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From Beyond the Stave



The Boydell & Brewer Music Blog



Updated: 2015-09-16T18:44:27.653+01:00

 



Coda

2011-10-21T17:42:31.502+01:00

When we started this blog just over four years ago, it was intended to be a way to bring our music books to the attention of a wider audience. We quickly dropped the idea of mentioning events in music generally - other bloggers are doing that better than we could - and instead concentrated on stories from our authors and excerpts from our broad range of books on classical music. Many of you seemed to enjoy it and a flattering number of other music bloggers linked to it or referenced it, including Alex Ross and the mighty Overgrown Path.

Well, all good things come to an end, and we feel it’s time to bring down the curtain on our beloved Stave. We’ll soon be replacing it with an online newsletter - the Posthorn - which will feature articles on our books, interviews with our authors, excerpts from new titles, competitions, special offers, free books, and balloon-twisting - well, not balloon-twisting. To sign up for the Posthorn, simply send an e-mail to posthorn@boydellusa.net and a link to the first issue will be sent to you in November 2011.

In the meantime, anything posted on the web is there for eternity, and we invite you to look over our past posts and sample some of the best writing on classical music in cyberspace and, indeed, in the real world too.

Many thanks to all our readers. See you again soon in the Posthorn.

Michael Richards and Ralph Locke




Gunther Schuller at the Met

2011-09-19T16:16:47.801+01:00

Next month the University of Rochester Press will publish a book that is already attracting critical acclaim from proofs that were sent out to potential reviewers, the first volume of Gunther Schuller’s autobiography. Whether you know Schuller as a jazz composer and performer, or a jazz historian, or a composer of contemporary concert music, or a conductor or writer on classical music, or even - for those with long memories - a horn player, you will be charmed by Schuller’s attempt to ‘document the incredibly fortunate, exciting life in music (and its sister arts) that I have been privileged to live thus far,’ as he puts it in his Preface to the book. Here, after our summer break, is the first of a number of extracts from this compelling memoir. In this week’s edited extract, we join Schuller as a horn player in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in 1949:One of that season’s happiest encounters for me—and I think for most of the orchestra—was the arrival of Jonel Perlea, one of the best conductors to grace the Met’s podium during my years there. Romanian-born, but trained in Munich and Leipzig, where he studied with Max Reger at the Hochschule (he must have been in the same classes with my father, both being the same age), Perlea had already enjoyed a distinguished conducting career in Europe, including leading the first performances in Romania of Rosenkavalier, Meistersinger, and Falstaff.At the Met Perlea was given four operas to conduct: Rigoletto, Carmen, Traviata, and for his American debut, Tristan und Isolde. In his very first rehearsal we could tell that we were in the hands of a superior musician. (I found out later that he was also a fine composer, more than just a conductor-composer.) He managed to bring to that ecstasy- and hysteria-laden score a wonderful calming restraint. With Fritz Stiedry the more frantic episodes in Tristan, especially in the third act, could easily spin out of control. It is incredibly intense music, sometimes more intense than it can readily tolerate. Perlea treated the music with an almost chamber music transparency—lyric, eloquent, even elegant—without diluting the drama and emotional excitement of Tristan, or for that matter of Carmen or any of the operas Perlea was given.All this was all the more amazing since Perlea had had a heart attack and a stroke, and as a result was paralyzed on most of his right side; he conducted only with his left hand. This is highly unusual and takes some getting used to—which we did very quickly. We really loved this man. Alas, Perlea was at the Met for only one year. All year long we kept hearing backstage rumors that certain conductors, especially Alberto Erede, also new at the Met in 1949, were agitating with the management to have Perlea retired. If true, it was but another typical example of what is known far and wide in the music world as “opera intrigue.” I saw Perlea several times in the 1950s in the hallways at the Manhattan School of Music, where both of us were on the faculty, and I could never resist telling him how much we missed him after he was let go.Near the end of the 1949 Met tour we began to hear rumors that our orchestra might be hired to play a two-week season—at the Metropolitan Opera House—of the visiting Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The rumor turned out to be true, and the two weeks with Sadler’s Wells were a wonderful musical and educational experience. It brought back many happy memories of my days with the Ballet Theatre, six years earlier; and now I was fortunate enough to witness with my own eyes the brilliant work of England’s premier ballet company, with its outstanding, oh so graceful prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. (This was a special bonus for Margie [Schuller’s wife], who was so keenly interested in great ballet. She came to almost every performance, accompanied by Jeannie Clark, my dancer friend from Ballet Theatre.) But for me the two major highlights of the Sadler’s Wells visit were the discovery of Prokofiev’s extraordinary Cinderella music [...]



Springtime on Funen

2011-08-12T11:16:13.651+01:00

“Finally, everyone’s talking about Nielsen” is the witty title of an article by Andrew Mellor in the September issue of the Gramophone. It includes contributions from Daniel Grimley whose recent book, Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism, will certainly help nudge along any Nielsen revival. The BBC Proms included a Nielsen symphony alongside one from Sibelius and the Grieg Piano Concerto on August 8th, so perhaps the revival is already underway. Here, in a second extract from Daniel Grimley’s superb study, is an evocative look at Nielsen’s pastoral cantata, Springtime on Funen. One of the recurring tropes in Nielsen reception, both at home and abroad, is his association with the Danish landscape. Repeatedly presented as a true and faithful son of the soil, Nielsen is held to have captured some elemental quality of the Danish landscape in sound, just as the landscape seems somehow to have determined the texture and grain of much of his musical work. The pastoral cantata, Fynsk Foraar (‘Springtime on Funen’), is emblematic in this respect. It is here that Nielsen’s evocation of the Danish countryside, and the island of Funen where he was born, appears most powerful and explicit. But Nielsen’s response to the idea of landscape, and to the construction of Funen as specific place and sensibility in music, is more ambiguous than it first seems. In a brief, illuminating moment towards its closing bars, the whirling round dance with which Springtime on Funen concludes unexpectedly gives way to a hushed cadenza for tremolo violins, solo voices, horns, and bassoons. Marked molto adagio, the seven-bar passage is canonic: the soprano’s ornamental melodic arabesque is imitated first by the tenor and then by the baritone (doubled by the woodwind), beneath a shimmering inverted pedal in the upper strings. Texturally, dynamically, and harmonically, the cadenza is an exceptional and striking event: its Ab minor orientation is a sharp diversion from the round dance’s final tonal goal, a radiant E major (the transition pivots on the enharmonic transformation Eb/D#), and the sudden drop in dynamic level and textural weight is in sharp contrast to the finale’s prevailing fortissimo tutti. The cadenza marks an abrupt change of direction that seemingly brings the whole work momentarily to a stop at the line: ‘Se, Æbleblomster drysser over vejen’ (‘Look, apple blossom scatters down upon the road’). The three soloists repeat the words hypnotically, as though held in rapt attention as they watch the white petals slowly falling to the ground, until the chorus re-enter in the final bar, whispering ‘Natten er vor egen, Æbleblomster drysser’ (‘The night is ours, apple blossom scatters down’). As the words slip silently away, the round dance returns, swiftly cranking up speed and volume once again so that the poignant memory of the spring night, and its associations of vernal love, are breezily blown away as the cantata spirals towards its celebratory final cadence. On closer inspection, the cadenza might be heard simply as a moment of modest reflection, the brief calm before the uplifting storm of the cantata’s energetic final pages. It can also be understood generically as a closing curtain call for the three soloists who appear, partly in character, earlier in the work, alongside a children’s choir and an adult chorus. Springtime on Funen opens with a gentle sunrise heralding the turning of the season. The soft contours of the landscape are feminised, the spring blossom flowering upon ‘the gnarled apple tree/behind hills as rounded as young girl’s knees’ [det knortede Æbletræ/bag Bakker, der rundes som Pigeknæ]. The soprano solo enters as a spring goddess – Demeter or Persephone, or perhaps a local Nordic deity (Freya) – followed by the tenor, a young sap-filled hero, who greets ‘the gentle day, so mild and long/and full of sun and birdsong’ (‘den milde Dag [så] lys og lang/og fuld af Sol og Fuglesang’). The baritone appe[...]



