussive edge while the occasional false relations have a spine-tingling spiciness brought about by clashes which feel as if they happen by accident rather than design. Clarity of texture, driving tempos and superb diction are all there, but what is more vivid is the glorious freshness and vitality of this singing.

This is a disc which might have done well under such a title as ‘The Golden Age’s Greatest Hits’ (thank goodness Harmonia Mundi did not go down that road), for everything here is hugely familiar to just about anyone who has dipped a toe however tentatively — into the realms of English church music. Byrd’s great Mass for five voices is here, effectively diluted by being interspersed with various other pieces (highlighting the emphasis on the music rather than the texts), and alongside it are some of the best-loved motets of them all. It makes for an ideal single-volume compendium of Tudor church music.

The term ‘Tudor’ is perhaps a little misleading since the pieces here span a period of some 120 years stretching into the Jacobean period. But whether the music is early (the earliest piece is Taverner’s O splendor gloriae, with its transparent textures and extensive use of imitation) or late (the exquisite Almighty and everlasting God, a standard for many English parish churches during the latter half of the twentieth century) Stile Antico presents it with a glorious and compelling freshness. The result is not merely a wholly justified celebration of the foresightedness of the early editors of Tudor Church Music (who, interestingly, did not include the one name most of us associate with the revival of Tudor church music at the time: R. R. Terry was dismissed from the editorial board before the first volume was produced) but also a powerful reappraisal of repertoire which has become so popular we now almost take it for granted.

Add to this excellent singing, a splendid recording made in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London and a beautifully produced booklet, and we have a release which in its own way is quite as wonderful as the original Carnegie-funded editions.

02 August 2018

Did Choirs Exist Before the Internet?

The BBC is to blame for my arriving at work this morning a little late.  Just as I was about to leave home, on came a news item about a choir in Brisbane which meets in a pub.  I was interested in the story, of course, and particularly by the fact that the BBC devoted so much air time to it today, bearing in mind issues such as the violent aftermath of the Zimbabwe elections, ructions in the British Labour Party, the running out of funds by an English council, a Mexican airliner crash and the clearing up after an Indonesian earthquake, all hot news topics which could easily have occupied a whole half-hour’s news slot.  Interested as I was, and fascinated by the visuals accompanying the report (which seemed to be largely drawn from a private publicity video), I found myself wondering why it was appearing on the world news today.  Why was it newsworthy?

Choirs have been meeting in pubs for centuries.  Virtually every English cathedral has a pub next door to which the choirmen retreat before and after - and sometimes during - practices and performances.  I ran a Welsh male voice choir which, after each weekly short rehearsal in a dreary school hall, repaired to the pub where practice continued until closing time.  (The first commercial recording in which I was involved as an organist was of another Welsh male choir which, after several fruitless studio sessions, was told to go to the pub next door and practice there, only coming back when they were in full voice – which worked a treat!)  I used to sing in a community choir which met in the local pub, and I’ve never sung with any group of carol singers which hasn’t followed the centuries’ old tradition of ending their sessions in a pub or two.  Everyone in the business knows that singing, that most intimate and personal of musical activities, is best carried out in a comfortable environment and with inner restraints relaxed by alcohol and atmosphere.  What more obvious place to rehearse (and perform) than in a local pub?

My question was answered only near the end of the BBC report when the person doing the voice-over pointed out that the pub choir in Australia had become “a social media sensation”.  Ah!  Social Media!  The only reality many of today’s citizens of the world recognise!

It has long troubled me that the internet and, in particular, social media is seen as the sole legitimiser of existence.  Unless we photograph our food, our pets, our children and ourselves in every conceivable situation and at every moment of our existence, and then share that to an impersonal mass of “friends” via social media, our very existence has no legitimacy.  When I scroll down my Facebook page – which I do with rather disturbing frequency – I promise myself that I will do something more productive the moment I encounter the first photo of a cute cat, dopey dog, boisterous baby or foul food.  I never do simply because that is usually about the second (if not the first) item I find.  People I have never met, never heard of or who have never shown the slightest interest in me, regale me with endless pictures of their hideous kids, their ghastly pets, their obnoxious dietary fads, and of course selfies, often adorned with cartoon-like frames reinforcing my notion that they do not exist in real life at all. 

But I chose to sign up to Facebook (after all, why should I be alone in denying the Russians, the Americans, and every Middle-East terrorist organisation access to my bank account, my passwords and every last detail of my personal life, friends, family, address and occupation?).  Part of the reason I do so is a prurient fascination in the mundane lives and dreary interests of mediocre people who I would never rub shoulders with in real life.  In short, social media, for me, represents an entertainment and a diversion from my own reality.  What troubles me is that so many see it not as a diversion, but as reality itself.  Too many foolishly use it as the forum for expressing deeply held views of some personal import.  Because of the nature of social media, these deeply held views are invariably ridiculed and diminished by others who feel empowered to comment because they have been given equal access to ideas and notions even though they lie way beyond their comprehension.

Thus it is that, despite the fact that choirs have been meeting, rehearsing and practising in pubs for centuries, it only becomes reality when it is posted on social media and attracts “followers” (ie. bored people with nothing better to do with their lives).  Working as an editor for a Hong Kong musical organisation, I encounter many young and enthusiastic people who, keen to learn, nevertheless find the boundaries of their learning defined by what is available on the internet.  Frequently, when I write something original about a composer or a piece of music, I am asked; “How do you know that?  I don’t see it on the internet”; the inference being that if it’s not on the internet, it doesn’t exist.  A former Malaysian student doing some research on nerves in music performance asked me for some guidance as to suitable materials.  I pointed him in the direction of an excellent book written by one of my former tutors at Cardiff sometime in the 1970s.  I gave him the details, but was told I had to be wrong as the book didn’t exist.  “It does”, I told him, and “I have a copy on my shelf at home”.  “You can’t”, he retorted, “There’s no mention of it on Amazon or any of the other sites I checked”.  Preparing reading lists for my own students, I continually find uniquely valuable published resources which are not available on the internet other than in plagiarised extracts included on free-to-access sites.  If I refer to a site for which payment is required, students routinely refuse to access it, arguing that they can find all they need (as if they know) on Wikipedia and other freely available sites.

At a meeting the other day, one academic suggested that he saw a time when libraries would no longer exist as physical resources; “Young people can find with a few key strokes more material online and more quickly than we ever have been able to through books and CDs”.  I chose not to suggest that the material they thus found might not be of equal value and quality, instinctively knowing that I would be accused of being a dinosaur, of living in the past, of holding on to obsolete and old-fashioned notions in the face of unstoppable technological advances.

Yes, I am a dinosaur.  I do prefer physical books and physical CDs (even LPs and 78s!), and I continue to subscribe to a number of print journals which mostly end up in the recycle bin.  But I also spend most of my waking hours online, researching, reading and learning.  We live in an age when we have wonderful opportunities presented to us by the sheer amount of information available to us from a plethora of sources, and by our ease of access to it.  But we cannot process so much as individuals and need to develop skills of selectivity; not simply dismiss old technologies and unthinkingly accept social media and online resources as the sole repositories of legitimacy.

Like the BBC report, if we do that, we lose that vast wealth of accumulated knowledge which remains in the memories of so many, yet has never quite found its way on to an online resource.  We run the risk of allowing future generations to believe that nothing in music existed before the internet.