John Ireland’s Companion

2011-08-04T19:31:51.275+01:00

2012 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of John Ireland. His reputation lies somewhat in the shadow of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and others, and his music, with its European influences, sits uneasily in the pastoral tradition of twentieth century British music. The anniversary year will see a welcome rush of new and reissued recordings of his endlessly fascinating and attractive work. To open proceedings, the Boydell Press is pleased to publish, later this year, the John Ireland Companion edited by that great champion of British music, Lewis Foreman.We open a short series of extracts from the book with something rather special. Here Bruce Phillips, Boydell’s music editor-at-large and director of the Ireland Trust, remembers his introduction to the music and to Norah Kirby:I first became aware of John Ireland’s music in 1961, when I was 16. My piano teacher at school, John Alston, placed in front of me a piano piece called Month’s Mind and said that if I learned to play the piece properly he would take me to meet the composer, then living not far from the school in a converted windmill just outside the village of Washington in West Sussex. I struggled with the piece but became completely captivated by its atmosphere of nostalgic yearning conveyed through harmonies that reminded me of Ravel’s Sonatine, a piece I had attempted to add to my rather restricted repertoire. Here though was music that seemed as quintessentially English as Ravel’s was French, and moreover evoking a rather different Englishness from that of my then musical god, Ralph Vaughan Williams.In June 1962 I read the obituaries of John Ireland, who had died at the age of 82. Much mention was made of the Sussex windmill in which he had passed the last nine years of his life. My relief at not being compelled to visit him and perform his piece to him in person — he would by that time have been unable to see me — was mixed with intense sadness at the news of his death and curiosity to know more about him. Acting on impulse a few days later I went to the one phone booth in the school and looked him up in the local directory. There he was: Ireland, Dr John, Rock Mill, Washington. I rang the number without of course knowing whether anyone would answer or what I would say if anyone did. I heard a woman’s voice at the other end, pressed Button A, and found myself speaking to a lady who introduced herself as Mrs Norah Kirby. I introduced myself as a schoolboy speaking from nearby Lancing College and said that I had been greatly moved and saddened by the news of John Ireland’s passing and that I had come to love his piece Month’s Mind above all other music that I knew.I discovered in the course of our conversation that Norah Kirby had been John Ireland’s (or as she always referred to him, Dr. Ireland’s) companion, secretary and housekeeper for more or less twenty years. I learned later that she divided the world into those who loved his music and those who did not. By revealing that I had fallen completely in love with Month’s Mind I had fortunately placed myself in the former category. On hearing that I had not heard anything else he had written and that I knew no more about him than had been included in the obituaries, she invited me to lunch, promising to drive me to the beautiful converted windmill in which he had spent nearly the last decade of his life.I obtained leave from my housemaster and met Norah in Steyning High Street. She was driving Ireland’s last car, a green Ford Popular which she later told me he had bought in the 1950s through contacts in Guernsey, which was then an export market for cars. We drove past Chanctonbury and turned right along a small slip road that led to a drive flanked by pine trees. There at the end of the drive was the windmill, minus its sails but with an adjoining two-storey building erected when it had been converted from a working mill into a residential house.At that first meeting Norah was in good health. She to[...]



Michael Talbot's Vivaldi

2011-07-28T12:59:11.517+01:00

The Boydell Press is privileged to publish a remarkable new book by the internationally renowned Vivaldi scholar, Michael Talbot. The Vivaldi Compendium includes a short biography of the composer, bibliography, a list of works, and takes us alphabetically from “Abate” to “Ziani, Marc’Antonio”. Here Professor Talbot gives us some background to what is certain to be considered an essential resource for anyone with an interest in the composer.Every great composer needs at least one compact book of handy reference that enables anyone interested in him, from the ordinary music lover to the expert, to access basic data instantly and if possible to learn where to find more on the same topic. This is all the more true of a composer such as Vivaldi, about whom knowledge is growing so fast, so that constant updating is needed. For instance, literally dozens of new works by him have been discovered in the last fifty years. Vivaldi is not alone in being a composer on whom there is much ‘misinformation’ in circulation, and it is vital to set the record straight where one can.Some thirty years ago an eminent Austrian Vivaldian, Walter Kolneder, wrote what he called a ‘Vivaldi Lexicon’ in response to this need. This book had many drawbacks – for a start, it was printed in such small type that one almost needed a magnifying glass to read the bibliography – but it did enough to reveal the potential of a Vivaldi dictionary of this kind and suggested what other, complementary sections could appear together with it. The book that I have entitled The Vivaldi Compendium is a more ambitious, and naturally more up-to-date, realization of the same concept.The core of the book is its Dictionary section. This has entries for persons, institutions, places, genres, associated musical terminology, individual works and collections and many other items relevant to Vivaldi. To give a flavour, the entries for the letter E are: Echo-Repeats; Eller, Rudolf; Enharmonic change; Ensemble concerto; Ephrikian, Angelo; Ercole su ’l Termodonte, RV 723; Erdmann, Ludwig; Estate, L’, RV 315; Estragiudiziale; Estro armonico, L’, op. 3; Everett, Paul. (I should reassure the reader that most letters have many times that number of entries!) There is ample cross-referencing between the entries, so that the reader, starting at a randomly chosen point, can hop back and forth between entries following the drift of his interest. More important, nearly all the entries are cross-referenced to items in the bibliography that I have suggested for further reading.This Bibliography section, running to 26 pages, is the probably the longest on Vivaldi in existence. Since the book itself is in English, priority has been given to English-language publications, although full account has also been taken of the many vital contributions in Italian, German, French and other languages. The other two sections are, first, a list of Vivaldi’s compositions that, with its well over 800 items, absorbs the latest discoveries and the latest opinions over the authenticity of certain controversial works and, second, a concise biography of the composer that likewise aims to bring to light the latest information.Although The Vivaldi Compendium is as reliable and authoritative as I can make it, it is deliberately not an ‘impersonal’ product. On Vivaldi I have some strong opinions that I am eager to share, although I hope I have also shown fairness towards contrary opinions. While writing it, I have always been aware that its potential readership extends far beyond the academic fold. It is the sort of book, for instance, that a radio station might keep in the office in order to check a detail for the announcer of a broadcast piece by Vivaldi, or a collector of Vivaldi’s music on CDs might like to have handy. I will be interested to see how successful I have been in making the book serious but at the same time reader-friendly.I enjoyed the experience of writing t[...]



The ‘Lights’ vs 'the Rival Party’

2011-07-20T17:21:07.146+01:00

Last month we ran a post by Nancy Newman in which she explained her fascination with the history of the Germania Musical Society and its travels around North America, bringing a variety of music to audiences far and wide. In this extract from her book, Good Music for a Free People, Newman discusses controversies encountered by the Germanians in Boston over their programming. Some wanted more concentrated, homogenous programs of substantial works, while others favoured more dances and lighter fare.Although it might be overstatement to say that “all eyes were upon the Germania” as they prepared for the 1853–54 season, it is not unimaginable that the members hoped to reach heights comparable to those of the previous year. The season began splendidly, with numerous “special attractions” and extra musicians supplementing the ensemble. As in the previous season, the subscription series of ten concerts had very reasonable terms: a package of thirty tickets was ten dollars, or fifteen for five dollars, all “to be used at pleasure.” The orchestra held some admissions in reserve for those who could not commit to the series: “In order to prevent the confusion and disappointment experienced upon the unusual demand for tickets last season, Only a Limited Number of subscription tickets will be issued.” Single tickets were available at the usual fifty cents apiece.The first half-dozen concerts were very much like those of the previous two seasons. With the exception of the “Wagner Night,” each program opened with a complete symphony. No dances or potpourris were offered, and one or more guest soloists appeared at each event. In early December, Dwight’s Journal published a letter to the editor suggesting that the Germania offer weekly, rather than fortnightly, concerts. The author claimed to speak for many like-minded people. “I have also heard the wish expressed that we might have from [the orchestra] concerts more entirely of classical music, which should present, too, not only the best works of the best masters, but should produce them consecutively, and in some kind of system; a series of ‘Mozart nights’ and ‘Beethoven nights,’ for instance, or something of the kind.”It was surely not a coincidence that the Germanians announced an additional subscription series devoted entirely to “classical” music the very next week. On December 10, Dwight called attention to the “new plan” in a long editorial. Each of the five concerts would include four major works—two symphonies and two overtures—with selections by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart constituting nearly half the repertory (nine of twenty pieces). Schumann and Mendelssohn each appear twice, for another 20 percent of the total. With their concentration on works by the first Viennese School and other German composers, these programs are startlingly close to those of the modern symphony orchestra.The Germanians kept the new subscription lists open for about a month, with the first concert scheduled for mid-January. Despite Dwight’s efforts and the reduction of ticket prices, the series failed to attract enough subscribers to cover its projected costs. The Germania abandoned the plan just before the first concert would have taken place. Dwight attributed its failure simply to having been “brought forward too late in the season,” and urged the orchestra to try again next year. In the meantime, the members were still faced with the demand that they offer more concerts of some sort. Just two weeks later, they made a swing in the opposite direction. Instead of adding concerts devoted to an exclusively “classical” repertory, they proposed four programs emphasizing “modern,” that is, “lighter” genres.Manager Bandt gave two reasons for this decision. The first was that the Germania had already sold more tickets than there were seats available for the remaining concerts, and there were even more musi[...]



Modernism in the Modern World

2011-07-12T09:14:28.401+01:00

Arved Ashby’s edited volume of essays, The Pleasure of Modernist Music, was first published in 2004 and reissued in paperback towards the end of 2010. Here, Ashby discusses notions of a ‘cultural war’ in the light of some reactions to the book.Although ideas for this book date back to the mid-1990s, it really only started coming together after 9/11. U.S. politics were starting to take on the bitter partisanship that now threatens the very cohesion and stability of the country, especially with the 2010 midterm elections. The "culture wars" first surfaced back in the 1990s: speaking at the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan informed the citizenry that a morally depraved Clinton presidency would be a tragic setback in the "religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war… critical to the kind of nation we will one day be."Putting together the words "culture" and "war" had a certain self-conscious bombast back then, a certain pre-9/11 innocence: Buchanan was using the phrase to market his own political ambitions, for the most part. Twenty years later, however, these oppositions between progressiveness and conservatism have become so acrid and divisive that the "war" has come to involve guns as well as words. Tragically, national events seem to have less and less to do with culture and more and more to do with war. I often fear for the future of my country these days, but then it must be said that an angry, even sick conservatism — a militant resistance, at any price in blood or humanity, to the future and to the communalities that define culture —has reared its ugly head in so many places around the world.The Pleasure of Modernist Music arrived early in this divisive history, when it was becoming clear that musical taste and reception — as part of these "culture wars" in North America and beyond — had more to do with politics than with aesthetics and needs of expression. Some would say, no doubt, that musical reception has always been a political matter. And to read Eduard Hanslick criticizing Liszt's symphonic poems in the 1860s is to see someone hearing a particular musical novelty through a thick cloud of pure ideology or, rather, someone refusing outright to hear that music because of ideology. Some would go further and say that aesthetics and listening are necessarily forms of ideology, are ideologies by definition. But if that's true, how can people of different backgrounds, tastes, and agendas agree on the value of certain musicians, composers, and works? How could Hanslick seem not to have even listened to Liszt — at least not to the Liszt we know and accept today? In other words, how could a person as smart as Hanslick have been so wrong? (That is presuming Hanslick's view of Liszt was obscured by ideology while our view today is less obscured — a fairly safe presumption, I would say.)And let us remember that Hanslick talked about culture without mentioning war. He heartily berated Liszt, but didn't resort to a 21st-century style of critical privilege or strategic purging of those things that happened to offend him. He didn't say Liszt's music was in the ashbin of history, or that it should be burned, or even that it should be ignored. Nor did he couch his arguments in moral terms. By contrast, people of the past decade or two talk about "killing" or "burying" certain kinds of music, or of "letting nature takes its course" and pulling the plug on styles that are said to be "on artificial life support." Whence the homicidal, or at least vulgar Darwinist, rhetoric? I wouldn't say all kinds of music are equally worthwhile, and I can understand how the historical and aesthetic contexts surrounding some musics might inspire resistance or active animosity. But styles themselves are rather like human beings, tangled skeins of weakness and delight, strength and foible. They are breathing bodies — enti[...]



Conversations with Elliott Carter

2011-06-28T16:16:47.366+01:00

If the Aldeburgh Festival began (almost) with a bang (see ‘Beside the Seaside’ below) it ended (almost) with the sound of a tiny cymbal - the final note of Elliott Carter’s Conversations which received its world premiere in Snape Maltings last Sunday. Performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard on piano, Colin Currie on percussion and conductor Oliver Knussen on a rather precarious-looking chair, the seven-minute piece packs in a great deal within its short span. Luckily Knussen and his musicians played it twice on the night.With two other recent pieces on the bill, Helen Grimes’ exuberant Everyone Sang (2010) and Charlotte Bray’s haunting violin concerto, Caught in Treetops (2010), it was an evening (indeed a weekend) for new music at the Festival. One hopes that Carter would have felt in good company. In 1994, in a piece reprinted in his Substance of Things Heard, Paul Griffiths wrote:You do not have to be eighty-five years old to feel marooned in the past while time races on, but you probably have to be that age - and specifically to be Elliott Carter - to have the reverse feeling of desertion by time’s skidding hurriedly backwards from a point you thought was not only yours but everyone’s. At a public interview before the world premiere in Chicago of his newest orchestral work, Partita, Carter reacted passionately to a question about the future. How could he have any certain hope for his music, he said, when the last decade had seen a rush of young composers - by whom he probably meant anyone under seventy or so - ‘writing like Brahms, and doing it badly’? His tone was regretful, bewildered, but not bitter: he has too much gaiety of mind ever to turn sour - or indeed, ever to write like Brahms. We therefore have the paradox of an aged composer producing some of the most exhilarating music around, and doing so with majestic accomplishment (if that does not seem too settled a term for this athlete of the mind) in his new piece.But perhaps the youthfulness is not so paradoxical; maybe only the old, in these jaded times, have their innocence intact, and stay able to be surprised by immediate sensory impressions, as Carter is evidently surprised and delighted by sounds. Simplicity and directness have always been as much his blessings as the vaunted ‘complexity’. (Why should this always be introduced as a problem? Who complains of the complexity of a forest?) Indeed, the abundance, to give it an apter name, comes out of a simple certainty about the nature of a composer’s task… [p.22]Listening to Conversation on Sunday evening - how the piano often seemed primarily percussive and the percussion instruments, especially the vibraphone, took on the more melodic role expected of the piano - we were reminded of a paragraph in Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler’s ‘centennial portrait’ of Carter:Carter has drawn on existing traditions for key points of his creative process and his artistic philosophy, preferring to prolong and rejuvenate them rather than call them into question. This applies to his preservation of the idea of a self-contained work of art, set down in writing with maximum precision, and to his focus on working with conventional tonal material (for example, precluding electronic sounds and largely avoiding experimental performance techniques on conventional instruments). It applies equally to his understanding of the role of the performer, whom he employs primarily as an interpreter of his ideas and not, as in aleatoric music, as a ‘co-author.’ And finally it is no less applicable, at least in intention, to his understanding of listeners: although Carter has often said that he never thinks of the audience while composing, but only of the performers, his efforts to make the musical events audible, and his penchant for casting his musical discou[...]



Beside the Seaside

2011-06-20T10:36:47.680+01:00

The 64th Aldeburgh Festival opened last Friday with a bang. Several, actually - many from the gongs and tam tams in Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. The second half of this thrilling concert was given over to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with an ailing Magdalena Kozena nevertheless giving a superb performance right down to the closings Ewigs. Such is the variety of the Festival programme, even after this big opening number there will be much more to enjoy over the coming weeks.The New Aldeburgh Anthology is as essential an accompaniment as the highly-collectable Festival programme book. This remarkable collection of prose, poetry and images of Aldeburgh and the Suffolk coast has, at its heart, the Aldeburgh Festival in Benjamin Britten’s time and beyond. We celebrate both the Festival and the Anthology with excerpts from Steven Isserlis’ contribution to the latter, appropriately titled ‘Aldeburgh: A Magical Festival’:My first performance at Aldeburgh was as part of a short masterclass seminar given by the distinguished Danish cellist Erling Blondal Bengtsson. I remember playing the Prelude of Bach’s fifth suite at the end-of-course student concert; about ten minutes after I’d finished, Britten arrived. So alas, I just missed my only chance to play to him. I did, however, get to play Bach to Imogen Holst, who was a friend of my teacher, Jane Cowan. As a result of that, I became friends with ‘Imo’ (well, if a rather bumptious teenager and a distinguished eccentric in her late sixties can be called friends), and she invited me to play her lovely piece for solo cello, The Fall of the Leaf, at a concert that marked her seventieth birthday in 1977. (I received my first-ever national review for that, the Telegraph graciously describing me as ‘the talented Roger Isserlis’.) Later, she invited me back to the festival to give the first performance for many years of her father’s only work for cello, Invocation. So my early memories of Aldeburgh are very much bound up with her. I really don’t think that a character like Imo’s could exist now. I remember her speeches to audiences: bending from the waist down, she would inform them, in the sort of voice now heard only in nursery schools, that they were about to have a ‘lovely, lovely time’. They would sit there meekly, putty in her hands.At the concert in which I played The Fall of the Leaf, Peter Pears sang songs by Quilter and his contemporaries, with Roger Vignoles at the piano. I listened backstage and was bowled over by the performance; when they came offstage, I was ready for them. ‘That’s the best performance I’ve ever heard of British music!’ I gushed. Peter Pears looked at me a little strangely, as well he might; to him, having introduced so many of the greatest works ever written by a British composer, it must have sounded very foolish. Well, it was a silly thing to say; but I was young…Another striking memory is from 1974, when Rostropovich was finally allowed out of the Soviet Union and was able to give the premiere of Britten’s Third Suite for solo cello, which had been written for him some years earlier. Again, Britten was sitting in the box; I remember thinking how frail he looked – but he was still a strong presence. We knew that we were listening to history in the making. Since then, I have performed that same Suite (the only one of the three that I play) several times at the Maltings; on each occasion, I have glanced towards the darkened box and imagined that Britten’s ghost was sitting there. It is quite an eerie feeling!As I think of Aldeburgh and Snape, other memories come tumbling into my brain: the sight of Joyce Grenfell striding into a concert, seemingly oblivious to the excitement she was stirring up am[...]



Selling Serialism

2011-06-10T11:41:22.563+01:00

Luigi Dallapiccola was the first Italian composer to work within the twelve-tone system, and is considered one of Italy's most important composers of the twentieth century. As Brian Alegant writes below and in his recent book, The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola, the emotion in Dallapiccola’s music makes his version of twelve tone an exciting place to start for anyone who thinks they won’t enjoy it.Anyone who has had to teach twelve-tone music knows that it is a “hard sell.” Having taught music majors for nearly a generation, I can say without hesitation that no other genre of classical music inspires such a hostile reaction as serialism. I have seen and heard students, performers, and even critics denigrate it as abstract, tortured, inhuman, and more about numbers than music.And yet, most scholars would agree that twelve-tone composition is among the most important musical developments of the twentieth century. Even a partial list of composers who experimented with—or fully embraced—serialism is staggering: Babbitt, Barber, Bartok, Berg, Boulez, Britten, Carter, Crawford, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Mamlock, Martino, Mead, Morris, Nono, Perle, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Sessions, Schnittke, Skalkattos, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Webern, and Wuorinen, among many others. And most scholars would also agree that Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) is among the most accomplished and admired serial composers. His output includes ballets, choral music, concertos, film scores, piano pieces, song cycles, orchestral pieces, and operas. Dallapiccola enjoyed international fame as a lecturer, teacher, and author, and he was a member of the national academies of arts in the U.S., France, and England.I have been entranced by Dallapiccola’s music ever since I heard David Burge play the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera. I have been listening to his music ever since with increasing appreciation and admiration, and I use his works to introduce twelve-tone to my students (with overwhelmingly positive results).The scholarly literature on Dallapiccola is vast, and comprises a host of books and monographs, countless articles, and an ever-growing number of dissertations and theses. As a result, we know quite a bit about his oeuvre: namely, his predilection for self-quotation and symbolism, his fondness for intricate counterpoint and systematic designs; his penchant for languages and text setting; his stylistic eclecticism; and his appropriation of Anton Webern’s techniques. And yet many facets of Dallapiccola’s music await further explanation, chief among them a gradual but inexorable absorption of Arnold Schoenberg’s techniques.In simplest terms, this book does not ask why Dallapiccola composed twelve-tone music, but, rather, how. It examines his repertory through a technical lens and traces the evolution of his praxis over a thirty-year period. In so doing, it highlights facets of his music that have not been previously disclosed, and sheds light on compositions that have been virtually ignored. Ultimately, it aims to complement the existing research in order to understand more fully his technique and his language.This book attempts in several ways to fill in some of the lacunae in the state of Dallapiccola research: it sheds light on several twelve-tone works of high quality that have been virtually ignored; it discusses these works in depth, so as to help readers understand them analytically and engage with them aurally; it builds upon recent developments in the post-tonal theory by Allen Forte, David Lewin, Andrew Mead, Robert Morris, Joseph Straus, and myself; it documents the composer’s seemingly limitless invention and his extraordinary skill and delight in text setting; and, most of all, it endeavors to continue the conversation on this important composer and his serial compositi[...]



Good Music for a Free People

2011-06-02T16:11:33.389+01:00

During the revolutions of 1848 two dozen members of an orchestra left Berlin for America to bring their music to new audiences. With their repertory of symphonies, opera selections and social dances they helped shape an audience for orchestral music at a seminal time in the history of the public concert. In her new book, Good Music for a Free People, Nancy Newman looks at the history of the Germania Musical Society, as they called themselves, and their effect on their adopted land. In this piece, written specially for the Stave, the author describes how she came across the orchestra and their fascinating story.My first encounter with the Germania Musical Society was through Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Lawrence Levine’s provocative book had ignited a debate across disciplines about the historical relationship between so-called classical and popular music, a subject that interested me deeply. The Germania Musical Society makes a brief appearance for having played a pivotal role in the emergence of the symphony orchestra as a regular feature of American musical life. Its members were a group of young Berlin musicians who immigrated to the United States in 1848 and presented nearly nine hundred concerts to approximately one million listeners over the next six years.Although it’s widely acknowledged that German immigrants had a profound effect on American musical practices, what intrigued me was Levine’s characterization of this particular group’s motivations. The orchestra members wanted “to further in the hearts of this politically free people the love of the fine art of music through performance of masterpieces of the greatest German composers”? Why would their listeners’ freedom have mattered? What did political liberty have to do with appreciation of the foremost classical compositions during “the century of artistic autonomy,” as Carl Dahlhaus described it? The relationship between absolute music and political thought was also of on-going interest, and the Germania Musical Society offered a new perspective on this complicated topic.Following Levine’s trail led me to Skizzen aus dem Leben der Musik-Gesellschaft Germania, a brief memoir by Henry Albrecht, viola and clarinet player for the orchestra. This little-known account raised more questions than it answered. For example, Albrecht describes the members’ departure during the 1848 Revolutions in terms of their adversarial relationship to patronage. The prevailing system in Europe did not produce ideal musical results because it encouraged currying favor. Although noble courts were musically sophisticated and employed “virtuosi of the first rank,” nearly all the musicians sought to exhibit themselves through “exceptional mannerisms.” Albrecht claims that as a result, “a performance rarely appears totally flawless.”The Germanians, in contrast, were willing to sacrifice their egos for the sake of the ensemble. “In the performance of orchestral works, every member realized that it was his holiest duty never to exhibit an exceptional, individual artistic mannerism.” To me, this articulated a fascinating paradox: by coming to the cultural wilderness of the United States, the Germanians sought the freedom not to show off. Even more surprising, they gave their desire for an alternative to patronage a form that was explicitly political. Not only did they seek an environment that was democratic, but they organized themselves accordingly. They drafted a constitution and agreed to share equitably in rewards and obligations. Aware that in leaving Berlin the orchestra became their sole means of support, the members pledged to place the welfare of the group above self-interest. A social-utopian motto, “One for all and all for one,” was [...]



Words and Music

2011-05-23T17:50:10.538+01:00

Advance copies of Bálint Varga’s Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers have just arrived, and what a remarkable publication it is. Birtwistle, Boulez, Cage, Carter, Henze, Kurtág, Ligeti, Nono, Reich, Tippett and Xenakis are just a few of the artists who agreed to discuss their music and their influences. In this post we extract a few choice morsels but urge you to seek out a copy in your favourite bookshop, as we are unable to reproduce the compelling flow of conversation and ideas within the confines of a blog post.Gunther SchullerTo get back to Darmstadt: in the early fifties there came about an alliance between the German radio stations, composers, publishers, modern music journals, and festivals. Radios, as you know, are subsidized by the state and can broadcast new music without any great risk. A political/business linkup developed: a festival premiered a new work, it was recorded or taped by a radio station, and then the tape was broadcast throughout Europe. And everybody became richer and more famous. As a result of a terrific publicity machinery, everything was made to sound bigger and better than it really was. That is how lesser composers, like Pousseur or Kagel, became touted as “great” composers. We were told in Darmstadt that they and Boulez and Stockhausen were the masters of our time, and we should all compose like them.There were three composers in Darmstadt in those early years who thought this was all pretty silly: Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, and me. We were young and fairly cocky, and didn’t necessarily swallow Stockhausen’s line. I am proud of that. In the end—around 1957—I left Darmstadt, never to return.Pierre SchaefferI am going to tell you why, at a particular moment in my life, I embarked on an adventure which I called concrete music.I am not a composer. I have a degree in engineering but I have always regarded writing as my calling. As for my profession: I was one of the pioneers of broadcasting. I set up an experimental studio during the German occupation (today, they would call it an atelier) with the aim of developing the bases of radio art. Is it possible to create art devoid of the visual aspect? Is blind art viable?Those were great years even though we had to work clandestinely during the occupation. We also participated in preparing the liberation of Paris. The first broadcasts went on the air a few days before the withdrawal of the Germans: it was rather a perilous undertaking.It was after the war that the development of radio art really got under way. We wanted to find out all the possibilities inherent in this genre based only on text, background noise, and music—a genre that freed the imagination. Logically enough, I attempted on one occasion to create an experimental work in which I set out to explore at what point background sound, the condensing of noise turns into music. (In other words, musique concrete was the outcome of an accident, just as most other innovations. One stumbles on something one was not looking for.)Toru TakemitsuThe pieces I wrote during the past several years have had a great deal to do with water. I love the sea. It has many faces. Numerous currents are whirling in it, each with a tempo, a color, and a temperature of its own. This phenomenon reminds me of the structure of music.Twenty-five years ago when I started composing, I carried out concrete musical experiments with water. During a visit to France I was surprised to find that Pierre Schaeffer was working in the same direction. In my Water Music (1960) I use the sound of dripping water. I collected material from rivers, wells, and the sea and in the process of concentrating my attention on these sonorities, I grew fond of water.Nature is important for my music in other ways as w[...]



Who was that masked man?

2011-05-16T08:58:54.108+01:00

Unmasking Ravel is the intriguing title of a new collection of essays on the French master, edited by Peter Kaminsky. It joins an already impressive list of books on French music in the Eastman Studies in Music series published by the University of Rochester Press, including Stephen Zank’s acclaimed Irony and Sound. Here Professor Kaminsky describes his “Eureka!” moment with Ravel’s music and gives us some idea of what to expect from this new publication.Ravel’s music has had an irresistible hold on me since my first encounter with it in Professor Joel Sheveloff’s music history class at Boston University. It was there that I heard the combination of hilarious story and impossibly clever music that is Ravel’s first opera The Spanish Hour (L’Heure espagnole); and the shimmering and utterly original dance “Forlane” from Le tombeau de Couperin. Cut to 15 years later as I began my professional career as music theorist: imagine my surprise when my colleagues sneered at the mere mention of Ravel’s name — too lightweight, too effete, too popular. (The ubiquity of Bolero did not help.) Needless to say, this situation presented precisely the thing that all writers need: A PROBLEM TO SOLVE. That is, how could I square my conviction that Ravel’s music was Hall of Fame material (I am a hardcore baseball fan), while all but a handful of scholars regarded him as strictly bush league*?After writing a number of journal articles and book chapters, I finally had a breakthrough, a “Eureka!” moment. I understood that the metaphor that everybody writing about Ravel seemed to employ — MASKS — was in reality a bunch of tropes that, beginning with his earliest reviews onward, gradually hardened into the public and critical reception history of his music. These tropes include what I term “Ravel as classicist,” as “artisan,” as “artificial,” as deliberately attempting the impossible (the so-called “aesthetic of imposture” made famous by his student and first biographer Roland-Manuel), as “cold,” as “virtuoso,” and as “ornamentalist.” Three realizations followed: his music presents all of these facets at once; I decided to assemble and edit a Ravel book rather than write a monograph to better reveal the panoply of musical, aesthetic and historical contexts; and I found a title for the book that captured all this: Unmasking Ravel.The book divides into three parts: Orientations and Influences; Analytical Case Studies; and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. In Part I, authors Steven Huebner, Barbara Kelly and Michael Puri—three of the most incisive current writers on Ravel’s music—engage aspects of cultural and literary history, biography, influence, reception, branding (in the modern advertising sense), memory, and interpretive strategies. Ravel provocatively stated that his most important composition teacher was the American author Edgar Allen Poe, especially the essay The Philosophy of Composition in which Poe describes the step-by-step creation of his poem “The Raven.” Huebner, equally provocatively, places this statement in the broader context of Ravel’s literary circle and unravels (pun intended) its crucial role in his aesthetics and concept of classicism (e.g., why Ravel loved Mozart and equivocated over Debussy). Kelly reveals how Ravel’s student and first biographer Roland-Manuel deliberately and continually manipulated the composer’s image in relation to ongoing music-critical currents to enhance his standing with audiences and critics alike, and how this effort subsequently shaped our current views on Ravel. Puri manages to interpret Adorno’s writings on Ravel with a positive spin by addressing the composer’s melancholic nostalgia in the co[...]



Talking to Morton Feldman (and 64 others)

2011-05-09T09:18:20.561+01:00

Imagine being able to ask composers like John Cage, György Ligeti, Steve Reich or Karlheinz Stockhausen detailed questions about their influences and their methods of composition. This is exactly what Bálint András Varga did for his new book, Three Questions for Sixty Five Composers. Here, as a taster for this fascinating book, are excerpts from three of his conversations. First György Ligeti:Noises do not influence me directly, but neither do I cut myself off from them altogether. The outside world makes an indirect impact. Music works with acoustic material, no doubt, but I do not think that the sounds of live or dead nature would influence me in a decisive manner. Various types of movement do. In my view, you see, music mirrors the processes of motion through sound. Machines play an important role… I have, after all, also written a piece for one hundred metronomes.Although Atmosphères and Apparitions are not programmatic in character—I did not set out to render the sensation of flying in either piece—flying did have an indirect influence on their floating, on the continuous transformation of their musical patterns.Without asking for my permission, Stanley Kubrick used extracts from Atmosphères, Lux aeterna, and the Requiem in the music of his science fiction film 2001. I was angry with him but I did like his work (apart from the mystical beginning and ending). While composing, I did not think of anything “cosmic” (Atmosphères is meant to convey “atmosphere” rather than “air”), but the film made me aware of the possibility of associating infinity with my music.As far as Lux aeterna is concerned, the words only served as a chance for me to compose music which is in fact musica aeterna: as if it has been sounding from time immemorial and would be going on forever—we only hear a part of it. It emerges from nowhere, it is here and slowly disappears.Interviewing Morton Feldman, Varga writes: I must plead guilty to having known precious little at the time about Feldman and his music. All I knew was that he was considered an important composer and that was enough for me to reach for my microphone. It will not be difficult to imagine my acute embarrassment in meeting this unique man face to face. I felt hopelessly European, hopelessly bourgeois, hopelessly underinformed. However, I made a brave effort to conceal my uneasiness and to conduct a conversation with Feldman as if it were the most natural thing in the world.[On whether Robert Rauschenberg’s white pictures influenced John Cage]What influenced John Cage in Rauschenberg was an answer to a philosophical question about life and art. Robert Rauschenberg is exactly my age. And brilliant. He said something that was very influential to a lot of young artists at that time. I think this is the influence of Rauschenberg, with his white paintings, to Cage. He said that he does not want either life or art. He wants something in between. A very influential statement: neither life nor art but something in between. And Cage would see this beautiful white thing in the shadows of the environment. He lived in a very beautiful apartment, Cage, and he saw where art and the outside environment could collage.John Cage is only involved with music forms….That there is nothing there behind the material. So in that sense, John Cage is not a mystic.Don’t you think that his music exudes an atmosphere and in doing so, it communicates something beyond the music, it communicates a way of thinking?I think it asks a lot of questions. I think it’s the atmosphere of asking questions.Whereas yours?The atmosphere of answering them (laughs).In that case, one must envy you: you seem to have the answers. Few people can claim [...]



Leon Kirchner and 'a Boo for the Boos of Boulez'

2011-04-18T15:38:45.972+01:00

Known throughout his career for his controversial stances and outspoken polemics, in 1952 Pierre Boulez aroused considerable ire with his essay “Schoenberg is Dead”, which denigrated the aging composer for being too conservative in comparison to Webern. In 1963 Leon Kirchner was in his second year of teaching at Harvard. Despite his discomfort with Boulez’ attack on Schoenberg, he was prepared to offer camaraderie to the Frenchman during his own sojourn in Cambridge. During the following years Boulez became increasingly active and successful as an orchestral conductor and remained in contact with Kicrhner. Robert Riggs takes up the story in his recently published biography, Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher: In January 1969 Boulez’ appointment as music director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London was announced, and in the spring of that year he came to the United States again, this time as a guest conductor with the orchestras in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, and New York. Boulez agreed to be interviewed in Boston by Joan Peyser for a feature article to be published in the New York Times. During the interview over a long lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Boulez became quite expansive, providing Peyser with numerous quotable but also controversial remarks for her article, which appeared in the Arts and Leisure Section on Sunday, March 9, 1969. The headline, “A Fighter From Way Back” (supplied by the Times editors), already gives a premonition of the article’s thrust: an attack by Boulez on various aspects of American musical life. According to Boulez, composers who publish in Perspectives of New Music “think they are great scientists. They are not. I know great scientists and they possess invention and imagination. Composers who publish in this journal never discuss important questions of choice and decision. They write only about putting different things together. This is not an esthetic point of view. It’s what I call a ‘cashier’s point of view.’’’ Addressing the perceived rivalry between European and American composers, Boulez asserted: “The Americans do operate under a severe handicap, of course; they have no strong personalities in the field. If they were strong enough to establish their personality on the world, they would see that no national favoritism exists. . . . They have no one in America as good as Hans Werner Henze, and that is not setting your sights very high. A composer the stature of Stockhausen they have not.” Boulez also offered a diagnosis of what caused this alleged impoverished state of music in America: European music in not connected with the university. There is no ivory castle for us. But here, the university people and practical musicians ignore each other. It’s a very unhealthy state of affairs. I do not like this pedantic approach. I do not like scholars who bring only Death to music. The university situation is incestuous. It is one big marriage in which the progeny deteriorates, like the progeny of old and noble families. The university musician is in a self-made ghetto, and what is worse, he likes it there. The night before “A Fighter From Way Back” appeared in the New York Times, Boulez was a guest at the home of Leon and Gertrude Kirchner in Cambridge. Although Boulez obviously knew that the interview/article would be coming out soon, if not the very next day, he was, according to Kirchner, urbane, charming, and completely relaxed that evening. After the very pleasant dinner party on Saturday, the Sunday paper brought Kirchner a rude and totally unexpected shock. Boulez’s inflammatory and judgmental remarks, the sting of which was augmented by his deceptive[...]



Hans, Milein and Igor

2011-04-07T11:29:40.148+01:00

In March Toccata Press launched their new edition of Hans Keller’s writings on - and Milein Cosman’s drawings of - Stravinsky with a reception at the Austrian Cultural Forum in London. Stravinsky the Music Maker is the third incarnation of this book and the most complete yet, with all of Keller’s known writings on the composer, greatly enhanced by Cosman’s lively line drawings. Christopher Wintle, one of the trustees of the Cosman Keller Art & Music Trust and a publisher in his own right, gave the following address on the night, which we are pleased to post here in full: The Time: Spring 1967. The Place: Oxford. The Occasion: I am cycling into College for dinner. As I come down the Woodstock Road, I see my tutor waiting at a bus stop. He is Dr. Egon Wellesz, one-time student of Arnold Schoenberg and classmate of Berg and Webern. I stop. “Good evening,” he says sweetly, “And what did you do today?” “I listened to Stravinsky!” I beam in reply. His smile becomes rictal: he is clearly agitated. “Stravinsky,” he cries, “was a FRAUD!” Whereupon he raises his arms as if dancing The Rite of Spring and emits a few primeval grunts. I bid him a pleasant evening and continue to College. Naturally, I spread the bad tidings among friends. No-one is delighted – but then, no-one is surprised: even in the 1960s, Igor is still ‘hot potato’. In the preface to this combatively-titled book – for Hans believed that Stravinsky, unlike others, genuinely made music – Martin Anderson claims I supplied the articles that got the project started. Well, as far as it goes that’s true– but I can go further still. What happened was this. First, I breathed heavily down his neck to ensure he included all Hans’s writings on Stravinsky; and then I was forced to draw in my breath as he and Mark Doran added in extra pieces I’d either forgotten or knew nothing about. The result of their expert sleuthing is not just a gratifyingly tidy piece of archival house-keeping, but also a generically richer collection than I’d expected. The writings are arranged chronologically over a period of 35 years from 1948 to ‘83; they are drawn from music magazines, learned journals, book reviews, newspapers, concert previews and programme notes; and they come to an imposing head in ‘Stravinsky Heard’, a reprint of Hans’s contribution to Stravinsky Seen and Heard from 1982. Yet taken together, they evince the refracted unity of a modernist collage. After a few introductory scraps, the main theme emerges in 1954 as Hans sets out to defend Stravinsky, not so much against Schoenberg, but rather against ‘the Schoenbergians’ – in other words, against the Welleszes and all those who couldn’t recognize genius when they heard it. Pre-eminently he targeted Theodor Adorno. It was, of course, an extraordinary mission: for if he didn’t count himself among the Schoenbergians, Hans was still deeply imbued with the thought of Schoenberg and the traditions behind him. Not for him was the Russian Stravinsky, the ‘neo-classical’ French Stravinsky or the time-travelling American Stravinsky; his Stravinsky could only be a co-opted Viennese. And it is no surprise that, during those 35 years, Hans had to wrestle with some demons of his own. Let me sift the evidence. At first sight, Hans’s attitude to Stravinsky seems ambivalent. True in 1956, he berates Adorno for not being ‘inspired by that great respect for a great genius without which the truest observation on him lacks perspective’ [:45]; true too he deplores how Adorno tears ‘Stravinsky to shreds with the intellectual power of … a philosopher and the subterranea[...]



Round Stones

2011-03-31T13:01:04.898+01:00

When the Japanese pianist, Noriko Ogawa, read Out of Silence by Susan Tomes, she was so impressed she decided to translate it into her own language. Earlier this week, the two pianists came together to discuss the challenges of translating a book like this into Japanese (the various nuances of ‘practice’ in Japanese, did Susan Tomes write in a woman’s voice or a man’s voice, and so on). Their meeting was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on their Women’s Hour programme. Here, by way of a reminder, is one of Noriko Ogawa’s favourite pieces from the book. Perhaps it is a cliché to suggest that the Zen calm of this extract appealed to her. Back in the days when I used to play for the string masterclasses at Prussia Cove, I developed the habit of going for a walk along the beach by myself after the classes to dispel the tensions of the day. My job was to play the piano for the violinists, viola players or cellists who were having a lesson. The lessons took place in front of a roomful of other gifted students and visiting teachers from all over the world, so the atmosphere was always intense and the stakes high. I wasn’t having a lesson myself, but this didn’t stop certain teachers from including me in their personal criticisms and tantrums, and I sometimes needed to remind myself afterwards that there were things in life other than music. I walked slowly along the beach, looking for interesting stones. My method was not to look for anything consciously, but just sweep the beach with my gaze and let the stones call to me. I took them back to my room and kept them on the windowsill as talismans, though I usually liberated them back to the beach before I went home. As I walked on the beach, waiting for ‘interesting’ ones to present themselves, I realised that I was always drawn to stones which were smooth and round. This may not be most people’s idea of interesting stones, but it’s mine. I am fascinated by the thought of the multiple forces of wind and water which have to work on a rough piece of rock for years and years to convert it into something smooth and round. Such tremendous forces from so many different directions: what are the chances of them making something round? Far easier to imagine how the clash of asymmetrical forces could produce jagged, dramatic shapes with attention-seeking personalities. There were plenty of those theatrical stones on the beach, but I passed by on another track. I see the round stones as survivors of a long process of buffeting. They hold more secrets. Out of Silence by Susan Tomes is available from all good booksellers. Her earlier book, Beyond the Notes, largely concerning her time with Domus, remains in print. Both are published by the Boydell Press. [...]



“. . . a vision of eternity”

2011-03-15T10:40:29.901+00:00

As an organist, writes John R Near, I cannot remember a time when I did not know the name Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937), but little did I know what lay beyond that name and the ubiquitous organ Toccata—a work so famous that it virtually is the music of the organ to many who may not even know the composer’s name. I have always loved playing Widor’s organ music; I think of it not so much as music for the organ as music of the organ. It rises organically from the instrument as if born of a loving parent. For Widor, the soaring tone of the organ was a “sound singing eternity to the stars.” He once told his pupil Albert Schweitzer, “Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with a vision of eternity.”Why wouldn’t I want to explore more fully the organ music of a composer with such a lofty notion of our chosen instrument? When I began my doctoral dissertation at Boston University in 1982, that was precisely my goal—nothing more. Then I began the research. I was soon overwhelmed to discover that Widor was not at all just an organist and organ composer, but rather a mainstream musician who composed in nearly every genre, and who had been a sort of cultural ambassador for France. It became clear to me that it would do Widor a grave injustice if I considered him only from the single aspect of his career as an organist, albeit legendary. I had to write a biography—a “life and works.” What began as an academic project soon became a labor of love. In hindsight, I clearly arrived at precisely the right moment, as no one was yet much interested in Widor.Completed in July 1984, my dissertation became the first full-scale posthumous biography of Widor in any language. Although it encompassed his entire work, it naturally highlighted his career as an organist and organ composer, and I felt certain that if there were to be a resurgence of interest in Widor’s music, it would be through the organ works. I decided I had to continue my research, and the study of Widor became a kind of mission. I had become quite aware that the composition and publication history of Widor’s organ works was knotty at best, and that a critical edition of the ten organ symphonies was sorely needed. I put that as a priority, but I had no idea how complex the puzzle would be. It required ten years, 1987–97, to research and to publish my edition with A-R Editions.Just when I thought I might start this biography in earnest, it was proposed that the Philadelphia Orchestra would perform Widor’s Symphony in G Minor for Organ and Orchestra in 2002, but with the stipulation that it had to be published. They had last performed the work from manuscript copies in 1919! The biography had to be put off as I undertook the research to publish a critical edition of the Symphony, again with A-R Editions. In retrospect, I can see how the twenty intervening years between my dissertation and the beginning of the present book only prepared me better to reach the summit of this biographical Everest.I have always thought it surprising that there were only a couple of fairly extended biographical studies of Widor during his lifetime. Although I had my doctoral research to build on, I was forced to mine original source materials, almost entirely in French. Over two decades, I collected a great deal of new material that I had not yet fully digested—countless letters, reviews, articles, news clippings, and a cache of material in the possession of Widor’s grandniece, whom I found in 1988. Perhaps the most extraordinary of the treasures that tumbled out of her huge armoire, was the 103-pa[...]



Beecham's Salome

2011-02-28T11:14:27.715+00:00

Thomas Beecham had intended that his first Covent Garden season should open in February 1910 with what was bound to be a sure-fire sensation, the British premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome. There was a problem, however. The Lord Chamberlain's office, responsible for stage censorship in Britain since 1737, refused to grant it a performing license. Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, on which Strauss's libretto was based, had been similarly banned twenty-eight years earlier, on the grounds that it portrayed on stage the New Testament figure of St John the Baptist, and the current Lord Chamberlain (Earl Spencer, great-grandfather of Princess Diana) was not prepared to change his mind on the matter. Beecham opened his season with Elektra instead, but continued to do battle over Salome with the Lord Chamberlain who, nine months later, at last gave in, but at a price.The Baptist was to be allowed back into the opera, though he was to be called, not Jokanaan or John, but ‘a Prophet’, while in the final scene the executioner was to hand Salome a blood-stained sword, rather than the saint’s head on a silver charger. Salome’s hymn to the head was to be bowdlerised and all Biblical allusions in the text eliminated. The action was to be moved from Judea to Greece and the Five Jews were to become Five Learned Men. For the sake of getting Salome produced in London at last, Strauss accepted the changes.The opera was licensed on 1 December, one week before the opening. Tickets for its opening night sold out within eighty-five minutes of the box-office opening, and before long touts were offering seats at more than double their face value. During the final dress rehearsal Salome, the lissom Finnish soprano Aïno Ackté, found that the ‘blood’ dripping from the sword was staining her fingers and, using ‘some very drastic words in French’, wiped it off on the cloak of the nearest supernumerary. It was not a problem she had encountered in Germany, where she had held the charger bearing the head.Beecham stopped the rehearsal and in the hope of finding a solution ordered one of his staff to make an urgent telephone call to the Lord Chamberlain's office. After a long wait the shirt-sleeved stage manager rushed to the front of the stage and knelt before Beecham, who was waiting in the orchestra pit. ‘We can use a tray instead of a sword’, he shouted, ‘so long as there is no head on it.’ The news was greeted with cheers. Comedy had finally turned into farce.Beecham was tireless. The dress rehearsal took place in the afternoon. In the morning he had taken a three-hour rehearsal for his first concert for the Philharmonic Society, which he conducted that same evening at Queen’s Hall. The concert came at an awkward moment, but he had postponed it once already, and for the sake of future relations with the society he could hardly delay it again. It was not the only concert he conducted during the final week of Salome rehearsals.Three nights earlier he had conducted a programme of Wagner excerpts with his orchestra at the Opera House; and on the evening before that had given a concert of eighteenth-century operatic music at the Aeolian Hall in Bond Street, at which Maggie Teyte sang arias by Méhul, Grétry, Paisiello, Isouard, Monsigny and Dalayrac. Teyte claimed to friends that she had an affair with Beecham, but, if true, it seems it was a brief one.Not surprisingly, given the enormous amount of pre-publicity it had received, the first night of Salome on 8 December was a succès fou, though several reviewers found the opera less musicall[...]



On Music and Beauty by Markand Thakar

2011-02-22T09:10:19.102+00:00

Part 1: A Visitor from Outer Space, ConfusedArt is a vehicle for self-knowledge. Whoa, that’s heavy. With apologies, yes.I sometimes imagine a discussion with a visitor from outer space.Space Alien: What did you do last night?Human Person: I went to a big box.There were about 1500 people there. They turned off the lights, and in a cornerof the box some people made noise.SA: EEW! How long did you have to dothis?HP: It took about two hours, and I wanted to do it.SA: So theymust have paid you well?HP: Actually, I paid a handsome sum.SA:(scratching its left nose) Hmmm. I have just one question.HP: Yes...SA: Why?Why indeed!I have never seen myself. Don’t get too smug — you’ve never seen yourself either. I’ve seen my face in a mirror, I’ve seen photographs of my face, I’ve seen my lower extremities, the backs of my lower legs, parts of my arms. I’ve never seen my back, my rear end, or parts of my arms. I’ve never seen the essence of my physical presence to the world: my eyes, my mouth, my nose, my ears.My understanding of who I am is limited to the absence of what I am not. I know that I am not the table, the computer, the window, those trees. I am not the glass or the flowers. I am not the air or the smells. I am not the omelet, nor am I the taste of the omelet. I am not the death of my friend, nor am I the sadness. I am not the joke nor am I the humor. That thing that is missing from all the things I am not — that’s who I am. So the more defined, more present, more vivid to me are the things I am not, the better I understand my own being.Ordinary understanding — or consciousness — is a three-part process: subject—mode of consciousness—object. If I see the Tower of London, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and seeing is the mode of consciousness. If I remember the tower, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and remembering is the mode of consciousness. If I imagine the tower, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and imagining is the mode of consciousness.So here’s one answer to the “Why?”: we consume art because it helps to define us to ourselves. I read a novel; it has meaning for me to the extent that I relate the events in it to my own experiences of the world, it makes them more vivid, it heightens my awareness of the world external to me, and it brings my own essence into better relief. I see an opera or a play, or a Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can, I connect deeply with the loves, the losses, the joy, the sadness, the soup, and I have a more pronounced understanding of my loves, my losses, my joy and sadness, my soup. The external world is more vividly limned, what that world is not is in greater relief, and the “what-it-is-not” — me — is better defined.Ah but visual art — and music — can do something else, something different, something — yes — BETTER!Part 2: When is a Tree not a Tree?When is a tree not a tree? Or, more precisely, in observing a tree, when am I not observing the tree?Some 25 years ago I lived in an apartment in a rural area. Outside the apartment was a tree, a large one, with many branches. I saw the tree as I was coming and going, every day for two years. It was a tree. One day, though, leaving the apartment, I glanced up, and observed that tree. It was beautiful, and I was struck by it. And I was left with this nagging question: what was different about the tree when it provided an experience of beauty from when it was just there as part of my general observation of the world around me?Kudos to you, honored reader, who has[...]



‘To know a world of beauty…’

2011-02-17T16:09:03.068+00:00

My first encounter with Grainger’s music - writes Penelope Thwaites, editor of The New Percy Grainger Companion - began not as a music student at Melbourne University, but in England in the 70’s, not long after my Wigmore Hall debut. The composer William L Reed said to me one day, “You’re an Australian – why don’t you play some Grainger?” I considered, and decided to include three folk-settings at the end of my next recital. I found them delightful, stimulating - and demanding. That, I learned, was a not unusual experience for those embarking on performing Grainger.Fifty years after his death in New York on 20 February 1961, a fresh evaluation of Percy Grainger is due. This Australian-American composer and pianist who spent much of his youth in Germany and Britain and who revered the Scandinavian countries and their culture seems to have been born into a state of reaction against existing norms. The necessity to earn his living and support his invalid mother took him to the heart of the British establishment as a society pianist, when his own genes were drawing him inexorably towards the music of ordinary people – folk music. His quenchless curiosity led him to experiment with new instruments to introduce into the lush panoply of Edwardian orchestral writing – an orchestra for which he wrote superbly. He envisaged a kind of music that would dispense with regular time signatures and conventional pitch, music that would move as freely as the sounds of nature.I have just come from rehearsing a trio of Grainger songs. Grainger’s pianist is a full partner to the singer and together, time and again, two artists are called upon to create a scene, a drama , more often than not with an undercurrent of sadness. The Sprig of Thyme tells the old story of the young woman betrayed by the disappearing lover, but this girl has spirit, and hopes for better things. The music reflects all that, with a kind of gaiety that is far more touching than a display of self-pity. Absolutely characteristic in the song is Grainger’s harmony, now poignant, now twisting the knife in the wound. It all happens in three minutes – a masterpiece.Benjamin Britten recognised Grainger’s unique greatness in this field : “In the art of setting folk song, Grainger is my master”. Britten may have produced the greater volume of works, but neither he nor any other composer I know comes near Grainger’s strangely affecting mix of emotional earthiness enhanced by harmonic sophistication.He wrote with passionate appreciation of the folk-singers who gave him their (often jealously guarded) tunes. Perhaps they sensed he was one of them? Grainger himself never mentioned, perhaps never knew, that his great-grandfather, Jacob Grainger (1796-1880) farmed in the south of County Durham, as did almost all of his (Jacob’s) family. Just one son moved to London in the 1840s and became a master tailor, and one of his family of ten left England to take a job in distant Australia as a draughtsman, later architect. That was Percy Grainger’s father.Some 350 performers in eight concerts will take part in the Celebrating Grainger 2011 festival at Kings Place, London, from 17-19 February. They will traverse his choral and solo vocal music, woodwind, brass and string chamber works, with the Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra his superb writing for military band, a concert including Grainger’s non-western settings, multi-hand duo piano works, percussion ensembles, Theremins, experimental music machines, and a chance fo[...]



Nielsen in the South

2011-02-03T12:00:35.042+00:00

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is arguably the most underrated composer of his generation, despite an ever-growing number of recordings and performances of his music. In a new book, Daniel Grimley offers a critical re-evaluation of his music and its rich artistic and literary contexts, drawing extensively on the newly completed Carl Nielsen Edition. Topics include the composer’s relationship with symbolism and fin de siècle decadence and his response to the Danish landscape. Running through the book is an engagement with the idea of musical modernism - a term which, for Nielsen, was fraught with anxiety and yet provided significant creative stimulus. In this excerpt, Grimley looks at the overture Helios. For anyone who might sympathise with the old joke that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, this is how it’s done:The opening page of Nielsen’s concert overture Helios (1903) is one of the most magical dawn sequences in music. Long pedal notes in the lower strings suggest a seemingly infinite sense of musical time and space, of floating weightlessly in the musical ether: the pause over each second bar momentarily suspends the perception of regular clock time before the work has properly begun, so that the piece literally begins in a state of timelessness. The hairpin dynamics, rising almost imperceptibly from pianississimo and falling back again, reflect the vibrating amplitude of the bowed open string: it is as much a description of the sound object or ‘Klang’ as a performance direction.The horn calls that then gradually rise above the bass pedal sound almost impossibly distant, gently arching upwards first through the octave and then to the flat seventh, as though sounding the upper partials of a single glowing harmonic spectrum. As this sound slowly echoes and peals, the resonance gaining strength through its waxing reiteration, the upper strings begin to weave a gently flowing quaver figure, gradually filling in the gaps between the widely spaced intervals of the horn calls and bass, so that the orchestral texture emerges as if from a clearing morning mist. As this slowly shifting curtain of sound grows, the harmonic palette also widens and enriches itself, the rocking fifth steps in the bass (a horizontalisation of the earlier vertical chord structures) followed eventually by the first chromatic descent (b. 30), tilting the music momentarily towards the flat side and casting aside the drowsy somnolent sevenths of the opening page.The return to the opening white-note C major gains a greater sense of clarification or focus, prefiguring the arrival of the first fully fledged melodic statement, the striding chorale entry of the horns with a transfigured version of their opening call at b. 54, supported by a blaze of string tremolandos and organ-like woodwind writing. The final shadows of the night in which the piece figuratively began have melted away and the music surges irresistibly forwards to the start of the main section, an energetic Allegro ma non troppo in the bright, super-charged key of E major.Formerly broadcast every 1 January by Danish Radio, Helios has gained a deeply symbolic place in Danish musical culture. It has become a ‘Morgensang’ (‘morning song’ or aubade), sounded optimistically at the threshold of each New Year. Yet the richly associative gestures with which the music begins invite a range of critical and historical interpretations. For example, the horn’s striding chorale belongs to [...]



The Gamba's Return

2011-01-27T15:57:03.317+00:00

Peter Holman’s long-anticipated Life After Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch was published at the close of last year. In this fascinating post, he outlines how he came to his subject and some of the research that has grown out of it:The origins of this book go back to a day in the late 1990s when my Ph.D. student Ian Davies mentioned that he had come across a manuscript in London University Library that contained some eighteenth-century English sonatas for bass viol – or ‘viol da gamba’ as it was more commonly known at the time. He had come across it as part of his research into English cathedral music around 1800, and he knew I was interested in stringed instruments and their history. The London University Library manuscript turned out to include six sonatas for bass viol and continuo or two bass viols evidently composed or compiled (it includes arrangements of violin sonatas by Angelo Michele Besseghi and recorder sonatas by Francesco Barsanti) around 1730. However, it was evidently copied much later: it also includes a gamba part from a hitherto unknown sonata by Carl Friedrich Abel as well as trio sonatas from Maximilian Humble’s op. 1 of 1768.Researching the manuscript for an article made me realise that the viol did not entirely drop out of use in England at the end of the seventeenth century, as was conventionally thought, and that there was scope for a larger study. At the same time I had become aware that I was in danger of repeating myself in writing about seventeenth-century music, and that it was time for a change of direction. Working in a later period would give me access to a far richer range of primary sources than was available before 1700. I was aware that others were developing interests in late gamba music in other European countries, notably Vittorio Ghielmi, Christophe Coin, and Michael O’Loughlin, for example. I also benefited from the interest and encouragement of the viol player and cellist Mark Caudle, an old friend and colleague in The Parley of Instruments; he is the dedicatee of the book. From the material I had assembled at an early stage, in 1998 we recorded a CD, The Noble Bass Viol (Hyperion CDA67088). It covered the repertory of compositions and arrangements for one, two and three bass viols with continuo from Purcell to Handel, including pieces by them and Benjamin Hely, William Gorton, Giovanni Battista Draghi, Gottfried Finger, Francesco Conti, and Arcangelo Corelli.In beginning to research and plan a book on the viol ‘after the golden age’ I started with two areas where I knew gamba players had been active and there was surviving music for the instrument. The first was a group of musicians associated with Handel and the orchestra of the Italian opera company at the Haymarket Theatre. It was known that Handel wrote a gamba solo in the famous Parnassus scene in Giulio Cesare (1724), and that about the same time he wrote out the first bar of his G minor violin sonata HWV364 in the alto clef, labelling it ‘Per la Viola da Gamba’, presumably as an instruction to someone else to copy out the whole work in that form. Handel’s involvement with the gamba had been explored before, though the problem had always been that these pieces appeared to exist in a vacuum: no gamba player was known to have been active in London around 1724, and no other contemporary English gamba works appeared to have survived.That quickly changed: in addition to the Williamson M[...]



Introducing Balcarres

2011-01-27T12:51:19.891+00:00

With Burns Night fast approaching, we are pleased to post an article with a Scottish theme. Recently the University Presses of Glasgow and Aberdeen published the long-awaited Balcarres Lute Book as part of the Music of Scotland Series. Described as a ‘beautiful production’ by the Times Literary Supplement, it is intended both for the lute player with a facsimile of the tablature and extensive notes and concordances, and the scholar with a introduction on the background and context followed by a full transcription. Here, editor Matthew Spring provides some background to this important discovery:The Balcarres manuscript is the largest and arguably most important post-1640 British source of lute music. The collection is also possibly the most extensive and interesting of all Scottish late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century instrumental manuscript sources, whether for lute, keyboard, violin or lyra viol. It contains 252 pieces of Scottish, English and French provenance, written or arranged for the 11-course lute. It may have been copied out by or for Margaret, the fourth wife of The Earl of Balcrarres. Along with native Scottish music, Balcarres contains arrangements of violin music, English popular tunes and French baroque lute music by mid- and later seventeenth-century masters.Although its date of compilation cannot be pin-pointed, nor its early provenance traced, it clearly does not date from before the last few years of the seventeenth century and it more probably originates from the first years of the eighteenth. Hence it is contemporary with and comparable to the group of Scottish instrumental manuscripts that date from the period 1680-1725. These were the years before the trickle of printed collections of Scots songs, fiddle tunes and dance music produced for the English and Scottish market became a veritable flood. Seventeen twenty three/four saw the publication of Ramsey's The Tea-Table Miscellany and 1725 Stuart's Music for Allan Ramsey's Collection of Scots Tunes, both published in Edinburgh, and the first edition of William Thompson's Orpheus Caledonius in London. The popularity of such books, and those that followed, ensured that Scots songs were staple fare for music publishers aiming at the popular market in the eighteenth century.The sheer number of publications that continued throughout the century and into the next which included, or purported to include, old Scots melodies, largely ensured that the living and changing body of popular Scots melodies was gradually replaced by tunes that were full of the ‘highland humours’ that the general British public expected, in 'tasteful' eighteenth-century arrangements calculated to sell. Balcarres is representative of the pivotal years when manuscript circulation, which was clearly responsive to oral tradition, was being increasingly undermined by the scale of popular publications.Writers on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scottish music who have mentioned Balcarres have all assumed that the book originated from the household of one of the Lindsays of Balcarres. Certainly it survives today as part of the Crawford-Lindsay family possessions. The manuscript has the shelf mark, English MS 970.201 on the front cover. This refers to its cataloguing as part of the library at Haigh Hall, near Wigan, Lancashire, the residence of the Lindsay family after the merger of the Balcarres and Crawford branches in 1808. There is nothing within the [...]



Marlboro Man

2011-01-12T14:48:50.901+00:00

Leon Kirchner first visited the Marlboro Music Festival in 1959 but it was from 1963 that his participation started to grow. He enjoyed renewed contact with old friends—Schneider, Serkin, Fleisher, and Horszowski—and by conducting a performance of his Double Concerto, with Jaime Laredo and cellist Madeline Foley as soloists, Kirchner made many new friends. Kirchner and Marlboro proved to be an ideal match, and in the course of ensuing seasons his participation and role in the festival quickly grew. Rudolf Serkin, Marlboro’s artistic director, wanted to augment the festival’s involvement with twentieth-century music, and Kirchner was wonderfully suited to guide this effort. Here is another extract from Robert Riggs’ superb new biography of the composer, who died in 2009, which looks at a rather unwelcome political intervention in the Festival:In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, world events were not just distant news—Marlboro occasionally had direct personal encounters with major players from the political stage. In 1967 an orchestra rehearsal conducted by Casals was disturbed by the noisy arrival of two helicopters from Washington, DC. They disgorged a team of sleek Secret Service agents sent in advance to run a security check on the premises prior to the arrival the next day of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his entourage: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, and Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of the Washington Post.Graham, whose wealthy parents had helped Serkin establish Marlboro, spent a weekend there every year, and Fortas, an amateur violinist and music lover, was also a regular visitor. Years earlier, government business had taken Fortas to Puerto Rico, where he served on the Board of Directors of the Casals Festival and became friends with Casals, even playing chamber music with him informally. When Franco became dictator in Spain in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, Casals’s public musical profile became politically charged by his refusal to play in Spain or in any country that recognized its regime. Thus, Fortas had instigated a coup—both political and artistic—by proposing and orchestrating an invitation to Casals to perform in the Kennedy White House in 1961. Casals had requested and received a private meeting with the president, during which, it was later reported, their conversation focused on world peace.These visitors from Washington were not unequivocally welcome at Marlboro. Some musicians resented that Fortas, a mere amateur, would be playing with Casals, which they did not have the opportunity to do. A far more serious matter, however, was that without exception the younger participants, and most of the senior ones as well, were vehemently opposed to American policy in Vietnam.Serkin—who had played in Minneapolis in 1947 and had met Humphrey, at that time the city’s mayor—viewed the visitors as musical pilgrims rather than as representatives of a corrupt government, but he was in a distinct minority. Strong sentiment to mount a political protest put Serkin in a very awkward situation. According to bassoonist Sol Schoenbach, Serkin threatened, “If you insult my friends, I’m leaving”; and Schoenbach noted: “We finally worked out a compromise: the angry students wrote letters of protest and Serkin promised to give all the letters to Humphrey. And he did just th[...]